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.”
I think this track works well enough in a closing credits sort of way.
That synth sound in it always reminds me of the alien signal to the whales in Star Trek IV.
I’m sure Bowie would be thrilled to hear that.
As much as I’m not into dance music in general I actually like this one. I prefer it to Athena.
“I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty” and “Sure I get a little bit afraid, sometimes” are even good pieces of lyric/catch phrases, whatever their inspiration.
@Mr Tagomi. Oh. myyyyy. You’re right. As a Bowie & Star Trek fan in one myself I should have heard that on my own. 🙂
Well written article as always man! “Son of Pallas Athena” indeed. This might actually be the most I’ve ever seen written about this track! It’s certainly not one of his most interesting ones, but I enjoy it for what it is. I probably wouldn’t declare it a throwaway. I think this is the only track off Earthling that hasn’t been performed live too!
It be the most overtly danceable track he’s ever done (I could be wrong though, I’d have to go through all his stuff to make sure). Keep ’em coming Chris! Hope the book revisions and editing are going well.
I think an album called Let’s Dance is more overtly danceable 🙂
Hahaha good point! I guess I should change my statement to read “ONE of his most overtly danceable tracks!” Silly me 🙂
I took “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty” to be about Gnosticism, but then again I didn’t know about the background of the song.
Man … another misheard Bowie lyric for me. I always thought he was saying “I don’t want knowledge, I want sovereignty!” Which kinda works in an apocalyptic, “God is on top of it all” way. Clearly, I need to start listening to Bowie with headphones, or at least better speakers.
And does he mutter “waterboarding” at one point?
Always really dug this track, it’s impossible not to tap your foot listening to it.
David L – I though he said “Garibaldi.”
As in…Security Chief Michael Garibaldi from Babylon 5 (Jerry Doyle)? 😀 Or rather the fish? Or perhaps the 19th century Italian general?
Speaking of misheard lines, I really think that instead of “The sound of the sound with the sound of the ground” it’s actually “With this sound, with this sound, with this sound mark the ground.” (Or at least Nicholas Pegg seems to think so, anyway! ;)) In addition, the “ja! ja! ja!” chant strongly recalls Glass Spider. (And I truly don’t mean that to sound unflattering! :D)
Law (Earthlings On Fire) is, in my opinion, the weakest track on Earthling. I wouldn’t call it terrible, mind you, but it perfectly represents the more dated, time-stamped aspect of Bowie’s mid-to-late-90’s period. Granted, Bowie’s industrial/club/dance side was never really my favorite aspect of his work. I think the Pallas Athena comparison is strongly apt, for while I have a lot of respect for what David does with this particular style, neither rank among my favorites. But, y’know, that’s just me! And like I said, it’s certainly not terrible! Those quotes from Russell and Becket are certainly zingers…
The Earthling LP was going to be possibly called Earthlings. I wonder if he’d recorded this song by the time Bowie played a club gig in New York and asked the crowd if they preferred Earthling or Earthlings? AFAIK, the only Earthling song he played in the gig was Little Wonder.
I remember seeing something about this on the bowie website back in the day – I recently looked for it but couldn’t find it. But yeah, he wasn’t sure if the album would be called “Earthling” or “Earthlings” and he asked a crowd at one of his shows to help him decide. If anyone finds a record of this share it here.
Leave it to Bowie to borrow from a supergenius like Russell. This article has reminded me of the Savior Machine for some reason. Guess that’ll be this evenings listening treat.
I have always loved this track, knowing fully it’s a throwaway, but feeling like there’s a looming terror closer in it than in any other Bowie song.
this is an atomic song that pulses like a heartbeat & has got a lot to do with speed (of life… but is there life on Earth?) & also deals with tension, weirdness, science fiction; kind of supersonic song with Reeves aka “the human jet engine”. I think it’s a good song, more hardcore & less danceable than Pallas A, Goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, just warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill.
from Goddess to God…
truthfully, i’d forgotten that this track even exists. i stop the record at …americans.
For me Law is Earthling’s quintessential 90s electronica piece sounding much like The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk all mixed with a ‘classic nihilist-Bowie’ social commentary.
Listening to this track evokes images of throbbing warehouses filled with sweat drenched rave children all united in the mindless beat of ritual dance; the next incarnation of disco madness.
For the ‘twenty-something’ me, a night out dancing during the 90s was an escape from my dreary work-a-day life, a chance to turn off my mind and just move in rhythm with the crowd just as it was for those who flocked to the 70s discos. So, for me, the “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty” quotation interprets as “I don’t want to think, I want to just be”. To me this song is simply about getting lost in the beat and forgetting about the rest of the world. While this track may be a throwaway, just like many songs from the disco era, the elation gained through escaping into dance is timeless. At least for those of us who like to dance, LOL.
I bring up disco here because this article and song reminded me of something Bowie said during a 1979 radio interview. (David Bowie Capital Radio Interview 1979 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5NQHWk04V0) At about 32 minutes in he says that disco had evolved into “the national heartbeat feel where the heart beat is the thing that keeps all the dancers together”. I feel this was the same for the electronica of the 90s and therefore, another possible view is that Law is a ‘tongue and cheek’ nod back to the disco era. This section of the interview is also interesting because he goes on to say (paraphrasing) that much of disco is disposable music and that he’s a fan of disposable music. So the idea that Law was made as “a throwaway track” is very likely spot on.
Another thought provoking posting, looking forward to the next one.:)
Gilles Deleuze, 1977 03, Vincennes:
“Therefore I say rapidly that the three characteristics of non-pulsed time are that you no longer have a development of the form, but a wresting of particles which have only relations of speed and slowness, you no longer have subject formation but you have hecceities; we saw this year the difference between individuations by subjectivation, the fixing of subjects, and individuations by hecceities, a season, a day. Deterritorialization. Emission of particles. Hecceities.
So there’s the general formula that I would give for non-pulsed time: you really have the formation of a non-pulsed time, or else the construction of a plane of consistency, therefore, when there is the construction of what’s called a continuum of intensities, second point when there are conjugations of flux, the flux of drugs can only be practiced, for example, in relation to other fluxes, there is no monoflux machine or assemblage. Within such assemblages, there is always an emission of particles with relations of speeds and slownesses, there is a continuum of intensities and there is a conjugation of flux. At this level, it would be necessary to take a case and see how it puts these three aspects together, I could say that there is a plane of consistency here, whatever the level of the drug, whatever the level of the music, there is a plane of consistency because there is a continuum of definable intensities, you have quite a conjugation of diverse fluxes, you have quite a few emissions of particles which have only kinematic relations. It’s for this reason that the voice in cinema is so important, it can be taken as a subjectivation, but equally as a hecceity. There is the individuation of a voice which is quite different from the individualization of the subject who has it. One could take up any trouble whatever: anorexia for example… What makes anorexia, in what way does its endeavor fail, in what way does it succeed?
At the level of a study of concrete cases, is one going to find this conjugation of flux, this emission of particles. One sees well a first point. One tries to forget everything that the doctors or the psychoanalysts say about anorexia. Everyone knows that an anorexic is not someone who doesn’t eat, it’s someone who eats under a very curious regime. At first sight, this regime is an alternation, really, of emptiness and fullness. The anorexic empties herself, and she never ceases to fill herself, this already implies a certain alimentary regime. If one says: empty and full, in place of: not eating, one has already made great progress. It would be necessary to define a pessimal [pessimal] threshold and an optimal threshold. The pessimal is not necessarily the worst. I’m thinking of certain pages of Burroughs, he says that, finally, above all, it’s a story of the cold, the cold inside and the warm.”
Thanks for another great piece. Yet again, you’ve shed light on admirable aspects of a song that is just so easy to disregard.
I never would have guessed that “Earthlings on Fire” was based on quotes from Beckett and Bertrand Russell. I always thought the track as a bit of throwaway filler. I should have given Dave a bit more credit than that, though, and it seems that he used this acid thrash rave-up as a vehicle for an Outsider’s take on the contemporary techno and rave scene, yet another comment on the Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Still, the song remains a trifle despite its weightier associations. A “mere” genre exercise like its older sister, “Pallas Athena.” Unlike “Looking for Satellites,” though, this trifle maintains my interest, and coheres quite nicely with the general “big screen dolls, tits, and explosions” philosophy of the Earthling LP. It’s a fun way to cap off a mostly energetic, feel-good album.
Also, good call on the Thrill Kill Kult comparison. I’ve been a fan of theirs since around the time I first heard Earthling, but I never made the connection to “Law.” I don’t think “Sex on Wheels” is the best example track though, so for all you doubters, check out TKK tracks like “Delicate Terror,” “Final Blindness,” “After the Flesh,” and “Somebody New,” which shared space with Bowie’s “Americans” on the Showgirls soundtrack.
Generally, the style of “Law” sounds like an update of the early 90’s fusion of rave with industrial (or EBM), of which TKK was an example. Similar sounds can be found in the faster tracks of Front 242 (e.g., “Neurobashing”) and Messiah (e.g., “Beyond Good & Evil”). But the structure of Law really does seem similar to the construction of many Thrill Kill tracks, especially the sample overload.
Oddly, I spent a LOT of time listening to Earthling back in the day, and don’t remember this track at all.
It really does sound like the sound of early Thrill Kill Kult, enough to be a parody. TKK themselves had abandoned this sort of thing by ’96 for an inspired combination of 60’s exploitation movie dance au-go-go with a live drummer, slabs of synthetic Shirley Bassey Brass and extended Drag Queen Theatrics that I seem to be the only person in existence who liked.
In this case, Bowie sounds really, really behind the times.
Surely the chanting is “law, law, law”, not “ja, ja ja”?
(I’ve been meaning to make this post for the last year and a half or so – this is the end of a long journey.)