David Bowie’s Producers Discuss His 1980s Highs and Lows, as Collected in New Boxed Set

Producers Nile Rodgers and engineer Mario McNulty discuss their work on "Let's Dance" and a re-imagined version of "Never Let Me Down," centerpieces of an 11-CD set, “Loving the Alien."

David Bowie
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The new boxed set from David Bowie, “Loving the Alien (1983 – 1988),” encompasses an era that brought out some of the chameleonic artist’s best-loved work — starting right off with the massive “Let’s Dance” album — and also some of his least loved. In the latter case, we’re talking about Bowie’s own lack of affection: He had so little residual good will for 1987’s “Never Let Me Down” that he spoke of redoing the whole thing… a not-quite-dying wish that this set makes good on.

Variety talked with the producers of both those key elements of the new package, including the legendary Nile Rodgers, whose collaboration with Bowie in 1983 resulted in his greatest popular success. In the case of “Never Let Me Down,” we spoke with the man who effectively re-produced the project, latter-day Bowie engineer Mario McNulty, who presided over a controversial, virtually all-new remix of the album that features new instrumentation and even substitutes a different celebrity guest.

The boxed set also includes the original version of “Never Let Me Down,” as well as everything else he released on a full-length album during this period. The 11-CD, 15-piece vinyl collection is the latest in an annual, chronological series of Bowie boxes from Rhino/Parlophone, and the first to embrace the multi-platinum pop star he would become, a sound and vision that Bowie wound up at odds with.

As the series moves from the 1970s and his reign as the folkie Major Tom-goes-glam king-goes-Krautrock-avatar into the 1980s, a new set of characters emerge. Gone are Ken Scott, Tony Visconti, Harry Maslin and Brian Eno, who collaborated with Bowie on such albums as “Alladin Sane,” “Station to Station,” “Low” and “Scary Monsters.” In come glossier rock and new wave producers such as Hugh Padgham (the king of the gated drum sound behind 1984’s “Tonight”), David Richards (1987’s “Never Let Me Down”) and Rodgers, who made his name in the rock idiom “Let’s Dance” in 1983. (The new box also includes the soundtrack to “Labyrinth,” which had Bowie as its Goblin King.)

“David opened a door for me that never closed, and for that I am grateful,” says Rodgers, discussing the sleek, post-Chic sound of Little Richard rock and roll, big band jazz and chunky R&B that he and Bowie chose for “Let’s Dance.”

Rodgers spoke enthusiastically about going into the Bowie family’s archives, working on the remastering process (“I just thought of what would David do”), and quickly reminisced about the pair “talking about jazz, avant-garde stuff.” He was happy to dig up “all of the original production notes and tapes, where you could hear David and I laughing and joking in the studio,” he says. “Holy cow…. I forgot that we did the demos in mere days in Switzerland. I didn’t realize that until I looked at the notes. Then we did the rest of it in 17 days — all of it, like four songs a day. Amazing.”

When it came to creating a new sound for Bowie on “Let’s Dance,” one based on the R&B, jazz and early rock and roll that he loved, Rodgers remembers, “Bowie had this wonderful saying: ‘Nile, darling, it’s all the same, but different.’”

In the case of “Never Let Me Down,” McNulty was charged with rescuing the reputation of an album that’s often regarded as one of Bowie’s weakest by fans as well as the late artist himself — but primarily for the dated sound, not the material itself, which wound up underrated in the process.

“Much of the music of that era he wasn’t happy with, but not so much the melodies – he loved those — but rather the production, the sequencers and such,” says McNulty, who first acted as an engineer for Bowie on 2003’s “Reality,” then again for 2013’s “The Next Day.”

McNulty had his own camaraderie with Bowie, probably based on the fact that the Midwest native moved to Manhattan and became an intern in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass studio specifically to work with Bowie. “I started as an intern there in 2001, because I heard Bowie liked that studio,“ said McNulty, who worked alongside Tony Visconti for many a session at Looking Glass. (Nu-classical artist Nico Muhly, who handled shimmering, subtle string arrangements on the re-furbished “Never Let Me Down,” also started as an intern for Glass that same year.) “I just got lucky,” says the engineer of being asked to step behind the board for “Reality,” and the then-super-secret sessions for “The Next Day.”

“Sterling Campbell is my best friend, and even he didn’t tell me he was part of Bowie’s core band for those demos,” says McNulty. “I got in on that record because I happened to be having lunch in the studio with Tony when David’s call came in. He told Tony to ‘break the news to me,’ and I was in.”

Bowie did connect with McNulty in-between those albums when he asked the engineer, in 2008, to “remake and reproduce” a “Never Let Me Down” track, “Time Will Crawl.”

“David said that he had an idea, and to come over,” noted McNulty. “That’s how I found out how serious he was about altering ‘Never Let Me Down,’ and his feelings for the rest of the album. At first, I had no idea he wanted to do something, or if it was just passing conversation — it’s tough to tell with him — but eventually I found how he was not happy with the album. As we re-did ‘Time Will Crawl,’ he vented, rolled his eyes a lot, and said how very much he would like to re-do that album.”

McNulty talked about the topical reasons that he believed were behind Bowie wanting to remodel “Never Let Me Down,”  and most of those problems came down to the ’80s qualities of its production, the overall use of sequencers, its synthetic drums and the cluttered complexity that came from those hassles.

“It was David’s wishes that we re-do it, so we did,” said McNulty, who got the word first from Parlophone in London, then the blessing and permission of the Bowie family offices in New York City.

Were there specific notes that came directly from Bowie? “As far as I know, there are some things, that I have not heard or seen, as I am not privy to that.” What McNulty did do, when he got the “NLMD” master tapes and demos, was go through a methodical process of subtraction. “I wanted to understand the songs at their core level — these were some of his favorite melodies, he really loved those songs — so where you wind up is with Bowie and his acoustic guitar. I based what I did, how I stripped it down, upon Bowie’s initial wishes for ‘Time Will CrawI.’ I had to interpret that for the rest of the album.”

Bowie wanted a more organic, less mechanical product, and McNulty re-recorded “NLMD” at Electric Lady Studios with pal Sterling Campbell drumming, Tim Lefebvre on bass (from the “Blackstar” sessions) and Reeves Gabrels and David Torn on guitars. All of the musicians had a history with David, and thus were a perfect fit for what now sound like brand new songs. “Bowie chose Sterling for ‘Time Will Crawl,’ so that was easy. The rest I had to carefully choose going off of discussions that I had with David… Lots of things were discussed — musicians, styles, and sounds. Because of that I picked those players which would fit the album and what David wanted musically.”

One of the most unique new moments of “NLMD” comes in the re-recording of “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” with a spoken-word Laurie Anderson piece replacing the 1987 voice of Mickey Rourke.

“This was me, my instinct, saying this is not appropriate, and how I wanted to do right for the song,” says McNulty, stifling a laugh. “There were many problems with that song — even without Mickey doing what they called a ‘method rap’ in the middle — such as the groove, and the overall sound. Below the original production, there was something dark and Smokey Robinson-like underneath all of that ’80s technology… I needed another voice to go there, with the sort of depth required of the song, and I was lucky that Laurie agreed to do it. David loved Laurie and Laurie loved David.”

And with that, McNulty said that the new “Never Let Me Down” is “nothing against Mickey, or the original band, producer or even the initial album — which is part of the box set, and of history. They were all fabulous people who David loved. This is about David not doing what he wished he would have done.” And then McNulty laughed: “None of this would have happened if David would not have made such a fuss about it.”