By Steven Drachman.
Ah, the 1980s: an era that seemed artistically respectable and really self-aware until a moment ago, when suddenly it became kitschy and hilarious. But the 1980s were actually OK. This thing called “New Wave,” which was watered down punk and something of a punk gateway, displaced disco and some of the worst easy-listening 1970s hits, and it was not all bad. I could give you a list of really good New Wave bands without stopping to think, but I don’t want to get into an argument.
Shortly after I got off a plane in Amsterdam in 1987, I found myself in a club that I believe was called the MilkVeg, or something like that, and Zeroes from David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down album was playing. Whoever programmed that song back then would today probably not admit that he had done it; I probably shouldn’t admit that I loved it, that it was the perfect song to hear at that moment, in that place.
David Bowie also claimed to love the album back then, and he built his most ambitious concept concert tour around it (which I also saw, and which I also loved).
So it is with some hesitation that I approach a remastered and entirely reimagined album entited Never Let Me Down 2018. In the years after the album came out, Bowie all but disowned it (and all but disowned his 1980s career as a pop musician), and in his final years mused about re-recording the whole thing.
Now, others have done it for him, other than the Bowie vocals and some of the music. I vaguely remember wishing at the time that Bowie could return to his former greatness and not spend the rest of his life trying to hit the top 40, and I was glad when he did. And while I generally oppose authors who rewrite their novels in new editions, I have no qualms about composers imagining new versions of music; this is done all the time.
But here is the difference: at one time, preservationists devoted great effort to restoring old films (like Greed and Touch of Evil) to versions that followed the best notes created by the films’ directors. Bowie claimed in the years following the release of NLMD that he wrote the songs and recorded the vocals and then basically checked out of the process.
In this version of the tale he is essentially Orson Welles, waiting with trepidation to see what kind of mess the money men would make of his masterpiece. But there is reason to think he was more involved than he later claimed, and there is certainly great reason to think that he encouraged and supported the final product and the efforts of the musicians who worked on it.
Furthermore, in the case of this new record, unlike the restoration of Touch of Evil, we’re not getting anything closer to the artist’s genuine vision; in fact, the new album will be further from genuine Bowie. There is no reason to think, for example, that if he were alive today he would want to replace the album’s Mickey Roarke rap with a Laurie Anderson whisper.
Someone somewhere may like it better, but this isn’t anything like restoring Bowie’s vision. His vision is the album we all bought in 1987. He never imagined anything different.
The real problem with the old version of the album today, I think, is that it sounds too of-its-time. But that was the vision back then. David Bowie recorded a 1980s pop album that he hoped would propel a stadium tour. Bowie’s albums generally age well; this one sounds dated. But that’s what it is.
And I feel a little bad for one Erdal Kızılçay, who was so involved with the record thirty years ago and probably thought it would make his reputation for decades to come.
“It’s like 80 percent me,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “I’m playing bass. I’m singing background vocals. I’m playing guitar. I’m playing acoustic guitar, keyboards, viola, trombone, trumpet, everything. And I had to arrange them and put some harmonies and he loved it. He really loved it. He was so proud of that album. That’s why he called me his ‘Invincible Turk.’ He praised it until the minute the reviews came in. Then he said, ‘It wasn’t me. It was the other people on the record.’ ”
Sometimes things don’t work out, and everyone looks for someone to blame.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.
Photograph: detail from the Never Let Me Down LP from 1987.