Bowie's Berlin period

By Tom Von Malder | Nov 03, 2017
Photo by: Parlophone Records The cover of the newest David Bowie collection, centering on his period in Berlin, Germany.

Owls Head — David Bowie: A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982) (Parlophone, 11 CDs, 7:33:29). By the mid-1970s, Bowie had moved to America, having felt constricted by the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created earlier in the decade. This led to his Thin White Duke period and success with "Young Americans," but Bowie, as told to Allan Jones in a seven-page interview in the book that accompanies this box set, began to feel claustrophobic by the rock and roll life that he had almost become trapped in. As he put it, "I was absolutely infuriated that I was still in rock 'n' roll."

Leaving Los Angeles, Bowie decamped to Switzerland and, soon after to Berlin, as he began working on a trilogy of experimental albums with Brian Eno, ex-Roxy Music and composer/recording artist of ambient music. This box set, the third in a series covering Bowie's career, includes those three albums, "Low" (1976, 39:03), "Heroes" (1977, 40:44) and "Lodger" (1979, 34:58), a newly remixed version of "Lodger" (35:05), two versions of the live album "Stage" (1978; 1:13:41 and 1:37:07), the album "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" (1980, 45:48), an exclusive "Heroes" EP (19:25) and the 20-track rarities collection, "Re:Call 3" (67:38). All four of the studio albums were produced by Tony Visconti and he writes about the recording of each in the 128-page hardcover book that comes with the set. (The previous two sets were "David Bowie: Five Years (1969-1973)" and "David Bowie: Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976).")

"Low" was recorded around the time Bowie was making the film, "The Man Who Fell to Earth," -- in fact, the album's "Subterranean" was written for the film, but not used in it -- and is heavily influenced by Eno's ambient music approach. The original concept was to have one side of the album be conventional songs and the other side instrumentals based on Eno's ambient music. Two of the better ambient pieces are the opening "Speed of Life" and side two's "Warszawa." Side one also contains "Sound and Vision" (which gave its name to an earlier Bowie box set). According to the set's book, since Bowie only sings on five of the album's tracks, RCA, his record label, tried to block the album's release. One can image what the label thought of the instrumental, "Art Decade," which is both creepy and soothing.

"Heroes" was still experimental, but the music was played harder and, of course, the title track became one of Bowie's iconic hits. The exclusive "Heroes" EP includes the German- and French-language album and single versions of the song. The instrumentals continue to be highlights, among them "V-2 Schneider," the Japanese-flavored "Moss Garden," with Bowie playing the kota, and "Neukoln," with Bowie playing saxophone. The closing song, "The Secret Life of Arabia," is nice as well.

"Stage," recorded during Bowie's 1978 American tour, is included in both its original release form for those familiar with that version, as well as an expanded, 24-minute longer version that is even expanded from the 2005 version, with the addition of solid versions of the rockers "The Jean Genie" and "Suffragette City." The expanded version has the songs in a different order, with the other extra songs being worthwhile versions of the melodic "Be My Wife," his cover of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song" (also covered by The Doors 11 years earlier) and "Stay." Other highlights are "Five Years" (a song I love), "Soul Love/Star," "Hang on to Yourself, "Ziggy Stardust," "Fame" and "Station to Station." The tracks were recorded at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the Civic Center in Providence and the Boston Garden.

"Lodger," which does not get the same praise as the first two "Berlin period" albums was still experimental -- consider "African Night Flight" and the fact that "Move On" uses parts of "All the Young Dudes" played backwards -- but had more solid songs, such as "D.J." with its nice beat and the galloping "Look Back in Anger" and "Boys Keep Swinging." "Red Money' is "Sister Midnight," co-written with Iggy Pop and appearing on his album, with different lyrics. The most bewitching song is "Yassassin," which combines reggae with Turkish music.

In his essay on the recording, Visconti says he and Bowie were never happy with the mixing of the album, thinking it "thin and muddy," as the studios used did not have the proper equipment. Thus, Visconti has remixed the album, giving the individual instruments "their own sonic specifics," especially playing up the drums. Visconti started the remix on his own and then presented several tracks to Bowie, who gave his blessing prior to his death in January 2016.

While it was recorded in New York rather than Berlin, "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" continues the experimentation, but with a poppier sound. For example, the opening, "It's No Game (Part 1)," features a female singing in Japanese. The standout songs are "Up the Hill Backwards," the title track, "Ashes to Ashes" (the jaded sequel to "Space Oddity" and Major Tom's story) and "Fashion," the dance hit with the militaristic beat. The Album features Robert Fripp, ex-King Crimson, playing guitar on six tracks; Fripp & Eno was an ambient music side project that released four studio albums. (Fripp also played on the "Heroes" album.) In his essay on the album, Visconti calls it Bowie's "Revolver," a reference to the Beatles album.

The "Re:Call 3" collection includes eight single versions, including "Under Pressure," which was recorded with Queen, plus a sparse, acoustic version of "Space Oddity" from 1979. There also is the single-only instrumental, "Crystal Japan," and the first CD release of the 5-song "David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht's Baal" EP, recorded with a German "pit band." The dramatic recordings always have been among my favorites. Lastly, this exclusive bonus disc includes the soundtrack version of Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" and the full version -- including pre-song dialogue -- of Bowie and Bing Crosby's TV version of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy."

The set's accompanying book, 84 pages in the vinyl set, features rarely seen and previously unpublished photos by photographers Anton Corbijn, Helmut Newton, Andrew Kent, Steve Schapiro, Duffy and others, as well as an historical press review for each album and Visconti's technical essays. The CD box set faithfully reproduces mini-vinyl versions of the original albums, and the CDs are gold colored rather than the usual silver. The vinyl box set has the same content as the CD set and is pressed on audiophile quality 180g vinyl. Grade: A

The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead (Warner Bros., 3 CDs, 2:25:37, + DVD, 50 min.). This 1986 release was the third studio album by The Smiths, a group led by songwriters, vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr. Among its standout songs are "The Boy With a Thorn in His Side," about the band being underappreciated by the music industry; "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," which incorporates lyrics from "Lonely Planet Boy" by the New York Dolls; "Bigmouth Strikes Again"; and the title track, with its pitch-shifted backing vocals. A personal favorite, "Cemetery Gates" was Morrissey's response to critics who disliked his use of texts by some of his favorite authors.

Considered The Smiths' finest work and one of the greatest albums ever made, "The Queen Is Dead" has cast a significant influence over subsequent generations since its release. This expanded reissue represents the first time that The Smiths' back catalog has been revisited in such a way. It follows two recent limited edition vinyl singles sourced from the archives: a demo mix of "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" which was released for Record Store Day, and "The Queen Is Dead" which debuted at No. 1 on the official vinyl chart in the U.K. when it was released in June.

The original 10-song album (36:53), newly remastered,  is contained on the first disc, while the second disc (54:24) contains the full version of the title track and demo versions of seven other album tracks. There also is take one of "There Is a Light That Never Shines" and four single B-sides: "Rubber Ring," "Asleep," "Money Changes Everything" and "Unloveable." The third CD (54:20) is entitled "Live in Boston," but actually is an Aug. 5, 1986 concert at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass. Highlights of the 13 songs are "How Soon Is Now?," the melodic "Hand in Glove" and "I Want the One I Can't Have." The band performs six tracks from "The Queen Is Dead" album, with those highlights being "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" with strings, "Cemetery Gates" and the rocking title track.

The DVD features the 2017 master of the album in 96kHz / 24-bit PCM stereo and "The Queen Is Dead -- A Film By Derek Jarman," basically 13 minutes of expressionist music videos for "The Queen Is Dead," "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and the non-LP "Panic." The film starts with a sound sample from Bryan Forbes' 1962 British film, "The L-Shaped Room." There is a 12-page booklet with the song lyrics. Grade: A+

The Doors: The Singles (Elektra/Rhino, 2 CDs, 2:19:52, + Blu-ray, 44:08). Part of The Doors' 50th anniversary celebration, this set shows the creative chemistry shared by drummer John Densmore, guitarist Robby Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and vocalist Jim Morrison as it includes the single versions from all six of the band's landmark studio albums released between 1967 and 1971. Among them are the classics "People Are Strange," "Love Her Madly" and "Riders On The Storm." The band issued 20 singles.

Also included on the CD versions are four mono radio versions of the band's biggest hits, such as "Hello, I Love You" and "Touch Me," which have never been made available anywhere after being sent to radio around their original release. The B-sides -- many of which are making their CD debut -- add another dimension to the band's legacy with such stellar tracks as "Who Scared You," which appeared in March 1969 as the flipside to "Wishful Sinful," and a cover of Willie Dixon's "(You Need Meat) Don't Go No Further," which was paired with the 1971 smash, "Love Her Madly."

The collection also features several songs released after Morrison's death in 1971. Among those recordings are tracks the surviving trio recorded together ("Tightrope Ride" and "The Mosquito"), as well as live selections from posthumous releases ("Roadhouse Blues" and "Gloria."). These basically make up the second CD. The non-Morrison music often is pleasant, but nowhere near as dynamic and vital as the music made with Morrison. In all, there are 44 tracks.

While available as just the two CDs, or as 20 7-inch vinyl 45s with original sleeve art and labels in an ornate, lift-top box, there also is a version with the two CDs and a bonus Blu-ray disc that contains the 1973 "Best of The Doors" compilation in its original quadraphonic mix, presented in high resolution. Of the 11 tracks, eight were released as singles. The other three, non-singles are "Who Do You Love," "Soul Kitchen" and "Take It As It Comes." Grade: B+

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