Art Decade: Steve Pafford Casts A Critical Eye Over David Bowie’s Last 10 Years

This was the big one. Art Decade (From Tin Machine to ‘hours…’) was the first paid piece of journalism I had published, for the British music magazine Record Collector. After three years as an occasional contributor to Dean Balaam’s Zi Duang Provence Bowie fanzine, then another five running my own (Crankin’ Out!, terrible title and all), in mid 1999 I found myself in the early stages of collaborating with former Record Collector staffer Mark Paytress, on a book to be titled the David Bowie Style Book. 

Mark’s former employers asked if he’d have time to pen an assessment of Bowie in the ’90s, which he didn’t, and suggested I pen it instead. As my role in what became BowieStyle was still in its infancy, Art Decade became my first paid solo writing commission. It was an eight page feature in the November 1999 issue of Record Collector and netted me the princely sum of £250, as well as an interview with the key collaborator of that ten-year period, Reeves Gabrels. This is it:

“This strange show proved that, in some undefinable way, Bowie remains a curious pioneer – and pioneers, as they say, get all the arrows.”

That’s how Cliff Jones writing in Mojo (and later to find fame with Gay Dad), concluded his review of a US David Bowie “Outside” concert, with Nine Inch Nails in tow, in 1995. It had only been a few short years since the arrows had been directed at Bowie, coming thick and fast from all sections of the media, as well as many of his peers. It’s hard to imagine that a band with the stature and sales of NIN in their homeland would have agreed to co-headline a tour with (and actually go on before) the thin white one, had it been to promote 1987’s Never Let Me Down, for example.

As has been widely and rightly reported, the ironically-titled Never Let Me Down LP was, along with most of its predecessor, Tonight (1984), Bowie’s artistic nadir. An embarrassing career low-point for the man usually regarded as the music world’s eternal innovator.

Paradoxically, Bowie’s misfortunes began at the time of his greatest commercial success with Let’s Dance in 1983. The album’s world sales total is now estimated to be anything between six to nine million.

In 1988 David took stock of his musical career, and, inspired by a series of collaborations with Boston-based guitarist Reeves Gabrels, decided to reposition himself firmly outside the mainstream.

In 1999, the name David Bowie is again associated with adventure, daring, fascination, and the cutting edge. And at long last, record buyers young and old are aware at just what a major impact pop’s premier Proteus has had on music, fashion and culture. Acknowledging this fact, in 1998 Time Out named David as the most influential artist of the last thirty years.

Make mine a 99!

David Bowie’s artistic resurgence actually started in 1988, when he collaborated with new accomplice Reeves Gabrels on a metallic update of 1979’s Look Back In Anger at an ICA benefit concert in London that July.

Shortly after the show, Bowie and Gabrels toyed with ideas of various musical projects, including recording an album based on Steven Berkoff’s play, West. Just one track, “The King Of Stamford Hill, got as far as being demoed. The song did eventually show up, though, as Reeves recalls: “Most of that track was re-recorded in 1995 for my first solo record, The Sacred Squall Of Now, with the exception of David’s vocal, which I took off the demo and then manipulated and altered in a variety of ways.”

The Berkoff project was scrapped, and with a view to recording his next album, Bowie called up LA-based rhythm dudes the Sales brothers, Hunt (drums) and Tony (bass), who he’d worked with on Iggy Pop’s 1977 tour and Lust For Life album (they can be heard most prominently on the backing vocals of the title track’s chorus). With the rhythm section the balls to David’s and Reeves’s brains, the foursome began working on ideas at Bowie’s home in Switzerland. A week into recording, a democratically-minded David says he came up with a ridiculous idea, and the widely and unjustly dismissed Tin Machine was born: “I said,’How about we become a band? Wouldn’t that help answer everything?’ Suddenly the onus wouldn’t be on me anymore. Nothing would be expected from me, because I’m merely the singer.”

TIN MACHINE

Most of the pearls (and spasmodic swine) that made up the first Tin set were recorded live in the studio, mostly at Montreux, a little in Nassau, all at breakneck speed. The result was that this and the follow-up, both produced by Tim Palmer, are Bowie’s only bona fide rock albums (not even The Man Who Sold The World could claim that tag with any honesty). Bowie and Gabrels had been listening to the new wave of American alt. rockers, Sonic Youth, Pixies and Dinosaur Jr-and at the same time, their heads were full of bluesy Hendrix (their epic Crack City borrows his Wild Thing riff), Led Zeppelin and Cream.

Bowie even insisted that songs by Clapton’s group be played at the photo session for the cover. Tin Machine attracted much derision, but I’ve always felt it was the concept more than the music which caused the offence. Many fans were aghast as to why the great superstar David Bowie could lower himself by insisting he was just one of the blokes in a band, something they claimed that the Bowie of 1972 would have laughed at. On this record, his name was only to be found in the credits and the small print which stated “David Bowie under licence to EMI”.

Indifference was out, and the group provoked the kind of reaction that Bowie adores: people loved it, people hated it, but no one had a lukewarm opinion about it. It’s not as if the album is without its highlights. The melodic Amazing was a gem, as was I Can’t Read (Bowie continuing his penchant for alienation), Baby Can Dance and Bus Stop. Even with no “Bowie” brand name and without a single, the album didn’t do badly, and Tin Machine made its chart debut at No. 3, and garnered a 4-star review in Q with a tie-in cover feature, though the American three-quarters of the group were mysteriously just out of the photographer’s range.

Tin Machine made their noisy live debut at the first International Music Awards in New York, where Tina Turner’s mum was less than impressed; she said, “I liked it better when David was singing songs”. This was followed by a mini-tour showcasing the album, plus the occasional cover or unreleased track, where ecstatic fans had to pinch themselves that they really were witnessing their chain-smoking, bearded, scruffy-haired idol (Baal in a designer suit, basically) in such small halls.

Three post-album singles from the LP were issued: Under The God, its riff similar to the one Bowie used on his Pin Ups cover of the Yardbirds’ I Wish You Would; the band’s very own theme song, Tin Machine (a double A-side with a live rendition of Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm, complete with Jeepster T. Rextasy bicycling intro); and Prisoner Of Love, a pleasant rock ballad that borrows (as did 1986’s Iggy/Bowie track, Little Miss Emperor) “the best minds of my generation” line from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Just one out-take from the sessions, You’ve Been Around, has emerged so far, which can also be found on Gabrels’ The Sacred Squall Of Now, though due to later additions, only Hunt Sales’ drums and (most of) Bowie’s vocal tracks remain.

TIN MACHINE II

The quartet upped to Australia in autumn ’89 to lay down tracks for a second collection. With Bowie taking time out in 1990 for his Sound + Vision tour, as well as a switch in record labels for the band, Tin Machine II was eventually released in the last quarter of 1991, and was a much more self-absorbed piece of work. If the first LP had been a spontaneous collection of aggro-rock then this was a rather more melodic, manicured production, though, admittedly, Bowie’s own description of it as “sensitively aggressive” made about as much sense as Tony Blair’s electioneering claim to be the “radical centre”.

Lyrically stronger than their debut, standout tracks were the melancholic Goodbye Mr Ed, and the disturbingly Springsteen-esque Shopping For Girls. Trivia fans may like to know that this latter song, concerning child prostitution in Asia, features some guitar styling inspired by Johnny Marr, who’d popped round to chez Gabrels for tea one afternoon and left Reeves’ Les Paul Jr. in an open tuning.

Released prior to the LP, the smartly cynical You Belong In Rock’n’Roll became the band’s first UK Top 40 chart entry; a second, Baby Universal made No. 48, while a third, a version of If There Is Something from the first Roxy Music LP (and a left-over from TM’s own debut) didn’t get far when David abandoned the idea of re-recording the song as a duet single with its composer, Bryan Ferry (whose diplomatic comments about the cover to me were, “I thought it was OK”). The only surplus track to have come from the Sydney sessions so far is Needles On The Beach, a surf instrumental with DB on rhythm guitar, that surprisingly appeared on a little known 1994 compilation, Beyond The Beach.

The attendant It’s My Life tour was captured on Tin Machine’s posthumous concert compilation, 1992’s Oy Vey, Baby, the title of which is a pun on U2’s Eno-produced Achtung Baby. Reeves: “David used it as a play on the fact that there are no original ideas. In fact, we were seriously considering putting out a double live album, and calling the second set Use Your Wallet!”

Which is just what many Bowie fans refused to do, and Oy Vey, Baby failed to chart. With the live set fulfilling the band’s two-LP deal with Victory/London, there was a feeling of things having run their course. Though with no official split announcement, Tin Machine sadly went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Unfairly, they were probably the most reviled band of the last decade (even beating Steps), though the project was a crucial career move for Bowie, freeing him creatively and ridding himself of distracting commercial pressures that have ruined many a lesser artist. People didn’t know what to expect of David Bowie any more. Anything could happen now. And it frequently did.

BLACK TIE WHITE NOISE

After a surprisingly low-key release for Real Cool World, his first new solo single for five years, and the theme from the Brad Pitt in-cartoon-land movie, Cool World, Bowie, muse recharged, spent much of 1992 working on Black Tie White Noise. This saw him reunited with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers, and the return of revered Aladdin Sane piano gymnast Mike Garson, after an absence of 18 years.

Predominantly recorded in New York, the record was a mix of funky grooves awash with jazz-inflected sax lines and guest horn-blowing from black trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation). Often referred to as “Bowie’s sax album” or “Bowie’s wedding album”, the set was mainly a celebration of David’s recent marriage to the supermodel Iman, and contained many personal references to his new life. This was most apparent on The Wedding Song, which saw DB in full crooner mode à la Sinatra (reportedly Iman’s favourite singer), replete with trilby and 1950s mike at photo sessions. But although David prominently displayed his saxophone on the back cover, he stopped short of putting a snapshot of the missus with it.

Amid positive support for the man, his first solo LP for six years crashed straight to No. 1 in spring 1993, ironically knocking Bowie devotees Suede off their perch. Unfortunately, the honeymoon period was brought to an abrupt halt when it emerged that Savage, the small label Bowie had signed to in the US, went bust shortly after the album’s release, though this didn’t affect his matching deal with BMG elsewhere.

BTWN was as different from Tin Machine as Let’s Dance was from Scary Monsters, with brief contributions from axemen chums Gabrels and a sadly ailing Mick Ronson (on a bizarre techno-pop version of Cream’s old chestnut, I Feel Free) way down in the mix. In fact there is only one song with a dominant guitar track-a “camp” cover of Morrissey’s I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday, complete with full gospel choir.

The stylish, sophisticated first single, Jump They Say, impressionistically written about Bowie’s relationship with his late brother, was a superb choice, and together with its dramatic, cinematic Brit Award-nominated video, gave DB his first Top 10 hit for seven years.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno… and Al B. Sure!

Next, the Marvin Gaye-influenced title track was a duet with black soul singer Al B. Sure!, though David had wanted Lenny Kravitz, who was busy with his own LP. Kravitz must have liked the song, though, as his recent Fly Away No. 1 has a funky little riff inspired by it. After a third single, the lightweight pop of Miracle Goodnight, did little (but would have done a whole lot more had it replaced “BTWN”), the fourth was aborted: “Nite Flights”, a brooding, synthed-up cover of a Walker Brothers 1978 title track, which just happens to be one of the best things on the album. A scarce Moodswings remix DJ 12″ was released, though.

Another of the more instant pieces, a fast and furious disco ditty by the name of Lucy Can’t Dance, would also have made a great single, although it only scraped onto the album as a CD bonus track. Lucy started out her life as Lucille, having been recorded in the late 80s during a three-song Los Angeles session with half of Bryan Adams’ band and Bon Jovi producer Bruce Fairbairn. Bowie donated the other two tracks to his guitarists: Pretty Pink Rose was re-recorded for a single with Adrian Belew in 1990, while Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone appeared on Mick Ronson’s posthumously-released set, Heaven And Hull, in 1994.

THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA

This album was inspired by, rather than the soundtrack of, the musical themes of more than 40 short incidental pieces that Bowie created for the BBC’s adaptation of fellow Bromley boy Hanif Kureishi’s Whitbread Prize-winning novel, The Buddha Of Suburbia.

Recorded and mixed in just three weeks at Montreux, the album was a collaboration with Erdal Kizilcay, a Turkish multi-instrumentalist who’d been working with Bowie sporadically since the mid-80s. But, unlike in the previous decade, when DB was in search of himself, by the summer of’93 he needed to look no longer. Bowie had not only come to terms with his past, he wholeheartedly embraced it, and Buddha was the perfect example: an excellent exercise in self-plagiarisation.

Cannibalising the minimalist European soundscapes of Low, the album even gained David a nomination for Best Television Score at the BAFTA Awards. The golden moment, though, is the stirring ’Sarf London’ title track: after some of the over-produced pieces on Black Tie, the acoustic simplicity of The Buddha Of Suburbia theme song was refreshing. With clever recycling of the “Zane, Zane, Zane” refrain from All The Madmen, and the guitar break from Space Oddity, this had all the hallmarks of a classic Bowie single. Sadly, it struggled in the charts, due to its release a fortnight after the LP.

Mr Screamin’ Sarf

Furthermore, David has refused to sing the track live, in spite of numerous requests from his faithful, because, as he told this writer, “It’s so little-known.”

The Buddha Of Suburbia (Censored Version) is one of the most sought-after DB discs. This special edition of the single mix (featuring some fret-work from a now-available Kravitz) was issued, at Bowie’s behest, to sensitive radio programmers who objected to a “bullshit” line in the song. The offending word was reversed and pressed on just ten CD-Rs housed in a printed Tape-To-Tape card sleeve, valued at around £200.

Coming as it did just seven months after his last, a limited record company budget dictated that Bowie’s new album would be slipped out, in the UK only, with little publicity, no pre-album single, and just a couple of supporting interviews from the man himself. In spite of this, or, probably because of this, The Buddha Of Suburbia remains the most underrated record of David’s entire career, and unlike its predecessor, which appeared in a blaze of “Bowie’s best since . . . (insert title of your choice)” hype, Buddha had nothing to live up to, nothing to prove. And it’s all the better for it.

OUTSIDE

For Outside, his pre-millennium tension album, Bowie rekindled his working relationship with that eternal arbiter of good taste, Brian Eno, and also making a welcome return to the fold was rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar. When they teamed up in early ’94, Bowie and co-producer Eno talked about creating a whole series of musical drama, from joint albums, double albums, instrumental albums, operatic albums, CD-Roms and even box sets! The LP which eventually appeared eighteen months later, 1995’s Outside (until the magnificent, anthemic title track was recorded, the set was to be called Leon), was a highly selective, multi-layered version of events, compiled from numerous marathon sessions in Montreux, New York and London.

Ambitious, daring and steadfastly uncompromising, Outside is Bowie at his most extreme: a towering collection of austere chilling and challenging pieces of music. And if you leave out the talkie bits in between, the best tracks are easily Bowie’s best of the decade: proof positive that by the mid-90s, his artistic regeneration was absolute.

In the US, Outside stands as DB’s highest-charting album of the 90s. Presented with a deliberately impenetrable narrative, top tracks include the grand beauty of The Motel, the jungly, electro-dementia of I’m Deranged, the Iyrically verbose The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction, its driving African rhythms recalling 1979’s Lodger (a Tim Simenon remix was planned as a stand-alone pre-album single to promote the Judge Dredd film). Then there’s the cool and moody No Control, an exclusive instrumental version of which was later used to back Bowie’s voiceover appeal on a rare War Child CD sent to Dutch radio stations. The slow-paced, atonal The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, with its Teutonic vocals and slap-bass groove, was a brave choice for a (first) single. The obvious commercial choice was I Have Not Been To Oxford Town: a jaunty, mid-tempo piece of pop with some great, clipped, scratch-funk Alomar guitar.

Coinciding with Bowie/Eno being presented with the 1995 Q Inspiration Award, the Iyrically excellent Strangers When We Meet was released as a single. Quoting the the bassline from the Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’  (which Bowie had already pastiched on 1967’s Join The Gang) and the rhythm section of I Can’t Help Myself by the Four Tops, Strangers had appeared on The Buddha Of Suburbia in stronger form, and was mooted as a follow-up to the theme song. As a second single from Outside, it features new vocals, piano and guitar on top of the remixed Buddha backing track.

If the album version of Hallo Spaceboy was a pulverising piece of NIN-esque noise, the single remix was a Eurodisco version with the Pet Shop Boys. And it was Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s classic pop sensibility that helped see Bowie returned to the Top 20 in several territories, even going all the way to the top in Latvia! In the UK, the trio performed the track at the 1996 Brit Awards, where Bowie accepted the Outstanding Contribution To The British Record Industry. He picked it up from Tony Blair wearing high heels (David, that is, not Tony).

EARTHLING

Invigorated by a summer ’96 festival tour, Bowie took his band into Philip Glass’ New York studio for a set of songs laid down in record time. The result was Earthling, a high-octane blast of energy, capturing the mood of contemporary popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. This progressive fusion of the aggressive, industrial noise-rock popular in the US, and the sequenced British ambient dance music as exemplified by Prodigy and Underworld, garnered Bowie his best album reviews for nearly two decades. Released weeks after his sky-high profile 50th birthday celebrations in 1997, Earthling, co-produced by Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels, was full of snappy, clattering rhythms and hard-hitting, dentist-drill power-riffs.

Though much was made of the drum ’n’ bass association, in reality only three tracks have anything like the kind of hyper-kinetic breakbeats normally pioneered by Goldie et al. Earthling also has melodies aplenty, (not something you’d associate with hardcore jungle) and surprisingly accessible singalonga hooks. After the Telling Lies single had been sneaked out-which was aimed solely at the club market and had therefore not charted – “Little Wonder”, with its playful, self-deprecating Iyrics, topped Japan’s National chart and went Top 10 in Italy. The video, set in underground and inner-city New York, was nominated for Best Video at the Brit Awards.

Dead Man Walking, a marvellous melody-driven slab of techno-rock, was the most radio-friendly of the Earthling tracks, and one can’t help thinking this could have been a massive hit here if it had been released first. Perhaps the Academy thought so too, as they nominated the song for the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 40th Grammy Awards, despite not even being commercially issued as a single in the States. Earthling was also nominated for Best Alternative Musical Performance.

The US did get the exclusive I’m Afraid Of Americans release, though. Many fans’ favourite Earthling track was granted a psychotic revamp by NIN’s Trent Reznor, and gave Bowie his first Billboard Top 75 entry since 1987. And in Canada, where the sentiments clearly struck a chord, it hovered around the Top 50 for six months! The video, which also features a porky Reznor in Taxi Driver mode, was nominated for Best Male Video at the MTV Awards.

You talkin’ to me?

BMG UK went with the transcendent Seven Years In Tibet, a horns and Hammond organ-fuelled slow-groover, featuring a haunting Albatross-inspired guitar part. A Mandarin-language version, also known as A Fleeting Moment, bagged Bowie the No. 1 spot in Hong Kong for a fortnight (the first international artist ever to do so), its anti-Chinese stance popular in the just-handedback former colony. However, a planned further single, Looking For Satellites, featuring a bonkers one-note Gabrels guitar break, and its own Mandarin version B-side, was dropped.

As he was named Best International Live Act at the Hot Press Irish Rock Awards, David spent much of 1998 preparing for the hugely successful launch of BowieNet, the first ever artist-created ISP. A couple of low-key contributions sneaked out early in ’98. He was heard on Truth, a beat-free ballad on Goldie’s Saturnz Return project, for which Bowie had recorded his vocals at old ’70s stamping ground, Trident Studios in London, the previous summer. This was followed by the single release of a dark and moody semi-acoustic take of I Can’t Read, now the closing theme for the Ang Lee-directed The Ice Storm, and recorded at the Earthling sessions.

In August, Bowie reunited with his old producer, Tony Visconti, initially for two tracks, both of which have yet to see the light of day. (Safe In This) Sky Life, a new Bowie/Gabrels composition recorded for The Rugrats Movie, is still in the can. The other was John Lennon’s Mother cover, which David had started in Bermuda with Reeves and another old cohort, Andy Newmark on drums. This will be included on an EMI tribute album to the late Beatle, set for. release in October 2000, the 60th anniversary of his birth.

And in this final year before the 21st century, David joined androgynous upstarts Placebo onstage at the Brit Awards for a storming rendition of Marc Bolan’s 20th Century Boy. A campaign was started by The Mirror to have the live duet released as a single, and the prospects looked encouraging when Bowie and the boys teamed up again in New York a few weeks later. This was primarily for Visconti to record a DB guest vocal to be mixed on top of Placebo’s track, Without You I’m Nothing. Seeing as it was Tony who had produced T. Rex’s original 20th Century Boy, the band got him to mix the Brits ’99 take, for inclusion as a B-side track on what became the Without You I’m Nothing EP.

Sadly, it was taken off at the last minute, and all that appeared was a limited edition CD of four mixes of the title track, which fell foul of the singles chart compilers due to an excessive running time -though it did crash straight into pole position in the Budget Albums chart.

None of this bothered Bowie, who appears uninterested in major chart success these days. By operating on the periphery, he’s more concerned with learning new tricks, and keeping himself informed and entertained. His insatiable appetite for new sensations immediately brings to mind an old hero of his: “One of the few ambitions I have left is to work with Scott Walker”, says David. “He’s a pioneer and a renegade, an artist who is a great role model”. Rehabilitation complete, his best work of the last ten years ensures that this description could easily apply to Bowie himself. Elvis Presley: Artist Of The Century? Nah, Elvis is English, mate.

© Steve Pafford 1999

Part two here

Bowienet’s write up here