I went to my first Bowie concert in 1987– when the Glass Spider tour came to Toronto. It was from that’s point on that I became a fan. Around that time, the way we listened to music was changing from records and tapes to CDs. By the late 80s, RCA had attempted to release Bowie’s back catalogue on CD, but the effort failed — My understanding is that RCA remastered the albums without permission. Most of Bowie’s most beloved works were simply not available in the CD format in 1988. So Bowie signed on with Rykodisc to release his back catalogue, starting with the Sound and Vision box set, just when I was beginning to buy CDs.
For me, the Rykodisc versions of Bowie’s albums starting with Space Oddity and going through Scary Monsters were how I came to know these albums. Psychologically, the Rykodisc imprimatur kind of defined the albums as essential or even genuine in my mind. Rykodisc didn’t release Bowie’s debut album, David Bowie, so in my mind it almost wasn’t real. But Rykodisc also didn’t have the rights to what at the time were Bowie’s newer albums, from Let’s Dance forward. So it happens that the albums released in the series corresponded with what many perceive to be Bowie’s strongest period.
Most of the retrospectives I’ve read about Bowie since his death discuss the 1980s as his creative nadir. A kind of standard narrative has come together about Bowie’s chronology as an artist— he was getting his sea legs in the 60s, sold out in the 80s and spent the 90s and beyond trying to recover. Almost all of his albums after Never Let Me Down were called “his best since Scary Monsters”. The designation became kind of an in-joke but also underscored an idea that Scary Monsters was the end of something. I do think, despite the critical success of albums such as Heathen and Blackstar, Bowie’s best known songs come from the period covered by the Rykodisc reissues (1969-1980).
As a side note, I don’t actually know that to be true. I don’t often listen to commercial radio, so I don’t know what people randomly encounter from Bowie. Some of his later albums sold quite well compared to some of his earlier albums, and his music seems to have actually gained in popularity since his death. I don’t know a good measure of how well known is any particular song or album. Is “I’m Afraid of Americans” better known than “Boys Keep Swinging?” Blackstar was a big hit in 2016, but where does it reside in the casual fan’s mind in relation to, say Hunky Dory? I don’t know, but whether intentionally or by luck Rykodisc managed to capture what I think I can fairly called the most defining decade of Bowie’s 50+ year career.
The other thing to note about the Rykodisc releases is that most of them contained bonus tracks. I have come to regret this. Bowie knew how to end an album, yet the Rykodisc edition of Ziggy Stardust does not end with “Rock and Roll Suicide.” In many cases, the Rykodisc version was the only version I had ever heard, so while I could see on the track listing that the random songs at the end were bonus tracks, to me they were part of the album. Years later, what I would have rather had Rykodisc do is issue a separate rarities collection, or perhaps a second bonus disc, but leave the originals in tact.
I had intended to list out all the bonus tracks in this post, but a quick Google search shows me that it’s been done many times. Here’s a link to one such effort. And for more on Bowie and Rykodisc, read this article.