The Last Thing You Should Do

96winter

The Last Thing You Should Do.
The Last Thing You Should Do (with Robert Smith, 50th Birthday concert).
The Last Thing You Should Do (live, 1997).

“The Last Thing You Should Do” nearly didn’t make Earthling: it was slotted as a B-side until receiving a late-in-the-day promotion. Bowie had intended to put a reworked Tin Machine track on the album, cutting during the Earthling sessions new versions of “Baby Universal” (still unreleased) and a stripped-down “I Can’t Read” that was diverted to the soundtrack of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. There was also another try at “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that Bowie never seemed able to realize in the studio and which would be a ghost for another half-decade.*

Bowie had a sharp sense for personal narrative and maybe he thought that the time to rehabilitate Tin Machine hadn’t quite arrived. But he later said that “Last Thing You Should Do” had become one of his favorite tracks by the time of album sequencing, and that it better fit the mood. And true, the track was Earthling in miniature: drum ‘n’ bass-inspired percussion loops, melancholic verses with a word-game lyric, savage guitar breaks, the occasionally-deployed shriek and groan, Mike Garson trying to worm his way in. Its various pieces didn’t quite hold together; they seemed in a tense non-aggression pact.

So listening to the track felt like crossing borders, which sharpened the flavor of each section. The Reeves Gabrels guitar break is Gabrels throwing taste and restraint further out the window than usual, with his slashing progress through three power chords encouraged by spliced-in Bowie “yeahs!” and slightly mocked by Garson slowly creeping his way down to the bass end of his keyboard. The “jungle” break is Mark Plati and Zach Alford frenetically trying to create the drum loops/ live beats master duel that the record had promised and had never quite delivered.

And the three verses, built on a foxing progression that hangs between F minor, F# minor and A-flat major, are the weariest on the album, with a two-chord synthesizer drone hanging overhead like a storm cloud. Bowie started with a question: What have you been doing to yourself? and answered it with the title line. “I think it’s very much of its time as a song: one has to be very selfish and protective about oneself if you’re going to survive these days,” he told Andy Gill in 1997.

Singing into an empty water bottle for effect, Bowie glumly repeated a line three times, then closed it off with the title phrase, whose last syllables he bloated and contorted. It’s the sound of an unwanted daybreak, clubtime over; it’s sung by a man who should’ve been in bed hours ago, waiting for a bus or a cab, wondering what he’s doing with his life (it’s also the closest Bowie ever came to doing a Neil Tennant impression). Though “Last Thing” was sequenced midway through Earthling, its title was true: it’s the album’s spent-out coda.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Performed on the Earthling tour, 1997.

* Reportedly “Disco King” was tried out as a samba, a tango and a march during these sessions.

Top: CO, Blizzard of 1996, from the vantage pt of 83rd St and First Ave., NYC (my old neighborhood).

22 Responses to The Last Thing You Should Do

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    The Robert Smith version from the birthday concert was the only “new song-new guy” collaboration that worked. I liked Gail Ann Dorsey playing synth bass too.

  2. Maj says:

    You know I rarely listen to this song but once you’ve mentioned the Neil Tennant impression I went & listened to it again, with a new perspective…and I think I like it now.🙂 (Well, Bowie’s delivery at least, it kinda reminds me of Get Real a bit.)

  3. gcreptile says:

    The best jungle break/live drums master duel I can think of is Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug”, released a year after Earthling…
    In my opinion, Earthling was half killer, half filler, this one being a filler and sandwiched between two singles, just like Looking for Satellites and Seven Years in Tibet were fillers sandwiched between the good songs. I mean, “The Last Thing You Should Do” is a bit of a lazy song, repeated lines, one line chorus, “and the bridge where Gabrels goes crazy”, and an obligatory jungle break. One last time I want to mention that I still like the song in the context of the album, but I think I never listened to it as a standalone or on repeat.

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    gcreptile,
    Good call on the similarity to NIN’s The Perfect Drug! That had actually never occurred to me before. (Interesting how that particular song is from the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, whose adopted theme song is none other than Bowie’s I’m Deranged.)

    As a song, The Last Thing You Should Do seems rather slight. But I do enjoy that wired, not-quite-together tension which Chris spoke of. [In Bing Crosby voice] Jittery little thing, isn’t it…?😀

    BTW,
    Quite the long silence between Battle For Britain (The Letter) and Little Wonder, and then…we get Little Wonder AND The Last Thing You Should Do in two days! I’m guessing Chris is making up for lost time. (But it’s not like this was a particularly lengthy entry… ;))

  5. Jack Womack says:

    I remember that blizzard well. Got out of the 14th St. at 7th late Mon after it ended, walked east. No traffic at all. Right at 6 PM all the church bells downtown went off at once with nothing else to muffle the sound. For as long as they rang, it could have been 1750.

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, I actually tried to walk to work that morning but after a block of stumbling and struggling against a bitter snow-filled east wind, I went back home. had a friend who was driving through VA at the time and was stuck there for like a week.

  6. MC says:

    Now this is for me Exhibit A against Earthling – nothing more than a damp squiggle. It’s one reason why the return to melodic songwriting on the next album seemed so salutary.

    • AB says:

      I have to agree. I put a lot of listening to this album at the time, and can only remember that Little Wonder wasn’t much of a song, the “I’m afraid of americans” line, something about Boyzone, and the chorus of ‘Dead Man Walking. I’m fascinated that the songs seemed to have evaporated entirely from my memory, when I can sing that horrible Shampoo ‘Trouble’ song from memory from roughly the same period, and i hated it.

  7. Patrick says:

    Earthing might have sat slightly less uncomfortably as a side project album. under another pseudonym. Not an official solo studio album.
    If the 60s were DB chasing fame and the trends, the 70s apotheosis being several steps ahead and setting them, the 80s going mainstream, with the 90s and Outside , a fair if sometimes frustrating crack at Industrial/art rock, this is surely the most blatant case of the kids having already been there, done that, and more convincingly.

  8. Sofa Head says:

    It’s always a bad sign when the singer starts shouting “yeah!”.

  9. Bruised Passivity says:

    There’s something charming about this track that I just can’t put my finger on despite it being “the album’s spent-out coda” (love that description!). I also find that it’s one heck of an ear worm. LOL

  10. Anonymous says:

    Dara o Kearney used to write very well about bowie. His contemporary notes on this track are solid

    “The Last Thing You Should Do: My first reaction to this was that it was quite a slight song. I couldn’t understand why some people said it could make a good single. Then, the next day, I was walking through the airport having heard the song only three or four times at that stage, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Lyrically, it sounds like a fairly simple love song, but dig a little deeper and you’re in Please Mr. Gravedigger territory. “Save the last dance for me/Take the last bus with me/Give the last kiss to me/It’s the last thing you should do”, all delivered in Bowie’s best icy menace voice: You get the picture. Brilliant, but I’m still not convinced it’s a single.”

  11. Mr Tagomi says:

    I’m one of those possibly very few people who like this song a lot.

  12. s.t. says:

    This has only very recently grown on me. Coming so late on Earthling, it really did seem slight…and meandering. And when a shorter, punchier variation (i.e., Bowie’s version of “Gemini Spacecraft”) became available, I considered this one obsolete. But it does have a nice bass groove, and a nice balance of whimsy and wistfulness. Even if it’s a minor entry in the canon, it’s got plenty to like.

    I guess my closing thoughts on Earthling concerns the simplicity of songwriting that characterizes most of the album. When it was released, I took issue with the lyrics and melodies. I dismissed most of the tracks as not-quite-songs, more like fun sound pieces. But hindsight has revealed this simplicity, just like the album’s more reflective moments, to be a likely germ for the back-to-basics approach of Bowie’s “Neo-Classicist” period. With a more conventional arrangement, a song like “Last Thing You Should Do” wouldn’t sound that far from “Survive” or even “5:15.” I must admit that this “earnest” simplicity from 1999 onward confused me then, and underwhelms me now. But grafted so wantonly onto energetic electronic gimmickry, the simple, reflective songs of Earthling retain a wry, somewhat elliptical quality that keeps them fresh.

    Aside from going full-on formulaic, Hours also marks the first real efforts to re-integrate Tin Machine’s sound into Bowie’s work. No actual reworkings (at least that I know about; perhaps I’ll learn more in the weeks to come!), but some bluesy guitar noise fit for a slightly more matured machine. Perhaps fitting, then, that it was the last hurrah of Dave ‘n’ Reeveses.

    Ah, Hours. This should be a very interesting next series of posts! And the back-and-forth in the comments section should be entertaining as well! (Let’s keep it polite, people…)

    But let’s all take a moment to commemorate the passing of Trendhopper Bowie, and also to toast Chris for offering these wonderful entries that have shed light on the Dame’s artistic development, both progressive and regressive.

    Cheers!*

    * = (Yeah!)

    • Ididtheziggy says:

      Ya. Hours should be an interesting one. I have a hard time rationalizing that it’s a good album, yet, I find myself enjoying it often. Maybe it’s Bowie’s first real look backward at his own catalogue or that he pulls out just enough hooks to make it interesting, but I am hoping that the next series will help me put my finger on exactly what it is that I like about it.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I can’t wait for the …hours discussion. To me it’s his worst since Tonight.

      • s.t. says:

        Definitely share your thoughts on this era. I agree with HTV that I’d rank it pretty low among Bowie albums, perhaps tied with Never Let Me Down (I can’t decide which is worse, Never’s overcooked ideas, or Hours’ half baked ones) and just above the no-ideas cesspool of Tonight.

        Still, “Hours” has some good ideas, even a few solid tunes. I did read an interview from around 1999 where Bowie mentioned that his record label pressured him to release something, and that he would have preferred to either have put something out in 98, or else later in 2000. So, the fact that it sounds like a mishmash of several distinct groups of songs perhaps reflects this forced release date.

        I’m most interested in the “earnest” angle of the album’s more basic songs. I’m quite sure that Chris will reveal some important contexts for these works, and I’m wondering if my conjecture (rationalizations?) hold up…

    • col1234 says:

      as I noted on the “Planet of Dreams” thread, we’ve got about two (yes 2) more months before we get to Hours here. There is a whole lot of random Bowie stuff floating around the late ’90s, folks.

      and pls don’t print a list of them in a comment. Let some readers be surprised.

      • s.t. says:

        Definitely excited to hear “new” stuff, but are these random songs available nowadays? I can’t find even a ripped mp3 of Planet of Dreams…

      • s.t. says:

        Although the quality is inconsistent, converting Youtube videos to mp3 is a good enough solution for me.

  13. Ramzi says:

    “Reportedly “Disco King” was tried out as a samba, a tango and a march during these sessions.”

    Before performing Stay at his performance at the Beeb in 2000 he introduced it in much the same way, so if that’s from Bowie himself it’s likely to be a figure of expression signifying that they tried doing it in a number of different ways as opposed to an actual description. (I think, anyway)

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