Music journalists and fans cluck their tongues at Bowie’s Never Let Me Down, but one writer outwardly adores it (and secretly, so did Bowie before the critics got to him).
A small sample of some of my greatest second-hand purchases over the last year:
The Clash’s Sandinista! (3-disc vinyl set in boxed sleeve with the fanzine insert)
Found at a Long Beach yard sale. Mother selling her away-at-college son’s memories.
Mint condition. Purchase price: $1. Discogs value: $84.27
*Henry Rollins’s Hallucinations Of Grandeur (First edition, signed by author)
Found at the Long Beach Flea Market for $5, talked down from $10.
Very good condition. Purchase price: $5 / Abebooks price: $210
David Bowie’s Loving the Alien (1983–1988) (15-disc vinyl box set)
Found at a Long Beach estate sale in the tony Belmont Heights neighborhood.
Mint condition. Purchase price $10. Discogs value: $110.38
Of the three items listed above, the Bowie box set excited me the most. The item looked brand new -- it smelled brand new. I doubt the recently deceased even got a chance to listen to any more than three of the fifteen records.
But what was more exciting was that I had never heard of the collection -- its existence was as thrilling as the knowledge of the bargain I was about to reap. Immediately after Bowie died, his estate flooded the market with far too much repackaged and remastered product. Those of us still mourning found it difficult to keep up with the special editions and limited offers of inessential material. Especially after the kidney punch Blackstar packed.
That said, I may have taken notice of this collection last year when it was released if I knew “Bowie’s reimagining” of Never Let Me Down was buried in it — **one of my top five all time Bowie LPs. I’ll explain.
Never Let Me Down has solid material on it. All of side one still stands strong -- Bowie called it his “return to rock.” He wouldn’t put out an album as powerful until The Next Day in 2013.
I can admit that side two starts off shaky. “Glass Spider” is a forced Labyrinth-esque epic that tries to bind the theatrical themes Bowie based the album’s tour on. And the rap by Mickey Rourke? I’ll be honest: Rourke’s mumblings never sounded right to me, but his one-take vocal wasn’t bad enough to completely ruin the album. Or was it?
According to the anecdote Bowie shared during the 1987 Glass Spider World Tour press conference, Rourke forced himself upon the song. Bowie said that Rourke bumped into him in London while filming A Prayer for the Dying. (A psychological thriller about a former IRA member trying to escape his past.) Apparently, Rourke took to the rock god like Sable Starr, and tagged along with Bowie and his entourage around town whenever he wasn’t on set.
Months later when filming wrapped, and Rourke found out his new friend was in Manhattan at The Power Station, wrapping up Never Let Me Down’s final sessions, the actor ambushed the singer. This is the meeting where Bowie says Rourke insisted on singing on the album.
There might be some truth to Bowie’s version, but from everything on public record about Rourke in 1987, it’s more likely that the actor was bursting at the seams on coke, and thought it would be a great idea to pop in unannounced and say hello to his new pal in the studio. From there, it’s not hard to picture Rourke locking himself into the recording booth, and demanding that he’s not leaving “until I sing on one of David’s songs.”
Bowie was just too much of a gentleman to reveal the details of the session.
But “Worst Bowie album ever?” I suggest you try and listen to the entirety of Tonight in one sitting. “Blue Jean” is a fun romp, but it’s about 22 minutes in, and you still have to get through an overworked cover of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.”
Still, ask any serious music fan what their least favorite Bowie LP is, and everyone’s default answer is always Never Let Me Down. Try it -- ask someone who possesses some knowledge of Bowie. This parlor trick never fails to amuse.
So why is Never Let Me Down universally hated? I believe music journalists are to blame. They criticized the drum machines and synthetic horns, but it was a record of its time. Most mainstream pop artists were relying on 808s and keyboards during the mid-‘80s. It’s like saying, “The Clash sound like a Sex Pistols rip-off band because Mick Jones uses the same Gibson Les Paul Steve Jones plays.”
And for someone like Bowie who was known for embracing new technology, it was no surprise that Never Let Me Down might have incorporated a few new tricks the up-and-comers were using?
Erdal Kizilçay, the multi-instrumentalist who helped Bowie record the Never Let Me Down’s demos says Bowie loved the album too.
“[Bowie] really loved it. He was so proud of that album,” Kizilçay told Rolling Stone in 2018. “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.'”
The “other people” on that record were Carlos Alomar, Peter Frampton, bassist Carmine Rojas, and Kizilçay. Those four musicians, along with Bowie, met up in Queen’s Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in mid-’86 to record Bowie’s next LP, but this session was different from previous sessions.
Kizilçay and Carlos Alomar say that Bowie walked into Mountain Studios with cassettes of demos he had already shaped. There was no “jamming” or forming songs on the fly. Bowie asked them, along with Rojas and Frampton to finish the songs he had already written.
While Bowie’s previous albums consisted of songs born from long studio experimentations, Never Let Me Down, was already written before anyone stepped foot in the studio. Bowie presented the musicians with a series of finished demos he wanted them to recreate. Apparently, he fell in love with the songs he wrote with Iggy Pop while the two enjoyed a three-month ski vacation in Switzerland.
“We had to stop everything we were doing and jump into [the demos], which is never the best way to make any sort of album,” Alomar told Rolling Stone. “At one point, I heard one of his demos and was like, ‘Why do you have someone imitating me and then you want me to imitate what they did?'”
When Never Let Me Down was finally released in the spring of ‘87, it sounded fresh, but familiar. I knew it wasn’t groundbreaking like his Berlin trilogy or Aladdin Sane, but it was fun to listen to, plus it was a hell of a lot better than Tonight. And at a time when you couldn’t turn on a television or radio without hearing a song off The Joshua Tree, “Day-In, Day-Out” was a welcomed relief.
But the damage was already done — the reviews were in and Never Let Me Down was considered Billboard poison. The only thing Bowie could do was finish the 86-date, Glass Spider World Tour (I went and bought the t-shirt) that inspired the album, and never talk of the album again. Unless he was bashing it like he did in the ‘90s.
In 1995, Bowie doubled down and proclaimed, “My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.”
Leave it to your heroes to disappoint you the most. It’s unfortunate Bowie let public opinion sway him — let him second guess himself. Was Never Let Me Down that bad a Bowie record?
After all, I defended Never Let Me Down, when everyone else said, “Are you joking? Low is clearly Bowie’s greatest moment!” For Bowie to turn on an album that meant so much to me, and to be so glib about it… It made me question my allegiance for a minute.
But is Never Let Me Down 2.0 sacrilege? No, it’s rather benign. It sounds like a generic remix you’d hear from any minimalist DJ from Germany. The synthetic strings are gone (which never really bothered me), and Laurie Anderson redid Mickey Rourke’s rap. (I condeed to the fact that Anderson’s deadpan drawl, makes all the difference on side two, but that’s it.)
Does the updated version of Never Let Me Down replace the old version?
No. It’s not better, and it’s not worse, it’s just different. It might have even taken the songs back to their primal demo form.
Producer Mario McNulty, who worked on a few projects with Bowie during the ‘90s, took it upon himself (along with Sterling Campbell, Reeves Gabrels, David Torn and Tim Lefebvre — none of whom played on the original Never Let Me Down tracks) to give the album the update he felt it needed.
It’ll be interesting to see if reimagined albums become a new way for media conglomerates to exploit their dead artists. We’re already looking at a looming Amy Winehouse hologram tour. How many years before Bowie comes back as Ziggy to headline Glastonbury? Tupac played Coachella 16 years after he died. What’s the tasteful amount of time to wait before the estate unleashes Bowie through the lens of an Epson projector?
* * *
*Funny story about the Rollins book. When I spotted it, baking in the scorching Southern California sun amongst 10 or 15 other paperbacks on a folding card table, I knew its seller didn’t know what he had on his hands.
“How much for this book?” I asked a group of people sitting on beach chairs talking amongst themselves. I knew one of them had to be in charge of the stall. I held up the warm tome and wagged it around a bit to get their attention.
“Ten dollars,” the man in charge answered, getting up from his chair, next to his wife who added. “That book was written by Henry Rollins… from Black Flag.”
“Really?,” I asked asked her. “The singer?”
“Check out the front page -- that was Henry’s old P.O. Box,” the man continued, calling him Henry as if they were old pals and Hank gave the book to him himself.
“Ten? Huh... “ I trailed off, and then with a laissez faire demeanor, I said, “It’s too bad it’s not on his own imprint.”
I knew the book predated the existence of Rollins’ own publishing company, and I also knew these two frauds didn’t know their business. When I found a ticket stub from Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach under lock and key on another one of their display tables, I knew these two 50-somethings were fakes. They may have hovered around the local music scene, but they never were never part of it.
“Is that a Fender’s Ballroom ticket?,” I asked the man’s wife as I carefully placed the book back on the card table with its friends.
“Yep, and check out who headlined that night -- The Muffs,” she said.
I noticed, but I wanted to hear what she was about to say next...
“Did you hear that Kim Shattuck just died? ALS,” she said, confirming what I thought. She was trying to capitalize on Kim’s death by selling an old Muffs ticket stub for $100
I walk away from their booth, and then before I could take two steps, the woman barked out, “Five dollars.”
* * *
**My Top 5 All-Time Favorite Bowie LPs
This list does not include compilations, “Best Ofs,” or of course, Tin Machine.
1. Station to Station
2. Young Americans
3. Hunky Dory
4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
5. Never Let Me Down
Alarcon co-founded outsideleft with lamontpaul in 2004. His work for o/l has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, oh and probably the fbi too.