ChangesNowBowie, a collection of nine mostly acoustic takes on a batch of largely underrated and relatively ignored tracks from David Bowie‘s catalogue (including one cover), was recorded for radio and broadcast by the BBC on his 50th birthday, on 8 January 1997. It was supposed to be released in physical formats on the 17 April 2020, on Record Store Day. With Record Store Day 2020 being postponed on account of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the album was instead released in digital format only, with the physical release moved to June.
The broadcast originally featured an interview with Bowie by Mary Ann Hobbs interspersed with specially recorded birthday messages and questions from the likes of Scott Walker, Damon Albarn, Bono, Robert Smith and many more. Alas, these messages have been removed in order to present these songs as a kind of Unplugged session, featuring some of the songs Bowie felt had been ignored throughout his career.
Unplugged sessions, unfortunately for everyone in the ’90s, were almost always terrible. They were the audible croaks of the rock genre as it died, plunging headlong into a sea of self-indulgence. And so it’s incredibly fitting that Bowie’s collection starts with the most famous ‘Unplugged’ song of all time: Bowie’s own The Man Who Sold The World. Of course, it was Nirvana‘s stark, terrifying take that people will remember, but Bowie here largely copies their arrangement for his own amusement. His voice, clear and haunting where Kurt Cobain’s is cracked and pained, is the only way to tell the versions apart. It’s a strong start.
Aladdin Sane’s inherent oriental flavour comes right to the fore when presented here in its stripped back form. Reeves Gabrels’ scratchy strumming and Gail Ann Dorsey’s velvety backing vocals are excellent, and highlight just how important the pair were to Bowie’s late ’90s renaissance. Gabrels’ take on Mike Garson’s piano solo, played here on a guitar synth, is (thankfully) more subdued and controlled than the original. It’s another track selection that has no right to work, but absolutely does.
None of Bowie’s versions of The Velvet Undergound’s White Light/White Heat ever got close to capturing the speed-addled, veins-popping-from-neck intensity of the original, but (unbelievably) this version may be the best he ever did. The fact that it works so well is a revelation, and it’s purely down to the arrangement. This is a largely drumless session, but the footstomp percussion more than makes up for it and the guitars – presumably that’s Gabrels on lead guitar – are both excellent.
Shopping For Girls, from Tin Machine II (when will we ever get a reissue?), sounds like the kind of haunted cowboy ballad Nick Cave once did so well. Bowie’s delivery is caught halfway between Cave’s cocked-eyebrow delivery and Phil Lynott’s storyteller sincerity. Lady Stardust, which by rights should be the star of the collection, is one of the lesser tracks, if only because of its pedestrian delivery. That was – and will always be – the problem with reinterpreting rock music as acoustic tracks: Some will work, some will absolutely offer nothing new. Obviously, it’s a track from Ziggy Stardust, so it’s fantastic regardless – it just seems like a missed opportunity.
There are no such qualms with The Supermen, originally from The Man Who Sold The World album. Dorsey’s rippling bass and Bowie’s powerful vocal are amongst the finest individual performances on the album – doing justice to the original and then some. TMWSTW has always been one of the most unfairly overlooked albums in Bowie’s catalogue, which is a shame. The two selections from that record on ChangesNowBowie indicate that it might have been time for a reevaluation of its standing as far back as 1997, and that Bowie was certainly fond of it.
Repetition – a haunting tale of domestic abuse from Bowie’s 1979 masterpiece Lodger – saw a lot of love in the late ’90s, appearing on many of Bowie’s setlists. The version here is springy, rubbery and every bit as harrowing as it’s intended to be. But the closing one-two of Andy Warhol and Quicksand are what you came for. The version of Andy Warhol presented here is incredible – and is arguably more dramatic and emotionally impactful than the original. Bowie’s smooth, muscular vocal is a delight, and Dorsey backs him up with equal power. Quicksand is spare, soothing and summery, and has a stoned, sunlight-through-the-window blissfulness that finishes the record on a bright note.
This is an official archive release, and must surely represent one of the last pieces in the collection that has yet to see the light of day. Bowie’s ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have all been comprehensively documented, reissued, remastered, box-setted, but his ’90s remains a largely untouched area (owing in no small part to the lack of quality unreleased material, and the estate’s unwillingness to go anywhere near Tin Machine). This release hopefully represents the first of a new swathe of releases that fully document the period. Outside, Earthling and Hours (not you, Black Tie White Noise) all deserve to be seen with new eyes, and heard with fresh ears.
ChangesNowBowie has absolutely no right to be as good as it is, especially with the daring song selection and languid arrangements. But much like the Bowie at Glastonbury 2000 collection, ChangesNowBowie is proof (if any were needed) that when he was committed to a project – and having fun – David Bowie was the greatest musical artist that Earth has ever seen.