In the studio

Never Let Me Down was recorded at Mountain Studios on Montreux, and at the Power Station in New York City. David Bowie co-produced the album with David Richards, who had engineered the “Heroes” album, and later co-produced The Buddha Of Suburbia and 1.Outside.

Mountain Studios was located inside Montreux Casino. In 1979 it was bought by Queen, a number of whose albums were produced by Richards, and in 1995 he took over the studio from the band.

We generally worked in the daytime only; he would arrive at 10am in his distinctive black Volvo 262C Bertone coupé and work through until 6pm most days. He was very relaxed in Montreux. We used to sit out on deckchairs in the car park next to the studio on sunny days smoking cigarettes and the passing locals wouldn’t give him a second glance.
Justin Shirley-Smith, sound engineer, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Iggy Pop had also recorded Blah Blah Blah at the studio. The 1986 album was co-produced by Bowie and Richards, with the majority of the songs co-written by Pop and Bowie. Pop later distanced himself from the record, describing it as “a Bowie album in all but name”, but it became his most commercially successful album.

David had a very good idea of how he wanted everything to sound. Having just completed Iggy’s album, this was surely going to be a rock album. David had bought himself a Fostex 16-track machine and an AHB console so he could write songs at home. I helped him set it up a little bit and then off he went. By the time we started in the studio he had written over 12 songs with all the arrangements completed. He had already decided that we were going to mix the album with Bob Clearmountain in New York and had fixed a definite date for this. So we had to work to a very well-organized schedule, which I find highly productive.
David Richards
Music & Sound Output, June 1987

Bowie began recording Never Let Me Down almost immediately after the completion of Blah Blah Blah, in autumn 1986.

The basis of the album was put down in late September and early October 1986 with just David, Dave, Erdal and me present. Erdal can play almost any instrument, has perfect pitch and is an excellent singer himself. Dave Richards, as engineer and co-producer, was always keen to let an artist work as freely as possible and was expert at bypassing any technical hold-ups. Sometimes these can turn a session into a nightmare, but he was very skilled with his Linn 9000 drum machine and was able, along with David and Erdal, to sketch out the songs quickly as a framework for the rest of the instrumentation.
Justin Shirley-Smith, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

The first two weeks involved Bowie, Richards and Erdal Kızılçay laying down the backing tracks. The small team stuck to a strict working schedule.

We used to start at about 10 in the morning and finish in the evening about 8 o’clock. David was very disciplined… He was always trying something new.
Erdal Kızılçay
Rolling Stone, 27 April 2017

With the basic tracks complete, Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton were brought in to add guitar parts.

In October we had the pleasure of Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar’s company for guitar overdubs. David said he’d been wanting to work with Peter for some time because they’d been at the same school as teenagers, not to mention the fact that he was a guitar wizard. Carlos needs no introduction to Bowie fans of course and was even more impressive a musician than I could have imagined. It was fascinating to witness David and Carlos working together on those chiming and interlocking guitar parts.
Justin Shirley-Smith, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

According to Kızılçay, Frampton “had so much gear he was playing in the control room downstairs”.

Looking at them now, all the tape boxes from the sessions are labelled “Artist: THE BILLYCATS”. I should remember this because it was me who wrote the labels. But I don’t remember. It was obviously David’s ploy to avoid the attentions of would-be thieves.
Justin Shirley-Smith, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Alomar later suggested that Bowie was despondent and directionless during the sessions, and was under pressure from his record label EMI to come up with new material.

David was at a loss during the whole album. He just gave up. You cannot have a record company constantly telling you, ‘Look, this is no good, give us something like this. Work with that person, work with this person, we don’t want you working with that person any more.’ It’s bullshit. After a while the record company was saying, ‘Look, you’re gonna have to go into the studio to deliver another album by the end of the year or you’re gonna get into trouble for non-delivery.’ The man didn’t want to go into the studio to record an album. When you let the political agenda of a record company infiltrate your mood, there’s no inspiration.
Carlos Alomar
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie recorded guide vocals in the Montreux sessions. Although he later re-recorded the parts in New York, most of the album’s vocals were his initial attempts.

David was often tinkering with lyrics and would suddenly want to rush in to try out a new line or verse. He’d take very little time recording his vocals, however. If you look at the track-sheets you can see hardly any vocal out-take tracks and that’s very unusual in my experience. We were always astounded by his performances, and it’s these I most love reliving when listening to the album.
Justin Shirley-Smith, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

In addition to the eleven songs on the original edition of Never Let Me Down, there were outtakes including ‘Julie’ and ‘Girls’. Furthermore, some songs were recorded with working titles – these included ‘How We War’ for ‘Time Will Crawl’, and ‘Isolation’ for ‘Never Let Me Down’.

At the Power Station, overdubs included what Richards called “the sounds you can only get in New York – the Borneo Horns, the girl backing vocalists, and a great percussionist called Crusher Bennett. Crusher set all his ‘bangers’ and ‘scrappers’ on a table, which I miked at each end. So whenever he moved around, the sounds would pan with him, creating some strange spatial effects.”

My last tasks on this project included making safety copies and then a tape list for the move to Power Station in New York where the album was finished and mixed. I didn’t go to New York so I can’t write about it much but Dave Richards did tell me a little about what happened there. He was in one studio finishing the recordings while Bob Clearmountain was in another starting the mixing. Dave considered Bob a legend and said that Bob had ‘told him off’ for using the wrong microphone on David’s voice!
Justin Shirley-Smith, March 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

In December 1986, an early running order was assembled with several differences from the final version. ‘Never Let Me Down’ had not been recorded, and the song ‘Girls’ was included. The album at that time had ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Day-In Day-Out’, ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘New York’s In Love’ and ‘Bang Bang’ on side one, and ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, ‘Glass Spider’, ‘Too Dizzy’, ‘’87 And Cry’, ‘Girls’ (Extended Edit), and ‘Zeroes’ on side two.

The song ‘Never Let Me Down’ was the final addition to the album. It was written and recorded in a single day during the final week of mixing at the Power Station.

David came in one day and said he had a great idea for a new song. Power Station Studio A just happened to be free. So we flew down the elevator to start recording in the other room, leaving Bob on the third floor to mix ‘Zeroes’. We already had a drum track from a song that had been abandoned in Montreux. And after David had sung over this, it already sounded fantastic. By 11:00 that night, Carlos had been in to add some guitars and Crusher some percussion. The song was finished and was called ‘Never Let Me Down’. We rushed back upstairs to hear Bob’s mix of ‘Zeroes’, which, of course, was wonderful. And the very next day Bob was in again, mixing ‘Never Let Me Down’. It was so exciting to have the two studios going at once, and to have that kind of creativity happening all around us. It’s something I will never forget.
David Richards
Music & Sound Output, June 1987