From the Stacks

From the Stacks: David Bowie, “Up the Hill Backwards” (12-inch Single)

The market for Bowie vinyl has remained inflated since his January 2016 death. There’s always a bump after an artist’s death, so much so that in my record store days it became sort of a joke, the number of “huge fans” who came in after the sad news, looking for a greatest hits package.

Usually that’s just a blip in the market. Within a few months demand for the dearly deceased’s discography returns to normal, as do their record prices, but a year and a half after Bowie’s passing, values are still holding strong. Just today in my local record store I saw a copy of Never Let Me Down, the nadir of the Bowie discography, priced at 13 bucks. Two years ago that was a three dollar record, tops.

More than the prices, though, what’s sad for a Bowie hog like me is that the bins are increasingly bare. The newly-minted “huge fans” snatch up used Bowie vinyl as soon as it hits my favorite shops, leaving me nothing but a lonely bin card to stare at on my Saturday record hunts.

Fortunately for me, I already had a good bit of the Dame’s output in my stacks prior to the bubble, so it’s not like my turntable is deprived. For that matter, almost everything the man did remains in print via CD or streaming, and that includes what used to be rare b-sides like the one we have here.

“Up the Hill Backwards” was the fourth single off of Bowie’s 1980 album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). It’s an unconventional choice for a single, but Bowie was just coming out of the unconventional phase known as his Berlin period. With exception to the glorious “Ashes To Ashes” and the MTV favorite “Fashion,” the songs on Scary Monsters remain mostly inaccessible deep cuts to all but true Bowie fans (as opposed to the “huge fans” looking for a greatest hits package).

So if 8 of 10 songs on the record remain deep cuts and Bowie was in no mood to spoon feed his audience hits (that would come with the next album, Let’s Dance), what’s a Thin White Duke to do? Why, back up the unconventional single with an instrumental B-side from a Japanese sake commercial, of course.

The story goes that  “Crystal Japan” was slated to be Scary Monsters’ closing track, but at the last minute it was replaced by “It’s No Game (No. 2).” If so, it was a wise decision, given that the album opens with “It’s No Game (No.1).” Back in the days when track sequence mattered, Scary Monsters felt perfectly balanced.

Skip ahead to whenever conversations began for Scary Monsters’ fourth and last single. Album track “Teenage Wildlife” was selected for the b-side, but then Bowie got wind that a Japanese import of “Crystal Japan” was fetching high prices. He made a last minute switch, and there you  have it.

For the next 11 years, the only way a Bowiephile could hear “Crystal Japan” was to track down either the original Japanese import, the 1982 compilation Rare, or the much more common single that we have here. That changed in 1992, when Rykodisc included the song as a bonus track on their Scary Monsters reissue. In 2001, Virgin included the track on All Saints, their instrumental Bowie compilation .

So what’s the hubbub, bub? Is “Crystal Japan” really worth all of this effort. Well, yes and no. It’s a fine piece of music, but honestly if it weren’t for the Bowie connection I doubt it would’ve ever made my power rotation. No, the thrill was in the chase–catching that rare b-side, having that secret song that only the initiated knew about it. It’s a thrill that the Youtube generation will never know–the difference between finding a pearl in an oyster versus ordering one from Amazon with a click of the mouse.


But there are still pearls for the swine to find. Tucked inside of the “Up the Hill Backwards” 12-inch was a beautiful sheet of stamps designed by Bowie to resemble a hand-colored contact sheet of the singer as Pierrot, maybe his last great incarnation. You know Pierrot–he’s the creepy clown from the “Ashes To Ashes” video.

Finding a copy with the stamps still enclosed (and intact) makes checking your local record store bins worth a couple minutes of your time. If the “huge fans” haven’t already snatched it up, you can expect to pay anywhere from 10 to 50 bucks depending on condition and whether the stamps are still there. Happy hunting.


Categories: From the Stacks

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