Father died last Monday afternoon after an illness lasting just under a week…He lay in bed with the sweetpea all over his face, making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart.
Samuel Beckett, letter, 1933.
“Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a Bowie dance track, so naturally one of its vocal hooks is a Bertrand Russell quote: I don’t want knowledge! I want certainty!* Delivered via a distorted vocal that sounds as if Bowie’s ranting through a megaphone, the line seems to mock the dancers that the track’s allegedly set into motion, the club as the empty certainty of the present while the tedious business of acquiring knowledge is left behind at home.
Bowie saw Russell as predicting the data avalanche of the Internet. You can attempt to use the information it generates to shore up your preconceptions, or you can simply sit on the banks and watch an endless, ever-broadening stream of information go by. Russell “was right, mean old bastard that he was,” Bowie said in 1997. “As you get older, you become more desperate for certainty. Or, you relax your hold on the idea of ever acquiring it and enjoy the process of gaining information. I’m quite happy with the latter. What-is-my-purpose? doesn’t hang so heavy in my sky.”
It’s odd to consider that a throwaway track like “Law” is the resolution of something that Bowie had grappled with as a young man, but in its way, it’s answering the tortured, questioning mind of “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” by saying: just let go. The sound of the sound with the sound of the ground, etc. “To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume if you keep studying you’ll find the answers,” Bowie said in another interview at the time. “As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty of this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realize there are no certainties.”
Basically “Son of ‘Pallas Athena,'” “Law” was sequenced to close Earthling, where it came off like a bonus track or a remix tacked onto the CD. It’s a series of eight or 16-bar breaks pasted together: the Russell quote refrain, built over a loop of synthesizer sixteenth notes; a “verse” that has a few murmured lines like “a wallet drops and money flies into the midday sun,” a jabbing two-note bassline and a chord sequence that suggests the James Bond theme; and a refrain/hook section with the chanted “sound of the ground” and the title line, which is the goofy dramatic peak of the song: Bowie sings it like he’s announcing a superhero.
Having little to do with the drum ‘n’ bass stylings of other Earthling tracks, “Law” is far more indebted to turn-of-the-decade industrial pop like My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex On Wheels,” with which it shares a taste for sonic trash littering the mix, like engine revving noises. The catalog of noises in the “Law” mix would fill a page: Bowie chanting “ja! ja! ja!”; synthetic vibraphones; the return of Bowie’s “Nathan Adler” voice to mutter “I get a little bit afraid, sometimes“; Reeves Gabrels guitar-synth yawps; the old standbys of shattering glass and iron-door-slams. Consider all of it to be a flow of “knowledge” that you can take or leave.
There’s another reference buried in the track. In the last “verse,” Bowie mutters Samuel Beckett’s father’s alleged last words: What a morning! (an inspired Beckett would soon write the story What a Misfortune). But Beckett’s father said something else on his deathbed that could be the credo of the whole Earthling record, despite Bowie’s public claims of being contented: “fight fight fight.”
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Though “Law” seems intended to be a club single like “Pallas,” it wasn’t issued as one. It was also the only Earthling song never performed live, though it was used as pre-show music for the 50th Birthday Concert in January 1997.
* The exact quote was “what men really want is not knowledge, but certainty.” One of the most popular Russell quotes, it’s found in quote compilations, business studies and managerial how-to books, often grotesquely misconstrued in the latter. It doesn’t come from any of Russell’s published works but rather an interview he gave to the BBC magazine The Listener in 1964.
Top: Christian de Prost, “France, Limoux, 1997.”