The paths of Goldie and David Bowie intersected in the mid-Nineties, when Goldie was crown prince of the drum ‘n’ bass scene and Bowie an eager ambassador from rock. Goldie gave Bowie cred, Bowie gave him class. Together they would make a film (Everybody Loves Sunshine, gruesomely retitled B.U.S.T.E.D. for some markets) and a track, “Truth.”
Born in Walsall in 1965 to a Scottish pub singer and a Jamaican immigrant, Clifford Price was the sort of child that Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, could have come across in his work at the charity Dr. Barnardo’s Homes: Price, abandoned by his mother at age 3, grew up shuttling between group homes and various sets of foster families. (Years later, Goldie noted that despite its chaos, his childhood and adolescence were also ruthlessly recorded and annotated: day-by-day accounts of his doings are in the files of the UK social services). Success as a graffiti artist at age 17 got him out of Britain, first to New York, then Miami, where he sold the gold grills he by now sported on his own teeth. He returned home around 1989 and set about giving the rave scene a bad conscience.
His first major record (under the name Rufige Kru) was aptly called “Menace” and in 1992 came “Terminator,” a piece of metal agitation. For his tracks, Goldie drew from what he called his “case of sonics”: a collection of samples that he dubbed and overdubbed, distorted and flanged, and sped up and down until they’d become a set of mutated sonic junk that would be the bedrock of his music. His records grew longer the more they grew dense: “Timeless” (1994), his masterpiece, was over twenty minutes; his follow-up album, Saturnz Return, began with an hour-long track, “Mother.”
Having become the public face of drum ‘n’ bass, Goldie by 1997 had a high-profile club gig (Metalheadz Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note), a label and film roles. For the latter he was typecast as a gangster (EastEnders, Snatch) and as he looked like a Bond villain, he inevitably played one in The World Is Not Enough. He even got into the tabloids when he dated Bjork.
Bowie had been talking up Timeless as the first great jungle album and he’d become curious about its maker, with whom he saw some affinities. Goldie, with his easy flitting between art, film and music, and his public persona which he once described as being “a chameleon. I can change shape any time I want to,” was a sally port into a world that Bowie had little means to enter otherwise. They struck up a friendship (“I don’t really care if everything he does from now is rubbish,” Bowie cracked in the documentary When Saturn Returnz).
So Bowie name-checked Goldie as an influence on Earthling, and Goldie in turn praised the album (notably more for its ambition than its quality). In the spring of 1997, as Bowie was rehearsing the Earthling tour in London, he was recruited to sing on a track for Goldie’s ongoing Saturnz Return sessions, which were bloating with ambition: the album would be 2 CDs, the first of which had only two tracks, and was built on over 9,000 audio files, 48 tracks of tape and ProTools and would feature a 40-piece orchestra and guest appearances by Bowie, KRS-One and Noel Gallagher. The album was an architectural dig into Goldie’s life, the title referring to the moment when the alignment of planets is the same as that of your birth.
Goldie asked Bowie to sing on “Truth,” a track he’d written and arranged with some programming by his engineer Mark Sayfritz. It was the first time in ages that Bowie was essentially a hired hand on a record. Goldie recalled Bowie standing in front of the mic, chain-smoking, and taking direction from him, much to his amusement. “I was telling him what I could see in my head. He was great, totally tuned in. He’s the other side of the glass and I’m telling him what to do. I tell you what, I was laughing my bollocks off, man. I mean, David Bowie being told what to do by me!”
So Bowie found himself doing a highwire act over a trio of panned, delayed and flanged synthesizer washes, variations of which play throughout the track as its sole instrumental backing. Goldie’s lyric seems in part an attempt to write “Bowie” lines (let sorrow hide in sculpture, tomorrow for you to know) as well as phrases in the vein of Seal’s then-recent hit “Kiss from a Rose” (if a kiss could cry for you, etc.)
Bowie pitched his performance to the underlying sound effects: on quieter, ambient-sounding stretches of the track, where the underlying synth was slow in tempo or holding on one note, he sang more melodic phrases; over jarring jump-cut synth washes, he was freer in range, soaring up and sinking down to the bottom of his register, sometimes taking a sprechstimme approach to the lyric. Goldie then treated Bowie’s vocal like another synth track: applying liberal echo to it (which, while it seems to be pieced together from different takes, could well be another single-take Bowie performance), and often drowning Bowie in the mix (sometimes this strategy works as a joke: Bowie sings “if I could change my ways/maybe I would/ But” and the rest is incomprehensible).
Upon its release, Saturnz Return was panned by many in the press as an act of elephantine hubris (he was even accused of killing drum ‘n’ bass) and it sold poorly. Goldie didn’t release another album for nearly a decade, though this was in part due to his growing interests in film. Buried in the vastness of an album whose time apparently has yet to arrive (I wonder if the musicians of the 2020s will treasure this record), “Truth” is one of the last pieces of Outside-era Bowie battiness in the Nineties before his swerve back to rock formalism.
Recorded: (Bowie vocal) May 1997 at Rob Playford’s Manic One Studio, London, and/or Trident Studios, London. Released 1 February 1998 on Saturnz Return (only on the 2-CD version, where it’s segued to a hidden track called “The Dream Within”).
Top: Walt Jabsco, “New York,” 1997.