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Week 12 | Bowie at the Beeb (2000)

My version of this album is a three-disc set, including various recordings of Bowie’s appearances at BBC studies dating back to 1968. Only the first two discs are part of the package you would buy today, which is too bad because the third disc is pretty good (and hopefully will be released on its own at some point).

As with many Bowie compilations, this one has a lot of music, which is one of its assets. Another is that the versions are mostly studio-quality, but different than the versions on their original records. There are a few “new” songs, too. For me, the studio version of Bowie songs are usually better than live versions. In recently listening to this album again it occurred to me why— Bowie is singing to a microphone in the studio, while he’s singing to throngs at a concert. I don’t know much about music, but I know about giving speeches. Speaking to an audience requires different types of inflections, gestures, voice-modulation than speaking in person. Actors on stage exaggerate their expressions in a way that actors in movies don’t have to. In the video clip of, “My Death,” that I posted on this web site, Bowie tells the audience to “be quiet” so he can sing softly. On this album, while Bowie was recorded live, he’s performing in a studio rather than a concert stage. To my ear, his performances in these conditions are crisper and more subtle than most of his other live recordings.

So that’s all good. The main reason I don’t listen to this too much is that the first disc is largely populated with Bowie’s late 60s, pre-“Space Oddity” songs. This is the one phase of Bowie’s career that doesn’t do it for me. To me, songs like, “London Bye Ta Ta,” “Karma Man,” and “Little Boy Blue,” are amateurish and not very compelling. Bowie cast these songs from this period out of his regular repertoire pretty early— for instance, he sings none of them at the concert memorialized in “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture”. But he never totally disowned them, as evidenced by their inclusion in this package. The great unreleased Bowie album, called “Toy,” is mostly comprised of updated versions. While I still don’t especially like them, of all their versions, they sound best on “Bowie at the Beeb” (I think this has in part to do with the superior guitar work).

Most of the rest of this collection, especially the second and third discs is much better. There are several songs from “Space Oddity,” “Hunky Dory,” and “Ziggy Stardust.” (My version included the same version of the song, “Ziggy Stardust,” twice. This was an error that was corrected when customers who bought this edition wrote in and received a fourth disc— a single of the different version of the song that appears on subsequent editions of the album). All of these performances are good. There are also several songs that either don’t appear on any other album or only as bonus material —“Amsterdam,” “Bombers,” “Looking for a Friend,” and best of all, the Chuck Berry song, “Almost Grown.”

The third disc was recorded much later than the first two— in 2000, and contains songs from later in Bowie’s career, up to songs from the album he was promoting at the time, “…hours.” Its the disc I have listen to most from the “Bowie at the Beeb” collection, and is the one most suitable for a general audience. The first disc, with the heavy presence of the very early songs, is more interesting as an historical document. The second disc has an edgy feel that made Bowie seem “dangerous” at the time. By 2000, Bowie had become more of an institution. Even though some of Bowie’s newer songs on the third disc, like “Little Wonder” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” are as edgy as any of his earlier songs, the disc as a whole works better as something to play in the background at a dinner party. This is in no way meant as a negative. The only negative is that it is no longer part of the “Bowie at the Beeb” collection.

Note about the video: The video appears to be the entire performance that makes up the third disc.

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