What “Sound and Vision” is not is a greatest hits collection. Released at a time when box sets were proliferating (maybe they still are, but it seemed in the late 1980’s and early 90’s that many of the big acts from the previous three decades were issuing massive collections), this three-disc set didn’t even cover the entire span of Bowie’s career to that point. Instead, it included songs from 1969-1980, either from or somehow connected to the studio albums Bowie released during that time. Significantly, many of the songs are not actually from the studio albums. Also included are outtakes and live versions (which double as a way for Bowie to include samples from his live albums at the time). It all works out as a collection more for fans than as an introduction to Bowie.
“Sound and Vision” was released at an interesting juncture in Bowie’s career. Earlier in 1989, Bowie turned his back on his mid-1980’s commercially successful period by joining with three other musicians to form Tin Machine. Though not especially long-lived, Tin Machine was still new when Bowie was setting the stage for a greatest hits tour with the release of this box set. But the box set didn’t include anything from Let’s Dance or anything else newer than “Scary Monsters.” Also absent was any of his very early, pre-Space Oddity work. Though Bowie enjoyed broad appeal during the previous few years, he had lost some of his coolness and was starting to be treated as past his prime. “Sound and Vision” was meant to remind fans and critics who he was and to cement his most enduring contributions. It all works, and (can it be?) 30-years later it still seems new and innovative.
Within the three discs, there are nearly enough “new” songs to make up an album on their own: The early single version of, “The Prettiest Star,” “London by Ta-Ta,” “Round and Round,” “After Today,” “1984/Dodo;” “It’s Hard to Be A Saint in the City” and “Helden” are among the highlights. Among the lowlights? Live versions of songs from “Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture,” “David Live,” and “Stage.” I listen to these live albums from time to time, but switching between studio versions and live versions leaves me wanting the studio versions. (The exception is “White Light/White Heat,” which to my knowledge Bowie never recorded in the studio).
A collection like this wouldn’t be complete without some of the instrumentals from the Berlin Trilogy period. That could have weighed down the third disc, but Bowie included only two, “Speed of Life” and a live version of “Warszawa,” and they are not back to back, so that works.
The songs, and by extension the three discs, are in chronological order. The advantage of this order is that it helps in telling the story of Bowie’s development. The disadvantage is that it concentrates his weaker periods together. “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” has never been one of my favorites (though the version in this collection is different than the version on the album, “Space Oddity”). Two songs later comes “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which is interesting in that it was new to me at the time, but it actually isn’t a very good song. And that’s followed by, “Black Country Rock,” which is included to illustrate Bowie’s Marc Bolan impersonation (so implies the extensive liner-note booklet), but I think of it as one of the weaker songs from “The Man Who Sold the World.” Similarly, the sections from the “Pin Ups” period, while pretty good, are not as good as Bowie’s original material. But most of the underbrush is cleared by the third disc, which is the strongest, and the one single CD of Bowie songs that link (exclusively) music from the three Berlin albums and “Scary Monsters.”
My sister mentioned to me once that she prefers “Sound and Vision” as a Bowie compilation to, “Changesonebowie.” I have affection for the latter, which I actually don’t have occasion to listen to much these days because I don’t have the original album as a CD, because it was the album that made me realize I was a Bowie fan. It serves (and served) a different purpose that “Sound and Vision.” By mixing live and studio, hits and obscure songs, folk, glam, disco and new wave, “Sound and Vision” is as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why, 30-years after its initial release, it is still in print and still worth hearing.