Looking for Satellites

June 6, 2013


Looking for Satellites.
Looking for Satellites (50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
Looking for Satellites (GQ Awards, 1997).
Looking for Satellites (live, 1997).

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.]