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David Bowie's best bootlegs

Delving deep into the catalog of Bowie’s vinyl bootlegs unveils some startling performances and magic moments.

By Dave Thompson

There are times when the early bird does not catch the worm. Anybody rushing to print, on the day of release, with their review of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album certainly missed a far bigger story just a few days later. Anybody mourning Bowie’s demise with a list of their 10 favorite songs/albums/jackets/hairstyles has been shot down by all the people who say their list is better. And anybody who has spent the last 40 years collecting Bowie bootlegs, and admiring the rarity of the best of them, can probably expect them all to be reissued at some point in the next few years.

Bowie himself had already made a start on that process, with acclaimed repackages of the 1972 Santa Monica and 1976 Thin White Duke sets, while even 1983’s 10th anniversary remembrance of his 1973 retirement concert only expanded and (sadly) remixed one of the greatest Bowie boots of all, “His Master’s Voice.” Other aged, classic, vinyl boots have likewise given up their secrets for various official releases, but delving deep into the catalog nevertheless unveils some startling performances and magic moments that ... well, if you don’t already own them, you should.

1. Toy (2000)

It’s rare that an artist of Bowie’s caliber has a new album rejected by his record label, and rarer still that he then tells us all about it. But “Toy,” a smattering of new songs accompanied by a clutch of rerecordings suffered just that fate, and listening to it today, it’s still hard to fathom why.

Recorded midway between “Hours” and “Heathen,” and subsequently mined for both album and B-side duties, it’s a wonderful exercise in nostagia as Bowie looks back to his darkest days of obscurity and revisits “Liza Jane,” his first ever single (1964); “Baby Loves That Way” (1965); “I Dig Everything” (1966); “London Boys,” “Silly Boy Blue,” “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “In the Heat of My Morning” (1967-68); “Conversation Piece” (1969); and “Shadow Man” (1970-ish).

It’s kind of “Pin Ups” revisited. Long memories will recall that Bowie originally planned slicing and dicing a new recording of “London Boys” in among the ‘60s classics that still render that album among his greatest. He never got round to it, but the same song closes this album in delightful style, and although there is certainly a glossy millennial sheen to the rerecordings that might have been misjudged, still that’s the only mistake that “Toy” makes. Of all the albums on this list, “Toy” is the one that should be liberated the soonest.

2. The 1980 Floor Show (1973)

Probably best viewed as the multi-disc DVD recounting, but enjoyable still as audio only, this is available either as a behemothic box set, or the single disc “Dollars In Drag,” a still much-loved bootleg from 1974. Both offering a fine recounting of Bowie’s 1973 Midnight Special broadcast, with the box appending the actual TV show with false starts, guests, rehearsals and more.

With Bowie concentrating on his just-released “Pin Ups” album, plus a handful of recent hit oldies (“Time,” “Space Oddity”), it’s a limited repertoire, but it’s spellbinding regardless — amidst all the legends in the catalog, the Floor Show remains the most surprising omission from the official release racks, and packs one of the biggest surprises, too. Bowie’s costumes were among the most lavish and colorful he’d ever worn on stage. But even he was out-glammed by Marianne Faithfull, joining him for a duet through “I Got You Babe,” clad in a backless nun’s habit. Her voice was deeper than his, too.

3. Bridge Benefit, 1996

Just a month after he wrapped up a ballroom mini-tour in September 1996, and with a new album (what would become “Earthling”) completed, Bowie was back on the road, with a pair of appearances at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit gigs.

There, he served up a light-hearted, almost joke-laden, 10-song set that spread across brief versions of the R&B pounder “I’m A Hog For You, Baby” and the vaudevillian “You And I And George,” through the expected “Heroes” and “Man Who Sold The World,” and a lovely semi-unplugged “Aladdin Sane,” and onto a triptych of songs he once swore he’d never want to perform again.

Before the howls of betrayal could arise from the ranks, however, you needed to check out what he did to them. “The Jean Genie” was rewired around Tin Machine’s “Heaven’s In Here,” and sounded all the fresher for it. “China Girl” emerged an acoustic demo for Iggy’s solid concrete prototype, and “Let’s Dance” was so completely remodeled that the closest comparison would be the utter deconstruction of “All The Young Dudes,” with which he’d tormented audiences back in 1974. And if any proof was required that, after so many years of uncertainty, Bowie had relaxed back into his creativity, and rehabilitated his repertoire, this was the night it was delivered.

In 1990, Bowie considered himself a prisoner to his catalog. By 1996, he had again mustered mastery, playing songs because he wanted to perform them, not because an audience expected or demanded them. From hereon in, his past was his playground, and he hadn’t sounded this relaxed in years. Later shows in later years would bring out greater surprises. But this is where it all began.

4. Vampires Of Human Flesh: Demos & Alternatives for Scary Monsters And Super Creeps (1980)

One of the most fascinating of all latter-day (as in post-1973) Bowie finds, “Vampires Of Human Flesh” serves up almost the entire “Scary Monsters” album in demo and alternative form; and, even if these prototype performances rarely deviate from the familiar, finished versions, still there is an abandon to both the playing and singing that paints a very different record to that which was eventually released. “Scream Like A Baby” is almost punkish in delivery, while “Because You’re Young” packs an entirely different arrangement, occasionally altered lyrics and a different title — “Because I’m Young.”

“It’s No Game” appears only in the slower vein that closed the official album, but is, if anything, even moodier than before. But the real find is “Is There Life After Marriage?”, an instrumental version of a song that has never been officially released in any form whatsoever. It’s difficult from this evidence to tell what Bowie might have ultimately made of it, but it dovetails perfectly with the rest of the Scary sessions.

5. Iggy Pop & David Bowie — Rainbow Theatre 1977

The opening night in Aylesbury notwithstanding, two nights at the London Rainbow in March 1977 marked Iggy Pop’s first live performances since the death of the Stooges three years before, and his first U.K. gigs since 1972. Even the presence of David Bowie as an unobtrusively chain-smoking pianist couldn’t have raised the demand for tickets any higher, and Pop rewarded the ensuing full houses with a performance that matched every description of his stagecraft the audience had ever dreamed of.

The set is oldies heavy. The still-to-be-released “The Idiot” album is only touched upon (most memorably by a sinister “Funtime” and a seething “Sister Midnight”); in its place, the opening “Raw Power” is followed by a blistering “T.V. Eye,” a lascivious “Loose,” a frenetic “1969” ... you can run out of superlatives with a show like this, but the band not only hit the expected highs, they even ushered in a few brand new numbers.

“Turn Blue” and “Tonight,” neither of which would hit vinyl until “Lust For Life,” later in the year, were premiered, while “Gimme Danger” spiraled and “No Fun” glowered. Bowie smoked and smoked and smoked, scarcely able to believe that this was actually happening. “I Need Somebody,” “Search And Destroy,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog” ... this might just be the most perfect set list Pop has ever played. It’s certainly one of the best concert discs in his catalog.

6. Radio Hype (1970)

Although it was partially resurrected by Bowie’s official BBC compilation, his appearance on Radio One’s In Concert in January 1970 ranks among his most expressive, and enjoyable, performances ever. With Mick Ronson making his live debut just days after meeting Bowie for the first time, its a semi-acoustic set that wanders through the last days of Bowie’s Deram contract, glances at the previous year’s “Space Oddity” LP (a great “Cygnet Committee”), then looks forward to “The Man Who Sold the World” with prototype arrangements and occasional lyrical variations.

Available under a multitude of titles over the decades, the show is appended here with a clutch of period oddities — a BBC session, a handful of out-takes (“Looking For A Friend,” “How Lucky You Are,” “Shadow Man,” “I’ve Got Lightening,” “Rupert The Riley” and “Tired Of My Life”) and, finally, a 1972 live recording of the Beatles’ “This Boy,” wholly misplaced but it’s nice to have it handy.

7. The Complete Arnold Corns Sessions (1971)

Until officialdom documents what happened, Arnold Corns is destined to remain one of the most confusing periods in Bowie’s entire career. Officially, the project — which saw the still largely-unsung Bowie attempt the launch of a new pop superstar, Arnold himself — amounted to just four songs, spread over three singles, a BBC radio concert and a posthumous EP. Unofficially, any number of period demos and out-takes have been assigned to a continuation of the project, and that is the stockpile mined by this set.

All four Corns cuts are here, including the radically different prototype for “Moonage Daydream” (both the regular version and an alternate take) and two versions of “Hang Onto Yourself,” the regular single and the so-called Gene Vincent version, allegedly recorded with the great man in L.A. in 1971 but not bearing any of the evidence once would hope to hear. “Man In The Middle” and “Looking For A Friend,” too, are present in two different studio incarnations, while the latter also appears as a stark demo and in its live BBC form.

The Radio Luxembourg studio demos for “Lady Stardust,” “Right On Mother,” “Shadowman” and “Lightning Frightening,” a song that still sounds like a direct lift from Hotlegs’ “Lady Sadie,” are among the non-Corns tracks that fill out the disc, while the closing “Rupert The Riley” is, in fact, the only known evidence of another of Bowie’s attempts at star making, with a young singer friend named Mickey.

Nothing here is painfully obscure. But in gathering together every known Corns cut plus more besides, it remains a valuable addition for completists.

8. The Axeman Cometh (1971-1973)

Many collectors regard this as another of those now-largely redundant collections dedicated in the main to Bowie’s early 1970s BBC vault, with the emphasis on the Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust era material, as opposed to the arguably more interesting (and, in parts, rarer) earlier sessions. But if you haven’t picked up any other Bowie Beeb discs, this is an excellent sampler, picking up some of the most devastating performances in that canon before meandering onto various other sources in search of period nuggets.

These include an acetate demo for the Hunky Dory out-take “Bombers;” the Old Grey Whistle Test take on “Queen Bitch,” complete with false start; the Russell Harty Plus premiere of “Drive In Saturday;” the super-punchy single mix of “Rebel Rebel;” and, as if seeking to justify the collection’s title, the unmixed version of “Moonage Daydream” from Ziggy’s 1973 farewell show. For the official release, Bowie swamped Mick Ronson’s guitar solo with backing vocals, horns and anything else he could sling at it. Go back to the original U.S. TV airing of the concert (and the aforementiuned “His Master’s Voice” bootleg), however, and it was Ronno all the way, and this is what we get here. The Axeman did indeed cometh.

9. The Beckenham Oddity (1968)

An absolute treasure, “The Beckenham Oddity” is the demo tape that Bowie and guitarist Hutch recorded in the months before he landed the deal that brought “Space Oddity” to prominence — indeed, it opens with a skeletal version of that, before pushing on through a handful of songs destined for the accompanying LP (including a very early “Letter to Hermione,” introduced here as “I’m Not Quite;” a lovely cover of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song,; and a couple of tracks now familiar from the “Love You Till Tuesday” movie project, “When I’m Five” and “Ching A Ling.”

Although several bootlegs have attempted to pass this off as a live recording, the between-song chatter that makes it patently obvious that the only audience was a microphone, and the auditorium was Bowie’s apartment — at one point, he even apologizes for the sound of the old lady who lives upstairs moving around.

10. David Bowie & Marc Bolan — Private Session Tape 1977

It’s rough, it’s raw, but are there any more exhilarating noises in the (post-Ziggy) Bowie catalog than this short (20 minutes), but so-joyously boisterous tape of rehearsals for his September 1977 appearance on Marc Bolan’s “Marc” TV show?

Close friends whose paths had stopped crossing once they both embraced stardom, this was not Bowie and Bolan’s first attempt to record something together — they’re said to have cut several other demos in L.A. in 1975. But it is the only one to have leaked out to the public, via a cassette tape that was doing the rounds as far back as 1980 (the post punk band Cuddly Toys even recorded a cover of one of the songs, “Madman,” for a single that same year).

Listening to the full tape does not unearth any further gems; in fact, aside from “Madman” and “Standing Next To You,” the number with which the pair closed the TV show, they seem to be simply messing around, improvising around whichever riff most recently came to mind. The pleasure, then, lies in second-guessing what might have become of these snatches, had they only been able to follow through on the project, and in the spider’s eye view of the pair messing around together, chattering amongst themselves. “Thank you, that was David Bowie, and it was the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” announces Bolan after one undistinguished riff passes by, and though you know he was joking at the time, who knows what could have become of that riff?

There are precious few available recordings of Bowie actually relaxing in a studio ... in fact, outside of his own tour rehearsals, there’s none whatsoever. For that reason alone, this should be a precious collection. But in terms of simply having a wonderful time, it is so much more than that.