The complicated but comprehensive preface to this article is here
First published: Record Collector, November 1999
BRUISED BY 17
EMI have remastered, repackaged and reissued 17 of Bowie’s albums. Peter van Doffs sharpens his pen…
So the Bowie albums are out yet again. This time around it’s EMI UK’s turn to refurbish the most important back catalogue apart from The Beatles. That’s how the label described it when it won the release rights to these albums again two and a half years ago, and I wouldn’t want to disagree.
But just what have they been doing in that time to ensure that these new upgrades are, as EMI themselves boast, the “definitive versions of these albums for the millennium.”
After all, this new series marks the third time on CD for all titles up to Scary Monsters, and the fourth time for the remaining quartet. But what is so good about these latest editions that will encourage people to part with their money yet again? Sadly, not a lot.
All titles have been digitally remastered at Abbey Road with a brief to keep to the original sound of the LPs as much as possible (and without any bonus tracks this time – well what’s good for The Beatles…), but it’s not the sound quality that is a cause for concern, it’s the repackaging. The company blurb states that “although the original integrity of the album artwork remains intact, the back inlays and spines have been designed to achieve a continuity across all 17 in the series.”
Some controversial decisions have been taken with the booklets and inlays, with some of them looking like they’ve been rushed out to capitalise on the publicity for Bowie’s new album. In particular, this applies to a lot of the post-Pin Ups titles, some of which contain some terrible errors and absences.
A generic style of layout and design has been adopted, which has resulted in boring back inlays with an overdose on the black, and some containing miniature reproductions of the original back covers, and some that don’t. Haven’t EMI ever heard of that song All Or Nothing?
And of those that do have the original backs, some have had track listings removed, some haven’t. Not only that, but original track-by-track musician and backing vocalist listings, and even general album engineering and mixing credits, have been given the chop. Is there some hidden agenda, or do EMI really want people to believe that Iggy Pop and Mary Hopkin did vocal back-ups on every track on Low, for instance.
Also missing are several inner sleeve photos, as well as individual typefaces for inner sleeves, to be replaced by one font used throughout each booklet. There are also quite a few photos and pieces of cover art used more than once, not to mention the inexpensive looking miniature reproductions on the discs themselves, and probably worst of all, the majority of the ‘artworks’ used under the inlay trays have been presented in a truly appalling, tacky manner, with many photos subjected to a hideous fish-eye lens type-treatment.
Let’s go through them one by one…
SPACE ODDITY (1969)
This was originally titled David Bowie on its release by Phillips, which was always rather odd, as Bowie’s debut LP in 1967 (which doesn’t form part of any official Bowie re-release programmes as the artist is embarrassed by it!) had also been eponymously-titled.
Halting any further confusion, when RCA re-issued it in 1972, they wisely decided to rename the album after it’s only hit single, Space Oddity (one wonders why Phillips didn’t do this in the first place, as the album was released just weeks after the single hit No.5) and repackaged it with a contemporary Ziggy cover shot to boot.
All further reissues of the album have sensibly stuck with the title. No problem with that, although now, for the first time on CD, EMI decide that they wish to reinstate the original ‘curly hair’ cover. Great idea. Only the company shoot themselves in the foot by removing the original David Bowie lettering, substituting it for a “let’s hope they won’t notice” similar cousin and, by adding the words Space Oddity to the sleeve, indulging in the industrial defacement of, in their description, “original much sought-after album artwork.”
Yes, of course, stick with the title, but don’t stick it where it was never intended. Isn’t it enough that Space Oddity is featured prominently on the spine, disc, back inlay and inside of the booklet? Surely, if EMI really believe that they can shift a few dozen more copies of the CD if browsers can see those two magic words on the front as well then why not just sticker the jewel case?
Musical highlights: The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Memory Of A Free Festival, Don’t Sit Down.
Packaging lowlights: apart from the aforementioned front cover, the booklet doesn’t bother to include miniature reproductions of the covers of the original US pressing of the album, titled Man Of Words/Man Of Music, or the RCA reissue. OK, so the latter may not fit in photographically with the period seen here, but wouldn’t people prefer to see it at least mentioned?
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (US 1970 / UK 1971)
This album doesn’t include any hit singles – in fact it doesn’t include any singles at all! How the title track never made it out on its own is most puzzling.
This particular CD is probably the best packaged of the lot, featuring as it does, some stunning extra shots from the infamous “man’s dress” photo session. Though it has to be said that the centre-spread piccie of Bowie used here can be seen on BowieNet’s own page promoting these reissues in a more generous form, featuring as it does, a pack of B&H on Bowie’s stand-by, that has been trimmed out of the finished booklet.
Musical highlights: All The Madmen, The Supermen, Black Country Rock, Width Of A Circle.
Packaging lowlights: over-saturated colours. The track listing has been removed from the back cover artwork, and a credit for executive producer, Robin McBride, has been airbrushed out of existence. As has any mention of the better-known 1972 reissue with Ziggy ‘high-kick’ cover.
HUNKY DORY (1971)
Regarded as Bowie’s first true masterpiece, this remains a firm favourite of numerous fans and musicians. With barely a duff track on it, this album has more than its fair share of bona-fide Bowie classics, but quite why Changes stiffed as a single is beyond me.
Musical highlights: Life On Mars?, Oh! You Pretty Things, Quicksand, Queen Bitch, Andy Warhol, The Bewlay Brothers.
Packaging lowlights: the black border that frames the front cover pic to give an impression of a genuine piece of art is missing. And the inclusion of Bowie’s handwritten track-by-track annotations issued for promotional purposes would have been a welcome addition.
The ghastly inlay tray picture looks like a rip off of 1986’s unofficial interview picture disc, In Other Words.
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972)
What can you say about this legendary concept album that hasn’t already been said? Eleven dynamite cuts of classic pop and roll that changed the world. Really. It also gave Bowie, in the shape of Starman, his first hit single for three years, and Bauhaus, in the shape of Ziggy Stardust, their entire career.
Musical highlights: Five Years, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream, Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.
Packaging lowlights: Some unforgivable trimming of the cover going on here, especially noticeable on the top and bottom of the reverse side’s telephone box snapshot, which is also missing its track listing.
ALADDIN SANE (1973)
This album features a remix of the Zigster’s then biggest hit to date, The Jean Genie, and was released on the same spring ’73 day as The Beatles’ long-awaited ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ compilation albums. But guess which album shot straight into the top spot, remaining his fastest-selling LP until Let’s Dance.
Musical highlights: Drive In Saturday, Time, Lady Grinning Soul.
Packaging lowlights: Bowie’s right armpit on the front cover has been inexplicably copied and pasted onto his left one. What on earth for, one wonders. The title text between them has also been moved up too far, the track listing has been removed from the back cover, and the inlay tray ‘treatment’ of the lightning flash cover pic is truly one of the most appalling pieces of ‘artwork’ I have ever had the misfortune to come across.
PIN UPS (1973)
The PU cover versions project was Bowie paying homage to his mid-‘60s mod roots, with its only single, Sorrow, reaching No.3. The front of the album featured the golden boy with ‘Twig the Wonderkid’ and was originally shot for a Vogue front cover.
Musical highlights: Friday On My Mind, Where Have All The Good Times Gone, and the way Rosalyn segues into Here Comes The Night.
Packaging lowlights: On the front, Bowie’s left nipple has been cut off, while on the reverse there have been half-hearted attempts to remove some of his handwritten references to a Side One and Side Two. The original inner bag’s fabulous sax pic of the man with hand on hip is missing completely.
DIAMOND DOGS (1974)
The apocalyptic Dogs features Bowie’s glam-era kiss-off single, the riff-tastic Rebel Rebel. The title track also features crowd noise taken from a Faces LP (it’s Rod the Mod who inadvertently provided the “Hey!”) although the sequencing on this edition starts the track too late.
Musical highlights: Sweet Thing, Big Brother, 1984, and full album lyrics for the first time.
Packaging lowlights: the use of a inlay tray photo where the disc holder obscures Bowie’s face completely. And why couldn’t Terry O’Neill’s photo of Bowie and dog be used as well as the painting on which it’s based?
YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
Bowie dubbed this his ‘plastic soul’ album and contains his first US No.1, Fame, featuring John Lennon, as well as the stormin’ title track. EMI have kindly kept them on the CD, although the original back cover, with its track-by-track detail, has been dropped altogether. Too much information for the label to cope with, perhaps?
Musical highlights: Can You Hear Me, Win, Right.
Packaging lowlights: the printing of the front cover is a little too dark, and trimming of the edges has resulted in reduced visibility of Bowie’s cigarette smoke. Is the designer an anti-puffer?
STATION TO STATION (1976)
This six-song set, with its great big hit, Golden Years, its not so great minor hit, TVC 15 – not to mention the epic opening title track itself – was issued in the main, as Bowie had intended, with the cover shot in black and white.
This edition uses the full colour version that sneaked through at the time, although there’s absolutely no reason why room couldn’t have been made for the mono version as well.
Musical highlights: Word On A Wing, Stay, Wild Is The Wind and the inclusion of full lyrics for the first time.
Packaging lowlights: the front cover colours are too saturated. But the cardinal sin is the use of a new, completely different typeface for the back cover track-listing. Why on earth did they do that? Answers on a postcard to Anne Robinson please.
Released at the beginning of ’77, a week after Bowie turned 30, this was the first of three musical collaborations with ex-Roxy Music synthster Brian Eno. It remains the boldest, bravest album of his entire career, and is said to be David’s personal favourite. It contains two cracking singles, Sound And Vision and Be My Wife.
Musical highlights: Always Crashing In The Same Car, Breaking Glass, Warszawa.
Packaging lowlights: some amateurish hand-tinting, not once but twice on the same photo. There are also three pictures in the booklet from a ‘blue blazer’ session to promote the next album, which was…
The album includes the classic title track, of course, featuring Robert Fripp on guitar; as well as its follow-up, the menacing Beauty And The Beast.
Musical highlights: Sons Of The Silent Age, Joe The Lion, V-2 Schneider.
Packaging lowlights: the disc holder obscures Bowie’s best features.
Lodger was the last of the Eno triptych and the first of Bowie’s albums to be laid down in Switzerland. Includes DJ and, what many people thought would have made a cracking single on these shores, Look Back In Anger.
Musical highlights: Fantastic Voyage, Repetition, Red Sails.
Packaging lowlights: half of the photos featured on the inner gatefold are missing; and what have been used are, for some reason, reproduced in sepia rather than black and white.
Incidentally, Stan Harrison only plays sax on Red Sails, not the whole album, as EMI would have you believe. There’s also no mention of the band swapping instruments for the classic Boys Keep Swinging.
SCARY MONSTERS AND SUPER CREEPS (1980)
To this day, Scary Monsters is still Bowie’s only album to spawn four hit singles in the UK: the peerless Ashes To Ashes, Up The Hill Backwards, Fashion and the title track.
Musical highlights: Teenage Wildlife, It’s No Game, Scream Like A Baby.
Packaging lowlights: two mono pix from the original insert are absent, as is credits for a Japanese translator, make up artist and the Pierrot costume-designer, Natasha Kornilof. And why illustrate just two of the Ashes picture sleeves and not all three?
LET’S DANCE (1983)
This album was recorded at the Power Station in New York, not at Mountain Studios, Switzerland, as the booklet now claims!
EMI announced at the time that it was their fastest-selling album since Sgt. Pepper, and it does contain the monster title track as well as China Girl and Modern Love, both of which reached No.2.
Musical highlights: Ricochet, Criminal World.
Packaging lowlights: Apart from the aforementioned glaring error, there were six additional shadow boxing photos used for the inner sleeve, and not one of them has surfaced for this edition.
Tonight saw Bowie in lazyitis mode, only bothering to write/co-write four new songs. And it showed. Only one top tenner, in the shape of Blue Jean this time round.
Musical highlights: Loving The Alien.
Packaging lowlights: the blues of the original sleeve have now been turned to purple, the track listing has been removed from the back sleeve (when they kept Let’s Dance’s on), and a credit for Mark Pender on trumpet and flugelhorn missing altogether.
Then there are the cover versions. I suppose the kindest thing one could say is at least Bowie sounded like he was having fun recording this album, which is more than can be said for…
NEVER LET ME DOWN (1987)
Released to coincide with the frankly laughable Glass Spider Tour. ‘Nuff said.
Musical highlights: there aren’t any.
Packaging lowlights: Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. Actually I’ll just stick to the new artwork, which leaves off several credits, including the backing vocalists on Zeroes, and someone called Malcom Pollack who, the original LP told us, made “additional recordings”.
The original album also included a track called Too Dizzy, which was removed from previous reissues due to Bowie’s profound dislike of the song. Needless to say, it remains unavailable. If only that could be said of the rest of the album.
TIN MACHINE (1989)
TM saw Bowie kicking out the jams in a band environment. This was a group effort, he insisted; made by Tin Machine and not David Bowie. However, EMI have now made a complete mockery of the band’s raison d’être with the words ‘David Bowie Tin Machine’ emboldened and emblazoned all over the packaging bar the front cover (thank heavens for small mercies). What was Bowie thinking of when he OK’d this?
Musical highlights: I Can’t Read, Prisoner Of Love, Amazing.
Packaging lowlights: the booklet fails to mention that some of the album was recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, and was mixed in New York. When this LP was originally issued it sported a different cover for each of the formats. EMI have now decided to put the vinyl edition piccie on to this new CD, though what they’ve used is actually a slightly different, previously unpublished shot. Why?
“It’s over now”, Bowie sang in the outro to Baby Can Dance, the final song of this set. If only it was. Next year EMI plan to give his three official concert albums, David Live, Stage and Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture an overhaul. Can they be done any cheaper? Not much.
© Steve Pafford 1999, 2017