I would have bet money that this mammoth David Bowie box—the follow-up to last fall’s equally mammoth Five Years (1969–1973)—would be called Golden Years. That title seemed perfect as it would have continued the “years” theme as well as the practice of naming the set for one of its most celebrated songs. Plus, 1974 to 1976 were indeed golden years for Bowie. That’s when he delivered his first Top 10 hits: the chart-topping “Fame” and “Golden Years” itself.
Still, Who Can I Be Now? (the name of a 1974 song that didn’t appear on record until the 1990s) isn’t a bad title, because the period it covers finds Bowie throwing off his Ziggy Stardust mask and reinventing himself more than once. The package includes his three studio and two live records from the period plus the previously unreleased studio LP that Bowie made in 1974 and a CD of single versions and non-album B sides. All of the previously released recordings have been remastered, and two of the albums are included in both original and alternate mixes.
Let’s take a closer look at the 12 CDs in this box, which comes with a 128-page hardcover book that includes a conversation between Bowie and William Burroughs, essays and concert reviews, liner notes for every album, and a ton of great photos.
Diamond Dogs. The oldest album in the collection, Diamond Dogs finds Bowie rocking as hard as he did on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, albeit not as successfully. He appears to be marking time here, not sure of his next move, and tracks like “1984” seem tedious and formulaic. Still, this set sounds stronger as time goes by. The title cut and “Rebel Rebel” rank among Bowie’s more solidly constructed rockers and his singing on “Sweet Thing” is compelling.
David Live. The box devotes four CDs to Bowie’s first concert album—two each for the original record and a 2005 remix that doesn’t seem all that different to my ears. As for the music on these disks, which was recorded at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater, it’s uneven, with some major pleasures mingled with baby steps toward the R&B-spiced sound that would develop more fully on Young Americans. Bowie’s version of his own “All the Young Dudes” gives the Mott the Hoople hit version a run for its money, and he also delivers strong readings of such tracks as “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” and “Space Oddity.” David Sanborn and Richard Grando, on alto and baritone saxes, do a lot to energize the proceedings throughout.
The Gouster. Though billed as a previously unreleased album, this seven-track record offers material that has surfaced elsewhere. Four of the tracks appear on Young Americans, albeit with different mixes or versions, and “John, I’m Only Dancing” shows up in a few places. The album will interest major fans but contains no revelations or must-haves, at least not for anyone who owns the rest of this box.
Young Americans. This R&B-inflected collection is where Bowie really starts to answer the “Who Can I Be Now?” question. Featuring backup vocals by Luther Vandross, it opens with the beautifully sung title cut, which contains such lyrics as, “Do you remember your President Nixon? / Do you remember the bills you have to pay? / Or even yesterday?” Also here: the first-rate funk excursions of “Fame” and “Fascination” and a likable cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe.”
Station to Station. Like David Live, this album appears in both original and remixed versions. The remix punches up the sound a bit but seems less than essential; the diverse, adventurous music is, however. Here’s where Bowie fully finds his footing, delivering one tightly constructed, self-assured performance after another. The epic title cut spans more than 10 minutes and three of the other five tracks clock in at more than six minutes each, but the intensity rarely fades. “Golden Years” and “TVC15” are funk masterpieces and “Wild Is the Wind” is a vocal tour de force.
Live Nassau Coliseum. Previously released as part of an expanded version of Station to Station, this two-CD, 15-track 1976 Long Island concert outshines David Live with a better recording and better material. The program includes such early standouts as “Suffragette City,” “Five Years,” “Diamond Dogs,” “and “Changes,” as well as readings of four of the six songs from Station to Station.
Re:Call 2. Thirteen remastered singles and B sides fill this final disk. Some of the tracks are merely album cuts that have been shortened for radio use, and everything here can be found elsewhere, often in nearly identical versions. So this is for serious fans only, but I suppose anyone who opts for a box this big isn’t just fooling around.
Moreover, even some casual fans might turn serious after listening to this anthology. As noted above, it has its rough spots. But particularly on Young Americans, Station to Station, Live Nassau Coliseum, and portions of Diamond Dogs, it reminds us of just how much we lost when Bowie died.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary.