Three years ago, I found a secret version of Blackstar and my life got weird.

It’s been a long long time since my last post. Since then I have gotten married and started pitching our animated series, all while my spine continues to twist in on itself. I’ve started re-digitizing hundreds of tapes and records now that I have a decent setup. I figured with this horrible decade coming to a close, it would be a good time for me to finally come clean and tell the stranger-than-fiction story about how I fell into this Labyrinth. 

Note: Please keep in mind that this is just the introductory chapter to a longer story. There is a massive amount left unsaid here. If this one broken tape was the only thing I found, then I wouldn’t have wasted my time.


I realized after my last article that a proper introduction needed to be given about this project. And in order to do that I would need to explain why I started scrutinizing Bowie’s work so closely in the first place. Failing to do so would undermine my whole approach, because no matter what I’d say, it would always come back to: why the hell is this person picking apart his personal history, lyrics and inspecting his records with a blacklight? Why is she looking for ghosts in the static? 

I don’t know how to transition to this next part so I will just be blunt:

David Bowie left behind a series of clues after his death. The first clue, discovered in 2017, was an entirely new version of his final album, Blackstar, on a bootlegged cassette tape. Since then, we have found many, many others. It is my theory that in the decade before his death, he pulled a Willy Wonka, disappeared from the public eye, and crafted a massive alternate reality game spanning the entirety of his career with the intention of leaving a final mystery behind. We have mostly kept this to ourselves up until now. 

I know it’s a big claim, but bear with me. Without the key information of this discovery, this blog would probably look like a strange nerd obsession at best and the early manifestation of mental instability at worst. On the other hand, despite the gut-dropping implications of what I’ve found, I was still seriously debating whether or not to talk about it at all… Every time I’d try to write this down I’d get cold feet and stop. My thinking was, what if, by talking about it, I somehow compromise my ability to collect these magical items and venture further down the rabbit hole? Following the Willy Wonka analogy, if I were a lucky contestant in Bowie’s murder maze, would revealing this to the public be the equivalent of giving out the Gobstopper formula? I’ve been following these breadcrumbs for 3 years now and in that time I kept a close eye on conversations about Bowie, and so far no one has said anything, so maybe I should just keep this to myself. It’s such a creepypasta situation that it reads like a work of fiction anyway… Then again, if he didn’t want it to be found, he wouldn’t have made it at all… Right? 

A quick note about Bowie Bootlegs. I was lucky because my husband Andy had already been casually familiar with the Bowie market before 2016. It was expected that sales would spike after his death, but when he died it was like a switch flipped and the entire landscape underwent a massive change. New albums started popping up, like the uncompressed Leon Suites and The Trident Tapes, with modern cover designs and remarkably crisp audio production. I’ll even go so far as to say that The Trident Tapes is a secret Ziggy album on par with The Rise and Fall. It really is that good. The physical record has the most superior quality versions I’ve found of all the songs on the album, including Velvet Goldmine, Holy Holy, and All the Young Dudes. Despite it’s quality, I haven’t seen anyone talking about it outside of insular and obscure collecting groups. I doubt most people even know it exists. 


But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to where it all began:

It was an entirely unremarkable cassette tape, floating among the crowded marketplace that Andy bought on a whim. It had a simple label, “Special Extended Limited Edition 2017” with a stencil font, and a Hamilton logo (of all things) on the spine, deceptively appearing as unofficial as possible. The tape itself was clear with red white and blue glitter in the plastic. 

We popped it into our deck and immediately realized that the audio was somehow even more haunting and ghostly than the original. It truly sounds as if it’s emanating from a distant signal in space. This quality would normally be dismissed as a poor audio transfer, however when we listened closely, it became apparent that it was in fact a different mix, engineered to sound buried in static. At one point during “Girl Loves Me” the static turns off completely, and it sounds as if the old man is popping out of the ground. As the final track faded away we were hooked. I mean, if you found a tape haunted by Bowie’s ghost, what the hell would you do? We eventually decided to hold off on our impulse to shout to the internet about our discovery for all the reasons listed above. It was a tough call. 

Below is a sample of one of the tracks so you can hear for yourself. This version of “Sue Or In a Season of Crime” was labeled as being the 2014 Parlophone single version, but we have that one on record and after listening to it side by side, it was clearly not the same thing. This version screeches and howls along, its Old Hollywood and Sweeney Todd influences coming through louder than ever. And if that doesn’t grab you, it even has a mysterious instrumental interlude right before the tape clicks off.

I have to note that I have NOT tampered with the audio. I primarily write and work in animation production, so I’m absolutely clueless when it comes to sound mixing. Each digitized version is recorded directly from our tape deck with no interference, equalization, or noise reduction. Everything is exactly how it naturally sounds. 

Hundreds of tapes, records, and CDs later, we continue to dig and we have amassed a pretty good collection of Oddities. We don’t have much money, but Andy developed a method to collect on a budget, so we have had some lucky breaks. My chronic pain has made it difficult to go anywhere, so I’ve become something of a hermit. Don’t have a lot of IRL friends, so I thought it’d be nice to share some of this magic with others who are similarly fascinated by it. 

I also wanted to finally come out and talk about it because I’ve seen the things that can happen when an internet community decides to get to the bottom of an ARG, and at this point I have amassed enough evidence that I could really use an extra pair of ears and a couple dozen extra brains to help me get to the Minotaur at the center of this labyrinth. 

This Blackstar tape is just the tip of the iceberg. If you aren’t convinced, I completely understand. The whole thing is pretty weird. But, I have three years’ worth of strange events and treasures to talk about, so I will try to keep up with this blog more in 2020 and maybe something will eventually convince you later on. Next week I will be covering a ghostly Lazarus single that we found shortly afterwards that just further reinforced the realization that we had stumbled onto something really strange. 

See you next year! 

E

EDIT: Until I can find a better way of hosting files, here is a dropbox link for a .wav of the full tape. Happy New Year!

EDIT 2: Can’t believe I forgot to mention this, Side B of the tape starts with “No Plan”, “Killing a Little Time” and “When I Met You”. These songs were previously only included on Lazarus and I have not heard these specific versions incorporated into the album elsewhere.

EDIT 3: A commenter named Michael Judge also caught something:

On “Sue,” the main ostinato is different between the single and album versions – on the single, it’s a piano playing a single repeated note (I believe an E), and on the album, it’s a guitar playing four Es and a C#.  Here, it’s the album version of the riff, but it’s played on a piano, and there’s additional guitar over the intro.
I’m guessing this version of “Sue” was a scrapped intermediate attempt – DB and band probably tried to ornament and overdub the original Maria Schneider version of “Sue” before deciding to rearrange and rerecord the song completely.

The Reddit conversation about this post can be found here

If you made it this far, you are probably thinking “that’s just a blurry tape”. Before leaving the 50th comment telling me so, please check out my followup post addressing common questions, critiques and other discussion here

45 thoughts on “Three years ago, I found a secret version of Blackstar and my life got weird.

  1. So, if I’m reading this right, Bowie made different mixes of blackstar, and potentially other albums, and is having them sold as bootlegs? Its so interesting, the man never ceases to amaze me in his ability to keep the mystery going of who he is and what he means. I can’t wait for your further insights on his work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes you are reading this right! I plan on explaining a little more about it later on, as we’ve developed a system for sorting through the literal ocean of Bowie boots out there, but from our research, this trend seems to go back as far as the 80’s at least. Happy NYE, glad you liked the post 🙂

      Like

  2. Hello!

    I visited your blog just a few days ago and I was sad there are no new posts so you can imagine I was happy to notice something on your YouTube and then I came here to read the post (I’m setting up notifications for this blog right now, by the way, don’t wanna miss anything). Discovery is indeed fantastic and who knows, maybe we’ll find even more versions of Blackstar out there…

    Congratulations of your personal and professional life!

    Also, I must admit I thought I know something about unreleased Bowie but I don’t think I heard Trident Tapes before. I’m on the hunt already 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the well wishes, I’m very happy you are liking the blog so far. Good luck with the hunt for Trident! I’ve been unable to find the really good quality version anywhere but the actual record itself. Thankfully that album is usually available on ebay for a remarkably affordable price ($30-40), especially considering that it is an extra Ziggy album.

      Like

  3. Sorry to bother you again. After I listened to some of the songs on the track, girl loves me and dollar days particularly, its amazing how ghastly he sounds. the original track is like this yes but here its more prevalent, especially when the static stops. Listening to it more though it sounds almost like the recording of a live performance. This would be impossible for obvious reasons but listening to it was very reminiscent of recordings of stage shows or something along those lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s no bother at all, I’m glad you found the album to be interesting and I completely agree with your comment – somehow despite it having this haunted quality to it, his vocal performance simultaneously sounds like it has more life in it than the original version, especially after the first half. I think if anything they may even be alternate vocal takes, but I have no ability to confirm this beyond a doubt.

      Like

  4. I posted this on 5/4/16, where it has remained unedited.

    View at Medium.com

    Note the icon on the top right of my blog, and if you are familiar with Hamilton, the caption under the picture, which you should recognize is relevant.

    I have been playing this ‘ARG’ since the beginning of 2016. More like an ARg.

    This extends into Twin Peaks: The Return, heavily, and I have experienced the same issues you have– Should I really give up the formula to the secret gobstoppers?

    It *IS* very much Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I believe “It can be said aloud now.”

    After you read Event Horizon, you should know that the Orlando Shooting that took place on June 12, 2016 was at the time the largest mass shooting in the US–a “Pray for Paris” style attack.

    #imablackstar

    And I am fairly sure I have a good general idea what those shapes mean.

    Tomorrow the’ll be more of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will have to read your blog in the morning, but yes I can at least confirm the Twin Peaks connection is incredibly relevant to this whole thing. Twin Peaks cannot be understood by viewing it in a vacuum, as it is a crossroads of many different intersecting stories. Glad to hear we haven’t been alone in recognizing strange patterns

      Like

      1. Ahh I am currently browsing on mobile so I haven’t seen it yet (will be on a laptop tomorrow, but if you want to chat, you can always send a PM in the meantime) it is my theory that it is indeed the exact same ARG, or is at least a branch off the same tree trunk.

        Like

  5. It’s the same tracks put through filters and fx. Somebody is on a wind up. The audio quality is so crude it’s a joke. But most importantly the songs are the studio versions, but they’ve been completely obliterated by someone. As a long term fan of db, I find all this in very poor taste. Most of the material from Blackstar was written for the musical Lazurus. Whatever didn’t make the album cut, was released as an EP afterwards.

    Like

    1. I totally understand the skepticism about this tape in particular. I felt it was suspicious when I got it as well, and if there wasn’t a literal mountain of even weirder albums behind me to back up these claims today then I wouldn’t have found this to be worth the discussion. Regarding the quality, I am convinced it is on the recording itself and not from my tape player. When we first got it and were trying to figure out why it sounded so off, we played through a litany of different devices and it all came out consistently the same way. We used tape cleaner heads, canned air, the works. The conclusion was that there was no improving that we could do on the music coming out of this tape. Hundreds of cassette tapes later, I have yet to own any others that have this distinct distortion on it. Im not saying it’s not possible, but it would take some serious work to get that level of distortion from a modern tape recorder, and every other tape I own from that particular seller is not so warbled and distorted.

      So that points to the fact that it was knowingly packaged and sold in this condition.

      The question for me wasn’t whether or not it is official, because it clearly is a bootleg, but rather, “why does this exist at all and who would make something like this”?

      Out of all the tapes I own that have oddities about them, this one probably has the most plausible deniability about it. Every quirk on it DOES have a rational explanation. However it was by looking into this little broken tape here that I ended up discovering some other albums where I found even cooler stuff. Looking back from where I am now 3 years later, it seems like the clear jumping off point for my journey. This is honestly just the introductory post to a long series that will go much further into it than what was discussed here.

      Like

      1. Im listening to it through full range studio monitors. It’s been remixed really low in volume when the modulation etc has been applied. The question is where did you find it? ? ? Why it’s been made to sound so crude is bizarre to me. There’s no reason for any version of an album recorded so recently to sound so distorted. Doesn’t add up.

        Like

      2. Yes, exactly! We had the same confusion. I found it floating on ebay 3 years ago and since then I haven’t seen it for sale. There is a Discogs entry though.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So obviously nothing at all to do with David Bowie then, so why bother talking about it? I fail to see how this changed your life.

    Like

  7. So obviously nothing at all to do with David Bowie then, so why bother talking about it? I fail to see how this changed your life. You shouldn’t waste people’s time like this.

    Like

    1. I think it has to do with Bowie because it is a Bowie tape, even if unofficial, and it ended up pointing me in the direction of more and better versions of Bowie’s albums as a direct result of digging into this one strange tape. Obviously if it was just this one thing then I’d have shelved it and wouldn’t have bothered to start writing about it at all.

      Like

    2. I also have posted a followup blog entry addressing a lot of the questions and understandable criticisms people have brought my way. May have some more involved answers for you

      Like

  8. I played the Sue version you have in the video here side by side with the single version and they sound exactly the same. The only difference is yours is lower quality and muffled.

    The “mysterious interlude” at the end is just the intro again with some extra phasing added on.

    Nice try though.

    Like

    1. Those comments and criticisms are addressed in my followup post.

      This was just the first tape that got me digging. There are tons more.

      Like

    1. We have not, that is a good suggestion, but all the other items in our tape collection play perfectly fine with no distortion issues, so it definitely is the tape itself and not the player.

      Like

  9. in principle every tape (when it comes from different recorders) need azimuth adjustment. This can be less or more evident. In your case I would try it anyway

    Like

  10. Number one, if there’s a higher-quality version of LEON/THE LEON SUITES out there, can you direct us to it?

    And number two, I’ve only heard a bit of this so far, but I can confirm that “Blackstar” and “Sue” are, at least in part, different performances. The album version of “Blackstar” has DB singing “AT the center of at all”; here it’s “IN the center of it all.”

    On “Sue,” the main ostinato is different between the single and album versions – on the single, it’s a piano playing a single repeated note (I believe an E), and on the album, it’s a guitar playing 4 Es and then a G#. Here, it’s the album version of the riff, but it’s played on a piano, and there’s additional guitar over the intro.

    I’m guessing this version of “Sue” was a scrapped intermediate attempt – DB and band probably tried to ornament and overdub the original Maria Schneider version of “Sue” before deciding to rearrange and rerecord the song completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m no audio engineer but I am very familiar with this music. On ‘Blackstar’ in the first verse Bowie sings “IN the centre of it all”. In the second verse he sings “AT the centre of it all”. The same as on this tape. There is no difference. The embedded youtube link to ‘Sue’ sounds exactly like the Maria Schneider Orchestra single. Not sure what differences you are hearing. Maybe you can be more specific?

      Like

      1. You are correct, it appears the alternate lines is the same across the other versions, however it does seem like there may be some subtle key changes between the two versions of Sue.

        More importantly than the “is this a unique take or not” I think, is the question of why this tape exists at all and who made it, for what purpose, etc. This is just one post of many, and the other tapes and albums I’ve posted since this have more clear “alternate” mixes than the ones on this Blackstar tape

        Like

      2. I’ll have to give another clear listen to both – those were snap reactions on first listen. You may be right about the lyrical differences in “Blackstar”; on “Sue,” I was very distinctly hearing a different ostinato at the beginning and some extra atmospheric guitar, but the low quality of the tape may have made the bass and piano sounds close enough that I misheard the bass riff as the piano line. I’ll do some digging & report back.

        Like

  11. Hey, you have good timing, I’m actually just now writing up a post about Outside & Leon in particular. As far as actual sound quality goes, the FLAC files shared in 2016 are still the best, but I have found others with slightly different mixing (some where his voice is mixed more behind the music than in front, odd things like that) that I will be showing, along with a vinyl rip of the Slinky Secrets bootleg which is a supposed live rehearsal album, but much like the Trident Tapes, it does seem like it has better sound mixing than the versions available for free online.

    Your musical analysis of the difference between the different versions is really appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to write it out! And seriously good catch re: “At the center” vs “In the Center”. I didn’t even catch that one. I’ll include your comment in the followup Q&A post.

    Like

      1. Ah, OK – I’m in the process of listening to it right now.

        An audio engineer/producer’s note on the sudden relative clarity in the middle of “Girl Loves Me”: I can nearly swear that what you’re hearing here is the alteration of some kind of bandpass filter. Bandpasses are what they sound like: you select a certain frequency bandwidth, and they allow all the selected frequencies to pass through while cutting out all others. They’re normally used either to tune an input (like a piece of music) to the frequency response of its output (like a set of speakers) – say, cutting out boomy sub-bass below 50Hz and hissy treble above 10kHz – or as a special effect to get that “old transistor radio” sound on vocals, guitars, whatever.

        The fact that you can hear the filter CHANGE means that somebody must’ve applied one in the first place, and the fact that it changes halfway through makes me think that this tape may well be an artifact of the mixing/mastering process for BLACKSTAR. When mixing and mastering an album, it’s not unusual to produce demo versions that are never intended for mass consumption and that exist solely to, e.g., check the bass and treble content of an album as played back through a laptop or home stereo rather than gigantic pristine studio monitors. So what we’re hearing may well be a mid-production test demo, hence the differences in certain tracks and the presence of stuff eventually cut from the record.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you so much for commenting. This is exactly the kind of input I was hoping to get by putting my findings out there. Andy and I have a good chunk of the artistic influences and narrative threads worked out fairly well due to our backgrounds, but when it comes to the actual technical details in the audio itself, I am woefully uneducated.

        As I mentioned before, I have a mountain of tapes, records, and CDs of varying quality. Some with clearly different vocal and instruments, others with more subtle differences in the mix/production itself. Some are grainy like this, others are more crisp than any official version I’ve heard, so having a trained ear like yours is extremely helpful. And it also helps me feel a little less insane. (Just a little, though). I would love to hear your input on the other items in our collection that we will be posting about in the future.

        Like

      3. Well this is certainly the first time I’ve made someone feel LESS insane in quite a while. And yes, absolutely, I’d be happy to hear whatever alternates/bootlegs/etc. you’ve got and to take a crack at assessing what exactly might be different about them. I’ve engineered, produced, and/or mixed quite a bit of music, mostly on the DIY/indie level but occasionally in bigger studios; it should be stressed, however, that there are almost infinite ways to get some very similar sonic effects, and that gear gets more eccentric as you go back in time, so I can probably get you more in the ballpark than precisely on the dot.

        That bandpass filter, for example, could be any number of specific bandpasses (hipass, lopass, hi shelf, lo shelf), or a parametric EQ with a low, wide Q (boosts or cuts volume at a user-assigned frequency), or someone messing with a graphic EQ (same thing but at preset frequencies), and on and on. Most of the time, you end up looking at clusters of similar options rather than just one thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Oh I’m sure that there are plenty of ways to mess with this stuff, I guess I’m just interested in getting something close to a confirmation from an engineering perspective that these things are different from the official releases, because from where I’m standing, all I can do is say “it sounds different to my ears”, but I can’t point my finger at HOW it is different. Even if it is just a generalization that you’re able to provide, it’s better than what I can do.

        I can only encourage others to listen to the side by side comparisons. And the amount of people who are able to hear the difference gets even more narrow when you take into account that you have to actually know the official versions well enough to spot these things at all.

        I’ve also gotten confirmation from someone “on the inside” that Bowie was indeed something of a hoarder who did own a massive amount of unreleased material. He would hand them off to other producers to mess with, and then, just… Never do anything with them.

        Like

      5. Makes total sense about Bowie giving material to other producers – I wouldn’t be surprised if this version of BLACKSTAR is another producer making a reference copy, putting filters on it to make half of it really bassy and half really trebly, so he could then run it through his/her own equipment to look at the frequency range of the music and see exactly what s/he was working with in acoustic terms. That’s common practice: we can all hear “low,” “middle,” and “high,” but those are each wide ranges, so when you work on material you didn’t record, you have to find out exactly where the frequency clusters are in each range.

        Like

  12. I agree with MSJ. Also of note is that Blackstar was originally 2 songs, put together in post. As well, it was longer than 10 minutes. When David was told the limit on iTunes was 10 minutes, he did some late-stage reediting to fit. This version is likely a leaked working copy.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s