One the of things that fascinates me about David Bowie is his practice of rerecording his own songs, often with very different arrangements. He’s done it throughout his career and seemingly for various reasons. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that he sometimes releases astonishing songs in relatively obscure or poorly promoted albums or soundtracks, which limits their potential audience.
His record companies have sometimes wanted to better exploit the songs by rereleasing them in better promoted products, but the reverse has also happened – record companies have refused to release recordings and so Bowie has had to rework them to get them released later. More on that later…
To clarify, I’m not just talking about different arrangements of songs recorded live, such as the excellent drum and bass arrangements of songs like ‘Andy Warhol’ and ‘The man who sold the world’ performed during the Outside tour (available on excellent quality bootlegs). I’m referring to when Bowie has made the extra effort to rerecord a song in the studio (simple remixes thus also don’t count).
Perhaps the most famous rerecording is ‘Space Oddity‘. The version we all know is actually the second version; the first was made earlier in 1969 for the promotional film Love you til Tuesday. The original is slight and whimsical without the sonic depth and grandeur of the famous version. It’s obvious why it was done – because it is such a fantastic composition that needed more work on the arrangement and a new release to earn the attention it deserved.
But then there’s a third version that is intriguing – a stark, minimalist version recorded in 1979 released as a b-side that is also on rereleases of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. This seems to have been done just for fun. For me it’s enjoyable to consider the composition apart from the arrangement, and having such a different arrangement to listen to aids that experience.
A favourite of mine is ‘Panic in Detroit‘, and I was thrilled to hear it live during the Reality tour. The gritty original is on Aladdin Sane, with the angsty rerecording first appearing on the same rerelease of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps as the minimalistic ‘Space Oddity’. Again, this seems to have been done just for fun.
‘Rebel Rebel‘, the odd moment of sweet levity on Diamond Dogs, is a glam anthem that Bowie revised for Reality by beginning it without the use of its distinctive guitar riff, just as he did for ‘The man who sold the world’ during the Outside tour (a live recording of that song from the tour is on some versions of Outside).
‘Look back in anger‘ is another curious example. Released originally on Lodger, a new longer version was made in 1988 (and released on some Lodger rereleases) and is significant for being Bowie’s first collaboration with his then new performing and composing partner Reeves Gabrels. This longer version morphed into an unfinished and unreleased song called ‘Now’ performed live by Tin Machine in 1989 (see this amazing video) and eventually became the title song to Outside.
‘Strangers when we meet‘ is my favourite song. Recorded for the Buddha of Suburbia album, it was rerecorded only Outside only two years later, presumably in an attempt to give what I think was his greatest song of the decade a wider audience.
The original version is great, but I prefer the sombre, majestic tone of the Outside version. The change in vocal tone gives the same lyrics quite a different feeling. Some of the more overt cheerful pop moments of Buddha of Suburbia, while great in themselves, also occasionally remind me of Never let me down in a most unfortunate manner.
My list is hardly exhaustive. I could write more about ‘Cat people’, the Tin Machine song ‘I can’t read’ and the fabulous ‘Bring me the disco king‘, recorded for but inexplicably left off Black tie white noise before finally being rerecorded for Reality.
Then came Toy (wikipedia and discography) in 2001, an album of rerecorded 1960s songs with a few new ones written in a similar style. Toy was never officially released. Some of the songs received minor remixes and were used as b-sides for Heathen in 2002. ‘Afraid’ received only a minor remix before inclusion on Heathen and so doesn’t count, but ‘Uncle Floyd’ received a full new recording and became ‘Slip away’ on Heathen.
Fortunately Toy was leaked online in 2011, adding a lot more songs to this category I have defined. I’m not going to write about all those songs here, but I see Toy as a whole as a declaration by Bowie that he saw something valuable and challenging in reworking songs and giving them different arrangements. As one of his last musical projects, he significantly increased his commitment to what he had been doing for most of his career, and I find this fascinating.