David Bowie so despised his 1987 studio album, Never Let Me Down, that he didn’t play a single song from it live after wrapping the tour behind it. And on the rare occasions when he discussed the record publicly, he hardly looked back on it fondly. “Oh, to redo the rest of that album,” he wrote in the liner notes to the 2008 iSelect compilation, which featured a rerecorded version of Never Let Me Down’s “Time Will Crawl,” where Sterling Campbell’s steady pocket mercifully replaces the bombastic programmed drums that dominated the record.
Sadly, Bowie died before he could have another crack at the album. But some trusted Bowie associates, including Campbell—who had recorded and toured frequently with Bowie from the early ’90s up until sessions for his penultimate studio album, 2013’s The Next Day—took it upon themselves to undertake a project they were sure the iconic artist would have gotten around to had he lived long enough. Campbell, engineer/producer Mario McNulty, guitarists Reeves Gabrels and David Torn, and bassist Tim Lefebvre retracked Never Let Me Down from the ground up, working with little from the original apart from Bowie’s vocals. The rerecorded Never Let Me Down is included in last year’s box set Loving the Alien [1983 to 1988], and it represents a massive improvement over the original.
Campbell’s role cannot be overstated. He adds a sorely needed human touch to songs that deserved a much better treatment than what they received thirty-plus years ago, when David Bowie pulled the very un–David Bowie–like move of doing what everyone else was doing at the time, like using programmed drums slathered in gated reverb, synthesized horns, gang vocals, and slap bass. By chipping away at the original’s wall of artificial sound, Campbell and crew reveal some very strong songs and typically sublime vocal performances from Bowie that were previously obscured by utter sonic confusion.
“Time Will Crawl” (left intact from its 2008 reboot) is a good example of Campbell using addition by subtraction to find a song’s sweet spot. Where the original opens with a pounding fill that sounds like someone programmed the drum machine to the “Tony Thompson on the Power Station Album” setting, Campbell lays out until the song is well along here, letting the guitars, strings and Bowie’s mournful vocal build at a measured clip before settling into a groove. On songs like the title track, Campbell doesn’t stray far from the original part; instead he humanizes the feel by tapping out the stuttering programmed hi-hat pattern with his own two hands, and breaking at the top of the choruses to give the hook room to breathe.
Campbell’s most drastic alterations come on songs like “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” and “Bang Bang,” both recast in half-time. The original “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” bopped along like a lost A-ha song, its sunny feel and melodies at odds with Bowie’s tale of addicts and hookers. Campbell lays down a weighty, strutting backbeat that still fits perfectly with Bowie’s vocal cadence and gives the song an edge it lacked in its previous iteration. “Bang Bang,” an Iggy Pop cover, is transformed from a generic ’80s rocker into something more menacing that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a later Bowie record.
It’ll be interesting to see if the rerecorded Never Let Me Down inspires other artists to revisit work they felt got away from them. At the very least, Campbell and company have transformed an album that represented Bowie’s creative nadir into something rock’s great chameleon likely would have been very pleased with.
Sterling Campbell on Retracking Never Let Me Down
MD: Did you have demos to use as blueprints?
Sterling: I did. But there just wasn’t anything that was making me want to do anything with them [in advance]. It just felt like a natural thing to wait until we got into the studio. Everything I’ve ever done with David was always flying by the seat of my pants. I never knew what I was going to play.
MD: So you went in cold?
Sterling: I really didn’t have a plan. The plan came once we started getting rid of stuff from the original tracks. Once things got stripped out and I had room to play, I could really hear what David was doing. Then I could go, Okay, I need to get out of the way or I need to change this part.
MD: How much time did you spend tracking the drums?
Sterling: We had three days to rethink this thing. We had to fly by the seat of our pants. It wasn’t really super thought-out. And I’d had a layoff from playing drums for a month or two, and I remember just being so tired because I hadn’t played. And the first day I don’t know if we kept anything. I was just trying to get back in the mechanics of playing.
MD: How involved was David when it came to tracking drums?
Sterling: It’d be, “How about this?” That’s about as intellectual as it ever got between me and David over the years. He’d throw up something— sometimes it’d just have chords, no vocals—and we’d track. He could tailor completely around what you do. He was a genius at that.
Sterling Campbell plays DW drums and Zildjian cymbals and uses Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, and Roland products.