Medium Rare

by Allan Jones

1983

RARE (RCA) Only fleetingly interesting as a serious of footnotes to the various stages of Bowie’s career, this haphazard, poorly annotated collection has nothing much to say about the serial contortions of his artistic progression; neither does it offer any significant insight into his finally tuned anticipation and manipulation of the drifts and fluctuations of musical styles, fashions and emphasis. Rather like Steve Sutherland in one of his more belligerently opinionated moods, “Rare” makes more noise than sense.

…..Presumably intended originally for the Italian market – according to the sleeve the LP was “conceived and compiled” by Fabrizio Ferucci and Carlo Basile – and picked up by RCA here to plug the gap in new Bowie product brought about by the great man’s various thespian commitments, “Rare” features 11 tracks, few of which fully justify the record’s rather exaggerated title.

…..The action starts with “Ragazzo solo, Ragazza sola. This turns out to be “Space Oddity” set to an Italian lyric. Interesting, I suppose, if you’ve ever yearned after a Bowie impersonation of a Neapolitan fishmonger; otherwise, it’s appeal is singularly limited, despite the obvious novelty.

…..Round and round” follows. A cover of the Chuck Berry song featuring the original Spiders From Mars, it prefaced the “Pin Ups” collection and also served as a retrospective tribute to the sixties R&B groups who helped shape Bowie’s musical direction during his earliest flirtations with rock’n’roll. Played with persuasive aplomb, with Mick Ronson sounding like he’s auditioning for the Yardbirds, it’s affectionate and lively: Bowie turns in one of his most convincingly uninhibited vocals – full of delightful clucks and whoops – while Ronson lends admirable support on all fronts, rounding off his contribution with a tip of the plectrum in the general direction of Jeff Beck.

…..Also previously available as a flipside, Bowie’s version of Jacques Brel’s torrid ballad “Amsterdam” is next on the “Rare” agenda. Bowie’s vision of Brel’s seedy universe is inevitably melodramatic and seems, in retrospect, too earnest and caterwauling, though I do recall being stirred as a 19-year-old depressive living in an art school garret by its trenchant sincerity; ah, those were the days: cheap wine, cheap women, cheap memories. Bowie’s performance now seems very thespian, very arch. The temptation is always there with Brel, of course: his songs bring out the ham in everyone. Bowie couldn’t avoid an excess of theatricality then, just as Marc Almond can’t now.

…..The version of “Holy holy” isn’t, I think, the recording that was released as an unsuccessful single in 1970. This cut is done in the rather heavy-handed manner of the re-make of “The Prettiest Star” (another song from the same period) that appeared on “Aladdin Sane“. It offers little more then the opportunity for Ronson to indulge in some familiar guitar histrionics and sounds overheated and anxious.

…..It sounds positively modest, however, compared to the bloated arrangement here of “Panic In Detroit“. A live recording from the American tour which also gave us “David Live”, the cut buckles under the ungainly weight of brass and synth fanfares, Earl Slick’s scalding guitar eruptions and the diverting wail of the back-up singers. Bowie sounds lost amid the general bluster and fuss, the smart tension of the original is lost and Slick goes ape-shit with a lurid HM solo featuring, no doubt, lots of string-bending and even more face-pulling: very off-putting. Looking up momentarily, side one ends with “Young Americans“, whose inclusion surely challenges the authenticity of the LP’s title, though I wouldn’t argue with the enduring excellence of either song or performance.

…..Available here in 1975 as part of RCA’s re-issued “Space Oddity” package, “Velvet goldmine” resolutely refuses to make the world spin, makes all the right noises, but none of the connections, its jaunty thump sounding gullible and hollow. More worthy of its place on this LP, “Helden“, the German version of “Heroes” puts the record back on a commendable course. One of those songs that would remain heartstopingly poignant sung in Albanian to an accompaniment of detuned balalaikas, “Heroes” remains one of the most indestructible songs of the last decade: beautiful, dignified, its quality, at least, is genuinely rare. And Bowie’s vocal here assumes an even greater force than he brought to the English language version, even surviving a couple of potentially comic moments toward the climax hear things threaten to get seriously out of hand.

…..Remarkable mainly for the way in which Bowie managed to disguise the wreckled rattle of his voice, “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” is from the Sigma Sound sessions that produced “Young Americans“. This version was a hit here in 1979. “Moon Of Alabama”, meanwhile, is a live recording from the “Stage” tour; it’s another of Bowie’s stilted, camp performances. Dramatically effective in the context of his concerts at the time, it sounds oddly coarse and colourless here, with none of the bitter licentiousness that would have given it a sharp cutting edge.

…..Finally, “Crystal Japan” is one of those brooding electronic instrumentals with which Bowie became infatuated during his sojourn in Berlin, the scale of which proved to be so influential in shaping the ideas of a whole troop of impressionable young beauties who were attracted to the slick affections of this kind of essay in emotional tourism.

…..Even in silence, Bowie continues to exert a tremendous fascination, but the success of this record probably more truly reflects the meager hold most of today’s pop starlets have on the imagination of their audience. Even Bowie’s debris is more attractive than their bright poses and powdered licks.

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