Filtered Through the Prism of David Bowie’s Quixotic Mind: ‘A New Career in a New Town’

David Bowie
A New Career in a New Town (1977 - 1982)

As music lovers all over the world gradually absorbed the stunning news of David Bowie’s death on 10 January 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of what turned out to be his final album Blackstar, the unequivocal certainty that his music would “live forever” became something of a mantra, a promontory from which aching fans could cling in their maelstroms of sorrow. Devotees mourned and commiserated with each other by immersing themselves in the man’s seemingly endless library of masterworks, savoring each moment with a gravitas and solemnity that wasn’t quite there just three days prior. Bowie’s music had always been revered, but it was somehow different now that he was gone, and his fantastic voyage had finally and brutally succumbed to the grim realities of our mundane world.

Casual fans, or those who never got into his music at all, might have wondered why so many reacted to his death with the agonizing grief that one might expect with the loss of a close family member. After all, Bowie was simply a pop star, right? To that, the answer is easy: music means different things to different people. For those of us who’ve lived for decades with these cherished recordings, and indeed with the ever-changing persona that Bowie himself projected, the significance of his loss goes far beyond that of a frivolous entertainer. Bowie’s music is an integral part of the very fabric of our lives, something akin to sacred.

Thus, it’s no small thing when Bowie’s entire catalog is getting a much-needed, carefully curated facelift. Parlophone Records has heralded the ongoing series of deluxe box sets as the definitive version of Bowie’s recorded output, which is a bold claim to make. It’s a massive undertaking, and one messes with musical artifacts of such paramount importance with a great deal of inherent peril. While most of us will no doubt always treasure our well-worn original copies of Aladdin Sane, Low and Station to Station (selling them is unthinkable, no matter how nice and shiny the new pressings may be), the prospect of a newly-polished excavation of Bowie’s discography is enticing. Of course, there’s an obvious and firm caveat: the project must be managed only with the most exquisite care and meticulous attention to detail.

By and large, with the third set in the series just released, it’s clear that — despite some significant quibbles — Parlophone and the production team behind these archival projects have so far been equal to the daunting task of presenting Bowie’s recorded work in the best light possible (within reason). It’s not perfect, no. But then, how could it be? Take a new box set and hand it out to a roomful of 25 Bowie aficionados and you’ll have 25 different takes on the finished product. As anyone who has spent time dealing with the public understands, it’s impossible to please everyone — especially the obsessive fans who are the target audience for these lavish collections.

So while the tears were flowing and fans were still gobsmacked by the blazing genius of Blackstar, there also existed the opportunity — just in time — to relive the first part of Bowie’s back catalog at, presumably, the highest level of sound quality in its history. In September 2015, only a few months before Bowie’s passing, the ambitious series was launched with Five Years (1969–1973). This initial collection covers Bowie’s breakthrough Space Oddity through Pin-ups, including his crucial Ziggy Stardust period. While not perfect, the release was rightly hailed by fans and critics as a first-rate presentation of Bowie’s early classics.

It’s sequel arrived in September 2016 — Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) encompasses Diamond Dogs through Station to Station, and is most notable for the first official release of The Gouster, a precursor album to Young Americans. Once again the set was mostly praised, although it was undeniably on the thin side and heavily supplemented with live material (did we really need five LPs worth of David Live? I think not).

Right on cue, a year later, the third and most eagerly awaited in the series has arrived, along with a torrent of controversy: A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982). The latest set presents, over the span of 11 CDs or 13 LPs, Bowie’s vaunted “Berlin Trilogy” (very little of which was actually recorded in Berlin) — Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger — along with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), the benchmark to which any Bowie album released in the last 37 has been held. Also included is the 1978 live album Stage and a third volume of rarities and scattered tracks from the same time period, Re:Call 3.

Tony Visconti, longtime Bowie collaborator and co-producer of the original albums included here, supervised the new editions with assistance from ace mastering engineer Ray Staff. The latest is the best in the series so far, largely because it contains the most piercingly brilliant sequence of albums in Bowie’s career. As with the first two sets, A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) is not without its flaws, but there’s no question that the beautifully packaged set is well-worth its rather hefty price-tag.

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When Low first appeared in January 1977 (appropriately enough, as it’s a cold-weather album if there ever was one), it must have seemed like Bowie had finally gone off the deep end. The was a long way from Ziggy Stardust. It was clear that selling boatloads of records was not his primary objective, and it’s very easy to imagine the reaction from his label upon first hearing what it was expected to market. Bowie had never shied away from making sharp left turns stylistically, but Low was his most dramatic and stubbornly non-commercial outing yet. It was worth the risk. All these years later, many consider it to be his finest work.

Produced by Bowie with Visconti and featuring prominent input by former Roxy Music electronics experimentalist Brian Eno, Low is a stark and cinematic musical experience completely unlike anything Bowie had ever attempted. His restlessness and eagerness to dabble in different sonic disciplines culminated in an uncompromising masterpiece that proved to be enormously influential, particularly on the new wave and post-punk era as the MTV generation approached.

Listening to Low is like picking up fragmented radio signals broadcast from under the icy surface of a desolate moon hiding in Saturn’s shadow. Or, one might say it’s otherworldly, but then Bowie keenly understood the music of the cosmos and could lovingly translate alien frequencies better than anybody. Visconti’s remaster does the album justice; it’s never sounded better. Comparing it to the original, the most obvious improvement is a subtle but noticeable increase in the swell of bass, a richness that adds weight to the album’s glacial minimalism without overpowering it.

Translating Cosmic Brainwaves Into Music

Side One is a collection of jagged song-snippets spiked with anxiety, dread, and sinister ambiguity, with austere instrumentation and unsettling non-sequitur lyrics. “Breaking Glass” conjures nightmares of mirror shards and carpets slathered with blood. “Sound and Vision”, with its long intro and strangely manic jauntiness, somehow became a #3 single the UK and a substantial hit in Europe. In America, radio programmers who helped send “Fame” and “Golden Years” into the Top 10 were bemused by the defiant weirdness of “Sound and Vision”, and the single limped to #69. It marked the start of a long drought on the US pop chart that wasn’t fully quenched until “Let’s Dance” rocketed to #1 six years later.

Angst and desperation propel the album’s other single, “Be My Wife”, an acrid rocker built around ferocious guitar and a percussive line of barrelhouse piano. The menacing “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is notable for Bowie’s tense delivery of unsettling imagery over quavery lines of keyboard and white-hot serrated guitar. It’s a malevolent audio Rorschach test couched in shades of black, grey and the interstellar rust that dominates the album’s bleakly alien cover art.

The instrumental that lends its name to the new box and ends side one of Low is “A New Career in a New Town”, a strangely upbeat song that seems to have special significance for Bowie (and he surely would have appreciated the notable uptick in bass his old producer pumps into it). It represents a relocation away from America to Europe and also a new musical era, but many years later he revisits the song to harken a much more profound journey. The harmonica in particular echoes mightily on the last track of Bowie’s final album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. His final musical statement is every bit as shrouded and uncertain, replete with suggestion and hints, without spelling anything out with any degree of certainty. And yet, it shares the optimism of that brief instrumental from four decades prior, a salve after the bleakness of Blackstar much like it injects a burst of energy into Low. “A New Career in a New Town” suggests a final dimension that feels much like Side Two of Low sounds — there are far worse ways to spend the rest of forever than being encased in grandly beautiful strands of ambient music, soul-stirring and eternal.

Side Two is an alien ice orchestra filtered through the prism of Bowie’s quixotic mind, with Eno and Visconti offering essential guidance on how to translate these cosmic brainwaves into actual pieces of music. This is where the reissue really shines. Original vinyl pressings of Low are quite good, but it can be difficult and expensive to track down a completely clean copy with no surface noise. It’s been over 40 years, after all, and some of the passages on Side Two are quiet and fragile. Owning a new, clean version to hear these ambient pieces is revelatory in its own right.

Recorded only months after Low was released and issued in October 1977, “Heroes” is similar to its predecessor in that Bowie pairs strikingly unhinged art-rock with atmospheric mostly-instrumental pieces. The songs are generally more complex and expansive than those on Low, with an edgier rock sound that foreshadows the leviathan arrangements on Scary Monsters. Bowie never resided comfortably in the mainstream, and even those songs of his that somehow ended up as hits weren’t commercial in the traditional sense. “Heroes” was the most outré collection of haywire rock experimentalism that he’d yet unleashed, and all these years later it remains both bewildering and utterly beguiling.

The title-track, of course, is one of Bowie’s cornerstone achievements. Everything else on the album, no matter how good, has always sheltered in its colossal shadow. The arch quotations are a not-so-subtle reminder to the listener of the song’s irony — one might even think of it as “so-called Heroes”. It’s a thread Bowie strings through his music from the beginning until the very end, the human frailty inherent in all of us, no matter how idealized one may be, no matter what persona one may present. “Heroes”? No. Just humans, striving for survival.

Bowie lived it in his own life — the innate quest for fire, no matter how frail, until the last flicker burns out. “Heroes” is a desperate shout in the dark, a sliver of hope bashed to nothing on the cold stones of reality. Bowie, Visconti, Eno, guitarist Robert Fripp and several other key contributors coalesced a series of ideas into a recording as powerful as any that emerged in the rock era. “Heroes” takes a back-seat to nothing, by anybody. It’s this track, though, that has inspired the most controversy about the new set, and we’ll touch more on that later.

The promotional campaign for “Heroes” centered around the slogan, “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie”, which might be said to sum up his entire career. He’s always been a genre unto himself. As with Low, the bass is subtly enhanced on “Heroes”, and the overall sound is immense, as Bowie no doubt intended. Again, it’s a thrill to simply be able to enjoy a perfectly clean copy of this classic, particularly during the softer passages on Side Two. The rich bloom of sound that arises during “Sense of Doubt” is chill-inducing, beauty and dread fatally and irreparably twinned. The box also includes a bonus EP containing four recordings Bowie made of the title-song for European markets, singing in French and German mixed with English. It makes for an interesting souvenir of the era, certainly not essential listening but a worthwhile addition nonetheless.

The 1978 Stage live album is somewhat regrettably presented in two forms — the original version (on yellow vinyl, exclusive to the box set) — and an expanded three-LP version that includes the correct setlist order and additional songs that were cut from the original live release. As with David Live in the prior box, the redundancy is rather pointless: the much-superior new version would suffice, although purists would certainly have protested had the original configuration not been included. Thankfully, Stage is a much stronger and more cohesive performance than David Live, so while we may have an unnecessary five LPs worth of Stage, at least it’s an excellent listen.

Released in May 1979, Lodger has generally been considered the underachiever of this lot, not on the same scale of brilliance as its predecessors or its acclaimed sequel, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). The murky mix is often cited by detractors as a major problem, although some fans admire the album’s shadowy drift. One of the biggest draws of the new set was the promise of a newly remixed Lodger by original producer Tony Visconti, something fans have wanted for many years. Bowie had enthusiastically approved Visconti’s reworking of Lodger before his passing, and Visconti completed it for this set. They had long viewed the dreary original as substandard, the result of being forced to mix the album on primitive equipment thanks to logistical issues at the recording studio.

With the opportunity to take the original masters and reinvent them the way he and Bowie would have liked in the first place, Visconti has dramatically improved the album. It’s nothing short of revelatory. Visconti describes how he undertook the remix in the beautiful hard-bound book that’s included in the set, referring to the new version as “the way it was meant to be heard”. He dramatically improves the sonic clarity, bringing the music to vivid life in a way that the dampened nature of the original never achieved. There are a few oddities — for instance, the first line of vocal in “Move On” is strangely low in the mix, which becomes quite noticeable at the 0:09 point when Bowie sings “move on” with a sudden surge of volume. By and large, though, Visconti has achieved a stunning and long overdue reclamation project.

The songs were never the problem. Quirky and experimental, a travelogue of sorts, Lodger begins with the dreamy ballad “Fantastic Voyage”, with mandolins that were barely audible before now jumping out of the speakers. The primary single was the wonderfully sloppy glam-rock throwback “Boys Keep Swinging”, one of Bowie’s multiple expressions of fascination with young male virility. In America, his label was spooked by the campiness of “Boys Keep Swinging” and released the motoric rocker “Look Back in Anger” instead. It’s never sounded better, with the savage drumwork by Dennis Davis bristling with restless ferocity. The manic obsessive “DJ” is arguably the most-improved. It’s like a sluice of dingy water has been sponged off the surface, rendering it shiny and new. Fans of this classic track will rejoice at hearing it with so much more punch and clarity.

Although esteem for Lodger has grown over the years, it rarely gets mentioned as among Bowie’s finest work. That calculus may now change and for good reason. The 2017 mix is without question the star of the box thanks to a superb effort by Visconti in finally presenting this album as it deserves to be heard. It’s like not realizing you’ve been watching an epic movie with stunning cinematography in dingy black and white all these years and suddenly going full HD color. There are, of course, fans who will prefer the original mix (understandable, as changes to albums that are deeply ingrained are often jarring), and in keeping with the series’ “your choice” ethos, it is presented here as well in newly remastered form.

While the years have rehabilitated Lodger’s reputation, and Visconti’s new mix will surely help even more, at the time it was largely viewed as a disappointment. The stakes were rather high for Bowie’s next album, and his solution to break out of his alleged doldrums was to turn everything up to 11. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is altogether bolder, a fist to the face followed by a cold splash of water and then gloops of multi-colored paint to gloss over the debasement. One of the funniest and truest cliches of the last 30 years happened nearly every time Bowie released a new studio album — invariably, at least one critic would declare it his “finest work since Scary Monsters!!!”

Of course, more albums arrived but the frame of reference never changed, and there’s a reason. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is a creative behemoth, a massively overblown carnival ride of madness and wonder, dramatic and harrowing. Some of Bowie’s best work as a vocalist is on this record, and in particular the arrangements, the complex harmonies and effects are as jaw-droppingly brilliant as anything you’ll find in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll.

On Fan Dissatisfaction

Exhibit A: “Scream Like a Baby”, a sinister fable evocative of the Third Reich, their treatment of homosexuals, and the human capacity for adapting to whatever cruelty may be necessary to survive. “Ashes to Ashes” is one of Bowie’s signature songs, musically and visually, thanks to its arresting video directed by David Mallet with Bowie inhabiting the Pierrot character to perfection. He brings his old not-so-forgotten hero Major Tom back from the dead, but the caricature of him that held the world’s idealized attention, like an astronaut mix of John Wayne and Superman, turns out fatally flawed, as we discover the hero is oh-too-human and fragile, just like the rest of us.

The harrowing title-track is a runaway boulder crashing downhill, more than capable of flattening anything in its path if you turn it up full blast like it should be. “Fashion” is a wickedly barbed social satire, and the wildly unhinged “Teenage Wildlife” is as caustic as Bowie has ever been. Scary Monsters is loaded with strange sounds and visions, and on the new remaster they roar with more galactic force than ever before. It’s a fitting endcap to this period because although it was released in the ‘80s, Scary Monsters is more akin to its immediate predecessors than the tight electronic soul and pop that arrived with Let’s Dance. Some see the ‘80s as a lost period for Bowie, and in some ways it was, but there are still many gems to be had… but that’s another box (hopefully), and another era.

This chapter closes with Re:Call 3, which is easily the best of the three compilations of scattered oddities and single mixes that each set has included. The radio edits of “Heroes”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion” and “Scary Monsters” are obviously inferior to the full album versions, but it’s nice to have them here for completion’s sake. The maniacally discordant “Beauty and the Beast” is presented in its extended version, and a single mix of “Yassassin”, a song most wouldn’t associate with being an A-side from Lodger, is a particularly fascinating curio. A rare Australian single mix of “Breaking Glass” is a highlight, as unlike most single mixes this one actually increases the song’s length by nearly a minute.

Bowie’s compulsively madcap take on Bertolt Brecht’s “Alabama Song” fits nicely in the midst of the chaos. The exquisite instrumental “Crystal Japan” is pure celestial beauty, a moment of splendid tranquility. Also present are two of Bowie’s most potent singles from the era: “Under Pressure” (with Queen) and his brooding Giorgio Moroder soundtrack collaboration, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”. The fourth side of Re:Call 3 consists of the EP Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, available on CD in its entirety for the first time ever. Placing it after Bowie’s Christmas duet with Bing Crosby, “Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)”, is a telling illustration of the man’s extraordinary range.

As with the first two sets, one major grumble is the absence of the Rykodisc bonus tracks that appeared on their 1991 reissues of these albums. These high-quality tracks could easily have been included on the Re:Call collection. The two that Rykodisc appended to Low, “Some Are” and “All Saints”, are particularly striking omissions as both are superb pieces that belong in a set billed as a comprehensive overview of the period. Less essential is “Abdulmajid”, “I Pray, Olé” and a 1979 re-recording of “Panic in Detroit”, but their inclusion would have been welcome nonetheless. The rationale is that only tracks released at the time of the albums included are presented, while these previously unreleased songs that appeared for the first time on the Rykodisc reissues are ignored. Presumably, at some point, there will be additional archival releases covering Bowie’s inventory of vault material and these songs will be included, but given that they’ve already been released into the public sphere it seems bizarre to exclude them from sets billed as comprehensive collections.

Far more troubling to many fans, though, are purported errors in the set’s mastering. It should be noted that no major archival project is possible without the inevitable detractors, and some of the gripes targeting this set aren’t really atypical. One of the primary complaints is the increased bass, particularly on Low and “Heroes”, which is bewildering considering the change is rather subtle and Tony Visconti — who was, after all, in the room with Bowie during the creation of each of these albums — has indicated very clearly that this is how they were meant to sound.

The dissatisfaction over various other glitches, such as the issue at the beginning of “Move On” mentioned earlier, is more understandable. It’s true enough that such problems shouldn’t exist with the kind of care devoted to a project like this, especially given its expense to consumers, but most of these are exceedingly minor points. A quick glance at fan reactions and discussions about the box reveals that some of the self-appointed experts and audiophiles continue to bitch quite authoritatively about this or that bit of minutia, consigning the whole project to the trash-heap of disgraceful ineptitude over a (non)issue that most other Bowie fans (just as devoted if perhaps less strident and certain in their denunciations) would simply shrug off as insignificant, if they noticed at all. It’s not obsessive audio perfectionists complaining, though. The great Henry Rollins, for instance, declared loudly in LA Weekly: “Fanatics! Avoid the New Bowie Box Set, A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982)”, citing the much-discussed mastering issues.

The object of most of the fans’ ire is indeed a serious and puzzling issue (see *Update, below). Many listeners perceive a noticeable drop in volume during “Heroes” at about the 2:50 mark and lasting through the rest of the track. On the surface, it sounds very much like a mastering flaw, a dropout that would represent a major lapse in quality control. The problem has raised such a furor, with many incensed fans posting blistering one-star reviews on Amazon, that David Bowie’s publicist, Julian Stockton, felt compelled to issue a statement defending the set and essentially denying any problems exist.

Stockton contends that fans are not hearing a drop in sound, but instead the issue is their perception of what he claims is the correction of an error on the original master. Stockton asserts that to make up for a “temporary loss of energy” just before the 2:50 point, “high-frequency automation” was added to compensate. Thus, there is a “high-frequency boost for a couple of seconds at the loss of energy which then returns to normal and the track continues to the end at a level consistent to the start.”

This explanation, so far, has not appeased those who are understandably upset over what to their ears is clearly a massive botch. “Heroes” is, after all, the centerpiece song of the entire set, and it seems hard to fathom how this was missed by the production team. To be fair, many listeners insist that the complaint is overblown and they can barely hear it. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, although speculation abounds. Stockton’s claim makes a certain amount of sense, but the bottom line is that based on the sheer number of listeners who are hearing the volume drop, the solution designed to fix the apparent flaw on the original master is simply insufficient. Ultimately the “why” of it doesn’t matter if the end result is a product that a significant percentage of fans consider to be irreparably defective.

For most listeners, it’s likely not going to be a major issue, but Parlophone must address it nonetheless. A huge part of the appeal of this series is the expectation of top-tier quality, as is fitting for what is billed as the definitive presentation of David Bowie’s peerless catalog of music. That’s a hefty responsibility given the value of the content and given the monetary price that fans and collectors are willing to pay for it. It may seem a petty complaint until one thinks of how much this music means to people. You either revere it or you don’t. Would a famous painting with an obvious blotch be an acceptable print, for anyone? No.

Parlophone needs to remain consistent with the quality expectation of this series and the only way for them to do that is issue a replacement disc for “Heroes”. The integrity of the entire archival project would be compromised if they ignore this. How would the logistics of such an exchange work? Perhaps manufacture a corrected version of “Heroes” prior to selling the discs individually, as is traditionally done at some point after the box is issued, and offer it to those who purchased the set. It’s an expensive and burdensome proposition, to be sure, but the source material here is too important a musical document to allow the status quo — a large number of highly dissatisfied fans — to remain.

Flaws both real and imagined aside, there can be no doubt that A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) represents an improvement in sound quality for these landmark recordings — they are bolder, crisper and more vividly alive than ever. While these box sets do not match the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, the benchmark for quality archival releases, they’re still pretty damn good. Ultimately, of course, what makes the set so essential is the music itself. It’s reassuring to know that music of this caliber is being preserved so exquisitely because new generations of fans will be listening to and discussing these albums long after we are all gone, and probably in a format that we can’t even currently envision.

These albums are among the most vital and influential by anyone in the rock era, and that is not hyperbole. A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) showcases Bowie operating in another dimension than everybody else, one of his own devising. They are uncompromising and untethered artistic expressions with no commercial considerations limiting his scope. Bowie had complete artistic control in a way that few artists have enjoyed, and he mined that privilege to the limit. Low, ”Heroes”, Lodger, and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) are the core of why David Bowie is so profoundly revered. They offer full immersion into another universe of sound and vision, a shadowy interstellar odyssey that burrows through the deepest recesses of the human soul just as deeply as it rockets flashing into space.

*UPDATE: Parlophone Records has just announced that those who bought the box set will receive a corrected disc for Heroes. Hold on to your proof of purchase and look for updates on the David Bowie website for details on how to obtain the corrected disc. An excellent and much-needed step by Parlophone and the team behind these outstanding archival sets.