Mojo NOVEMBER 2018 - by David Buckley.=


Stranger things: David's Dancing Years - Maybe he wasn't so normal after all...

This is the fourth of Parlophone's Bowie box set reissues, and potentially a tricky one. The music on the first three is almost universally lauded as high standard at worst, era-defining at best. However, not only history, but Bowie himself spoke of the post-1983 period with less affection. He was said to have lost his edge, becoming too corporate, too populist. Elements of this analysis are undoubtedly valid, but there was more to it. His friend John Lennon had been gunned down by just the sort of obsessive fan Bowie had in droves. Bowie seemed, if only subconsciously, to turn his focus away from the themes of alienation and obsession towards more unifying, humanist themes; songs for ordinary folk. During the next five years, Bowie would be produced by Nile Rodgers, Derek Bramble and Hugh Padgham, Arif Mardin, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley and David Richards. This very fact killed the continuity created from 1977 to '81 with producer Tony Visconti and resulted in a jumble of styles, sounds and techniques, which confused and disappointed at the time, but now seem rather fitting for the mid-'80s, an age of playful postmodernist cut-ups between songs, cultures and time zones.

The first album here is, of course, his biggest-seller globally, Let's Dance. Nile Rodgers' guitar work still defines music cool, but the stops and delays created for the Number 1 single Let's Dance, China Girl's playful Oriental riff, and the swoops and grooves of Shake It, help move Bowie into the new. He gave the impression of feeling just fine. "He was a very happy David," says his bandleader Carlos Alomar. "Which I found a little odd."

Yet on-stage, on the Serious Moonlight tour, Bowie sounded as if the synapses in his brain still hadn't reattached after the coke damage of the mid-'70s. In fact, it is hard not to think of Bowie's '83 on-stage acts as being an extension of his other alter egos: amid the pastel suits, the custardcoloured quiff, the Yuppie braces, we can glimpse The Thin White Duke if he'd been forced to play a residency in Hollywood for three years. The music, in essence a greatest hits show, is here as Serious Moonlight (Live '83). "Bowie is the finest white pop performer alive," wrote reviewer Charles Shaar Murray. "I'll be very surprised to see any of Bowie's alleged peers produce anything remotely this good."

What happened next was puzzling. Instead of working with Rodgers on a follow-up, Bowie pirouetted back to weird. The 'new' Bowie, previewed in a feature-length video for Blue Jean, was kitted out in a look which would have better suited 1974, rather than 1984; scarves, a turban, pantaloons and blue and black complexion that made him look like a negative of himself. Although the resultant album, Tonight, was dismissed by many critics, it sold strongly and contains as many high points as Let's Dance. Loving The Alien astonished, a beautiful soaring string accompaniment to Bowie's rumination on Islam and Christianity. Yet, knowing what we know now about how radical Islam developed in the intervening years, the song has taken on the status of a warning and a prediction. Bowie's cover of Iggy Pop's Don't Look Down is still breezy and light of foot, while Tumble And Twirl and Dancing With The Big Boys, an obtuse, mildly-unhinged coalition of big riffs, refrains and rhetorical declamations (both co-written with Iggy), might even have pointed the way forward to a new sound completely.

Bowie claimed Never Let Me Down was an album made in the knowledge that he would spend most of 1987 on the road, and yet the original sounded overheated and overproduced, the most sonically confused of any album in his oeuvre. In The Guardian many years later, Bowie claimed: "Low was a drug-free album, Never Let Me Down was not." It saw him trying to reconnect with the avant-rock muse of Scary Monsters, but whereas that album sounded thrillingly twisted in its anger, Never Let Me Down seemed contrived and forced on such social commentary as '87 And Cry and Day-In Day-Out. Bowie, as an artist, sounded absent from the music, and the sonic squash of processed beats, jarring horns and hairy stadium guitar remained unloved for thirty years. Yet there were good songs in there too. The title track, one of Bowie's prettiest melodies, and Time Will Crawl both stand the test of time well.

The box set's main selling point is the inclusion of a completely different version of Never Let Me Down, recorded posthumously. As 're-produced' by Mario McNulty, much of the excess is ditched, along with the original fretwork from Peter Frampton. This sonic up-cycling contains new contributions from Reeves Gabrels, Bowie's 1987 touring buddy and subsequent right-hand man until his resignation in 1999; David Torn, who worked on Heathen, Reality and The Next Day; Sterling Campbell, Bowie's drummer since the '90s; and Blackstar bassist Tim Lefebvre.

The results are intriguing, the studio artifice peeled away to reveal stripped-back songs, 'real' drums, acoustic guitars, and intriguing use of strings, particularly memorable on a new version of the much-sniggered-at Glass Spider, now transformed into a Gothic creep-fest akin to the Outside-era. Best is Zeroes, in which Bowie's voice is released from behind layers of clutter and Gabrels picks out a wonderful acoustic line for the melody.

Also included in the box set: a concert from the Glass Spider tour (only falteringly reproducing the power of some of the performances); Dance, an unreleased album of remixes and extended versions originally scheduled for 1985; the music for the film Labyrinth, including the high camp Magic Dance, latterly one of Bowie's most-downloaded songs (and which in the film clearly shows Bowie miming snorting coke), and Absolute Beginners, almost his best-ever love song, the last single to reach the Top 3 in Bowie's lifetime.

None of the box sets thus far have included a new original unheard David Bowie song. However, the posthumous release programme is beautifully mounted and packaged (and this one is particularly handsome with contributions from contemporaries, reprinted reviews and fascinating doodles and directions from Bowie). Maybe what Bowie sang was true after all: "I can't give everything away." But what he has left, in all its mind-blowing glory and complexity, is still to be wondered at.