The best $20 that I’ve spent so far this year wasn’t on music or audio equipment but a walking tour of Berlin. Specifically, a David Bowie-themed walking tour of Berlin. Bowie decamped (with Iggy Pop) to the then-divided German city in the late 1970s to escape a Los Angeles lifestyle that near wiped him off the map physically and financially.
Berlin Music Tours’ four-hour Bowie wander takes in the (outside of) the legendary Hansa Studios (that played host to Low and ‘Heroes’ recording sessions), Potsdamer Platz (name-checked on 2013’s The Next Day), the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (a Glass Spider tour concert venue) before ending with a short-train ride to the Turkish end of Schoneberg where Bowie once lived. “David Bowie was here” is scrawled on the entry-passage’s wall.
The walk itself, led by the super-enthusiastic fan Philipp, was shot through with just enough Berlin history to keep non-Bowie folk sated and just enough oh-I-didn’t-know-that moments to satisfy (or embarrass) even the most know-it-all fan.
Four months later, I whiled away an hour or two at the David Bowie Is exhibition, now in Melbourne. It proved to be the second best slice of cash I’ve dropped on music-related matters this year. The touring exhibition offers a comprehensive journey along the Bowie timeline via his costumes, movie appearances, collaborations, video work and – of course – music. It serves as a sharp reminder of the multi-stranded nature of Bowie’s contributions to the artier end of pop culture.
And then there’s the Five Years 1969-73 box set announced back in June and released this weekend. The promo blurb sells it as follows:
FIVE YEARS 1969 – 1973
The first in a series of David Bowie Box Sets to be released on September 25th.
June 23rd 2015 London
On this day in 1971, David Bowie performed for the first time at what was then known as the ‘Glastonbury Fair’. Today in 2015 as the Glastonbury Festival approaches once more, Parlophone Records are proud to announce DAVID BOWIE FIVE YEARS 1969 – 1973, the first in a series of box sets spanning his career.
The ten album / twelve CD box, ten album / thirteen-piece vinyl set and digital download featurs all of the material officially released by Bowie during the nascent stage of his career from 1969 to 1973. All of the formats include tracks that have never before appeared on CD/digitally as well as new remasters.
Exclusive to the box sets will be Re:Call 1, a new 2-disc compilation of non-album singles, single versions & B-sides. It features a previously unreleased single edit of All The Madmen, which was originally set for a US release but was never actually issued. Also included is the original version of Holy Holy, which was only ever released on the original 1971 Mercury single and hasn’t been available on any official release since.
Also exclusive to all versions of Five Years 1969 – 1973 will be a 2003 stereo remix of ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ by the album’s original co-producer, Ken Scott, previously only available on DVD with the LP/DVD format of the 40th anniversary edition of the album.
The vinyl box set has the same content as the CD set pressed on audiophile quality 180g vinyl.
The box set’s accompanying book, 128 pages in the CD box and 84 in the vinyl set, will feature rarely seen photos as well as technical notes about each album from producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, an original press review for each album and a short foreword by legendary Kinks front man Ray Davies.
The CD box set will include faithfully reproduced mini-vinyl versions of the original albums and the CDs will be gold rather than the usual silver.
An alternate cover has been created for the 2003 mix of Ziggy Stardust by Ken Scott, which features an outtake from the original Heddon Street photo session. There is also newly originated artwork for Re:Call 1 featuring a 1973 in-studio image from renowned photographer Mick Rock.
DAVID BOWIE FIVE YEARS 1969 – 1973
6 Original Studio Albums:
David Bowie AKA Space Oddity*
The Man Who Sold The World*
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
*New 2015 Remasters.
2 Live Albums:
Live Santa Monica ‘72
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture Soundtrack
Exclusive to the Box Sets:
The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (2003 Ken Scott mix)
Re:Call 1 (2CD set)”
Not since 1990 has I experienced such a Bowie-soaked year. Twenty-five years ago (ouch), my Dad had just had upgraded his CD player and Ryko/EMI were midway through a piecemeal reissue-ing of Bowie’s artistic peak. A peak that spanned the entire 1970s.
Preceding the Ryko reissues, the eighties downturn of a slap-bass-infused creative nadir in Never Let Me Down and side-project Tin Machine. Bowie’s artistic stock price was at an all time low and so bonus content was apparently pivotal to each album re-appearing in store at full price and not the more common catalogue-reissue ‘mid-price’. Besides, this was 1990 and the record buying public still eyed the CD with some suspicion. How do I know this? The reissue programme’s executive producer Jeff Roughvie has detailed how it all went down on his sporadically updated blog here.
The Sound & Vision reissue campaign began with a greatest hits compilation (whose vinyl edition ironically sported ‘bonus’ material) before a similarly titled deluxe 4CD set brought together albums cuts and previously unreleased outtakes that wouldn’t feature elsewhere. After which, each album was reissued as a 2LP and CD (and cassette). Remastering + bonus tracks were the two main draw cards.
The thing about not being an audiophile is this: you don’t concern yourself as much with the mastering as you do the music. Funny that.
As a newcomer to Bowie’s 70s catalogue in 1990, I’d not heard RCA’s hastily released and withdrawn CDs. Instead, I found myself more intrigued by the Ryko/EMI editions’ previously unreleased bonus material. Hunky Dory’s “Bombers” was a standout but its absence from Re:Call 1 is noted and underlined thrice.
Because Re:Call 1 is largely built around the bonus cuts that first throughout Ryko’s Sound & Vision remasters and compilations, those who built their Bowie CD collection in the early 90s will find little to tempt them. US$120 is a LOT to drop on deluxe packaging and remastering alone…unless you’re a Bowie-worshipping audiophile like yours truly.
If sound quality also matters to you, read on.
It’s only from listening to the David Bowie catalogue through better equipment over many years that I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the sound of the Ryko editions. Is their lack depth and occasional treble hardness a byproduct of mastering engineer Dr. Toby Mountain’s quest to show us more deeply-buried detail?
Alas, 1999’s ‘24-bit digital’ remasters aren’t much of an improvement either. In places they sound a little better but mostly they sound slightly worse: a smidge harder, a shade brighter but not quite as flat. The dynamic range database points to a single point loss on Hunky Dory but horrifically compressed it is not.
Shorn of bonus material, it’s these Abbey Road-mastered editions – and not the Ryko forerunners – that have since lingered in stores and online, including streaming services. If you wanted to hear The Man Who Sold The World or Pin Ups on Spotify or Tidal this past little while, the 1999 remasters are what you were served.
It turns out that getting Bowie sounding good on CD or via streaming isn’t easy. I’ve subsequently sourced the original RCA CDs that once commanded silly money on eBay. Seemingly untainted by EQ and most likely flat transfers of tapes (of master tapes), they expose the greater soundstage depth that I hear in some of the better but harder-to-find/expensive vinyl pressings. Some listeners might complain of a rolled off top end in these RCA edition I reckon it’s a blessing for anyone with an OPPO BD-105D (or similar).
Since the 2000, Space Oddity, Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust have been met with a mixed bag of anniversary treatments.. Despite the resurrection of bonus cuts not seen since the Ryko years, the 30th Anniversary Edition of Ziggy Stardust was a bit of a mess: songs were edited without reason and stereo channels flipped. Thankfully, the album’s 40th anniversary remaster, handled by original studio engineer Ray Staff, righted those wrongs. A high quality vinyl pressing + bonus DVD featuring a hi-res PCM encode, as well as an alternative mix by original co-producer Ken Scott, helped secure audiophile community approval.
And if you dig the 2012 Ziggy Remaster, wholly transplanted to the Five Years box, you’ll likely appreciate the others just as much. Aladdin Sane is lifted lock-stock from its 40th Anniversary reissue in 2013. The remaining four however – Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and Pin Ups – arrive as brand new remasters and I’m pleased/relieved to report that each one aces both its 1990 and 1999 reheat. Tonal depth and inner spaciousness have at last been restored.
Over at HDTracks, the core of the Five Years box is available for purchase as a hi-res PCM download. It doesn’t come cheap though. At US$121 for all six albums in 24bit/192kHz, it’s strictly for digital die hards.
Perhaps HDTracks’ pricing is set by the labels? Or perhaps it isn’t. Either way, the CD box serves up the better value for money by far: physical versions of those same six albums (albeit in 16bit/44.1kHz) PLUS Santa Monica 72, an alternate mix of Ziggy Stardust, the Ziggy Stardust OST and Re:Call 1. This one’s for Bowie-philes whose pursuit of better sound quality hasn’t completely erased an inherent eagerness for the man’s music.
Five Years 1969-73 is already on Spotify if you want to listen for yourself before dropping hard cash on a physical format. Lossless supply from Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer won’t be far behind, effectively rendering ownership of the CD box a costly indulgence. Against the backdrop of lossless digital supply, vinyl looks like the last man standing in the physical product domain.
But then there’s this to consider: it’s almost certain that the Five Years vinyl box has been pressed from those same hi-res digital files. Fans trying to build a decent-sounding Bowie collection with the black stuff shouldn’t fret. It’s the masters that matter most and these are the best sounding currently available.
It turns out that getting Bowie sounding good on vinyl is an even tougher proposition than CD, especially when turning one’s attention to his ‘70s output. Recent editions of Ziggy Stardust and Space Oddity remain reasonably easy to get hold of. For the remainder though, the committed vinylphile must pick through used bins. With only a few official reissues arriving since 1990, the supply of many titles has shortened, especially the ‘Berlin’ trilogy. Not everyone has the time and/or money and/or experience to source minty originals.
Unsurprising then that an increased supply of bootlegs has stepped in to make easy meat of more eager wallets. Coloured vinyl is often a dead set giveaway. Confirmation is then sealed by crooked sleeve printing. If in doubt, consult with Discogs.com. If it reports ‘Not on label’ you’re advised to stay away or risk disappointment.
Unbelievably, these ‘unofficial’ pressings can be found in many of the big record stores in Melbourne and Sydney and probably in your part of the world. I’ve seen bootleg Bowie vinyl in Berlin and New York too. They aren’t marked as such yet still command standard retail pricing. Irony writ large for stores whose success largely depends on the efficacy of the (not unreasonable) anti-piracy message, a battle supposedly already won on the vinyl frontier.
My curiosity got the better of me in January and I bought a white vinyl bootleg of ‘Heroes’ (from which the artist sees not a cent) just to see what it sounded like. It’s quiet enough but sounds flat and lifeless – probably pressed from the Abbey Road-mastered CD. That said, I have a used, legit Australian pressing that sounds a tad rolled off.
The Five Years vinyl box allows us to sidestep this bootleg issue in a single move.
Here’s hoping then that the next entry in this reissue series takes us from Diamond Dogs (1974) through Station To Station (1976), including David Live. It’s not strictly five years (I know) but Low, ‘Heroes’ and Lodger must surely arrive in a third box?
To be continued…