OK Riot/ I’d Rather Be Chrome

January 16, 2013

cruelty in art

OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome.
I’d Rather Be Chrome (different edit, with “Nathan Adler” dialogue).

The main problem with the Eighties was the Eighties. One of the first things [Eno and I] talked about when we got back together again…was the fact that both of us really hated the Eighties. It was such a nebulous, commerce-oriented period that we both felt invalidated. Brian went off to Malaysia for quite a long time and I went off to bed for a lot of that period.

David Bowie, interview by Seconds, August/September 1995.

I’m an atheist and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is that someone knows what’s going on.

Brian Eno, unpublished interview for New Route, 1992.

One Man Goes to the Wedding

On the first Saturday of June 1992, in the “American” church of Florence, Brian Eno was at the wedding of a man who he hadn’t seen in thirteen years. He was taken by how Bowie and Iman’s wedding seemed intended for a studio audience; it was a spectacle funded by Hello! magazine. So Eno turned correspondent. In the words of his biographer David Sheppard, Eno “spent time observing the body movements of Bowie and Iman as they worked the floor, creating a typically whimsical illustrative diagram in his notebook.” A month later, Eno, in London, gave a lecture called Perfume, Defence and David Bowie’s Wedding.

At the reception, Bowie mentioned to Eno that he’d written some instrumental pieces for the wedding, some of which eventually appeared on Black Tie White Noise. The groom commandeered the DJ’s system to play Eno some tapes (the other guests must have been delighted). Eno was intrigued: Bowie seemed to have awoken from a long slumber. “We were suddenly on the same course again,” Bowie later said. They agreed, tentatively, to work together.

There have been very few occasions where I feel there’s somebody who actually meets my requirements, that I feel is either intellectually or aesthetically aware of what I’m doing as Brian. He knows what I’m doing. No other fucker that I’ve worked with actually has a clue half the time…Brian is incredibly selfish, which I very much admire about him.

Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, RayGun, 1995.

A year and a half passed. Eno was a beehive, producing and making a half-dozen albums, among other activities (lectures, exhibits, a new daughter). Bowie made Buddha of Suburbia. The latter convinced Eno that Bowie was serious about experimentation again—he even sent a letter of praise. Bowie and Eno occasionally mailed each other “mini-manifestos about what we would and wouldn’t do in the studio, so that at least when we went in we’d have a set of concepts that would enable us to avoid all the things we find boring and bland in popular music,” Bowie recalled to Interview.

So the album began as a negative: Eno and Bowie defining what they would not make, in the hopes of finding spaces left open. Eno, to Musician, said that “a big ‘won’t” in this case was, we don’t want to make another record of a bunch of songs. That just is not an interesting thing to do at the moment. There’s got to be a bigger landscape in play than that.”

But as they started work in early spring 1994, the pair, despite their revolutionary communiqués, fell back on tried methods. In particular, those of their last project, Lodger, whose random-at-gunpoint methodology—Eno using Oblique Strategies cards on the session musicians; making the band change chords whenever he pointed to a new one on a chalkboard—would also be the guiding force of Outside. For Bowie, it was 1980 again. “It was almost as though no time had been wedged in, like we were carrying on from the third album together.

Lodger had been released without much fuss, while Bowie and Eno would make far greater claims on Outside‘s behalf. The more “avant garde” cast of players on Outside also meant a receptive environment for Eno’s art pranks in the studio (well, except for Erdal Kizilcay, see below). But Bowie and Eno began already boxed in, spending much of their time trying to upend their and their public’s expectations. It was a seemingly impossible task. There was now an established method to make a “Bowie/Eno” album, and the two of them were dutifully following it.

dhshark

How would you describe your part in the music history?

Interfering. Mischief maker.

Bowie, interview by Stockholm TV, 1996.

At times they accepted the futility of being “new” again, and used their past as raw material. Bowie had been a experimental nostalgist on Buddha, after all. He had lived long enough, he’d made enough music, that he could call up his past as if it was a set of songs on a jukebox, and use a taste of some old edition of Bowie to season a track. And Eno had become a brand (he would give lectures to both the EC and Tony Blair on “cultural issues” in the mid-Nineties) and had started playing with brand identities. His work with U2 on Achtung Baby and Zooropa had used “Bowie and Eno in Berlin” as a genre, exploiting the images and the textures that the period invoked.*

Outside would be aptly named. While the album featured some of Bowie’s finest songs of his later years, they were hard to discern. The bizarre quasi-narrative that Bowie created to frame the record was a ruse, just David Lynchian window-dressing, but it also was a crazy quilt of Bowie’s various obsessions—Arthurian legend, Gnosticism, Aleister Crowley, etc.—a stream of associations flooding into the work, as if a dam had burst. Outside was defined by, and consumed with, interpretation and perception. It seemed to be nothing but a frame, a frame that housed smaller frames and circus-house mirrors. Its underlying tension (it’s Bowie’s most claustrophobic album, which is saying something) came from the collision of the public image of “Eno and Bowie” and the pair’s thwarted desires to erase themselves. So Bowie called himself an author, creating a set of characters in a narrative that intentionally made no sense, while Eno wrote a set of science fiction scenarios and made a group of rock musicians act them out.

Over 1994 and 1995, with the specter of Scott Walker’s impending new album looming over the mixing sessions (Bowie was convinced Walker would show him up, and arguably, with Tilt, Walker did—we’ll get to this on “The Motel”), Bowie and Eno kept upping the ante of their project, raising each other’s pretensions with each new interview.

So an album that had started as a radical experiment, a few weeks of identity games, art therapy and anti-jam sessions, wound up marketed as a hyper-text non-linear narrative, the first in an intended five-album series. Bowie and Eno would put out an album to commemorate each remaining year of the millennium; the later records might continue the Nathan Adler non-storyline that Bowie devised for Outside or he might devise other characters.** “It’ll be the Nicholas Nickelby of rock by the time it’s finished,” he told Moon Zappa. The series would distill the remaining days of the 20th Century, flatten and preserve the years as if they were dried flowers in the pages of a book. And the scheme would culminate, Bowie said, in a grand concert in 1999, possibly held at a Viennese opera house, possibly at the Salzburg Festival, possibly directed by Robert Wilson, possibly six or eight hours long (“pack a sandwich!” Bowie said in a few interviews). Then the world would end.

Two Men Go to the Asylum

see the shark how red his fins are

I’m a creature of eclecticism, aren’t I? I think I like complications. I like things that tend to be endless puzzles…I like thickly textured things.

Bowie, press conference for the European Outside tour, 1995.

None of this happened (well, maybe the world ended, and we weren’t told). Outside had the same fate as other Bowie projects, especially Diamond Dogs: grand inaugural claims, a compromised first product, a tour, which led to new interests, with Bowie then visibly growing uninterested in the old project, which he soon discarded. So all that exists of the colossal millennial dream of Bowie and Eno’s collective imagination is a 74-minute album, a few B-sides, a piece of fiction Bowie wrote for Q magazine that was recycled as liner notes and, marginally, a few music videos.

Could they really have pulled it off? I can’t imagine so, and I can’t imagine Bowie and Eno wanted to. Outside is just the ticket stub from a conceptual art project that Bowie and Eno carried out in the press during 1995 and 1996. Much like Bowie’s detective story, the millennial project was mainly left to the reader or listener’s imagination, where it would fare better than if Bowie and Eno had been on stage for eight hours in Vienna. The sheer amount of information Bowie said he was processing, his apparent attempt to collocate seemingly every thought he’d had in the Nineties, made any attempt to turn his public effusions into art a Sisyphean task.

But go back to 1994. Bowie and Eno began by crossing off what they wouldn’t do. What were the positive inputs? (“We were looking for grist for the mill,” Bowie said.) For Bowie, there were a host of ideas he was playing with, which we’ll get into in future entries. These included: his fascination with the growing appeal of piercing and tattooing, how that reflected a growing “tribalism” and how it was a domestic version of the extremities of the body artists, who trafficked in mutilation and death as performance art (something that had intrigued Bowie since the Seventies, see “Joe the Lion”); the collapse of cultural “narratives,” usurped by an ever-broadening chaotic stream of information; his love of Twin Peaks. And his sense that the West, in the Nineties, was entering into a period of cultural binging and purging, a shedding of skins before the millennium, with a taste for violent sex and stylish murder—hence the popularity of serial killer movies and TV shows, the paranoia of everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to The X-Files. Bowie predicted that the 2000s would be a calmer, more reflective period, which perhaps it was for him.

out of sight

Eno shared another of Bowie’s hobbyhorses: “outsider” art. Again, this wasn’t anything new: Eno’s work in the Seventies with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a symphony of players who’d never touched their instruments before, had been a variation of this. But in early 1994, the two of them, in their first act as collaborators, went to an artist’s asylum in Vienna. This was the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, whose therapy included housing mentally ill patients with artistic ambitions in one wing, where they were allowed to paint the walls, couches and even trees.

Bowie spent two days sketching the artists, while Eno recorded their conversations. For Bowie and Eno, these were the true late Twentieth Century artists: people making art without any knowledge of contemporary styles and tastes, directly channeling their internal temperaments onto canvases or walls, working seemingly without ambition or influence. They were artists who, in some cases, literally did not know who they were, and as such were inspirational. “We felt an exhilaration watching them work,” Bowie said.

Six Men Play Games

mereenfant

It occurred to me that this raw material was, in its own chaotic and perilous way, as much a part of their work as the songs that would finally grow out of it.

Eno, on his work with James.

Another template Eno used for the first sessions was what he’d done with the Mancunian band James in the summer of 1993. Over six weeks at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios, Eno set up a split-screen creative process. During the day, James recorded their official major-label album, Laid, whose title track would become a worldwide hit single. Then late at night, in a second studio, Eno pushed the band to make what he called a “shadow album,” where James would improvise without being given any sense of direction. Their lead singer Tim Booth, towards the end of the sessions, would add first-take vocals to a set of tracks that Eno chose and quickly mixed.*

Now the goal was to do nothing but a “shadow album,” a dark mirror of a commercial album Bowie never made. Eno crafted an immersive role-playing group improvisation. He brought his Oblique Strategies cards out, but he also devised characters for all musicians and engineers to play, giving them names, tastes, habits and back stories, all of which they weren’t to share with the other players (see here).

There was some resistance to this from Erdal Kizilcay, who was in the position of Carlos Alomar on Lodger-–a professional musician and longtime Bowie collaborator who resented the antics of Eno who, in Kizilcay’s words, “couldn’t play four bars.” But Gabrels and Mike Garson were inspired by the games (Bowie: “With Garson, for example, we could just say: “Mike, be yourself,” and it’s so nutty that there was no need to set parameters“), while the drummer, Sterling Campbell, was a strong and supple enough player that he gave any random, bizarre improvisation some needed heft.

[Eno and I] had an idea that we wanted to create some kind of situation that never really happened, but film it as though it had happened, document an event which never took place.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

So the sextet (Eno mainly keeping to the control booth) started recording in March 1994, working for about three weeks in Mountain Studios. Gabrels came to Switzerland a week early to reconnect with Bowie, who he hadn’t seen since the Black Tie sessions. Gabrels thought he would be doing some preliminary writing with Bowie as well, but Bowie was more interested in having long conversations, and allegedly had prepared nothing for the sessions. On the official first day of recording, an overall-clad Bowie greeted the players and handed them tools—paintbrushes, wallpaper hangers, carpets, canvases. Before playing anything, they would first redecorate the studio. Each player would get a corner of their own: Bowie turned his into an atelier, painting and sketching the players for days before he sang a note.

Eno ran the sessions like a man trying to break children of bad habits. He disrupted the jams whenever he thought they were growing conventional, using “strategies designed to stop the thing from becoming over-coherent.” What happens when four musicians come together in a room and jam? They always start playing the blues, Eno said. Eno was a dedicated enemy of the blues. So he had everyone wear headphones, through which he would pipe in samples of clocks, words looped from French radio broadcasts and songs from Motown tapes, all while the musicians played.

dhdisc

I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done….I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing.

Bowie, interview with Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.

The peak moment came, Bowie said, on 12 March 1994 (or 20 March, according to another interview). The band improvised for three and a half hours while Bowie, with pages of random-generated lines spread out across a table before him, channeled a series of characters. He tried out a new accent, a new perspective, every few minutes, reading stray lines from various sheets, tumbling out words. Out of this “blindingly orgiastic” (Bowie’s later effusion) session came the core of what would be Outside—some of the music, and most of all the origin of the various characters Bowie would devise for the album’s narrative, like the detective Nathan Adler and the victim Baby Grace Blue. The work soon became known as Leon, after one of Bowie’s characters.

According to Bowie and Garson, anywhere from 22 to 35 hours of material came out these sessions. It’s unclear how far along the sequencing and editing of Leon went, but the avant-garde wing of the group, Gabrels and Eno (and possibly Garson), pushed for some version of the sessions to be released quickly. (Gabrels said the final Leon was around four hours in length.) Eno proposed putting a two- or three-CD album out without a name, like Bowie’s “Pallas Athena” single. Gabrels said one model could be Prince’s Black Album (or his later-to-come Crystal Ball): a quasi-bootleg, an artillery barrage of music, offered without explanation.

Instead, the Leon moment passed. Bowie kept working on the tapes, calling back Gabrels to Switzerland every other month throughout 1994. Perhaps today Bowie would’ve just seeded the complete Leon sessions on a torrent, but in 1994 he needed a record label again. And he found himself with a set of tapes that, while filled with ominous moods and brilliant moments, were commercially unreleasable. As with Tin Machine II, Bowie spent a year trying to get a label interested in his tapes, and in early 1995 he went back in the studio and recorded a set of more “palatable” songs (almost half of the final album, including his revised “Strangers When We Meet”) to sweeten the pot.

So Leon became Outside. In his 1995 diary, Eno complained that Bowie had cluttered up the songs too much. Gabrels would also publicly regret what he considered an unfortunate compromise of one of Bowie’s most radical works. “It would have been a very serious musical statement (and maybe pissed off more people than Tin Machine),” he recalled on his website a decade later. “Gary Oldman and I used to commiserate on how your best stuff….your most real and honest work seems to be what ends up on the cutting room floor. Uh huh.”

And One Gumshoe Gets Shod

92dam

Happily (or not), we have some evidence to examine Eno and Gabrels’ claims. Some of the Leon tapes leaked in 2003 (Gabrels speculated they were stolen from Westlake Studios, where they were mixed in late 1994) and have been scattered across the Internet ever since, existing in fragments. The two best assessments of Leon are at the Illustrated DB Discography site, which lists the contents of the complete 70-minute leaked Leon tape, and a sequencing by the blog Russman’s Records. Russman proposes, and I agree, that at some point Leon appeared to have been sequenced as a two-part work. The first group was a series of discrete songs, while the second was a 22-minute suite, allegedly called “Inside.”(This may be what Gabrels once referred to as an “operatic” work that was part of Leon.) The first section of the suite, “I Am With Name,” was hived off to become a track on the official Outside, as we’ll see.

[Update: After hearing the Leon tape, I can instead say that Leon (at least one proposed disc of it) was actually three suites, of roughly 20 to 28 minutes in length apiece. Annotations on the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite here, “The Enemy Is Fragile” suite here and “I Am With Name” here.]

“OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome,” the centerpiece of the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, is a fairly coherent song by the standards of Leon. Bowie sings it in the “Forties gumshoe” voice of Nathan Adler, who would be the narrator of Outside, and it opens like the first scene of an SF noir film. It was the night of an OK riot. (The ancestor of Adler’s voice was one of Bowie’s vocal guises that briefly appears on “Sweet Thing”: if you wannit, BOISE.”) Adler recalls Ramona A. Stone: she swanned along the street, with her wavy hair and her research greens. Bowie later said that Adler represented, for him, a dying piece of the 20th Century, a small figure of resistance to the millennial tide. Adler was a man who’d once existed in a recognizable narrative structure (in this case, a detective serial) and who was trying to solve a crime using his old methods, which no longer applied to the chaotic environment of Oxford Town in 1999.

Still, this was a perspective Bowie offered long after Adler first appeared on Leon. After a minute of the “OK riot” sequence, Bowie in his Adler voice, moves into a chorus in which he seems to be calling out for mechanical conversion, singing  in a sharp, barking voice. I’d rather be CHROME! Than stay here at HOME! Gabrels, in the second verse, plays a riff that calls back to Television’s “Glory,” while Garson’s piano slowly increases in tempo, becoming a series of spikes. Campbell, constantly shifting his patterns throughout, at one point plays something akin to a reggae “one drop” pattern (hitting bass and snare on the third beat of each measure); he keeps the group at their labors like a man supervising a prison gang.

Adler mutters in disgust, as the sketch he tried to fill in starts to flake away. Leon, can ya hear? An urban tribe appears on the street in the distance: “they’re black and white and LOUD!” Applause. The song disintegrates: Gabrels plays solemn arpeggios, Garson plays frenetic chords, as if he’s following a metronome whose pace a prankster keeps jacking up. Then there’s a jump cut into…

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Unreleased.

* The early Nineties is when the “Berlin” Bowie albums were canonized (and became an influence for a new generation—viz. Trent Reznor, allegedly listening to Low daily). While the albums had been indifferently reviewed and had sold relatively poorly, the release of the trilogy on CD by Ryko, in summer 1991, kicked off their rehabilitation. By decade’s end Low had supplanted Ziggy Stardust as the “top classic” Bowie album in critics’ lists.

** Though the later records are simply rumors, consensus has it that the second one was to be called either 2. Inside or 2. Contamination. That the third was to be titled 3. Afrikaans is an unconfirmed bit of apocrypha.

*** This record, called Wah-Wah, would be a sore point for the band. Booth wanted to rerecord some of his vocals and there were arguments as to what to do with the album (release it as a bonus disc to Laid or, as happened, put it out as an ill-received sequel record in 1994).

Sources: I am greatly indebted to the magnificent Bassman’s David Bowie Page, which has transcriptions seemingly of every major interview Bowie gave in 1995. Also, thanks to Ian McDuffie for some help with Leon.

Top to bottom: Damien Hirst, Away From the Flock, 1994 (in the Saatchi Gallery, London); Two Similar Swimming Forms in Endless Motion (Broken), 1993; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991;  Out of Sight, Out of Mind, 1991; Mother and Child Divided, 1993; Philip (The Twelve Disciples), 1994; She Wanted to Find the Most Perfect Form of Flying, 1992.