David Bowie helped define the sound of three decades and is one of the most influential artists of all time. In honour of the a new box set release of his recordings from the late ’80s, we were lucky enough to chat with Reeves Gabrels, one of Bowie’s stalwart collaborators for more than 15 years.
Bowie is one of the very few performers that managed to successfully introduce high-art to mainstream audiences. His music always flirted with the avant-garde, and his lyrics were tinted with odd, imaginary worlds packed with literary and artistic references.
He was also incredibly diverse. As a performer, he jumped into a different genre every two or three albums.
What appears on the surface as the recipe for an obscure underground act worked in Bowie’s favour, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time.
A savvy musician when it came to picking his collaborators, Bowie worked with some of history’s best guitarists: Peter Frampton, Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels, to name a few.
In the mid ’80s, Bowie enjoyed incredible commercial success, but fell into a phase of creative stagnation. The albums Let’s Dance (1983), Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were all huge sellers, yet critical failures.
At one point Bowie himself admitted that Never Let Me Down was “an awful album”.
This serious of critical misfires turned around in 1987. It was then that David Bowie met guitar prodigy Reeves Gabrels, with whom he developed a close personal and professional relationship that lasted over a decade.
It was during this collaboration with Gabrels that Bowie went on to produce the most experimental and critically-acclaimed albums of his career.
Each year since 2016, Parlophone Records have released an entry into their collection of stunning box sets that will eventually include his entire catalogue from 1969. Each of the four sets announced will include every album in his discography packaged in a recreation of the original pressing, and will feature all the material, as well as remastered sound.
This year will see the release of the third box set of the series titled “Loving the Alien”. The set contains his recordings from 1983 to 1988, precisely the time frame of Bowie’s greatest commercial success.
Loving the Alien will include an entirely new production of the 1987 album Never Let Me Down, produced by the legendary Mario McNulty and with new instrumentation by Reeves Gabrels.
To celebrate the occasion of this special release, we talked to Reeves himself. He was kind enough to give us his opinions on the new version of Never Let Me Down, explore his relationship with Bowie and give his view on the current state of pop music.
Bowie had been playing with the idea of re-working the material from Never Let Me Down since the late 80s. Why was he so unsatisfied with the sound of that particular album?
“You know, I met him on the previous tour, which was the Glass Spider tour. So basically, that was really the Never Let me Down tour, kind of. And so I’ve heard those songs played live probably 15 times in ’87. And live they were more muscular and less processed, for lack of a better word. At that point I just knew him socially, he didn’t know I was playing guitar. After he got to hear the tape of my band, we got together in 1988 and we started writing for what eventually became Tin Machine. At the start we didn’t know, we thought maybe it was a Bowie record, you know, it was just him and I writing, recording and demoing with Tin Machine.”
“Tin Machine was a reaction to what he didn’t like about Never Let Me Down, but on the other hand there are certain songs on there like “87 and Cry” and “New York’s in Love” that maybe if they had been played by a different group of musicians… Maybe it would have made Tin Machine unnecessary. I mean there’s nothing wrong with the performances on that record. Everybody played great. Peter [Frampton] and Carlos [Alomar] and Erdal Kızılçay… Carmine Rojas, you know. There’s nothing wrong with the performances. Maybe the fact that most of the drums were drum machines on the final recording had something to do with it. Also the fact that it sounded– I remember my friends and I, I was living in Boston when it came out, when we heard that record in 1987 we kind of thought it sounded like… 1985.”
“You know, that ‘out of their mouth’ drum sound? Which is a great thing when it came along, but then it got copied and overdone. By 1987 I think it was kind of a little worn out. I remember he and I sitting outside the studio looking at Lake Geneva in ’88 discussing how did I feel about re-recording some of the songs from that record even then. And I was against it because I thought it was too close and we were already writing new stuff. Then the idea came up again around the time of “Earthling”, the possibility of re-recording a couple of songs. I was always still against it. But also, if you look at the B-sides that have been released, he often re-recorded songs with a new group of musicians a few years later. He did that with ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’.”
You guys re-recorded a song from Lodger, didn’t you?
“Yes we did, that was the first thing we did together. I think he often did that because he wanted to know how a new group of musicians sounded with material he already knew, it helped to find the sound of the band. So some of it was dissatisfaction, I think.”
The material in this new box set covers a time frame before your involvement in Bowie’s career. Curiously, this is all part of that incredibly successful commercial phase that he was running away from when you guys formed Tin Machine. How did you approach the reworking of Never Let Me Down from a conceptual and stylistic point of view?
“Well, one of the things he said to me in 1988 was that the album that became Let’s Dance — he had played me the demos of that – basically, they were not trying to write an album that had a bunch of hit songs. They were just chasing a sound. It just happened that everything lined up and the time was right for Let’s Dance. Then after he had a multi-platinum selling record, he said he tried to repeat that success for the record company because they were paying him. David was never at his best, like a lot of us, with that kind of pressure. I guess I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve never done things with commercial success being the target or making a lot of money being the target. I just do music because I love it. And if it sells then that’s great.”
“I think that what happened in the time of Never Let Me Down was that he was disenchanted with his new sound, because of the decision of wanting to blow so largely. He said at the time, ‘I don’t know my fans anymore, I don’t know who do I make music for any more’. Before that there was a smaller group of fans, but after Let’s Dance he tapped into what was then like the Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Phil Collins crowd. As far as the reworking of Never Let Me Down, we just took the approach that we wanted to make a great David Bowie record. I didn’t go back to make the original again. I walked in and I heard the new takes and the drums and David’s acoustic guitar and his vocals… that was what I worked with as though it was a demo for a new song. And after you know, 15 years of working with David, that may span to 30 with this project, I guess, but eh, I just — I really just did what we would have done together. We had similar taste in things so I just went after that. I think we did what David would’ve wanted.
The next box set in the series will cover most of the material you produced and wrote with Bowie. Are you on board on that project as well? Will you be doing similar re-workings to that 90s catalogue?
“No. Every song will be remastered I imagine. We haven’t really looked at it closely yet, but because those records were basically — David never had misgivings about what we did — he liked what we did together. With Never Let Me Down David left instructions of what he wanted done. So we were basically following orders (laughs) The late 80s and 90s you know, he was happy with what we had done, so there’s no reason to do any radical re-workings.”
Earthling is a perfect album, I don’t see what you can re-work there.
“Yeah, exactly, lots of those records were made just as they should be. While with Never Let Me Down, David himself said that he, I think he used this phrase, ‘He checked out’ of the recording process at some point.”
In a scene from Almost Famous, Lester Bangs is quoted saying “they won” referring to his disappointment with mainstream music back in the 70s. When you see the charts today, do you think he ended up being right after all?
“Well no, I don’t think they won. I think there was big mistake being made when people started thinking of rock music in terms of the pop charts. It isn’t that, it’s something else. Pop by definition is popular music, but it became a musical formula. If you look back at the charts in time, if you look at the music that was popular in the 50s and 40s, it’s radically different from what was happening in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s more linked to fashion, the pop charts. Whereas rock music is more about style. Some people can’t see the difference between fashion and style. It’s more about the art, there’s certainly some artful pop songs, you know, sometimes we’re lucky and really good, artful music has crossed over the pop charts. I don’t think they won, I think that we fucked up in terms of what we think is our value system. We got the wrong unit of measurement. Does that make sense?”
Reeves Gabrels is currently a band member of The Cure, and you can follow him on Twitter here.
David Bowie Loving The Alien (1983 – 1988) box set will be released on October 12th, and you can pre-order it now at David Bowie’s official shop.