“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).
In the Eighties, the cartoonist Ray Lowry drew a strip called Note Oilskin Base, for which he often repurposed old newspaper ads and comics. In the first panel of a strip that ran in the 19 May 1984 issue of the NME, two women sit in a soda shop, looking with mild surprise at a figure who stands outside the window, a man in a trench coat and fedora. He looks like a premonition of Dave Gibbons’ Rorschach. “It’s that shabby old man with the tin whistle!,” the woman seated right says to her friend. Lowry drew a new speech balloon to let the shabby man yell: “I yam an Anti-Christ!”*
This was Lowry’s Monty Smith, “has-been, would-be pop savior,” a grubby old man on the margins of pop music, an irritant and a relic, someone reduced to ranting outside a tea room and inspiring little more than incredulity that he was still kicking around. In 1997, some considered David Bowie, now half a century old, to be something like the same.
In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?”
So yes, see the wonky, manky, shabby old man jabbering on stage, wearing his professionally-shredded Union Jacket, his hair dyed copper. His latest single rips off the Prodigy. Its video has him crawling around, looking like a cathedral gnome given malevolent life. It’s bass drops, synthetic clatter, sampled guitars. Tits and explosions, he crows. Half of his band look like step-dads. His bass player looks like a hired assassin.
His description of me was ‘coming on like someone’s nasty dad.’ And I thought, “that’s great. I really like that.”…I seem to be going into a kind of demented persona now on stage. I guess it’s ’cause I can’t sell youth. ‘Cause I’m not a youth. So I’m selling whatever it is I am as a persona, which tends to be this kind of ironically enthusiastic old guy who’s still into this crazed sound.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. If you were a rocker in your fifties, you needed to exploit dignity, the only resource left in abundance for the aging. You should become a curator of yourself. Talk about the old days but don’t take them seriously. Wear a well-cut suit, preface the old songs with wry introductions on stage: “this next one is called “Oh, You Pretty Things” (applause) and it’s about the rise of the homo superior. Remember the homo superior? (chuckles, applause) Ah you do, you do. Yes, well, it’s easy to imagine you are one of ’em when you’re able to get out of bed without groaning! (sympathetic laughs)”.
He would get there soon enough. But “Little Wonder” was the last time Bowie went for it: his last go at speaking rock’s current dialect, to get on MTV and make the cover of Spin and play summer festivals where kids take E and get drunk, rather than the ones where people bring their kids. Its meaty B major chorus, with its slamming guitars, echoed multi-tracked vocals and soaring synth lines, sounds like Bowie throwing down a gauntlet to U2 (themselves busy in 1997 trying to stay afloat), if not the Britpop bands: the “Helter Skelter”-esque backing vocals in the chorus are a nose-thumb at the likes of Noel Gallagher.
Yet as usual, he couldn’t just grab for the ring; he had to go about it sideways. So to get to the big chorus, the listener first has to make it through nearly two minutes of tortured guitars, drum ‘n’ bass loops, two skittering verses and a break filled with stomping feet, train whistles and other sonic bric-à-brac. And the melancholy of the verses never gets dispelled: the stadium-ready choruses are infected with it, they soon start to blanch and wither.
Because “Little Wonder,” despite its Prodigy stylings and its epileptic Floria Sigismondi video, is at heart a sad older man’s song: it’s a man freighted with the past, trapped in a vein of youth music. Bowie’s glum vocal in the verses is confined to a single octave, never venturing above a middle B (on the slight strain of “you little wonder”), often keeping to a three-note span until he sinks low to close his phrases (“grumpy gnomes,” “bashful but nude“). The song’s visual counterpart, the jittery “grumpy gnome” that Bowie plays in its video, is a distraction; a better analogue is his blank-faced, sour Pierrot of the “Be My Wife” film.
It’s as if “Little Wonder” is sung by an alternate Bowie, the Bowie whose “Love You Till Tuesday” was a #1 UK hit in 1967. The Bowie who was a British institution, who never translated well overseas (though the Dutch loved him). Some movie work, some stage revues, a TV special or two, a hit single every half a decade: a disco spoof; a soppy rendition of “Nobody’s Child” in the late Thatcher years. A grubby pantomime counterpart to Cliff Richard; an actor routinely rumored, and never chosen, to play the lead in Doctor Who.
In this scenario, “Little Wonder” is just the latest rumble of contemporary pop sounds by Britain’s national holiday-camp director. “Let’s have the Laughing Gnome go to a rave!” Bowie says in the studio. So they import some drum ‘n’ bass loops, rent a guitarist with an effects pedal rack and off he goes, mumbling and winking through his lyric in his trademark Mockney: “Sit on my karma, lurve! Dayme meditation! Tayke me away!” It’s the sound of a man happy being ridiculous, a man so sewn through with the past that the present seems surreal, and he takes it as such.
“Little Wonder,” like much of Earthling, is Bowie and Reeves Gabrels papering over the gap between (aspirational) jungle and hard rock. The alleged jungle is in the verses, which are built on a repeating four-chord progression (E-C#minor-A-C)** established by a dry-sounding keyboard while drum ‘n’ bass loops clatter overhead in the mix. Where jungle was built on tension and contrast–double-time loops crashing against half-time bass drops, the sudden flanging of a drum line, a stereo-panned counter-rhythm that scurries in and out—it’s used here as ornamentation, or worse, as a timestamp, in the way that TV channels have a permanent logo in the bottom-right corner of the screen.
While the instrumental breaks get you in shape for the choruses and the transition to B major, they were dwarfs of Bowie’s original ambitions. “Little Wonder” was meant to be a nine-minute “jungle epic,” Mark Plati said, with the second break in particular crafted to explode into a spray of sound effects, samples, atmospheres (One tiny piece of the original sound-scrap left in the mix is a snippet of the drunken roadie Jerome Aniton, introducing Steely Dan to Santa Monica in 1974 before a live recording of the Dan’s “Bodhisattva”).*** Instead the “big break” winds up being fairly pedestrian stuff—bass yawns, an X-Files-esque rising synthesizer line—and much of its excision in the single edit isn’t a loss.
It’s part of what makes “Little Wonder” so frustrating: intended to be loud, remorseless, irritating, it wound up being charming, odd, minor.
My playing on this record is like making head cheese.
Reeves Gabrels, 1997.
The first thing you hear is a three-note Gabrels guitar riff that sounds like a roar, a muffled scream and a dog whistle. Gabrels sat down with the assistant engineer to make a half-hour DAT of “guitar stuff I like to do, things like the whammy aspect of the [Roland] VG-8,” he told Guitar Player. “I figured if we were going to use samples, we might as well make our own.” So the first note is Gabrels playing his E string with an envelope filter and distortion via the VG-8, the second note is the same tone but shifted two octaves up and set aflutter with a whammy bar, the third is a exosphere-high E played on the 24th fret of his Parker and kicked another octave up via the Fernandes Sustainer.
The rest of the track was built in a similar grab-bag fashion: stolen sounds, distorted instruments, studio verite footage. Much of the bass track, for instance, was Gail Ann Dorsey caught unawares, trying to get a sound from her pedalboard without knowing she was being recorded. “We constructed the track by grabbing bits of her bass line,” Gabrels said. (That said, Dorsey gets the most striking moment of the track: her sharply whispered “little wonder you” break).
The vocal came together along the same lines: what you’re hearing for the most part is just Bowie’s guide vocal. His lyric began as an exercise: to use all of the names of the Seven Dwarfs in the verses (he did: find them all—it’s like a word search in a pop lyric). Bowie soon ran out of names, at one point adding “Stinky” and “Scummy” to the mix. Having some sort of guidance apart from the random edicts of the word-generating Verbasizer program gave Bowie’s lines some melodic life: he takes care with his vowel sounds, plays off consonances and alliteration, and even the weak pun of the title line works thanks to the neat precision of his singing.
Bowie got to #14 in the UK with the single, topped the Japanese charts with it, got some minor airplay on US alternative stations. Its video, with Bowie playing the familiar of a reincarnated Ziggy Stardust, aired often enough to be remembered, living on glam nostalgia: it turned out to be a preview trailer for 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. And “Little Wonder”/Earthling became the last image of Bowie to make an impression on the public imagination. For a time, this copper-haired grubby rave granddad version of Bowie came to mind when you thought: What’s Bowie doing these days? It was his last notable pop disguise.
He would keep at it for the rest of the Nineties, trying his hand at any new toy sent his way: the Internet, the booming stock market, more jungle and dance collaborations. By the close of the century, he stopped kicking and let himself get tugged back to the past. It was inevitable; it was sad all the same. Bowie had once seemed predicated on change, on an allegiance to the future. “Little Wonder,” a catchy but fraying single, was an indication that he couldn’t take as much nourishment from change anymore. He would become a curator despite his best intentions.
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Played live a few times in autumn 1996, and issued as Earthling‘s lead-off single on 27 January 1997 (Arista 74321 452072, UK #14). There were the usual gang of mixes, mainly by Junior Vasquez, who did the Ambient, 4/4 and Club Dub. Danny Saber’s mix, which featured a cello played by David Coleman, appeared on the soundtrack to the Val Kilmer edition of The Saint.
* The panel is reprinted on the first page of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.
*** The E major verse progression is a steady tromp back home (I-vi-IV) that’s intercepted at the end by the C major chord, borrowed from the parallel minor (so I-vi-IV-VI then back to I). While the whole song could be in E, the dominance of B major in the choruses (the fact that the song never feels like it’s yearning to resolve back to E, but is happy to stay hunkered down on B) argues for a modulation of sorts. Insights (as usual): Dave Depper.
** Originally issued as the B-side of “Hey Nineteen” in 1980 and later included on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set.
Many music celebrities simply chose to leave Britain, and it wasn’t all about tax; American was the main global market for music and, after all, the country where rock ‘n’ roll began. I had considered moving to America myself, but I didn’t want to leave home. Everything I am and have done for myself, all my artistic work, was rooted in the British way of life, the two world wars and the hidden damage they had done to four generations. I knew I’d never leave Britain. My roots were too deep.
Pete Townshend, Who I Am, 2012.
Taking an ocean liner to America in the spring of 1974, leaving as a soiled goodbye note Diamond Dogs, Bowie never came back to Britain. Sure, he’d get the occasional flat or lodge in a London hotel for some project or other, but he rarely recorded in Britain again* and when his tours played the UK, they were revivals, a traveler stopping by a town he’d grown up in, showing relations (estranged or worshipful) what he’d found out in the world, eager to get moving again.
If Townshend felt he needed Britain, that his work would wither if he was away from it, Bowie had been itching to leave by the mid-Seventies. It was as if he’d spent himself out of his home. Out he went: Los Angeles, Berlin, Java. He had a pleasure dome in Mustique. Most of all, he spent a long, comfortable isolation in Switzerland. Once he’d been among the most deliberately “British” of British pop singers, taking cues from Anthony Newley and Ivor Cutler and Peter Cook. His records up to Diamond Dogs are a world in which the United States is only a rumor, a radio broadcast or an LP test pressing. His records after it are a British exile’s.
He never downplayed his heritage in his music: take the Mockney accent that would turn up seemingly on every record, like a photo watermark. Even while filming in Australia or Polynesia he came across more as a genteel Englishman in the tropics than any stateless world traveler. Yet statelessness, the sense of being an artistic embodiment of global capital, was his apparent aim in the Eighties: if not wished for, achieved anyhow.
Then he had a homeward arc in the Nineties, starting with an impromptu bus tour of Brixton one night in 1991 with Tin Machine and ending with him sporting a fashionably-shredded Union Jack frock coat on the cover of Earthling (echoing Townshend, predicting Geri Halliwell), where he stood, back to camera and hands clasped, like an alien surveyor assessing the fields of Kent. The center of it was Buddha of Suburbia, a project that had sent him back to his past, making him become, for a moment, the aging Beckenham hippie he could have been. He seemed in love with his home country again. At least he told reporters this.
“There’s so much energy there. It’s as if we’ve finally understood that we don’t have the rest of the Commonwealth, or the world, to support and comfort us, that we have to do things on our own now to prove who we are,” he said to Andy Gill. Britain has “the greatest architects in the world…In the fashion world, we’re taking over; in the art scene, there’s nobody to touch us and the best music is coming out of Britain now. In every aspect of world culture we are leaders. Quite rightly! The whole thing will all fall down in a year or two when we realize that, once again, we have no idea how to market it, and all our original ideas will run off to Italy and America, and we’ll get all whiney about it.”
This effusion reads like ad copy for “Cool Britannia”: Swinging London redux, with Britpop and Damien Hirst, culminating in an election in which Tony Blair played a slimmed-down (in various senses) Harold Wilson. It’s not surprising that Bowie wanted to align himself with what he considered a renaissance in the UK. Being a tax exile in Switzerland was a bit played out by 1996.
But despite Bowie’s belief that British pop music was on an upswing, his connection to it seemed more tenuous than ever. He talked up Tricky, A Guy Called Gerald, Prodigy, but his own works seemed tributes to their sound at best, never rivals or viable contemporaries. And Cool Britannia was a world of A-list Sixties revivals: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, not oddballs like Bowie who’d come along in their wake. By 1996, the young musicians who’d been most inspired by him (Suede and the Auteurs come to mind) were being obscured in the music press by the likes of the Gallagher brothers, who seemed to hail from a Britain in which David Bowie had barely existed. Bowie’s 50th birthday was even an occasion for fresh scorn.
[“Battle for Britain”] is another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of “Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back.
“Battle for Britain” is a letter from a man in exile, intended for no one in particular, as though its author had dropped it, addressed to ENGLAND, in an airport mailbox somewhere. My my, the time do fly, he begins, when it’s in another pair of hands. (In the second verse, he puns on “fly,” tweaking the last phrase to “pair of pants“; Gail Ann Dorsey responds with a slow, descending bassline as if she’s elegantly backing away from him.) He’s back home again, scuffing around the old neighborhood. He pops pills to manage his imaginary ailments, he’s broke and shabby. He doesn’t regret leaving. Better a beggarman on the shelf than be in a two-up, two-down here, he sniffs.
He recalls an old song from when he was young here. First heard it on the Carouselrecord every mother in his street seemed to have, then sung by Gerry Marsden (and a Bromley kid onstage at the Marquee Club). When you walk through a storm…don’t be afraid of the dark… Now with a sneering guitar goading him, he curdles the memory. Don’t be so forlorn..it’s just the payoff…it’s the RAIN before the STORM! In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Marsden promised a golden sky after the rain; the expat here just promises more rain. It is England, after all.
Yet just when the song is teetering into spite, the last bars of the pre-chorus shift to a bright A major, pivoting to a refrain where the old man makes amends. Don’t you let my letter get you down, he sings, sounding remorseful over a resounding C major progression that’s guided by steady waves of Reeves Gabrels’ guitar. No one cares that he’s back; no one seems to remember he was gone. By the second verse, he’s boring himself, cutting off a line with a weary la-di-dah.
In all its seeming unfairness, what Britain is very good at is keeping people re-evaluating their own standards in a hostile and quite cruel fashion.
Like “Looking For Satellites,” “Britain” began as one of producer Mark Plati’s experiments. Here Plati was trying to create “a jazz-tinged jungle track,” as he told David Buckley, which eventually entailed Zach Alford playing “live” in half time against programmed double-time jungle figures. It’s Alford’s best performance on the record: take how he pushes his way into the track with a staggered artillery barrage, starting out with hissing ride cymbals, thundering a few tom fills, and finally settling on the snare pattern that becomes the track’s jumpy heartbeat.
Bowie heard a rough version of the rhythm track and soon scrapped Plati’s original chord sequence in favor of a constellation of B major (verses), G major (pre-chorus) and C major (refrain) progressions.** Plati was elated: “I felt this could be our first real ‘Bowie’ song,” he said, a sign that the sessions were creating an album rather than being a few odd jungle experiments. Bowie improvised a lyric from his Verbasizer, cut his vocal with the usual dispatch. For a finishing touch, Plati added a “Benefit of Mr. Kite”-inspired carousel of sound culled from his collection of studio scraps, capped off by a skipping Bowie vocal (at 3:33) seemingly intended to make a listener wonder if the CD’s scratched.
For the solo, Bowie gave a typically impossible brief to Mike Garson: play a piano solo like Stravinsky’s wind octet (unfamiliar with the piece, Garson had to walk up Broadway to Tower Records to buy the CD). Garson complied: thin-sounding atonal chords with a brass feel, spiky runs across the treble end of the keyboard, spidery traces of melody. The fresh element here is Alford, who starts challenging Garson halfway through, somehow slipping in snare fills between Garson’s notes, unsettling Garson’s runs with a rolling tom fill and finally bludgeoning the solo to a close.
“Battle for Britain” is a tight, sparkling group performance of a solitary exile’s song; it’s the community the singer has to replace what he’s long abandoned. Bowie’s return to Britain didn’t take. It was like an attempted reconciliation of a long-dead marriage: some lofty sentiments, some earnest attempts to reconnect. But too much time had flown by, in other pairs of hands (or pants). Instead, he chose the city where he recorded his last letter home. By the start of the century, Bowie was a New Yorker and has lived there, for the most part, ever since.
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Debuted at the 50th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden, January 1997, and played in the Earthling and Reality tours.
* The only instances that come to mind are his remakes of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit” at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, summer/fall 1979, and the “Absolute Beginners”-era soundtrack material in the mid-Eighties, at Abbey Road.
** Most of the sequences use a flatted VII chord for a feint before moving back to the tonic—take the verse, which is I-V-VIIb (“(B) and a loser I will be, for I’ve (F#) never been a winner in my (A) life…”) or the I-V-VIIb-IV chorus ((C)”don’t you let my letter get you (G) down (Bb) (F) don’t you…”)
He idly considered writing an ode to his former co-star Susan Sarandon, using as a kick-off point the title of her most recent film. But upon seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse play one night,* Bowie found “Dead Man Walking” better suited someone who’d become the California redwood of rock musicians.
He’d discovered Young during his “oddball folkie” period of high influence, ca. 1970-1971, when other favorites on the Haddon Hall turntable were Biff Rose and Ron Davies. And it was Young’s After the Gold Rush Bowie was listening to when he learned his son Duncan was born. “Kooks,” the song he wrote in commemoration, was also a tribute to Young, both lyrically (“we believe in you“) and instrumentally (Trevor Bolder’s trumpet solo on the track is a close cousin to the one on Young’s “Till the Morning Comes.”)
Like Bowie, Young’s finest work came in the Seventies; unlike Bowie, his Eighties were commercially barren, his records seemed willfully obscure. In his crooked way, Young was doing what Bowie had tried with his “Berlin” records—to erase a persona that he felt trapped in. While in the Seventies he’d slaved to be contrarian, driving “into the ditch” after a time in the middle of the road, Young still mainly played two alternating roles: heavy rocker and somber folkie. So in the Eighties he rubbished the idea of “Neil Young.” He made a synthesizer album, a country record, a blues-bar album and a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll tribute LP that led his label’s head David Geffen to sue him for making “unrepresentative” albums.
Around the turn of the Nineties, Young seemed to settle on being “himself” again and soon was anointed the only Baby Boomer musician who wasn’t a joke. He was slower, craggier, he looked like someone’s hippie dad, stumping around on stage. But he became immaculately hip, recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Sonic Youth; he seemed more of the time than his counterparts a generation younger.
What Bowie seemed hell-bent on being in the Nineties—a 50-year-old rocker who was still in the bloodstream of current music—Young simply was. And he did this not by playing drum ‘n’ bass or Pixies riffs, but the same old first-gear/second-gear grind, feedback-bloodied, juddering, two-guitars-bass-drums music that he’d played in the Sixties. He had stood still and the world had revolved back around to him.
Bowie was taken by the idea of Young as some kind of shaman figure for audiences half his age. Watching Young and his old bandmates in Crazy Horse channel music seemingly through their bodies, he thought “there was a sense of grace and dignity about what they were doing, and also an incredible verve and energy. It was very moving, watching them work under the moon,” he said.
In another interview, he expanded on what he’d seen that night. During a long instrumental section of a song, “they began to dance, turning around, like in a tribal circle, very slowly. And it seemed to me that they were doing that to catch back their dreams, to find youth again, to not allow the energy to escape…”Dead Man Walking” is a sort of homage to rock and roll that is still young while we are all growing old.”
The song’s second verse is Bowie’s dream memory of that night, a realization that he, too, had become a crazy old man dancing under the moon:
Three old men dancing under the lamplight
Shaking their sex and their bones
And the boys that we were..
So one tributary of “Dead Man Walking” began the night Bowie saw Young play. Another was a far older stream, starting in a London studio one day in January 1965.
Two ambitious young men are in the room that day: one is an 18-year-old from Bromley who’s cutting his second-ever single, a muddled cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” The other, despite being just 21, is a storied professional guitarist, a studio hired gun who quietly exudes cool and who’s happy to show off his latest gear: in this case, a fuzzbox. So David Jones sings “Pity the Fool,” and Jimmy Page doubles on lead for it. Page doesn’t think it’s a hit, and it isn’t. As if in recompense he plays Jones a riff that he’s not going to use. It’s a lumbering sway between two chords, a brontosaurus stomp. Duh-nuh duh-nuh dunna-nuh duh-nuh. Page doesn’t realize just how much of a packrat he’s talking to. Jones will keep the riff in his head: he’ll use it on “The Supermen” five years later, then he’ll revive it in another lifetime, in New York in 1996.
In its old age, Page’s riff was still basically the same: E-flat and F major, a steady foot-clomp of harmonic rhythm. But on the studio take of “Dead Man Walking,” the riff is a beast in a cage. It collides with a second Reeves Gabrels synthesized guitar line, which buzzes along and jabs at it. Its rhythms are overwhelmed by synthesizer arpeggios, tea-kettle feedback noises, various percussive loops. Yet despite this it still has its power: whenever the riff plays to close out a chorus, it’s a gavel pounding, making the other jabbering voices fall in line for a moment.
“Dead Man Walking” was nearly abandoned during the Earthling sessions until the co-producer Mark Plati spent five days salvaging the song, painstakingly putting a mix together that was built on a dramatic arc. As Plati said, the track “begins completely programmed and ends completely live.” It opens with solitary synthesizer flourishes and ends with the sound of live musicians making themselves heard above the din: Zachary Alford’s snare fills and hissing cymbals, Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass (she’s often gliding between notes, as if looking to outflank the rest of the band, and while she holds back during Alford’s solo, she slides in afterward and lays down a sinuous foundation for the outro) and Mike Garson, who closes out the song by playing a new, Latin-sounding melody on his piano, as if saying: no, look we could go here now just at the fade.
Bowie opens his verse with an older man, perhaps an entertainer, watching a clip of his youth on a screen, recalling some show or deal in Atlantic City. He gets up, dismisses his idle thoughts while he “walks down the aisle”: (he’s on an airplane? or maybe he’s getting married again). As the pre-chorus begins, with its downshift to E-flat minor, he feels oddly clear of the past, as if he’s suddenly outlived it: in a marvelous line, he feels “older than movies.” Like Young, he’s been around enough that the world’s swiveling back round to him. A counterpoint chorus, Bowie holding on two alternating notes, finds him hanging in mid-air, spinning slack through reality, falling “up” through time. Just before the riff kicks in (it’s the “earthling” of the song, its gravity well), as he sings across a four-chord descending progression (A-flat through G minor and F-sharp, ending on the riff’s bedrock F major), he tweaks his nose and dives away:
And I’m gone!
Like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone
through a crack in the past...
It’s bluster, playing japes: he can’t shed the weight of the past. He’ll wake up in his torn Union Jack coat and dried makeup and feel the hangover deep in his bones. (This is essentially the acoustic revision of “Dead Man Walking” that Bowie and Gabrels played for a number of TV and radio spots in 1997. It’s lovely and graceful but it’s an old man’s song now.) The chorus lines subtly acknowledge this, with their echoes of Young’s “Sleeps With Angels” (a man mourning a kid who took his old path and went astray) and, in perhaps the ultimate Bowie in-joke, his lost “Shilling the Rubes,” where a woman is played for a sucker by a man who’s skipped out on her (“Gone! the day he left town!”) The title line itself is a cruel joke: he’s escaped the past and wound up a zombie.
But there are a few moments in the song—whenever the riff’s playing (it’s like an extended middle finger pointed at time) or during Gabrels’ jabbing solo that has him relentlessly moving down his guitar neck, or when Alford slips in a sharp little tom-snare fill (4:52)—when Bowie seems free, when he’s gone lighter than air, toe-tapping on an angel’s head. It’s a youth of the mind, sure, but that’s really all youth ever was.
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released as Earthling‘s third single in April 1997 (RCA 74321 475842, #32 UK). The single mix lops four lines from the pre-chorus (moving from “older than movies” straight to “And I know who’s there”), which does get to the chorus hook faster (Bowie used this edit for his acoustic versions as well), but diminishes the narrative of the song—its pleasures come a bit too easily.
There were a mind-fogging array of mixes. In Britain, there was a 12″ single with the House Mix and the Vigor Mortis remix (BMG/RCA 74321 475841 (oh, for the sunny days of “BOW 5″) as well as a promo single (RCA/BMG DMW02) that had the Moby Mix 1, the This One’s Not Dead Yet Remix as well as the two previous mixes. The EC and the US offered different variations, including a Moby Mix 2 on a US promo 12” that was later included on the 2004 reissue of Earthling. There were three acoustic versions of the song broadcast in 1997 subsequently issued on CD (including the Conan O’Brien performance): please see the Illustrated DB entry for more details.
Top: Shakey and Crazy Horse, ca. 1996 (found this on Tumblr–don’t know photog. if someone does, let me know.)
* Bowie claimed this was the Bridge Benefit Concert that he’d played with Young in October 1996. However, Earthling was mainly cut in August 1996. So perhaps Bowie rewrote the lyric to “Dead Man” after the Bridge show, or in interviews he confused that show with his memories of an earlier Young concert, or he was just making it up. All seem plausible.
Father died last Monday afternoon after an illness lasting just under a week…He lay in bed with the sweetpea all over his face, making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart.
Samuel Beckett, letter, 1933.
“Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a Bowie dance track, so naturally one of its vocal hooks is a Bertrand Russell quote: I don’t want knowledge! I want certainty!* Delivered via a distorted vocal that sounds as if Bowie’s ranting through a megaphone, the line seems to mock the dancers that the track’s allegedly set into motion, the club as the empty certainty of the present while the tedious business of acquiring knowledge is left behind at home.
Bowie saw Russell as predicting the data avalanche of the Internet. You can attempt to use the information it generates to shore up your preconceptions, or you can simply sit on the banks and watch an endless, ever-broadening stream of information go by. Russell “was right, mean old bastard that he was,” Bowie said in 1997. “As you get older, you become more desperate for certainty. Or, you relax your hold on the idea of ever acquiring it and enjoy the process of gaining information. I’m quite happy with the latter. What-is-my-purpose? doesn’t hang so heavy in my sky.”
It’s odd to consider that a throwaway track like “Law” is the resolution of something that Bowie had grappled with as a young man, but in its way, it’s answering the tortured, questioning mind of “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” by saying: just let go. The sound of the sound with the sound of the ground, etc. “To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume if you keep studying you’ll find the answers,” Bowie said in another interview at the time. “As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty of this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realize there are no certainties.”
Basically “Son of ‘Pallas Athena,'” “Law” was sequenced to close Earthling, where it came off like a bonus track or a remix tacked onto the CD. It’s a series of eight or 16-bar breaks pasted together: the Russell quote refrain, built over a loop of synthesizer sixteenth notes; a “verse” that has a few murmured lines like “a wallet drops and money flies into the midday sun,” a jabbing two-note bassline and a chord sequence that suggests the James Bond theme; and a refrain/hook section with the chanted “sound of the ground” and the title line, which is the goofy dramatic peak of the song: Bowie sings it like he’s announcing a superhero.
Having little to do with the drum ‘n’ bass stylings of other Earthling tracks, “Law” is far more indebted to turn-of-the-decade industrial pop like My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex On Wheels,” with which it shares a taste for sonic trash littering the mix, like engine revving noises. The catalog of noises in the “Law” mix would fill a page: Bowie chanting “ja! ja! ja!”; synthetic vibraphones; the return of Bowie’s “Nathan Adler” voice to mutter “I get a little bit afraid, sometimes“; Reeves Gabrels guitar-synth yawps; the old standbys of shattering glass and iron-door-slams. Consider all of it to be a flow of “knowledge” that you can take or leave.
There’s another reference buried in the track. In the last “verse,” Bowie mutters Samuel Beckett’s father’s alleged last words: What a morning! (an inspired Beckett would soon write the story What a Misfortune). But Beckett’s father said something else on his deathbed that could be the credo of the whole Earthling record, despite Bowie’s public claims of being contented: “fight fight fight.”
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Though “Law” seems intended to be a club single like “Pallas,” it wasn’t issued as one. It was also the only Earthling song never performed live, though it was used as pre-show music for the 50th Birthday Concert in January 1997.
* The exact quote was “what men really want is not knowledge, but certainty.” One of the most popular Russell quotes, it’s found in quote compilations, business studies and managerial how-to books, often grotesquely misconstrued in the latter. It doesn’t come from any of Russell’s published works but rather an interview he gave to the BBC magazine The Listener in 1964.
So much of what first appealed to me about Buddhism has stayed with me. The idea of transience, and that there is nothing to hold onto pragmatically, that we do at some point or another have to let go of that which we consider most dear to us, because it’s a very short life.
Bowie, interview, Daily Telegraph, December 1996.
Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, had been in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India for the length of the war. While he’d escaped in 1944, he didn’t try to join the Nazi army but instead ventured into Tibet, spurred by curiosity about a country considered off limits to the West. He was acting as a remnant of old Germany, the land of mountaineers and mapmakers, of the Wandervogel, the German naturalist movement which the Nazis had plundered for members and imagery, then banned. Crossing the Himalayas by foot and yak, Harrer spent the late Forties in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, befriending and tutoring the young Dalai Lama, designing structural improvements for the city and chronicling in journals and photographs life in the last years of independent Tibet. He fled just before the Chinese came in 1950.
At the time, Harrer offered the prospect of a “clean” German/Austrian, a man who had the moral stature to depict Communist abuses. As is often the case, he wasn’t that clean. After Austria had been absorbed by Nazi Germany, Harrer had joined the SS in 1938 and had asked Himmler permission to marry, certifying that he and his fiancee were pure Aryans. So Tibet wasn’t just an appealing curiosity for him—it was one of the few countries bordering India that Harrer could have gone to in 1945 without facing the implications of his past. From most accounts, Harrer seemed primarily guilty of ambition in his youth: there is no evidence of him committing atrocities. Joining the Nazis was a good career move for him in the Thirties, much as how obscuring his Nazi past was a great career move in the Fifties.
His memoir, Seven Years In Tibet, was published in 1953 and was an international bestseller. Regarded as a paean for a lost country crushed by the Communists, Tibet is more hard-headed than its reputation suggests. Harrer balanced the beauty of the Tibetan landscape and of its culture with the sordid reality he found: filthy bodies, filthy streets, high rates of venereal disease, appalling levels of child mortality, and a cultural passivity mixed with occasional spates of chaos, like palace coups and monk rebellions. The Chinese, when they conquered Tibet, claimed to be modernizers. They abolished serfdom, paved roads, brought sanitation and political order, and suffocated an ancient culture in the process. Tibet became, among many things, a parable of modernity: life made easier and cleaner at the cost of the inconvenient past. Old Tibet was a culture the modern world had no more time for.
In Tibet, one is not hunted from morning till night by the calls of ‘civilization.’ Here one has time to occupy oneself with religion and to call one’s soul one’s own. Here it is religion which takes up most room in the life of the individual as it did in olden days in the west.
Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet.
David Bowie discovered Buddhism in his early teens, thanks to his step-brother Terry’s beatnik leanings, the novels of Jack Kerouac and a few Penguin paperbacks that gave him the basic schematics of the religion. It was Harrer’s book that set him a-boil: “When I was about nineteen I became an overnight Buddhist,” he recalled in 1997. “At that age a very influential book for me was called “Seven Years In Tibet”…[Harrer] was one of the very first Westerners to ever spend any time in Tibet; in fact, one of the very first Westerners actually to go into Tibet and discover for himself this extraordinary existence and this incredibly sublime philosophy.” “Silly Boy Blue,” Bowie’s first Buddhist song, was inspired by Harrer’s descriptions of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama’s winter palace of Potala, the song opening with the yak-butter statues made for celebration days.
What resonated with Bowie was the figure Harrer cut in his memoir. Though he was accompanied on his trip by another German national, Harrer comes across as a classic existentialist hero—a solitary man, unburdened by religion, nationality, politics or family (he doesn’t mention his wife once in the book)—making his way into a hidden kingdom where everyone is holy. There, the Outsider falls in love. The book was a preview of the Beat Fifties giving way to the psychedelic Sixties. “Religion is the heart of the fabric of the State,” Harrer wrote. “Prayer wheels turn without ceasing; prayer-flags wave on the roofs of houses…the life of the people is regulated by the divine will, whose interpreters the lamas are.”
Though Harrer was quick to describe the Tibetans’ shortcomings, his enchantment with the life he found in Lhasa permeates his writing, and he closed his book sounding like a man exiled from a dream.
I managed to cope with most things when I worked with David—except the Buddha.
Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s manager in the late Sixties.
For a young, irreligious British suburbanite in 1966, Harrer’s Tibet wasn’t any heaven on earth or a mystic theme park, as some weekend Buddhists considered Tibet to be. It was a culture where spirituality, and maintaining the health of the soul, was far more important than making money, than acquiring fame and attending to family.
So Buddhism took root in Bowie. Though some of his colleagues and friends in the late Sixties considered Bowie’s Buddhist leanings to be hip affectations, others saw a more fervent side of him. The journalist George Tremlett and Bowie’s housemate/lover Mary Finnigan attested that Bowie was serious about Buddhism, speaking to them for hours about it. Whether he truly meant to join a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland, which he visited in late 1967, is very questionable.1 What’s not is that the symbols of Buddhism, its sutras, its concepts like reincarnation (see “Quicksand”), the Oversoul and astral projection (see “Did You Ever Have a Dream“), were essential to Bowie’s growth as a songwriter. Buddhism gave him a reservoir of imagery to use: it gave him a spiritual scaffolding.
And the status of Tibet in 1966-7 made him, for one of the few times in his life, publicly political. After a decade of ‘tolerance,’ the Chinese government, now in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, was cracking down on Tibet. The 1959 uprising had been snuffed out by a vicious repression, in which possibly 80,000 Tibetans were killed, and the brutalities continued into the Sixties. The Dalai Lama went into exile, along with a number of other Buddhist lamas. Some of the latter made their way to London’s Buddhist Society, where they encountered an eager teenager from Bromley with a myriad questions for them (see “Karma Man,” his 1967 song about a Tibetan exile lost in the funfair of the West). Stories escaped of horrors: Tibetan monks tortured, sexually degraded, murdered; monasteries and holy places sacked and burned.
A friend of Bowie’s at the time recalled him being “filled with anger” about Tibet, which began to appear in his art. His mime Jet-Sun and the Eagle, which he performed in 1968 and 1969, in part depicted a Chinese boy under the foot of Chinese Communists (it drew the indignation of a student Maoist, who reportedly heckled one performance), and his song “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” was a thinly-disguised rewrite of the scenario, in which a “wild boy” brings down the wrath of ancient Nature upon a village of dreadful occupiers.
When you’re kind of young and idealist we were protesting the invasion of Tibet by China. And thirty years later they’re still there. Nothing has really moved. And more than anything else it was the lectures that the Dalai Lama has been doing over the last couple of years that really prodded me a bit. Made me feel quite guilty that I’ve known about this situation quite well and quite intimately for many, many years—that I hadn’t actually come out and made my stance on what I feel about it. So I guess that song in a way was to make some kind of amends.
Bowie, radio interview, 1997.
It had been a long time since Jet-Sun and the London Buddhist Society. It was the summer of 1996, in New York City, where Bowie was dashing out a new record.
During the Earthling sessions, Reeves Gabrels introduced a piece he’d written earlier, provisionally called “Brussels.” Bowie didn’t think much of it. The song seemed, he said, “incredibly hack, with a very predictable self-serious quality. I said, ‘dump this one, Reeves.’ “But Mark Plati recalled Gabrels being obstinate. He kept revising it, and with Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to bounce ideas off of, he eventually worked it into a compelling piece, its dreamy guitar work in the verses inspired by the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross.”2
Bowie came round on the track, began to call it his favorite on the album. For a lyric, he began by improvising a verse in the booth. An image came to mind: “a young Tibetan monk who’s just been shot. His last experiences in the snow as the Chinese helicopters fly over.”
‘Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains,’
The old woman said…
The lyric was a death mumble. A monk bleeds out in the snow, watches the sky fade, gets off a last prayer. Bowie’s voice in the verses was processed through a ring modulator, which gave it a crackly, papery sound, making it sound as if he was heard murmuring through an old radio. The landscape of the verse was filled with ‘past’ signifiers: Gabrels’ “Albatross” guitar; Mike Garson’s Farfisa organ; Bowie’s alto saxophone riff, meant to suggest “a Stax influence…the sort of sound you might imagine behind Al Green or Ann Peebles,” a line that’s eventually taken over by a second guitar. The rhythm was a set of loops that sounded like kettle drums and distorted tympani beats, and an agile foundation supplied by Dorsey, who had space and agility enough for quick, descending fills during turnarounds (for instance, at 1:18).
This was all a feint. The A minor verses were “the Sixties” as sonic brand, a shined-up, loop-filled edition suitable for Britpop, with the dying monk of its lyric also a Sixties affectation—the monk as fallen revolutionary student. “It’s sometimes good to be able to conjure the emotions we automatically associate with classic guitar sounds, but all those tones are sounding more and more like beer commercials,” Gabrels said. “I deliberately evoked a Fleetwood Mac “Albatross” feeling, but mainly so I could oppose it to the ton-of-bricks chorus.”
With little warning, the track shifts to a distortion-fatted wall of guitars and keyboards (meant to evoke the Pixies, Bowie said). The first go-round doesn’t even have a lyric; it’s just 10 bars of bludgeoning. In its next go-round, a double-tracked Bowie offers a simple invocation: I praise to you, nothing ever goes away. And on the song goes, shifting between a preserved past and the loud, graceless present, with Bowie’s mantra caught up in the works. There’s a dark sense of humor in places: Bowie’s first verse lyric reads as a bit of black comedy, while the second has lines like “the yoga zone” and “pigs could fly.” There are velociraptor shrieks, mosquito buzzes and gruesome baby cries scattered in the mix, while Mike Garson’s B-movie Farfisa organ solo occupies the middle of the track (Garson even gets the last word, closing with a droning E major chord).3
The subtext of the song is really some of the desperation and agony felt by young Tibetans who have had their families killed and themselves have been reduced to mere ciphers in their own country.
What inspired Bowie to revive the old passion? There was one obvious fact: two months before he cut the track, the first Tibetan Freedom Concert was held in San Francisco. While Bowie didn’t perform at any of these annual events, the Tibetan Concerts featured most of the top alternative acts of the Nineties (Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, etc.). They were a regular feature on MTV, and succeeded in making Tibet the hippest political cause of the era. So a cynic would note that Bowie’s renewed interest in Tibet was acutely well-timed.4
The Free Tibet movement was a protest lodged against a country whose idea of handling dissent was crude, if efficient: black out the newscasts and send in the army, a situation that only worsened in the past decade. Today, China holds much of the West’s debt, has too great a grip on the world’s economy: the idea of it somehow being coerced into making Tibet independent seems akin to the United States agreeing to give back Florida to the surviving Seminoles. Worse, “Free Tibet” became a cliche, the favorite political cause of the affluent white hipster (Tibet was entry #124 in Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like), a cause that required nothing from its advocates but a pleasant afternoon spent watching alternative bands, and a few bucks to buy rugs and amulets.
Still, this makes light of the blood on the ground, and denies the Tibetan cause its agency: the 2008 riots, the protests of the late Eighties happened despite any hipster affectations. And Bowie wasn’t just a revived dilettante. After cutting “Seven Years,” he became more involved, publicly and privately, in Tibetan causes, playing at benefits for New York’s Tibet House, speaking out in the press. And he recorded a version of “Seven Years” in Mandarin Chinese, hoping, perhaps, it could be heard in Lhasa somewhere. It was the last #1 song of British-controlled Hong Kong, topping the charts in June 1997 as the Union Jack was lowered and the red flag raised.
“Seven Years In Tibet,” as with much of Bowie’s Tibetan Buddhism, was an Eastern culture filtered through the eyes of the West: a lyric (and a sensibility) inspired by a book by an Austrian Nazi, later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Still, the core of Bowie’s last Tibetan song, the sequel of his youthful religious infatuation, kept true to Buddhism: that there is something eternal in us that can’t be destroyed, something that will outlast the depredations of conquerors and debasements of advertisers. It’s in Dorsey’s voice, suddenly heard in the final chorus, singing “nothing!” as a triumph, offering that Tibet, despite the world’s best efforts, is still free.
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. An edited version of the track was issued as the fourth UK single from Earthling, in August 1997 (RCA/BMG 74321512542, UK #64), which included the Mandarin version and a live version of “Pallas Athena.” “Seven Years” was debuted at the Avalon, in Boston, on 13 September 1996. An acoustic version was taped at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, on 8 April 1997.
1 In yet another parallel, a fame-weary Scott Walker visited a monastery (a Christian one) around the same time.
3 It’s a fairly minimal chord structure, with the sharpening of minor chords driving harmonic momentum (Am-A#m-Gm in the intro and verses, for instance, or the Gm-G#m move at the end of the chorus) and a chorus that seems to be in a hidden F major (Gm-Am-Bb).
4 The film adaptation of Harrer’s book, with Pitt making a convincing Aryan, was released in October 1997, well after Earthling was recorded and released. So the fact that there was a “Seven Years in Tibet” song and movie released in the same year seems to be simply coincidence, though it’s possible Bowie knew they were filming the book when he wrote the lyric.
Top: The Saltmen of Tibet,(Koch, 1997); Harrer’s article on Tibet for Time, 1951.
Your parents had a third parent—television. If you went back to 1950, you would be surprised. Many people—of all kinds and conditions—had just two parents. In the time since, the referee has won all the championship matches—and the referee is a value-free ritual.
George W.S. Trow, “Collapsing Dominant,” 1997.
Ch. 459, HBO7 (8 PM EST): “Off The Hook.” A frustrated office manager (Michael Des Barres) attempts to reform his high-school band for his 40-year reunion.
Days after Bowie ended his tour in late July 1996, he called Reeves Gabrels to say he’d booked a studio in New York in two weeks’ time. Convinced that his touring band was his best since the Seventies, he wanted to hustle them onto disc. “It was just the feeling that we’re bloody good and we really want to get it down on record,” he said in a radio interview in 1997. “Reeves and I virtually wrote an album to show off the band’s abilities, and where we were at. I think that you feel a lot of the aggression and momentum of the band on the album.”
Speed and spontaneity were the public faces of Earthling. In interview after promotional interview, Bowie touted how quickly the songs were written (“eight days” “12 days” “nine days” “nine and a half days”) and recorded (“three weeks” “11 days” “two and a half weeks”). This self-imposed deadline pressure was a reaction to the year he’d spent making and remaking Outside. In his usual self-belittling mode when promoting a new record, Bowie said that Outside had been “a forum for a lot of artsy, intellectual analysis on the part of Eno and myself.”
By contrast, the new record had no pretensions. It was simple; it was just a Polaroid of a great band. “It doesn’t try to be any more than what our energy is at the moment,” he said. “It was written as almost a vanity showcase for the band.” Outside had been millennial gloom; the new record was optimistic. He was optimistic. He liked touring, he liked being married, he even seemed to like Britain for once, making public statements in support of PM apparent Tony Blair.
There was a feeling of (as usual) misdirection in all of this. If Earthling was intended to be a snapshot of a great touring band, then why distort and slice up seemingly every note they played? Mike Garson’s piano was often piped through a guitar amp; Zachary Alford was mainly represented through drum loops; some Gail Ann Dorsey basslines were loops of her monkeying with her pedal board without knowing she was being taped. And the guitarist mainly played his lines via synthesizers and effects processors.
Nor was Earthling‘s creation any great departure from Outside‘s: Bowie had kept the art studio atmosphere of those sessions, improvising like mad, using the Verbasizer for cut-up lyrics, nabbing ideas that came out of jams, pasting together tracks out of what Gabrels described as “obtanium”—using sonic detritus as the foundation of rhythm tracks (see below). Anyone in the room who had an idea was told to write it on a Post-it note and stick it on the studio wall (by the end of the sessions, the wall was papered in suggestions).
Earthling is a secret parody of the “back to basics” records that rock & roll is plagued with. After anyone does an arty, ambitious album, they seem contractually obligated to make the sequel a “return to form.” It’s the decaying echo of a pattern established by the Beatles and the Stones in 1967-68: lysergic funfairs (Sgt. Pepper, Satanic Majesties) followed by roots-rock atonements (Beggars Banquet, Get Back). Earthling plays with rock music’s inherent conservatism. It’s a shorter, less pretentious, “live in the studio” album that’s also art-school hy-jinks courtesy of Bowie and Gabrels. It’s a document of a live band made artificial.
Even its title and cover play games. They suggest (and Bowie was glad to hint) that the Man has finally fallen back to Earth. Major Tom has come home, standing in the verdant fields of England, surveying the land like a general or a tourist. Yet he’s wearing an Alexander McQueen frock coat that’s meant to be a “cut-up” of both the Union Jack and Pete Townshend’s Union jacket from the Sixties and something about the photograph seems altered: it’s a man surveying a green screen, a figure Photoshopped into a postcard. An Earthling, after all, is what a human would call himself to an alien, who would consider him as much an alien.
And the sound of Earthling is an alien infestation of a dance/roots record; Bowie steals from drum ‘n’ bass and Britpop equally but does little to integrate the sounds or “respect” them. They’re just samples with pedigrees, and are worth no more than a braying noise that Gabrels got from abusing a Roland processor. Earthling is an aging man stealing toys from the young and throwing them into his own trinket pile, a man murmuring about religion, decay and exile on a flashy, noisy album that’s riddled with pieces of sonic garbage and which sounded dated before its release. It’s bloody with distorted life. Earthling may be his most misunderstood album; maybe even Bowie misunderstood it.
Ch. 567, GSN International (2:30 PM EST): “I Ching Challenge.” Contestants throw the I Ching for prizes, enlightenment (subtitles) (R, CC).
To make the album, Bowie had chosen Looking Glass Studios, a studio on Broadway (between Houston and Bleecker) that Philip Glass had founded in 1992.* In summer 1996, the house engineer was Mark Plati. A bassist and engineer who’d worked with the DJ Junior Vasquez and who’d run the desk on Deee-Lite’s Infinity Within, Plait had been playing with the idea of using “sonic junk”—samples taken from discarded takes, scraps of sound pulled from microphone tests and monitor mixes—as raw material for fresh music. During a pre-tour Bowie studio visit in May 1996 (when most of “Telling Lies” was cut and “Dead Men Don’t Talk” was filmed), Plati found a simpatico soul in Gabrels, and the two set about crafting fresh samples and loops out of Plati’s collected detritus.**
Despite his claims to the press, Bowie didn’t go into the studio without songs. Gabrels already had about six tracks’ worth of electronic music on his laptop, while other songs had begun during downtimes in the summer tour, when Bowie and Gabrels would sit down with a pair of Fernandes ZO-3 “travel” guitars and “jam out a song written in a very conventional manner against the [chord] sequence. Then we’d lose the guitar once the song was done,” Gabrels said.
Once the Earthling sessions began in early August, Bowie, Gabrels and Plati quickly established a pattern. Whatever songs they had would be flattened out, reduced to “rhythmic landscapes,” as Bowie described it. Some chords, Alford’s drum loops, synth patterns and loop-clutter. “There was no suggestion of melody,” Bowie told the Music Paper. “Once we developed a kind of mattress, then I would go into the studio and just free associate against that. Because it was so mantra, so chant like, the actual rhythm tracks that we developed—which were made up of samples and loops put together by Zach, the drummer, and [then] underpinning those with really quite minimal chords—I developed quite a strong melodic content over the top, which kind of just developed naturally.”
Ch. 1071, BravoBravo [9:30 PM EST]: “Chutes and Ladders.” Daria networks at the funeral of a competitor; Blake and Reese hack Simon’s IMs; Josh ransoms a 10-year-old son of a network head.
Another factor was the influence of digital recording: Earthling was the first Bowie album not recorded on magnetic tape. Rhythm tracks, guitar dubs and vocals instead were put onto hard disk, which enabled Bowie to edit, overdub and mix with a fluency he’d only dreamed about. It let him be ruthless with his songs, letting him break and reset bones. “David would say ‘Let’s hear a verse, a chorus, a verse, a double chorus, a break’ and I would be able to do all that in about 30 seconds,” Plati told David Buckley. It was Bowie’s cut-up lyric writing applied to the actual assembly of songs.
As there was no need to conserve tape, Plati could keep recording throughout the sessions, keeping mics on during demos and rehearsals. So he captured Bowie vocals and guitar noises that perhaps would’ve been lost on an earlier record (for instance, the vocal of “Little Wonder” was just a guide vocal for a rhythm track). What this meant was that the supporting players were used as much for raw material as they were in supporting a song. Dorsey, Alford and Garson seemed to accept this role-switching, although Garson, who considered Bowie’s jungle affectations a questionable move into an unmelodic music, was fairly restrained on the record except for a few spotlight moments (though he’d continue to play with Bowie live, this marked Garson’s last appearance on a Bowie album until Reality).**
Gabrels was also questioning the worth of playing “straight” (even his conception of “straight”) electric guitar. Since he started playing professionally Gabrels had wanted to remove the bric-à-brac that had built up around the electric guitar. Playing blues licks on a Stratocaster or a Les Paul was to be a historical re-enactor, he said. He favored new-model guitars like the Parker Fly for their less encumbered tones. But by the time of Earthling, he believed the mere idea of the electric guitar had become a cliche. “I felt like everybody was looking around them, musically, and thought, fuck, it’s the end of the millennium and we’re still playing like we’re in the Rolling Stones,” he told Paul Trynka.
So on Earthling, Gabrels was a lead guitarist who did as much as he could to not play the guitar. On many tracks he discarded his Mesa/Boogie amps and his effects rack to record almost entirely through a Roland VG-8 processor. Much as how Alford would make drum loops and then play against them in different time, Gabrels would record his guitar parts into the Roland, then play the processor like a keyboard.
My own father, sometime around midlife. We watched him get consumed with a sort of entertainment. It wasn’t pretty. I was never sure how it started and what it was about…The program in question was called M*A*S*H. The title was an acronym, not a command. As a boy I recall some confusion on this point….It was gradual and slow. He started at some point to refer to the kitchen as the Mess Tent and his den as the Marsh or Swamp. He began renting films with even crowd-extra or cameo appearances by the show’s actors…He began a practice of magnetically recording each week’s 29 broadcasts and reruns. He stored the tapes, organizing them in baroque systems of cross-reference that had nothing discernible to do with dates of recording.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
Ch 10, NBC (8 PM EST). “Judged By 12.” Highlights of hidden camera footage of jury room deliberations(“Home Invasion”; “Pet Theft”).
“Looking for Satellites” was one the first tracks completed for Earthling. It began as Plati’s attempt to craft an electronic track in 3/4 time while using his “sonic junk” sampling concept for raw material. Bowie liked the idea and kept the song in a trotting 6/4 but he scrapped Plati’s chord structure (one presumes for being too ordinary). In its place was an opening chanted mantra chorus in D major and a verse that cycled through a D-Em-Gm-D progression. Further repetitions of the chorus had swings up to G major (“sateliiite!”) and down to B-flat (“can’t stop”).
The initial lines of [“Satellites”] are just a shopping list of words that I associated with consumer culture. And that was to prop up the idea of a spiritual search between an orthodox religion and a technological age. One is sort of vacillating between the two…Sort of, ‘Who is God—shall we kill Him so that we can reinvent him for our own purposes?’ one of those kinda things, you know?
Bowie, call-in interview on Rockline, 1997.
“Satellite” begins with a mantra, eight iambs sung by a double-tracked Bowie (with a third voice piped in on “TV”). A man sits on his sofa and clicks through the channels. Kosovo war, shampoo advert, Boyzone video, cowboys, X-Files. There’s a draggy procession to the eight words, their two-beat rhythms are the pace of the thumb hitting the remote (the weight on the last syllable “boy-ZONE,” “can’t STOP” is the man pausing for a second on a channel that hooks him). While the mantra seems like it could go on forever, from nearly the start there’s interference: first a teakettle whistle on guitar, then, as the drums kick in, a haunting little counter-melody on synth, humming like a contented ghost in the works.
Channel change. The man’s on a beach, somewhere on holiday, a package tour he’d seen advertised on Sky Atlantic. He’s drunk, wandering through the dark, looking for the lights of his resort. In the sky something shines. A lost animal memory, some genetic trace of homo habilis, surfaces. He stares in wonder. We’ve always been apes looking up at stars, wishing on them. Now we make them, and they make us. Where do we go from here? a voice wonders, a distance and sadness in its tone. There’s something in the sky…spinning far away.
Ch. 207, Lifetime (2:00 PM). “Molly Flanders.” Update of classic novel set in contemporary Williamsburg. Molly (Clara Mamet) spends the night with a David Karp imposter; Jemy (Richard Madden) is stranded on Megabus. (CC)
Satellite’s gone…up to the skies, Lou Reed had sung in 1972, with Bowie in the control booth. By then the satellite had gone from a bringer of war (recall that some Americans watched Sputnik in the sky with terror, believing it meant that the Reds had conquered space) to our court jester. Some satellites still have noble purposes, those sent out far into space, filled with the wrack of our culture, moving through the deep like worm-bait in a metal hook for some allegedly interested alien race. But most are international servants. Each year more of them hang above the planet, watching hurricanes form in the Caribbean, looking for spy planes, beaming I Love Lucy to Madras, sending directions to a lost driver in Fresno. They’ve become our warders, they attempt the knotting and binding of the world. I watched it for a little while, I love to watch things on TV.
The man on the couch bloats himself with images. The man on the beach looks at the false star that sings to him. It’s an age of miracles, and it’s left us hollowed out, as empty and lonely as a moon. Like the moon, we live on stolen light, half of us in darkness. “It’s as near to a spiritual song as I’ve ever done,” Bowie said of “Satellites.”
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware? I wish I wish I wish you’d care.
Ch. 2343, BBCA (5:30 PM EST). “Parliament of Dogs.” Home Affairs committee in deadlock.
The writer Rod Dreher, who grew up in rural Louisiana, once wrote that when his generation left home in the Nineties, their parents became isolates. He’d expected the people who’d been consumed by work and childraising would now have time to visit friends again, to join clubs, etc. But the older people now stayed at home watching television. Satellite TV had now reached even the most obscure corners of the country. I grew up in rural Virginia, and when I left in 1986, there were only two TV channels to watch. Now the remotest hamlet in Botetourt County likely has hundreds of channels.
The revolution of satellite TV, the endless profusion of images that it proffers, something to cater to every remote desire or interest (channels devoted to surfing, shopping, cooking, train travel, softcore sex, long-cancelled sitcoms that you never expected to see again in your life) created the profuse life. Today my (fairly basic) cable has a channel 1300 on it. Channel 1300, which sounds like something from a Philip K. Dick novel. I’ve never watched it. Today we fly in planes high above the ground, something that our ancestors would’ve considered a miracle, and hardly bother to look out on the world, as we can look at screens instead. Why not? There’s so much there, the screen and the satellite say: look at all we have. And we’ll never stop having more.
In retrospect, satellite TV was just the ground clearing for the Internet, the small flood before the big flood. Earthling prefigures the Internet as well, with its random accumulation of shiny things, its sediment of sonic junk, its baiting and trolling, its noise and gleefulness. We’ve all become satellites; Bowie just got there first, as he usually did.
Ch. 2541, AMC3 (4:45 AM): “Harum Scarum (Remix).” Shot-by-shot remake of 1965 Elvis Presley film, w/Adam Lambert (dir. Z. Snider).
“Satellites” ends with a 26-bar guitar solo that piles on through a final chorus, unwilling or unable to stop. It’s as if a brontosaurus bursts into the song, fouling it and leaving it in pieces. Bowie baited Gabrels by asking for him to play a solo, although Gabrels believed the track didn’t need one. “Never in a million years would [I have] put on a guitar solo,” Gabrels recalled to Chris Gill. It was Bowie was trolling his guitarist, trying to make him run through hoops.
He gave Gabrels a strict edict. For his solo, Gabrels was to keep to his low E string until the chord changed, then he was free to move up to the the next-highest string, the A string, and so forth, all while playing constant 16th notes. For Bowie, it was a lab experiment: “just how many notes can you play on one string before you have to move up to the next one?” he said. Or: when will Reeves snap?
“The arbitrary limitation of that approach made me do stuff that I wouldn’t normally have done,” Gabrels said. The constraints forced him into a dramatic arc. Quickly exhausting the runs on each string he’s confined to, Gabrels sounds exuberant with each move up a string, usually on every eighth bar. It’s like a man held underwater being given a fresh breath. Frustration creates narrative. Gabrels’ opening chorus on the low E string is him playing a distorted bass solo (Dorsey, by contrast, is graceful minimalism on this track, just playing whole or half root notes, imperceptibly gliding beneath the noise—she’s like the only adult in the room). The move to the A string sends him off kiting, and when he hits his higher strings there’s a growing frenzy, the sound of a man kicking his way out of a window, until he explodes into the chorus, playing yo-yoing theremin-like noises and sky saws, viciously abusing his whammy bar. Squalls, squeaks, yawps, bleats. It’s Gabrels playing the cliche of Gabrels.
He later called his solo “a nice sex-like orgasmic form: it has a nice starting point, a plateau stage, a peak, a climax and its resolution. In a way it’s a statement on dick control…at the very end of it, you can hear me trying to kick out the walls of the box.” Gabrels liked to joke about guitar solos and wanking; he was a guitarist who embraced the ridiculousness of his profession. But there’s a passion in this solo as well, a joy of making noise for the hell of it, yet it’s also committed (unwillingly) to serving the song. It’s the closest Gabrels ever came to matching Mick Ronson’s gauntlet-throwing solo on “Width of a Circle.” It’s the sound of an ape jamming the circuitry; it’s heroic indulgence.
Ch. 934, TVLAND3 (4:00 AM), “Dance Flashback Sign-Off Play-Offs.” Dance recreations of classic station sign-offs (“HBO, 1981“; “KABC, 1978“).
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. A single edit was made although the track wasn’t issued as a single. Played on the 1997 tour.
* Looking Glass had two main rooms, one had a 48-input SSL 4000G console and the other a Digidesign D-Command desk. Conveniently located in walking distance of Bowie’s home in NYC, the studio would be his main workplace for a decade: he cut much of Hours, Toy, Heathen and Reality there. Looking Glass closed in February 2009, after the toxic combination of Manhattan rents and the collapse of the record industry made its existence financially untenable.
** Bowie told Jon Savage that one inspiration for the record was Big Audio Dynamite, who seem overdue for a hipster reclamation any day now.
*** Garson was used on various bonus tracks from Hours and Heathen, and also was part of the Toy sessions.
Top: Boyzone, 1996.
[Ed. note: for full enjoyment of this entry, please start each video clip as simultaneously as possible.]
He had dreaded the idea of touring but now found he’d acquired a taste for it again. Four months after the Outside shows ended, Bowie was back at it, playing a string of Asian dates and European festivals during the summer of 1996. He’d fleshed out his new songs, he’d gotten a kick from the warring audiences that he and Nine Inch Nails had summoned. And he’d fallen in love with the core of his touring band: Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford, Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson.
So when Bowie played the Budokan in June 1996, he’d winnowed the band down to this quartet (“this is the band that it probably should have been when we started,” Bowie told Ray Gun. “This is the best band I’ve had the pleasure to work with since the Spiders.”) Gone were the keyboardist Peter Schwartz, the singer George Simms and, most of all, Carlos Alomar. Alomar later told interviewers that he’d been unhappy for much of the Outside tour, that the new songs weren’t working for him and that Bowie was inaccessible. A cornerstone of Bowie’s music since 1974, Alomar now felt superfluous and lonely: even the friends he’d made on the road during the tours of the Seventies and Eighties were mostly gone. “It’s really upsetting to come into town and your friends have died of AIDS or they’re no longer there, or it’s been so long since the last time that they still think it’s Tin Machine so they don’t even show up,” he told David Buckley. “It became a question of, when will I have a chance to leave?”
With Alomar gone, it fell upon Gabrels to play all of the guitar parts, which led to ever more flamboyant, effects-heavy performances. The set-lists were punchier in the Festivals tour: Bowie debuted his version of “Lust for Life” and went back to glam with “Aladdin Sane,”“All the Young Dudes” and “White Light/White Heat.” Having to compensate for losing Alomar’s rhythm playing also let Bowie indulge in a new interest: jungle-inspired percussion loops. Having already experimented with jungle-esque beats on Outside tracks like “I’m Deranged” and “We Prick You,” Bowie and Gabrels, working with the producer Mark Plati, spent a few weeks before the tour crafting samples of beats, synth patterns and guitar lines for use on stage.
What’s great about him in that he’s constantly looking for new input. There’s all this stuff going on around us, and it’s so easy to just shut it out because it’s too much. Instead, he just wades right in, like an old lady at a basement sale. Instead of going through racks of clothes, he’s going through racks of ideas, pulling out what interests him.
Reeves Gabrels, on Bowie, 1997.
Whenever Earthling is disparaged, it’s often due to Bowie’s incursion into drum ‘n’ bass: “Bowie’s jungle safari.” “Grandad playing at break-beats,” etc. Why did this particular vampirism earn ridicule while Bowie’s earlier absorptions of funk, Krautrock, etc. were acceptable? Sure, some of it was age. Bowie was nearing 50, and to some he looked like a man in flagrant denial of that fact: dying his hair copper (to let fans see him better on stage during daylight shows, he said) and growing a satyr’s goatee, flailing around on stage in Alexander McQueen frock coats.
For the writer Mat Snow, in an interview in Buckley’s bio, Bowie’s embracing of jungle seemed “like a fairly cold decision…Earthling felt slightly like an arranged marriage.” It was a fair point: moving into jungle was something you expected Bowie to do in 1996—it was a hip, relatively underground genre that still had gotten attention in the press. It seemed tailor-cut for Bowie’s use. And Bowie’s statements about jungle tended towards the hyperbolic; they had the overheated flavor of the press release. Jungle was “the great cry of the twentieth century…it had this incredible pulse in the bottom like a heartbeat and this kind of chattering dialogue going on over the top…I thought this is an incredibly pertinent music to our times.”
Bowie said that drum ‘n’ bass (which he allegedly first heard in London in late 1992) was the most exciting thing he’d heard since reggae. Which was an odd comparison: Bowie had rarely mentioned reggae before, had seemed little in tune with it, and his few attempts at reggae in the mid-Eighties had resulted in some of the worst recordings of his life. (Arguably his best reggae track is “Ashes to Ashes.”) He’d always been a dilettante, a proud one, but he’d been a consistent one. Buddhism, mime, Krautrock, science fiction, soul, Scott Walker, chanson, the Velvet Underground, etc.: these were all long-established channels of influence, ones that Bowie could return to whenever he was running dry. By comparison, his immersion in drum ‘n’ bass seemed synthetic—a new grafting onto an old tree trunk.
Another factor in the reaction to Earthling was how jungle was treated by the music press (again, I offer an American perspective here). There seemed to be a press consensus that pop music moved in easily-definable cycles, usually coming in four- or five-year increments, so by the mid-Nineties it was time for a fresh spin. Grunge was dead, Britpop was going nowhere in the US, so the apparent pact was to make “electronica” the Next Big Thing. Hence lots of features and hype on Roni Size and the Chemical Brothers, ca. 1996, which didn’t translate much into radio play or record sales.
So Bowie’s dabbling with drum ‘n’ bass came as the original underground scene was drying up and smack-dab in the middle of the press overkill: it was a mid-air collision that left Earthling tainted as a sad bandwagon-chaser of a record. It ‘s an unfair criticism, one that ignores how fun and sharp much of the record is (and how much of Earthling really is about Bowie’s reconnection with Britain). And it’s not that he intended being a fervent acolyte of jungle. It would just be a new table-setting. As Bowie said in 1997, “I’m not a purist. Nothing I do is hardcore in any genre.”
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.
Kafka, The Trial.*
Before Earthling, before the summer festival tour, there was “Telling Lies.” It was a laboratory experiment: Bowie wrote most of it in Switzerland in the spring of 1996, intending to play with the song in the studio and build it out on stage. Bowie called “Telling Lies” “my first formal approach to juxtaposition between jungle and aggressive rock, and using a melodic line as a kind of easing the situation…it became an exercise piece, it kind of mutated throughout the tour.”
Before the tour resumed, Bowie assembled his band in New York in mid-May 1996 to rehearse and to do some recording (including samples for the upcoming live shows), including cutting a basic version of “Telling Lies.” The band played it throughout the tour, generally the version that wound up on Earthling,** while Bowie farmed out a mix of “Telling Lies” to a few DJs and producers for prospective mixes.
So like “I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Telling Lies” lacks a definitive version. Instead it has four faces: a drum-happy mix by Bowie and Plati, originally called the “Feelgood Mix,” which was the first version of “Lies” to be released (free on the Internet, a decade before In Rainbows–we’ll get into Bowie’s pioneer work with downloading in a later entry); a Guy Called Gerald’s “Paradox” mix (dub and ambient brewed in a kettle, with Bowie’s vocal twisted into odd shapes); Adam F.’s buoyant, airy take, with a better chorus/verse join than the LP track. For the album, Bowie went with a “heavier” rock mix: “I thought it was the most successful of the juxtapositions,” he said. “It’s not so dance oriented. it has a very dark atmosphere to it.”
As a song, “Telling Lies” suffered from being a guinea pig. A vague shamble between A minor and E major, its structure consisted of two intriguing verses affixed to bludgeoning, overlong choruses. Bowie’s vocal melody was a stitchwork of some obvious steals: the verses had the rhythm and melodic flavor of Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” and, more subtly, Eno’s “Fat Lady of Limbourg,” while the chorus even had a pinch of the Beach Boys’ “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (cf. “sometimes I feel very sad” in the latter to “feels like something’s gonna happen this year“). And there’s a heavy-handedness to the “rock” choruses, with Bowie discarding the intricate dialogue of heavy bass/clattering, pilled-up treble of the best jungle tracks in favor of a sludgier bottom end.
Much as how the percussion loops were barely-altered versions of those on “We Prick You,” most of its lyric seemed like Outside rejects. But if baffling and clunky on record, lines like “gasping for my resurrection” and “come straggling in your tattered remnants” came alive on tour, with Bowie playing a Satanic figure in his performance, coming across as an aging imp of the perverse. As a transition piece, “Lies” worked well, getting the band into the frame of mind for what would become Earthling. When they got off the road, Bowie hustled to take a “sonic photograph” of them in the studio before they lost their tour-hardened sound.
Recorded ca. March-April 1996, Mountain Studios, Montreux; ca. mid-May 1996, August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released, in Mark Plati’s “Feelgood Mix,” as a download on 11 September 1996 and as a 12″ single (RCA/BMG 74321397412) in November 1996. A Guy Called Gerald’s “Paradox Mix” and the “Adam F mix” also were issued as downloads in September. The album mix is, unsurprisingly, on Earthling.
* One thought on where the title line may have come from; likely a wrong guess. For those interested in the minutiae of translation, I recommend this piece on the perils of translating Kafka (the opening line of Der Prozess should more accurately read “slandered” instead of “telling lies,” which gives a more bureaucratic, legal flavor to the clause).
** The main differences between the 1996 live performances and the LP version was a different opening line for the second verse (the very Outside-sounding “see me bowing to torture’s pain“) and Bowie occasionally singing “starting fires!” in the chorus, an obvious nod to the Prodigy (at Loreley, Bowie made the sign of the horns in tribute).
“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.
Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.
This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirlssoundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.
I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.
Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)
He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.
The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.
So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.
Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**
As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.
There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.
But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.
Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***
The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.
For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.
Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.
* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.
** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.
*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.
Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.