Just for the record: Must-get box set of David Bowie singles

Lifestyle

Just for the record: Must-get box set of David Bowie singles

A fortnightly review of music on vinyl

Andrew Donaldson


The year, it would seem, belongs to David Bowie. Three years after his death, the Thin White Duke continues to cast a long shadow over the culture, especially in the UK. In May, the contemporary composer Philip Glass and the London Contemporary Orchestra will be performing Glass’s Bowie Symphonies, a radical reimagining of the Low, Heroes and Lodger albums, the artist’s classic “Berlin trilogy”, at the South Bank in London.
Elsewhere, the V&A Museum has enlisted actor Gary Oldman to narrate David Bowie Is …, the new interactive app that accompanies the museum’s recent exhibition of the same name. It was the most visited show in the museum’s history. The app allows fans to explore the exhibition’s more than 500 Bowie costumes, videos, lyrics, photographs and other artworks.
More to our liking, however, is the forthcoming Bowie box set of seven-singles, Spying Through a Keyhole (Parlophone), which is being released to mark the 50th anniversary of Bowie’s second, self-titled 1969 album, which was later reissued using the name of its lead track, Space Oddity.
Spying Through a Keyhole has nine previously unreleased demos, including early versions of In the Heat of the Morning and London Bye, Ta-Ta, as well as more obscure songs Mother Grey and Love All Around and what’s believed to be the first ever recorded demo of Space Oddity.
The official Bowie website warns that the audio quality of these early demos may be a bit disappointing. “This is partly due to David’s enthusiastic strumming hitting the red on a couple of the tracks, along with the limitations of the original recording equipment and tape degradation. However, the historical importance of these songs and the fact that the selections are from an archive of tracks cleared for release by Bowie, overrides this shortcoming.”
Another new historical Bowie document is Glastonbury 2000 (Parlophone), a triple album documenting his performance at the festival that year. The concert was originally recorded for broadcast by the BBC, so audiophiles should not expect too much. In fact, none of the major live albums Bowie released in his lifetime – 1974’s David Live, 1978’s Stage, and the soundtrack to the 1982 concert movie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (all Parlophone) – sounded all that fantastic.
Far better to get the original studio albums. They’ve all been reissued by RCA Victor and Parlophone (depending on whether you’re after a US or UK edition) and, though pricey, still sound terrific. The following, in chronological order, are more or less indispensible: The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Station to Station (1976), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980). Of the rest, both Diamond Dogs (1974) and Young Americans (1975) contain killer tracks but are also stuffed with filler.
I wasn’t too excited by his late-career releases, although Heathen (2002), Reality (2003), The Next Day (2013) and his last album, Blackstar (2016) did offer glimpses of that early brilliance.
If, however, you only have space for one Bowie album in your collection, it’s Ziggy Stardust. Undoubtedly.
BURIED TREASURE
Records by the late Texan singer-songwriter Blaze Foley are as rare as hen’s teeth – and that’s fairly understandable when you consider the arc of his recording career. The master tapes of what would have been his first studio album were confiscated by the US Drug Enforcement Agency when Foley’s executive producer was caught in a drugs bust. The master copies for a second album were stolen along with Foley’s other possessions from the station wagon he was living in.
A third and final studio album, Wanted More Dead Than Alive, also disappeared for many years but was finally posthumously released on CD by an obscure independent label, Waddell Hollow Records, in 2005 after one of the musicians who’d worked on the album discovered tapes of the recording sessions while cleaning out his car. Considering Foley was shot dead in February 1989 by the son of a drinking buddy – he had accused the son of stealing his father’s military pension and welfare cheques – one can only suppose it is a rare occasion when Texan musicians do eventually clean their cars.
Foley was born Michael David Fuller in Arkansas on December 18 1949, but was raised in Texas where he performed in a gospel band, the Singing Fuller Family, with his mother and siblings. Striking out on his own as a teenager, he performed in bars and clubs across the US as “Deputy Dawg” and then as Blaze Foley, a name inspired by his admiration for the pioneering country musician, Red Foley. Touring the bar circuit came with its own hassles. The drinking put paid to a lot of things: a promising career, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. But it also introduced him to Townes van Zandt, and the legendary troubadour-songwriter would have a great influence over what remained of Foley’s short life. Van Zandt would later claim that Foley’s guitar was so often in pawnshops that he’d have to borrow his instrument to perform at whatever rare gig he’d managed to secure. According to legend, Foley’s guitar was once again in hock when he died and, after realising the pawn ticket was in the pocket of the suit Foley had been buried in, Van Zandt and a few friends dug up his grave to get the ticket to redeem the guitar. It’s a story that Van Zandt regularly told until his own death on New Year’s Day, 1997. Whatever the truth of the matter, Van Zandt did go on to write one of his late-career masterpieces, Marie, on Foley’s guitar. That song is featured on the stunning new soundtrack album for Blaze (Light in the Attic Records), the “Gonzo Indie Country-Western Opera” film written and directed by Ethan Hawke. It’s an original cast recording, so the songs are covers performed by Ben Dickey, the folksinger and actor who portrays Foley in the film, and guitarist Charlie Sexton, who plays Van Zandt. Be that as it may, the album – a handsome vinyl package – serves as a neat introduction to Foley’s work.
Other artists have also covered his songs. Merle Haggard recorded his If I Could Only Fly as the title track of his 2000 album (Anti), Lyle Lovett covered his Election Day for his 2003 album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate (Lost Highway), and John Prine recorded Foley’s Clay Pigeons for his 2005 Grammy Award-winning album, Fair and Square (Oh Boy Records).
In 1990, Foley’s musician friends started a recording project, In Tribute and Loving Memory, to keep his legacy alive. Originally the project was only going to be one album but quickly mushroomed with many, many artists wanting to become a part of it in some way. They include Van Zandt, Calvin Russell, Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Timbuk 3 and many more. So far, only one album, released on CD by Deep South Productions, has emerged. Needless to say, it’s another extremely rare album.
As time passed, a number of Foley’s demos, concert and home recordings have been released on small labels here and there. A number of them have made it onto vinyl, and could even be reissued thanks to the critical acclaim the Hawke movie has received. Probably the best of these is Cold, Cold World (Lost Art Records), a collection of demos recorded with a band, The Beaver Valley Boys, and The Dawg Years (Fat Possum Records), a rather charming set of early home recordings.
Things are also looking up for Van Zandt, who has a new posthumous album out in March, Sky Blue (TVZ Records/Fat Possum Records). It features mainly early raw and previously unheard takes of Van Zandt classics Pancho & Lefty and Rex’s Blues, as well as covers of songs by Richard Dobson and Tom Paxton. The big draw here, though, is the inclusion of two previously unknown Townes tunes, All I Need and the title track. But more of that another time.

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.