By Jingo! Bowie "A-Dresses" His Issues (Or Someone Else's?)

The controversial Bowie dress cover did not make the American cut when the album was first released in America in the Fall of 1970.

Instead, on the cover was a cartoon of a rifle-toting, grizzled guy whose cowboy hat appears to have been shattered by a bullet. The speech bubble next to his mouth is empty. Behind him is an institution of some kind.

While some at the time claimed the cover was a replacement for the "Bowie in a dress" cover found on the UK Philips original because America wasn't ready for a drag queen rocker, the American release actually came first, with the British original dress cover released the next April.

Plus, the American cover art was drawn a Bowie friend. And you know what? This is a photo of a guy in a dress who does not look like a drag queen. That's actually a more disturbing image!

When RCA signed Bowie and took control of the Philips catalog, it used Ziggy Stardust images to reissue this album and the folkier eponymous Philips debut album.

Not that the cover art really matters. What counts is what's in the grooves of the first "real" David Bowie album. The music, anchored by monstrously deep bass, is a mix of heavy metal, blues-rock and hard rock produced by Tony Visconti, who also plays that "monstrously deep bass".

That's what can happen when you give the bass player the producer reins! Visconti didn't abuse the power. Instead he made the metal on this record really heavy!

Mick Ronson on guitar and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey on drums formed the core of what would become The Spiders From Mars. Ralph Mace, a former Philips promo man and tour support manager, plays Moog synthesizer.

During the making of this record, Bowie married his American girlfriend Angie, but obviously from the androgynous U.K. cover art and homo-erotic lyrics on "The Width of a Circle" ("Got layed by a young bordello, I was vaguely half asleep, For which my reputation swept back home in drag") Bowie was still exploring his (or someone's) sexuality or using his past life and/or experiences as grist for his lyrical mill.

The other songs deal with mental illness ("All the Madmen"), a sexual encounter with a woman who "sucked his dormant will" and "shook (him) cold", a grisly war song ("Running Gun Blues"), a gloriously creepy one steeped in heavy mythology ("The Supermen") that features a Ronson guitar sound that could have inspired Brian May, one that contains Nietzsche and Crowley references ("After All") and heard in retrospect may have been reprised visually in the video for "Ashes to Ashes" and of course the song that stopped everyone in their tracks who heard it in 1970, "The Man Who Sold the World".

The one two punch produced by "After All" and "The Man Who Sold the World" are without question among the most powerful ever put on record by any rock artist. However, while the title tune is regarded as the album's classic—perhaps reinforced by Kurt Cobain's MTV Unplugged performance— I think "After All" is the album's greatest achievement both compositionally and in terms of the production. But that's just my opinion, by jingo! As is mine that this album is Bowie's pinnacle, with Ziggy Stardust being the theatrical commercial kiddie show for an audience that couldn't handle this album's dark, powerful and disturbing imagery and even heavier music. Listen to what Mick Ronson does here and you tell me why he is not in the rock guitar pantheon? It's an injustice!

Now we get to the reissue's sound and packaging. The packaging gets at "A". It's faithful to the original, down to the cover paper's texture. As for the sound, I compared this reissue to the original American Mercury (SR 61325), to the 1972 RCA UK reissue (LSP-4816) and to the 1976 Japanese reissue (RVP-6125).

Without comparing to older versions, tonally at least, the new reissue sounds to me to be more faithful to the original and to the early RCA reissue than did Hunky Dory. The massive bass remains massive and explosive as well as being texturally and tonally very well defined, though only if your turntable can deal with the energy—I'm hearing it now as I've never before heard it thanks to the SAT arm. However, the new reissue's top end lacks the original's transparency, air and three-dimensionality, while it seems to better the original in terms of control and image stability. I'm just guessing, and would be happy to be proven wrong, but I think this record was cut from a well produced digital file. It just has that particular "clean-spatially flat" sound.

However, because it does stick more closely to the original's tonal script, it is a better reissue than Hunky Dory. I've never heard a U.K. original but based on what I have heard, if you want the best sounding version of this album I'd go for either the American original or the U.K. or Japanese reissues. They have more air, space and "life" even though this reissue has been very well produced. However this was sourced, the tape sounds less "tired" than does Hunky Dory's tape but it sounds somewhat "tired" nonetheless. Still, compared to nothing else, it's a very good reissue: well packaged, mastered and pressed. And if it was cut from analog tape and not from a file and Ray Staff wants to correct me, I'll gladly put it in print here.

StonedBeatles1's picture

What happened to the air brushed pubic hairs? LOL.

VirginVinyl's picture

I don't what hear Genetically Modified Vinyl, (side effect include ringing ears, binging, puffiness and flatulence). Come on Ray, you can fool one but you cannot fool them all. I'm standing my ground and I'm not going to buy the box set unless you are transparent to what you used.

The consumer have the right to know. Say No To GMV!

PeterPani's picture

I buy new old music only if I know a clear statement what the sources were. I will even buy a digitally sourced vinyl. But I will not buying anything without a clear statement regarding sources and mastering/cutting chain. They don't have to put it on the record, but for sure on their homepage.

StevieG's picture

Agreed. Unless it's explicitly stated, I won't buy it. I'm fed up with the deliberate coyness in the record industry regarding reissue sources. The idea behind the vinyl resurgence was to offer better (analog) sound. I have no desire to buy a big black vinyl CD just for some hipster cred.

GeorgesCrochet's picture

There was also another version that RCA put out later in the states, showing Bowie in Ziggy drag, doing a high kick. I always preferred the original US cover: I see it as a reference to University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman who left 16 people dead in Austin in 1966, shooting them all from a clock tower.

essmeier's picture

...and most of the copies you see are counterfeits, so beware when buying. The fakes have oversaturated, overly-red label color and pits in the label, where the texture of the original labels are all smooth.

The record sold poorly here, so originals are really hard to find.

You can compare the fake label and the original label here:

john ryan horse's picture

Ronson's guitar 'could have influenced Brian May", yes, but MWSTW (& at least the first 2 Queen albums), sound strongly influenced by the Jeff Beck Group's "Truth", which makes sense as Ken Scott engineered Truth and MWSTW, and Ronson was a Beck fanatic. But even Tony's bass recalls the thick, dense bass playing by pre-Faces/Stones Ron Wood...Don't know if Truth was recorded at Advision studio (I recall the bonus singles on the UK 2006 CD were done at DeLane Lea)...Always loved the album; "Man" & Hunky Dory may be my favorite Bowie at least until the Eno period

Martin's picture

However, having a couple of copies each of UK and US first pressings of all these records, from reading Michaels reviews, I don't feel in the least bit tempted to go pick these up, either the box set or singly. Then there is the lack of clarity on source material...
The only record I would pick, assuming done properly all analogue I think would be Scary Monsters. Because it is so difficult to find a quiet copy. All the ones I have are pressed on thin, shitty quality vinyl, with far too much surface noise. Even the UK pressings....

Tullman's picture

From Michaels description I would guess digital. Lack of transparency, air and three dimensionality, usually equals digital file. Besides, as of late, labels advertise the fact the record is AAA. When nothing is said, it means digital file, nobody can tell the difference. Some lazy ass engineer trying to make his job easier at the expense of us listeners/consumers.

rockinroni's picture

Thanks Michael for the review
I currently own the original Japan pressing the one with the Glam Rock obi
As most of you know the original Japan pressings are much better than the reissues. Same is true for other countrys records as well. I used to own the 1976 Japan reissue but since this is one of my favorite records I paid the price of admission for a truly great sounding record. The original pressings have that breath of life that the reissues lack.

Sad facts are Sterling sound and Cohearent Audio are 2 of the very few in the world that can still take an Analogue Master tape and make lacquer from it. This is why we are getting so many Digital records lately. Simply because most mastering labs are Digital only.

Chad Kassem has recently purchased The Mastering Lab (TML) from the estate of legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax. No doubt this facility under Chads leadership will be a world class mastering lab producing the worlds finest Analogue remasters

Like Michael says most of these digital records sound ok except the Led Zeppelin junk (don't get me started) until you compare it to something mastered from the Analogue Tape. Then you can hear that you have been ripped off.

I have a youtube channel "Ron Beaudry" where I compare record pressings and I purchase some of the new reissues and compare them to original pressings. I also read Michael's reviews because I don't like spending the big money for digital records. like this box set.
Ron Beaudry