Sense of Doubt

Sense of Doubt.
Sense of Doubt (promo, 1977).
Sense of Doubt (live, 1978).
Sense of Doubt (broadcast, 1978).

The trilogy within the Berlin trilogy—“Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neuköln”—are a suite as much as they are discrete songs, with the minimalism of “Doubt” giving way to the minor-scale beauties and wildlife humanity of the latter tracks.

Before starting what would become “Sense of Doubt,” Bowie and Brian Eno drew cards from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck. Devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt, it was part-Tarot, part-Monopoly “Chance” cards. Its intention was to spur random, even chaotic creative moves, and Bowie, who spent the late ’70s trying to rethink how to write songs, to write in what he called a new musical language, welcomed another means to clear the board. While Eno would torment the likes of Carlos Alomar with Oblique cards during the Lodger sessions, during “Heroes” Eno only used the deck in the latter stages, when Bowie and Eno were devising the instrumentals.

Bowie and Eno agreed not to reveal their cards until they finished the track. As Bowie’s card read “Emphasize differences,” and Eno’s “Try to make everything as similar as possible,” they went to work unknowingly at loggerheads. “It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next, and he’d do the next…I was trying to smooth it out and make it into one continuum [while] he was trying to do the opposite,” Eno said in 1978.

“Sense of Doubt” seems like a sound-picture of this conflict, with, mixed in the left channel, an unchanging, descending four-note piano passage (C-B-Bb-A, at the bass end of the piano, a bit reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata”) set against the random appearances of synthetic wind and waves. The variables are the reoccurring Chamberlin/synthesizers, which at first seem to be locked in the same cycles as the piano, until the patterns mutate—chords are cut short, a stunning faded-in sequence (1:43) suggests a way out. Bowie in 1978 described the track as pitting an “organic sound” against a falsehood, a synthesizer section pretending to be a horn section, but the “artificial” provides the only glimpses of sunlight in the piece.

In the liner notes for his first ambient record, Music for Airports, Eno wrote “whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities” (my emphasis). He wrote this in September 1978, a year after he made this track, and “Sense of Doubt” seems an early attempt at this scenario—it’s providing background music that’s also a series of disturbing sounds, making it hard to serve as aural wallpaper yet having no real sense of progression. Locking the ominous piano pattern in an apparently endless cycle diminishes its power to surprise, yet its continual reappearance undermines whatever flashes of hope appear.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977 at Hansa, Berlin. Performed during the 1978 tour (often as the pre-intermission finale) and used in Christiane F.

Top: Ute Mahler, “Motofoto für Sibylle,” Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, 1978.

21 Responses to Sense of Doubt

  1. ian says:

    I lent a friend of mine a copy of “Heroes.” Later I asked him what he thought. “It was great!” he said. “I really enjoyed that ‘Arabia’ song, and that other one, what was it called… ‘Apprehension,’ I think.”

    Anyways, the trio in the trio is an endlessly captivating and unsettling little thing. Glad you called out the ‘stunning faded-in sequence,’ as to me, it’s really the key the song. I used to work a job where I’d be coming home at 4 in the morning every night, and at first, as a way to further punish myself, I’d listen to Sense>Moss>Neukoln on repeat.

    But the more I did that, the subtle flashes of hope and contentment would keep sneaking through. Eventually, it became more of a call-to-arms, you-can-do-it kind of suite, rather than a give-up-and-die one.

  2. Gnomemansland says:

    The video is oh so pretentious and yet somehow Bowie pulls it off. That keyboard
    he is playing at the end is presumably the Chamberlin.

  3. Jeremy Earl says:

    Ah, warm analog synths, you can’t beat them. Never has a track been so appropriately named. Love the Eno connection with the ambient theory. I’m really tempted to buy a copy of the oblique strategy cards, although I don’t know what for. Never thought of those three tracks as a trilogy within a trilogy – thanks for once again making me think differently about music I’ve been listening to for 30 years. It’s indicative of its enduring quality really.

  4. Remco says:

    There’s an online version of the Oblique Strategy deck ( which I’ve used on numerous occasions but that box on Eno’s website looks so cool that I’m sorely tempted as well.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      It does look really cool. Can you buy cool? Well, you can buy an oblique strategy…

      Thanks for the link.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        On the subject of Oblique Strategies, there was an Eno album around this time that gave you some ‘oblique strategy lithographs’ if you asked. The oblique strategies were free but I’m not sure that they came with any cool!
        I felt sorry for Eno – as I thought he was probably living in a one-room bedsit alone and ignored – and sent off for them just to cheer him up. I didn’t even know what a lithograph was at that time.

  5. diamond dog says:

    Sense of doubt for me is one of the eeriest pieces of music I’ve heard. Very unsettling almost like horror film music , it should have been called sense of dread as its almost unbearable in its tension.
    Never thought of it as a trilogy …well done again.

  6. MrBelm says:

    The lithographs were repros of the Peter Schmidt paintings on the inner sleeve of Before and After Science.

    When the (at the time, and vinyl) complete Eno was released as a boxed set, each set contained an Oblique Strategies card. Mine read “Go outside. Close the door.”

    • Remco says:

      I write and draw comics in my spare time, all of them as yet unpublished, alas, but that’s beside the point. The first time I used the Oblique Strategy deck was when I needed a beginning for my first graphic novel. I had a pretty good idea of the theme and some of the characters but I really needed something to jump start the story. So naturally I turned to Eno. The card I got was exactly the same as MrBelms: ‘Go outside. Shut the door.’ So I did, walked to a park nearby and set on a bench next to a lady who was having a very loud telephone conversation about everything that was wrong with her boyfriend or husband. I wrote down most of the conversation, pretending to be sketching, went home and based my entire lead character on her description of her asshole husband. I’ve been grateful to messrs. Eno and Schmidt ever since.

  7. diamond dog says:

    Its interesting how this piece came into being but do people feel when they hear it??? Does anyone else find it as creepy as I do ? In headphones it is a very disturbing feeling ,oppressive and is a real odd piece of music.

  8. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’ve often wondered about the purpose of promos like the one for ‘Sense of Doubt’. I assume it wasn’t that cheap to make but where would it have been seen at the time? Certainly in the UK, there were no real outlets for this kind of thing and I can’t imagine television channels in the US fighting to show ‘Sense of Doubt’. Just wondering.

  9. diamond dog says:

    There is one for Blackout as well on a pirate dvd i have with Bowie which is aborted halfway, i imagine it was for a promo advert.It also has him doing Heroes over and over again, I cannot imagine any tv station playing sense of doubt promo ..lord its daft.
    So i always assumed it was like the david live advert bits of each track played to Bowie lip synching etc.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’ve never seen the Blackout thing. Sounds very interesting.
    I just don’t get the Sense of Doubt thing. Whose idea was it? Who put up the money? Why?
    He’s dressed up, put his make-up on and they’ve clearly thought about what they’re doing. To my knowledge there were no real outlets for videos in those days. And certainly not for ‘Sense of Doubt’.

  11. Timh says:

    Dont really know much about composition and theory and all that, but the descending chords on this are the same as those that open “We Are the Dead”, aren’t they (in addition to the Ligeti piece)?

  12. bcr says:

    re: the promo video…
    thinking maybe the “promo” clip you’ve got up here was done for a television special of some sort…here’s one of similar footage (bowie’s dressed the same) which looks as if it had been shot intended for use in tv adverts or somesuch.

  13. s.t. says:

    Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but Sense of Doubt strikes me as a mutation of Warszawa. Somewhat similar chords and arrangement, but aggressively dark rather than the more plaintive original.

  14. I wonder if DB had yet seen Eraserhead when composing this bit. It’s very reminiscent of that film’s ambient, unsettling sound design.

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