Nuts

Nuts!

Not long ago, the musician Tim Burgess hosted, for one of his COVID-era Listening Parties on Twitter, a song-by-song collective listen to Bowie’s Earthling. Reeves Gabrels chimed in from quarantine, adding facts and color.

During it, I was struck by how so many taking part seemed wild about Earthling—saying that they’d overlooked it at the time, or they’d never heard it before, as they’d assumed it was some embarrassing attempt by Bowie to stay fresh in the mid-Nineties. They were surprised by how good it was. Maybe Earthling‘s day has finally come.

If so, a shame that any potential mid-Nineties Bowie box set is apparently on ice, at least for now, whether due to the plague wreaking havoc on release dates and production schedules, or whether the Bowie estate has decided to shift their reissue program to focus on the more lucrative “50th Anniversary” market for Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, etc. Still, mid-Nineties Bowie is getting better archived, if digitally. A 1995 concert recording is coming soon, and earlier this year some Earthling-era odds and ends were slipped into circulation via the Is It Any Wonder? collection, at present only available via download or on streaming sites (with very-limited-edition CD and vinyl versions).

“Nuts,” one of the never-before-released IIAW tracks, is that rare bird—an actual Bowie studio outtake. We haven’t seen much of these since the Rykodisc era, nearly thirty years ago. It’s been termed a “semi-instrumental,” which translates into Bowie mumbling or whispering a few lines (“what would you rah-thuh be doing?…. in time…”) and exclaiming “nuts!!!” on occasion. The rest of it’s Mark Plati and Gabrels going to town on guitars, computers, keyboards, and samplers in a New York studio in late 1996.

Recorded in the last Earthling sessions in November 1996, after Mike Garson, Zachary Alford, and Gail Ann Dorsey had finished cutting their parts, “Nuts” was the sister track of “The Last Thing You Should Do.” Both pieces were instrumentals made by Gabrels and Plati at Looking Glass; both had improvised Bowie performances—he’d popped into the studio, heard the new tracks, did some vocals on the spot, bang, done. Both were intended to be bonus tracks or B-sides.

Then Bowie altered the character of Earthling at the last minute. He’d intended to waltz remakes of “newer-older” compositions (“I Can’t Read,” “Baby Universal,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”) into new ones (“Little Wonder,” “Looking for Satellites,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” etc.) But right before mixing, Bowie, with Gabrels’ blessing, decided to skew the record more towards the future, or at least the present. So he deep-sixed the Tin Machine remakes and gave “The Last Thing You Should Do” a battlefield promotion to album track. Poor “Nuts” was confined to the vault, or at least someone’s hard drive, for over twenty years.

Hearing “Nuts” at last, it’s no grand mystery as to why it didn’t make the grade. “Last Thing You Should Do,” with its hangover melancholy, added a new, somber mood to the album. “Nuts” is more a quintessential CD Bonus Track From the Nineties: goofy, slightly ambitious, packed full of “period” sounds. (By CD-era standards, Earthling was a slim 49 minutes, so Bowie easily could’ve thrown in “Nuts” as a mid-sequence break, his equivalent to “Fitter Happier.” Probably good he didn’t.)

It’s a “drum ‘n’ bass” track in the way that Earthling is “drum ‘n’ bass”—a gleeful fraudulent. Plati and Gabrels use jungle-esque snare patterns as a shiny color in an otherwise mostly “modern rock” pallete. It’s a homemade, off-brand jungle, cooked up on a desktop by a couple of New York musicians and an amused London expatriate.

Someone during Burgess’ Twitter party was saying Earthling showed that Bowie was off his game, that he really should’ve been doing jungle in 1993, nabbing the best young London producers, taking the choicest bits from the underground. But that was rarely Bowie’s tactic. His Philadelphia Soul record comes a year or two after that genre’s peak, and was made mostly by New Yorkers; one of his “krautrock” albums was created by American, Scottish, and English musicians in France; his big Eighties pop record has more allegiance to Little Richard than it does Duran Duran. A gimcrack knock-off version of jungle, done far past peak, holds true to the Bowie ethos.

Highlights: Bowie retrieving character voices from Leon and Outside, muttering lines while sounding like Algeria Touchshriek; the tug of war between whistle and “saxophone” late in the track; and of course, Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-nuts!, Bowie’s more restrained equivalent to the Iggy Pop Tarzan yell that ends “Funtime.”

Recorded: November 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First release: 7 February 2020, as part of the Is It Any Wonder? digital/streaming set.

Top: Patrick Burgler, “St. Patrick’s Day parade,” NYC, March 1997.

12 Responses to Nuts

  1. Gabriel says:

    How is it possible that an album that sounded dated in 1997 sounds contemporary—or even futuristic—in 2020? The genius of Bowie, I suppose.

    • fluxkit says:

      Well I think many of the “sounds” in the alvum seemed all over the airwaves in the 90s. Not so anymore…and most of the others making those sounds had songs. Just noises and time stamped hipster cred. that cred has expired long ago for most of the others making some of these sounds. Bowie has songs so we still listen to him.

  2. Stang says:

    Funny, I’ve known & worked with Tim Burgess for years.. & also been reading your blog/books for years…. Small world. Nuts!!

  3. postpunkmonk says:

    Hmm. Didn’t know about the “Tin Machine Revisited” aspect of “Earthling.” While I can readily hear “Baby Universal” in such sonic garb [it would work in almost any context, I think] I’m glad that this wasn’t the case for the album. As I didn’t like “techno” I only bought the album when we got tickets for the Chili Pepper on night two for the “Earthling” tour. I listened to it once before the show and yeah – Bowie’s techno album. Ugh.

    The show was utterly amazing, though. We were 20 Feet from Bowie in a club packed with 1000 fans. After that 36 song marathon, I awoke the next day with these songs in my head and I then glommed onto the album in earnest. I ultimately liked it far more than “1: Outside” though it was hardly a “jungle” record; thank goodness! I get his idea of applying song structure to what was ultimately a soundtrack to a drug experience where the niceties of song were hardly necessary. As usual, Bowie takes the path that leads to the most hybrid vigor, though it doesn’t always pan out this successfully.

    • Ramoana Stone says:

      oh I experienced that marathon Ft Lauderdale show too, it changed my life. And so many surreal things happened that day…what a day,

  4. Aloysius says:

    I’m absolutly loving every single note of earthling from day one in 1997! I also love the “dance-set” from the beginning ofn the earthling tour. He never looked cooler too. At any rate most Bowie fans didn’t care for earthling.

  5. James LaBove says:

    It’s been really nice to see Bowie’s 90’s output get a second look. When I was becoming a megafan in the early 2000s, I remember that the critical consensus was that it was mostly a joke (particularly Earthling). For whatever reason – better access to his catalog thanks to streaming services, more attention to his lesser-known works after his passing, the way Blackstar sounds like Earthling decaying at various points – that’s changed a lot.

    The classic take seemed to be that the 90’s albums were the point where Bowie started chasing musical trends instead of setting them (or trying to, at any rate). There’s likely some truth to that, but Earthling doesn’t sound like the work of a 50-year-old insecure about their legacy. It’s just a killer Bowie album from start to finish, and I’ll join the folks who say that it somehow still sounds fresh, despite the drum ‘n bass elements (owing in large part to Reeves Gabrel’s explosive, almost-shoegaze guitar presence; it’s far and away my favorite Gabrels collaboration).

    Honestly, I’m much more likely these days to reach for Earthling or Outside over one of the 70s albums. There are essential works in this decade from Bowie, and I’m glad that’s finally getting recognized. I would imagine that in some ways it took much more guts to be David Bowie in 1997 than it did in 1977.

    As for Nuts itself? Well… I’m glad we got to hear it, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a more complete song the first time I heard it. I’m glad we didn’t lose The Last Thing You Should Do to it, at any rate. Being able to hear the Earthling version of Baby Universal is a gift, though. What a great tune!

  6. Coagulopath says:

    A lot of 90s Bowie songs have this odd quality where Bowie is barely on them.

    “Nuts” is listenable but sounds like a drum ‘n’ bass loop played over a Massive Attack song. It’s also anonymous. Nearly anyone could have made it.

  7. I understand why Nuts didn’t make the album, but I’m glad it’s out there for all to hear. It’s playful experimentation. It furthermore proves that Bowie actually had a sincere love of drum ‘n’ bass and wasn’t simply “trend chasing”. I feel like the Omikron people were probably hoping to get more of this kind of thing than say, Thursday’s Child.

    Nuts and TLTYSD feel closer to the drum’n’bass concept than everything recorded earlier in the album’s sessions. It’s interesting that the post-earthling sessions seem to lean closer still, albeit briefly; Is It Any Wonder, the remakes of Pallas Athena and V2-Schneider, O Superman (and whatever track was put together to introduce the 1997 Dublin show). I wonder if at any moment Bowie had plans to expand on the Tao Jones Index idea.

    Incidentally, for anyone interested, In February I put together an unofficial Is It Any Wonder addendum mix of unreleased/out of circulation 1995-7 material. Obviously it’s all stuff that’s been heard before (No Disco King to be found here I’m afraid) but I felt like it works nicely together in context:

  8. Innocent Smith says:

    I agree that Earthling is overdue for a reappraisal and I’ve been enjoying all of Is It Any Wonder? Great post as always.

    You say that a 90s box set is apparently on ice. Can I ask what your source is?

    • col1234 says:

      my guess, that’s all. the “annual box set in chronological order” release pattern seems to have been suspended for a couple years now, if nothing else.

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