Worth Rescuing: Never Let Me Down

In 2008, David Bowie released a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’ from his much-derided 1987 album Never Let Me Down. As much a rerecord as a remix, this version stripped the song of its 80s excesses, jettisoning the heavy reverb and electro-kit of the original and inserting an everso tasteful (and everso noughties) string quartet and a new drum track. ‘Oh, to redo the rest of that album,’ said Bowie. Problem is, the ‘MM remix’ not only fails to improve on the original, it sort of neuters it. Its original power is gone, along with some of its surprisingly artful changes of texture – I’ll swap the meandering string quartet for the original’s prominent piano and the third verse textural build-up any day, echoey drums and all.

Nevertheless, the album’s original producer Mario McNulty has taken Bowie at his word and a new version of the album is what we’re going to get. The appetisers dropped onto the internet so far have done little to alter my feeling that the project is destined to be no more than a worthy curio; on the new version of ‘Zeroes’ the light-entry-add-drums-later build is almost identical to the ‘Time Will Crawl’ remix and similarly diminishes the sense of grandeur. Bowie’s voice doesn’t just sound 30 years behind the rhythm section, but about twenty metres behind them as well, and ironically (since it is an attempt to rescue the song from overproduction) this layering of old and new elements eventually becomes incoherent. This is even more the case on Beat Of Your Drum, Bowie’s lonely vocal trapped behind a wall of arty strings that neither sits happily with the chugging middle aged rock texture reached at the chorus nor with the spirit of the song itself. And whatever the artistic merits of the new contributions, it doesn’t half sound contrived. Most tellingly, on the revamped ‘Zeroes’ Bowie sounds as if he is singing sharp throughout; there are technological reasons that would explain tuning discrepancies if tapes from 1987 haven’t been properly matched to 21st century machinery, but knowing that Bowie tended to lay down his vocal last and that he had a masterful knack for pitching his performance (in a literal sense) to match the context, my suspicion is that he sang on the sharp side to match the energy and pomposity of the late-80s production. Stuck against (or behind) a more restrained backing track, it sounds wrong.

This retrofitted Never Let Me Down is guilty of doing both too much and too little. For all of its anachronistic tinkering it leaves the track listing intact, as if production is the beginning and end of the album’s problems (it’s not) and as if every song on it is worth rescuing (I refuse to believe that even the presence of the great Laurie Anderson can make the execrable ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ bearable). There are a whole load of issues to be addressed to reveal this album’s hidden qualities, and I hold the uncommon view that production isn’t really one of them – take it or leave it, the overblown quality of Never Let Me Down is the sound of 1987, and if we’re going to start meddling with that then why not also rerecord the rhythm section on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, both of which could do with beefing up a bit? In any case, the overproduction is less egregious than people remember, the content just needs presenting in a more flattering way.

I had a go at fixing it myself a while back and the result completely transformed my experience; to my surprise (because like most people I never came close to loving this album), it has been on my metaphorical turntable regularly. So, whilst it’s never going to convert anyone for whom echoey programmed drums and 80s bombast are anathema, here’s a proposal for revisiting Never Let Me Down without it sounding as though it were recorded in two different centuries…

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The Problem

Arsalan Mohammad’s excellent Album to Album podcast recently discussed the problematic ‘toploading’ of Let’s Dance, all Side A hits and Side B dross. That’s the 80s for you – stick the singles at the beginning, then filler all the way. Never Let Me Down certainly has the big hitters on Side A, while Side B begins with the half-baked ‘Glass Spider’ closely followed by the utterly crapulent ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, but if you make it as far as the rest of the album it’s not all bad – the problem is that the three tracks that follow are pretty much exchangeable in tempo and tone, with near-identical intros and a relentless 120bpm beat (plus a weird tonic-dominant-tonic relationship which makes them feel even more part of the same breath). What Side B is desperately crying out for is variation.

So pacing and structure are all wrong, but the problem goes deeper than that. The album’s grappling with prostitution, war, the environment, war and, erm, girls, is often lazily assumed to be disparate and a bit laughable (there’s nothing more embarrassing than a middle aged rocker doing ‘issues’), but in fact the underlying themes of isolation and anxiety, under the inevitable shadow of nuclear oblivion, suggest something approaching a Concept (capital C). The spoken prologue to ‘Glass Spider’ is the giveaway: this is middle aged Bowie’s answer to Diamond Dogs, with the former’s dystopian future replaced by a dystopian present. Bowie’s 80s decline is rightly characterised as the moment he started following trends rather than leading them, but in Never Let Me Down we perhaps see an attempt to cut a slightly different path. A concept album could hardly have been less fashionable in 1987, and like Diamond Dogs it was designed with a grandiose, theatrical tour in mind (conceived as an arty, experimental venture, even if it was received as pretentious folly).

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Any such ambitions were watered down by the millstone of EMI, for whom Bowie was supposed to be making lots of money, and who put the kibosh on his original plan to record short, uncompromising songs in a style that Iggy Pop was making his own. The era’s penchant for slow fade-outs kills any sense of continuity, and the conventional tracklisting puts the final nail into the coffin of any creative intentions.

Why Is It Worth Rescuing?

All of the above. Flawed ambition is better than no ambition, and after Bowie’s complete disengagement from Tonight and even his let-Nile-Rodgers-do-all-the-heavy-lifting approach to Let’s Dance, at last we have Bowie committing to a project. Rather than just turning up to sing, Bowie worked long, disciplined days during Never Let Me Down‘s three month recording period, writing and experimenting during the sessions as he had in his most fertile periods, and for the first time since Scary Monsters playing on some tracks as well. Yes, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, veering from completely-on-the-nose to insipid (though just occasionally striking gold on the way). But for all that it’s not his greatest period of songwriting, the material was pouring out of him again – his previous album had been a couple of new songs padded out with covers and rehashed Iggy Pop, and almost half of Let’s Dance reworks existing material (with some pretty uninspired stuff in the remainder), but this time he ended up with material to spare.

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You can hear it in his singing. It’s not clear at what point Bowie realised that the album had fallen short of his ideals (he certainly promoted it as if he believed in it, at least initially), but he belts the songs with full-throated brilliance, giving the kind of vocal tour de force that we hear on ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, whether it’s the wild falsetto in ‘Day-In Day-Out’, his cod-Lennon ‘Never Let Me Down’ or his biggest, Basseyest croon on ‘Beat Of Your Drum’. Miraculously, the nuance and energy of his performance manages to cut through the excesses of the production – for this alone, the album deserves a second chance.

Replacement Tracks

Quite why Bowie was so enthusiastic about ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, apparently one of the first tracks he insisted should be a definite, is hard to tell – perhaps it has something to do with his brief infatuation with Mickey Rourke. Whatever the reason, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again, and it will have no place on any version I’m putting together.

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Thankfully, Bowie’s newly regained enthusiasm for recording left plenty of bonus material with which to give more shape and variation to the album as a whole. I’ve cheated slightly and included ‘When The Wind Blows’, which may not come from the same sessions but was probably recorded while the Never Let Me Down demos were being laid down, and it certainly fits thematically (he was recording it when he heard about the Chernobyl disaster, which inspired ‘Time Will Crawl’). The presence of Erdal Kizilcay and the heavy guitar lick in the introduction mean that it happily slips into the Never Let Me Down sound world, and one his best melodies from the period, coupled with a vocal that moves from tender to icy in a single sweep, adds some much-needed lyricism.

We also find a more delicate sound in his version of ‘Girls’, a song written for Tina Turner but which works rather better in his hands – hardly surprising, given the Jacques Brel pastiche it clearly is. Bowie half-croons, half-croaks the song before growing to full Scott Walker intensity at the chorus – it’s hardly ‘My Death’, but there is some real magic in the first verse, subtly scored with piano to the fore (Philippe Saisse almost channelling Mike Garson in his chromatic embellishments). It kind of loses its way after that, the sombre chanson vibe giving way to guitar and dirty sax, but the single edit it doesn’t outstay its welcome and again we have a distinct new colour to break up the album.

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Then there’s ‘Julie’, a song that begins with an understated, countryish verse, then breaks into a heartfelt and rather gorgeous chorus. Perhaps its slightly sixties vibe is what saw it relegated to the B-side of ‘Day-In Day-Out’, but by leaving it off the album Bowie denied us arguably the most beautiful thing to come out of the sessions. Definitely worthy of a place.

Finally, and surprisingly, I’m including ‘Too Dizzy’, though it’s a difficult one to get hold of. ‘I never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live!’ said Bowie, and he did a pretty good job of erasing it from history, deleting it from every reissue of the album. For years I wondered what horrors the track might conceal, imagining it sitting a couple of songs after ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ and being the one that Bowie was embarrassed about! What a surprise, then, to finally hear it and find it guilty only of enjoying itself a little too much. Is the lyric misogynistic? A little, but it’s got nothing to rival ‘China Girl’ for jaw-dropping awkwardness (both lyrically and musically, that is, as well as in the video and Bowie’s live performance toe-curling Chinese accent). I hear the argument that the track is a camp mess, and I’m ignoring it, because if there’s one thing this album badly needs it’s a sense of humour.

Track Listing

There’s no question as to how this album ought to open: ‘Glass Spider’ is barely a song in its own right (it’s little more than a repeated refrain), but with its dramatic monologue it makes sense as a prelude. It’s a shame the twinkly synthesiser that kicks it off (or fails to) is so insipid – it needs something like the saxophone shriek that heralds in Diamond Dogs – and for want of anything better, I’ve given it a bit more ceremony by splicing in the cello hits from the beginning of the instrumental version of ‘When The Wind Blows’, along with some of the electronic screams from the opening of ‘Zeroes’ (another callback to Diamond Dogs). It’s not brilliant, but I think it’s better – and it creates a deeper sense of continuity with what follows.

Spacing out the stand-out tracks (which, to my mind, are ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Zeroes’ and my additions of ‘When The Wind Blows’ and ‘Julie’) and giving the order of the tracks a little more light and shade, this is what I ended up with:

  1. Glass Spider
  2. Beat Of Your Drum
  3. Day-In Day-Out
  4. Time Will Crawl
  5. Girls
  6. ’87 and Cry
  1. When The Wind Blows
  2. Zeroes
  3. Never Let Me Down
  4. Too Dizzy
  5. Julie
  6. New York’s In Love
  7. Bang Bang

There’s a hypothetical Side A and Side B there, though neither would fit on an LP because, as you’ll see, I’ve added much more than I’ve taken out. That’s partly a lack of discipline (I am a bit of a completist and tend to feel that more is more) – a neater version would leave out ‘’87 and Cry’, ‘Too Dizzy’ and ‘New York’s In Love’ – but hearing them in this context I didn’t feel them to be either superfluous or objectionable, and repeated listenings haven’t changed my view.

Cover Art

One thing we can all agree on is that the cover design for Never Let Me Down is an absolute car crash, horribly of its time and a headache to even glance at. Coincidentally, when I searched for alternatives to grace my iTunes catalogue I plumped for a very similar image to the one the Parlophone’s new version is using, one of Greg Gorman’s outtakes from the same photo session. But where the official version has really fouled up is in keeping the shoddy and frankly ghastly cut-and-paste ‘David Bowie’ logo – given the extent to which they’re trying to erase the 80s from the music itself, you’d have thought they’d find a different font. I settled for the logo Paul Belford contributed to the V&A Changing Faces Of Bowie print; the simplicity of the design and vaudevillian style of the photograph have a kind of timeless feel which, if it doesn’t match the sound of the album, at least doesn’t contradict it.

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The Result

My copy of the EMI reissue of Never Let Me Down has sat virtually as new in my CD collection for years, mainly fulfilling its role of ensuring there’s no gap in the chronology of the spines. Whereas my ‘special edition’, as I said, continues to enjoy repeated listenings.

I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone, but I didn’t make it for everyone, did I?

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