Every year like clockwork, since 2015, there’s been a deep dive box set, highlighting each period of David Bowie’s remarkable career. Rightly so, Five Years: 1969-1973, Who Can I Be Now?: 1974-1976 and A New Career In A New Town: 1977-1982 topped year-end critics lists. But the highlights of each were the hidden gems. The lost soul album The Gouster, and Tony Visconti’s magical remix of 1979’s Lodger were everything fans had hoped they’d be, and made the box sets worth every penny.
This year’s box, Loving The Alien: 1983-1988, delves into the period when Bowie became an international pop superstar, when he had, in some ways, gotten more than he’d bargained for when he’d teamed up with Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance to “make some hits.”
The 125-track collection has actually aged remarkably well, especially when listened to together, in context. But the real highlight is a re-recording of Bowie’s much-maligned 1987 album Never Let Me Down. Although a hit at the time, and an album that Bowie toured behind on his epic Glass Spider tour, it’s an album that’s never sat easily amongst Bowie’s largely timeless catalog.
That’s what makes Never Let Me Down (2018) so special. It re-imagines a batch of great songs and vocal performances by Bowie that had been marred by late-80s production techniques.
Producer Mario McNulty and longtime Bowie collaborator, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, tell Rock Cellar the story.
Reeves Gabrels: Through the years, David would bring up redoing the record or redoing the songs. And there was a point even in Tin Machine where he was like, “Oh, we could go back and redo some of those songs.” We hadn’t become Tin Machine yet, he and I were just writing, we were using our own studios to do songwriting demos, and we weren’t at a loss for material, because we were pretty much writing a song a day. But I wasn’t into it. So it disappeared, because if anything, we had too much material for Tin Machine. And then it came up again when he and I were talking about Earthling, but before we actually did any recording. And then strangely enough, for Earthling, we recorded two Tin Machine songs.
Mario McNulty: They’d needed a bonus track for iSelect, and said, “Why don’t you do a new song?” I don’t think he was in the mood to rehearse a band and all that and get it going. I can’t speak for him, so I don’t know exactly, but I think that was the case. So he just called me one morning, and I’m in bed, because he called me early. And he says, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Immediately, David’s voice, you wake up! So I went over to his house. And he said, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” I remember sitting on his living room floor with a laptop, taking notes, just hanging out, “I wanna do this do this, get rid of this, I wanna put drums on this, I wanna put strings on this, all right here’s what we are gonna do with this arrangement, do that, move that, move that, I want that bit, cut that loop. Okay! When can we do it?” So it was really, really beneficial to have seen him be so fearless with his own recording. That’s not something that I think a lot of people can do. I just thought, “This is one of the things that makes him so amazing.” He was fearless. “Yeah, go ahead, yeah, get rid of that, that sounds like shit doesn’t it? Get rid of that! Now, play it for me.” That really definitely imprinted in my head. “Wow, this is kind of astonishing, to just take this thing apart like this. He doesn’t really give a shit.”
It’s his; he can do what he wants with it. He doesn’t care. The point is that he cut the track up to where he was feeling it was in the right arrangement and then simply said, “Alright, great, call Sterling.” So I feel really lucky that I went through all that. And I used that, absolutely, as a blueprint for this. Of course, I had to make the decisions on my own.
But when we did the 2008 “Time Will Crawl,” the person we called was the person who was there then, and who is still here: Sterling Campbell, the drummer. He’s the one common musician who was perfect. But I had no hesitation when I got called to do this, because I knew David would have trusted me. And there was no approval process, really, so that felt pretty amazing. But I remember, most of all, he loved these songs. It was just the production — and that he hadn’t been on top of the process at the time — that drove him crazy.
Reeves Gabrels: Digital reverb has a lot to answer for. Everybody went overboard in the eighties, with the snare almost louder than the lead vocal. But that was the sound of that time. The one thing about this remaking of the record is that it’s not to the exclusion of the original version. If you’re somebody to whom the original version meant everything, which I’m sure it was for someone somewhere, we’re not erasing that from history. That album as it was mixed and recorded still stands. This is just a different version of those songs. So no one’s trying to erase it.
Mario McNulty: David even said at the time, “I wanna go in a more futuristic rock direction.” I mean, Tin Machine came right after he said that, so you could almost tell in some way — and this is my feeling, because I cant speak for him — but it’s as though he was moving in a new direction with the songs, artistically and creatively, in a dark way, too, but the sounds were kind of moving backwards, and it wasn’t matching up, and you can sense his frustration with it.
Reeves Gabrels: The way this happened was that Mario called me. I had met him a couple years ago, and we’d gotten along great from the start. I did some recording with him, I found him really easy to work with. So we went for a cup of coffee. According to his girlfriend and my wife, it ended up being a four-and-a-half-hour cup of coffee. Mario told me that David had left a suggested list of players and when they’d done “Time Will Crawl” in 2008, David and Mario had come up with a template, and the idea of Philip Glass influenced strings and clean drums and simplified instrumentation for it. That’s what they had talked about.
Mario McNulty: I really was trying to pretend that David was in the room. He was really good about saying no to certain things. Saying “I don’t think so, eh, that ain’t gonna cut it,” or whatever. Or “no fiddly bits there!” Or he might say something like, “Oh, that’s fucking great! What is that?” and it might be a wrong note! But whatever. So I tried to hear it that way, too, because I could remember vividly those moments with him.
Reeves Gabrels: Mario approached it like the songs were the demos. Imagine a singer/songwriter had recorded excellent vocals, and wanted to keep his vocals and his acoustic guitar and his harmonica, but wanted real drums and everything else. What Mario did was, he recorded bass and drums, then he sent me versions of the songs with Tim (Lefebvre on bass) and Sterling, David’s vocals, and David’s acoustic guitar. But I never listened to those, except to check out thirty seconds to hear what the bass and drums were doing, out of curiosity. David and I always worked like that. If David brought in a song idea, I always liked reacting to it fresh.
So I didn’t listen to the original version of Never Let Me Down, and I haven’t listened to it since 1987. On the way down from Troy to New York, the day that we were setting up at the studio, I put it on in the car and listened to it. And then I listened to the files that Mario had sent me. Therefore no bias. And that made me feel better about it. Because I didn’t like the idea of replacing the parts. There was thematic stuff, we kept bits of the melody, but when we changed it, we altered the resolution.
Like on “Zeroes,” there’s Peter Frampton’s sitar. We used that. It’s funny how by re-contextualizing the things, it makes a difference. The other thing that I think that Mario did on this album was that he treated it like casting a movie. He came up with a really good cast.
Mario McNulty: Tim and Sterling together steal the show. They’re an amazing rhythm section. It bums me out they never got to play with David together. But think about the band, this core band is Tim and Sterling and Reeves and David Torn. That core band is a ridiculous supergroup of those four people. I had that with David, too, and I was very, very lucky. We’d hang, we’d go to eat, we’d go to shows, whatever, go to his house, which he didn’t do, really. So I was very protective of David, and I think that came in handy here.
Reeves Gabrels: Mario was open to opinions. He’s not a dictatorial producer type. He seemed to welcome whatever insight that I had about what David had said to me about the record back in 1987 and 1988. I couldn’t leave that at the door, anyway. That was there. But Never Let Me Down was also not one of the Bowie records that I actually listened to a lot at all after ’87. Having seen the songs live on the Glass Spider tour — 10 or 20 shows, I think — that was good enough to burn a good chunk of them into my memory.
But one of the things I did was that Mario and I did a couple of days at his studio, just listening to things, before we went to Electric Lady. Then we did four days at Electric Lady. I did a couple days by myself, and then a day with David Torn, which was fun, because he and I got to play on a couple of tracks at the same time. That gave it an organic inter-reactive thing in the guitar department on those tracks.
Mario McNulty: I spent a lot of time getting the tracks ready, and then I built a click track, and I sent different versions to each member, whether it was Tim, Sterling, Reeves or Torn. And I’d say, “Alright, this is what I want you to do on this track.” For Sterling and Tim it wasn’t as specific, because they were basically replaying almost everything. For them I’d say, “Learn the key, learn the song, if you have ideas, great.”
Reeves Gabrels: I left Electric Lady after four days of recording, but I stuck around for a few days. So I was around if he needed the sounding board, and in a way I acted like an informed sounding board because I had that through-line and that history. It did come into play.
Mario McNulty: I actually, originally, had thought about re-sequencing the album, just to make it flow in a new way. But we knew that David had approved this sequence, so we just kept it. But “Day In Day Out” was one of those tracks that was kind of bright and positive, even though there’s this dark undercurrent in the lyrical content. As I was messing with the track I found real horns that they’d recorded, but had muted in the final mix. I thought, “Why didn’t they use these?” I thought, “Alright, maybe I can actually use that as a feature.” So I just distorted the shit out of them and made them cool.
Reeves Gabrels: It all made sense. Everybody involved knew David and loved him. Tim, who maybe was the one that had worked with him the shortest period of time, had worked with him during an intense time. And we all wanted to see David happy, so to speak. So it felt like when we were doing overdubs and David was going to be in tomorrow. He’d tell us what he thought. I mean, it wasn’t unusual for him to not be there while I was doing guitar overdubs.
Mario McNulty: They’d all spent enough time with David. In particular, Sterling and Reeves spent a lot of time with him. All of them did, but Reeves probably more than anybody. So they knew what David liked, and definitely knew what he didn’t like.
Reeves Gabrels: Our closeness most certainly figured in. One of the things about this occupation is that when I worked with David, we knew a lot more about each other outside of the studio than was necessary to get the job done. We were beyond a professional relationship, but not needing to call Human Resources.
Mario McNulty: Sterling knows David’s music better than anybody. And he really cares. I think I even said to him, thinking about the people that I was calling — Sterling, Reeves, Tim, David Torn — it’s as though “we all speak fluent Bowie.” And that’s only going to happen if you have had that experience of knowing him for that long and just knowing what his reactions usually are. Of course you’re never going to know. You’re not David. He’s one of a kind. But you have had the experience of thinking, “Eh, David wouldn’t like that,” or “David would love that.” You’re not always right, but you have a feeling about it.
Reeves Gabrels: What I didn’t realize was that Mario had seen me do the meat-and-potatoes guitar thing. I’m certainly more raucous than David Torn is. I’m more of a bull in a china shop sometimes, so that was there. And there’s a gentleness, I find, in Torn’s playing that I don’t have. But we both have this sort of more avant-garde sense of harmony. But I think I’m more aggressive. Actually, Torn and I said to each other at one point, “If the singer was still alive this would be an awesome band.” There were a lot of times in the process, even before I got to the studio, like when I was driving down in the car listening to the ‘87 version, where I thought, “He’s just fucking with me. This is David’s idea of a joke from beyond the grave.” Because if anything, Tin Machine was a reaction to this record, or to that era, and therefore this record best typified how wrong things had gone sonically, maybe, for David. Unfortunately for the album, it was the era when David did a Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner.
It got tarred with that brush, whereas if he had been living less of a pop star life and more of a degenerate rock star life, people might have thought differently of the music. The projection that people put on you does inform the way people hear what you do.
Mario McNulty: There are moments where I think, “Okay, I could have done this or that.” But I don’t have any guitar regrets. What we accomplished, I was happy with. And I think it was appropriate. Look, David was the king of decision making. Much better than anyone I’ve ever experienced in the studio. He was really good about saying, “Alright, it’s done. Don’t worry about it, it’s done. Now fuck off and forget about it. And don’t listen to it.” So I tried to keep that in mind, always.
Reeves Gabrels: The recording world that Mario created around the songs for us was like, we could try anything. He ultimately — it was comforting, just being the guitar player on the sessions — even though I couldn’t keep my mouth shut — not thinking about the production of it. You knew that he had final say. He was the most objective person in the room, and you knew that he would save you from yourself. In fact, I am startled at how loud my guitar solo is on “Beat of Your Drum.”
But I didn’t complain. There were only two things that David ever told me the whole time that we were — the 14 years or so that I worked with him. “Turn up.” That was one. The other one was in the early days in Tin Machine, when I was trying to keep the band glued together, and I was quoting my own solos from the record, and he said, “Don’t play the solos so much like the record.”
Mario McNulty: I did agonize with it for a while. But I ended up thinking, “I’m going to set up a world around David. I really don’t want to get rid of anything that is a lead vocal from David.” That, to me, I thought, was too much. And I think all of his backing vocals are on the album, except for a few that I’ve rearranged and moved around. And I moved a few harmonies, and doubled some stuff. But overall there’s lot less. Look, once these tracks were kind of coming into focus, it really helped to be thinking about David being so free, imagining him sitting on the couch and saying, “Yeah, it’s all right, get rid of it!” That was especially true for “Glass Spider,” which took a little time for me to figure out how to make it work. But after all that effort, now it isn’t silly. It’s not cheesy. It doesn’t sound like it’s Labyrinth.
Reeves Gabrels: Everyone involved has a stylistic thumbprint. Like always with David, our personalities were welcome. We wanted it to be timeless. But I think the new record is more about the songs. Some of the production of it is comparatively more minimal.
Mario McNulty: “Zeroes” immediately felt like a classic track from a long time ago. Once it was stripped bare, it felt timeless. I knew “Never Let Me Down” had been a single, and it could have been again. And “Day In and Day Out” could have been a single, but I wasn’t really feeling that so much. And “Time Will Crawl” had already been on the compilation. But “Zeroes” was the first one where I thought, “This is a classic Bowie track!” Everything I was doing, I thought, was complimenting that, but even at the core elements of David and his guitar, it was already classic. It felt like we couldn’t fuck it up, which was amazing.
Reeves Gabrels: We would have kept anything that served the songs, and we did in a few places, in fact. The downside was that a lot of the effects were printed on the tracks, so that meant that everything had ‘80s chorus and reverb on it. The thing that I kept telling myself when I was concerned about it being — sometimes, this is going to sound weird, but the thought went through my head — did it sound enough like the original sometimes? And then I thought, “well, that’s not what you’re here to do.” We’re not wiping the masters of the original. The original is there and available and nicely remastered. For anybody who wants that, they can listen to that version.
Mario McNulty: I really hope that maybe I could still do the rest of the songs — the bonus tracks and singles from that period — at some point, because there were some cool tracks. I mean, “Too Dizzy,” that’s not gonna happen. But “Julie,” “Girls?” Those might happen. I really hope so.
Reeves Gabrels: There’s a little static in the air, that like, “Oh, this is a money grab!” If they only knew. I mean, this project actually cost me money! But I’d do it again, of course, in a second.