Bowie Sound + Vision

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

25 Years Ago-Ish Part 5

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In the previous posts (I hope) I’ve adequately (over-)explained the chase for the catalog and thought process behind Bowie & Ryko’s plans for the (as yet to be named) Sound + Vision campaign.  If there’s something you’re still curious about from that period that ISN’T answered yet, go ahead and e-mail me from the form found here.

On to the real work!

As soon as the deal was signed, we worked with Bowie’s management to formalize how to proceed.

1)    We agreed to work with Bowie’s package designer, Roger Gorman at Reiner Design (he was a fantastic ally and did great work for us)

2)    How to get our hands on all the raw vault materials (audio tapes, photos, videos, 16mm films)

3)    As we put together our release and marketing proposals, we’d forward them to my primary contact in David’s Isolar office in NYC, Alicia Miles, who would then forward them to David for sign-off.

I flew from Minneapolis into Newark and met Alicia at the vault in New Jersey. When you think of a vault holding such precious materials (despite it being in New Jersey) what comes to mind is a high-tech, climate-controlled facility under very secure guard.

This was NOT the case.  The “vault” was a storage facility – it did not specialize in temperature sensitive audio materials, but what appeared to be tons of pre-server legal paperwork, etc.  Many New York based labels stored their master tapes there due to its proximity to the city and it’s many mastering houses and studios.

Visually, the business appeared to be a converted prison (if you've seen those episodes of “Walking Dead” you’re getting the idea). 

Cozy, right?

Cozy, right?

As I remember it, there was a low wall around the entire complex.  Inside were low single story (?), concrete, pre-cinder-block construction, sloppily whitewashed buildings, all of which had wide-open loading docks where workers scurried around hauling bankers boxes of who-knows-what on handcarts to waiting trucks.

To make our pitch more seductive to Bowie, we agreed to hire a bonded “white-glove” antiques moving company to transport the materials.   These guys added a touch of class to the proceedings, but based on where the tapes had been all those years, I doubt Isolar’d have cared if we hired some homeless guys to load up a U-Haul, and they probably wouldn't have batted an eye if we'd driven away stinking drunk.

A surly worker led us to a cell in one of the buildings.  I didn’t see a toilet or a bed, but otherwise it was what exactly you’d imagine a jail cell was – big metal bars with a swinging, locking metal door.  It was late spring and the concrete walls were sweaty with cooling moisture.  Audiotapes and abandoned boxes were all over the place. 

For all I know this is a photo of the actual place, but even if not, you get the idea.

For all I know this is a photo of the actual place, but even if not, you get the idea.

The workers (I’m guessing union members?) had to load the materials and hand-truck them to our art guys at the loading dock – we couldn’t touch or open anything inside the building.  I could’ve looked at anything once it reached the art truck.  I was bursting with anticipation, but as time was tight and the guys loading weren’t exactly hustlers, I refrained, knowing I’d be handling everything the next day. 

It was incredible to watch the prison staff kick or ram objects out of their way as they wheeled Bowie’s legacy through the halls.  I distinctly recall the multitracks for Jethro Tull’s Aqualung being knocked across the floor about ten feet, spooling out along the way.  No one did anything, so I ran over, spooled it back up and put it out of harm’s way.  And I hate Jethro Tull (although I once had a very wonderful conversation with Ian Anderson, charming fellow).

What's he hiding in that coat, master tapes, my friend?

What's he hiding in that coat, master tapes, my friend?

e picked the vault clean and left behind nothing for Isolar except what you see on the following page:

Isolar wanted to make sure they at least had one copy of each of the Bowie albums.  The digital tapes at the top of the page were the RCA CD masters.  In the course of my research, I discovered these had been sourced from analog tapes previously EQ’d as cassette manufacturing masters.  So much for the asinine theory that all early CDs were flat-transferred from the original unmastered stereo mixes.

We had copies of the analog tapes towards the bottom of the list, except for Rare. I sweet-talked Alicia into letting me those tapes as they were the only sources I could see for some of the stuff we needed.

I asume all the source tapes for the songs on this comp are still in an RCA vault in the country that assembled the master.  They weren't in the Jersey vault.

I asume all the source tapes for the songs on this comp are still in an RCA vault in the country that assembled the master.  They weren't in the Jersey vault.

In hindsight I’d guess RCA had been paying for this storage; with Ryko taking possession we were also picking up the tab for Bowie’s tape storage, a cost he’d otherwise have had to pay.  Off his books and onto ours.  Clever guy.

One of the other “classy” perks we’d promised Bowie was to put the materials in a state of the art facility.  We chose a company called Safesite, who had a facility in Massachusetts near Ryko’s headquarters in Salem, MA.  I will have to dig out the actual address but it was in an unassuming industrial park in a typical suburban town Northwest of Boston.  Pretty sure it was somewhere in the rte. 93 / rte. 3 axis (Billerica?  Tewksbury?), but it was in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.

After our bonded art guys loaded up the truck, we bid farewell and I flew to Boston.  My family was still based in New England, so I probably got a rental car and drove to my Dad’s house on the South Shore.

The next day I set out early to Safesite to handle the ingestion of the materials.  Isolar had a numbering system I quickly recognized as flawed (multiple uses of the same number for the different items, etc.).  This is no dig at them; I’m sure many people had been part of the cataloging process and the more fingerprints on a database, the likelier there are to be errors.

An example of Isolar's cataloging system in 1988.

An example of Isolar's cataloging system in 1988.

Safesite also offered to do our cataloging, but they were a document storage company, and I wasn’t confident they had the familiarity with this type of material or the motivation to catalog with the level of detail I wanted even if they did. 

So before I’d left for New Jersey, Ryko bought me the first laptop the company owned.  Randy Hope, Ryko’s retail guy and computer expert, took me to an electronics store by Lake Calhoun where we blew $2500 on the blockiest laptop I’ve ever seen.  The design was pretty thin, but it had a built in handle to be carried like a suitcase and was heavy enough to be swung as a deadly weapon.  I once slipped on ice in back steps of my Minneapolis apartment, and it flew away, bouncing down the frozen stone stairs.  Although its sturdy exterior had a small crack, the primitive beast functioned without skipping a beat.

 

Not sure this is the same model I used, but I'm reasonably confident mine was a Compaq.

Not sure this is the same model I used, but I'm reasonably confident mine was a Compaq.

I arrived at Safesite with the latest version of dbase and a mission: catalog every scrap in the vault.

Safesite, despite an unassuming office exterior, was everything RCA’s vault had not been.  The helpful staff set me up at a large table in the middle of one of these rooms.  It was dark and shelves of files surrounded me.  It was cold, but sterile with smooth concrete floors.  The ceiling was equipped with a Halon (or Bromotrifluoromethane) gas system that would act like a fire sprinkler system.  If fire was detected in any area of the building, the doors would seal within seconds and the gas would be released, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and extinguishing the flame.  As I understand it, if an event had occurred and I’d been unable to get to the door in time, I would suffocate when the gas was released.

Typical music biz danger would be getting a drink spilled on you at a bar or having a heart attack from too much coke.  Here I would've died if someone lit a match.

Typical music biz danger would be getting a drink spilled on you at a bar or having a heart attack from too much coke.  Here I would've died if someone lit a match.

In all the weeks I was cataloging, I rarely saw another person in the room.   I couldn’t listen to music, my brick sized cell phone had no apps, and there was nowhere to go for temporary amusement / distraction (in the Minneapolis office, we had a KISS pinball machine around which we frequently commiserated, made important business decisions, and took necessary breaks to blow off steam).   As soon as Safesite cataloged a Bowie item into their system, it was sent up to my desk, where I examined and catalogued it again, using our own system.  At first this was exciting, but after cataloging the umpteenth cassette master of David Live for the Philippine market, it started to feel like the relentless, heads-down, grind it out work it was. 

Not to say there weren’t exciting moments of discovery peppered throughout the tedium.  Remember, I had a target list of unreleased material we were hoping to find.  It was great to finally locate a tape with one of them, but even better when I stumbled across something that hadn’t reached the bootleggers or better yet, even been heard of by the fans.