Bowie Sound + Vision

The hows & whys of the David Bowie Sound + Vision re-release campaign - 25 years later

1989 - It Was 25 Years Ago Today (almost)! Part Two

In my first post, I placed Bowie's 1989 status in context.  He'd come into the decade blazing but was in danger of going out on a sour note.  His catalog (which we'll call the RCA catalog, even though that's not 100% accurate) was back in his hands - encompassing everything from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters.  The rights to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, were still RCA's as they released it in 1983 and that contract was still in effect, although due to expire shortly thereafter.

An amazing record / CD, but where it all broke down for David Bowie & RCA.

An amazing record / CD, but where it all broke down for David Bowie & RCA.

Which brings us to RCA.  Bowie and RCA, especially in the US, had a famously contemptuous relationship.  His career arc from Ziggy Stardust to Young Americans was just what they wanted, but when he delivered Low, they were dumbfounded.  To RCA, Low might as well have been Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music (a record that they had also released, under duress).  

To be fair, Bowie just had his biggest US hits in Fame, Golden Years and Young Americans, and they wanted more of the same.  The most commercial song on Low was arguably Sound + Vision.  A great song, undeniably, but a 3 minute track with no vocals until 40 seconds in and no lead vocal until nearly 1:30 seconds in, was not going to make American Radio stand up and salute.  RCA tried, but it choked out at #69 and there were no other singles from the album.

One of the greatest Bowie singles in unique Holland sleeve.

One of the greatest Bowie singles in unique Holland sleeve.

So when "Heroes" was delivered, RCA gave up hope and seemingly wrote Bowie off, at least in the US, where he did not chart again until Fashion hit #70 in 1980.  By then, Bowie was done with RCA and looking for a new home.

But RCA was not done with Bowie.  In 1980 RCA had licensed a (very good) compilation to K-Tel, which was sold via TV and included some interesting edits in order to squeeze as many tracks as possible (16!) onto the vinyl record.  In 1981, RCA wrung the last drop of blood  from Scary Monsters with two more UK singles.  

As soon as they'd moved on, Bowie (with Queen) had a legitimate worldwide hit; Under Pressure.  This started an avalanche of RCA cash-in comps.  Earlier in '81, the Christianne F soundtrack album appeared, an all-Bowie record that doubled as someone's idea of a Best Of the Berlin period with a few Station To Station tracks thrown in.  It oddly went to #3 in Australia but was never issued in the US until 2001.  This was quickly followed by the unnecessary Changestwobowie (RCA even issued a single, Wild Is The Wind, which stiffed), and the mop-up collection Bowie Rare (b-sides, ep tracks, etc), which never saw release in the US.

Then Let's Dance exploded.  Driven by the enthusiasm and promotional firepower of a new label, the power of the barely two years old MTV network, and an easy-to-digest-in-the-US image (guy in yellow suit), Bowie became an indisputable worldwide superstar in a way few (including Bowie himself) had ever imagined possible.  By September 1983, Modern Love had become the third hit from Let's Dance, an album with only 8 songs.

Decca regurgitated their old Bowie tracks in a variety of permutations, as they had for years.  RCA quickly issued Fame And Fashion, an obvious cash-in, featuring a cover photo of David taken during the Serious Moonlight tour.  They followed it up the next year with Golden Years, an equally nonsensical, exploitative set with another '83 cover photo.

No one asked for this.  Except RCA accountants.

No one asked for this.  Except RCA accountants.

In these pre-digital days, hardcore fans felt like they had to buy everything.  They were (rightly) quite frustrated with the pointless, poorly assembled, cash-in compilations RCA was foisting on them.

Amidst all this, CDs came along.  Introduced in 1982 in Japan, and then in 1983 to Europe and North America, the CD was not considered a serious format by most major labels, who assumed it was nothing more than a fad designed to appeal to a small group of audiophiles.  As we now know, they were, very, very wrong.

Rykodisc, formed earlier in 1984, issued their first CD in late 1984.

In February 1985, still early days of the format, RCA issued almost the entire Bowie Catalog on CD (including the last two compilations) but skipping Rare, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture and David Live entirely.  Stage was only released in Europe.  Still, David was considered the first major artist to have (almost) his whole catalog on CD.

This wasn't because RCA were bullish on the format, or even David Bowie, for that matter.  The company knew their rights were expiring and wanted to milk the catalog for all it was worth.  There was little or no care put into assembling the RCA Bowie CDs.  Front and back covers of the original albums were included, but in most cases, other visuals were not.  Covers were marred by an ugly RCA CD logo, and the interior of the four page booklets were typically listings of other RCA CD titles.

Typical RCA interior booklet pages.  If you like Kenny Rogers, you're sure to dig this Klaus Nomi CD!

Typical RCA interior booklet pages.  If you like Kenny Rogers, you're sure to dig this Klaus Nomi CD!

Mastering on most early CDs wasn't done with care either, and the Bowie CD masters were no exception, taken from masters RCA had EQ'd for cassette.  These cassette masters were transferred from tape to digital and then to CD.

A lot of "audiophiles" assume that early CDs were mastered directly from un EQ'd stereo master tapes, but that's pure bullshit.  "Experts" insist early CDs sound better than a properly mastered CD, when in fact the art of mastering CDs evolved along with the format - CD just took off too fast to keep pace.

Once the major labels realized they could make money releasing previously inert albums on the new format, releases clogged the pipeline, manufacturing became hard to find and as investors struggled to build plants to meet the demand, RCA's rights expired and Bowie's catalog, from Space Oddity to Scary Monsters, vanished, largely forgotten.

By the time David & Ryko came together, his best records were out of print, his fans were frustrated, and his career had made a wrong turn.  It was time to remind the public why he was considered a legend.