Outside

katmandu

Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside.
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”

22 Responses to Outside

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Just to let you know that I didn’t get the usual update for this one. I don’t know if it’s a technical hitch, or if you just don’t want my comments any more!
    There’s something of the “I’m back’ about the way this one fades in, the ‘statement of purpose’ you mention, and then there are some guitar lines in there where I immediately felt “He’s back”. Like in the last entry, there’s something about Carlos Alomar that keeps Bowie honest.

  2. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    typo alert: That should read ; “then rose to his FEET for the climactic section”.

  3. Maj says:

    What can I say. I love this song. Now, not tomorrow, yesterday, not tomorrow – it happens today… This just works so flippin well.
    This song features some of my favourite Bowie lyrics. Very evocative. I love when lyrics can create a strong image in my head and these definitely manage to do so.
    And the music is almost haunting. Great first proper song on the album.😉

    And I thought of this song specifically when I created my Twitter username over 4 years ago. It might appear it’s the album, but really, it’s the song. Just a note.

  4. James says:

    A great opener. Quirky lyrics and a nice drive.

  5. James says:

    Oh yes that reminds me of my years in Paris when I met my wife, we listened to the album countless times while downing several bottles of St-Emilion or St-Estephe ! Great memories. She’s not a Bowie fan but loved and still love this album.

  6. audiophd says:

    His best opener since “It’s No Game, Pt. 1”. Sets the tone immediately, and the album never really lets up from here.

  7. postpunkmonk says:

    Best Bowie album opener? I’d pick “Future Legend” or my all time fave track, “Beauty + The Beast” instead. But this did a good job at raising my expectations for “Outside” on first listen. Not that it had to work too hard with Eno producing. But by the time it was over, my mood sank. I didn’t care for “Outside.” This album vexes me.

  8. Remco says:

    Hell of way to start an album. Lovely song.

  9. Diamond Duke says:

    A great song, and a terrific overture to the Outside album. Although the rough-draft of Now showed definite promise (and I was always sort of partial to that thundering intro/riff from the revised Look Back In Anger!), Bowie was wise to hold off on immediately recording it with Tin Machine. It’s certainly very unsettling in its chord changes, and the lyrics certainly possess an element of latent menace, particularly that bit about “the fisting of life”. (And that “mental and diva’s hands” is also quite enigmatic, although I’m not sure what it refers to.)

    postpunkmonk referred above to Future Legend as his fave Bowie album opener. I’d have to say that Leon Takes Us Outside is the Future Legend to the title track’s Diamond Dogs (although the imagery conjured in the Outside tracks is far less explicit or specific). OK, OK, that is perhaps the most “Captain Obvious” observation one could possibly make, but I think it’s true.😀

    BTW,
    Getting a bit off track here (I know, I know: “Typical me / Typical me” – Morrissey), I just wanted to ask if anyone’s noticed that short-sleeved T-shirt that Bowie wears in the A Reality Tour video. Y’know, the black one with that sort-of pinstripe pattern on the side. It appears to bear the legend CRYSTAL WORLD, if I’m reading it correctly. And if I am reading it correctly, does it have anything to do with J.G. Ballard’s 1966 sci-fi novel of the same name? Just thought I’d ask…😉

  10. Roman says:

    I’ve always wanted to like this track. But for me, it starts in third gear and as the track continues it threatens to explode into fifth gear and you wait for this to happen but it never does – it just cruises along in third and fades away.

    Only the live version on the Earthling Tour, where Gail shares vocals, does the track bloom. It’s still not perfect but it definitely clicks into fourth gear during the second half of this version.

    I love the album Outside – but when I’m playing it I usually skip to HFL. That’s when it really begins.

    • Momus says:

      A note on this “exploding into fifth gear” thing. It’s not always a good thing. Early songs would often go into a surreal Beatlesy singalong (“Zane, zane, zane”) for their fifth gear, and that was great. The sun machine was coming down, yay!

      But there are some later “fifth gears” that are just dull and lazy, often invoking fire and water and sky and suchlike. Presumably written with a populist eye on the live situation, they’re spurious resolutions that hit a furious lock-groove and stay there too long. I’m thinking of the “water’s all gone” bit in Glass Spider (why not leave it a tone poem like Future Legend?), or the “so far away” section in Little Wonder.

      • s.t. says:

        I agree with you about that Little Wonder change-up, and Telling Lies has a similar Bowie stadium moment. But…I’m just more of a sucker for that stuff, and I’ll eat it up every time. For a while, Slip Away just seemed too calculated as a Bowie arena moment, but eventually I gave in, and now I soak in that strategically considered majesty.

      • Rob Thomas says:

        Yes. And “I’m deranged”, while being a really good piece of work, could , I think, be accused of being one long climax. I’m just getting to know Outside now , it’s proving to be a great journey …

    • Rob Thomas says:

      Also, there seems to be more than enough hi-octane action in Outside, no? (The repetition of “Outside” with ascending, dramatic major intervals) Plenty of opportunity for Dionysiac arm-waving and chanting. Maybe it’s just me…

  11. s.t. says:

    Wow, who would have thought that Outside’s majestic opening statement, the glue that holds together a pretty fractured album, started as an old Tin Machine track, itself spawned from a reworking of Look Back in Anger? Considering those origins, it’s amazing the final version feels so perfectly crafted for the themes of the Outside LP.

  12. Cansorian says:

    Just discovered this wonderful blog with the “Strangers When We Meet” entry. Perfect, as I consider Outside to be a masterpiece. However, I fully understand some of the negative comments about the album; it’s too long, it’s too dense, it’s too noisy, it’s pretentious, it’s silly. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, but a masterpiece nonetheless. I pretty much had the same initial reaction as a lot of folks here, some good songs surrounded by artwank and dismal dissonance. So, I did what I’m sure a lot of other people did and made my own version by cutting out all the segues and the more difficult songs (I’m talking about you, “Wishful Beginnings”). Wound up with a very listenable 47 minute set.

    For some reason I kept going back to the original disc, thinking maybe I just missed something in those excised parts. Slowly but surely it all started to sink in. I really started paying attention to the music in the segues and noticed how the longer more unconventional pieces (I’m talking about you, “Wishful Beginnings”) gave the album a bit more breathing space. Some of the disjointed fragmented spoken phrases really add an emotional resonance to the whole thing. The chilling way the Baby Grace segue goes from a comical sneeze to “and now they just want me to be quiet” in the space of a few seconds, or the real sadness implied in, “I am also a broken man. It would be nice to have company”.

    For me, everything now fits together beautifully. All the musicians on the album really shine, but in particular, Garson and Gabrels. Garson’s piano playing is just so fantastically out there in spots and Gabrels’ guitar squall finally fits in. The “Leon Takes us Outside/Outside” opening is a perfect pairing that gives a true sense of what’s to come in the next 70 or so minutes.

    18 years later I still have the bastardized version, only now as a playlist. It’s labeled as 1. Outside (for sissies).

    As I mentioned at the top, I only recently found my way to this blog and whenever I have a chance I bounce around the different album entries. Amazing, insightful, thought provoking, entertaining stuff. And the line, “The whole process is repeated once more for cruelty”, in the “Take My Tip” entry cinched it. You’ve got a faithful reader until the end.

    Thanks.

  13. s.t. says:

    Is there any info on Bowie’s opinion of Depeche Mode, especially the 93 Faith & Devotion era? The production on F&D seems akin to some of what ended up on Outside. Bowie’s unpredictable when it comes to his “influenced influences,” so maybe he hates them, but that album seems like a potential sonic inspiration, an early 90’s precursor to the coming deluge of “electronica” in pop.

  14. JahRel says:

    Oxford Town
    A Small Plot of Land
    The Motel
    I’m Deranged
    Heart’s Filthy Lesson
    Pallas Athena
    Looking for Lester
    You’ve Been Around
    Now (Tin Machine Version of ‘Outside’)
    Strangers When We Meet

  15. Fitzroyalty says:

    I have to question the ‘few classic songs played on the Outside tour’ line. Below is the setlist for the show I saw: 9 Outside songs, 9 classics and 1 cover.

    I think was was significant in the time since the Sound and Vision tour and the retiring of the hits in 1990 was Bowie’s realisation that his fans love more than the singles, and he had enough amazing material to vary his performances to stave off boredom.

    When he broke his self imposed ban on playing old songs 5 years later he tended to play ‘classics’ like Diamond Dogs more than hits (apart from Under Pressure).

    The revival of ‘classic’ songs like The Man Who Sold the World and All the Young Dudes that featured in live shows for almost a decade (1995-2004) through to the end of the Reality tour stems from the incredible creative burst of making Outside in 1994-1995. Bowie felt freed from the burden of his legacy and thus was able to embrace it again in a fresh way.

    Palatrussardi, Milan, Italy, February 08 1996

    1. The Motel
    2. Look Back In Anger
    3. The Heart’s Filthy Lesson
    4. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
    5. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town
    6. Outside
    7. Andy Warhol
    8. Voyeur Of Utter Destruction
    9. The Man Who Sold The World
    10. A Small Plot Of Land
    11. Strangers When We Meet
    12. Diamond Dogs
    13. Hallo Spaceboy
    14. Breaking Glass
    15. We Prick You
    16. Nite Flights
    17. Teenage Wildlife
    18. Under Pressure
    19. Moonage Daydream

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