On the 4th anniversary of Blackstar’s release, and Bowie’s 73rd birthday, we present to you a Lazarus (No Plan) cassette that deepened the mystery and took us further down the rabbit hole.
After listening to that distorted Blackstar tape, I, like many of you, wasn’t 100% convinced that it was anything more than an outlier unofficial product with some interesting artistic flair and/or recording bugs. Today I am confident that Blackstar is a doorway to the labyrinth, but it wasn’t until we discovered the Lazarus tape that we began to really suspect there might be something going on…
I realize it may be a bit of a stretch to suggest that a man who dressed up as an androgynous alien and practiced occultism may have done something weird, but do indulge me for a moment.
The Blackstar Tapes
Before we dive in, I want to provide a bit of background on these tapes. Both come from an unofficial label based out of Italy, which is coincidentally also called Blackstar. Their main insignia alternates between the Bowie Blackstar icon and the Hamilton logo.
Back in 2017 their shop had a variety of tapes up for sale. The listings describe them as being “unofficial but professionally made”, though additional details about the company and their products are spurious. The majority of the label’s releases seemed to be in conjunction with the touring ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition, and are variations on the exhibition-exclusive singles, (though some material on them differs from the 7″ vinyls). A few tapes were ‘reproductions’ of existing rare albums, such as an early Canadian cassette of Low printed with working title New Music: Night and Day and a Polish bootleg of The Man Who Sold The World on the Quartet label. Then there were “special editions” of Blackstar, The Next Day, Lazarus (No Plan), and a distinctly remastered version of the still officially unreleased Heathen-era album,Toy. After a friendly conversation with one of the label owners, and jumping through a hoop or two, we were able to obtain just about every known Bowie cassette that they had on hand. More information on these will be provided down the road. (Note: Unless you are interested in making a purchase, please do NOT hassle anyone related to this label, as I will be providing plenty of information on here as we go along.)
One of the many things about that strange Blackstar tape that stood out was how every detail of it was designed to look and sound as “unofficial” as possible. However, in contrast, the rest of the items from this Blackstar label have an unusual amount of attention and care paid to their design and engineering – to the point where they really do stand out from the standard fare. Despite the occasional odd tape hiss, the sound that comes through is fairly crisp, and I was able to get ahold of many exclusive singles that I would never have been able to hear otherwise.
So that brings us to the Lazarus (No Plan) tape.
This version also has some interesting quirks to it, but overall the signal that comes through is far more crisp than on Blackstar, and the intro to “When I Met You” does actually include some noticeably different mixing than the version on the standard EP. Instead of the pure speculation swirling around the Blackstar cassette, we seemed to have honed in on something with more audible differences in its mix that you can clearly point out.
A couple of differences off the bat: Out of all the tracks, Lazarus has the most static fuzz, but again, I do feel like this is an intentional part of the presentation. Overall, Bowie’s voice is actually mixed to be more in front of the music on this tape, whereas on the standard EP, his vocal track is more blended in alongside the music. You can even play the Spotify version against this one side by side and hear the difference. At multiple points throughout the tape, he gets up close, as if he is right there on the other side of your speakers – to the point where you can practically feel his breath. The overall presentation is at once ethereal and present – there is a noticeable spark of life in these performances. The version of Killing a Little Time is noticeably dirtier than the other songs on the tape, but again, it doesn’t seem like it is without a purpose.
On the tape’s version of “When I Met You“, the voices no longer sound as if they are violently clashing. Instead they come into harmony, and the guitar drone towards the end of the song resolves into a more positive and uplifting key, transforming it into a song that is no longer in opposition to itself. Throughout the past few years I have become endlessly fascinated at how a few simple alterations to the mix or production of a song can completely change its entire message. Bowie’s mercurial style of writing is tailored to contain multiple interpretations, allowing him to communicate a vast array of different meanings depending on how each song is produced.
NOTE: If you are interested in reading more about this, or are interested in starting a collection of your own, Andy has written an introductory guide to the collector’s trap of Bowie’s releases that paints a pretty clear picture of how many different OFFICIAL versions are out there, and how many of us take it for granted that we have been listening to the same songs the entire time.
Regarding the ARG elements and quirks of this tape:
For a 4 track single, this tape contains an unusual amount of dead space on it. Far more than is needed for something of this length. The songs are literally marooned in an ocean of static. I am including the static in the full upload of the tape, as there is a possibility that something could be hiding in it, and I am curious about what people may be able to find. Of course, it could always just be regular tape static, but after recording literally hundreds of cassettes, there is a certain quality to this noise that seems a little… Different.
Perhaps something is lurking in the spectrogram… Perhaps someone can use the static on Side A as a noise reduction profile for the static on Side B… Perhaps the left track needs to be isolated and used as a noise profile against the right track, or visa versa… Maybe there is something hidden in the reversed track, either in the music, the spectrogram, or the static.
If you are at all familiar with ARGs, you probably know that even the smallest detail can be a clue to something important, so while this level of tinkering may seem obsessive to someone on the outside, it is the common approach to solving these types of convoluted puzzle boxes. Even if there is nothing on this particular tape, this is a good opportunity for those who want to help me out with the actual riddles of this game to become familiar with how some of these puzzles should be approached, as we have found some actual concrete evidence and clues by dissecting other tapes in a similar fashion. More on this will be provided at a later time.
As an incentive: if anyone can bring me what they’ve found, and show proof of their work, I will gladly trade you some music for your trouble. Once more information comes out, I plan on putting together a group to help me solve some of these riddles.
The Dropbox link for the full tape is Here. (EDIT: I originally uploaded only the Side A by accident, but that is now fixed). If you are having any issues with the Dropbox link, here is the MEGA download.
Nothing has been altered from the original recording, so expect a lot of static in between Sides A & B and at the end of Side B.
Thank you for reading this far! I am going be stopping here for the moment, but if I still haven’t lost you yet, then stay tuned next week for even more weird tapes, and maybe even another version of Toy….
Happy Birthday, Old Friend.