Looking for Satellites


Looking for Satellites.
Looking for Satellites (50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
Looking for Satellites (GQ Awards, 1997).
Looking for Satellites (live, 1997).

Your parents had a third parent—television. If you went back to 1950, you would be surprised. Many people—of all kinds and conditions—had just two parents. In the time since, the referee has won all the championship matches—and the referee is a value-free ritual.

George W.S. Trow, “Collapsing Dominant,” 1997.

Ch. 459, HBO7 (8 PM EST): “Off The Hook.” A frustrated office manager (Michael Des Barres) attempts to reform his high-school band for his 40-year reunion.

Days after Bowie ended his tour in late July 1996, he called Reeves Gabrels to say he’d booked a studio in New York in two weeks’ time. Convinced that his touring band was his best since the Seventies, he wanted to hustle them onto disc. “It was just the feeling that we’re bloody good and we really want to get it down on record,” he said in a radio interview in 1997. “Reeves and I virtually wrote an album to show off the band’s abilities, and where we were at. I think that you feel a lot of the aggression and momentum of the band on the album.”

Speed and spontaneity were the public faces of Earthling. In interview after promotional interview, Bowie touted how quickly the songs were written (“eight days” “12 days” “nine days” “nine and a half days”) and recorded (“three weeks” “11 days” “two and a half weeks”). This self-imposed deadline pressure was a reaction to the year he’d spent making and remaking Outside. In his usual self-belittling mode when promoting a new record, Bowie said that Outside had been “a forum for a lot of artsy, intellectual analysis on the part of Eno and myself.

By contrast, the new record had no pretensions. It was simple; it was just a Polaroid of a great band. “It doesn’t try to be any more than what our energy is at the moment,” he said. “It was written as almost a vanity showcase for the band.” Outside had been millennial gloom; the new record was optimistic. He was optimistic. He liked touring, he liked being married, he even seemed to like Britain for once, making public statements in support of PM apparent Tony Blair.

There was a feeling of (as usual) misdirection in all of this. If Earthling was intended to be a snapshot of a great touring band, then why distort and slice up seemingly every note they played? Mike Garson’s piano was often piped through a guitar amp; Zachary Alford was mainly represented through drum loops; some Gail Ann Dorsey basslines were loops of her monkeying with her pedal board without knowing she was being taped. And the guitarist mainly played his lines via synthesizers and effects processors.

Nor was Earthling‘s creation any great departure from Outside‘s: Bowie had kept the art studio atmosphere of those sessions, improvising like mad, using the Verbasizer for cut-up lyrics, nabbing ideas that came out of jams, pasting together tracks out of what Gabrels described as “obtanium”—using sonic detritus as the foundation of rhythm tracks (see below). Anyone in the room who had an idea was told to write it on a Post-it note and stick it on the studio wall (by the end of the sessions, the wall was papered in suggestions).


Earthling is a secret parody of the “back to basics” records that rock & roll is plagued with. After anyone does an arty, ambitious album, they seem contractually obligated to make the sequel a “return to form.” It’s the decaying echo of a pattern established by the Beatles and the Stones in 1967-68: lysergic funfairs (Sgt. Pepper, Satanic Majesties) followed by roots-rock atonements (Beggars Banquet, Get Back). Earthling plays with rock music’s inherent conservatism. It’s a shorter, less pretentious, “live in the studio” album that’s also art-school hy-jinks courtesy of Bowie and Gabrels. It’s a document of a live band made artificial.

Even its title and cover play games. They suggest (and Bowie was glad to hint) that the Man has finally fallen back to Earth. Major Tom has come home, standing in the verdant fields of England, surveying the land like a general or a tourist. Yet he’s wearing an Alexander McQueen frock coat that’s meant to be a “cut-up” of both the Union Jack and Pete Townshend’s Union jacket from the Sixties and something about the photograph seems altered: it’s a man surveying a green screen, a figure Photoshopped into a postcard. An Earthling, after all, is what a human would call himself to an alien, who would consider him as much an alien.

And the sound of Earthling is an alien infestation of a dance/roots record; Bowie steals from drum ‘n’ bass and Britpop equally but does little to integrate the sounds or “respect” them. They’re just samples with pedigrees, and are worth no more than a braying noise that Gabrels got from abusing a Roland processor. Earthling is an aging man stealing toys from the young and throwing them into his own trinket pile, a man murmuring about religion, decay and exile on a flashy, noisy album that’s riddled with pieces of sonic garbage and which sounded dated before its release. It’s bloody with distorted life. Earthling may be his most misunderstood album; maybe even Bowie misunderstood it.

Ch. 567, GSN International (2:30 PM EST): “I Ching Challenge.” Contestants throw the I Ching for prizes, enlightenment (subtitles) (R, CC).

To make the album, Bowie had chosen Looking Glass Studios, a studio on Broadway (between Houston and Bleecker) that Philip Glass had founded in 1992.* In summer 1996, the house engineer was Mark Plati. A bassist and engineer who’d worked with the DJ Junior Vasquez and who’d run the desk on Deee-Lite’s Infinity Within, Plait had been playing with the idea of using “sonic junk”—samples taken from discarded takes, scraps of sound pulled from microphone tests and monitor mixes—as raw material for fresh music. During a pre-tour Bowie studio visit in May 1996 (when most of “Telling Lies” was cut and “Dead Men Don’t Talk” was filmed), Plati found a simpatico soul in Gabrels, and the two set about crafting fresh samples and loops out of Plati’s collected detritus.**

Despite his claims to the press, Bowie didn’t go into the studio without songs. Gabrels already had about six tracks’ worth of electronic music on his laptop, while other songs had begun during downtimes in the summer tour, when Bowie and Gabrels would sit down with a pair of Fernandes ZO-3 “travel” guitars and “jam out a song written in a very conventional manner against the [chord] sequence. Then we’d lose the guitar once the song was done,” Gabrels said.

Once the Earthling sessions began in early August, Bowie, Gabrels and Plati quickly established a pattern. Whatever songs they had would be flattened out, reduced to “rhythmic landscapes,” as Bowie described it. Some chords, Alford’s drum loops, synth patterns and loop-clutter. “There was no suggestion of melody,” Bowie told the Music Paper. “Once we developed a kind of mattress, then I would go into the studio and just free associate against that. Because it was so mantra, so chant like, the actual rhythm tracks that we developed—which were made up of samples and loops put together by Zach, the drummer, and [then] underpinning those with really quite minimal chords—I developed quite a strong melodic content over the top, which kind of just developed naturally.”

Ch. 1071, BravoBravo [9:30 PM EST]: “Chutes and Ladders.” Daria networks at the funeral of a competitor; Blake and Reese hack Simon’s IMs; Josh ransoms a 10-year-old son of a network head.

Another factor was the influence of digital recording: Earthling was the first Bowie album not recorded on magnetic tape. Rhythm tracks, guitar dubs and vocals instead were put onto hard disk, which enabled Bowie to edit, overdub and mix with a fluency he’d only dreamed about. It let him be ruthless with his songs, letting him break and reset bones. “David would say ‘Let’s hear a verse, a chorus, a verse, a double chorus, a break’ and I would be able to do all that in about 30 seconds,” Plati told David Buckley. It was Bowie’s cut-up lyric writing applied to the actual assembly of songs.

As there was no need to conserve tape, Plati could keep recording throughout the sessions, keeping mics on during demos and rehearsals. So he captured Bowie vocals and guitar noises that perhaps would’ve been lost on an earlier record (for instance, the vocal of “Little Wonder” was just a guide vocal for a rhythm track). What this meant was that the supporting players were used as much for raw material as they were in supporting a song. Dorsey, Alford and Garson seemed to accept this role-switching, although Garson, who considered Bowie’s jungle affectations a questionable move into an unmelodic music, was fairly restrained on the record except for a few spotlight moments (though he’d continue to play with Bowie live, this marked Garson’s last appearance on a Bowie album until Reality).**

Gabrels was also questioning the worth of playing “straight” (even his conception of “straight”) electric guitar. Since he started playing professionally Gabrels had wanted to remove the bric-à-brac that had built up around the electric guitar. Playing blues licks on a Stratocaster or a Les Paul was to be a historical re-enactor, he said. He favored new-model guitars like the Parker Fly for their less encumbered tones. But by the time of Earthling, he believed the mere idea of the electric guitar had become a cliche. “I felt like everybody was looking around them, musically, and thought, fuck, it’s the end of the millennium and we’re still playing like we’re in the Rolling Stones,” he told Paul Trynka.

So on Earthling, Gabrels was a lead guitarist who did as much as he could to not play the guitar. On many tracks he discarded his Mesa/Boogie amps and his effects rack to record almost entirely through a Roland VG-8 processor. Much as how Alford would make drum loops and then play against them in different time, Gabrels would record his guitar parts into the Roland, then play the processor like a keyboard.

My own father, sometime around midlife. We watched him get consumed with a sort of entertainment. It wasn’t pretty. I was never sure how it started and what it was about…The program in question was called M*A*S*H. The title was an acronym, not a command. As a boy I recall some confusion on this point….It was gradual and slow. He started at some point to refer to the kitchen as the Mess Tent and his den as the Marsh or Swamp. He began renting films with even crowd-extra or cameo appearances by the show’s actors…He began a practice of magnetically recording each week’s 29 broadcasts and reruns. He stored the tapes, organizing them in baroque systems of cross-reference that had nothing discernible to do with dates of recording.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

Ch 10, NBC (8 PM EST). “Judged By 12.” Highlights of hidden camera footage of jury room deliberations (“Home Invasion”; “Pet Theft”).

“Looking for Satellites” was one the first tracks completed for Earthling. It began as Plati’s attempt to craft an electronic track in 3/4 time while using his “sonic junk” sampling concept for raw material. Bowie liked the idea and kept the song in a trotting 6/4 but he scrapped Plati’s chord structure (one presumes for being too ordinary). In its place was an opening chanted mantra chorus in D major and a verse that cycled through a D-Em-Gm-D progression. Further repetitions of the chorus had swings up to G major (“sateliiite!”) and down to B-flat (“can’t stop”).

The initial lines of [“Satellites”] are just a shopping list of words that I associated with consumer culture. And that was to prop up the idea of a spiritual search between an orthodox religion and a technological age. One is sort of vacillating between the two…Sort of, ‘Who is God—shall we kill Him so that we can reinvent him for our own purposes?’ one of those kinda things, you know?

Bowie, call-in interview on Rockline, 1997.

“Satellite” begins with a mantra, eight iambs sung by a double-tracked Bowie (with a third voice piped in on “TV”). A man sits on his sofa and clicks through the channels. Kosovo war, shampoo advert, Boyzone video, cowboys, X-Files. There’s a draggy procession to the eight words, their two-beat rhythms are the pace of the thumb hitting the remote (the weight on the last syllable “boy-ZONE,” “can’t STOP” is the man pausing for a second on a channel that hooks him). While the mantra seems like it could go on forever, from nearly the start there’s interference: first a teakettle whistle on guitar, then, as the drums kick in, a haunting little counter-melody on synth, humming like a contented ghost in the works.

Channel change. The man’s on a beach, somewhere on holiday, a package tour he’d seen advertised on Sky Atlantic. He’s drunk, wandering through the dark, looking for the lights of his resort. In the sky something shines. A lost animal memory, some genetic trace of homo habilis, surfaces. He stares in wonder. We’ve always been apes looking up at stars, wishing on them. Now we make them, and they make us. Where do we go from here? a voice wonders, a distance and sadness in its tone. There’s something in the sky…spinning far away.

Ch. 207, Lifetime (2:00 PM). “Molly Flanders.” Update of classic novel set in contemporary Williamsburg. Molly (Clara Mamet) spends the night with a David Karp imposter; Jemy (Richard Madden) is stranded on Megabus. (CC)

Satellite’s gone…up to the skies, Lou Reed had sung in 1972, with Bowie in the control booth. By then the satellite had gone from a bringer of war (recall that some Americans watched Sputnik in the sky with terror, believing it meant that the Reds had conquered space) to our court jester. Some satellites still have noble purposes, those sent out far into space, filled with the wrack of our culture, moving through the deep like worm-bait in a metal hook for some allegedly interested alien race. But most are international servants. Each year more of them hang above the planet, watching hurricanes form in the Caribbean, looking for spy planes, beaming I Love Lucy to Madras, sending directions to a lost driver in Fresno. They’ve become our warders, they attempt the knotting and binding of the world. I watched it for a little while, I love to watch things on TV.

The man on the couch bloats himself with images. The man on the beach looks at the false star that sings to him. It’s an age of miracles, and it’s left us hollowed out, as empty and lonely as a moon. Like the moon, we live on stolen light, half of us in darkness. “It’s as near to a spiritual song as I’ve ever done,” Bowie said of “Satellites.”

Is it wrong to wish on space hardware? I wish I wish I wish you’d care.

Ch. 2343, BBCA (5:30 PM EST). “Parliament of Dogs.” Home Affairs committee in deadlock.

The writer Rod Dreher, who grew up in rural Louisiana, once wrote that when his generation left home in the Nineties, their parents became isolates. He’d expected the people who’d been consumed by work and childraising would now have time to visit friends again, to join clubs, etc. But the older people now stayed at home watching television. Satellite TV had now reached even the most obscure corners of the country. I grew up in rural Virginia, and when I left in 1986, there were only two TV channels to watch. Now the remotest hamlet in Botetourt County likely has hundreds of channels.

The revolution of satellite TV, the endless profusion of images that it proffers, something to cater to every remote desire or interest (channels devoted to surfing, shopping, cooking, train travel, softcore sex, long-cancelled sitcoms that you never expected to see again in your life) created the profuse life. Today my (fairly basic) cable has a channel 1300 on it. Channel 1300, which sounds like something from a Philip K. Dick novel. I’ve never watched it. Today we fly in planes high above the ground, something that our ancestors would’ve considered a miracle, and hardly bother to look out on the world, as we can look at screens instead. Why not? There’s so much there, the screen and the satellite say: look at all we have. And we’ll never stop having more.

In retrospect, satellite TV was just the ground clearing for the Internet, the small flood before the big flood. Earthling prefigures the Internet as well, with its random accumulation of shiny things, its sediment of sonic junk, its baiting and trolling, its noise and gleefulness. We’ve all become satellites; Bowie just got there first, as he usually did.

Ch. 2541, AMC3 (4:45 AM): “Harum Scarum (Remix).” Shot-by-shot remake of 1965 Elvis Presley film, w/Adam Lambert (dir. Z. Snider).

“Satellites” ends with a 26-bar guitar solo that piles on through a final chorus, unwilling or unable to stop. It’s as if a brontosaurus bursts into the song, fouling it and leaving it in pieces. Bowie baited Gabrels by asking for him to play a solo, although Gabrels believed the track didn’t need one. “Never in a million years would [I have] put on a guitar solo,” Gabrels recalled to Chris Gill. It was Bowie was trolling his guitarist, trying to make him run through hoops.

He gave Gabrels a strict edict. For his solo, Gabrels was to keep to his low E string until the chord changed, then he was free to move up to the the next-highest string, the A string, and so forth, all while playing constant 16th notes. For Bowie, it was a lab experiment: “just how many notes can you play on one string before you have to move up to the next one?” he said. Or: when will Reeves snap?

The arbitrary limitation of that approach made me do stuff that I wouldn’t normally have done,” Gabrels said. The constraints forced him into a dramatic arc. Quickly exhausting the runs on each string he’s confined to, Gabrels sounds exuberant with each move up a string, usually on every eighth bar. It’s like a man held underwater being given a fresh breath. Frustration creates narrative. Gabrels’ opening chorus on the low E string is him playing a distorted bass solo (Dorsey, by contrast, is graceful minimalism on this track, just playing whole or half root notes, imperceptibly gliding beneath the noise—she’s like the only adult in the room). The move to the A string sends him off kiting, and when he hits his higher strings there’s a growing frenzy, the sound of a man kicking his way out of a window, until he explodes into the chorus, playing yo-yoing theremin-like noises and sky saws, viciously abusing his whammy bar. Squalls, squeaks, yawps, bleats. It’s Gabrels playing the cliche of Gabrels.

He later called his solo “a nice sex-like orgasmic form: it has a nice starting point, a plateau stage, a peak, a climax and its resolution. In a way it’s a statement on dick control…at the very end of it, you can hear me trying to kick out the walls of the box.” Gabrels liked to joke about guitar solos and wanking; he was a guitarist who embraced the ridiculousness of his profession. But there’s a passion in this solo as well, a joy of making noise for the hell of it, yet it’s also committed (unwillingly) to serving the song. It’s the closest Gabrels ever came to matching Mick Ronson’s gauntlet-throwing solo on “Width of a Circle.” It’s the sound of an ape jamming the circuitry; it’s heroic indulgence.

Ch. 934, TVLAND3 (4:00 AM), “Dance Flashback Sign-Off Play-Offs.” Dance recreations of classic station sign-offs (“HBO, 1981“; “KABC, 1978“).

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. A single edit was made although the track wasn’t issued as a single. Played on the 1997 tour.

* Looking Glass had two main rooms, one had a 48-input SSL 4000G console and the other a Digidesign D-Command desk. Conveniently located in walking distance of Bowie’s home in NYC, the studio would be his main workplace for a decade: he cut much of Hours, Toy, Heathen and Reality there. Looking Glass closed in February 2009, after the toxic combination of Manhattan rents and the collapse of the record industry made its existence financially untenable.

** Bowie told Jon Savage that one inspiration for the record was Big Audio Dynamite, who seem overdue for a hipster reclamation any day now.

*** Garson was used on various bonus tracks from Hours and Heathen, and also was part of the Toy sessions.

Top: Boyzone, 1996.

[Ed. note: for full enjoyment of this entry, please start each video clip as simultaneously as possible.]

74 Responses to Looking for Satellites

  1. Though I’m loathe to admit it, there’s a lot of thematic overlap here with what U2 were doing in the mid-90s, particularly on Zooropa. The sound of sentient debris, an extended meditation on sensory overload.

    • col1234 says:

      oh yeah, completely. two older miners at nearby seams

    • gcreptile says:

      A german music magazine at the time said that Earthling was the album U2 tried to make (instead of Pop).

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Yes, though I’m sure everybody at the time lapped up U2, and nobody accused them of being irrelevant old men ripping off new sounds in a desperate attempt to remain “hip”. That people could have any other reaction to Bono than a desire to spit in his face makes me very sad indeed.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        I see you’ve woken up in a good mood my friend, he-he!

      • postpunkmonk says:

        I’ve long despised Bono. Is there another smug, self-satisfied “rock star” more oppressive than him? He makes Sting look modest. His attraction to power is repellent beyond belief to me. I didn’t hear “Boy” at all on release, so I always remained immune to the U2 allure. By the time I heard them with “War” I really didn’t see the draw.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Ha-ha-ha! Re: this U2 ‘love-in’.

        Sometimes I blame Ian McCulloch for taking U2 as a support band for Echo & the Bunnymen; if only Mac had got off his ‘scouse-arse’ and made more of a fist of conquering America, maybe we wouldn’t have had U2 all over the 80’s/90’s like a rash.

        Then again, Eno has to take some of the blame. U2 AND Coldplay? What was he thinking? ‘Kerching’, probably, ’cause it certainly wasn’t ‘art’.

        Now dear ol’ Bri’ is trying to fill hospitals and hospices in the UK with his dreary ambient stuff. That’s just what the ill and dying need, much needed funds wasted on ‘artistic’ background noise hospital staff usually switch off because it drives them mental (true).

        I think that was the idea all along. A money making exercise to replace 70’s elevator muzak with Eno’s own muzak-cack. It’s just taken 30yrs for it to become a reality.

        Having said all that, I do own ‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘Zooropa’, ha-ha-ha! I bought them for the irony!?!

      • postpunkmonk says:

        Funny stuff, twinkle-twinkle! Make of this what you will, but I managed not to hear Coldplay until some time in 2011, when a friend brought an Eno documentary from the BBC by to watch. I was appalled to hear a third rate U2 clone!! Eno’s production career ended with “Remain In Light” to these ears. Though I did like his tracks for Carmel.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        God, yeah – Carmel, the ‘Duffy’ of the 80’s. I only really remember ‘Bad Day’ and some appearances on various music shows, but I did enjoy her. I didn’t know Eno produced her. She was/is (?) better than Duffy. I immediately noticed Duffy sounded very much like Carmel.

        What about Eno and ‘James’? I initially misunderstood them because of ‘Sit Down’, but I became a fan – they did some interesting and varied work.

      • postpunkmonk says:

        twinkle-twinkle – I never really heard James too much. I have a “Born If Frustration” single as I liked its expression vocal hook, at much the same time that Throwing Muses had an even better one on “Not Too Soon.”

        Eno produced “Mercy” and “Easy For You” on “The Falling” and “God Put Your Hand On Me” and “I Take It For Granted” on “Set Me Free.” “Mercy” and “I Take It For Granted” were great singles. Carmel were best on their first two albums.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Thanks for that, ppm. Given that the wwweb is sitting there waiting to reveal EVERYTHING to everyone, I think I will take advantage and discover what I may have missed.


      • postpunkmonk says:

        twinkle-twinkle – Now I have an idea what Duffy sounds like. She sounds like another if those singers who follows in the footsteps of a singer I champion, and then take their place in the marketplace. See: Joan Armatrading/Tracy Chapman, Kate Bush/Tori Amos. I always resented Duffy because when she became popular, I would see “Duffy” bin cards sticking out in record stores thinking that Stephen Duffy was now popular, only to be disappointed after several incidents.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        That’s a great list. Ah – Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, the original vocalist and founder member of Duran Duran.

        A few months before their first hit, one friend tried to persuade another friend to book his mate Roger’s band for a college gig. The friend, who shall remain nameless, (tho’ his initials may be ‘T-T’), is still proud to have turned down Duran Duran, he-he-he!

        Some time later, the nay-saying friend – ‘hello’ – found himself sitting opposite the original manager who ‘gave The Beatles away’ to Brian Epstein. Funny old world, isn’t it, lol.

  2. MC says:

    Great post on one of Earthling`s finest, for me, Exhibit A in the case for the album`s merits. I saw the U2 connection as well; the track always seemed to me to be DB`s response not only to the Zooropa album but also to the channel-switching of the Zoo TV tour(s) (which, lest we forget, Eno played a big role in conceiving) As something of a U2 fan myself, albeit one in the tiny subset of U2 fandom who started listening to them because of the Eno connection, Zooropa ranks for me as one of their best. One of the great things about this period in DB`s work was the sense that he was back in dialogue with the times, with the work of contemporaries as well as younger bands – a quality missing in his later work, great as much of it is.

    As far as older DB songs, the one this reminded me of was Moonage Daydream, another song reveling in the onrush of the future, with an epic concluding solo. I`ve wondered if the fantastic update of MD performed live by the Earthling-era band formed part of the inspiration for Satellites (alongside Satellite of Love, of course).BTW, I had on videotape many moons ago a particularly staggering rendition of Moonage Daydream done at the Phoenix Festival in the summer of `96. I`ve yet to find this performance on Youtube. Would anybody know of a link to it?

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      No link, but I have a video and audio bootleg somewhere. That post-Outside tour stripped down band did some wonderful versions of MD. And Bowie was in top form too.

    • stuartgardner says:

      MC, this is your Moonage Daydream, I believe.

      Chris, thanks again for the aid. I’ve not yet read this article owing to time, but will eagerly tomorrow.

  3. Momus says:

    Scenario 1: David Bowie is a successful advertising creative who books some studio time and records a song just for fun. It’s called Looking For Satellites. It shoots to the top of the British pop charts, displacing that other one-hit wonder of 1997, White Town’s Your Woman. 16 years later the Victoria & Albert Museum decides eccentrically to mount an entire exhibition dedicated to Bowie’s freak hit. “For us,” says curator Kevin Pontifex, “Looking For Satellites sums up the spiritual emptiness and creative laziness of the late 1990s, a void we’re only now starting to see clearly.”

    Scenario 2: David Bowie spends less time composing Looking For Satellites than Chris O’Leary spends documenting it. We can ascertain this by watching a 2-channel video installation by the South African artist Candice Breitz, which shows them actually doing the work side-by-side. Both drink copious quantities of red wine during the labour; this is the only thing the reckless composition and the cautious annotation and interpretation have in common. The Bowie video loops after 48 minutes, the O’Leary one takes 17 hours.

    Scenario 3: Instead of going “back to basics”, David Bowie gets even more avant-garde and rarefied after his “gothic hyperdrama” with Eno. His 1997 album “Apollo” is inspired by a Cy Twombly painting. Track listing: Musagetes, Phoebus, Smintheus, Agyieus, Platanistius, Theoxenius, Spodius, Moeragetes, Carneus. The album, recorded at Philip Glass’s studio in collaboration with British ultra-minimalist composer Laurence Crane, is performed by the ensemble Apartment House. Its austere string-driven rhythms and plangent chords still sound strikingly fresh sixteen years later.

    Scenario 4: David Bowie is a cross-dressing rodent controller whose yellow van boasts that he will “humanely eradicate” any musical genre. Someone invents “jungle” and insists on playing it loudly through your wall? All you have to do is call the toll-free number on the yellow van and Mr B will be round in a jiffy to “render jungle pointless” with a series of sprung traps. By means of money and other bait, the music is lured out of its underground lair, trapped far from its original context, and left to die a slow but very public death, accompanied by the horrifying, mouse-like death-squeals of Reeves Gabrel’s guitar.

    Scenario 5: You are at the beach when a song floats by, apparently treading water, kept afloat by a lifesaver made entirely from laurel leaves. Later you see the scene again, this time on a TV network called Superchannel, treated with one of the garish (purple-green-black) video effects so typical of late-night 1990s music television, and so dated subsequently. Later still you’re reading an article about the song in a magazine you thought had folded years ago. You notice that the article is written by the late Lester Bangs; impossible, since the song was released in 1997 and Bangs died in 1982. This alerts you to the fact that you are probably dreaming.

    • col1234 says:

      switch “red wine” for “pints of Sierra Nevada Torpedo” and #2 is spot on

    • s.t. says:

      Also, Scenario 6: Bowie takes jungle as “back to basics” as he can think of by traveling to Papua New Guinea with Zach and Gail for field recordings with the male members of the Sambia tribe. Later, he remixes the recorded sounds to assemble a cut-up tribute to cultural vampirism, with an aging pandrogynous Nathan Adler since renamed “Congo Natty Jung-Liszt.”

  4. zak says:

    I imagined “Shampoo” in the mantra in the beginning was the then-current (& deservedly now-forgotten) UK girl duo – which matches “Boyzone”. (Google reminds me theiir big hit was ‘Trouble’.)

  5. Trevor Mill says:

    The music seems very fast, Bowie’s vocal a blur above the spinning wheels. Great to drive to.
    Thanks again, it’s almost painful waiting for each post. They are that good.

    • Trevor Mill says:

      There was something else, the record sounds like some Japanese music (Cornelius or Masami Tsuchiya) everything left in. Overdubbed / overstimulated; not in a bad way.

  6. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Zooropa my favorite U2 album these days.

  7. this is really Maj! says:

    A fantastic write-up, Chris. I have to say once the “nowhere, shampoo…” bit starts I also stop paying attention to the rest of the song. But not in a bad way, it really is a mantra. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Pretty much the same thing. Only Bowie’s 90’s mantra is kind of tragic.

  8. twinkle-twinkle says:

    Mmm… SPSpider must be having a snooze ‘down under’, we were just saying you’d gone quiet, Chris. He’s in for a pleasant surprise and a wonderful read when he wakes.

    I always saw this album as Bowie’s ‘Zooropa’ too, but with the added pleasure of no Bono.

    • col1234 says:

      yes, meant to say in the post:

      this summer is going to be at a slower pace than usual, reflecting in part me trying get the book done finally. It’s becoming very hard to shift gears between the “past” of the book revision and the “present” of the blog at this point.

      So probably one entry a week at most, if not bigger gaps for a while.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Totally understandable, and some things are worth the wait. As for all the links @ once, I don’t get the fuss – sounds like a normal day inside my cranium, lol. Write-on, but find time for some sun.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        You can tell I’m out of practise, of course I should have said, ‘Don’t forget to catch The Rays.’

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      ….Huh? Whazat?? The alarm clock just went off. Actually Chris, your reference to the very first satellite reminds me of a story my dad told me of when he was living in a very remote area of Canada at the time. He was working as an electrician on power lines, and they had to go out in pairs, with one climbing the pole, and the other standing guard at the base with a shotgun to keep the wolves at bay.
      Anyway, he walked into a redneck bar one night, and made the mistake of casually answering that he thought it was a great scientific achievement when the barman asked him what he thought about the Russians launching Sputnik. Suddenly the scene became like one of those Westerns where the pianola stops playing and everybody spins round to look at the stranger who just insulted the local gunslinger.
      Basically, he backed out of the bar pretty quickly, and hurried back across the road to the trailer he was living in with my mother, heavily pregnant with my older sister. Watching from the window, he saw several drinkers step out of the front of the barand point across the road towards his trailer. Luckily, after grumbling and mumbling about “the limey”, they eventually dispersed. Pretty scary huh?

  9. gcreptile says:

    Impressive what you got out of this song! I always regarded it as a mere ‘test exercise’, i.e. thrown some bricks of lyrics randomly together, add distorted guitars and a 90s production and you get this…and then you make a whole album of this.
    I always wondered what this song was about, there was no booklet with the lyrics in the CD package (there were heavily distorted photos, though – I loved those. They were aesthetically much more pleasant than the somewhat random look of Outside).
    I think it’s a pretty unremarkable song, yet I like to listen to it. It has probably got something to do with the placement of the song between the two heavyweights ‘Little Wonder’ and ‘Battle for Britain’.

  10. s.t. says:

    Excellent work here! Bravo for bringing more life to this song than Bowie cared to do.

    “Satellites” may be my least favorite track on Earthling. It’s nice to find out that its lyrics were actually *intended* to be mind-numbing, but perhaps Bowie’s explanation of the song’s meaning came straight out of the Verbasizer as well…

    Recently, inspired by an older post with comments about excising songs and generally tweaking albums (I think it was one of the NLMD entries), I ventured to edit Earthling a bit. I removed “Satellites” and put “Last Thing You Should Do” in its place, then kept everything else as it was. The result is an eight-track album that is just right for me. I used to think “Last Thing” was too long and insubstantial, but coming in at Song 2, it’s a nice way to follow the blistering rush of Little Wonder. I’ve actually come to appreciate all of the other Earthling songs (including Law!), thanks to “Satellites.” Or, thanks to its absence.

    It’s by no means a terrible song; it just sounds half-baked. The post Madchester Big Beats are plodding, the mantra is maddening, and all of those sickly sweet flanger effects can’t hide the fact that there’s not much to the verses or arrangement. The best part, strangely enough, is Reeve’s fret wanking. Unlike a bomb like “Day In Day Out,” which shakes you into a fit of disgust or anger, this one is ultimately just easy to ignore.

  11. love this track – always have. glad the guitar solo has some space as it manages to be one of reeves better ones.

  12. Pierce says:

    Great review. Good to see Pavement getting a mention among other things. Always loved this song, towers above most other things on Earthling.

  13. s.t. says:

    I just tried the recommended simultaneous video experience, and I felt like Bowie as Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

    “Get out of my mind!”

    • col1234 says:

      i’m glad someone did! great thing is that the price is right clip somehow claims dominance over all of it

  14. Champiness says:

    Excellent writeup as usual (although I’d have to say rather more than usual in this case); especially loved the random bits of 90’s cultural detritus scattered about the post, it really contributed to the vibe.
    And thanks for bringing up Mark Plati! “Infinity Within” is one of my favorite records and now that you’ve made the connection I’m definitely picking up some Deee-Lite vibes from this album.

  15. Jeremy says:

    Great song, great write-up – all great.

  16. What I remember about Satellites/Earthling in the early days..

    Pre release word of mouth had it down as a quick album, limited tracklisting and including several covers/reworkings (I can’t read, Americans)

    Looking for Satellites was rumoured to actually be a cover of Satellite of Love. I think I’m remembering this from the TW boards, and one of the great posters from that time, Dara O’ Kearney

    So when the album did come out, it was great to see Satellites was a fresh composition. The “club” gigs Bowie did in London at the time showed Boie in fine for miming the words at the start of the song.. “slim tie…”

    Those gigs made the Tin Machine gigs look like arena shows – TI. NY. Rooms. The odds on Bowie rolling those up to 100,000 people at Glastonbury and then arena tours within 4 years seemed very remote

    I don’t LOVE many individual tracks on Earthling, but I do LOVE the album as a whole, the energy, the complete something-different-from-existing-parts philosophy, the videos, the live shows, the O Superman cover.. a great period

  17. Samizdat says:

    Re: the cover looking slightly unreal. It’s not the background, that’s just England in the early summer, ridiculously green and lovely, as it indeed has been today. No, there’s something odd about the perspective – Bowie looks about 100 feet tall, The Dame playing Brittania herself.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I read something somewhere about DB being photographed in the USA for the cover and then grafted onto the countryside vista. It might even have been something he said himself.

      I don’t think the cover is actually supposed to look realistic.

      • s.t. says:

        Bowie mentions the composite photograph for the cover at around the 3:20 mark in this video.

  18. I never listened to “Stereo” while playing 8 other things simultaneously, before. It’s an interesting mix. It’s like listening to Negativland.

  19. Roman says:

    Some of the reviews at the time (NME for sure) criticised this song for the references to BoysZone (the group) and Shampoo as they reckoned Bowie was just listing inferior rabble and indirectly comparing them to his inimitable genius – and he was therefore being arrogant and pompous.
    Perhaps stung by this criticism, I recall Bowie saying that he doesn’t sing BoysZone but is in fact saying, “Boys Own”, which was a boys magazine for teenagers in the 50’s.
    If this is true it gives the song a backwards ‘Ye Oldie Days’ theme.

    (A few years later Ronan Keeting was one of the guests that Bowie interviewed on BowieNet.)

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Yeah, that’s what I assumed that I was hearing, as well. “Boy’s Own.” I had no idea there was a group called “Boyzone” until I read this blog! I knew about Shampoo, but felt he was referencing the product, not the band. In other words, his opening mantra seemed to be completely random phrases. I didn’t think to reference 90s UK pop bands while listening at all.

  20. Stang says:

    Small note but ‘U2’s’ sensory overload was actually a steal from Sigue Sigue Sputniks show at the Albert Hall in 1986. Bono was in attendance & actually told Tony Janes years later that their show was the inspiration for the Zoopropa tour, so we can see Sputniks work a decade before as a thematic antedendent to both U2 & Bowie’s. Bowie would of course cover Sputniks love missile f1-11 years later so perhaps he too was paying attention to Sputniks simultanious screens

    • postpunkmonk says:

      SSS really were the future of music! That first album was genius. The most perceptive album of the 80s. Almost the Philip K. Dick of rock.

      • Roman says:

        You can hear their influence all over Bowie’s version of Big Brother on the Glass Spider tour – especially near the end when advertisement jingles are sampled over the song.

        SSS also covered Rebel Rebel around this time. I think they used TV News Reportage of Bowie’s Rape Accusation as a sample while they played the song.

      • postpunkmonk says:

        Not to mention that I only recently discovered that Bowie covered “Love Missile F-111!”

  21. Stang says:

    Superb blog by the way! I will buy the book

  22. Diamond Duke says:

    Well, this isn’t necessarily my favorite track from Earthling, but it’s a good track in its own right. It’s got that unrelenting industrial chug, but is given a bizarre lilt by that 6/8 time signature. Reeves Gabrels’ solo is absolutely freaking brilliant in that wonderfully wacky way that is uniquely Gabrels’! 😉 Beyond that, I don’t really have that much to say about the song that Chris hasn’t already quite exhaustively gone into. I second Stang‘s sentiment regarding the book. I’ll be sure to make my purchase on the date of its release! 😀

    P.S. Once again, very sad to learn about the death of Trevor Bolder. I would also like to acknowledge the passing of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek. (Bowie was definitely a fan. He played Love Street when he guested on the Star Special BBC Radio One show on May 20, 1979. See both artists’ covers of Weill/Brecht’s Alabama Song!) Also departed from this mortal plane is Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. (I’ll just go out on a limb and guess that Slayer is not on Bowie’s playlist – ha ha ha ha ha…)

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Questions: Chris, how did you determine which footage to use in those clips? Was there a method to the madness? Was it just simply random selection? Did you just happen to have these clips lying around on old VHS tapes? Do all of these date from ’97? It’s definitely a very interesting exercise, but I’m no Thomas Jerome Newton and I could not make any sense of what anything was while watching simultaneously. It was all just a chaotic jumble. But then again, I have a hunch that was the point… 😀

  23. Roman says:

    While Earthling was in the finishing stages of production, rumours swept around the hardcore fans on the internet, that Bowie was making another Tonight debacle. This was based on the leaks that Baby Universal and I Can’t Read had been re-recorded. Plus a re-do of I’m Afraid of Americans. Plus a recording of an old unreleased song – Disco King. And finally, Looking for Satellites, had also been mis-identified as a cover of Satellite of Love.

  24. Pierce says:

    Superb review as always. Best song on Earthling imo.

  25. l'âme du monde à cheval says:

    What a positive energy it spreads (still)!!!
    i continue to be a great fan of this era, of this sound, a weird mixture of guitar that drips AND georgious Jungle beats; still refreshing & joyfull !
    i have to promote an album of a huge guitar player (RIP Derek Dailey) recorded in 1996 that deals with drum & bass mixed with free guitar!
    … less pop than Bowie’s own jungle thing.

  26. Did the Earthling band actually cut I Can’t Read and Baby Universal in the studio, or was that only a rumour?

    • Roman says:

      They definitely did. Their version of I Can’t Read was released as a single to the Soundtrack of the film The Ice Storm. Apparently it was dropped from Earthling to make way for The Last Thing You Should Do which had been intended as a b-side.

      Baby Universal was intended for the album and their version was debuted live about the same time as Telling Lies was.

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  28. spanghew says:

    You know, in my mind the cover photo had bits of the green and blue background showing through holes in Bowie’s cloak – as if Bowie himself weren’t really there, only a sort of phantom Bowie clad in torn-up bits of recycled Britannia…Except the background was from a computer too.

    (Somewhere in here: Wire’s pink flag is a painted flag – I’m seeing a similarity in the two record covers…)

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I remember back around 1979/80 Bowie name-checking Wire, perhaps because their sound seemed inspired by the pre-‘Rebel’ guitar, bass, and drum screech at the end of ‘Sweet Thing’?

  29. Freddy Freeloader says:

    The Kosovo war wasn’t until 1999 – if there’s a war reference it might be to Bosnia? I can’t say I caught one though.

    • col1234 says:

      perhaps allow for some artistic license here, hey? wasn’t writing literally about the lyric in that graph. but if we’re being pedantic, as we apparently are, Kosovo War started in Feb. 1998 and was basically underway by late 1997.

  30. twinkle-twinkle says:

    I’ve had a bit of a late thought vis a vis Bowie saying this was as spiritual a song as he’s ever written, the general drone of the music, and the peculiar guitar solo he suggested to Reeves.

    Sir John Tavener’s, ‘The Protecting Veil’, also sounds like one sustained note which rises and develops. His music explores the wonders of spirituality and the universe, here with specific reference to a ‘vision’ of the Virgin Mary floating above a church dome, surrounded by saints and angels – satellites?

    Perhaps Bowie was setting his superficial ‘satellites’, those we use to distract us from distraction, against a more meaningful musical reference?

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    • col1234 says:

      as i said last year, the more inspired spambots are allowed to stay on this entry—seems appropriate. well done googlespammer

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