I love it when a day off coincides with a long-awaited new album.
David Bowie’s epic ‘Who can I be now’ box set was released today. Any surprises…?
So, I’d been waiting for a while for this one. Mainly because this second-box-set-in-the-series contains the near-mythical aborted album of funk ‘The Gouster’. In Bowie lore, this was the album that was a superior precursor to ‘Young Americans’, teleporting DB from frilly to Philly in one shimmy. Of course, 1984 on ‘Diamond Dogs’ (also included here) was a first experiment in Shaft-like Wah-Wah disco strutting, complete with Love Unlimited strings. (Actually, I’d probably go further and point to 1973’s ‘Panic in Detroit’ as an even earlier excursion into R’n’B (listen to those Linda Lewis BV’s for example).
But anyway, ‘The Gouster’ marked the moment when it went real and the one-blue-eyed-and-one-green-eyed-soul boy was born. Of course, The Gouster never made it to Heads Record store in Kingsbury, North London, nor any other record store for that matter. In the end, the album morphed into Young Americans, which transformed Bowie’s fortunes in the US whilst reducing swarms of UK Queens and teens to floods of tears at their hero’s desertion.
Not me though. As a Bowie fan who also loved Motown, Stan and all things Soul, this was cake and eat it time. And to me, YA was a brilliant album, full of American energy,rhythm and call and response harmony. I was only young, so didn’t really know about the cocaine, but more about that later…
But legend being legend, bootleg tales persisted about the unreleased album-that-was. The Gouster. And although most of its tracks have emerged on YouTube over the years to demystify the mystique, we’ve never come face to face with the fully-mixed set, released in its own cover, with notes from uber-producer Tony Visconti. (By which I mean ‘uber’ in its pre-minicab context)
So here it is, hidden amongst the multitude of remixes, remastered and remember-that-ones contained in WCIBN. And I’ve now had a chance to listen all the way through.
Actually, it’s ok. It’s darker and funkier than YA, more intimate perhaps and, to my mind, a lot less Philly. It’s got a harder edge, and the two ‘new’ songs ‘Who Can I be Now?’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ feel a touch more personal. Bowies singing is great, though occasionally a bit white-man-sings-the-blues, and the band is tightly built around a young Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar. But I have to say it doesn’t really strike me as the finished article and sounds a touch like a serious demo. I’m also not wild about the mix. Sorry, but I’m not convinced that Bowie made a mistake by ditching this and progressing with Young Americans, which – to me – is the standout track on Gouster and seems the same as the familiar version.
So does that make this box set a disappointment…? Not if you listen to the Harry Maslin remix of Station to Station, it doesn’t.
Now this has been released before, back in 2010 apparently, but I missed it. Which was strange because I’ve always been intrigued by an off the cuff Bowie comment that he regretted bottling out of giving S2S a ‘dry’ mix, resorting to envelop in the sound in lashings of reverb instead.
So, here is a version of what I believe to be one of Bowie’s finest albums, only this time as dry as a proverbial martini. Almost.
And this one I found a revelation. Every track is improved by the clarity and closeness of the new mix. The band sound even better, the sound is brighter, the emotion is more raw and it feels incredibly present. Songs like TVC15 are transformed musically, whilst the title track has more rhythm and optimism than is present on the original.
Standout for me, though, is Word on a Wing. Far more emotional, when the vocal is up close and personal. In fact, is that a different vocal take altogether? It sounds like it comes from World of David Bowie era.
Unlike Gouster/Young Americans, this disc almost certainly replaces the original in my affections.
So, what else?
Not much really, I’m afraid. A remastered (what the fuck does that mean?) version of Diamond Dogs. Same with Young Americans. TWO versions of David Live (one was more than eneough even for Mr B, so I believe) and a further, even muddier live Album from the Isolar or Station to Station tour.
Oh yeah, and some alt versions of Rebel Rebel and other non-rarities.
What did strike me though, was the quality of Bowie’s writing, arranging and singing over the course of these albums, a period where he was meant to have been so coked-out that recall was barely possible. I’m wondering if the drug use was quite as extensive as maybe he might have wanted us to believe. Was he really constantly close to the edge of his existence, consumer the entire output of Pablo Escobar before lunch (which we are told consisted only of red peppers and milk)?
Or was Druggie Bowie just another invented character, a further mask to disguise the consummate old-school pro who drilled his musicians and vocalists like a sergeant major?
Was it just another opportunity for an incredibly talented writer and vocalist with a low boredom threshold to toy with his audience and say.. Who can I be Now…?