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Record Collector Presents Bowie DECEMBER 2016 - by Tom Seabrook
From recording some of the most experimental music of his career, to creating a chart hit with Pet Shop Boys, Bowie strove to assert his relevance in the '90s. Tom Seabrook traces his journey into unknown territory.
David Bowie's '90s output is the most varied and divisive of his career. For some, it's the work of a man still searching for new forms and inspirations after twenty-odd years of record-making; for others, the increasingly diminishing returns of a middle-aged magpie trying too hard to keep up with what the kids are listening to. Like it always does, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Released within months of the hit-and-misstep Black Tie White Noise - and reportedly written and recorded in six days - 1993's The Buddha Of Suburbia started out as a series of short musical interludes composed for the BBC adaptation of the novel of the same name by fellow Bromley boy Hanif Kureishi. Bowie and his cohorts - primarily producer/programmer David Richards and Turkish multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay - then stretched out those pieces (sometimes literally, by slowing down the tape) into a quirky set of songs that range from the wistful title track to the wordless ambience of The Mysteries and Ian Fish, UK Heir. The highlight is Strangers When We Meet, then the latest entry in a long line of windswept ballads, and a song so good that Bowie re-recorded it for his next album.
Dismissed (or simply ignored) by some as a minor side-project - and, in a mark of its creator's low standing in the early '90s, not even released in the US until 1995 - Buddha is a comparatively slight yet engaging work that the arch-contrarian Bowie would one day declare to be his favourite of his own albums.
On most of Bowie's records, there's a song that hints at where he'll go next (see Queen Bitch, Big Brother, Station To Station). On Buddha, it's South Horizon, a jazzy assemblage featuring a suitably manic piano break by Mike Garson, back in the fold alter nearly twenty years in the wilderness (for which he reportedly had his then recent renunciation of Scientology to thank). Garson was one of several past collaborators to be called back when work started on Outside (or, to use its full title: 1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle) in the spring of 1994; among the others were Richards and Kızılçay, rhythm guitar maestro Carlos Alomar and Tin Machine bandleader Reeves Gabrels. But the big headline was the return, as Bowie's musical and troublemaking foil, of Brian Eno.
"I ran into him at my wedding," Bowie later recalled, when asked what prompted their reunion. They spent a couple of years talking about what was right and wrong with modern music before deciding to go into the studio together without any preconceived song ideas. Among Eno's non-musical contributions was to assign each of the players a character role: "You are a member of an early twenty-first-century 'Art And Language' band"; "Your favourite historical figure is Shadow Morton". (One imagines Alomar cursing his luck, having been a reluctant participator in Eno's Oblique Strategies in Berlin all those years before.)
The resulting Outside, completed the following February in New York, is a dense and sometimes confusing work, its lyrics about "art crimes" and murder having been cut up and spat out by a computer, but it also contains a number of Bowie's strongest songs for years. The Hearts Filthy Lesson, his wilfully obtuse choice of first single, is a lurid nightmare of crosscut guitars, one-note bass and atonal found sound; The Motel builds slowly into a gorgeous lament for "no hell like the old hell". And then there's the brutal Hallo Spaceboy (in its original industrial incarnation, rather than the Pet Shop Boys remix); I'm Deranged, put to fantastic use in David Lynch's Lost Highway; the superior remake of Strangers When We Meet; and the nagging hook of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town.
Running to seventy-five minutes, Outside is Bowie's longest album by some distance - something he would admit to regretting almost as soon as it came out. Among the telling asides about the record in Eno's fascinating diary of 1995, A Year (With Swollen Appendices), are that "unfortunately, since we're working on forty-eight-track, far too much can survive" and, simply, "I wish it was shorter." Certainly, there's no pressing need for the spoken-word "segues" that punctate some of the songs, while a few of the later tracks outstay their welcome. And yet, at its dark heart, there's a killer nine or ten-song album lurking within - one that might have come close to the impossibly high standards Bowie set in the '70s, had its creators been more ruthless in the final assembly.
All the talk on Outside's release was of it being the first part in another Bowie-Eno trilogy, planned as a thematically linked "hyper-cycle", with a second volume, Contamination, due to follow once Bowie completed a co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails. In interviews over the next few years, Bowie would report that the Outside crew had cut more than twenty hours of material - "and there are some absolute gems on there..."
What came next, however, was not Contamination but something else entirely: 1997's drum'n'bass-inspired Earthling. (Or, to the uncharitable, Uncle Dave Goes Jungle.) Work on the album started within days of the completion of the European Outside tour, with Bowie keen to bottle the sound he and his band, latterly trimmed to a five-piece and anchored by drummer Zack Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, had developed onstage. Working quickly at Philip Glass' Looking Glass Studios in New York with engineer Mark Plati (who would later become Bowie's musical director), they recorded the album's nine songs in less than three weeks.
In some ways the natural extension of Outside's most electronic moments, Earthling is a fierce and dynamic album, but not every one of its experiments come off. The best tracks are the ones where the ideas are given more room to breathe, rather than being piled high with special effects, such as the atmospheric, filmic Seven Years In Tibet or the urgent Telling Lies.
Perhaps the most memorable moment on the album - and seemingly the one Bowie was most attached to, as it would remain a regular feature of his live sets to the end - is I'm Afraid Of Americans, a song he wrote with Eno but couldn't find a home for on Outside. An embryonic version appeared on the soundtrack to Paul Verhoeven's justly maligned Showgirls, with a different chorus line ("I'm afraid of the animals"); the Earthling version is more lithe, with more bile in its anti-globalist (rather than specifically anti-American) lyric. "The invasion by any homogenised culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so," Bowie explained in a press release. "It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life."
Earthling was released a month after Bowie turned fifty, a landmark he celebrated with a star-studded concert at Madison Square Garden, performing a series of duets with The Pixies' Frank Black, Foo Fighters and his old mate Lou Reed. For better or worse, it was the last of his albums to be defined by his search for a new sound (at least until ★). From now on, he'd be content to make records that sounded like David Bowie.
The single version of Hallo Spaceboy was remixed by Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant remembers working with an idol.
I met David properly on the Outside tour, at Wembley, in 1995. It was an absolutely fabulous show and I was furious with The Sun for claiming that people were walking out in droves because he wasn't doing things like Space Oddity. If I were David I would have sued, because they were trying to damage his career.
When I was introduced to David, I told him I liked Hallo Spaceboy and he said, "You guys should remix it for me." We ended up doing a lot of work to make it a more conventional single, as it only had one verse.
I thought, as David does cut-up lyrics and as it's about space, I'll cut up the words of Space Oddity for the second verse and turn it into the third part of the Major Tom trilogy. When I told David what I'd done, he didn't seem too happy about it! There was a pause on the end I of the phone and he said, "Mmm, sounds like I'd better come into the studio, I think."
I thought, "Oh God, we're in trouble!" But he listened to the track and laughed, and said we should keep it in. For me, it seemed to bring together the most powerful themes of Bowie's work: the fascination with space, futurism and sexual confusion. It seemed to be a very current mix at the time.
Pet Shop Boys seem to have a reputation for doing collaborations, but we don't do them very often. One of the reasons is that when we do - the David Bowie single being a classic example - they almost invariably appear to be duets, and our profile on the record is suddenly incredibly high. You can't release too many records like that, or everyone's going to get bored with it. But if I listen to Hallo Spaceboy now, I think it's a fantastic record.
At the time, however, I was worried that David thought we'd "won". The song had gone in such a different direction that he found himself guesting on a Pet Shop Boys record. But I saw him at the Astoria after that and he was really nice.