The Hearts Filthy Lesson

pride

The Hearts Filthy Lesson.
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (video).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Trent Reznor “alt” remix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Rubber Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Simple Test Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (first live performance, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Late Show with David Letterman, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 1997).

Born during the Leon sessions in March 1994, “The Hearts (sic) Filthy Lesson” was systematically dirtied for more than a year before it emerged as Outside‘s debut single. It sold meagerly (UK #35, US #92) and some critics (including this one) have argued that Bowie would’ve had a better shot had he led off with “Strangers When We Meet” or “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.”

But it’s obvious why Bowie chose “Hearts” as his opening salvo. The track packed a punch; it was cold and weird, his boldest shot at re-invention since Tin Machine. It signaled a new Bowie persona, or at least the return of an old one: obscurantist, distant, menacing, clinically obsessed with blood and guts. It was The Man Who Sold the World, minus the folkie trappings; a Wan White Duke.

Bowie worked up some visual counterparts to the track, most notoriously its Samuel Bayer-directed video that implied some grotesque sacrificial ritual underway (minotaurs, decapitations, Pinhead piercings, baptisms, a goth-punk Last Supper).* More interesting was Bowie’s performance of “Hearts” on the Late Show With David Letterman, the day before Outside was released in September 1995. For those who had grown accustomed to the icily charming Bowie of the Eighties and Black Tie White Noise, this new incarnation, clad in black leather and wearing eyeliner, black nail polish and what looked like tinted contact lenses, gave off a hostile, jittery vibe. With an air of bemused contempt, getting lost in his mad pantomime, Bowie contorted himself, moving in exaggerated, jerky gestures; he acted as if the audience didn’t exist, that he was playing to a mirror, then he would suddenly acknowledge the crowd with leers and half-smiles. His band clashed behind him. Mike Garson played a solo like a Teppanyaki chef, while Gail Ann Dorsey (this was the first time most Bowie fans got to see her) was cool charisma.

“Hearts,” whose production had a flavor of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral,* a favorite of Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’, was allegedly from the perspective of Nathan Adler. But its lyric was more a series of warnings that could be assembled in any order (something in our blood…falls upon deaf ears…her hundred miles to hell….I’m already in my grave). Two of the characters mentioned in the lyric, Adler and Ramona, hail from the character segues, while two others, Paddy and Miranda, are just names. The latter have as much dramatic import in the song, if not more. (“Paddy” could be a Beckett-esque nickname for God, a fellow Art Crime detective, or another version of the Minotaur/Artist character that Bowie was developing in other songs).

What was the heart’s filthy lesson? Bowie once said it was knowing the certainty of one’s impending death (the lesson is that the heart will stop one day). But the heart’s also filthy because it’s a blood-sponge. The center of our bodies is a grisly instrument, a ceaselessly throbbing muscle that we pretty up into a shiny red icon used to symbolize our soul, our ability to love, the best of our natures. So there’s a trace of Bowie’s Gnostic leanings in his song’s title phrase—the body’s a prison and we grant nobility to our jailer, making a happy god of our dirty waterworks.

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The song itself…is made up of juxtapositions and fragments of information. [It] doesn’t have a straightforward coherent message to it. None of the album has any message; it’s really a compression of information, it’s just information: make of it what you will….The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.

Bowie, on “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” promotional film for Outside, 1995.

“Hearts” began as a group improvisation in the Leon sessions (Garson started things off by playing a hook on piano, while Eno’s contribution was to loop a French radio broadcast and blast it every four bars) and it shows in the song’s structure, as “Hearts” can seem like a welded-together collection of pieces. There’s a “verse” where Bowie sings a D-flat minor melody over a G-flat bass pedal point, a “bridge” that reconciles with the bass pedal by moving to G-flat Lydian (“Oh Ramona”), then to G-flat minor (“something in our skies”), and an F-flat Lydian “chorus,” while the song, after a few more permutations, ultimately closes back in G-flat.

Interweaving the various sections are a set of motifs—a Bo Diddley bass hook, a jabbing Garson piano fill that calls back to Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” a guitar riff (Kevin Armstrong, or Reeves Gabrels on his Parker Fly, plays trills down the low E string, punctuating the motion with a quick run of descending notes on the D string.) For stitching between sections there’s an eight-bar antic Garson piano solo, some helpings of the guitar riff and a sudden sigh that triggers the song’s dramatic peak, a G major second bridge (“Paddy will you carry me”).

The devil’s in the details, which were likely Eno’s biggest contributions to the track: the consonant, sibilant backing vocals from the Edwards family**; the dog-whistle-pitched noise (a tuning fork?) that sounds on every other downbeat in the chorus; the mutterings underneath Bowie’s vocals; roiling waves of static; shaken chains; the plaints of a guitar so distorted that it sounds like synthesized strings (around 3:15).

Bowie’s singing is phenomenal and precise throughout the track, from the snarling ease of his opening verse, to the bridge sequence of “OHH Ra-MONa…if there was ON-ly” that Bowie disrupts with “be-TWEEN us,” keeping the stress rhythm but gleefully spoiling his internal rhyme scheme. Or the doomed-sounding “I’m already five years older…already in my grave,” where Bowie seems to intone a mournful organ line against Garson’s agitated piano. Gary Numan called it one of Bowie’s best vocals, saying to David Buckley, “Bowie oversings a lot of the time. He sings harder than he needs to…[“Hearts”] was right back into that not-so-full-on singing.”

That said, Gabrels may have salvaged the song. Bowie had second-guessed himself at some point during the overdubs, writing a completely different lyric based on English landscape painters. “David, that’s nice and all, but it’s kind of destroyed the essence of the song, don’t you think?” Gabrels recalled saying (as per Paul Trynka’s biography). An irritated Bowie told Gabrels to get lost, but he eventually relented and restored the original lyric.

hfl

Bowie’s change of costume on “Hearts” and Outside could come off as juvenile and desperate. Studied alienation, pretentious narration, gasped and muttered vocals, a video hinting at Se7en-esque ritualized torture: to some critics, it seemed like a man chasing a train while trying to catch his breath. But a YouTube comment on the “Hearts” video struck me. It was written by someone who was 15 when “Hearts” came out, who said that “Hearts” was the first Bowie song he ever heard, and it freaked him out.

It’s remarkable that a 48-year-old rock musician, who’d been making records since A Hard Day’s Night came out, could still manage to unnerve teenagers, making himself shabby and weird again. What’s more, there was a hard commitment to the present in Bowie’s latest revision, which he would make clear in his album’s title song: It’s happening Now. Not. Tomorrow. It happens Today.  On Letterman, a slight unease hung in the air after the Bowie performance, when Letterman was gassing on to Paul Shaffer and Doc Severinsen—it’s likely someone during the commercial break cracked, “what the hell was that all about?” But Bowie wasn’t singing for them; he just made them seem irredeemably old and square. Tell the others, as he’d murmured as the song careered to a close, tell the others.

The Outside era, kicked off by “Hearts,” was a last throw of the dice for Bowie, where he tried to become a bothersome cult figure again. Sure, it was calculated: so was Young Americans, and Low, for that matter. And it worked, for some. There’s a little-acknowledged generational gap in Bowie fandom, between those who grew up with him in the “classic” Seventies and early Eighties, and those who first knew him with Outside. For the latter, this cadaverous aging creep, muttering about Ramona and blood and filthy things, was their Ziggy Stardust.

By decade’s end, after two albums and tours, Bowie would fall back, exhausted, into the sway of the past. But in the mid-Nineties, he willed himself to be shameless and there was something marvelously crackpot about it. He wouldn’t get hit singles anymore, but he also was a presence again; an irritant, an embarrassment. He became vaguely disreputable. As Greil Marcus once wrote of Randy Newman: he was back at the margin, scheming. It suited him.

Recorded ca. March 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs at Mountain throughout late 1994, and the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. January-February 1995 (where Armstrong recorded his guitar overdubs). Released on 11 September 1995 (RCA/BMG 74321 30703 2), in a mind-numbing array of versions and mixes (see the Illustrated DB entry for details); the most interesting of the latter was the Reznor-affiliated “Alt Mix.” The US digipak single (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), which did hit #20 on the Modern Rock charts, had “Nothing to Be Desired” as a bonus track, where the UK/Europe/Australia singles had “I Am With Name.” Of course, “Hearts” was used to ominously score the end credits of David Fincher’s Se7en.

Performed regularly from 1995 to 1997. A recording from the Phoenix Festival, 18 July 1996, was included on liveandwell.com, a CD issued exclusively for BowieNet members in 2000, as well as the French-only Limited Edition Track 3 Sampler, while a version from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was included on a CD that GQ magazine distributed in its November 1997 issue: Earthling in the City. The closing show of the “Earthling” tour, Buenos Aires on 7 November 1997, was the last time that Bowie ever played the song live.

* Mark Romanek’s video for “Closer,” with its bondage gear, Francis Bacon-inspired slabs of beef, crucified monkeys, decapitated pig’s head, nude human mannequins and general filthiness, was an obvious inspiration for Bayer and Bowie’s video for “Hearts.” (It was a tribute to a tribute, as the heart of “Closer” is a bass drum sample from Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”)

** Bryony, Josey, Ruby and Lola Edwards, who also sang on “I Am With Name.” (I’m assuming they’re related, unless it was a Ramones-type of thing.) To my knowledge, Outside is the only record on which they’ve been credited.

Top: pride goeth before a fall, Se7en (Fincher, 1995); filthy lessons.

74 Responses to The Hearts Filthy Lesson

  1. I watched the Letterman appearance a day before buying the album and can confirm its impact. He looked great in the black T-shirt and shiny leather pants, his voice rich without being overripe, and despite the song’s anti-pop intentions the band nailed every hook.

  2. I’ve been looking forward to this entry and it didn’t disappoint

    There is another group of fans – those who started in the 70s/80s but rather than drift away after the 80s dissapointments, kept plugging away, ever-mindful of the nuggets that came our way.

    But the release of this was like some kind of payday. I heard it first on a pre-release listening post in Virgin records flagship in London. It was a proper WTF moment – I didn’t “get it”, but I know I liked it.

    And that TV appearance on Letterman? How many times in 80s and 90s did we see a perfunctory, Bowie-Lite performance for TV shows. But this was what we got in a proper live show, amped up to maximum.

    Every sneer at being a Bowie fan through the lean years was worth it for that period from 95-97. Not that I have a problem with the later albums, especially Heathen. But this is where my heart lies

    Romanek did the Closer video did he? Another link being his BTWN ere videos for Bowie

    • Ian Fryer says:

      Agree completely. Having just about given up on DB, Hearts Filthy Lesson announced to the world that Bowie was back in the place he was always most comfortable – the worlds most popular cult musician. I still play it regularly and it always rewards the brain and ears with something new. I always liked the stripped down Trent Reznor mx, too.

  3. postpunkmonk says:

    I found that this new single promised more than it delivered. I can hear it on the album, and it’s okay – neither the best nor the worst of what Outside offers me. I never really liked the song until I heard it on “Earthling In The City.” That version, with its delivery being more real than surreal, works best for me. It’s now my go-to version of this song. It makes the album version sound like the overcooked piece of meat that it is. The stripped down sound in concert gave more room to his, yes, spot-on vocal performance.

  4. gcreptile says:

    I’ve waited for this entry, and it did not disappoint! Your perception about the generation gap is spot-on. Back in 1995, I was 13 by the way, I was an obsessive chart watcher. I still remember the day I first saw the video in a UK chart show. My mother was in the same room, she said something like “This guy used to make such nice music”, she probably refered to the years 1980-1986. I was fascinated by the video and the song. My ears and maybe even my brain, were not yet able to consume this kind of music. But the song made me learn… This was not the song that made me a Bowie fan, that one is yet to come, but it’s the first Bowie song I consciously remember being released.
    I’m glad you appreciate the Reznor remix. I love it, really, really, love it. It’s a no-holds-barred aural assault full of synth harmonies and industrial noise. It’s perfect. And I still also love the original version. I love the noise and the sense of drama there.
    I wonder if this song inspired Depeche Mode to write and release ‘Barrel of a gun’.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Your mother’s comment reminds me of a story I read about Tin Machine’s performance at the…What was it? The American Music Awards?…where Tina Turner’s mother was overheard saying “I liked him better when he used to sing songs!”😀

  5. BenJ says:

    One quibble: By 1995 Letterman had moved over to CBS and his show was called “The Late Show with…” That said, I still have a pretty sharp memory of seeing that performance. The goth zombie look as you describe it, and the hammy group shout of “The heart’s filthy LES-son! The heart’s filthy LES-son.” This was something different all right.

    The video is one of the most hilariously dated relics of the Clinton era, of course. But Bowie’s own manic/jesterish part in it holds up.

    • col1234 says:

      quite right. I got the Letterman name correct on the links but not in the entry (sad “getting old” moment–when you realize Letterman’s been at CBS for 20 bloody years now)

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Regarding the video, I love that bit with the mask, a quintessential Bowie motif dating all the way back to The Mask skit from the Love You Till Tuesday film.

    • fluxkit says:

      Samuel Bayer’s videos all seemed cheap and just ugly without any real reason to them, even when they were new. I’ve never liked his aesthetic. I guess the best I can say for Bowie in the music videos he let Bayer do is that Bowie manages not to look stupid himself, most of the time. Other artists I like who hired Bayer for videos fared worse.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        Although Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is certainly a classic clip, probably owing more to the band’s sabotaging Bayer’s intentions! I’ve certainly got a soft spot for the Bosch-inspired imagery of his video for Metallica’s Until It Sleeps (1996).

    • Gb says:

      Been watching the video for the song as of late…Bowie’s sheer charisma and weirdness in the video somehow manages to keep it fresh.

  6. Art says:

    I, too, was 13 when this song came out. At that time, I was only familiar with Bowie through the occasional 70s hit on my local classic rock station and Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” But “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” blew me away. I had only just started listening to music when I was 12, so I had no good context through which to appreciate the track. It just struck me as immensely weird and exciting, a true “alternative” to the onslaught of 90s grudge bands that were still dominating the airwaves. “Outside” became the first Bowie album I ever owned. I still have great affection for this song and for the entire album.

  7. The Pataphysical Me says:

    I’m probably really deranged (i use to stand close to “outsiders” & real schizos as i’m working in a psychiatic institution)…but this Bowie Era is one of his best; links with viennese actionnists like Brüs, Schwarzkogler, Nitsch who did some music too seem clear on the video & it goes farer than NIN which is a group i really like.

  8. Ian McDuffie says:

    It’s incredible how Carlos Alomar can still look like he’s having the best time ever even when he’s secretly miserable. I’d put that Letterman performance up there with R.E.M.’s “Crush with Eyeliner” go at Letterman— I didn’t catch the Bowie, but I certainly caught the newly-bald Stipe in a similar getup, painted nails and strange sunglasses, waggling his ass atop the monitors. (It’s kind of strange how both REM and Bowie reinvented themselves around 1994 with similarly tongue-in-cheek “Rock” maneuvers— Bowie took the dark and ugly side, REM the light and funny side.)

    Still, seeing this reaction, be it with youtube comments or just the comments above, is very heartwarming to see an undercurrent of Outside love. IT IS SPREADING. Someday, Outside’s gonna pull a full Lodger, I can FEEL it.

    • R.E.M. released the least commercial single possible a year later.

      • col1234 says:

        ha! yes. That would’ve been like DB putting out “Small Plot of Land” or one of the segues as his first single.

      • Ian McDuffie says:

        Are we talking about “E-Bow The Letter?” You’re not wrong, but by 1997 it didn’t matter if R.E.M. put out “Bittersweet Me” or “Electrolite” as the first Hi-Fi single— the mass-buying public had had enough by then. I don’t know if they were self-aware enough to realize that (though Michael Stipe starting an MTV performance by shouting “I WAS COOL” is a fair shake at ‘yes, they were’). “E-Bow” seemed much more like a “we like this song better” choice.

        At least they didn’t keep their catchiest songs from that album off the singles shelf like DB did with Outside.

      • col1234 says:

        I was, and pretty sure Alfred was. Not a fan of “E-Bow,” mainly due to a general dislike of post-’79 P. Smith

      • StevenE says:

        My only engagement with REM is a greatest hits compilation I bought when I was 14 – e-bow never stood out for me as different from the other tracks or particularly uncommercial. That, Animal and Imitation of Life were the tracks I replayed the most frequently I think.

        Colour me intrigued. I’ll have to dig out the compilation for another listen…

        Speaking of which, the British Prime Minister is a big and vocal fan of early R.E.M, and listed Murmur as one of his favourite albums. It’s one of the few things people give him credit for, liking the right iteration of R.E.M.

  9. Maj says:

    Oh Ramona.

    Nice write-up, Chris.

    Well, I love this song. I don’t do lists, so I have no idea where this song would place in a Bowie top 100 songs type of thing but it’s one of my favourite songs of his, I’ll leave it at that.
    It sounds really weird (the only singles that come close to the weirdness of this would probably come from the Lodger) but at the same time it’s…catchy almost. I love this mix. The concept of that is very early-ish Roxy Music-esque – obviously different theme, different music but similar mix of utter weirdness and catchy-ness.
    BTW, for many years I heard “what a fantastic death that is” instead of abyss. I might like my version a wee bit better. But how many songs feature the word abyss, I wonder. Bowie needs to be commended for that.

    Thanks for clearing up the Paddy issue for me. I never really cared for the story part of Outside much, so I assumed Paddy was one of the characters but then he didn’t appear anywhere else (ditto Miranda). The god tangent is nice. An Irish god.😉

    /Years ago a friend of mine had a book where you could calculate what you were in your past life. I apparently was a Japanese sailor – which explains a lot of things – but Bowie was just a boring IRISH merchant, apparently. Fun stuff./

    Numan had a great point there with the oversinging etc. All in all I think Outside features some of Bowie’s best/most interesting vocals.

    The video is great, for the most part. Though I could have done with less mutilations and sawing off body parts (maybe because yesterday I watched an episode of John Adams, the HBO miniseries, which featured a graphic depiction of a leg amputation, so rewatching the video today was a bit too much too soon). But it LOOKS good, and isn’t that the most important thing. The Outside era had a great look (compared to Earthling, for instance).

    I suppose this would be the place to mention Se7en. Or Seven, FFS. Saw the film on TV about a decade ago. I guess I liked it for the most part and while it was nice to hear Bowie over the closing credits, it would have been even better of the original version was used. I’m really not much of a NIN fan. Nothing against them. But just like with Pink Floyd I prefer artists who got inspired by them to the actual stuff, if that makes any sense.

  10. SoooTrypticon says:

    Being 11 or 12 at the time, and living next to Hartford CT, Bowie’s Outside release and tour were vague monstrous shapes looming out from the radio. I wanted to go to the show, but couldn’t. I had no car to drive to the record store a town over. And the internet was a rumor on the wind.

    For a couple years (remember, the album went out of print, making it hard to find), Outside was this unobtainable Bowie grail. Thank the stars for the internet!

    The single itself was a quick favorite. The start and stop delivery is something I feel sorely lacking in his later work. It adds punctuation to his narratives, as if he cares about the story he’s telling. Even a piecemeal one like this.

  11. Chris says:

    While my first memory of Bowie was when I was 5 and Space Oddity hit No. 1 in the UK, the first time I can remember Bowie blowing me away was when I was 10 and Ashes to Ashes was No. So when, at 13, after Let’s Dance had been No. 1 and I was ready to buy my first Bowie album I chose Scary Monsters rather than Let’s Dance. I can clearly remember the feeling I had when I first played it and It’s No Game screamed out at me. I really hadn’t heard anything like it before and I actually think that track affected my appreciation of music from that point on.

    I can see that The Hearts Filthy Lesson would have exactly that effect on someone 13 in 1995 so I can easily understand that second wave of Bowie fans. I had been incredibly loyal to Bowie from 1983 onwards, through thick and (admittedly mostly) thin but Outside was the big pay off for my loyalty, it felt like Bowie was properly engaged with his music again, he seemed reinvigorated. I’d easily put Outside in my top 5 Bowie albums.

  12. fluxkit says:

    I was 15 when 1.Outside came out. I might be an unusual case, since I was born to two Bowie fans who were born in 1960, so they raised me being exposed to all of the ’70s stuff from my earliest days. I listened to “Let’s Dance” regularly as a child. But for a few years leading into being a teenager, I hadn’t really heard much from Bowie (aside from “Jump, They Say”). When Outside came out, I was really into Nine Inch Nails. I was excited by this new Bowie. I was excited to see him tour with NIN. Outside was still a largely impenetrable album for me, but I loved the mystery. Albums that didn’t reveal themselves immediately were exciting. I wasn’t clear if there was anything behind the mystery, but there were layers to become immersed in. That element was something we weren’t getting much of in ’90s alt-rock (which in its way, I think sort of replayed the setting Bowie had emerged from in the Ziggy Stardust era… like the hippies, early ’90s alt-rock produced too much earnestness, putting everything on the surface. Too much authenticity!) Bowie brought something mysterious, exciting, elusive… and it wasn’t always immediately satisfying. I heard that Bowie was booed on the Stage (Isolar 2) tour and there was a cold reception on the Outside tour from many. I think ultimately Bowie was more unsettling than NIN (and certainly more than Marilyn Manson, Reznor’s other cohort), for being more indirect. It made a strong impression on me that at 15.

  13. Diamond Duke says:

    Without a doubt, this is probably the single most f@#!’d-up song ever to be released as a David Bowie single…and believe me, I mean that in a really, really good way! Man oh man, to have been a fly on the wall of the Virgin/EMI executives upon their learning of Bowie’s choice for first single…😀

    Like I already said many times before in earlier posts, Outside was the first proper David Bowie album I ever bought, largely piqued by curiosity. I had first heard The Hearts Filthy Lesson in the closing credits of David Fincher’s Se7en. (And believe me when I say that it was the original album version and not the NIN remix!) I had also heard I’m Deranged in the opening and closing credits of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and I was definitely intrigued by what kind of album could feature songs like The Hearts Filthy Lesson and I’m Deranged! (I could almost give Outside the nickname of “The Movie Album” seeing as how quite a few numbers from it have turned up in movies – see also the lyrically altered version of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers and the remix of A Small Plot Of Land from Basquiat.)

    At the time, I had only a peripheral awareness of David Bowie’s work, having heard songs like Changes, Space Oddity, Suffragette City, The Jean Genie and Rebel Rebeletc….etc….on classic rock stations. And I was even more vaguely aware of the arc of the man’s career, and his path from Glam/Art-Rock God to Polished ’80s Superstar. But Outside marked the first step on my – admittedly long-delayed – journey toward becoming a full-fledged David Bowie fan.

    • gcreptile says:

      Yes, it definitely was the album version, not the remix.

      • Maj says:

        Well I saw it once, on TV and about 10 years ago, so I really don’t remember – I was excited to hear any Bowie on the radio and TV back then. I thought Chris wrote it was the remix but he’s either changed it since or I read it wrong. Thanks for clearing it up, guys!🙂

  14. Joe The Lion says:

    Oh my Paddy, I love Outside.

  15. MC says:

    For all my misgivings about the Outside album, I was thrilled with the aesthetics of the 95-97 period, the knife-edge that had returned to DB’s work (not just his music) – like Tin Machine only better!
    Heart’s Filthy Lesson is an interesting one for me because it’s part of a line of Bowie singles in the 90’s, beginning with You Belong In Rock And Roll, and ending with Little Wonder, which I would term “postmodern rock songs” – all pretty fragmentary, flaunting their joins in a way that makes even the likes of DJ and Be My Wife sound like epitomes of pop classicism, and with catchy bits, peculiar melodic turns, and busy-baroque arrangements all clearly demonstrating how determined DB was to scare off that 80’s mega-audience (and God bless him for that). Personally, I like some of the “postmodern” singles better than others (never liked Rock And Roll particularly, while Jump They Say and Little Wonder took some time but eventually really grew on me). Lesson is the one in this group I warmed to the fastest, if only because of the terrific vocal performance (particularly on “these cerulean skies” and the climactic “will you carry me”, vacillating beautifully between sardonic humour and wailing desperation). Some of the other songs on Outside definitely would have been better 1st singles (and are better constructed songs in the conventional sense besides) but I guess DB wasn’t in the mood to make nice.

    One last frivolous thought: is the “poor dunce” of Small Plot Of Land who nobody likes a precursor to the Little Fat Man?🙂

    • gcreptile says:

      Yes, I agree with your term. ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ and ‘Little Wonder’ seem to be made up of several parts rather than being one idea, or one concept. But it really works! There are tons of little hooks instead of the one and only chorus. This is, by the way, the way pop music has gone. Today’s Rihanna or Lady Gaga singles all basically consist of chorus after chorus after chorus. It is a commercial development.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I’m not sure Gaga is a good example. Often she’ll come up with a terrific set of verses or a middle eight but a dud chorus.

      • s.t. says:

        HTV, that completely summarizes my thoughts on Gaga’s work.

    • Spooky says:

      I really want someone to make a mash-up with Bowie singing Little Fat Man over the music of Small Plot Of Land.

  16. spanghew says:

    Trivial point – I think rather than “G-flat” and “F-flat” (which is yr standard E natural in drag), F# and E would be the likelier enharmonic pitch names – since guitarists in particular lean toward sharp keys (root chords on all guitar strings are sharp keys).

  17. Chris, according to my copy of Outside, Kevin Armstrong only played on a couple of tracks – Thru These Architect’s Eyes and Strangers When We Meet.

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, it was only because one of the bios (Trynka’s I think) specifically listed him as playing on “Hearts” that I included it. The riff sounds like Reeves.

  18. sigmata martyr says:

    I think it’s interesting that, at each pivot, Bowie throws a fishhook to a younger set of fans. Everyone has their own point of entry that hits the sweet spot.

    And they are potent fishhooks that fit each time period perfectly, a weird feat since he can’t have had a crystal ball.

  19. the pataphysical me says:

    Don’t forget Life as a process & art as a process, not an abstraction, something concrete that occurs “NOW”.. even not tomorrow, not yesterday); that’s what i’ve learn (as i recognized my thoughts..) with Deleuze & Guattari; you make music since the references you’ve got all around your individuality… “Outside” speaks from & for its Epoch (body art, piercing, plastic surgery, performances -Athey’s…) post-modernism as Lyotard used to give it a name; end of History (Marx), etc, etc…

  20. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    The point about the different generations of Bowie fans is intriguing. In my own case, “The Jean Genie” was the song which kick-started my whole Bowie infatuation as a 12 year old in 1973, and I’ve stuck with him through his entire career, rather than drifting away in the admittedly disappointing 80s. I can attest that Bowie was at the peak of his respect among music fans, critics and peers around 1981-2.
    Like The Beatles and Dylan in the 60s, every new Bowie album up to that point was a much-anticipated event, his influence was everywhere, from Punk to New Wave, Electronic music, Soul Boys and The New Romantics, and seemingly he could do no wrong. Then he kind of blotted his copy book with Let’s Dance and the albums which immediately followed. I suppose in a sense it was inevitable that the critics and fans would turn on him eventually when he lost his way (Paddy), and it has been a long road back.
    Unfortunately, Bowie’s changes of costume on Outside probably did come off as desperate and juvenile to the critics and record buying public in general.
    Everybody seemed to be infatuated with either Britpop or Grunge at the time, and the critics seemed to dismiss the whole project as lumpen and pretentious.There was more than a hint of ageism (if that’s a word) in their response too, as a couple of years later the shiny new kids on the block, Radiohead, tackled the same pre-millenial angst themes on ÖK Computer” and were lauded to the heavens for it.
    Seems Bowie just couldn’t get it right,as he’d bemoaned on “I Can’t Read” several years earlier. If he pandered to the masses as he did in the 80s he was a sell-out. If he tried to wipe the slate clean with Tin Machine and start afresh, he was pedalling noise. If he put out a wedding album like BTWN it was sentimental slush. While Outside was considered a pretentious and desperate attempt to be cutting edge again, and Earthling was seen as an old guy trying too hard to be down with the kids.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      It all comes off much better with the perspective of a couple of subsequent decades, both the music and the imagery.

      Even I, a ‘proper’ fan, thought at the time that his re-marketing moves of the Outside era were too obviously contrived. He’d been too demystified by then for the new sound and image to properly embed a new Bowie narrative for the masses (although I think it did achieve this to some extent).

      Even today his name attracts a good amount of knee-jerk derision, at least in my experience. I have to field barrages of sniping remarks about Bowie from friends every once in a while.

      “But you don’t actually know any of these records,” I often point out to them. “Some of this stuff is brilliant,” .

      Not that it makes any difference. In their heads he hasn’t really done anything good since the 1970s, and nothing will convince them otherwise.

      That’s the curse of having to compete against your own earlier achievements, I suppose.

      • Maj says:

        Ha, that reminds me of Neil Tennant describing how he wrote one of the newest Pet Shop Boys songs, aptly called Your Early Stuff. He was in a taxi and the driver recognised him and said, pretty much, “oh, I quite like some of your early stuff.” – “have you heard any of the later stuff?”, asked Neil? – “no, I only like your early stuff.”
        I shortened the story but the above is the gist of it.

    • gcreptile says:

      I have to make one more comment to support Maj’s comparison with the Pet Shop Boys which comes maybe one or two entries too early….
      When they described the concept behind their 1993 album “Very”, they said that because everyone else went “real”, that is, grunge or alternative rock, they went “artificial”. So they made these elaborate videos and put on deliberately silly costumes.
      With Outside, Bowie also went “artificial” (a few years after he went “real” with Tin Machine). While Bowie’s main inspiration Trent Reznor could claim that “The Downward Spiral” was inspired by his own life, Bowie’s hyperlinear gothic murder mystery could not do that. Bowie copied the aesthetics of the time, gave the music of the time his own spin, but his mentality was out of place. As Mr. Tagomi says, we can now appreciate Bowie’s effort a little more because the present time is a bit more different and we appreciate the “art” in “artificiality” again. But yes, maybe it looked a bit silly back then for some who had watched Bowie for decades. Anyway, just to point out, the collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and Bowie made sense in this regard.

    • fluxkit says:

      I think you’re right that people were quick to judge Bowie quickly, or many critics anyhow, from the ’80s onward no matter what he did. But, I guess Rolling Stone magazine officially derided him his whole career… but I guess after BTWN and Buddha, he was starting to let go of worrying about it, and with Outside its almost like he’s reveling in sort of saying “screw you, if you don’t get it, I don’t give a damn.”

  21. tin man & pataphysical says:

    If you can write about Bowie, it takes you time to & it means you got Bowie as a sort of light or reference in your own world; this is what i feel… i’m still obsessed by Bowie & it will continue. I’m nearly 44 & Bowie still moves me, sometimes it deals with my brain, sometimes my pelvis’ more concerned, I LOVE THIS GUY… A HUGE ARTIST!

  22. Patrick says:

    I still think more it less the same when I first heard it (though I’ve not yet checked out all the versions) The track sort of pounds on fairly relentlessly and vaguely menacingly as if it would have made decent incidental music to a film without the lyrics. but I am left wondering what it was all about. Probably more listenable than most of the tracks on outside (as I remember it) but I don’t dislike it or like it or want to replay it.

  23. Patrick says:

    The title refrain is a bit of an earworm, though.

  24. Mr Tagomi says:

    It strikes me as being quintessentially Bowie that such a dissonant and jagged song, one so designed to jar and discomfit, should in reality be so full of hooks.

  25. CosmicJive says:

    I think you’re entirely spot on with Outside Bowie being the Ziggy Stardust for a new 90s generation of fans… I am one them. I remember I saw some live clips of the man on TV back in late 95 thinking: “this is really weird stuff”. As a 14 year old guitarist I was very intrigued by the weird licks and riffs both Carlos and Reeves were playing. Kids in my class were into those simple Greenday powerchord teenpop, I never liked that. Or that horrible metal stuff all other guitarist I knew were into. This was something else and I wanted to learn more.

    So I bought the album. Barely made it through the first half. Then “Wishfull Beginnings” started and I just turned it off. This was way too creepy to listen to! Few weeks later I returned to the CD and I’ve been listening to it over and over again ever since.

    This was an entire new world for me; music I had never heard before. It really was outside and being kind of an outsider myself the album (and Earthling) was the perfect soundtrack for my teen years.

    It was also was a big influence musically and not just on me. I’ve played in a professional band for a couple of years and this album was our bible. We all loved it and took a lot ideas from it. The Mike Garson horror piano, the screaming Gabrels guitars, the cold drum loops and the weird lyrics etc.We even covered Motel as a tribute.

    Sadly Outside, unlike Ziggy, never became big…..

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Ugh. Although I like to varying degrees the three singles, the videos are a bore. Maybe “Hallo Spaceboy” with Tennant-Lowe gets a pass.

      • Patrick says:

        I got bored with the video. Although there’s probably an influence of 90s art horror such as Joel Peter Witkin and others , it’s also not a million miles away from the slightly grotesque yet mannered mimes of DB’s late 60s Threepenny Pierrot as documented earlier.

  26. Momus says:

    1. David Bowie is sitting in a room in his villa in Mustique watching a video by Mark Romanek, who made his Jump They Say video the year before. A song by Nine Inch Nails begins. There are monkeys being crucified, insects scuttling over rotting food, horned skulls, shaved pudenda, torture dungeons, fetish rituals and the sick refrain: “I want to fuck you like an animal; you bring me closer to God”. Pulling down the shades to block the Caribbean sun, Bowie rewinds the tape and watches it again.

    2. Later the same year, Bowie is in a warehouse in New York filming a video with Sam Beyer. There are plaster dummies, fetish rituals, horned skulls, shaved bodies. The “sickness” quotient is only about 35% of the NIN video’s, though. Instead of a sick young Bataille-addled fetishist dangling from the ceiling like a trapped mantis, Bowie gives the impression of being a nice, successful middle-aged artist buying into nastiness as a style gesture. With Beyer aping Romanek (sans the really sick bits), Bowie comes across like a Trent Reznor tribute act.

    3. And yet there has been compelling sickness, scariness and edginess in Bowie’s work. The song about having gay sex with your devil-double, the one about rape on a hill, the one about crushing the guitarist’s hands, the ones about the end of the world and the corpses rotting on the slimy thoroughfare… Reznor was listening. We all were. That’s how we got fabulously sick in the first place. “The world’s most popular cult musician” kept mixing up darkness and glamour. He vastly expanded the possibilities in pop music for ambivalence, anxiety, horror, fear. He made it all seem very attractive.

    4. When Bowie covers Iggy Pop, something always seems lacking. Some edge of spontaneous psychopathology is present in Pop and absent in Bowie. We can’t imagine Bowie singing about needing “some weird sin just to relax with” and meaning it. Bowie is interested in the dark side, interested in appearing twisted and dirty occasionally, but finally he’s too charming, too nice, too eager to please, too British and middle-class to convince us as a psychopath. He’s a pierrot going through the motions.

    5. There’s a funny addendum to the Reality Tour video. Bowie is backstage, joking around with his band. He becomes a mime trapped in a glass box, then a karate killer, hands raised, confronting an opponent. The joke is that there’s hardly any difference between the gestures: “Marcel Marceau, Bruce Lee, Marcel Marceau, Bruce Lee.” It’s funny, and from a certain point of view it’s true. From the point of view of a mime artist, a master observer and reproducer of gestures.

  27. Mike F says:

    For a long time, Bowie was trying to make himself accessible to mainstream America wearing nice suits and crooning nice tunes. This is the point were he finally said phuk it and let his freak flag fly. The energy and vibrancy of the Letterman performance and the video really shows. He’s liberated by not trying to be a mainstream entertainer. So what if he lifted some of the visuals from Reznor? Bowie always lifts ideas from everywhere.

    Oh yeah, “Hearts” is a cracking good tune. This is a late career peak.

  28. Patrick says:

    Just occurred to me, given the title is “The heart’s Filthy Lesson” and his later heart op , certainly , if legend has it , taught him to slow down suddenly. Then the repeated line ” There’s something in our eyes”
    predates the infamous “lollypop in eye” incident.
    Spooky or what?:-)

  29. First time I heard this song was on the credits for Seven when I watched it for the first time in 2000. Back then I was only familiar with a few Bowie songs from the early 70s. Didn’t even recognise it was his until his name popped up towards the end of the credits. I thought it was such a cool song and opened my eyes to how diverse Bowie actually was (yes, I heard this song before I heard anything from Low. What a silly child).

    I’d say this song had a huge hand in the development my music tastes. I’d dread to think what I’d be listening to now if I didn’t go through a phase of listening to Outside every day in my teens (Incidentally, my mum did the same with Scary Monsters in 1980).
    I can imagine an alternate universe version of me gritting my teeth as someone forces me to listen to The Drift.

    On a different note, it’s interesting how Bowie would sing ‘sitting in the Laugh Motel‘ in live performance. I assume there was a reason for this change of name. Is The Motel synonymous with The Laugh Hotel?

  30. Spooky says:

    Wow. I was a 12 year old when this came out and it just blew my mind in so many different ways. Have loved this whole album ever since – not just Bowie’s most underrated album but one of the most underrated albums ever, I think. This was the first thing I remember him putting out – he’d always been there somehow, through Labyrinth and songs on the radio… but this is where the full-on fascination and devotion began, leading me to second-hand record shops to buy all his old vinyls… I really hope that The Next Day will as be exciting as this was, and still is.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Happy Birthday Chris!!!

  32. Remco says:

    Somewhere in those 4 minutes and 57 seconds I became a Bowie fan. It’s nice to know I wasn’t alone in this.

  33. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Popular music magazines such as Mojo, Rolling Stone, Spin and Uncut, when compiling their “best albums of the 90s’ lists, never mention Outside, or any other of Bowie’s return-to-form 90s output for that matter.
    Instead, it’s always the usual suspects which receive all the plaudits, REM,Radiohead,Beck, U2, Oasis, Blur, Nirvana etc. Don’t get me wrong, I like most of these bands to varying degrees, with the exception of Bono’s mob. But I really feel that Bowie is being unfairly overlooked.
    Similarly, I have a book entitled ‘1001 albums you must hear before you die”.The book takes us right up to 2005.Yet as well as comitting the unforgivable crime of leaving out stone cold classics such as Diamond Dogs and The Man Who Sold The World (my all-time favourite album ), tellingly there are no Bowie inclusions after “Heroes”. (That’s right, not even Lodger or Scary Monsters.) According to said book, all of Bowie’s noteworthy albums are confined to the 70s alone. As a comparison, albums by Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young and even -uurgghh-Madonna are included over several decades, right up to the current day. On a similar note, the cable TV music channel I subscribe to also mentions the same artists I mentioned at the top of this post when summarizing the best albums of the 90s. And to my chagrin, they NEVER play any Bowie videos after Absolute Beginners.
    That is why it does my Bowie-loving heart proud to read of people here like CosmicJive, Remco and Spooky, who in the face of this criminal indifference,heard Bowie’s Outside-era music at 12-15, and, like me became lifelong fans

    • Remco says:

      I was actually a bit older than that, when I was twelve he released ‘Tin Machine’ and while I clearly remember seeing the video for the title track (my mom had the same “Oh dear,he used to be such a nice man” reaction by the way) it didn’t have much of an impact on me.

      By the time Outside came out I had already absorbed a mass of nineties alternative rock and was slowly digging my way back through music history. I had only just discovered The Beatles, Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Roxy Music so I was bound to stumble upon Bowie anyway. Now Costello was just entering the least interesting period in his career, Waits was retired for all I knew and all those other bands had long since disbanded.
      And then along came Bowie, who made an album that was so much more exciting than anything contemporary I was listening to but also had this immense back catalogue. It was like stumbling upon a treasure, one that had been hiding in plain sight, and ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ is the song I have to thank for this.

    • BenJ says:

      Bowie has groused – rightfully, I’d say – that the best his new albums can hope for is to be called “his best since Scary Monsters”, and then usually forgotten by the time the next one comes out. It is unfair. Critics act as if the post-Let’s Dance tailspin had never ended.

      Was that one of the reasons for his extremely long hiatus? Dunno. Probably not directly, but I don’t think it helped either.

      • Patrick says:

        Well Charles Shaar Murray has apparently reviewed the new album and given it 8/10 and “best since Outside”.

  34. Leigh Walton says:

    DB did watch that Romanek NIN video awfully closely — in 1996 Bowie would be photographed by Albert Watson wearing the same black mask + white crucifix worn by a model in “Closer” (around the 2:00 mark).

  35. sidthecat says:

    I don’t understand why people continually criticize Mr. Bowie for “calculation” in his artistic process; he has always been calculating, ever since he presented himself as the Anti-hippie. It bespeaks a very limited concept of what an artist does.

  36. Legion says:

    I might very well be the 15 year old guy who got freaked out. That’s exactly the story of how I got to know Bowie and I do recall writing about it somewhere on the Internet. To this day Outside is still my favourite album, bar none

  37. John says:

    Wonderful write-up! I’ve been scouring this blog as I’m listening to his albums chronologically, trying to read/listen around the same time (though I really can’t read and listen simultaneously). That said, somehow this entry doesn’t appear in the Outside category. I was wondering why Outside seemed short, and did a search for this song specifically–and here it is!

    Outside was also my first “real” exposure to Bowie. I saw the tour, though at the time I was doing so mainly for NIN. I hadn’t even known this song at the time, and my friend pointed it out when Bowie started playing, since I think the video had just started airing on MTV. (I wish I could go back and experience the show knowing what I know now.) So while I can’t say I was aware of this song specifically, it did serve as the starting point for my fandom, all those years ago.

    • col1234 says:

      John, sometimes when there are a lot of entries for an album (like this one), you need to hit “older posts” at the end of the list to get to another page. that’s probably why you didn’t see it—it is tagged in the Outside category.

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