It was great having Bowie become a huge star in 1983 with Let's Dance, the biggest he'd ever been, at least in North America. It was very catchy music but still retained some of the edge and smarts of his adventurous, late '70's music. It was great, yes, but also it was about the worst thing for artistic output. After nearly two decades of struggling with the financial side, even during the Ziggy years, he finally had a huge album and tour bringing in lots of wealth, and that must have felt good So good, he spend the rest of the decade trying to give those new pop fans more of the same. It's an old story, but it felt even more disappointing coming from Bowie, who had always been an innovator first, not someone trying to stay at the top of the pops.
If you're keen to write off the entire decade, first I'd suggest going back to Let's Dance, enjoy the groove of the first side of the album, then hit Ricochet, which contains all the experimental wordplay and off-kilter music of anything on Scary Monsters, but still has a great groove courtesy of the production work of Nile Rodgers. It did truly feel like Bowie had found the magic formula to combine success with art. Turns out it was part poison, and he drank deeply.
So it falls to this boxed set to try to reclaim the rest of the '80's music, and make it seem as valuable as the previous three box sets that covered the glorious '70's. Times had changed in the music industry, which meant that instead of an album a year, Bowie only did three studio albums, plus lots of soundtrack cuts and a couple of tour videos (on VHS, remember that?). Tonight, the too-hasty followup to Let's Dance, is just too troubled to rehabilitate, so the compilers have attempted to change our opinions on the other set, 1987's Never Let Me Down.
That album sold a bunch, which initially pleased Bowie, and led to his year-long, massive world tour called Glass Spider. But it wasn't long before he echoed the poor reviews, and started trash-talking the album, ultimately using it as an example of how he'd lost his way. His dissatisfaction led to the formation of Tin Machine, a complete left turn from the synth-pop he'd been doing.
Bowie blamed himself for not caring or being involved enough in the production, and that he'd let the songs down, that they weren't the problem. To partially prove his point, he had engineer Mario McNulty remix a track in 2008 for a compilation, liking it much better, and wishing he could do the whole album. So with that pre-posthumous blessing, McNulty was brought back for that, and more. Instead of simply remixing the tracks, he jettisoned much of the original music, and brought in players from later in Bowie's career, such as Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine, and his long-time drummer Sterling Campbell. Using Bowie's original vocals and some of the original parts, brand-new versions of the songs were made, usually quite different. As well some buried parts were brought to the front, and the biggest change was removing the dated synth sounds, replacing them with real strings.
Without getting into the morality of this, there's little question that the end result is better. They do make it easy for you, including both versions of the album. In short, the tracks are a lot less shrill and oppressive, there's more space in them, and the mix is far livelier. I'd disagree that these are great songs, but such tracks as Beat Of The Drum, Zeroes, Time Will Crawl and Day-in, Day-Out have their charms. Shining Star (Makin' My Love) still isn't much of a toe-tapper, even though the horrid rap by Bowie and actor Mickey Rourke has been tossed, replaced by a new spoken word bit by friend Laurie Anderson.
Still, the whole Glass Spider concept was overblown, part Bowie cliche (umm, spiders again?) and the rest cheesy, narration always a bad idea on rock albums. It was conceived to fit the huge stage show he designed, which was certainly adventurous. There was a dance troupe, acting lines, narration, a spider several floors tall, one of the very first uses of wireless headset mics, a flying Bowie, and all performed in massive outdoor stadiums and giant indoor bowls. I've seen the video, it was still hokey live too, and the emphasis on the theatrics, costumes and set took away from the songs themselves.
Included in this box is the live concert, two CD's worth recorded at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Having just audio makes some of it confusing (the talky bits), and like the album, the music is too glossy, even the old favourites such as Fame and The Jean Genie. Better is the other live set here, two discs from the Let's Dance show, Bowie at the height of his success. In addition to the obvious hits from that album (China Girl, Modern Love), there's a full set of greatest hits, plus some edgier material just to keep the crowds honest. It's head-and-shoulders more enjoyable than Glass Spider.
Like the previous three Bowie boxes, there are also discs that collect the various off-album cuts, from singles, soundtracks and the like. These have been disappointing in the past, as they've been filled with minutiae such as radio edits of 45's. This time, while those are there, also included are cuts from the soundtracks to Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth, where Bowie did several non-single tracks, and a couple of very rare b-sides not included in other compilations.