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Week 14 | CHANGESONEBOWIE (1976) and other greatest hits albums

CHANGESONEBOWIE (1976) and other “greatest hits” albums

Listening to CHANGESONEBOWIE for the first time was the experience that made me realize I was a Bowie fan. Someone was playing a cassette tape of the album in a car, and as one song led to the next, I realized I knew, and liked all of them (well, I knew most of them at the time, but certainly liked all of them). Whenever it was that I heard it, I hadn’t yet realized that all these songs were by the same guy. For some reason, I thought “Rebel Rebel” was a Kinks song. But with the record set straight, I wanted to explore Bowie music a little more, and the rest is personal history.

This is the way a greatest hits album should work. CHANGESONE just does it especially well. The album was not only a hit in its own right, but has actually made critics’ “top album” lists. This is unusual for a greatest hits album, especially one issued relatively early in an artist’s career. Most of Bowie’s catalogue was issued after 1976 (this was before “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Ashes to Ashes”), so its remarkable that he had an album’s full of greatest hits by that time.

I suspect that the album has a lot to do with defining what Bowie’s greatest hits are, and given the title, cementing the song, “Changes,” as one of Bowie’s signature songs. In this respect that album is both reflective and reinforcing of the idea of which songs make the cut. I am, of course, biased, but they all seem to be “greatest hits” to me— not just great songs, but songs that are well known. They are the kind of songs I might encounter on the radio, or playing in the background at a restaurant, or at a tribute concert. They also flow incredibly well together on this album. At one point in time, when I heard “Suffragette City,” I expected to hear “The Jean Genie” next. The whole album works that way.

There have been many Bowie compilations and greatest hits albums since, and I have a few, but I don’t think any work quite as well. CHANGESONEBOWIE was expanded into “CHANGESBOWIE” in 1990 to coincide with Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” greatest hits tour. This version expanded from 11 to 21 songs, stretching to 1984”s “Blue Jean.” This album also works well, and indeed reflects 20 actual great hits. The challenge with compilations is giving a hook to fans who already have the original albums from which the songs derived. So the great sin of CHANGESBOWIE was to replace “Fame,” with an inferior remix called, “Fame ‘90” (I understand that subsequent reissues of CHANGESBOWIE switched back to the original “Fame.”

Although I’m not at all sure that the 1990 version had the same influence as the 1976 edition, it does seem to accurately chronicle Bowie’s “greatest hits” period. Bowie created an enormous amount of music after 1984, but I seldom (though not never) encounter songs from after that period unless I play them myself. What’s a post-1984 greatest hit? “Dead Man Waking (1997),” “Thursday’s Child” (1999), “Slow Burn” (2002), “New Killer Star” (2003), “The Stars Are Out Tonight” (2013) and “Blackstar” (2016) all either won or were nominated for Grammys, but I don’t think any, with the possible exception of “Blackstar” are as well known and get nearly as much radio play as even the most obscure song on either version of the CHANGES albums. I’m not exactly sure why this is.

There are Bowie compilations that are not greatest hits albums. Shortly before CHANGESBOWIE was released, Bowie also released the magnificent three-disc collection, “Sound and Vision,” which included songs from 1969- 1980. It includes both hits and less well known songs, as well as some live versions of songs that are known better as studio recordings.

If the CHANGES albums helped define Bowie’s greatest hits period, they did so both through inclusion and exclusion. Neither version contains any Bowie songs prior to “Space Oddity.” Bowie’s first studio album, titled “David Bowie,” remains available but not at all well-known. Bowie himself rarely (but not never) revisited his 1960s music other than “Space Oddity.” Also banished to the frontiers of the Bowie catalogue, at least from the mid-1970s until Nirvana resurrected the song, “The Man Who Sold the Wold,” was the album of the same name. No songs from that album appeared on either CHANGES. The 1990 version could have but doesn’t included songs from “Never Let Me Down (1987),” “Tin Machine” (1989) or “Labyrinth” (1986; though in fairness, the soundtrack is not a pure Bowie album). Not at all coincidently, the only time I ever heard Bowie perform any songs from any of those albums live was at the “Glass Spider Tour” show in 1987, when he was promoting “Never Let Me Down.”

Eventually, however, it didn’t really make sense to limit a standard-issue “best of” album to essentially the first half of an artist’s career. The CHANGES series (I’ll get to CHANGESTWOBOWIE) next week, was supplanted in 2002 by the “Best of Bowie” series, including an overall “Best of” album spanning most of his career to that point (again excluding the 1967 debut), and then three albums covering three consecutive periods in greater depth. I have the first of these albums, covering 1969-1974, which includes a version of “All the Young Dudes” recorded in the studio by Bowie, rather than Mott the Hoople.

Two versions of a newer collection, called, “Nothing Has Changed” were released in 2014. The three-disc version of this includes songs as early as 1964 and includes a version of a song, “Sue (Or a Victim of Crime)” that would appear on “Blackstar,” which was still more than a year away.

These are all well and good, but I think less influential than the original 11-song collection, CHANGESONE.

Of course, today I can create my own compilation albums whenever I pick up my IPod. Compilation albums exist less for fans like me who already have all (or most) of Bowie’s albums. Any of these can work for the casual or new fan. If you don’t like the original CHANGESONE, you aren’t going to be a Bowie fan.

One other thing about CHANGESONE— the packaging is excellent. The black-and-white picture of a contemplative Bowie was unlike any of this previous album covers, which accentuated his unusual appearance. Just two years earlier, Bowie depicted himself as a side-show freak on the cover of “Diamond Dogs.” Now, he appears as a normal, if good looking guy up to nothing more than thinking. He looks calm and unthreatening. The album’s title logo is also memorable and is in fact the inspiration of the title logo of this very web page. Influenced by the title design for STATIONTOSTATION, CHANGESONE puts the red-lettering of the middle word to use, by implying that “ONE” will be followed by others.

And so it was…

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