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Friday 26 April 2019

Bowie's lean years - new box set pulls tracks from singers self-confessed creative low point in mid 80s

A new box set will pull together tracks from the singer's self-confessed creative low point in the mid-1980s, writes our music critic, but even while struggling with writer's block, there's plenty here to intrigue fans

Lost soul: Bowie's Slane gig in 1987 focused on two of his more mediocre albums
Lost soul: Bowie's Slane gig in 1987 focused on two of his more mediocre albums
John Meagher

John Meagher

It seems hard to fathom today, considering his prodigious recording career and fondness for touring, but David Bowie's first show in this country was as late as 1987.

Bowieologists here know that he was in Dublin in 1969, in the first flush of success, to record a live version of 'Space Oddity' for the Bill Whelan-produced RTÉ series Like Now! But he wouldn't play in front of a paying audience in this country for a further 18 years when he accepted an invitation from Henry Mountcharles to play Slane Castle.

Unfortunately for Bowie's legion of Irish fans, the first of 17 shows he would play in this country over the course of his career coincided with what's largely thought of as his creative nadir.

A few months previously, he had released Never Let Me Down. It's now widely seen as the weakest of the of the 27 studio albums he released and only a few years later he was doing his best to distance himself from it.

And the ultra-theatrical global jaunt that he concocted to support the album, The Glass Spider Tour, is the most divisive of the many tours he did over the course of that lengthy career.

Reviews from Slane Castle were lukewarm at best, with several critics noting that the crowd seemed unengaged due to the convoluted arrangements, fussy stage arrangements and the primary focus on material from that album and its mixed-bag predecessor, Tonight. And it was a similar story on the rest of the tour: the shows were commercially successful, but few thought they lived up to those of an artist of Bowie's stature.

If he had an extraordinarily fruitful 1970s - releasing one remarkable album after the next from 1970's The Man Who Sold the World to 1979's Lodger - he had, by his standards, a pretty wretched 1980s.

And his artistic troubles offer a reminder that even the finest musicians can lose their way, especially if they chase the mainstream success that Bowie craved.

Take 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) out of the equation - that feels like a continuation of his great 70s run - and you're left with Let's Dance, Tonight and Never Let Me Down. They're three of his bestselling albums, but with the exception of Let's Dance, they're rarely part of the Bowie story: until now.

Parlophone has announced that it will be releasing a box set, Loving the Alien, in October to document Bowie's fraught period between 1983 and 1988. It's the fourth in a series of multi-album box sets that the label has been bringing out to chart his career since his untimely death in January 2016.

But unlike the previous three, this one is a much tougher sell. And yet, because this is Bowie and even in the depths of inspiration drought, he could still deliver intriguing work - ­although you'd to search much harder to find it.

The box set's title is taken from the opening track on Tonight and it's long been a favourite among Bowie aficionados. 'Loving the Alien' was Bowie's riposte to organised religion and its lengthy seven-minute run time doesn't feel excessive.

It was one of just two songs on the album that were written solely by Bowie. It was all-too clear that he was struggling with writer's block. The signs were there on the Nile Rodgers-produced Let's Dance: one of its standouts, 'China Girl', had been originally written with Iggy Pop during their Berlin sojourn in the late 1970s and had appeared on Pop's The Idiot album.

But when it came to Tonight - rushed out after Let's Dance sold eight million copies - Bowie also ransacked the songs he and Pop had co-written seven years earlier. But his versions of 'Tonight', featuring Tina Turner, and 'Neighborhood Threat' weren't a patch on Pop's original recordings. He even resorted to covering 'Don't Look Down' from Iggy's 1979 New Values album.

Contemporary reviews were so-so and Bowie was soon talking about how dissatisfied he was with the album. Never Let Me Down, he promised, would be different. And it was. It was much more rock-oriented and the blue-eyed-soul-meets-1980s-pop of the two predecessors was largely abandoned. But the album's fussy production didn't help matters, and even the best tracks - most notably 'Zeroes' - felt poorly served.

Years later, Bowie reflected on where it had all gone wrong. "[The huge commercial success] meant absolutely nothing to me," he said in 1995. "It didn't make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. The next two albums after [Let's Dance] showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent.

"My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it."

Perhaps mindful of how he felt about the album, Parlophone's box set will feature an entirely rejigged version of the album. Mario McNulty was brought in to offer a fresh production, there are new string arrangements from Nico Muhly and a cameo appearance from Laurie Anderson.

A stripped-back version of 'Zeroes', dubbed 'Zeroes (2018)', suggests the enterprise may will encourage Bowie fans to revisit the album. The song has far greater focus than the original and recalls his earliest work from the late 1960s - something that Bowie had (unsuccessfully) attempted in 1987.

It would be six years until he released another solo album and Bowie tried to reinvent himself in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Tin Machine, although that, too, is a period that few remember with much fondness.

At least those Irish fans who were underwhelmed by his Slane show got to see him in much better form three years later. His 1990 Sound + Vision tour called to Dublin's Point, Depot, and he played a career-spanning set. The idea was to 'retire' his old songs but, thankfully, that was a promise he failed to keep.


Three icons who had a creative drought

Bowie isn't the only artist to suffer a fallow period creatively...

Bob Dylan

The 1980s wasn't a kind decade. It coincided with his unloved 'Christian phase' and some albums - especially Empire Burlesque - utilised the worst production techniques of the era.

The Rolling Stones

What is it about the 1980s and iconic musicians? The decade was dismal for Jagger & Co. Listen to the Undercover and Dirty Work albums? Me neither.

John Lennon

He could hardly have sustained the awesome creativity he displayed in The Beatles, but Lennon disappeared for much of the 1970s and there's little to cheer about in either Walls and Bridges or Rock 'n' Roll.

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