Record Collector NOVEMBER 2018 - by Daryl Easlea


From hero to zero: plenty to love in Bowie's least celebrated era

David Bowie's 80s, a decade that started with Ashes and ended in Tin, was his most commercially successful. Yet it is viewed as his most artistically bankrupt, with a scarcity of original ideas and surfeit of production. On the strength of later interviews, Bowie himself tended to agree. The fourth in the series of career-spanning box sets, Loving The Alien (1983-1988), may not be the set for absolute beginners, but, on repeated listening to its fifteen LPs spanning Let's Dance to Never Let Me Down, it feels as if a reappraisal is due.

In its day, Let's Dance was a revelation: Bowie was BACK! and working with Nile Rodgers seemed revolutionary. The sound was clean, beefy, and here DB was, a superstar for the times. The album actually sounds thinner than you remember, but those tunes, as golden as the hue of Bowie's skin, are, in the main, unassailable, as is Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar playing.

The recording of his September 12, 1983 show at the Pacific Coliseum, Vancouver, Canada is exhilarating. Though the Serious Moonlight tour has been denounced as too "showbiz", it was the first time Lodger and Scary Monsters material had been played live, and White Light/White Heat into a fulsome Station To Station was hardly dumbing down or betraying his past.

Taking sacrosanct Iggy Pop numbers from 1984's Tonight like Don't Look Down and turning them into cheery reggae was never going to endear Bowie to the faithful, but at the time they breezed through like an Indian summer. Loving The Alien is breathtaking and Carlos Alomar's solo at the end is special. The Borneo Horn-heavy Tumble And Twirl, with the then-uncredited bass of Mark King, too, was a hoot.

Perhaps it was thanks to the jacket he wore in the video for his Dancing In The Streets duet with Mick Jagger (here, of course, in a big, beefy Bob Clearmountain 2018 mix), or the sense that he'd let his geezer side run riot, but by 1987, the appetite for Bowie seemed diminished. On its release, Never Let Me Down sounded like the work of an artist trying too hard.

Today, it is something of a revelation. Time Will Crawl and Beat Of Your Drum, at the time too strained and muscular, emerge here as well-written pop songs. Zeroes - showcasing Peter Frampton's sitar - is one of Bowie's greatest ever straight-down-the-line songs. The 2018 version of the album, with re-production and overdubs, is shorn of bombast and there are some truly lovely moments to be found; though some will mourn Mickey Rourke's rap in Shining Star (Makin' My Love) being replaced by one by Laurie Anderson.

The grandiloquence of Never Let Me Down was emphasised on the supertheatrical Glass Spider tour. It's never less than interesting, but it's hard not to smirk when Bowie grandly intones phrases such as, "Thor, son of Odin, the thunder god, heir of the realm eternal; the mightiest warrior in the nine worlds." However, it's hard to deny how much fun he seems to be having with it all; and just listen to that incredible vocal on Modern Love.

The wallop of the Dance album - a selection of twelve remixes with an eye on the dancefloor - is exactly what you'd expect, while this box's Re:Call set is strong, This Is Not America and Absolute Beginners showing he'd not his ability to balance art and commerce. Even the Labyrinth tracks are not without charm.

While few would suggest that there's material here rivalling Bowie's '70s peak, there are more than enough elegant, standout moments. You may not exactly fall in love with it, but you'll certainly strongly admire the work here.