It’s only been seven months since David Bowie left this planet to whatever celestial netherworld that spawned him (surely Mr. Bowie was not a product of our prosaic earth). Rock’s most fearless innovator is gone, and all that is left are the dozens and dozens of artists on which he left an indelible mark, an influence that’s obvious in their tone, image and in every note they play. He left behind family, millions of fans, and a peerless catalog of music that Parlophone Records is in the processing of presenting with a fresh coat of paint through a lavish series of box sets. Last September, we reviewed the superb first collection in the box sets Five Years - (1969/1973)—it was and remains a triumph with beautifully remastered versions of Bowie classics Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World , Hunky Dory, two mixes of his cornerstone rock landmark The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, his covers album Pin Ups, and two live albums from the era in addition to a collection of rarities Re:Call 1.
That’s a pretty impressive roster of classic albums and killer material for one box set. Unfortunately its sequel, Who Can I Be Now? (1974/1976), doesn’t quite measure up in terms of essential content for the money involved in buying the set. Like its predecessor, Who Can I Be Now? (1974/1976) is available in digital and 12-disc CD formats along with a 13-LP vinyl edition. It’s not that box isn’t loaded with classic material—it surely is—but it’s stretched too thin, and once again there are some unforgivable omissions that are perplexing and frustrating.
As with all of David Bowie’s archival releases, Who Can I Be Now? (1974/1976) is of the highest quality in terms of sound quality and packaging. The newly remastered versions of all-time classics Young Americans and Diamond Dogs pop out of the speakers with astonishing crispness and clarity. These albums are timeless and they have never sounded better.
Station to Station is offered in two mixes, the original and a 2010 remix by Harry Maslin that was originally included on CD and DVD in the massive 2010 box set devoted solely to that album. Fans who own that box will also already have the two-disc Live at Nassau Coliseum, a superb show in support of Station to Station that had been widely bootlegged for years. The recording, which documents Bowie and his band at their fiery best, finally made its official debut as part of that 2010 deluxe box, and is also included here. These are all worthy additions, but it does make four of the 13 LPs redundant for fans who own that 2010 Station to Station deluxe release.
Speaking of redundant, we have five LPs worth of Bowie’s middling 1974 concert album David Live. Recorded at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia during the Diamond Dogs tour, David Live is a rather listless performance that has never been highly regarded. Bowie himself said of the album that it should really have been titled David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory. The original mix is included on two LPs, but also included is a 2005 remix by Tony Visconti on three LPs that is an improvement sonically over the original, but the end result is that fans who purchase this set end up with five LPs worth of a live album that is one of Bowie’s more mediocre efforts. Counting Nassau Coliseum, more than half of the new box consist of concert recordings.
The big carrot that Parlophone has been dangling in front of fans to get them to plunk down the heavy coin needed to purchase this box is the inclusion of what is billed as a never-before-released album, The Gouster. It’s really an early and far inferior version of what eventually morphed into Young Americans, and one listen makes it clear why Bowie decided to leave it on the shelf. The album contains several tracks that were eventually left off Young Americans entirely, and earlier versions of several tracks that made the final release. Everything here, apart from a couple of the early versions, has already been released as bonus tracks on prior reissues of Young Americans. The album starts with the too-long and ultimately pointless re-working of his glam-era single “John I’m Only Dancing (Again),” which was not only left off the final album, but it didn’t appear until five years later when Bowie’s label, desperate for a single, put out an edited version as a 45 to capitalize on a hits collection. The song that gives the box its title, “Who Can I Be Now?”, is one of several long and meandering ballads without much in the way of a strong melody. Yeah, The Gouster is a fascinating listen, but mostly for historical purposes rather than as a discovery of some great long-lost Bowie album as Parlophone has been hyping it, and anybody with a CD burner could have created their own version of this disc (albeit not with the few previously unreleased early mixes included here). By itself, The Gouster is not enough of a reason to spend the heavy dollars required for this set.
Then we have “Re:Call 2”, the second collection of rarities. It is a major disappointment, not for what it includes but for what is missing. By and large, it’s a collection of single edits, some interesting (like the U.S. single version of “Rebel Rebel”) and some God-awful (like the brutal cut of “Young Americans”, one of the most abruptly jarring edits ever to make it onto a single). What’s missing are songs unearthed for the series of Bowie reissues released in 1991 by Rykodisc. Some key tracks include a demo of “Candidate” for Diamond Dogs that sounds completely different than the album version, or Bowie’s stellar glammed-up cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” recorded around the time of Young Americans. Likewise absent is the excellent Young Americans outtake “After All”.
It makes little sense that a set billed as definitive and comprehensive leaves off such high quality material, especially considering that the “Re:Call” collection is only one LP (compared to two in the first box, although it too was missing key material), and considering how much duplication of material exists in this set. We get five albums worth of David Live but are missing some of his most important outtakes? Why? Perhaps a catch-all box set of unreleased material will gather these songs at some point, but it would have been far better to include them in the set that covers each era.
That’s not to say that Who Can I Be Now? (1974/1976) isn’t worth picking up. The music is, by and large, stellar. It’s David Bowie, after all, and it contains some of his cornerstone classic albums of the ‘70s. But it’s stretched too thin, some of the choices for inclusion are questionable and some of the exclusions are unforgivable. Still, for Bowie fans and completists who yearn for the highest possible quality versions of his classic albums, just like the first box, Who Can I Be Now? (1974/1976) certainly delivers. A little fine-tuning would have made a big difference, but as it is it’s still an impressive collection of a transitional period of Bowie’s career as he turned away from glam to a more soulful and eclectic rock sound that would eventually lead to his celebrated Berlin Trilogy, which will presumably be the subject of the third box set in this series. That is one fans are already anticipating with a great deal of excitement.
// Notes from the Road
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