by Paul Ashby
In late September Parlophone and Rhino partnered for release of a Tony Visconti-remastered box set of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” (and beyond) albums, and the project’s been getting a lot of press — and not all of it good.
In the remastering process, certain risks (and, some might venture, liberties) were taken. Anytime anyone messes with original Saint Bowie recordings, a certain amount of blowback is a given, and public reaction to an album or two in this set has put the label on the defensive.
But more about that in a moment. To kick things off on a positive note: an especially attractive bonus is the included 84 page (128 page in the CD version) hardcover book. Producer Tony Visconti gives good context about Low, “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters. His recollections about the sessions make for riveting background for any fan of this important period in Bowie’s recorded output. Even if you’re not a Bowie person — if you have any interest in the studio process in the late seventies and early eighties — you’ll likely find his notes entertaining and informative. I recommend reading those entries before/during listening to the recordings themselves (remember when LPs had liner notes and memorizing the credits and minutiae was part of the experience? Me neither, but daggone it, I need to pry off these headphones right now and run out to the front porch because the dadblame neighborhood kids are on my lawn again and need a bit of threatening with my cane, so hold on)…
Okay, I’m back.
Let’s talk about the vinyl. All thirteen LPs of it.
Some are complaining about the remastering’s bass boost. And tape hiss.
Tape hiss can be a good or a bad thing. In moderation, it (usually) means you’re listening to an analog source. Most hiss reduction techniques — I’m looking at you, Dolby — mean somewhat muted high-mids. Where trade-offs are concerned, I’d rather have vocals, guitars and cymbals that sound slightly “toppy” than as if they’ve had a couple layers of cheap fleece throws tossed over them. Call me fussy.
As personal listening hit parades go, Low is right up there with Rundgren’s A Wizard/A True Star — another well-worn masterpiece that was originally mastered, well… pretty lousy, with 70’s-fashionable accentuated midrange blare, at the expense of anything resembling bass response. Low producer Visconti’s claims seem to imply that the hardware temper of the times meant that tinny was preferable to (or, at least, more easily attainable than) boom. Whatever the rationalization, the new version of Low sounds good. And at the opposite end of the frequency spectrum, any hiss heard is reassuring, rather than infuriating.
Okay, then. If we are to talk of Low, we need to talk of onomatopoeia.
The original mastering often went “splat” — especially the extended “tssshhhh” cymbal and Visconti’s Eno-tweaked Eventide-Harmonizer’d snare on the track “Sound And Vision.” On the new version the drums still whirr and glitch, but the varying delay/reverb gates are more distinguishable. Whether or not that’s a good thing I’ll leave to the purists (I’ll conveniently bow out of that contingent, at least for the time being). The snare in the intro to “Breaking Glass” still goes “wowwwwww” — now you can hear the manual dial on the Harmonzier being twiddled with each beat. There’s also increased clarity in George Murray’s bass playing, rather than the low-mid-freq mud of the original. What’s that audiophile buzzword where good bass is concerned? “Taut”?
And it’s not all about the bass. Ricky Gardiner’s guitar solo at the end of “Always Crashing In The Same Car”, knob-twisted by a tastefully fidgety Eno, has always realized my vision of emotive whammy-bar perfection. The newly mastered version improves on that ideal.
Eno’s synth collage during the intro and in the subsequent interlude of “A New Career In A New Town” seems to hover, then bloom and sway above the soundfield while the bass drum pumps a heartbeat. Where the old kick went *thud*, this one goes *snap*, but still hits you between the diaphragm and the sternum. Right where it belongs.
Side two’s instrumentals are where this remaster could soar or fail.
But “Warsawa”‘s ponderous solemnity takes on airy life; Eno’s Chamberlin creaks and breathes — the occasional grit, which has always seemed like a Leslie speaker glitching, or something, is still there, but it sounds textural rather than clipped. Bowie’s wordless, invented-language vocals, mocked in certain quarters then and since, define the piece. Me, I’m a fan. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. Until the next track.
“Art Decade” is up there with my favorite songs ever, by anyone. Here, again, between the lines of the primitive rhythm box, you can hear the blood pulsing in the song as a result of Eno’s cutting-room-floor resuscitation. The ARP Solina/String Ensemble (?) pads during the final minute or so take a great song to another, almost astral, level.
“Weeping Wall” — all Bowie on all instruments — now dances with weird, extraterrestrial tension. “Subterraneans,” on the other hand, sounds like a recording of a recording. I can’t explain it. It’s always seemed tacked-on to me, and I can’t hear a whole lot of improvement here; the highs are emphasized to such a point that the upper register is cluttered until Bowie’s sax and vocals come in and bring the progression home.
From its release in January 1977 to this new version, 40 years later — how can you sum up Low? You can’t. It keeps on giving, and I find the remaster to be gracious, appropriate, and respectful — and all this for a project that had a fair chance of never ending up on anyone’s turntable. In the box’s book, Visconti says that, before the sessions commenced:
David…warned me that this album was going to be purely experimental and it might not ever be released if it didn’t turn out well. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind wasting a month of my life if that were the case. “A month in the studio with David Bowie and Brian Eno is not wasting a month of my life, regardless” was my response.
Credit for Low‘s pioneering studio treatments has often landed at Brian Eno’s feet. But Tony Visconti’s presence was a significant and indispensable reason why the album’s impact was so immediate… and so lasting. Seldom have such leaps of faith had led to something so timeless.
Less than a year after Low‘s release, Bowie returned with “Heroes”, again with Visconti and Eno in tow. The result didn’t seem much less “difficult” than Low (especially side two), but it did yield an anthem, of sorts.
“Beauty And The Beast,” “Joe The Lion” and “Blackout” are definitely not the least claustrophobic songs in Bowie’s extensive catalog. The remastering here helps; there’s a lot more definition in the mix. The rest of the album is similarly improved. Except for that one thing.
Y’know — that…thing.
The now-notorious volume drop in the anthemic title track is… obvious. When it happens, around the 2:50 mark, there’s a definite dip and a loss of presence that saps the song’s energy and momentum (and if this song has anything, it’s momentum). While Parlophone calls it an “issue on the master tape”, it sounds like something that slipped by quality control during the test-pressing process. I can’t imagine anyone with any knowledge of mastering letting something like this go to the pressing plant. If, as Parlophone states, fifty (yup, that’s 50) test pressings were rejected before the final audio was approved….well, someone in the chain of command should have held out for 51.
Ex-Rykodisc person Jeff Rougvie published a thoughtful rumination on the box set. An excerpt:
[…T]he “Heroes” dropout? That’s a mistake, plain and simple. You can fix that within minutes in a digital studio while still maintaining the integrity of using the original source tape barring a few seconds. WHO WOULD NOTICE? WOULD VISCOUNT [sic] BE UP AT NIGHT TOSSING AND TURNING BECAUSE OF THREE SECONDS FLOWN IN FROM ANOTHER SOURCE? HAVE WE FALLEN SO FAR THAT FANS WANT TO HEAR ALL THE DAMAGED TAPES? Of course not. For Parlophone to insist otherwise is a little insulting.
To the label’s credit, they’re going to offer buyers of the original CD and/or LP package (or download) a replacement recording of the album. Details are yet to be announced, but it’s good news for those whiplashed by the whole affair.
Side two sounds wonderful. The Krafterk-tribute martial snare and relentless horn-chug of “V-2 Schneider” work to marvelous effect. On the original mastering everything stuck together into a midrange-y wedge; here you can hear nearly every track of each song more discretely.
“Sense of Doubt” kicks off a three-song segment where each tune is crossfaded, and has some eerie crypt-ish sound effects that I’ve never noticed before. The foreboding descending bass motif claims new and bold ground. “Doubt” gives way to “Moss Garden”; Bowie’s koto feels as if its being plucked from some long-neglected corner of your memory while Eno’s roiling drone montage churns. The noise-gated mic buzz on Bowie’s sax honks on “Neuköln” is another element I hadn’t heard on previous pressings.
Other than the obvious flaw on the title track, this new version of “Heroes” is a keeper. Just enough murk of the original master is retained so that obsessives can really appreciate the recording, while opening up the mix so that the very same wonks can trainspot their favorite elements.
Lodger 2017 mix
Before we go any further, let’s hear again from Tony Visconti via a quote from the enclosed book:
A remix of a piece of music you’ve lived with for 38 years is bound to create some sort of controversy. Some of you will still prefer the original mixes. The unintentional lo-fi was lovingly forgiven by some by calling Lodger a kind of punk album. But we never intended it to be that way. Here is “Lodger” as we intended it to be heard.”
My first impression: this new version sounds as if I’m listening to it in a late model car, perhaps on a Bose system, slightly too loud, with the windows rolled up.
There’s a LOT of compression and some selective EQd-reverb added. By 2017 standards, I assume it sounds wonderful to some; by 1979 norms…I’m not sure this is how I remember it.
On “Yassassin” and “Red Sails” the reverb is particularly annoying. On the latter, it threatens to overwhelm the rhythmic nuances of the original; it bleeds over everything and sucks the stop-start energy from the original tracks. And on “Look Back In Anger” and “Boys Keep Swinging,” it’s simply unnecessary.
“DJ” is probably the only song here that even halfway benefits from this sort of treatment. The wheezy Chamberlin overdubs — always the best part, for me — are a bit muddled, however.
This re-doing of “Red Money” is just weird. The pure-Eno ratchety-cricket effect is mixed above all else — and distracts from the fact that this is, after all, a semi-throwaway that was much better done by Iggy as “Sister Midnight” on The Idiot. It would be far more comfortable on Recall: 3 (more about that below).
This one’s like coming home.
Of the three studio albums of the era, this had always been my least favorite. But over the past couple years I’ve come around to appreciate it more. This remaster isn’t hurting that aspect of my personal growth.
It kicks off with “Fantastic Voyage,” a song with lyrics of newly-relevant context:
…and the wrong words make you listen in this criminal world….we’ll get by, I suppose….
As George Carlin used to say, you don’t have to be Fellini to figure that out. Bowie used to refer to a certain vocalization style as “Bowie histrionics,” and it’s not difficult to hear an appropriately muted version of that delivery here.
The weirder material (I say that with an endearing tone) like “African Night Flight” shines with more distinct bass. The two-note ascending piano progression boots the song along with a brutal loom. Eno’s chirps and bird sounds are preternaturally defined in the mix, and you can almost hear the tape splices where this beautifully unsettling pastiche was patched together. And that’s a good thing.
I can’t think of a whole hell of lot to say about “Boys Keep Swinging” except that Bette Midler really needs to cover it. If she hasn’t already.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
This album has always had a somewhat sibilant, grating vibe (portending the overall overamped mood of the early 80s?), both in content and production. Bowie’s vocal tracks always sounded processed. I don’t hear as huge a difference in the remastered version as was noticed in Low and “Heroes”. Bowie’s heavily effected vocal on the refrain of the title track has a quantized feel, a possible byproduct of the digital master.
“Ashes To Ashes,” Bowie’s sobering update of his Space Oddity persona, is marginally enhanced — the watery piano plays off the funk bass line (which has always, to me, seemed intended to mock disco). Throw in Andy Clark’s (BE BOP DELUXE’S ANDY CLARK!) appropriately spacey synthesizer work, and this is one of the more curious artifacts of its time — especially when taken in via the song’s oddly disturbing (and, by 1980 standards, ground-breaking) official video.
Oh, and if you know of a better song from 1980 than “Fashion”, well…just keep it to yourself. The off-beat/upbeat “whup” click track (Andy Clark once more) is irresistible, and Robert Fripp’s crazed guitar overdubs and perfectly unhinged solo section sum up this album (and era) better than any music journalist could hope to. So I’m gonna stop here…
(…except for some personal context: the year it was released, this was the one of a small number of go-to albums we used for count-out after closing the Long Beach record store each shift I worked. The volume was such that the windows were usually shaking to some degree. It helped us balance the drawer, somehow).
The original version is largely a pedestrian affair. When I think of Stage I immediately hear Roger Powell‘s train SFX and Adrian Belew‘s feedback madness during the lead-in to and otherwise-perfunctory “Station To Station.”
But wait, there’s more: a lumbering, over-orchestrated rendition of “Ziggy Stardust,” a throwaway faux-reggae re-working of “What In The World” and a rote run-through of “Five Years.”
I’m tempted to stop here and just write off the rest of this recording. Except the 2017 version is three LPs. It’s remixed, expanded and re-sequenced, and includes tracks not on the original: “Be My Wife,” “The Jean Genie,” “Alabama Song,” “Suffragette City” and “Stay.” The remixes aren’t that discernible, let alone memorable. Low fan that I am, “Be My Wife” could’ve been of interest, but it’s flattened by over-arrangement, with a drum part that plods artlessly in the grand rock-n-roll tradition. There’s also a game attempt at “Art Decade,” but when I listen to it again after all these years, well, it sounds like transition music from All Things Considered and just makes me sad. The remix on the remaining original tracks adds little of note, and, if anything, is sterile — and atop the original… uh, sterility of Stage, makes me thing this wasn’t worth the post-production elbow grease, let alone the extra LP. Even late-seventies Adrian Belew can’t pull this turkey out of the pot, sorry. And this is from someone who saw this tour at the Arie Crown in Chicago back in ’78, man.
AND if that wasn’t enough, the original double album is also included, on clear yellow vinyl. So we have five discs’ worth of Stage, for some perverse reason.
Well then. I guess I don’t like Stage all that much, then or now. Onward.
This a double LP with single and otherwise non-LP versions of tracks from Low, “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters. Side 4 is the Baal EP. For me, Recall‘s key selling point is the improved recording of the somewhat bombastic synth instrumental “Crystal Japan”. The original issue of the Japan-only 7″ of this non-LP track was pretty blown-out, over-modulated and crackly. This mastering makes some amends.
What else? For each title the vinyl is 180-gram and acceptably quiet. The innersleeves are poly-lined (for some reason, heavy-stock sleeves are also included). The packaging is high quality; jacket reproductions look perfect and each album has full credits.
Some might argue that the Low / “Heroes” / Lodger / Scary Monsters period saw David Bowie finally lower his mask. The Thin White Duke glare of 1976’s Station To Station had dimmed in favor of something else altogether, something deeper, more complex, and difficult to tag. I’d venture that Low was even druggier than Station To Station, Low being the introverted, sleep-deprived 4am crash from Station‘s cocaine-crusted, post-disco histrionics. “Heroes” seemed more art than artifice — even if side two’s instrumentals left a lot fans in the dust, wondering what had hit them (you’d think side two of Low would’ve given ’em some warning). Lodger took Eno’s systems/randomizing influence and Bowie’s post-LA rootlessness to extremes that further mystified then-critics, but the album has aged exceptionally well. And Scary Monsters was the least inscrutable work of the four; other than his Pierrot costume for the “Ashes” video, Bowie played it pretty much down the middle.
Was the relative dearth of Bowie role-playing during the period covered by A New Career In A New Town just a façade for yet another character? The four studio albums in this set disperse alluring clues, but no answers; curious minds will be rewarded by the journey, if not the destination. However flawed the box set’s execution may be, it’s a welcome — and necessary — capsulation of Bowie’s most enduringly and endearingly enigmatic era.
Low, in particular, was compared to several previous versions because… well, I dunno, what the hell, I’m obsessive that way:
Japanese mini-LP sleeve CD Toshiba-EMI TOCP-70150
Japanese reissue LP (1982) RCA RPL-2105
US “enhanced” remaster CD (2014) Parlophone 219077-PRL2
EU reissue CD (1984) RCA PD 83856
Tidal MQA version (stutters n’ all)
Japanese cassette reissue (1982) RCA RPT-2105 (16/44 rip) (just kidding. maybe)
About the Author
Paul’s been working in music retail and wholesale since 1980. He realizes this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a smart person. He has contributed to PS Audio’s PS Tracks site and Tower Records’ PULSE! magazine.
Paul hoards vinyl and has been known to resemble a computer audio apologist, but he’s hardly ever defensive about it. He spends far too much time not putting his CD collection up for sale on Discogs. Among his other hobbies are wandering inexorably along the audiophile hardware upgrade path, Macintosh computer futzing, digital photography, cat herding, DIY landscaping, and trying to keep orchids and tropical plants alive. He insists on acknowledging that his sweetheart, Kate, cheerfully (and indispensably) helps prune some of the denser verbiage in his contributions here — although she evidently didn’t have much to do with this particular thatch of text.
You can find Paul regularly on his own site, Anything But MP3.