Telling Lies

May 23, 2013

belgique

Telling Lies (debut performance, Nagoya, Japan, 1996).
Telling Lies (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Telling Lies (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Telling Lies.
Telling Lies (Adam F. mix).
Telling Lies (A Guy Called Gerald “Paradox” mix).
Telling Lies (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Telling Lies (NPA Canal, 1997).
Telling Lies (live, 1997).

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.

loreley

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.”

lies lies lies yeah

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.

liesliesliesyeah

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).

RIP: Trevor Bolder.

Top: Christian de Prost, “Belgique, Leuven,” 1996; lies, lies, lies.