Never Let Me Down (2018)

David and I were sitting on deckchairs by Mountain Studio in Switzerland, looking across Lake Geneva. He started telling me, ‘Y’know, I’m proud of the songs on Never Let Me Down, but I wasn’t in the best shape and wasn’t as present as I should’ve been at the sessions.’ He later pointed to a couch in the studio and said, ‘I did most of my work on the record from there, passed out.’ He blamed himself for a lot of it and suggested we try re-recording some of those songs back then. It was a subject that would come up periodically through the years, usually late at night on the tour bus or in the studio.
Reeves Gabrels
Uncut, November 2018

In June 2008, the Mail on Sunday newspaper gave away a new David Bowie compilation, iSelect. The CD contained 12 songs, one of which was previously unavailable: a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’ by Mario McNulty.

In March of 2008, David Bowie called me early one morning. Nearly laughing, he brightly said, ‘Hi Mario, it’s David. What are you up to next week?’ I snapped awake at David’s voice: he was trying not to laugh since he knew damn well I was asleep. David explained to me that he wanted to try something new with an old song. He knew I was in and didn’t really have to ask! I went over to his house later that same day, and he spoke of the song ‘Time Will Crawl’ from his 1987 album, Never Let Me Down

We spent the afternoon in his living room going over the basic plot of the song and his ideas for what he wanted to achieve production-wise. Nothing would change with his vocals or lyrics. I would keep all those from the master tapes and build around them. David asked me where I wanted to work. ‘Electric Lady, Studio A,’ I responded. He quickly said, ‘Call Sterling.’

Mario J McNulty, May 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Bowie also published a track-by-track commentary on each of the songs. While discussing ‘Time Will Crawl’, he also expressed a desire to rework the rest of Never Let Me Down.

There are a host of songs that I’ve recorded over the years that for one reason or another (clenched teeth) I’ve often wanted to re-record some time in the future. This track from Never Let Me Down is one of those.

I’ve replaced the drum machine with true drums and added some crickety strings and remixed. I’m very fond of this new version with its Neil Young of Shortlands accents. Oh, to redo the rest of that album.

David Bowie
Mail Online

Bowie never returned to the rest of the album, but after his death McNulty was able to do just that.

There were three major changes that David was specifically looking for when we redid ‘Time Will Crawl’. One was replacing the cold, badly programmed drum machines with real acoustic drums. He also wanted to have a very modern string arrangement, in the style of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. And the other thing was to make a new arrangement, getting rid of most of what was there, then taking bits and looping them. He was getting creative with the existing track.
Mario McNulty
Uncut, November 2018

McNulty worked with Bowie on several other projects, including The Next Day and mixes for the Nothing Has Changed compilation. This gave him a good understanding of how Bowie operated in the studio.

When I received the masters, the journey began. I started a methodical process of stripping away the recordings, leaving just David’s lead vocal and a bare bones drum machine track. From there, the idea was to build organically, using mostly music played live in the studio. Thus, I needed to figure out what each song needed and who would be involved to create it.

I also needed a band. I hired Sterling Campbell, on drums, who played on ‘Time Will Crawl’. David was enthusiastic about his playing and felt it worked perfectly for this material. I added Tim Lefebvre, who was in the Blackstar band, playing bass guitar. I knew I needed something specific from the guitars, so I called Reeves Gabrels and David Torn. These wonderful musicians all had a history with David so they were a perfect fit for what would seem like brand new songs. After some decision making, I needed some very distinct programming on two songs, so I called world-renowned programmer Steven Wolf. Lastly, I needed to record strings on several songs. David spent so much time talking to me about Scott Walker, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, not just in general, but in regards to ‘Time Will Crawl’. I needed someone who could converse on this level. I called my old friend, master composer Nico Muhly, whom I met when we were both interns working for Philip Glass in 2001. The band was complete.

Mario J McNulty, May 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

The new recordings were made in early 2018 at Studio A at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, and at McNulty’s home studio, Incognito, in Lower Manhattan. The album was also mixed at Incognito, including a new mix of ‘Time Will Crawl’.

It was an emotional process. One theme that I kept to every day, but also stated this to the band, was ‘I want to think of David being in the room at all times.’ This mindset made it possible to take on this new version. Back in 2008, I didn’t think a re-produced album would come to fruition. Now it’s complete, and it feels like a new David Bowie album – and a part of the Bowie lexicon.
Mario J McNulty, May 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

One of the first songs to be tackled was ‘Zeroes’.

Mario played it to me with bass, drums and just David’s acoustic guitar and vocals on the first day at Electric Lady. I was like, ‘Wow! There’s a song here!’ It was obvious that a second acoustic guitar would beef it up a little. One of the things David and I often used to do, from Tin Machine through to ‘hours…’, is play double acoustic guitar together. Sometimes he’d play 12-string and I’d play six-string, and vice versa. We’d sit facing each other with our guitars in front of the mics. So I started playing ‘Zeroes’ on acoustic guitar, with my eyes closed while we were recording. In my mind’s eye I saw David sitting across from me. I could see the way he would move his shoulder and even the way he’d cross his legs and bounce the crossed leg while he was playing. He’d look at you, but at the same time get this faraway look in his eye. When I got to the end of the track, I opened my eyes and of course he wasn’t there. I knew at some point during the session that I was going to feel like I was about to cry. I was just glad I was sitting alone in the studio when it happened.
Reeves Gabrels
Uncut, November 2018

The first fruits of the sessions were revealed on 19 July 2018, with the announcement of the ‘Zeroes’/’Beat Of Your Drum’ double a-side 7″ picture disc. ‘Zeroes’ was made available as a digital download on the same day, with the single – containing radio edits of both songs – following on 7 September.

It was a labour of love and we were following David’s wishes and, to some degree, instructions. At one point I thought to myself, ‘He’s just doing this to fuck with us.’ Torn and I cut some of the guitar overdubs spontaneously. We were really having fun, and in a way you’re thinking, ‘Wait ’til David hears this tomorrow.’

It was like Mario had cast a great movie. We all looked at each other at one point and went, ‘Fuck, we should take this band out on the road if only the singer was still alive.’ There were a number of things that were said where I could imagine David laughing at them. He was the one who once told me, ‘Death will never hurt an artist’s career.’

Reeves Gabrels
Uncut, November 2018

The full Never Let Me Down (2018) album was released on 12 October 2018 as part of the Loving The Alien (1983-1988) box set.

We didn’t have any real plan, we would throw the old multiple tracks up and do them one by one. The spirit of David was definitely in it. You’d laugh if you saw how most of the stuff I did with that man was done. It’s almost comedic. We’re technically dicking around, but at the same time we know what we’re doing.

David’s voice was astounding to listen to after everything else had been stripped away. I couldn’t trip on the record in ’87, but just hearing him on an acoustic guitar and vocals made me go, ‘Holy crap! This is an amazing song.’ It sounds so much more powerful now.

Sterling Campbell
Uncut, November 2018