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.