David Bowie

Sound + Vision

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In 1989, not all major artists had their catalog available on CD, and one of the most notable absences was David Bowie. When the format was in its infancy, RCA had issued several of his classics, but those pressings were notoriously awful and were pulled from the market in 1985 when Bowie acquired the rights to the recordings. Sharp businessman that he is, he took the catalog to market, and after an intense bidding war, he chose to reissue his classic work through Rykodisc, an independent CD-only label that had earned acclaim for its work with Frank Zappa's catalog. Instead of dumping all the discs on the market at once, the titles were slowly rolled out, beginning with a series-encompassing Sound + Vision, a three-CD/one-CD-ROM box set released to great fanfare in the fall of 1989. At the time, box sets were all the rage, following the template of Bob Dylan's Biograph -- an exhaustive career overview that offered all the basics, peppered with some revealing rarities. Upon its release, Sound + Vision was reviewed as if it belonged to this tradition, when it really inverted the formula, offering a series, not career, overview by showcasing alternate versions and rarities, along with album tracks, with a few familiar hits tossed in here and there to provide context. This was a tantalizing way to begin a reissue campaign, and it did receive gushing reviews -- the CD-era publication Rock & Roll Disc breathlessly claimed "Suffice to say that the sound quality will give your ears an orgasm" -- but once the reissue series completed and once Ryko lost the rights to the catalog, Sound + Vision looked more like a curiosity, an artifact of its time, than a major statement.

Much of the problem stems from its design -- it was intended to show off the sound quality, which was a marked improvement over the RCA discs, and to show the depth and breadth of rarities within the vaults. It was not a career-capper; it was a teaser. It was enticing upon its release, and some of it remains so. There's a clutch of early rarities that lead off the set -- the original demo of "Space Oddity," alternate single versions of "The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "The Prettiest Star" -- that are quite good, alternate takes on "John I'm Only Dancing" and "Rebel Rebel" that manage to be notably different without changing the feel, excellent outtakes from Diamond Dogs (a medley of "1984/Dodo"), Station to Station (a glittery, lush cover of Springsteen's "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"), and Young Americans (the superb "After Today," a disco-rock song that should have been on the album and is hands down the best rarity here). These suggested the great unearthed treasures that lay ahead, and they remain necessary additions to any serious Bowie collection, particularly because they never showed up on another disc. If they were placed in a better forum, they would function like the rarities on either Biograph or Eric Clapton's Crossroads -- rarities that helped fill in the details of an artist's story -- but since they're in a set that's intended to showcase what the Ryko series would do, not what Bowie had done, they're the main attraction instead of feeding into the greater narrative. And that narrative, while certainly capturing the sometimes bewildering twists and turns in Bowie's career, is an alternate-universe narrative, lacking defining songs, from "Starman" to "Golden Years," and presenting many familiar songs in odd, not particularly interesting variations (a live 1974 version of "Suffragette City," a German version of "Heroes," presented in a 1989 remix). Though it succeeds in conveying Bowie's ever-changing moods, it lacks the substance and sense of a great box set, which this surely could have been. Instead, it's an interesting artifact of the early days of CDs, right down to its overly elaborate packaging, and only those who want to relive that time, or need those rarities, will need this in their collection.

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