Bowie Sound + Vision

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

It Was 26+ Years Ago Today Part 2

I recently posted my thoughts on the "Nothing Has Changed: The Best Of David Bowie" 3 disc set from last year.  In a way that review is a precursor to this post; the motivation behind the choices for the box set track list.  

Lots of options, all of them worthwhile, all a matter of taste.

Lots of options, all of them worthwhile, all a matter of taste.

This is an excerpt from the current (as of 5/17/15 - see, I am working on these far out of actually posting them!) Wikipedia entry regarding the content of the box:

“Sound + Vision contains few of Bowie's greatest hits in their original form, instead frequently opting for demos, live versions and even a German vocal version of “Heroes” ("Helden"). This box set was originally conceived in 1989 as less of a comprehensive career retrospective than as a "teaser" for the then-upcoming Rykodisc CD reissue campaign covering Bowie's output from 1969 to 1980. As a result of this commercial logic, none of the "rarities" originally included on the 1989 edition of Sound + Vision (the rare single versions of "Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "Rebel Rebel," or the previously unreleased studio outtakes "London Bye Ta–Ta," "1984/Dodo," "After Today," or "It's Hard To Be A Saint in the City") were included as bonus tracks on the Rykodisc editions of Bowie's albums. Conversely, some rarities were reserved exclusively for the Rykodisc re-releases and do not appear in this release.”

Seriously, fuck whoever wrote that. It’s completely wrong about the logic behind the box set, and these types of ongoing misconceptions are exactly the reasons I started this site. The presumption to know motives without a shred of evidence to support their position rubs me very much the wrong way, in case you couldn’t tell.

Plus, I'm pretty sure it doesn't meet Wikipedia's standards for documentation as it's pure conjecture.

For what it’s worth, the latest page is full of errors, including crediting Roger Gorman as a photographer on the package when in fact he was a designer – but I digress.

Why do people automatically assume the box (or any box) should be a greatest hits set, or worse, that it was designed to appear deceptively as a greatest hits set? Because some versions of his hits are alternate versions? Many of the songs aren’t hits at all.

We never marketed it as a hits collection, we never implied that was our intention, and it certainly was not. Remember, we were compilation averse - fans had enough of cheap, cash-in RCA comps. 

Rykodisc was NOT RCA.

Rykodisc was NOT RCA.

Making a greatest hits box would’ve been the easiest thing on earth – and in 1989, a David Bowie “greatest hits” would’ve been, well, the “ChangesBowie” collection we issued in 1990 or the two-CD “Singles” collection we did in 1993.

It would’ve sold great – probably better than “Sound + Vision” did. But a hits collection wouldn’t have done anything to shine new light on the depth and breadth of Bowie’s pre-“Let’s Dance” career.

My intention, and Bowie’s intention, was EXACTLY to create a career retrospective.

Is your favorite song on it?

Maybe it is, maybe it is not.

Who cares?

It was my responsibility to assemble a musical summary, packaged as a high-end, desirable object that would reflected not only how important Bowie was in the 70’s, but also how relevant he was to what was happening musically in 1989; when his influence was felt throughout the musical landscape, but when his own records had lost their edge and he risked becoming irrelevant. This would hopefully bring in new fans, who were, in many cases, in diapers when he was taking off. 

I wanted them to digest and understand the myth of Bowie and his discography. “Biograph” had elevated and exposed Dylan to many new and/or young fans, as “Crossroads” had done for Clapton. Those guys are fine, but they’re not Bowie and they're hardly as visual, and that's a massive understatement.

I wanted “Sound + Vision” to make people excited about David Bowie, maybe for the first time.

CD was still relatively new at that point; besides the obvious, music fans bought CDs (including box sets) because the format re-energized the marketplace; so much great music was being reissued – every week, worthy recordings that had been out of print for a decade or more were flooding back into stores. It was an amazing era of rediscovery.

There was no deal in place for Bowie’s catalog outside of North America, so when I programmed the set, I took a purely US perspective. Considering the box wasn’t released outside the US until 2003 (and then it was the rejiggered version), this proved the right way to go.

Bowie had superstar status in Europe and much of the rest of the world. The Berlin records hadn’t alienated those markets the way they had the US. Stateside, until 1983, Bowie was a large-ish cult artist with a few hits.

Right or wrong, Milli Vanilli, Debbie Gibson, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and Phil Collins were FAR bigger acts in 1989. That’s the mindset I was trying to overcome.

Sadly THIS had way more to do with the sound of 1989 than our hero.

Sadly THIS had way more to do with the sound of 1989 than our hero.

For example, consider this; I was 26 years old in 1989. Well, who cares, you may ask?

Here’s why this matters; I was 9 when Ziggy Stardust came out. I was too young; I missed it.  Lots of people missed it, only because of when they were born.

I was just getting into music when I was 12, the same time Bowie popped up on US Top 40 radio stations with “Golden Years” and “Fame”, integral tracks on the soundtracks of that summer. I bought “changesone” on vinyl and "Station To Station” on 8-track.  Loved them.

Then, as suddenly as he had dominated it, as far as mainstream American radio (and much of the “progressive” radio, too) was concerned, he vanished with the advent of “Low”. I’m not saying it’s right, but it IS what happened.

It wasn’t until the latter part of the 70’s when “Lodger” and moreso “Scary Monsters” aligned with the burgeoning, Bowie-inspired New Wave (for lack of a better term - and let me point out that I do not consider Punk part of New Wave) and brought curious new, younger listeners.

The “Ashes To Ashes” and “Fashion” videos had a lot of play in the US, mostly on a hodgepodge USA programming block called “Night Flight”. Both songs got some mainstream airplay, but he was already done with RCA, and looking forward.

It felt like Bowie was ready to have his “moment” and resurface in a big way - which he did with his collaboration with Queen (pretty much their last gasp in the US) on “Under Pressure” brought him back to the US Top 40.

David drove it home with “Let’s Dance”, the right record at the right time –and the nascent MTV pumped it into homes all over the US and therefore onto US radio, a venue where, aside from a small clutch of hits, had not given Bowie much love in the prior 7-8 years.   

He sold millions of records, but the MTV watchers who were loving Lets Dance, China Girl and Modern Love largely had no idea about his history.   They were teens. Five years might as well be a million when you’re a teenager.

By the end of the 80’s when the RCA records had been unavailable for years and “Blue Jean” was five years gone, Bowie was regarded as a celebrity, a famous public figure, but musically in danger of becoming irrelevant to 20-25 year old music fans who MAYBE knew Let’s Dance – and that was wholly unacceptable.

"David who?"  " "That guy who sounds like Simple Minds" ACTUAL CONVERSATION I HEARD ONCE

"David who?"  "
"That guy who sounds like Simple Minds"

ACTUAL CONVERSATION I HEARD ONCE

I realize that may read as a harsh evaluation (and outside of the US, possibly an unimaginable one), but the always self-aware Bowie was (unbeknownst to us) reinventing himself as a member of a stripped-down rock band. Rumors said the EMI relationship that had started with so much promise was now soured. I wasn’t the only one sensing the mood.

Promoting the undeniable greatness of the RCA period was pure myth-building; it put the focus on the years of innovation just as he returned to a pure rock band format, recalling, at least in theory, the Ziggy years. It was the beginning of an ongoing project to manipulate how we remember history – and that’s not intended as an insult - Bowie deserves all his accolades. The guy is a genius, on many levels – including manipulation of his history.

Tin Machine was taking him back to his rock and roll roots; but EMI wanted Let’s Dance part 2, even though it clearly wasn’t of interest to Bowie. EMI seemed to be feigning their enthusiasm for Tin Machine, in my view, anyway. If we elevated the high points of Bowie’s career, maybe the rising tide would lift Tin Machine – and Tin Machine was referential to the lowdown rock stuff that had made Bowie great.

My goal was to curate an extremely listenable box that sampled roughly equally from each album, showing that there was more to Bowie than the better-known; that there was progression, innovation and delightful surprises to be had from any of his records – even the ones that had been ignored – even the live albums.

And we really wanted it to be cutting edge; worthy of Bowie - both in terms of presentation and content – hence the directive from President Don Rose to spare not expense. That’s how we got the custom plastic silkscreened lid, the comprehensive essay from Kurt Loder in a full-color squarebound booklet and the CDV with not only the cutting-edge “Ashes To Ashes” music video, but extra live tracks (still not re-released – why?).

All of these components not only made the box better, but they made it more difficult and costly to manufacture, which drove up the price. CDs at this point were retailing for about $15 each, so even with the extras, we were pushing the envelope by charging $60 for a 3 CD set. But pricing wasn’t our concern – making a beautiful object that represented its stunning subject was the whole point.

And it all started with the tracklist. When I listen to it today, I still think it holds up.

In the next post I’ll explain the rationale for every track choice on the S+V box, including the programming of individual discs.