There have been mutterings of discontent since Parlophone/Warners took over the Bowie catalogue a few years ago, particularly from the audiophile camp (not that EMI, who handled the albums prior to Parlophone, enjoyed a much better reputation). People are going back to the once-derided RCA CDs, in order to hear the records (up to and including Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) without what they say are the questionable EQ-ing and compression that’s been applied in subsequent remasterings.
Then there was a debacle when A New Career in a New Town, the third in an ongoing series of boxed collections, featured a remastering of the Heroes album with a sudden volume-drop in the title track. At first, the company doubled-down on its position. Nothing was wrong – people’s ears were deceiving them, and no action was going to be taken. When the fuss didn’t die down, they relented and offered to replace the botched version of Heroes with a repaired one. Even then, that didn’t deal with what fans described as odd remastering decisions, giving albums like Low thick, lead-like bass that sounded at odds with the original versions.
All the while, prices of those 1980s RCA CDs just kept going up. Also undermining the want-a-bility of Parlophone’s vinyl pressings of the classic albums is that, apart from Ziggy, they’re made from digital files. That doesn’t by any means mean they’re not good, but perhaps we need to start seeing digitally-sourced vinyl reissues of albums which were, after all, recorded to analogue, flagged up as such on hype stickers. What about calling it nu-vinyl? That way, people who want analogue, rather than digital masquerading as analogue, can see at a glance what they’re getting.
Anyway, where you stand on these issues may affect how much you enjoy the CD/digital release of Welcome to the Blackout, which first appeared earlier this year as a Record Store Day, triple-vinyl release, a companion piece to the previous year’s Cracked Actor. Where Cracked Actor gave us another glimpse of the Diamond Dogs tour originally captured on David Live (RCA, 1974), just as it was on the verge of morphing into the Philly Dogs tour, so Blackout is of a piece with Stage (RCA, 1978), the double-album that captured parts of Bowie’s Isolar II tour (Isolar I, the tour Bowie undertook in support of Station to Station, had its own belated album release in 2010 when the Nassau Coliseum show appeared as part of a deluxe edition box, eventually becoming a stand-alone release).
Stage was oddly lifeless for a live album – it had an icy, distant feeling about it, not helped by the fact that the original album had a shuffled running order so that the songs appeared chronologically rather than in the order they’d been performed. The 2005 reissue restored the real concert running order and expanded the running time.
Of course, it’s impossible to write about Welcome to the Blackout without touching on another criticism of the handling of Bowie’s catalogue in recent years: the over-reliance on live releases. Fans are longing for the return of outtakes – songs like “Lightning Frightning” that emerged during the Ryko era (Ryko reissued Bowie’s albums with bonus tracks in the early 1990s), but which have since remained under lock and key. Instead, Parlophone is leaning on live content, sometimes to fill up space in boxed sets. For example, David Live (originally a double album), was given five discs in the Who Can I Be Now box. The same happened with Stage (also originally a double album) in the A New Career in a New Town box. Some completists are delighted and couldn’t be happier with how it’s all being rolled out. Others see it as unabashed milking of fans’ goodwill.
Nevertheless, putting all squabbles aside, Welcome to the Blackout is a triumph. It captures a couple of gigs two months further on than Stage in the Isolar II tour, so Bowie’s voice is, at times, a little more worn. But it’s also far more visceral and fleshy and real-sounding. Of course, there’s still the cool remoteness that some feel spoiled Stage, most notably in the tracks from Low and Heroes, the albums Bowie was touring behind. But those songs are meant to sound chilly. An exception is ‘Be My Wife’ which, on Low, is performed with a depressive detachment but here sounds warm and practically sincere, especially for an artist who almost always managed to avoid being earnest. Overall, there’s more energy and a greater sense of the artist and band being at ease. The crowd noise isn’t mixed so far back, so there’s a more pronounced feeling of this being an event.
“Heroes” sounds absolutely terrific; more thrilling than in it studio iteration. “Jean Genie” is considerably more vigorous here than in its Stage counterpart. In fact, track for track, Welcome to the Blackout betters its rival. While it has a very similar running order and track-list to Stage, it also boasts songs that didn’t appear on that album, even in its augmented guise. These are: “Sound and Vision” and “Rebel Rebel”. During the intro to the former, Bowie even says what sounds like, “here’s one we haven’t done before”, which goes some way towards explaining why it’s a rather looser, less streamlined performance than the others.
As for the sound quality, it’s decent. The Nassau Coliseum and Santa Monica releases came with an excess of compression, beefing up the sound to the detriment of overall dynamic range. Although the same technique has been used on Welcome to the Blackout, it’s less extreme and will be perfectly acceptable for non-audiophiles. In its CD incarnation, the album is presented in a triple-fold package. An insert features elements from the original tour programme and a contemporaneous review of the Earls Court shows.
Of course, during this phase of his career, Bowie was gradually straight-washing his image. Although there were touches of camp in the high-waisted pantaloons, his band was made up of strictly-no-makeup blokey blokes, such as guitarist Adrian Belew, worlds away from the glittering Spiders From Mars. This was a process that reached its conclusion with the commercial peak of Let’s Dance and then the sudden yesterday’s newness of its unloved followups Tonight and Never Let Me Down and the overreaching, showbiz-tastic Glass Spider Tour. It will be more than a little fascinating to see how Parlophone/Warners handles this period, which received wisdom tells us was Bowie’s creative nadir when they arrive at it in their series of boxed sets later this year.