Into The Collector's Trap

Hi folks, Dr. Dee here. As Elizabeth’s husband and partner in Art Crime Investigations, I’ll be popping in from time to time to help present the strange and unusual discoveries we’ve made while tumbling headfirst through the Bowie wormhole.

Over the course of our research and years of collecting, it became evident that bootleg albums (like the Blackstar cassette discussed here) were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to different versions of Bowie’s music. 

In fact, there is an absurd amount of variation between official versions of David’s discography, which becomes an unavoidable fact of life whether you’re a dedicated Bowie collector or some weirdo playing a delusional game. 

To put it plainly: Every piece of Bowie’s musical canon has been in a state of constant change from its original release to modern-day. The changes between albums can range from tiny, almost imperceptible differences, (at least to untrained ears), to the more substantial changes you can’t ignore, but even the small things can add up to vastly different listening experiences in the long run.

The true scale and scope of this within The Man’s official discography can get a little crazy, so I wanted to provide a quick overview of the terrain for any newcomers wishing to explore it with us.

(Note: This article will only cover David’s official discography, as the bootleg releases are their own can of worms that I’ll discuss in more depth at a later date)

The Master Discography

To begin with, there are Bowie’s 29 studio albums (including LabyrinthTin Machine I & II, and Buddha), in addition to official Live albums. Then there are countless numbers of singles and EPs, usually containing music not on the main albums. There’s also decades of soundtrack contributions and guest appearances (whether producing, writing, or performing), along with all of their adjacent singles too. Not to mention the many ‘best of’ compilations like Nothing Has Changed and spin-off collaborations like his Lazarus musical and the Glass Symphonies. It’s a genuinely staggering amount of material, and it feels like there’s something new getting discovered or added to the lot every day. 

Reflections of Reflections

If the sheer number of albums wasn’t dizzying enough, now consider the fact that each of these pieces have gone through a number of authorized revisions, masters, mixes, and pressings over the years, across many different formats. This has resulted in each album/EP/single/Interactive CD-Rom Experience having numerous unique versions and variants, some of which are outlined below:

  • “Original”/1st Editions: The albums as issued during original release. Already these original pressings can vary depending on format and region, so as far as I can tell there’s rarely been one singular, authoritative version of his major albums upon first release.
  • Remasters/Reissues: Remastered editions (i.e. the “Best Buy” series, Ryko/EMI Sound + Vision Series, EMI/Virgin/Parlophone 24-Bit Remaster Series, the current Parlophone box set remasters, and one-off special/limited editions). The most-current remaster series will generally be the go-to standard for the next 5-15 years until its time for the next mass-update. These can sometimes be deceptive, i.e. like how the S+V remasters were marketed as being remastered from the original analog masters used for the vinyls (some of them aren’t) and were said to include the original album artwork (they didn’t).
  • Region: Different parts of the world sometimes get their own unique masters of these albums (which can also change upon reissue). The different UK and US versions of the original Ziggy Stardust LP are good examples of this. The Japan/US and German/European RCA CDs of Station to Station from 1984 are another.
  • Format: These versions of the albums would then typically receive different production treatments across vinyl, CD, cassette tape (or whatever other format was getting a special push at the time: 8-track, Ryko Gold, SACD, Dualdisc, Bluespec, etc). By the late 90’s, digital downloads and streams would also enter the fray (more on that shortly).
  • Advance/Promos: There are also “Not for Sale” radio/industry promo versions that can also have minor differences in production, as they may have been pressed before the albums were ready for the market.

I should note none of this is necessarily unique to Bowie’s catalogue, and many other major artists that have similarly convoluted release histories. It’s a big part of why huge online databases like Discogs exist, so that collectors can catalogue, track, and trade available versions. However, while these may all be normal practices to some degree, they’ve also created an extensive canvas for Bowie to play around with in ways that are far beyond the ordinary.

So what’s actually different?

On the surface level, there can be a LOT of minor cosmetic differences from version to version (record label, text font and layout, image cropping, print texture and color, vinyl color, etc), which can help give versions their unique character (just search eBay for Hunky Dory and you’ll see what I mean). On the extreme side, the full cover art for David Bowie (AKA Space Oddity) and The Man Who Sold the World keep changing to this day. These visual cues can be indicators that you’ve found something rare or off the beaten path, but they can also be elusive and so subtle that you have to dig deep to find the version you’re hunting for (we’re taking ‘tiny errors in vinyl matrix numbers’ or ‘which factory pressed it during what year’ subtle).

Some official Station to Station releases
Some official Pin-Ups

So what about the music?

Different tracks, different track orders, different edits and takes, dropped/added layers within songs, etc are all par for the course. The below are just a few ways in which these differences can manifest across releases:

  • Timing, Pacing, & Momentum: These can all vary a frustrating amount between releases, and it really has an effect on if an album can properly hold your attention and drive momentum forward. S+V Ziggy Stardust is one of the biggest offenders, as the overall tempo feels too slow compared to the LP, giving it a harsher feel, and key moments like the start of the title track begin with the band playing out-of-sync (thankfully this been corrected on subsequent versions).
  • Audio Levels: Different mixes and masters can bring different elements to the forefront and sculpt the sonic space in all sorts of ways. And not all changes are positive. For example, all CD/digital versions I’ve found of Young Americans have the final fade-out on “Right” beginning much earlier than the original vinyl, making it harder to hear the climactic moment of the song with the women’s “Never no turning back” chorus. To my knowledge this change has not been restored to the original LP version, (though I’d love to be proven wrong here).
  • Track Order: Order can commonly swap around between international cassette releases (“After All” and “Running Gun Blues” on TMWStW, “Panic in Detroit” and “Prettiest Star” on Aladdin Sane, just to name a few). Apparently RCA did this to account for tape length; however, the swapped songs are roughly the same run time, and there are also RCA tapes that have the track orders unaltered, making this all still a bit odd to me, since it can seriously alter the album’s narrative and flow.
  • Duration: by the late 80’s, Bowie’s new albums were getting markedly different versions on CD vs LP, with Never Let Me DownTin Machine I & IIBlack Tie, and Outside all getting shorter, vastly different edits for LP. (“Too Dizzy” would also be excluded from ALL future official reissues of NLMD on both CD and vinyl; I remain unconvinced as to why.)
  • Entirely different songs: singles and Limited/Bonus/Japanese releases are the biggest standouts here. By the mid-80’s through the early 2000’s, David’s “singles” would contain different B-Sides (and sometimes A-Sides) across different formats, meaning that if you wanted to collect “all” the B-sides for “Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, you’d have to get the 12” picture disc, the 7” edit, three versions of the CD single, and two versions on cassette tape… And this is how it is with EVERY SINGLE “SINGLE”. Meanwhile limited/special editions and some Japanese releases will swap around different bonus tracks to round out the album, some of which will be exclusive to that version only.

Whether there’s some sort hidden meaning behind all this or not, it doesn’t change the fact that every single tweak and edit, from the music to the artwork to labeling, had to be done with utmost intent. Perhaps that intent stems from nothing more than ordinary demands of the record industry, but that also doesn’t change the fact that of the 9 official versions of Station to Station in my library, only 2 of them sound like the same Station.

Audio Compression and the Loudness Wars

This topic deserves a full article in the future, but it’s important to mention here since we’re discussing subtle variations between different versions of albums.

Compression and equalization levels are huge factors in how much depth of ‘space’ a given piece of music has to play in, along with how sonic diversity can exist between the loud and soft components. As the music industry moved away from physical media towards downloadable mp3s, audio typically faced increased levels of compression and equalization (apparently to suit headphone listening), thus sacrificing some of the fidelity you’d get on analog formats.

Each format has its strengths and weaknesses: In general the LPs fare pretty well here, though I’ve found some reissues from the 80’s and 90’s to get a bit ‘tinny’. CDs can offer solid fidelity, but the audio quality can start getting further compressed and equalized as the years go on, muddying the sense of space and blowing out a lot of the original dynamics in the music. A chrome cassette tape, on the other hand, can offer both significant depth of sound and longer run-time options than either CD or LP, though there are other trade-offs, like tape hiss/static. Then there are the digital downloads, which, unless they’re high quality FLACs or lossless WAVs, will only have further compression issues, garbling the sound more and more. And who knows which of the above versions they were ripped from? 

This is part of why physical collecting became such an important part of this adventure for us, as the available streams and digital downloads (official or otherwise) were almost never up to snuff with physical product. Sure you might get close, but in my experience, there’s rarely any cigar. Like I said, this is a topic that I’ll have to go over in more depth in its own article.

Legendary “Shiny” Bowies 

There is one more type of variant I’ve yet to mention, which I believe is the most telling regarding the question of if there is some intentional “plan” behind all this convoluted madness: The “Shiny” Versions. 

To borrow a term from another insanely popular game about collecting weird monsters, I believe there’s good evidence that rare “Shiny” versions of David’s music were made and inserted alongside more ordinary market fare, adding extra incentive for collectors to dig for something special (at least)!

So where’s the precedence for this bold claim? Going all the way back to 1975, RCA’s original release of ChangesOne had something odd about it: there was a short-run of the first pressing that featured the then-unreleased “Sax” version of “John I’m Only Dancing” recorded during the Aladdin Sane sessions; whereas all subsequent versions would only use the original Ziggy-era single version of the song. This quickly made the chase “Sax” version of the album a collector’s piece, a rare “shiny” item that you’d rarely know you had found until actually opening and playing it. Almost like some sort of ‘golden ticket’ prize.

Assuming David quietly continued doing this throughout his career, it would also account for a number of official items in our collection that appear 100% identical with each other but then play at different tempos, keys, etc, making for vastly different listening experiences.

(This is another topic that deserves its own article to fully dive into, but I’ll try to update this page with audio/video of a few of these examples soon.)

So…where does this leave us?

Taking it all in, the whole landscape feels beyond chaotic, as if you can never quite trust anything for what it appears to be. When even identical records can turn out to be different once you actually listen, all bets are kinda off.

It also means that we can’t take it for granted that we’re all listening to the same material. And with different countries getting different masters since the early 70’s, there’s a very good chance that we’re not. At the same time, this also means that there are literal lifetimes of Bowie’s music to hunt and quest for… If one is driven (or deranged enough) to do so.

I won’t lie, not all versions make for pleasant, happy listening, and while you can start to get a vague idea of what you’re aiming for, you never truly know what you’re going to get. Those times when you do strike gold though, and you find that one particular version of an album that lights your brain up like you’re hearing the whole thing brand new for the first time… Those times really are pure Magic.