This review originally ran in Goldmine magazine
Encapsulating David Bowie's early years, The Deram Anthology and Essential David Bowie illustrate the artist at his most fluid. Those familiar with Bowie's chameleon label probably first think of his transformations from glitter rocker to soulful disco dandy to avant-garde experimentalist to new wave romantic, but little is popularly known of his transformations from mod rocker to theatrical crooner to mime artiste to hippie folkster.
The Deram Anthology chronicles Bowie's grasps at fame in the late sixties through his characteristic, yet schizophrenic style transformations. The styles he tackles are little known to casual Bowie fans, and hard-core Bowie fans usually regard this era with disdain, buying the periodic re-releases only to round out their collections. But Anthology stands out as a quality, comprehensive reissue that lends perspective to this curious, yet embarrassing, period for Bowie. There's the infamous chipmunk voices of "The Laughing Gnome" and the farting orchestra at the end of "Join The Gang," but there's also the seductive grooves of "Let Me Sleep Beside You" and the gritty mod anthem "The London Boys."
The remastering is incomparable to past compilations of this material. Every instrument shines with its own character. The clear sound of the haunting fade out of "There Is A Happy Land," with the quivering piano and Bowie's scat singing, breathes new life into the song. The only faults are within the original recordings themselves, like the patched in vocals of fellow Bowie theater collaborators Hermione Farthingale and John "Hutch" Hutchinson, on the Love You Till Tuesday version of "Sell Me a Coat."
The compilation does a great job with the chronological organization of every single release during Bowie's Deram period, which included two albums and several singles. Among the 27 tracks are two versions of four songs. The only glaring omission is "When I'm Five" and the Stylophone, freak-out coda of the original "Space Oddity," which first found light of day in the 1994 premiere CD release of Love You Till Tuesday in the U.K. Furthermore, the liner notes tease that Anthology almost featured some unreleased tracks of this period, but Bowie's camp put a stop to that possibility.
With only a brief nod to the hippie in Bowie, Essential illustrates Bowie's embracement of the glam rock scene during the seventies. Anthology chronicles Bowie's failures and Essential his successes. Beginning where Anthology leaves off, Essential features his popularly known, re-worked version of "Space Oddity."
Unfortunately, the mixed up track listing over-simplifies Bowie's contributions to that era. There was a true evolution between his glam albums, which subtly began with Space Oddity, climaxed with bombast on Ziggy Stardust and drowned in high concept with Diamond Dogs. Though, at a duration of 77:34, Essential at least goes beyond tracing Bowie's hit singles of that era. It's inclusion of B-sides like "Velvet Goldmine" and alternate takes like the saxophone embellished version of "John, I'm Only Dancing," which features Marc Bolan, are testament to that.
None of the tracks are previously unreleased, though the track listing claims "The Prettiest Star" and "All The Young Dudes" had never been released prior to Essential. They first appeared, granted in shoddier sound quality, on the Sound+Vision box set in 1989 and the U.K.-only RarestOneBowie compilation in 1994, respectively. As on Anthology, the remastering is impeccable, though some tracks have a subdued, yet annoying echo effect. One might nit pick the choice of tracks but Bowie's prolific work, including numerous collaborations, of this era is actually too abundant to hold on one disk.
In the end, the compilation that gets the best treatment is Anthology. The liner notes are more accurate and the packaging, featuring a collage of the era's picture sleeves and a hilarious picture of Bowie dressed in mime with a teddy bear limply hanging from his hand, is more detailed. That full color image of Bowie in mime is almost prophetic-- a sort of a mix between Ziggy and the White Clown of 1980's Scary Monsters.