David Bowie‘s five-decade career went through so many extreme highs and bizarre lows that pinpointing his single worst album may seem like a difficult task. To the singer himself, though, it was quite easy. “My nadir was Never Let Me Down,” he said in 1995. “It was such an awful album. … I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.”
The 1987 record, packed with cheesy drum machines and synths that would sound painfully dated just a couple of years after it hit shelves, failed to produce a single genuine hit in America and was ripped apart by critics when it came out. “It may well be the noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever,” Rolling Stone said at the time. The artist never played a single song from it live after wrapping a world tour in support of it and in 2008 was willing to include the track “Time Will Crawl” on the compilation iSelect only after he retrofitted it with a new, live drum track and modern instrumentation under the guidance of producer Mario McNulty. “Oh, to redo the rest of that album,” Bowie wrote in the liner notes.
That’s exactly what happened earlier this year when McNulty went into New York’s Electric Lady Studios with drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, guitarist David Torn and bassist Tim Lefebvre to remake the album completely, keeping little from the original besides Bowie’s vocal track.
Eighties hallmarks like snare drums that sounded like shotguns and tinny keyboard filigrees have now been replaced with collages of heavy guitar and swelling strings with arrangements by composer Nico Muhly. And where Mickey Rourke once rapped about a contract killer on “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love),” there is now Laurie Anderson softly speaking the lyrics. It’s not the first time such a project has been undertaken – Elvis Presley’s recordings have recently been retreated with Philharmonic orchestra and John Lennon’s “Real Love” was posthumously made into a Beatles song – but it’s one of rock’s most radical reconstructions by vastly improving a record that was once reviled. The new version will be included in the upcoming Bowie box set, Loving the Alien [1983 to 1988].
“I think the reason he wanted to redo Never Let Me Down was mostly because he really liked these songs a lot,” McNulty tells Rolling Stone. “He thought, ‘It’s a shame for me not to do those songs justice with the production in a way.'”
Such a project would have been unimaginable to Bowie back in 1986 when he entered Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to record the LP with a group of musicians that included Peter Frampton, guitarist Carlos Alomar, multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay and bassist Carmine Rojas. Three years earlier, he’d scored the biggest album of his career with Let’s Dance. The quickie follow-up, 1984’s Tonight, may sound like a dud now for reasons similar to Never Let Me Down, but he was still a superstar and the record went on to be certified platinum (“Blue Jean” was a Top 10 hit). In the years after Tonight, Bowie appeared in Labyrinth and duetted with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets.” The record that would become Never Let Me Down had a lot to live up to.
“David Bowie went from doing a smaller David Bowie to being a humongous David Bowie; an international David Bowie,” Alomar says now, reflecting on the time leading up to recording the album. “Once we started doing these gigantic stadium tours, his vision got even broader. The record companies wanted something a little poppier, like ‘Let’s Dance.’ They were constantly hitting us with that.”
But unlike the days when songs were born out of long studio jams, Bowie began the album with a series of finished demos he wanted the band to recreate. “We had to stop everything we were doing and jump into things, which is never the best way to make any sort of album,” says Alomar. “At one point, I heard one of his demos and was like, ‘Why do you have someone imitating me and then you want me to imitate what they did?'”
Kızılçay, however, played a crucial role in the process. “It’s like 80 percent me,” he says. “I’m playing bass. I’m singing background vocals. I’m playing guitar. I’m playing acoustic guitar, keyboards, viola, trombone, trumpet, everything. And I had to arrange them and put some harmonies and he loved it. He really loved it. He was so proud of that album. That’s why he called me his ‘Invincible Turk.’ He praised it until the minute the reviews came in. Then he said, ‘It wasn’t me. It was the other people on the record.'”
When Never Let Me Down came out in the spring of 1987, it peaked at Number 34 on Billboard’s albums chart, though it eventually went gold. Its singles, “Day-In Day-Out” and the title track, both stalled in the bottom of the Top 30. After his blockbusters earlier in the decade, he later called the record “a bitter disappointment.”
When McNulty first heard Never Let Me Down in the Nineties, he was not impressed. And when he started working with Bowie in the early 2000s around the Reality album, he remembers him saying even then that he wished he could redo it. Then Bowie began work on iSelect and zeroed in on “Time Will Crawl.”
“I remember going over to his house and he was kind of laughing about it a bit,” McNulty says. “‘You know the album, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ‘Well, check this out.’ And he outlined three ideas for the new version: He wanted a new arrangement, he wanted strings and he wanted real drums. He really did not like any of the electronic drums on the entire album. He would listen to it and just be like, ‘Ugh.’ I’d go to his office and work with him on it and it was very Philip Glass style. ‘Just do a variation on this and embellish it.’ He had a vision.”
After Bowie’s death, Parlophone A&R rep Nigel Reeve – going off an idea Bowie had given him to remake the full LP – reached out to McNulty with the prospect of reconfiguring the record’s other nine tracks. (“Too Dizzy,” which was cut from the track list on the 1995 reissue was not re-recorded.) He received the master tapes and began stripping back all or most of each track’s instruments, leaving Bowie’s voice as the main remainder and sending rough mixes to the musicians. There would be a little drum machine, some bass and a few musical cues, and that was enough for the musicians to concoct their parts. Muhly, for his part, made rough mixes called “stems,” and the composer would send him synthesized ideas of what they would record. With all the musicians prepped, McNulty was able to record everyone earlier this year at Electric Lady Studios in separate sessions.
Mostly, McNulty had to guess at what Bowie would have wanted from this version, going off only what he’d gleaned from the “Time Will Crawl” session. He left in some of Peter Frampton’s sitar playing on “Zeroes,” and a stuttering section of Alomar’s guitar on “Never Let Me Down.”
The opening song “Day-In Day-Out,” about homelessness, seems relatively untouched compared to the other tracks, but McNulty says he was astounded to find that Bowie had recorded a real horn section – he says they were labeled “Borneo horns” – for the song in 1986 or 1987 and replaced it with synthesizer stabs, so he restored the original brass section. It sounds as though it’s crossed decades with one foot in the past and another in the present. “I wasn’t trying to make it Eighties at all,” McNulty says. “It was difficult. Most of the lyrics are quite dark, but everything else about it is almost uplifting. It was really hard to change that, the way he was singing. Listening to his voice and the drum machine, I just thought, ‘It makes sense to do something bright.'”
In other places, he encouraged the musicians to follow their own muses. McNulty first met Muhly when the two of them were interning for minimalist composer Philip Glass in 2001. “He was already like this prodigy,” McNulty says. “So with this, he got it immediately, especially the references to Philip Glass and [composer] Steve Reich. I had so many extensive conversations with David about, for example, [Reich’s] Different Trains. He gave me that album in 2002 or 2003 and was like, ‘Ugh, you don’t have that album, mate?’ I was obsessed with it. I knew Nico would understand that, as well as references like the Walker Brothers, and he’s made himself into his own master composer.”
Muhly channeled Reich in the intro to “Bang Bang” – a song that was already a remake, since it originally appeared on Iggy Pop’s Party album in 1981 – where he mimicked the original synth part with strings but then let it all melt into his own style using what he calls “string clouds.” “Sometimes it was like an experiment where I was like, ‘Let’s see if it works,’ and it did,” Muhly says. “It was asking myself, ‘Where are the moments you let loose and where are the moments you go back into the texture?'”
The composer added his own stamp – some aggressive violin – to “Beat of Your Drum,” and allowed the strings to swell around Bowie’s voice and sweetened the outro on the title track. “There were a lot of random synthesizers from the Labyrinth department lurking in the background,” Muhly recalls of starting the project, laughing. “I was pretty confident I could do a lot of that work with strings. When you listen to music from that period, the motor behind a lot of the songs is usually just a synthesizer. It’s not the guitar or the drums. And that was true of ‘Bang Bang’ and ‘Never Let Me Down.’ So the strings – dueling violins or whatever – and the arrangement became the motor.”
Elsewhere, McNulty worked up his own radically different approaches to the songs. On “Zeroes” – a song Bowie once declared had every cliché from the Sixties about love he could think of – the producer nixed the original’s faux-concert intro and moved the cheering to the end. Instead, it opens with acoustic guitars and just gets into it. And on “Glass Spider,” a song Bowie liked so much he named his tour for the album after it, McNulty elongated the intro so that the artist’s narration comes in much later. Throughout it all, he encouraged Gabrels and Torn to play any manner of guitar riffs, whether heavy or more atmospheric.
One song that always confounded McNulty was “Shining Star” and its Mickey Rourke rap. “The programming is a mess and the rap comes out of nowhere,” he says. “I was just trying to find the right elements to fit the song. Luckily I know David and Laurie Anderson were good friends and she said yes to this and it was really great of her.”
Ultimately, McNulty says Bowie made remaking the album easy enough since the songs were defined and easily shapeable. “He just had such a great vision for what he was doing,” McNulty says. “You can hear that in the vocals on these songs. Even if he wasn’t involved in the production process as much as he wanted to be, his vocals are inspired, and I think that just comes down to the songwriting. He felt close to these songs.”
Even though he has yet to hear the new version, Alomar approves of the idea. “I take this to mean that the innovation of Bowie is still there,” he says. “If anything, this will force you to reflect on the fact that things aren’t always what you perceive them to be. Let me prove it to you by keeping the same vocal and changing everything else up. Now do you like the song?”
But Kızılçay, who just learned of this new mix days ago, has an extremely different take on it. He despised the 2008 redo of “Time Will Crawl” (“Rubbish!“) and is so angry about not getting paid for the recent release of a “Let’s Dance” demo that he’s contemplating a lawsuit. “It’s OK to do new versions of the songs, but they have to at least tell me about it,” he says. “On [Never Let Me Down’s] ‘Glass Spider,’ it’s my string arrangements on the synths. If they repeat what I did without crediting me, I’ll sue them. If they don’t put my name on ‘Time Will Crawl,’ I’ll sue them again.”
He’s attempting to hash out these issues by reaching out to Bowie’s management firm in New York, but so far hasn’t had any luck. “I have written them four times and they never got back to me,” he says. “It’s very difficult here in Switzerland, since I have to find a music lawyer in New York. But I’m going to try. This is not right.”
“This record is certainly not a knock on the people that originally made Never Let Me Down,” McNulty says. “All of the players on the original album are great musicians – Carlos, Frampton, Erdal and Carmine.” He had one main goal when he worked on the record and it had nothing to do with the musicians. “I don’t want to be cliché about it and just say, ‘It was the Eighties,’ but it was the Eighties. And a lot of crazy things happened in the Eighties. And who knows what they all were, but you hear it and you immediately could tell it was a sign of the times.”
“Sometimes posthumous projects are tricky,” Muhly says. “But in a way, knowing that the band and the ecosystem continues without him is actually really quite beautiful.”
“I hope this does the album justice,” McNulty says with a laugh. “I really like it now.”