All About Jazz OCTOBER 18, 2014 - by Nenad Georgievski


The '80s were very good to singer David Bowie, and maybe too good for his own good. After producing Let's Dance (EMI, 1983), his best selling one, which was followed by a very successful world tour, he went on to reproduce his successes in a very grand and hefty way, mostly by reproducing the same pop formula endlessly. That resulted in a string of below average pop records that only served to increase his popularity and income rather than breaking new music ground for others to follow like he always did. By the end of the '80s, the taken course of his career has led him in dire straits creatively. While he scored some of the biggest hits during this time period, mostly he was creatively drifting, and in danger of losing his relevance. But, much of his career, Bowie proved to be a survivor, one of those people that can ride the ever shifting tides of ideals, fashion, ideology or the shibboleth that constitute the zeitgeist of the times. And as Bowie saw, the survivors don't necessarily always ride the these tides unscathed as he was heavily hammered by the press during that time. Salvation came first with his much underrated group Tin Machine (the debut album was very good) which was inspired by the booming alternative rock music culture and the favorite band from that era - The Pixies. While the band Tin Machine is seen now as a failed experiment, it was there that he forged an alliance and creative relationship with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, which marked all of the records that David Bowie went on to make in the '90s. The '90s were a comeback for him, first with Black Tie White Noise (Savage, 1993) and from then on the creative tide continued with 1. Outside and Earthling.

Generally, the '90s was a period of major changes in the music when the alternative and the underground became mainstream. The unpredictable and the uncertainty stood shoulder to shoulder with the feeling of pushing the boundaries of music and introducing new musics. That was the main feeling that characterised the '90s. For Bowie, this period was to prove whether if he can still match his creative high-water marks. While Black Tie White Noise signaled a return to form for Bowie, it was the soundtrack for the BBC produced television serial, The Buddha Of Suburbia, (EMI, 1993) that showed he was willing to ride the wave of changes, risk and uncertainty. These two records featured musicians and comrades old and new that would accompany him on the next several tours and records. The most important ingredient was the reconnection with his former collaborator, producer Brian Eno with whom he created the famed Berlin Trilogy records in the '70s.

1. Outside is a concept record and at the time it was envisioned to be the first installment, with a follow-up record, the now aborted Inside. The concept of this record was the narrative of episodes taken from a diary of art detective Nathan Adler. As can be read from the liner notes or the story written by Bowie, Outside is a story set in the not so distant future of 1999, inspired by the artistic interests and endeavors both by Bowie and Eno, and chiefly by visual artist Damien Hirst, where commitment of murder and death were seen as an act of art.

The ideas and the making of it are equally interesting as the final outcome. Eno and Bowie recuperated at Mountain studios in Switzerland, where they greeted the band members by painting the studio walls with paintings. That done, each member was given a character part as in a scenario. Pianist Mike Garson was told "You are a pianist in a South African band. Play all the notes you weren't allowed to." At times they would draw cards from a Tarot deck, apart from Eno's Oblique Strategies' cards, attempting to translate the symbols into music. On the other hand, Bowie set himself to shuffling his lyrics electronically with the help of a software program that would make the cut up writing technique for him.

The result of those sessions was a record that had very little to do with what was happening on the charts at the time like grunge or Britpop, but more with techno ambient and industrial music. What was signaled on Black Tie White Noise, the rekindled interest in experimentation with sound textures, was in full evidence on the soundtrack, but blossomed full on 1. Outside. For a start it evoked the Berlin Trilogy experiments, but at the time it had more in common with Scott Walker's masterpiece and dark work of art Tilt (Fontana, 1995) or the industrial leanings of band Nine Inch Nails. The narrative of the story (or a non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle) showcased the full range of Bowie's vocal abilities as he took on different roles when he gave the voices of Nathan Adler, the private detective, the victim Baby Grace, suspect Algeria Touchshriek, Ramona A. Stone and the criminal Leon Blank.

The first single from the record was The Heart's Filthy Lesson, a dissonant, atonal song propelled by a hypnotic groove and Gabrels' heavy riffs. The song's industrial leaning signaled the darkish paths that the music on 1. Outside would take but it only provided a glimpse of the rich diversity of what was to come on the record. Throughout his career, there were periods where Bowie's music was marked by coldness, a sense of detachment or isolation, and for the most part this feel is in full evidence here but in a more artsy way. Not everything is doom and gloom here. Eno's touch lends every moment of 1. Outside a certain glow of invention.

The record's original length of seventy-six minutes showed that Bowie opted to grasp the full opportunity that a format such as CD could provide. It is certainly a record with the longest duration he has ever released. But this is a vinyl reissue of the original edited vinyl released along with the original CD release, probably as an attempt to fit in on one LP. Lacking some crucial and really some of the finest songs Bowie has ever written (like Strangers When We Meet, Through These Architect Eyes), kind of hinders the concept of this intriguing sound novella. Sound-wise the vinyl lacks the sharpness and the punchiness present on the CD release while the CD lacks the fullness of the vinyl and its magnificent cathedral-like sound.

With its dark, layered, brooding and often beautiful soundscapes 1. Outside feels like an art gallery where Eno and Bowie had splashed their sound ideas and colors onto its big canvases. Just like the original Berlin trilogy was detached from the mundane happenings in its time, so was Outside detached from the modern times it was made in and yet it was inspired and borrowed heavily from it. That is typical for many of Bowie's finest records. Excerpts of Outside is what it is, a fine chunk of the songs on the record and it means Too bad it isn't the whole record. On the other hand, the complete 1. Outside remains a dynamic and layered work that offers more at every listen.

The concept of Outside/Inside proved to be too much for record companies. In later interviews, now former guitarist and right hand man to Bowie, Gabriels, mentioned that the original concept was even bolder, but Bowie at the time had to re-do the record in order to be published. Consequently, the sequel Inside was scrapped although many bootlegs of the Inside material circulate on the Internet. Outside was supported by a successful tour where he even shared the bill with NIN. Very quickly when the tour ended did he go into the studio with the touring band and recorded Earthling, his crowning achievement of the '90s era.

What can be said immediately is that Earthling sounds absolutely magnificent. This record, by his own words, was a "sonic photograph" of his band. Musically, it is a powerful and potent cocktail of raw and aggressive rock music and drum and bass or jungle music which, when pieced together makes a thrilling roller-coaster ride. At the time, these sorts of hybrids between the music of the electronic/dance underground scenes with rock music were either unsuccessful in their attempts or non-existent. Probably one of the rare success stories would be U2's Pop which as well was pumped to the maximum with techniques drawn from this area without being succumbed to becoming dance music in itself. Characteristically for Bowie, he has always kept his ears towards what has been happening off the charts, down to the club and slum scenes and culture. The result to that is rock music, though not as we know it, mostly in its spirit if not its form. The songs on 1. Outside, except for We Prick You and I'm Deranged suggested little about Bowie's interest in this kind of music or that he would embrace it in full extent.

Little Wonder kicks off this set with a celebration of trash art in its delightful, delirious and intoxicated way. It is Bowie's most exciting and upbeat single since Blue Jean and Let's Dance. In the second half of the song there is a nod to Underworld's Born Slippy. Looking For Satellites starts with Bowie's reciting over a cut-up writing: "Nowhere, shampoo, TV, Boyzone" while Gabrels shreds the guitar over the pulsating rhythms and background keyboards. From there, he ups the voltage towards more warped musical landscapes in Battle For Britain and Seven Years In Tibet. Battle For Britain is fueled by rocket-charged guitars, delicate jungle rhythm patterns and bass grooves with an atonal jazzy piano playing in the middle, provided by pianist Mike Garson. Seven Years In Tibet is a politically charged song sang over a steady beat and intriguing sound palette in the background as Gabrels makes an introduction in the manner of guitarist Peter Green's Albatros guitar sounds and then he charges the guitar so much that he takes noise into new extremes thus creating visceral guitar mayhem.

The incredible dynamic and energy which are permeating throughout the whole record is due to the fact that not only did the band go into the studio five days when the tour supporting Outside ended, but during the recording of it, Bowie and the band went to play small clubs on weekends which is how they sustained the level of energy and intensity high all throughout. Then he ups the voltage even more with Dead Man Walking, Telling Lies and I'm Afraid Of Americans. Dead Man Walking is using a riff which was given to him by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page during his session days and was first used on Superman from Hunky Dory (EMI, 1971). The band is firing up on all cylinders on this one and with its stomping rhythm and the surges of grungy guitar, it sounds like a rock and roll band on steroids.

Telling Lies was one of the first songs that was presented on the Internet, ages before it became the norm of the industry in the days of file sharing. I'm Afraid Of Americans is a track co-written with Eno and it first appeared in its embryonic state for the soundtrack of Showgirls movie. Crafting discord and filth into beauty, and vice versa, has always been Bowie's talent. It's a delicately arranged piece with boiling electronic sounds and a flood of noisy and enraged guitars. This song is a rant about the invasiveness of American culture (and the video had NIN's singer Trent Reznor following Bowie). The record ends on a high note with the nightmarish, but playful Law (Earthlings On Fire) as Bowie chants "I don't want knowledge, I want certainty" over intricate synth squeals and interlocking drum-machine and shards of guitars. Earthlings on fire, indeed.

There is too much going on in these tracks to permit any easy pigeonholing. The band has pieced together a record which textures, rhythm and visceral guitar mayhem, Beneath all the noise and beats, however, are some excellently crafted rock tunes. Reeves Gabrels certainly went to seek new jobs for the electric guitar in rock-and-roll, but Earthling's sonic explorations are reined back in by drummer Zachari Alford's boisterous beats and loops.

And it is always great to hear Bowie so excited, especially when threading into territories he is not supposed to. But then again, he has made a career on things he wasn't supposed to do. This record presented the energized Bowie, the boundary pusher, the risk-all, dangerous and the fun seeking. Nothing fires up those people like him or U2 as they attempt to stay relevant in any given era. What is easily forgotten in this barrage of beats and guitars is that he is really pushing the boundaries, he was creating new sounds that would not fit into previously seen associations. The follow up to this exciting and dynamic period of the '90s was the contemplative and melodic but nevertheless beautiful '...Hours', (EMI, 1999) but that is another chapter of his diverse and storied career.


1. Outside - Leon Takes Us Outside (edit) / Outside / The Hearts Filthy Lesson / A Small Plot Of Land / Segue - Baby Grace Blue (A Horrid Cassette); Hallo Spaceboy / The Motel (edit) / I Have Not Been to Oxford Town / The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) / Segue - Ramona A. Stone / I Am With Name / We Prick You / Segue - Nathan Adler / I'm Deranged

David Bowie: vocals, saxophone, guitar, keyboards / Brian Eno: synthesizers, treatments, strategies / Reeves Gabrels: guitar / Erdal Kizilcay: bass, keyboards / Mike Garson: grand piano / Sterling Campbell: drums / Carlos Alomar: rhythm guitar / Joey Baron: drums / Yossi Fine: bass / Tom Frish: additional guitar on Strangers When We Meet / Kevin Armstrong: additional guitar on Thru' These Architect's Eyes / Bryony, Lola, Josey and Ruby Edwards: background vocals on The Hearts Filthy Lesson and I Am With Name

Earthling - Little Wonder / Looking For Satellites / Battle For Britain (The Letter) / Seven Years In Tibet / Dead Man Walking / Telling Lies / The Last Thing You Should Do / I'm Afraid Of Americans / Law (Earthlings On Fire)

David Bowie: vocals, guitar, alto saxophone, samples, keyboards; Reeves Gabrels: programming, synthesisers, real and sampled guitars, vocals; Mark Plati: programming, loops, samples, keyboards; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass, vocals; Zachary Alford: drum loops, acoustic drums, electronic percussion; Mike Garson: keyboards, piano