Never Let Me Down

  1. Day-In Day-Out [5.35] Vinyl [4.38]

  2. Time Will Crawl [4.18]

  3. Beat Of Your Drum [5.04] Vinyl [4.32]

  4. Never Let Me Down [4.05]

  5. Zeroes [5.45]

  6. Glass Spider [5.31] Vinyl [4.56]

  7. Shining Star (Makin' My Love) [5.04] Vinyl [4.05]

  8. New York's In Love [4.32] Vinyl [3.55]

  9. '87 And Cry [4.19] Vinyl [3.53]

  10. Too Dizzy [4.00]

  11. Bang Bang [4.29] Vinyl [4.02]

Bonus tracks on 1995 reissue:

  • Julie [3.40]

  • Girls [5.35]

  • When The Wind Blows [3.32]

Never Let Me Down

Released:

  • EMI America AMLS 3117 - April 1987 (LP)

  • EMI America CDP 7 46677 2 - April 1987 (CD)

  • Virgin CD VUS 98 - November 1995

  • EMI 7243 5218940 - September 1999

Personnel:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Mellotron, Moog, Harmonica, Tambourine

  • Carlos Alomar: Guitar, Guitar Synthesizer, Tambourine, Backing Vocals

  • Erdal Kizilcay: Keyboards, Drums, Bass, Trumpet, Backing Vocals, Guitar on "Time Will Crawl"/Violins on "Bang Bang"

  • Peter Frampton: Guitar

  • Carmine Rojas: Bass

  • Philippe Saisse: Piano/Keyboards

  • Crusher Bennett: Percussion

  • Laurie Fink: Trumpet

  • Earl Gardner: Trumpet/Flugelhorn

  • Stan Harrison: Alto Sax

  • Steve Elson: Baritone Sax

  • Lenny Pickett: Tenor Sax

  • Robin Clark, Loni Groves, Diva Gray, Gordon Grodie: Backing Vocals

  • Sid McGinnis: Guitar on "Bang Bang"/"Time Will Crawl"/"Day-In Day-Out"

  • Coco, Sandro Sursock, Charuvan Suchi, Joe, Clement, John, Aglae: Backing Vocals on "Zeroes"

  • Mickey Rourke: Rap on "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)"

Recorded:

  • Mountain Studios, Montreux/Power Station Studios, New York

Producers:

  • David Bowie, David Richards

Following Bowie's success at Live Aid, EMI was impatient to release another album. Dance, a compilation of 12" mixes from Let's Dance and Tonight, reached the sleeve-design stage in late 1985 but was scrapped. At the end of 1986, after more than two years spent channelling his energies into film soundtracks, acting, producing for Iggy Pop and putting off his label's repeated requests to generate more 'product', Bowie finally returned to Mountain Studios in Montreux. The result of the month-long session was the album now commonly regarded as his creative nadir.

 

Received wisdom has it that Never Let Me Down is the last gasp in a downward spiral of mediocrity half-heartedly aimed at Bowie's new 'Phil Collins' audience, a blind-alley trajectory that would be brought to a juddering halt by the drastic shake-up of Tin Machine. What is now forgotten is that in 1987 Bowie was already admitting that he had become "lost", and spoke optimistically of Never Let Me Down in precisely the terms he would later apply to Tin Machine: he described the album as "linear and rock-oriented," going on to explain that "When you get lost you go back to point one...and it just goes back to the guitar again, and so it became a guitar-oriented album." He called Never Let Me Down "a progression from Scary Monsters rather than my last two records," a claim he would later repeat almost verbatim for Tin Machine. Another taste of things to come is the demonstrative air of post-Live Aid social conscience: Never Let Me Down is riddled with images of urban poverty, prostitution, drug addiction and nuclear meltdown. "The subject matter on the album seems to be split between personal romance, personal feelings of love, and some kind of statement or indictment of an uncaring society, particularly a response to what's happening in the major cities in terms of the homeless," said Bowie.

 

The band assembled for the album was the usual combination of old and new. Carlos Alomar, Carmine Rojas and "The Borneo Horns" were back from Tonight. They were joined by Erdal Kizilcay, who had worked on and off with David on various projects since 1982. "He can switch from violin to trumpet to French horn, vibes, percussion, whatever," enthused David. "His knowledge of rock music begins and ends with The Beatles! His background is really jazz." Lead guitar was mainly entrusted to Peter Frampton, a former classmate of David's at Bromley Technical High School whose own taste of fame had come and gone with two hit albums in the mid-1970s. Newcomer Sid McGinnis, a sometime member of David Letterman's studio band, took Frampton's place on lead guitar for three tracks, while Bowie himself played lead on "New York's In Love" and "'87 And Cry".

 

Bowie's co-producer was David Richards, an engineer since the days of "Heroes" who had co-produced Iggy Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah. "By the time we started in the studio [Bowie] had written over twelve songs with all the arrangements completed," recalled Richards. As ever, Bowie encouraged a collaborative effort: "I made demos of everything before we went in, and I played them to everybody and I said, 'I want it to sound exactly like this, but better!'"

 

During the first two weeks Bowie, Richards and Kizilcay cut the basic tracks at Mountain Studios. Next Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton flew in to record their guitar parts, and thereafter the sessions moved to New York's Power Station. According to Richards, this enabled Bowie to "add on the sounds you can only get in New York - The Borneo Horns, the girl backing vocalists, and a great percussionist called Crusher Bennett. Crusher set all his 'bangers' and 'scrapers' on a table, which I miked at each end. So whenever he moved around, the sounds would pan with him, creating some strange spatial effects."

 

While some of Bowie's vocals were recorded in New York, the majority were taken from guide vocals he had already cut in Switzerland. "David always sang a guide vocal very early on in the recording process," explained Richards, "Most of these vocals were so good and had such great spontaneity that they ended up on the record." A notable exception was the title track, a last-minute addition written, recorded and mixed at Power Station in 24 hours. The mix was handled by Let's Dance engineer Bob Clearmountain, who was responsible for what Bowie called the album's "great, forceful sound...It's fascinating watching him work; he's like a painter."

 

David promoted Never Let Me Down as an eclectic hybrid of long-standing influences and personal nostalgia, explaining that there was a "lot of reflection on the album. The whole reflective thing about it was totally unconscious. I realised how much it drew from the sixties and early seventies when I'd finished. It gives it an overall atmosphere that I hadn't intended, but it's quite nice. It doesn't seem to be a bitter look back; it seems to be quite energetic and up."

 

"We had the most fun doing this album that we ever had because it was really coming back to just us and not all the outside influences," said Carlos Alomar in 1987. "The first thing you notice is David's voice. He sounds marvellous! He sounds refreshed, he's singing very high as he did before, as opposed to that very low baritone. This lends itself to...a different, high energy music." Alomar would later revise his opinion, telling David Buckley that Bowie was "at a loss during the whole album", that the music was over-rehearsed and the demos an imposition (he resented being asked to reproduce Erdal Kizilcay's demo parts: "why do you want me to play something played by a guy trying to imitate me and who sounds horrible playing me?") Alomar also believes that EMI had effectively forced Bowie into the studio against his wishes: "Bowie felt let down. He discussed EMI constantly and talked about how horrible they were." If Bowie did indeed feel "let down", the album's title was supremely ironic.

 

"It's a pompous little title, isn't it?" David laughed in a pre-release interview for Music & Sound Output. "Seen out of context it's quite abrasive, but in the context of the songs on the album, I think it's rather tongue-in-cheek to use it as the title. Also, there's a vaudevillian thing about the cover. The two combined are rather comical."

 

In March 1987 Bowie and his band performed a series of eight press shows to announce the forthcoming Glass Spider tour. "I realised it was just a tremendous album to be touring," gushed Bowie, later adding that "A lot of it was written consciously with performance in mind: what kind of songs do I want to do night after night that I can enjoy playing? That brought the energy up on everything. It stopped it getting too reflective..."

 

Never Let Me Down was released on April 27th 1987 in a variety of different formats, all of which included the "vaudevillian" cover shot of the newly long-haired David leaping in a circus ring surrounded by elements from the songs: a drum, a skyscraper, a candyfloss cloud, one of the voyeuristic angels from the "Day-In Day-Out" video, and a lot more besides. It was the first Bowie album to enjoy simultaneous release on vinyl and CD, and in an unusual move, the two formats featured different edits - all but four of the tracks are anything up to a minute longer on CD. The shorter vinyl edits would be reissued as iTunes downloads twenty years later. A blue vinyl version appeared in Australia, while in Japan the album included a Japanese vocal version of the out-take "Girls".

 

What might come as a surprise after all these years of counter-publicity is that some of the reviews were positively glowing. Billboard hailed the album as "A welcome return to form for the ever-ambitious Bowie," with a "superb title cut" and work from Frampton that "bodes well for Bowie's creative spirit". But such opinions were in the minority. The lead-off single "Day-In Day-Out" had already performed its unspectacular slide out of the top 40 and the British critics were waiting with knives sharpened. The devastatingly irreverent and then highly influential teeny-bop magazine Smash Hits had recently coined a new nickname for Bowie which it deployed in a scathing review. "If Dame David Bowie is such a bleeding chameleon," pondered Tom Hibbert, "Why, pray, can't he change into something more exciting than the skin of an ageing rock plodder?" Despite a barrage of publicity, sales were no more than middling. Most artists would celebrate a number 6 chart placing, but it was Bowie's worst performance with a new album since 1971.

 

Of all the mementoes of the wilderness years between Scary Monsters and Black Tie White Noise, none has been so systematically panned as Never Let Me Down. Nobody has a good word for it. Bowie has often allowed himself to be browbeaten by popular reaction, and in recent years he has colluded with critical opinion and assimilated the trashing of Never Let Me Down into his own view of his work, describing it as "a bitter disappointment". In 1993 he remarked that "There were some good songs on it, but I let go and it became very soft musically, which wasn't the way I would have done it if I had been more involved," adding later that "I was letting the guys arrange it, and I'd come in and do a vocal, and then I'd bugger off and pick up some bird." It's the only album not even mentioned in the official career biography posted on BowieNet in 1998. The notion that Never Let Me Down is an irredeemable disaster, serving only to illustrate how the mighty are fallen, has pretty much entered the realm of established fact.

 

The chances that this album will one day be reclaimed as a misunderstood classic are certainly remote, but in consigning it to the sacrificial altar as the scapegoat of all Bowie's 1980s misfortunes, both he and his critics have done it a serious disservice. Never Let Me Down, in fact, shows encouraging signs of recovery after the half-hearted apathy of Bowie's previous two albums. For a start he is writing more songs; they may not be masterpieces, but to its credit Never Let Me Down features ten new Bowie compositions, which is more than Let's Dance and Tonight put together. Furthermore, "Julie" and "Girls" make this the first Bowie session in many long years prolific enough to produce extra B-side material. In the second place, for better or worse, one can already hear Bowie feeling his way towards Tin Machine, marginalising Tonight's overbearing saxophone harmonics in favour of a surprisingly hard guitar sound. And thirdly, for the first time since Scary Monsters, David contributes more than just his voice to the recordings, taking an active role with contributions on keyboards, harmonica and guitar - lead guitar on two tracks.

 

The results are far from brilliant. Never Let Me Down is hideously overproduced and suffers from fiddly, overwrought arrangements and a nasty, tinny drum acoustic. The uncluttered spontaneity of the title track, recorded in a few hours as an afterthought, positively shines beside some of its overcooked bed-fellows. All three lead guitarists veer dangerously close to the sort of hoary, cliched rock agenda so nimbly avoided by Bowie's previous roster of classic soloists. Even the shoddy cut-and-paste logo and the dismal sleeve artwork, conceived by Greg Gorman, seem to have been designed by committee. If you sit down with the lyric sheet and half an hour to spare, you can spot all the 'clever' references included in the cluttered photo, but what's the point? It's a picture of David Bowie jumping through hoops, and that tells us all we need to know.

 

But Alomar was right about Bowie's voice, which is in top flight, and the vocal pastiches (Neil Young on "Time Will Crawl", Smokey Robinson on "Shining Star", John Lennon on the title track) yield interesting if not always successful results. The alternation of clammy rock 'n' roll love songs with over-sincere social comment is no more appealing here than on Tin Machine, but when Bowie chooses to inject the lyrics with his more accustomed collisions of non-linear imagery, as in "Zeroes", "Glass Spider" and "Time Will Crawl", he reminds us that he is a major songwriting talent. Sadly, these tracks suffer the same fate as "Loving The Alien" - grandiose and ambitious material cut adrift by maddeningly mediocre production - but at least they offer a genuine taste of the melodramatic panache we'd always expected of David Bowie until 1983. His self-reflexive habit is back in force, with a series of verbal and musical echoes of past albums, in particular, Diamond Dogs. Titles like "Glass Spider" and "Zeroes" speak for themselves. Whether this is a continuation of the self-sampling triumph of Scary Monsters or simply a hollow trading on former glories is a matter for debate. Whatever the case, Bowie struggles to keep up the momentum: after a reasonably promising first side and the near-greatness of "Glass Spider", expectations fade away.

 

Not Bowie's finest hour, then, but by no means his worst. There's nothing here as outstanding as the title track of Let's Dance, but neither is there anything quite as thumb-twiddling as "Without You" or as unwelcome as a clapped-out Beach Boys cover. Even on the dreariest tracks, there's an energy of performance and a sense of commitment to the music and that simply isn't there on Tonight. Even Carlos Alomar has relented of late: "After not hearing it for a while, I went back and listened to it," he posted on his website in 2003. "Remarkably I did enjoy it. One of the things that popped up was the fact that I had started diving into the synthesizer guitar at the time, and I do remember all the experimentation that went on. It's funny about Bowie albums - after a few years they all fall into place as you see the progressions of his musical endeavours." Alomar is quite right of course. This is scarcely a great or even a satisfactory album, but coming to it again one finds to one's surprise that Never Let Me Down sounds more like a David Bowie record than either of its predecessors and for many, it remains a happier listening experience than what came next.