Nothing To Be Desired

reality

Nothing To Be Desired.

So 2013 is the year where you scrap everything that you once concluded: the Year of Shattered Hypotheses. First, Mr. Bowie returns and spoils my grand narrative that would’ve had him retiring with “Little Fat Man.” Then, after spending nearly a week trying to get a handle on the confusing mess that is the Leon sessions, and writing my conclusions about sequencing, etc., on “I’d Rather Be Chrome,” I got to hear the actual Leon tape. (I’ll likely revise the “Chrome” and “We’ll Creep Together” posts soon to reflect this.)

The 70-minute Leon is the Rosetta Stone of this murky period in Bowie history: everything scattered around the Internet in fragments and under various assumed names all fits together in it. Leon, in what sounds like its finished state, was meant to be three movements: “Leon Takes Us Outside,” “I Am With Name” and “The Enemy Is Fragile.” It seems likely that Leon as a whole was the “operatic” piece of music that Reeves Gabrels once referred to. So a new theory, one likely to be discredited soon enough: Bowie decided (or conceded) to turn Outside into a single CD in 1995. While the more discrete songs recorded in the 1994 sessions, like “The Motel” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” easily made the transfer, it was difficult to extract pieces from the intricately-sequenced and dense Leon movements. Only a few of the (severely) edited segues and two songs survived.

Besides “I Am With Name,” the only officially-released piece of music from the Leon movements was the fragment “Nothing To Be Desired,” issued as a B-side of the US CD single of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” This was an extract from the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite, which I annotated in insane detail here.

The “Fragile” suite begins with Bowie in a character not heard on Outside—a “narrator” figure who mainly speaks in Bowie’s actual voice (I’m guessing this was DB playing the role Eno had assigned him, the “town crier” of the 21st Century). After appearances by Nathan Adler and his adversary, Ramona A. Stone, the narrator returns to tout the wonders of a CD-ROM (Bowie rolling the “r” like he was going for an elocution prize) that’s an interactive compilation of Wolof music. The narrator concludes his pitch with: The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired.

All along, a snaking bassline has been playing beneath the narrator’s pitch and suddenly he gives way to it, savoring the sound of the last four words, chanting them like a mantra. He’s soon joined by a chorus that include his own distorted “Laughing Gnome” imp voice. They echo his “nothing to be desireds” and a subsequent chant—mind changing, change your MIND changing MIND changing. A piece of pompous ad copy from a CD-ROM pitch has become a religious invocation. The chants build, driven by Mike Garson’s pounded piano chords, the bass holding on a root note, Bowie bracing himself (“stand by! stand by!”) until the tension breaks with a simple drum fill. The singers repeat the phrases for another minute, Bowie sounding increasingly unhinged, until a fade links the sequence to the next spoken segue.

The B-side finishes the joke. On Leon, “nothing to be desired” transmuted from an empty phrase in a ridiculous advertisement into a tribal chant. In its official release, the phrase, torn loose from its original, now-forgotten function, became just an empty piece of language, just another dance floor hook. For the B-side, Bowie prefaced the Leon extract with a minute of high-mixed drums and Gabrels’ guitar that continued throughout the vocal section (it’s hard to determine whether Bowie rerecorded the backing track entirely or just layered in a set of new overdubs—the bassline seems to be different than the Leon original.)

Released without notice in 1995 and barely remembered in the near-two decades since, “Desired” is one of the few surviving pieces of the original Leon; it’s a strange orphan that Bowie dressed up and cast out into the world, without any letters of introduction.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released as the B-side of the US “Hearts Filthy Lesson” CD single digipak (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), and later included on the 2004 2-CD limited reissue of Outside.

Top: Janeane Garofalo, Winona Ryder and product placement, Reality Bites (Stiller, 1994).

24 Responses to Nothing To Be Desired

  1. Jeremy says:

    Wow! I’ve never heard this – cool, thanks! Such a fascinating period in Bowie’s career – love it.

  2. steg says:

    Either you will split your opus in two volumes or you’ll be condemned to never ending additions.
    But in any case you’ve done a massive job, which will work as a reference.

    So just, please, publish it in a way or another. Thanks.

    Cheers

    Steg

  3. Remco says:

    Is there a someplace online where the rest of us can find this Leon tape you speak of?

  4. Maj says:

    Ooh, like this. Very cool. Could be longer.

  5. crusty betty (ain't half sweaty) says:

    Perhaps not the right place to ask, but I’ll go for it anyway.
    Anyone know where this “complete” copy of Leon can be found? I assume the copy I have at the moment is the unfinished copy, because it’s definitely not in 3 movements.

    • The Spook says:

      Nah there’s some elitist arsehole “fan” who only deigned to give us mere mortals these excerpts… this is all there is right now.

  6. V Delay says:

    Outstanding bit of unravelling. Look in the mirror – you are none other than Nathan Adler himself!!

    PS I love the annotation, too. btw – it’s likely to be “gubbins” at 0:40-2:05

  7. gcreptile says:

    Come on, the anonymous source is Reeves Gabrels, isn’t he?

  8. Diamond Duke says:

    Quite an amusing piece, this is! I’m actually very familiar with Nothing To Be Desired, because I have a 10-CD box set containing Bowie’s last five albums (1995-2003) plus bonus discs containing B-sides, re-mixes, covers, Toy tracks, etc….

    And if I’m not mistaken, I believe David is reciting the “I, I wish I could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim” verse in German during the fadeout! :D (And I’ve got to say that those repetitions of “stand by!” totally crack me up. I honestly couldn’t tell you why…)

    And BTW, a note of dire warning about the Outside bonus disc: It is really quite the chore to sit through the whole damn thing! You’ve got no less than five bloody remixes of The Hearts Filthy Lesson and four remixes of the Pet Shop Boys version of Hallo Spaceboy! After having to sit through multiple repetitions and reconfigurations of “Ba-dah-bop-bop!” and “What a fantastic death abyss!” and “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?” and “Oh Ramona, if there was only something between us!” and “I think I’ve lost my way!”, believe me, you really start to question your own sanity after a while. And then there’s still that interminable clubland hell of the PSB Hallo Spaceboy remixes to get through! Not a recommended experience for others at all, but I’m just kind of a purist in that I believe in committing to listen to any disc all the way through. Such can be my own particular self-chosen purgatory at times! ;) And yeah, the B-sides Get Real and Nothing To Be Desired are right at the very end if you’d rather just skip through.

    (One thing the bonus disc of Black Tie White Noise – released by EMI – definitely has over those later bonus discs – released by Sony – is that non-album tracks Real Cool World and Lucy Can’t Dance are right up front before anything else! And then the remixed tracks are all spread out and around, so that the different incarnations of, let’s say, Black Tie White Noise and Jump They Say aren’t grouped together in some interminable, tedious cluster!)

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Diamond Duke – I’m with you there on the purism. I have the compulsive collector’s gene, so when I like a group, I bought everything that 40-50 different artists released. If a different mix appeared on a promo or one nation had an exclusive track, I made the efforts to buy it. By the early 90s, I was dropping $10 per import [UK] CD single to get everything [and every single had two CDs at least] and with the dance music trends of the time, I was not enjoying what I was paying dearly for; house and techno rave mixes with musically reductive tendencies. The pleasure I was getting from club music of ’88-’92 was hugely diminishing, so by 1993 I decided that if I couldn’t collect the entire output of bands I liked, than I would stop buying them cold turkey. Since 1993 I have not heard: Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, New Order. For the record, Bowie lost me with “Let’s Dance” and it was enough that I began buying his albums again with “Tin Machine.” That was a minor miracle, but I’ve never aggressively sough to collect the Bowie rarities. I’d go broke, anyways. It’s enough that I have every album. That cost enough! As for remixes, it’s only been in the last five years that I think the craft has re-emerged after a long period of primarily providing the soundtrack for drug experiences. I’m actually enjoying what I hear currently after over 20 years of avoiding the form.

  9. SoooTrypticon says:

    What an amazing entry. This is quite the month for Bowie fans! Thank you!

  10. Life can be unexpected. Fortunately, this can sometimes be a good thing, as is the case with Bowie.
    –JW

  11. CosmicJive says:

    Always loved this track. Don’t think he sings the german “Heroes”though he does say something about dolphins in German at the end. Much better b-side than Get Real

  12. Momus says:

    The annotations are fantastic, Chris. “The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously thorough” indeed!

    I’m particularly impressed by the characters of Baby Grace Blue and Mr. Touchshriek. Their lines remind me of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas, the way surreal malapropisms and neologisms get injected is very Joycean, very Finnegans Wake.

    I think it’s worth saying a couple of things about these personae, and the era, and technology. This was the golden age of a new (and short-lived) artform, the CD-ROM. I remember being very excited by CD-ROMs myself at the time. I had the same “mulitmedia” computer Bowie had that year, an Apple Mac Duo 230, which was a black-and-white laptop that “posted” into a dock, giving it access to a ROM slot and a colour screen. I watched things like Rodney [Greenblatt]‘s Wonder Window and Kuniyoshi Kaneko’s marvellous Alice. There really was a sense that digital media would be a rich and strange new terrain. Then there was Photoshop — which Bowie uses extensively in the Outside artwork as a way to generate characters, using zeroes and ones very much in the way he used makeup and movement in his early days. Then there was the internet, then very new and very intoxicating. I think the intensity of a first plunge into digital culture is very apparent in the creative process behind Leon / Outside, and I think it’s the malleability of digital forms which appeals to Bowie, since it’s been one of his big themes all along.

    Now, of course, we know that the internet mostly exists so that people can share photos of cute kittens. But in 1993-4 it felt like Shakespeare on acid.

    • Brian says:

      You’re right about the CD-ROMs, I’d forgotten. To me at the time it seemed like really cool things were almost possible; that the tech didn’t quite match the promise. It seemed like the next generation product would deliver the tech but the world moved on. Dylan had a CD-ROM where you could hear lots of Rolling Stone outtakes, and do a little remixing. But there wasn’t anything you could do to improve on the canonical mix. I recall a Peter Gabriel CD-ROM that I only saw for a little while at work one day, which was overwhelming in terms of what it offered– like the “stems” bands like Radiohead sell now– where you really could change the sound of things by stacking different instrumental tracks. I remember a lot of African percussion so not sure if it centered on one of his own albums, or on that world music label he had.

      Don’t know if everyone remembers but “packet sniffer” isn’t a Bowie invention, though he did recognize the Orwellian overtones of the name and use them deliciously. It was a program that watched what kind of traffic was passing over networks (in “packets”) and was used by IT guys to monitor what was happening in positive and negative ways (ie where were there legit bottlenecks– or, soon, who was downloading porn).

      This Outside stuff would have made for a great CD-ROM, if the interface had been as good as the material. And as noted by Chris it would be a great internet release now– relatively cheap and easy to do, compared to going back and remixing everything for a CD release. It doesn’t seem like something that needs to be confined to a CD-length format. Though if the creative parties involved mixed a CD, as it sounds like they once did, I hope they will release it one day.

      Perhaps Bowie will recognize material like this is great fun for fans. I spent hours in a sound editor piecing “Heroes and Villains” together the way it was “supposed” to be according to some internet authority. I loved the result, and still listen to my version of Smile as much as the one Brian Wilson put out about five years afterward. The blogster you linked to mixed something cool and cohesive out of the outtakes he had, even though it is not the “official” version Chris heard that most of us won’t. I fully understand how Bowie might not want to spend a lot of time in a little room with this material any more. Not because it is bad, just because it is over, the creative work is done. But there are now ways to put it out that would release him from the obligation of reviewing all of it. Then, let the best fan mix win.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        So that’s where the term “packet sniffers” comes from, very interesting. I always thought it referred to that very obsessive human desire (frequently found among rock music fans) to unravel every tiny detail and minute shred of mystery behind a particular song. Like somebody literally sniffing the inside of a crumpled and discarded packet of something for the faintest trace of its’ former contents.

      • stanleylieber says:

        also: “packet sniffer” -> cocaine comes in packets

  13. Anonymous says:

    Unless someone had pointed it out, I wouldn’t have recognised that the final words were German – Bowie’s German accent never was the greatest. Sounds like a fragment of a text: “nervt die Delfine” (‘annoys the dolphins’), perhaps, with the stress on the wrong syllable in ‘Delfine’?

    There’s also a buried spoken lyric at about 2:07, where Bowie says “das einsame…” (the lonely…), but again it’s seems as though he’s applied the cut-up technique to an unknown source. It’s not the German version of ‘Heroes’ though.

  14. fluxkit says:

    I had this on the cassingle. I do remember it as boring, but I still listened to it quite a bit. It does make more sense now to hear it as a fragment of a larger movement.

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