Bowie’s lean years

A new box set will pull to­gether tracks from the singer’s self-con­fessed cre­ative low point in the mid-1980s, writes JOHN MEAGHER, but even while strug­gling with writer’s block, there’s plenty here to in­trigue fans

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CULTURE -

It seems hard to fathom to­day, con­sid­er­ing his prodi­gious record­ing ca­reer and fond­ness for tour­ing, but David Bowie’s first show in this coun­try was as late as 1987. Bowieol­o­gists here know that he was in Dublin in 1969, in the first flush of suc­cess, to record a live ver­sion of ‘Space Od­dity’ for the Bill Whe­lan-pro­duced RTÉ series Like Now! But he wouldn’t play in front of a pay­ing au­di­ence in this coun­try for a fur­ther 18 years when he ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from Henry Mountcharles to play Slane Cas­tle.

Un­for­tu­nately for Bowie’s le­gion of Ir­ish fans, the first of 17 shows he would play in this coun­try over the course of his ca­reer co­in­cided with what’s largely thought of as his cre­ative nadir.

A few months pre­vi­ously, he had re­leased Never Let Me Down. It’s now widely seen as the weak­est of the of the 27 stu­dio al­bums he re­leased and only a few years later he was do­ing his best to dis­tance him­self from it.

And the ul­tra-the­atri­cal global jaunt that he con­cocted to sup­port the al­bum, The Glass Spi­der Tour, is the most di­vi­sive of the many tours he did over the course of that lengthy ca­reer.

Re­views from Slane Cas­tle were luke­warm at best, with sev­eral crit­ics not­ing that the crowd seemed un­en­gaged due to the con­vo­luted ar­range­ments, fussy stage ar­range­ments and the pri­mary fo­cus on ma­te­rial from that al­bum and its mixed-bag pre­de­ces­sor, Tonight . And it was a sim­i­lar story on the rest of the tour: the shows were com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful, but few thought they lived up to those of an artist of Bowie’s stature.

If he had an ex­traor­di­nar­ily fruit­ful 1970s — re­leas­ing one re­mark­able al­bum af­ter the next from 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World to 1979’s Lodger — he had, by his stan­dards, a pretty wretched 1980s.

And his artis­tic trou­bles of­fer a re­minder that even the finest mu­si­cians can lose their way, es­pe­cially if they chase the main­stream suc­cess that Bowie craved.

Take 1980’s Scary Mon­sters (And Su­per Creeps) out of the equa­tion — that feels like a con­tin­u­a­tion of his great 70s run — and you’re left with Let’s Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. They’re three of his best­selling al­bums, but with the ex­cep­tion of Let’s Dance, they’re rarely part of the Bowie story: un­til now.

Par­lophone has an­nounced that it will be re­leas­ing a box set, Lov­ing the Alien, in Oc­to­ber to doc­u­ment Bowie’s fraught pe­riod be­tween 1983 and 1988. It’s the fourth in a series of multi-al­bum box sets that the la­bel has been bring­ing out to chart his ca­reer since his un­timely death in Jan­uary 2016.

But un­like the pre­vi­ous three, this one is a much tougher sell. And yet, be­cause this is Bowie and even in the depths of in­spi­ra­tion drought, he could still de­liver in­trigu­ing work — al­though you’d to search much harder to find it.

The box set’s ti­tle is taken from the open­ing track on Tonight and it’s long been a favourite among Bowie afi­ciona­dos. ‘Lov­ing the Alien’ was Bowie’s ri­poste to or­gan­ised re­li­gion and its lengthy seven-minute run time doesn’t feel ex­ces­sive.

It was one of just two songs on the al­bum that were writ­ten solely by Bowie. It was all-too clear that he was strug­gling with writer’s block. The signs were there on the Nile Rodgers-pro­duced Let’s Dance: one of its stand­outs, ‘China Girl’, had been orig­i­nally writ­ten with Iggy Pop dur­ing their Ber­lin so­journ in the late 1970s and had ap­peared on Pop’s The Id­iot al­bum.

But when it came to Tonight — rushed out af­ter Let’s Dance sold eight mil­lion copies — Bowie also ran­sacked the songs he and Pop had co-writ­ten seven years ear­lier. But his ver­sions of ‘Tonight’, fea­tur­ing Tina Turner, and ‘Neigh­bor­hood Threat’ weren’t a patch on Pop’s orig­i­nal record­ings. He even re­sorted to cov­er­ing ‘Don’t Look Down’ from Iggy’s 1979 New Val­ues al­bum.

Con­tem­po­rary re­views were so-so and Bowie was soon talk­ing about how dis­sat­is­fied he was with the al­bum. Never Let Me Down ,he promised, would be dif­fer­ent. And it was. It was much more rock-ori­ented and the blue-eye­d­soul-meets-1980s-pop of the two pre­de­ces­sors was largely aban­doned. But the al­bum’s fussy pro­duc­tion didn’t help mat­ters, and even the best tracks — most no­tably ‘Ze­roes’ — felt poorly served.

Years later, Bowie re­flected on where it had all gone wrong. “[The huge com­mer­cial suc­cess] meant ab­so­lutely noth­ing to me,” he said in 1995. “It didn’t make me feel good. I felt dis­sat­is­fied with ev­ery­thing I was do­ing, and even­tu­ally it started show­ing in my work. The next two al­bums af­ter [Let’s Dance] showed that my lack of in­ter­est in my own work was re­ally be­com­ing trans­par­ent.

“My nadir was Never Let Me Down . It was such an aw­ful al­bum. I’ve got­ten to a place now where I’m not very judg­men­tal about my­self. I put out what I do, whether it’s in vis­ual arts or in mu­sic, be­cause I know that ev­ery­thing I do is re­ally heart­felt. Even if it’s a fail­ure ar­tis­ti­cally, it doesn’t bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down both­ers me. I re­ally shouldn’t have even both­ered go­ing into the stu­dio to record it.”

Per­haps mind­ful of how he felt about the al­bum, Par­lophone’s box set will fea­ture an en­tirely re­jigged ver­sion of the al­bum. Mario McNulty was brought in to of­fer a fresh pro­duc­tion, there are new string ar­range­ments from Nico Muhly and a cameo ap­pear­ance from Lau­rie An­der­son.

A stripped-back ver­sion of ‘Ze­roes’, dubbed ‘Ze­roes (2018)’, sug­gests the en­ter­prise may will en­cour­age Bowie fans to re­visit the al­bum. The song has far greater fo­cus than the orig­i­nal and re­calls his ear­li­est work from the late 1960s — some­thing that Bowie had (un­suc­cess­fully) at­tempted in 1987.

It would be six years un­til he re­leased an­other solo al­bum and Bowie tried to rein­vent him­self in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Tin Ma­chine, al­though that, too, is a pe­riod that few re­mem­ber with much fond­ness.

At least those Ir­ish fans who were un­der­whelmed by his Slane show got to see him in much bet­ter form three years later. His 1990 Sound + Vi­sion tour called to Dublin’s Point, De­pot, and he played a ca­reer-span­ning set. The idea was to ‘re­tire’ his old songs but, thank­fully, that was a prom­ise he failed to keep.

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