The notion that life is what happens while you’re making other plans would apply to Rhino’s new David Bowie compilation, Who Can I Be Now? 1974–1976, an exquisitely packaged 13-LP/12-CD box set that sounds as good as it looks. After retiring his Ziggy Stardust persona and dismantling the Spiders from Mars, Bowie had a head full of ideas, but complications abounded. The second leg of a 1974 tour drew controversy as Bowie trotted out some as-yet-unreleased music that sounded more like Soul Train than glam rock, and the album he began that year was shelved before getting reworked. The rights to a musical based on the novel 1984 were denied by George Orwell’s widow, and plans to provide the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth were dashed. A novel as surreal as it was autobiographical was started…but never published.
On a personal level, too, these were difficult years, with a cocaine addiction spiraling out of control and Bowie’s first extended stay in America leaving a bad taste in his mouth. So when he relocated to Switzerland in 1976, did he have anything to show for such a difficult period personally and artistically? Actually, Who Can I Be Now? reveals an artist with a talent for improvising whenever plans are derailed. The wreckage from the cancelled 1984 musical gave us the second half of 1974’s Diamond Dogs. The delayed album eventually morphed into 1975’s Young Americans (and the original project, The Gouster, is included here). Also, Bowie’s role in The Man Who Fell to Earth helped create his persona for 1976’s Station to Station. David Live (1974) and its expanded 3-LP 2010 remix encapsulated Bowie’s glam phase while the 2-LP set Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 reflected his new funk direction. RE:Call 2 is devoted to singles from this mercurial period. In all, then, a good-sized body of work for a guy who, along with facing a serious self-destructive streak, was forced to reimagine many projects.
Just as Rhino’s Five Years chronicled Bowie’s transition from a mystic folkie to a glam rocker, this box set captures a period of transformation. On Bowie’s hardest-rocking album in this set, 1974’s Diamond Dogs, it’s fun hearing Bowie take on all the guitar parts, including the catchy riff that leads off “Rebel Rebel,” but overall one suspects Spiders from Mars would have made this a more lively outing. Also, at this point I wish Bowie would have canned the Alice Cooper obsession and sought out new terrain.
The mix of R&B, funk, and yes, even disco that followed was one of the biggest surprises in a consistently unpredictable career. Phase one of Bowie’s self-coined “plastic soul” period, however, was put on hold after an album’s worth of material was recorded—and wisely so, for even though the unveiling of The Gouster is one of the highlights of this set, Young Americans is a better album. One reason: the last-minute addition of “Fame,” which included a nasty guitar riff by Carlos Alomar, guest vocals by John Lennon, and acerbic lyrics by Bowie about the entertainment industry.
Station to Station continues in the same funk/disco vein as Young Americans, but it’s more experimental, with thickly-layered sound and more open-ended song structures. On the two most adventurous songs, the title track and “Stay,” art rock meets progressive rock…and wouldn’t sound out of place in a dance club. The leadoff single, “Golden Years,” is as catchy as it is strange. The cover of “Wild is the Wind” is mysterious and haunting, a beautiful ending to one of Bowie’s best albums. Here the less image-obsessed Bowie seems to immerse himself more deeply in the music and treat the studio as an instrument, a trend that continued on Low and Heroes, which both devoted considerable wax to instrumental music. Initially those albums and the equally quirky Lodger may have decreased Bowie’s market share, but along with Station to Station they ultimately played an essential role in sealing his iconic status.
So Who Can I Be Now? tells a good story, one where the main character triumphs over adversity and becomes reinspired. And visually the set is a stunner, with impeccably reproduced album covers and thoughtful new ones. The hardback book that accompanies the box set is gorgeous, and sonically the vinyl impresses with its clarity and detail. Comparing Harry Maslin’s remix of “Wild is the Wind” with the original (on the newer mix, some fake-sounding reverb is removed from Bowie’s voice, giving him much more presence) confirms the considered approach he took to his 2010 version of Station to Station.
Of the two live albums, I prefer Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, where the band is on fire, especially on the first half of the LP. Everyone is so energized on the opening cut, “Station to Station,” that art/prog rock starts sounding like straight-up ballsy rock and roll. “Suffragette City” keeps the adrenaline flowing, and on “Fame” and “Stay” a crack band, led by a consummate front man, brings the funk. A good live album makes you jealous, and I envy every person who was in the room that evening.