The Rustic Overtones Songs

February 11, 2014

00london1

Sector Z.
Man Without a Mouth.

The overriding feature of the ’90s was working with bands that few people had heard of,” Tony Visconti recalled in his autobiography. In 1989, he sold his Good Earth Studios (where Bowie had cut some of Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters) to “a jingle company” and, after two decades in London, Visconti moved home to New York. “It was the end of my era. Young dance producers were making entire records on Akai 900 samplers and record companies loved this trend, if only for financial reasons. Rock was dead; or rather, record companies were attempting to murder it.”

A bit ironically, as he was now based in New York,* Visconti now worked with a heap of British and European artists: Phillip Boa, Annie Haslam, Louis Bertignac, Marc Lavoine, John Squire’s Seahorses. He also produced records for a few American indie bands swept up by the majors: the Dwellers, D Generation (during whose sessions Bowie called to break the ice with Visconti, after 14 years of silence) and Portland, Maine’s Rustic Overtones.

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The Rustic Overtones were signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis in 1998. They’d come up DIY in the early Nineties—playing hundreds of shows across the Northeast, producing and promoting their CDs to an at-times obtuse local media and helping to grow a music scene in Portland, Maine, a town not especially known for its sound (no dig at Portland, a fine place).

Davis saw the band, with their three-man saxophone and trombone section and their funk/ska leanings, as being Arista’s response to RCA’s Dave Matthews Band, Atlantic’s Sugar Ray and Interscope’s Smash Mouth. The band had other ideas. At their “coming out” performance at an Arista party in 1999, attended by the likes of P. Diddy, the band ignored Davis’ song requests and instead played the most feedback- and distortion-heavy songs in their repertoire.

Upon signing with Arista, the band was given a list of possible producers and quickly settled on Visconti. Recording in the spring of 1999 at Avatar Studios (the former Power Station) in midtown New York, the band felt like “the Beverly Hillbillies,” lead singer Dave Gutter told me. Their one indulgence was to have a ping-pong table brought in the studio. As the sessions went on, Visconti kept saying Bowie would love their sound. (The intro of their “Hardest Way Possible” had called back to “Young Americans.”) This became a running joke, with the band pranking Visconti about Bowie showing up to jam. Gutter would announce himself as Bowie at the door buzzer and once carried on a five-minute phone conversation with Visconti as Bowie, with “a really bad British accent.”

The band didn’t know that Visconti and Bowie had renewed their friendship and were now regularly e-mailing, and that Visconti actually had invited Bowie to the sessions. So one day when the Overtones were messing around in the studio, each player on a “wrong” instrument (Gutter, who played guitar, was thumping on a bass), Bowie walked in. “We freaked out,” Gutter said. The rules changed. For one thing, Bowie smoked everywhere, despite the “no smoking” signs at Avatar. The band had been on good behavior but now they were almost running after Bowie, frantically lighting up in his nicotine wake. (Gutter mailed a few of Bowie’s cigarette butts home to his mother.)

Rustic_Overtones_-_¡Viva_Nueva!

With Bowie up for singing on a track, the Overtones developed a piece called “Sector Z” for him. The song naturally involved extraterrestrials. “In the smoky clubs you won’t need oxygen/and you won’t need laser guns,” Gutter offers in the verse, with Bowie commandeering the refrains as an alien broadcaster. Bowie came up with the refrain’s call-and-response structure, alternating his spoken asides with some gorgeously-sung phrases “in his Ziggy voice,” as Visconti later recalled, and swathed them in a set of harmony tracks. (So the Bowie voice you hear in “Sector Z” could be similar to the scrapped “Safe In This Sky Life,” another alleged Ziggy-style vocal cut the prior year.)

“Sector Z” sounded like Bowie was having a blast: there’s a fizzy exuberance in the track that’s a world away from ‘Hours,‘ the album he was finishing at the time. Bowie would turn up five or six times during the sessions and the band was taken by his irreverence and honed self-deprecation. “Oh, that was shit,” Bowie would say upon hearing one of his (usually perfect) vocals played back. Gutter was on Bowie’s email list for a time; Bowie would bombard him with links to the most bizarre video clips imaginable.

Bowie’s work with the Rustic Overtones is a testament to his “professional fan” side: he didn’t charge the band for his time and he would hype them on BowieNet as one of his favorite groups. And when the Overtones went to Looking Glass Studios in July 1999 for Bowie’s vocal overdubs, Bowie mentioned that there was another song on the roughs that he thought he could do something with, and would they mind?

Unlike “Sector Z,” “Man Without a Mouth” wasn’t intended for him, so Bowie had to worm his way into the song, tracking a series of wordless harmony vocals. He worked with his usual economy: he sang his main vocal in one go, then triple-tracked his lines, finishing all of it in about 20 minutes.

Variations on what happened to the Rustic Overtones played out for dozens of other bands caught up in the post-Napster implosion of the music industry. (“It was when the wall fell down,” Gutter recalls). Their album, provisionally titled This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll, was set for an early 2000 release until the ouster of Davis and his allies left the band without an advocate. The album soon got yanked from Arista’s release schedule, and after a year in limbo, the band was able to escape Arista with their masters. They cut some new tracks, though nine of the Visconti tracks (and naturally, the two Bowie songs) would remain on Viva Nueva, the album finally issued by Tommy Boy in the summer of 2001. The strain had taken its toll on the band, though: they broke up a year later.

They’ve been reunited since 2007 (“once the coast was clear,” Gutter said) and are happy to be indie again. Visconti is the last outside producer the band used, as they took their time with him as a tutorial (“we learned so much from him—all of these tricks he had”). Gutter said that when starting out as a band in the early Nineties, the game was to hustle to get a major-label deal, that self-producing CDs was taken as a sign that you couldn’t cut it. Now seemingly everyone (including Bowie himself) is a self-publisher of sorts.

So hats off to a Maine rock band who can be listed in the same sentence as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Placebo, Lulu, Scarlett Johansson and Arcade Fire. Gutter’s only regret from his time with Bowie concerns the ping-pong table at Avatar. The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed. “We totally should have asked Bowie to play!” he says.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Avatar Studios; July 1999 (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, New York. First released on Viva Nueva, 5 June 2001.

I’m very grateful for Dave Gutter for his time and stories. Please visit the Rustic Overtones’ site for more information about them. Dave has a request: if anyone recalls (& finds) the BowieNet journal entry, ca. 2000, where DB talks up the Rustic Overtones, please send along a link (I haven’t found it yet).

* A pointless personal anecdote: Visconti and I were neighbors in the Nineties. According to his autobio, he lived and worked in an apartment at 90th St. and 3rd Ave.; I lived at 83rd St. and 1st for most of the decade. I likely saw him on the street a few times without knowing it. Did I ever see DB & not realize it? There’s a question.

Top: Holger Engelhard, “London, 2000”; Visconti and the Rustic Overtones clowning at Avatar Studios, 1999 (Billboard); Viva Nueva.

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Jewel

January 31, 2014

thened

Jewel (Reeves Gabrels with Frank Black, Bowie and Dave Grohl).

If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels.

Erdal Kizilcay’s recent interview cast fresh light onto Bowie’s icy professional side: nearly every collaborator has a story of receiving a “your services are no longer required” notice, from Woody Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder and Mike Garson to Carlos Alomar and Kizilcay (“[Bowie] changed his way of being with me at the end of the recording of Outside. I don’t even know why, for what reason.”).

Reeves Gabrels was one of the few Bowie collaborators who quit.1 His last performance with Bowie was a VH1 Storytellers set, filmed in New York on 23 August 1999. You can try to read the impending break into their brief exchanges (the only moment with any slight tension is a crack about Tin Machine), but from most accounts Bowie was blindsided when Gabrels told him four days later that he wouldn’t tour, causing Bowie to scramble to find a new lead guitarist (Helmet’s Page Hamilton, as it turned out).

Gabrels has given a few reasons for his resignation over the years: exhaustion from dealing with Bowie’s management and advisors, as he’d had to scrap for every bit of songwriting credit and an acceptable pay rate (“A lot of it didn’t have to to with David as much as…just dealing with some of the people around him,” he told Paul Trynka); some personal entanglements (he was having a child with Bowie’s wardrobe mistress). And as in 1995, he’d cut a solo album but now was supposed to set aside his promotion for Bowie’s. Further, Gabrels’ album was meant to have had a number of songs that wound up on ‘Hours.’ His professional life had gone lost in the shadow of his partner:

It is always a bittersweet compliment to me when fans, writers and reviewers say that my “unique” guitar style was important in defining the sound of any of the records I did with David. The reason for that is the fact that on most every album I have done with him, I also co-written the majority of the songs and co-produced,” he told Music Dish in 2003. “I may be overly sensitive to this issue, but I am continually amazed by the number of musicians, fans and music critics who seem to be unaware of the amount of songwriting I did with David or my involvement as a producer.”

He’d also lasted long enough in the ring to know when Bowie’s mood was turning. Tony Visconti was coming back into the picture; Bowie’s next record was going to be Pin Ups 2 (My Life As a Mod); the Ziggy Stardust 30th anniversary CD/film/musical boondoggle was still being talked up. Bowie was discarding his pre-millennial interests in jungle and, increasingly, the Internet. “I always tried to be aware of David’s legacy,” he told David Buckley. “But a big part of that legacy is the pursuit of the new. When I became more aware of the desire to do more old songs and eliminate the sequential information and loops from our new music2, I realized that what David wanted from the music was quickly diverging from what I needed…I was ready to move on, take control of my life and pursue my own course.”

If Gabrels had stayed, he felt it would have been for a paycheck and residual fame. He feared becoming a bitter guitar hack who stood on stage replicating Mick Ronson lines on “Suffragette City” and “Jean Genie” each night, “becom[ing] everything I had disliked in musicians I had known…or I was gonna die because I would be so miserable I would just drug myself to death,” he told Trynka. He was calling his solo album Ulysses: a lost man who needed to make his way home.

dbrg

So he left (the press was told that Gabrels was taking a break from the promo tour but would be back for the next album). For a time he and Bowie kept in touch but there was a fairly sharp break around the mid-2000s. His departure was welcomed by some quarters of Bowie fandom: Gabrels, to some fans, had come to symbolize everything they disliked about Bowie’s new music, from his shabby Berkelee professor look on stage to his skronkfest guitar solos. His leaving signaled a return of the classics, a welcome resumption of taste: it was safe to go to a Bowie show again.

Bowie had met Gabrels during one of his lows. He was isolated in a comfortable Swiss exile, feeling like a cossetted indentured servant to his label, wondering why he kept at the pop music racket after the drubbing he took for Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider tour. A decade later, it was Gabrels who was lost, Bowie who knew in which direction he needed to go.

Gabrels, more than any other Bowie sideman, was someone who didn’t seem to buy the myth. When Bowie risked making himself look the fool, Gabrels called him on it, and he likely spared us a few disasters. Interview after interview in the Nineties will find Gabrels busting Bowie’s chops on something. He had the audacity to believe that his work, his insights, were as vital as Bowie’s: he made Bowie’s music fit his sensibilities as much as he worked within Bowie’s frames; he didn’t kowtow to celebrity. This attitude could make for hard stretches of music: his solos, at their most punishing, seem intended to kill the songs they’re housed in. And he wanted credit: he wasn’t going to be consigned to the fate of a Ronson, an essential contributor without a single Bowie song credit to his name.

You could argue that Gabrels was the only true creative partner, besides Eno and Iggy Pop, that Bowie has ever known. Bowie had spent his youth destroying the bands that he joined because he couldn’t abide compromising with others. He killed off the Spiders because they were casing him up in a box. He finally wound up adrift. So in 1988, he let an obscure post-punk shredder from Boston start bossing him around. Looking back at his professional life, there’s no one else who Bowie seemed to respect more than he did Gabrels at times. Gabrels was his loud conscience (or an extended middle finger), and the best of Bowie’s Nineties music is inconceivable without him.

tincrop

Ulysses (Della Notte) was the album Bowie had wanted ‘Hours’ to be, distribution-wise: it was a 21st Century release in 1999, available solely as a download. Gabrels signed an agreement with CDDB, which for a flat fee distributed MP3s across a variety of platforms, including RealJukebox, WinAmp and MusicMatch.”The Internet lets me make my music available to listeners within a week of completion. And these songs are coming out unaltered or remixed by a record label’s A&R department. What you hear is what I wanted you to get. No compromises,” he said at the time.

Bowie contributed to one song on it, a big honking collision of a track called “Jewel” that also featured Frank Black, Dave Grohl and Mark Plati. It’s as if they all got together over drinks one night to write a song that would sum up “the Nineties” for their children: it’s such a garish example of “alterna-rock” that it sounds like it was made a decade later as a spoof by someone like Andy Samberg.

Its origins were, unsurprisingly, casual: Black, Grohl, Gabrels and Bowie hung out after Bowie’s 50th anniversary show in 1997, and Grohl, possibly joking and in “some sort of stupor” (Gabrels), said they should form the alt-rock version of Blind Faith. “Just do one record, one tour and be done with it,” Grohl said. “We’d have a great time.” (This was per Gabrels’ recollection: “[Grohl] probably doesn’t even remember this.”)

Later, Black and Gabrels got together to write a song and, recalling Grohl’s “Blind Faith II” conceit, they got Grohl to drum and sing backup, then roped in Bowie to sing a verse: Grohl recalled Bowie scribbling lines on sheets of paper spread across the studio floor. Black took the first verse; Gabrels got the refrains, sounding like a more doleful J. Mascis. Bowie’s verse, which he sang in a series of erratic voices, was his last go at being an embarrassing “rave uncle”. He seemed to be leering throughout it.

“Jewel” was a nose-tweaking farewell to a decade of riches—the last time that a group of weirdos like Black, Bowie and Gabrels would be funded by major international labels. It was a perfect way for Bowie and Gabrels to go out: tastelessly, and not acting close to their ages. Play it loud and bother your neighbor. Bye, Reeves.

Recorded 1999? earlier?. Released on Ulysses (Della Notte), first issued as a download on 4 November 1999 via CDDB Inc. and as a CD in 2000.

1: It’s still tough to conclude whether Mick Ronson jumped or was pushed: a bit of both.

2: One irony was that Gabrels soon had his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro-Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”

Top to bottom: DB and RG, 1999; 1996; 1989.


We All Go Through

January 9, 2014

99japan

We All Go Through.
We All Go Through (Omikron end credits).

“We All Go Through” and “What’s Really Happening?,” particularly when heard back-to-back, can seem like Bowie’s Pepsi challenge: which is the “real,” which is the “impostor” song? Each track could be the work of an outside lyricist writing in the voice of Bowie; each feels like a synthetic recreation of “the Sixties” as processed through the late Eighties.

“We All Go Through,” with its sturdy E major structure, its skip-rope verse melody and easy rhymes, is the happier-sounding of the pair. Even Reeves Gabrels, who plays the most restrained solo of his recorded life with Bowie, seems in gentle spirits (Gabrels later claimed he’d written much of its music as a potential instrumental track on his solo record). The grim “lunarscape” of the verses, cities of Mammon and noise, bows to the communal bliss of the choruses, with their confident strides up from C major to E major (“right in the noooooow”).

It worked as the payoff song for Omikron: the Nomad Soul, a victory lap for gamers who’d knocked off all the villains and got to return home to their world. Lifted out of the game narrative, the lyric became more troubling: the shuffle of words in the refrain turned the cliche rock lullaby of “we’ll be all right” into “we’ll ALL be right”: no compromise with or acceptance of another’s view needed—we pass into heaven as our righteous selves. “We are the morning song,” Bowie promises, a possible nod to Lucifer, “son of the morning,” which makes one wonder just exactly we’re all going through to become. (“‘Dog’ (a scrambled God) is in every word,” Bowie also offers.)

It’s one of the ‘Hours’-era tracks most hobbled by the relative cut-budget production (“Sowing the Seeds of Love“-era Tears for Fears did this stuff better): the synthesizers masked as a string section make the “faux psychedelic chantin’ drone” (Bowie’s description of the song) a bit watery. There are pleasures in the mix: the jabbing Bowie harmony vocals in the later verses (“hooouur by hoouuur” he tolls like some distorted bell), the little bass hook Mark Plati develops in the outro, the crisp acoustic work (by either Bowie or Gabrels). But “We All Go Through” comes off as being trapped in an interim state: there’s a grander song in here somewhere.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: Toshichika Goto, “Tokyo, 1999.”


We Shall Go to Town

December 3, 2013

tokyo99

We Shall Go to Town.

In spirit (or actually?) a relic from the Outside sessions, the intriguing “We Shall Go to Town” was left off ‘Hours,’ perhaps because its somnolent eeriness didn’t fit the record’s thematic arc (dimness to brightness, like the settings of an oven lamp). Its consignment to B-side status is a shame, particularly as Bowie gave another B-side on the same CD single (“We All Go Through”) a similar title, so that “We Shall Go to Town” can get jumbled up in recollection.*

Built of crablike movements between B-flat major and E-flat minor chords (established via a wavering-sounding keyboard bed), the song overlays sets of competing rhythmic lines: Mark Plati’s fretless bass, singing the same rising eight-note line throughout; Sterling Campbell’s agitated shuffle, like a heart murmur conveyed via snare, low toms and hi-hat; the brittle guitar figure played by Reeves Gabrels that appears in the latter halves of verses and in refrains (panned right to left) as if Gabrels is gently interrogating the song. Bowie’s vocal has a physicality in it: he breaks each verse and refrain down to sets of four or five stressed syllables, the last of which he’ll often drag across a bar like a strand of taffy (“deliiiight,” “forgehhhht,” “the foooooool”); for further gravity, he applies phasing to some phrases, giving the sense that he’s singing in slow motion, and double-tracks a few lines at the octave. One starting point for the song could be Bowie’s old sparring partner Iggy Pop, whose “Mass Production” rattles in its bones.

Lyrically “We Shall Go to Town” suggests a reflection on old campaigns in the pop music world (“follow the lights/stay on the outside”); its title line, and a few other scattered phrases, offers that “going to town,” i.e., engaging a wider public, remains a worthy battle, even if it’s with demons. The alternative is stagnation, nostalgia, death: “only the fool turns around.” But the lyric’s vagueness makes any attempt at analysis a rum game. The track’s as much concerned with the flavor of Bowie’s low register, the sonic texture of his alliterations and consonant rhymes (delight/forget, bring your things), how his voice works as a member of a murmuring ensemble.

Then there’s Gabrels. His 16-bar solo, one of the few high-skronk moments he was allotted in his last round of Bowie co-compositions, begins with a crunching bend of strings, then he seems to stall out. Again there’s a tortured-sounding chord, again silence. A wail trails off, then another. You realize the solo is becoming a series of perpetual starts. Once you do, Gabrels finally offers some linking phrases, three consecutive down-shifting chords and a shriek of strings that simulates a machine in the act of pulping itself. Satisfied, he hounds Bowie through the last verse and refrain.

Their interplay in the song’s last minute, Bowie precisely droning his lines, Gabrels sounding as if he’s boring through metal (his old favorite “boiling teakettle” noise returns), is the sound of two men who know each other’s next dream; it’s not a dialogue as much as it’s an acceptance of roles, an interchange of moods. Call it maturity, for lack of a better word; they broke up soon afterward.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

* Among those confused appear to have been Bowie’s label (or perhaps even the man himself), which listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single.

Top: Junpei Yoshimura, “Tokyo, 1999.”


No One Calls

November 20, 2013

99wallingerecce

Awakened 2.
No One Calls.

Of all the tracks issued under the general ‘Hours’ banner, “No One Calls,” stuffed away on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single, seems the most likely candidate to have emerged from one of Bowie and Brian Eno’s lost Outside sequel sessions. It was as though Bowie assembled the track with the intention of recapturing the dark murmurings of “Wishful Beginnings.”

This could well be true. What’s also true is that Bowie raided the Labyrinth soundtrack for the song: Nicholas Pegg’s argument that “No One Calls” is in part a rewrite of Trevor Jones’s “Thirteen O’Clock” is pretty undeniable (the melodic line of “no-body-calls” is essentially the first synthesizer melody in the Jones piece). And “No One Calls” also appears, in instrumental form, as a piece of incidental music in the Omikron video game, listed in the CD sequencing as “Awakened 2.”

Further, it’s as “plastic” a track as “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” only here the reference book isn’t the glam years or Tin Machine rawk but the tasteful “European” Bowie, the Bowie of Side 2 of Low and “Heroes,” the minimalist of Buddha of Suburbia, with Bowie using a vintage 1980s drum machine, the Roland TR-707, as the track’s chassis.

Not that this is a bad thing: Bowie in austere self-parody mode can still work small wonders. “No One Calls” (an odd title, as Bowie actually sings “nobody calls” throughout) is one of the subtlest and more intriguing pieces to emerge from the ‘Hours’ period. The fragmented lyric, which Bowie sings in his sad Pierrot voice via loose, four- and five-syllable lines (and echoed, per usual, by distorted ghost voices), can be read in a host of ways: as an isolated, depressed person’s internal monologue; as the thoughts of someone facing the repercussions of something horrific they’ve done (why does no one call anymore? why is the singer having to be photographed?). It could even be post-apocalyptic: counting the windows (left unshattered); nobody phones anyone at all (because there are no phones, or people, left).

Built over a twinned eerie repeating keyboard melody, one strain of which seems to have crept out of a Dario Argento horror film, and with a processed Reeves Gabrels guitar, sounding like an Indian esraj, that echoes, then pilfers the top melody (and which soon divides into two competing lines) “No One Calls” seems to be building to a climax but instead loses heart, with Bowie left to repeat his last doleful “not at alls” as the track slowly fades away into synthetic rainfall.

Recorded ca. January-February 1999, London; poss. May 1999, Seaview Studios, with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios. Released 20 September 1999 as a B-side of various “Thursday’s Child” CD singles (Virgin 7243 8 96268 2 7/VSCDT 1753) and offered as a freebie to fans who downloaded the album via Liquid Audio; later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.

Top: Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo, 1999 (displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; another angle here).


1917

November 8, 2013

99london

Thrust (Omikron, 1999).
1917.

Issued as a B-side of “Thursday’s Child,” “1917” (Russian Revolution? Duchamp’s Fountain? the first jazz records?) was an elaboration of “Thrust,” a synth piece Bowie and Reeves Gabrels wrote to score a demon battle in the Omikron game. Reincarnating the string/brass/Mellotron line of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as a synthesizer loop that’s flavored in spots by Gabrels’ guitar, Bowie mumble-sings a guide vocal while being piped through various means of distortion. (He seems to be singing “I’m a man” for much of it: was this whole thing some cracked tribute to Jimmy Page?) Mark Plati’s bass and a keyboard line do most of the harmonic lifting; Gabrels shows up midway through for a boiling tea-kettle impression.

As throwaways go, “1917” has hooks and brevity in its corner, if its punch is sapped by the onion-skin-thick beats that Sterling Campbell’s (or Mike Levesque’s) drums do what they can to bolster. While including it on ‘Hours’ could have helped lessen the record’s world-weariness, “1917” was best suited as the happy obscurity it still is.

Recorded ca. January 1999, London/Paris; April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96266 0 5) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: “Tom,” “Turning Point Starts Here,” London 1999.


Omikron: The Nomad Soul (& BowieBanc & BowieNet)

October 28, 2013

sketch by boz

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (play-through).*
Boz’s Speech (Bowie, from Omikron).
Jahangir.
Awakened 2.
Thrust.
“Demon Fight Music.”

He practiced statuesque positions and gave the impression of being a superhuman character by speaking very little and never eating in public.

Edward Burman, on Rashid ad-din Sinan.

Back in the Crusades, Sinan knew the game. As did Greta Garbo, who played it for high stakes. So did David Bowie in 1972. The point of the game, regardless the board on which it was played, was for the idol to escape from life, with its shrieky children, gas bills and installment plans. There should be a pane of thick, darkened glass between idol and audience. To be accessible was to lose. The man who sits in a cafe all day, mumbling as he reads the papers: he’s accessible. A taxi driver is accessible. A star shouldn’t even be seen eating. So Bowie, once a shy hippie hanging around Beckenham folk clubs, became Ziggy Stardust. He moved on, through various avatars of fame, each unknowable in its own way.

He’d chafe under his reputation sometimes, rubbish it, say that he was just an ordinary guy. Make a big deal of walking to a corner store and buying bread. And at the turn of the century, Bowie made himself more ordinary than ever before, as if he was following a weight-loss regimen for the mystique.

On his website he posted journal entries (once musing how, in another life, he could be walking his grandchildren around Bromley by now), and offered low-resolution files of his paintings. He took part in chat rooms, allegedly under the handle “sailor.” He submitted to Internet Q&A sessions with fans. Here are some questions from one from September 1998: Do you shop at Wal-Mart? Is it possible for you to market some of your better paintings in poster versions for like much cheeper (sic)? SqueakieTampaxTwin: Bowie when you were filming Exhuming Mr. Rice in Vancouver, did you ever stop by Subeez Cafe??

$T2eC16Z,!ygE9s7HJ-StBRZJ3K1)8!~~60_57

It was as if, while Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, Bowie was bracing for the 21st Century, the demand for everyone to “share” accessible versions of themselves. The self as a business card, to be distributed to anyone who asked for it. He also saw opportunity: on 1 September 1998, he launched BowieNet.

Recall what the typical rock star’s webpage looked like in 1998, if it wasn’t just an empty cupboard of a site thrown up to claim “rodstewart.com” during the internet boom. Maybe a tinny-sounding track would blare via RealPlayer when you loaded the page, which might crash your computer. Maybe there was a link to a page of pixelated concert photos. The text seemed plagiarized from fan sites. It was updated once an equinox.

Bowie’s site was fresh, fluid, offered legitimate exclusives: downloadable material, in particular Earthling tour recordings; his journals; his recommendations for books and films. He seemed intent on hosting an actual community. In 1999, he held a fan songwriting contest (see the upcoming “What’s Really Happening?”); he had fans pick their favorite mixes for Bowie At the Beeb and choose the cover of his All Saints compilation. “I do think it’s fair to say that music sites like Pitchfork exist—or at least the cool music blog model exists—because of BowieNet,” Wired editor Nancy Miller told Marc Spitz. “The idea of a singular, serious, legit indie music site with great influence, where you can get music news, videos, downloads of genuinely cool music?…Bowie was coming up with ideas to save the music industry [in 1998].

And he actually seemed to make a little money, rather a novelty for websites. Unlike the New York Times or Sports Illustrated or countless newspapers now shuttered or decimated, Bowie charged his readers from the start: $20 a month ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, BowieNet was being valued at $500 million. (Bowie was more blunt about how much he really was earning: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies.“)

Bowienet

Everybody has a voice

Greeting on BowieNet, late 1990s.

I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society—both good and bad—is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.

Bowie, Newsnight interview, December 1999.

In one of his BowieNet chats, Bowie was reminded by a fan about “Saviour Machine,” his mainframe-turned-killer-god song from 1970. “This machine did such a good job that, to create something for it to do, it had to make things bad again,” he recalled to Time Out. “I think, without knowing it, the Internet was something I was always desperate to get involved with.”

He began to veer between evangelism for the Internet and a cold-eyed realization that it would eviscerate the pop music industry (he also took the Y2K scare seriously).** “Once everyone can sample what they want at home on a cheap computer, the medium suddenly becomes the message,” he said in 2000. “And the message seems to be ‘This is lifestyle music, not attitude music.’ I think we will probably buy our music in the same way as we buy our clothes now; it’s no longer the replacement to church.”

Was this over-egging it? The young Mod Bowie had considered his music to be on a par with his clothes, and he and Marc Bolan had been the ones who rubbished the idea of rock music as church, which was something for the redbrick academics and tiresome hippie older brothers. Glam itself had been fabulous lifestyle music. The Internet could be a sequel, even more transformative.

Yet in the boom years of the century’s end, Bowie also recognized how much of a hustle one’s professional life would have to become. Constantly refreshing your site, constantly tending to your users, watching hit rates tick upward and downward. Users “are looking for things that represent their own interests, similar minds,” he told Uncut in 1999. “And so I became the first autonomous individual!”

LiveAndWell-US-CD

By early 2000, the Financial Times noticed that Bowie was branching into realms “unrelated to [what you] might call his core competencies.”

He had started the David Bowie Radio Network for Rolling Stone‘s website. And to run BowieNet, he had co-formed Ultrastar, an internet service provider that ran the websites of the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees (“we create little generic ISPs for different companies and universities and colleges,” he said. “It’s actually quite a major company now.“)

One of his business partners, Robert Goodale, not-quite-jokingly said that a Bowie Trading Desk could be in the future. Things didn’t go that far, but there was BowieBanc.

bowiebanc

When suggested the cobranding arrangement, Bowie immediately seized the marketing potential. “People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’” says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.

J. Alex Tarquinio, “Banking on Bowie’s Brand,” Forbes, 4 March 2000.

When I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep.

Bowie, 1998.

One of the hooks of BowieNet was that subscribers had their own personal Bowie email address. You could impress your friends by sending Clinton/Lewinsky jokes via “jojo@bowie.net.” So BowieBanc was the next step of fan identification. Starting in January 2000, BowieBanc offered an Internet-only bank account whose holders would receive Bowie brand ATM cards. One of the promos for opening a BowieBanc account was a year’s subscription to BowieNet.

His financial advisor Bill Zysblat told the FT: What [Bowie] is doing is taking his fan base, which 20 years ago had an affinity for wearing a T-shirt of his, and maybe 10 years ago graduated to wearing a golf shirt of his, and in the last three or four years has developed to being part of his online service, and trying to create that same affinity with what he is doing with online banking.”

Running this venture was USABancShares.com. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company, as it’s such a ridiculous metaphor for modern America you’d expect to find it in a Tom Wolfe novel. In 1887, a group of Quakers started the Peoples’ Thrift Savings Bank, an institution that thriftily endured for over a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized names were hip for banks), bought some other local banks, took it public, renamed it again to USABancShares, increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. He launched an on-line bank division in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture.

Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital and got paid for the use of his name and image. He was possibly the only person who came out unscathed from the venture, which only had 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. The company spent $6 million in marketing and lost $4 million in a year. Tepper soon left; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share. “The expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper said. A customer reportedly also had committed fraud, allegedly leaving the bank with a $3 million debt. By March 2001, an ailing USABancShares was under the heel of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. It was sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, who took it private and returned to community banking. The whole affair seemed like a quiet Philadelphia bank’s mid-life crisis.

Sure, BowieBanc is a footnote in Bowie’s life, but it’s a jarring one. What was he doing having his face put on ATM cards? Imagine Greta Garbo letting her face appear on a box of breakfast cereal. It seemed the mad culmination of all of these whirligig ambitions: the need to be seemingly everywhere for his fans, to be accessible and down-to-earth, yet also having to exploit one’s legend enough that some fan would actually open a bank account to get Bowie’s face emblazoned on a checkbook.

dbomikron

When you arrive in Qualisar go up the ramp in front of you. Look for a sign that says Harvey’s Bar and enter it. Inside, first find the bathroom there is 10 Seteks in the first stall. Now go to the stage and enjoy the show. If you’re wondering why that guy sounds like David Bowie it is because he is. When the band is done go to the next building which is the Sex Shop.

Cody Pitre, Omikron Walkthrough Strategy Guide.

You’re not the first video game player to get your soul trapped in this dimension.

“Boz” (Bowie).

There was another Bowie computer-based venture in the late Nineties that was a stranger, and subtler take on this confusion. Omikron: the Nomad Soul was a game designed and developed by Quantic Dream and Eidos Interactive. The premise mingled Tron (gamers sucked into a videogame, where they have to fight for their lives) and Blade Runner, the Final Fantasy franchise (gamers could go “off narrative,” walk around virtual cities and hang out in bars) and Buddhism. The latter was a hook for Bowie. One of the premises of Omikron was that your “nomad soul” could transfer from body to body in the course of the game, using reincarnation as a means of advancement.

Further, Bowie had himself appear in the game, as “Boz,” leader of The Awakened (there was a futurist-Gnosticism going on in Omikron, similar to The Matrix, released the same year). “I saw Boz as being a kind of digital patchwork quilt, made up of all sorts of shifting patterns, fleeting thoughts, and fractured memories—someone who would slip in and out of focus, one moment drifting and world-weary, the next absolutely concise and direct,” Bowie said in an interview.

While back in reality he was listing his favorite coffees on his website, running baseball team ISPs and conferencing with bankers, in the game he was 25 again, hiding in catacombs and playing in dive bars, running a musical resistance unit. Sometimes he envisioned his ISP business to be the same. In interviews, he compared BowieNet and Ultrastar to “smaller cartels,” a sort of Rebel Alliance against the Empire (he liked to mentioned Bill Gates as an example of the latter).

tracklisting

Composing much of the Omikron soundtrack (Xavier Despas wrote about half of the instrumentals, Gabrels and Bowie the remainder) would be one impetus for “hours,” as we’ll see. There are in-game performances of “New Angels of Promise,” “Survive” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” while mixes of many other “hours” tracks and outtakes can be heard over laser gunfights and demonic wrestling matches.

Four Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals were allegedly made specifically for the game, listed (on a French bootleg) as “Awaken 2,” “Thrust,” “Jangir” (though the region in the game was called “Jahangir”) and “Qualisar.” However, as some commenters on the Illustrated DB board noted, most of these instrumentals were actually early/different versions of “hours” B-sides. “Awakened 2,” for instance, is an instrumental version of “No One Calls,” while “Thrust,” heard during a rooftop battle with a demon, would become “1917.” There may be a few lost Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals buried in Omikron. A piece that I cleverly labeled “Demon Fight Music,” a grunting loop of what sounds like Bowie’s voice and Gabrels’ guitar heard during a battle scene, could be one [nope: turns out it’s a Gabrels-only composition, see comments.]

omi

<David\bBowie> But I will be back sooner than I was
last time. I’m not sure that makes any sense.
What have you done to me?!
<David\bBowie> Good night Earthlings!
<hj>Beautiful! That’s it kids
<RaMOANa>WE love ya – bye bye luv
<hj>Bowie has left the building!
<Electric\bWarrior> nite all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
*** Electric\bWarrior (ronroy@DPA) has left
#ChatGuest
End of #ChatGuest buffer Tue Apr 27 23:30:20 1999

Reeves Gabrels, interviewed by David Buckley for a Bowie biography, was blunt about what he thought of internet branding ventures. “Your legacy, your story is what gets remembered.” Recalling his reputation as Tin Machine’s “art snob,” he happily owned it. “It did point out an aspect of my respect for what I do. I personally don’t believe that using your music to sell products is cool. It devalues the art…it devalues its meaning and emotional content.” He and Bowie soon parted company.

Around 2004, coinciding with Bowie’s sudden retirement, BowieNet slowly began to stagnate. There would be fewer updates; the exclusives dried up. Generations of internet cycles passed it by: it slumbered through the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. In 2006, Bowie’s ISP business quietly shut down. Finally in March 2012, the Bowie Facebook page confirmed what had been obvious for five years: BowieNet was dead.

dbcom

On his birthday this year, without warning, Bowie offered a new song. He put it up on YouTube and let people buy it on iTunes.

So he was back in the game, working the Internet hype cycle like a pro, but he wasn’t the glad-handing figure of the dot-com years. He gave no interviews. He wasn’t chatting, he wasn’t taking part in Q&As. His revived website is clean, functional, and updated regularly, and makes no pretense that it’s any sort of interactive realm between Bowie and his fans. Now he just makes videos and songs and puts them up on the Web with little notice or explanation. He’s back behind the glass: happy to be there, hope you’re happy too.

Many of the Omikron instrumentals were recorded ca. January 1999, in various studios in London and Paris (some may have been cut in Bermuda in late 1998). Omikron was released on 1 November 1999. Its soundtrack was never released as a stand-alone recording apart from a French “official” bootleg.

* This is part 1 (labeled as 2) of a multi-part walk-through of the entire game. Usually the next part will appear in the top-right corner of the screen should you like to keep going. There’s also a sped-up walkthrough on YT. Or you could make a rational choice and just not watch any of it.

** Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, Bowie predicted MP3s would replace albums and music would be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he imagined that record stores would somehow remain central. He thought you would go to a record store in 2013 to have a clerk download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player.


Requiem For a Laughing Gnome

October 14, 2013

drj

Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.

لسلام عليكم. Of the four movements of “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” (DRJ 405u), only the first is extant in performance, although incomplete. The performance fragment exists in poor quality from an analog vid-aud broadcast (see “television”) of what 20-21C cultural theoreticians have posited to be a public debasement video for “celebrities” who had fallen out of favor with the state. The composition for recorder, voice and footfall starts intriguingly, but unfortunately the development section is curtailed when the vid-aud is cut off.

The second movement exists in fragmented manuscript form, a piece of letterstock retrieved during the first excavation of the British Museum after Continental Flood 2. It was part of a collection of manuscripts badly deteriorated by water and soil. A minority of 20-21C CTs claim this is not DRJ 405u at all but a receipt for some sort of financial transaction (see “money”) entailing an exchange for food; a prevailing majority argue that the arrangement of numbers and key-symbols correlate with B’Wie’s music of the first movement, suggesting that the 2nd movement began as a rhythmic variation of the initial melody.

Of the third movement, nothing is known. During one re-ignition operation of the World Web, conducted in New Mombasa (AGC2 34), a fragment from a “message board” was retrieved, its author making what may have been a reference to the movement: “Gnostic.” This is very speculative.

The last movement is also unknown but according to folk legends compiled in the century after the Second Global Calamity, it was a favorite melody of King George 7 in his exile.

First movement fragment recorded during “Comic Relief” 24 Zulqada 1419 (12 March 1999 Georgian) (56 BGC1).

Top: B’Wie, photostill before sainthood ca. 56 BGC1.


Without You I’m Nothing

October 11, 2013

insert01

Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and David Bowie, single).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, “live” video).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, UNKLE remix).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, Flexirol Mix.)

Having played live with Placebo on “20th Century Boy,” Bowie now wanted to cut something with them in the studio. Yet as the band had just put out their second album and with Bowie consumed by his own growing heap of new projects, there was no time to work on a fresh track.

The original plan had been to do a studio take of “20th Century Boy.” Then, perhaps recognizing how superfluous this recording would have been (and with Tony Visconti mixing the BRIT Award performance of “20th Century Boy” for possible use anyhow), Bowie said he wanted to sing harmony vocals on a remix of “Without You I’m Nothing,” the title track of Placebo’s new record. Brian Molko, on vacation when he heard this change of plans, rolled with it. “When [Bowie] calls up and asks to sing on something, you don’t say no.”

Molko later admitted there had been “too many slow songs for a second album,” and there were few slower than the title track, a brooding obsessional whose title the band had taken from a Sandra Bernhard film and which was also meant “as a message to each other. And it’s a message to our fans—-which is that old Judy Garland thing,” Molko later said.

Bowie’s vocal begins as a lower harmony to Molko’s lead, holding back his strength until the chorus, when he swoops over Molko. Bowie gave a gravity to the song, but it had too much gravity already; he wound up being an intriguing color in a washed-out landscape. The liveliest version of the track was the eight-minute Flexirol Mix, which isolates Bowie’ s most dramatic vocal spots and uses them as sound effects.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) 28 March 1999, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 16 August 1999 as FLOORCD 10. The video used footage of Bowie and Placebo’s live performance of “Nothing” during an encore on 29 March 1999 at Irving Plaza, NYC.

Top: Placebo, a cheery Bowie, a pensive Visconti pose for insert of CD single (Frank Ockenfeld).


20th Century Boy

October 8, 2013

bedlam

20th Century Boy (T. Rex, 1973).
20th Century Boy (Placebo, Velvet Goldmine, 1998).
20th Century Boy (Placebo and Bowie, BRIT Awards, 1999).

Placebo formed in 1994 when Brian Molko, waiting for a train at the South Kensington tube station, spied Stefan Olsdal, who’d gone to school with him at the American International School of Luxembourg (Molko was Scottish and American, Olsdal a Swede). Noting that Olsdal was carrying a guitar, Molko called him over to invite him to a gig. Soon enough the two had formed their own band, Olsdal shifting to bass.

Two years later, Placebo had cut their first album and were opening for Bowie on some of the later Outside tour dates. He’d been the band’s advocate since he’d heard their demo, touting them in the press, even having them as the opening act of his 50th birthday concert in 1997. For Bowie, Placebo offered a third way for British rock in the late Nineties, avoiding both the laddishness of Oasis and the growing hermeticism of Radiohead. Placebo were eye-liner-sporting Goth scamps who favored bizarre guitar tunings that suggested they’d been holed up with Silkworm and Slint records. Visually, they were a Mutt & Jeff double act: Molko was small, nasally and pushy; Olsdal was built like a totem pole yet carried himself with elegance. (They went through a few drummers.) Placebo got a few pop hits but kept up a vaguely disreputable image; Bowie’s love for them seemed genuine.

A collaboration between Bowie and Placebo seemed inevitable, and it was. First came a joint performance at the 1999 BRIT Awards of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” which Placebo had covered for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (Molko said his work on the film was something he and Bowie “agreed never to talk about”).

“20th Century Boy” had been Marc Bolan’s last great pop moment, the end of a run of singles that had kicked off with “Hot Love” in 1971. Essentially the Bolan formula distilled to its basic elements—a guitar hook so overwhelming that the song barely needs a chorus, a lyric of precisely nonsensical boasts and come-ons, garnished by wailing harmony vocals—“20th Century Boy” had become something like “Louie Louie” for Nineties British bands: a song you could play in your sleep, one you could pull out at a gig whenever you were losing the room.

The Bowie/Placebo cover is a bit shambling (“We weren’t too bad, we were in key at least,” Molko told Melody Maker. “But we could never really get the lyrics right. We were doing ’20th Century Boy’. We had a fucking laugh.”) Molko was being diplomatic: he was letter-perfect, where Bowie cheerfully bungled his way through one of his verses. It’s in part due to the imbalanced sound mix, but Molko’s the dominant figure in this performance. Bowie, playing his Tin Machine-era “headless” Steinberger, seems happy to be on stage as his guest.

Broadcast 16 February 1999, at the London Docklands Arena. Bowie and Placebo performed the song again a month later at a New York gig. Tony Visconti mixed the BRIT Awards performance for possible use as the B-side of…

Top: Lou O’Bedlam, “Amanda and the Wall ’98.”