"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut APRIL 2013 - by David Cavanagh
Why has he come back? Because he has plenty to say, and new ways of saying it. Because he couldn't keep silent any longer...
Religious dissidents and juvenile delinquents, Greenwich Village and Potsdamer Platz, doomed soldiers and vacuous celebrities... To mark the auspicious arrival of David Bowie's twenty-fourth twenty-fourth album, David Cavanagh files the epic, definitive review of The Next Day. Plus: we talk to Bowie's key collaborators this time round, and discover he's been surprisingly busy since 2003.
This is how it ended. The crowd booed and catcalled. Bowie reeled away in pain. When he returned to the microphone, his voice had a bitter rasp. "Yeah, let's do that again all fuckin' night! Where are you, creep? Yeah, I guess it's easier to get lost in the crowd, you bastard." Reports of the incident swept the internet: a lollipop had been thrown by a fan in an audience in Oslo, hitting Bowie straight in the eye. It rivalled the Lord's Prayer at Wembley as the most bizarre event of his performing life. A week later, in Prague, Bowie complained of chest pains. A trapped nerve in his shoulder, they said, but within forty-eight hours he suffered a heart attack at a festival in Germany. It was June 25, 2004. The rest of the tour was cancelled as Bowie underwent emergency surgery on a blocked artery. After the operation came the shutdown, the withdrawal. No albums, no tours, merely rumours of ill health and retirement. Five years became six, and eight became nine, and the world accepted that Bowie's remarkable career in music was over.
This is how it starts. The crowd are baying for blood. A man is chased through the streets and dragged to a river on the back of a cart. Dead bodies pile upon the shore. There's a "purple-headed priest" whom everyone is terrified of. Are we listening to the fate of one of the Tudor heretics? Or a dissident of the Catholic Church in John Wyciiffe's time? Perhaps the action takes place in an even earlier century, like the eleventh, where the priests, omnipotent and supposedly omniscient, "can't get enough of that Domesday song". Bowie comes to a climactic line and lets fly with a roar that almost strips the skin from his mouth: "They know God exists FOR THE DEVIL TOLD THEM SO!"
Drums pound. Guitars slash. Bowie is tortured and left to writhe in a "hollow tree". Death is approaching, but when? Barely conscious, he watches the shadows lengthen as the day dawns and dims. "And the next day, and the next day, and the next..."
It's 2013. David Bowie has re-entered the building.
January 8 was a Tuesday. We awoke to headlines that made us rub our sleepy eyes in disbelief. Bowie had stolen in like a thief in the night, uploading a new single on his sixty-sixth birthday (Where Are We Now?) and announcing the of an album (The Next Day) that had been recorded in conditions of Freemason-esque secrecy. Where Are We Now?, an elegy to Berlin and Iggy Pop, was the sound of an ageing Bowie, a frail Bowie scouring his memory for video footage of his past. The song was comparable to two of his finest latter-day ballads, The Loneliest Guy and Thursday's Child, but was sadder than either because you could hear that he was struggling to sing.
But a magician must perforce deceive in order to lay his trick. Where Are We Now? was a classic case of misdirection. Bowie "wanted to sound vulnerable", revealed co-producerTony Visconti, his relief exploding like a cork from a bottle now that he was finally free to discuss the project. The Next Day. Visconti stressed, was an album of "blistering rock" and we were unlikely to glean too many clues from the single. But by the simple expedient of identifying a handful of Berlin landmarks, Bowie ensured that the public would be primed to expect melancholia, old haunts, fading memories and bygones. They'd be tantalised by the prospect of this legendarily enigmatic man looking back over his sixty-six years in a mood of regret (or maybe pride) and phrasing his mortality in verses of honesty and disclosure. The public is about to get the shock of its life.
One of the album's characters is twenty-two. Another is seventeen. Another could be as young as fourteen. Far from concerning itself with Bowie's demise, two songs openly wish death on others. If Bowie was granting interviews, which he isn't, there are four songs that he'd be quizzed about by every journalist in every city. One of them is so provocative that when The Next Day goes on sale in Hollywood. A-list celebrities will start texting each other in a panic. Bowie's singing on the album is magisterial, spanning an actorly range of voices with such consummate ease that other singers will be left wondering how he does it. There are some criticisms, of course: it's not a flawless masterpiece and it loses its way badly in the middle. But its aggression and intelligence demand our unconditional attention. The lyrics are fascinating. There's more language to engage with than on any Bowie album, arguably, since Outside - quite an achievement as Outside was virtually a novel. Bowie's lyrics, in fact, provide the answer to the question Why Has He Come Back? He's come back, clearly, because he has plenty to say, and new ways of saying it, and couldn't keep silent any longer.
A loud discharge from the drums (whoomph!) and we're in. Harsh guitars dominate the early proceedings. This is the title track and it's super-intense. This is music that wants to get us in a headlock and throw us around the room. We hear a Public Enemy siren squeal and the first words on a Bowie album in ten years are: "'Look into my eyes,' he tells her / 'I'm going to say goodbye,' he says, yeah." Bowie's punching out the lyrics with the same insistent rhythm that he used in Repetition (on Lodger), but much fiercer, emphasising keywords with a teeth-bared shout. He takes us on a tour of the alleys, shows us the disease-ridden townspeople, introduces the "purple-headed priest" and holds us spellbound as the song races headlong towards the gallows.
After that thrilling entrance, Dirty Boys is an abrupt detour. It has a wonky rhythm that grinds and grimaces. A frazzled guitar (Earl Slick) makes some splintery Fashion-esque outbursts, but the sparse ambience is closer to Iggy Pop's The Idiot than to Scary Monsters. A baritone saxophone enters with a lurch, almost comically, as though playing along to a film about a man with a pronounced limp. Bowie sings in a peculiarly chewy voice, if you can imagine him sucking a gobstopper while trying to impersonate Edward Fox. "I will buy you feather hat / I will steal a cricket bat / Smash some windows, make a noise / We will run with dirty boys." They're a gang. A bunch of violent kids whose "die is cast", who "have no choice". There's something jagged about the language that smacks of A Clockwork Orange, and Bowie's stylised voice seems like an extra device to validate the hoodlums' behaviour as literary, rather than mindless, destruction. We leave them to their nightly ritual.
A primary characteristic of The Next Day is the way in which it catapults us from one scenario to another, often across continents and centuries, requiring us to readjust and get our bearings. If the first song was set in the Middle Ages, and the second in some imaginary North London, the third, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), takes us to Hollywood and New York where the parties and premieres are strictly invite-only. It's sure to be one of the most talked-about songs on the album.
It begins with swishy confidence, busily arranged to bolster a disappointingly plain chord progression. There are three guitars (Bowie, Gerry Leonard, David Tom), a baritone sax and contrabass clarinet (both played by Steve Elson, a veteran of Let's Dance and Tonight), a recorder (Visconti), a four-piece string section and two female backing singers. A snappy vocal hook is heard from time to time, giving the song a Style Council pop-soul tinge. The lyrics make a few punning connections between stars in the sky and stars in the movies, and then, without warning. Bowie goes on the attack.
Fame, he once commented, puts you there where things are hollow. Many songwriters of his vintage have railed at the ersatz celebrity of reality TV and The X Factor, but Bowie sounds like he's going after the big guns, not the small fry. "The stars are never far away... They watch us from behind their shades... We see Jack and Brad from behind their tinted windows... The stars are never sleeping... Dead ones and the living." This is Stepford Wives territory: celebrities with no lights on inside, menacing, robotic, inhuman. Bowie, losing patience with them, portrays them as a shamed, scared tribe huddling together in tight packs, bon by paranoia, with radiant smiles but vacant eyes. with - get this - "child wives" in tow. "We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever," he concludes with derision. If it had been written by Brett Anderson. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) would have minimal impact. Coming from Bowie, a celebrity at the absolute pinnacle of the pecking order, it's an extraordinary declaration of contempt for a society of untouchables. Many of them will strain to catch every nuance of The Stars (Are Out Tonight) while asking themselves if Bowie - one of their own - has coldly despised them all along.
The torrent of Bowie headlines on January 8 amounted to a campaign that no advertising company's budget could have bought. inevitably, interest in Bowie will have been reawakened right across the age spectrum, including tens of thousands, at a conservative estimate, who haven't bought a Bowie album in many years. These people will flock to The Next Day and digest it in isolation. For them it will be an album without backstory or context. But it can also be seen - should also be seen - as the third album in a sequence that got under way at the start of the millennium.
Rekindling his relationship with producer Visconti after twenty years, Bowie released two albums - Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) - that have quietly assumed the grandeur, if not the commercial status, of late-period classics. Though they have their differences, Heathen and Reality share a seriousness, a love of texture and an ambiguity of expression that allows multiple meanings to be read into them. In Heathen's case, it came to be seen as Bowie's response to September 11. For Reality, substitute the Iraq War. Bowie has a way of composing lyrics in non-linear fragments, but with manifest emotion within those fragments, so that the finished song seems to apply both to him and to mankind as a whole. He's anxious. It's an anxious world. lie feels alone. The world is a lonely place.
The Next Day has that geopolitical portentousness that Heathen and Reality had, without specifying nations or leaders. Many of its characters are helpless or hopeless, either out of reach or out of their depth. Something has angered Bowie to the point of slamming down his st. lie's reminiscent of Peter Finch's distraught newscaster in Network: "I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad." Finch ends his broadcast, you'll remember, by urging Americans to get up from their armchairs, throw open their windows and shout: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
So along with the clanging guitars, a grim trepidation courses through The Next Day, like the frozen urban tundra that formed the landscape of Anthony Moore's brilliant post-punk LP, Flying Doesn't Help. In more chilling moments one can detect the footprints of Scott Walker. It doesn't have to tell us things are bad. We know things are bad. It cannot be said to have a unity oft heme (Bowie may one day inform us to the contrary) and it lacks a unity of genre, but The Next Day can perhaps lay claim to something more intangible: a unity of climate. As much as it's all-new and shiny, it does sound like Heathen and Reality's natural successor.
We resume. Track four: Love Is Lost. Bowie holds his hands down on a keyboard, producing dramatic chords. Zachary Alford (who played drums on Earthling) inserts an idiomatic Ashes To Ashes catch in the beat. Gerry Leonard's bluesy guitar fills have a touch of Stevie Ray Vaughan on Let's Dance. A glam-rock refrain ("say hello, hello") takes us even further back.
Love Is Lost is about an emotionally disturbed twenty-two-year-old woman. She's alone and awake in "the hour of dread", "the darkest hour". It crosses the mind for an instant that Bowie might have devised a character through which to explore some dread of his own (is this going to be a song about dying?), but the lyrics become brutal and personalised as he adds more detail. "Your country's new, your friends are new / Your house and even your eyes are new / Your maid is new, and your accent too / But your fear is as old as the world". Another radiant starlet whose smile masks a secret despair? Whoever she is, her mind is disintegrating as she stares at her superficial construct, her plastic lie. Bowie ends the song with anguished cries of "Oh, what have you done?".
The single, Where Are We Now?, arrives next, all Potsdamer Platz and elegance. decelerating the album's heartbeat and slowing its blood to a trickle. The Next Day has become a sombre study of unhappy people depleted of energy. The teenage boy in Valentine's Day is not unhappy, but he's deeply troubled. He has fantasies about ruling humanity with a jackboot. He has an "icy heart". He looks harmless with his "tiny face" and "scrawny hands", but we do fear the worst. The musical references are to the past: a Ziggy-style vocal and a whiff of Lou Reed's Satellite Of Love (from Transformer), which Bowie co-produced. But Valentine doesn't live in London in 1972. More like Colorado or Ohio right now. Something's about to happen. Valentine is poised to act. The song has unspoken premonitions of a Columbine massacre.
Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey duet on If You Can See Me, a bewildering piledriver of a track. Counting the beat is impossible in its outlandish time signature. Performed and sung at the edge of hysteria, it's as frantic as the industrial cacophonies on Earthling, with some voice gimmickry that speeds Bowie up to gnome-like pitch. If You Can See Me is an experiment in pushing everything, including us, to the limit. The verses are couched in abstracts. Blue shoes. A red dress. A ladder. A crossroads. "Meet me across the river." Children swarm like "thousands of bugs towards a beacon on a hill. In one of the album's most exquisite passages, Bowie lowers his voice to a lordly baritone and croons: "Now, you could say I've got a gift of sorts / Veneer of rear windows and swinging doors / A love of violence, a dread of sighs." But children don't swarm of their own volition. The beacon on the hill is anything but a place of safety. When the lordly voice reappears, there's an unstable edge to it, the shrillness of megalomania. The character is unmistakably a monster. "I will take your lands and all that lays beneath... I will slaughter your kinds who descend from belief... I am the spirit of greed."
A medieval despot? Or did Bowie have someone more modern in mind? And is everyone on The Next Day going to turn out to be violent and insane?
For reasons best known to Bowie, the album has a tendency towards bland song titles that reveal nothing of the turbulent worlds inside. I'd Rather Be High is about a seventeen-year-old soldier flown to Cairo to join his regiment. They have received orders from "generals full of shit". The soldier has sympathy for his enemy ("I'd rather be dead, or out of my head, than training these guns on those men in the sand"). He worries about going crazy and dreams of home. "I'd rather smoke and phone my ex / Be pleading for some teenage sex". Zachary Alford adds to the authenticity by thrapping out a military drum pattern behind Gerry Leonard's guitar, but I'd Rather Be High could do with some of the melodic unpredictability of Never Get Old (from Reality), which it faintly resembles. As it is, there's no lift-off. I'd Rather Be High grumbles about generals, shoots and leaves.
Boss Of Me, co-written by Bowie and Leonard, is a feisty mid-tempo track like Dirty Boys with more of the colours filled in. Again, Steve Elson's baritone sax is prominent and the backing vocalists return. All the same, it's one of the least interesting songs on the album, with some crude changes as if ill-fitting pieces of unrelated songs had been clomped together as a compromise. There's also a naggingly subliminal association with Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, which it could've done without. The charmless punchline ("Who'd have thought a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me?") might have graced a Mick lagger solo album, if it were lucky, but is an incongruous piece of misogyny here. Dancing Out In Space, which follows, is equally inconsequential. A bouncy pop tune that revives the classic Supremes beat (You Can't Hurry Love) which inspired Bowie and Iggy's Lust For Life, Dancing Out In A Space has twinkle-star keyboards and wears a mid-'80s party frock. It's conceivable that it wants tobe Let's Go Crazy by Prince - when it grows up, anyway - but the lyrics are trite and it's hard to care about a sugar-candy throwaway after the action-packed twenty-five minutes before it. Who puts a trailer in the middle of a film? Getting The Next Day's psychological measure is tricky enough without being waylaid by a song whose chorus sounds like Darts singing about the boy from NewYork City.
The album is slipping away. But before we know it, we're back in wartime. How Does The Grass Grow? fades in like Robert Fripp's looped army of guitars on Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting, a nice illusion since Fripp doesn't actually play on the album. A soldier is writing a letter to his sweetheart back home. He urges her to go to a graveyard near some steps ("That's where we made our tryst"), a line that recalls Wilfred Owen. We remember from our Bowie biographies that a grandfather, Jimmy Burns, fought in the First World War. "The 3rd Hussars were sent to France and a week later rode into the battle at Mons." Peter and Leni Gillman write in Alias David Bowie. By winter 1914, the Hussars were "stricken with frostbite, the horses up to their hocks in mud". Sure enough, the song's chorus goes: "Where do the boys lie? / Mud, mud, mud! / How does the grass grow? / Blood, blood, blood".
A metallic riposte after the Motown interlude, How Does The Grass Grow? has a compassionate anti-war message, but is undermined by a curious Bowie-Dorsey vocal part that imitates the twangy melody of The Shadows' Apache. Bowie may have been seeking a Joe Meek-ian otherworldliness, and so used a tune from 1960, but the Apache motif takes only two listens to become irritating. Three and it becomes a serious issue. Much more appealing is a transition midway through in which the musicians relax and Bowie sings romantically in a Wild Is The Wind style.
The next track is the heaviest on the album. (You Will) Set The World On Fire stomps in with a staccato riff like early Van Halen or Rainbow's Since You Been Gone. It features a strikingly eccentric Bowie vocal - think of a barmy aristocrat whom the family keeps locked in the attic - which instantly puts us in mind of Look Back In Anger (Lodger). But we need to go back as far as Hunky Dory, and a strange young man with a voice like sand and glue, to pinpoint the location of (You Will) Set The World On Fire. It's midnight in the Village - Greenwich Village in the early '60s. Candles are lit in a nightclub. There are hints of furtiveness and concealment. "You say too much". Kennedy is mentioned, and Dave Van Ronk and Bobby (Zimmerman) and there's a "Joan" whose surname maybe Baez. A young singer is hoping to break out of the Village and make her name. The pummelling chorus taunts and sneers about "magazines". Earl Slick pulls offa bravura solo. "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire," said St Catherine of Siena (1347-80).
The penultimate track, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, is a ballad with a string arrangement that brings vivid flashbacks of the Ziggy era. Rock 'N' Roll Suicide looms unmistakably into view, as does Lou Reed's Perfect Day. A piano is tinkled sweetly as two lovers stroll through a park. Then the lyrics get a little bit nasty. Then they get very nasty indeed. "I'm going to tell the things you've done." The lovers have separated, and now one of them is hell-bent on exposure, incrimination, the apportioning of blame. Bowie launches into a devastating indictment of a person he once loved, singing like a wondrous union of himself, Piaf and Morrissey. The song will have everyone speculating. Is he writing in character? Or is the target real? Bowie sounds consumed with pain. "I want to see you clearly before you close the door / A room of bloody history / You made sure of that." He twists the knife. "I can see you as a corpse... I can read you like a book!" And now the sexual jealousy: "I can feel you falling / I hear you moaning in your room / Oh, see if I care! Oh, please, please, make it soon!" It's mighty, mighty stuff. When it's over, you want to rise to your feet, cry 'bravo!' and ing bouquets at the stage.
Nightmares pervade the final track, Heat. A sinister synthesiser buzzes in a low drone. A bass guitar snarls like a guard dog. Someone is having upsetting visions. A dead dog trapped between the rocks. The water can't flow because the dog is wedged tight. "My father ran the prison / I can only love you by hating him more / That's not the truth / It's too big a word". Bowie is muscling in on Scott Walker's terrain here - both vocally and lyrically - and when the eerie violins start to screech, Heat can no longer hide its palpable debt to Walker's The Electrician (1978), a song that Bowie has long admired. Walker was writing about the horrors of electric shock torture in a South American police station. Bowie's homage, sadly. is too woolly to be convincing. It's a deflating sensation to see him end The Next Day with a song so brazenly in thrall to a better one.
Visconti has claimed that twenty-nine tracks were recorded, which augurs well for another album in due course. Three bonus cuts from the sessions are included on The Next Day's deluxe edition. They're worth hearing. So She is a charming frolic through a Serge Gainsbourg '60s pop paintbox, with lush strings and a glockenspiel melody that Stereolab would be delighted with. Plan is a short, unfriendly instrumental. I'll Take You There, the best of the bonuses, is a driving rocker loaded with hooks and a terrifically catchy chorus ("What will be my name in the USA? / Who will I become in the USA?"). Hypothetically, it would have maximum singalong interactive potential for a suitably pumped-up audience. Realistically. nobody knows if Bowie's going to perform live again.
So it didn't turn out to be an album of ruminations, reverie and ghosts. The theories about The Next Day's title invoking Beckett and Macbeth proved unfounded. The passing of the days - endless days, blank days - has always been present in Bowie's work, from All The Madmen to The Buddha Of Suburbia. And it remains so. The days can look after themselves. The characters that we are, however, seem to be gaining frightening momentum as we hurtle towards the collisions that await us. Bowie has given us that much to ponder, and more besides, as he withdraws once again.
THE NEXT DAY
RELEASE DATE: March 11, 2013
LABEL: RCA (UK), Iso/Columbia (USA)
FORMATS: CD, deluxe CD (with three bonus tracks), iTunes, double-vinyl
PRODUCED BY: David Bowie and Tony Visconti
RECORDED IN: The Magic Shop and Human, New York City
MUSICIANS: David Bowie (vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards, string arrangements) / Gerry Leonard (guitar) / David Torn (guitar) / Earl Slick (guitar) / Gail Ann Dorsey (bass, backing vocals) / Tony Levin (bass) / Zachary Alford (drums) / Sterling Campbell (drums) / Steve Elson (baritone sax, contrabass clarinet) / Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, Anja Wood (strings) / Henry Hey (piano) / Tony Visconti (guitar, bass, recorder, string arrangements) / Janice Pendarvis (backing vocals)
STERLING CAMPBELL (Drums) - Joined Bowie's band in 1992 and served until the end of 2004's Reality tour: "Two and a half years ago, David took myself, Gerry Leonard and Tony [Visconti] and found some rinky-dink studio to keep it low-key he was trying out a bunch of ideas and we weren't even sure if it was going to be a record. I've been playing with david since Black Tie White Noise, so it wasn't like there was this crazy new approach. But David would be in the room playing with us, which doesn't happen lot. Even the drums bleeding into his mic became almost part of the concept. The special stuff is David's songwriting, he's always got a sense of adventure. When we were playing these songs, they just had working titles. Then David started switching things, so I don't really know what I'm playing on. It's like, 'I don't know if it's gonna be a boy or a girl!'"
TONY VISCONTI (Producer): "If people are looking for classic Bowie, they'll find it on this album," Tony Visconti told Billboard when news first broke of The Next Day. "If they're looking for innovative Bowie, new directions, they're going to find that on this album too." He went on to herald the record as "extremely strong and beautiful", adding that "you could tell from the beginning that the songs were stunning, even in primitive form."
Visconti, of course, was Bowie's go-to producer during his classic '70s years, before rejoining him for Heathen and Reality in the early 2000s. Since then he's been highly active. Most notably as producer of the Manic Street Preachers' Lifeblood (2004), Morrissey's Ringleader Of The Tormentors (2006) and a pair of albums by Alejandro Escovedo, Real Animal and Street Songs Of Love.
ZACHARY ALFORD (Drums) - With a CV that includes Springsteen, the Manic Street Preachers and The B-52's, Alford last played with Bowie on 1997's Earthling: We all played live, so it was very organically played. And David was just happy as a clam. He was keen to keep the momentum going, because that's what he feeds off. The album is reminiscent of his early records in some ways. If you listen to The Man Who Sold The World and God Knows I'm Good, they're evocative of folk or country. We had a couple of tunes that were country. But it's a new millennium record, he's not trying to make it sound like his old stuff. Although there was one song from the Lodger sessions. The working title was Born In A UFO. My jaw dropped when he played it, because I could hear [drummer] Dennis Davis in there. My hunch is it's now called Dancing Out In Space. On one song I changed the beat and David said, 'I like that!' and went in a new direction. He said, 'I'm going to change the lyrics. It was originally going to be about prostitutes at the Vatican!'"
GAIL ANN DORSEY (Bass) - Bowie's live bassist of choice since 1995, up to and including the Reality tour, and key player on 1997's Earthling: "I played fretless bass for the first time on this record. It was all done in a totally old-fashioned way, with everybody in the room together, laying down at least the basic tracks. I also went back later to do backing vocals and some lines that David and I sang together [If You Can See Me]. The song I'm playing fretless on is pretty spectacular because it's in this ridiculous time signature. It's 7/5 or something, a strange looping, limping time signature that's really very cool. The rest are a real mix, with different moods and textures. They're different from anything else that's going on in the music world. The main thing I noticed about David was that he seemed really comfortable in his own skin. There's nothing to prove anymore. So he had a kind of relaxed, total confidence,just enjoying the process of making the music. I don't think I've ever seen him this settled."
EARL SLICK (Guitar) - Bowie's on-off lead guitarist since 1974's Diamond Dogs tour: When you've been working with somebody that long, even when you haven't seen them for a while, you fall back into the routine in a heartbeat. The first thing that me, David, Sterling Campbell and Tony Visconti did was cut three brand new tracks from scratch. One is a mid-tempo cool thing, then we did a couple of rockers. I overdubbed Set The World On Fire later. The key to any rock record, especially one of David's, is spontaneity. I'd get a take on a song straight away, whether it reminded me of Station To Station or Scary Monsters or whatever. From a guitar point of view there were a few songs that just hit me and David, that needed a kind of Keith Richards rhythm. I ended up just doing what came naturally and it worked. The whole thing was so secret that Gerry Leonard didn't even tell me he'd been in before me, and we'd had coffee together a number of times. I said to him: 'You bastard!' But we all understood that's how it was. That's David's call. After forty years of working with the guy, you have to respect that."
GERRY LEONARD (Guitar) - Dublin-born guitarist, Bowie's musical director on Reality tour: "I acted as band leader through the Reality tour, so it kind of clicked back into place when we did these sessions. We'd all huddle around the piano and David would play a rough demo that he'd either made at home or that we'd done back in November 2010. Then we'd all go to our stations and work on sounds and ideas. The sessions all moved really quickly. but were never rushed. David likes to work hard in short bursts and get it done. At times we were tracking a song and he was writing lyrics at the same time. lt was almost distracting. One time he called me back in: 'Just trust me and bring a favourite guitar.' He and Tony had sourced a '70s Marshall stack from a picture of a rehearsal room back in the Mick Ronson days. lt's always so satisfying to play electric guitar with David. He's the only singer I ever worked with who asks me to play louder: 'Sounds great. Gerry! Can you turn it up?'"
TONY OURSLER (Video director of Where Are We Now?): At first I wondered if I'd be able to live up to a project like this, given the gravity of the situation, the surprise of coming back after ten years of silence. But I listened very carefully to what david was saying and he already had this crystallised, fully articulated image for the video in his head. There were a few things that we teased out together, so it's a kind of overlapping collaboration that gave birth in my workshop. Those dolls you see - those doppelganger electronic effigies - are a trope I've been using in my work since the early '90s. david used those in '97 for his fiftieth birthday party at Madison Square Garden, which was the first time we really did anything together. So he took me to his studio where he had them out of storage and said: 'Let's just use these.' It was wonderful to see the birth of this song riding in on some kind of electronic magic carpet in my crazy studio."
THE THIN WHITE DUKE'S DIARY: BOWIE'S 'QUIET' TEN YEARS
Since the Reality tour of 2003-04, Bowie has cut right down on his musical output. Though he's been far more active than you might think...
2004: Duets with Australia songwriter Butterfly Boucher on a new version of Changes from DreamWorks flick, Shrek 2
2005: Records vocals for (She Can) Do That, co-written with Brian Transeau, for film Stealth
September 2005: Performs Life On Mars, with Mike Garson on keys, at the Fashion Rocks Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Arcade Fire then back Bowie on Five Years and Wake Up. A week later they perform Queen Bitch and Wake Up at CMJ Summerstage in Central Park
2005: Sings on Kashmir's Wake Up from the Danish alt-rocker's No Balance Palace LP
January 2006: Attends the New York opening of a Lou Reed photography exhibition at the Gallery at Hermès
2006: Credited as executive on doc, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
2006: Sings backing on TV On The Radio's Province from Return To Cookie Mountain
2006: Plays Nikola tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, with Christian Bale
May 2006: Guests with david Gilmour at the Albert Hall for Arnold Layne and Comfortably Numb
September 2006: Appears as himself on Extras, serenading Ricky Gervais' character with Chubby Little Loser
November 2006: His last live performance to date, joining Alicia Keys at New York benefit show, the Black Ball. Bowie sings Wild Is The Wind and Fantastic Voyage and duets with Keys on Changes
April 2007: Attends the Vanity Fair Tribeca Film festival Party in New York
April 2007: Bowie is among the guests as Lou Reed accepts the George Arents Pioneer Medal, at Syracuse University
2007: Voices villain Maltazard in Luc Besson's animated film Arthur And The Invisibles
2008: Voices Lord Royal Highness in SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis
2008: Plays a supporting role in Austin Chick's August, with Josh Harnett and Rip Torn
2008: Features on Falling Down and Fannin Street, two songs from Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers
January 2009: Attends the premiere of son Duncan Jones' directorial debut, Moon, at the Sundance Festival in Utah
April 2009: Joins Duncan for the New York premiere
2009: Cameos as the subject of the male lead's hero worship in musical comedy Bandslam
January 2010: Releases live album and DVD A Reality Tour, recorded in Dublin in 2003
June 2010: Attends the late Les Paul 'ninety-fifth birthday bash' at New York's Iridium Jazz Club
June 2010: Goes to the CFDA Fashion Awards at the Lincoln Center, NY, with wife Iman
April 2011: Bowie and Iman attend the DKMS' fifth Annual Gala: Linked Against Leukaemia, honouring Rihanna and Michael Clinton, at Cipriani Wall Street, NY
A BUYER'S GUIDE: LATE-PERIOD BOWIE
Six albums you might have missed
THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA - Bowie had married Iman. Tin Machine had folded. Black Tie White Noise, co-produced with Nile Rodgers, had topped the British charts in April 1993. Then a real surprise later that year: The Buddha Of Suburbia, commissioned to accompany a BBC2 adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel. Not strictly a soundtrack, The Buddha Of Suburbia was a return to the restlessly experimental Bowie of Low and "Heroes". There were avant-garde loops, dark ambiences, weird jazz, Mike Garson piano frenzies and deeply od instrumentals. The poignant title track (a more conventional song) looked back to Bowie's South London adolescence: "vicious but ready to learn".
1.OUTSIDE - A seventy-five minute concept album reuniting Bowie with Brian Eno, who co-wrote and co-produced. Outside (sometimes written as 1.Outside) was a detective story about a girl's death. Its murky narrative was cut up by a special computer programme - the 'random' Bowie was back with a vengeance - and similar methods applied to the music, which customised harsh hip-hop beats, violently distorted guitars (Reeves Gabrels), Garson's off-message piano and all manner of Eno treatments. The Hearts Filthy Lesson was heard in 1995's most disturbing thriller, Seven, while David Lynch used I'm Deranged in Lost Highway. That's the kind of company Outside keeps.
EARTHLING - Released a month after Bowie's fiftieth birthday, Earthling was a controversial move into drum'n'bass, influenced by Photek and others. Bowie was accused of dilettantism (ironic, since he'd always had magpie tendencies) and of being too old to understand the drum'n'bass culture. But there was another influence on Earthling: The Prodigy. Bowie, in the unlikely role of a twisted firestarter, was almost submerged by the juddering breakbeats, the bass bombs and Gabrels' squealing guitars. Yet the songs somehow held their own: Little Wonder and Telling Lies had distinctive Bowie melodies, and Seven Years In Tibet was a belter.
HOURS... - Abandoning electronica's cutting edge, Bowie made an album dominated by ballads. Gabrels, never the most restrained of guitarists, behaved impeccably. The music was melodic and unthreatening, yet Bowie's lyrics were anything but calm. Many wondered exactly what he was trying to say: he seemed fearful and uneasy. After a leisurely first half (Thursday's Child, Survive, If I'm Dreaming My Life), Hours... toughens up and shows a wilder side (What's really Happening?, The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell), but it was, and remains, a lowly-ranked album in his catalogue.
HEATHEN - Bowie had intended to release an album called Toy, a mix of new material and old songs from 1964-71. A change of plan led to Heathen, co-produced by Tony Visconti who'd last worked with Bowie in 1980. Keeping two tracks from Toy (Afraid and Uncle Floyd, retitled Slip Away), Heathen added seven new songs and three covers: Cactus (Pixies), I've Been Waiting For You (Neil Young) and I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship (Legendary Stardust Cowboy). Out of these implausibly diverse elements grew an album of angst and atmosphere, massive in scope - and a huge Bowie statement. Toy, officially unreleased, was leaked online in 2011.
REALITY - A keen Dandy Warhols fan, Bowie reached into his pop locker and surprised anyone expecting a Sturm und Drag follow-up to Heathen. Reality was almost beat group music, with glorious tunes (New Killer Star, Never Get Old) and a commercial sound. But heavyweight themes lurked beneath the shiny surface. She'll Drive The Big Car was about a spiritually unfulfilled woman committing suicide. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon was about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Old friend Lou Reed hailed the haunting ballad The Loneliest Guy as one of his greatest ever lyrics.