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David Bowie’s Hours & Years With Reeves Gabrels (89/99/09)

In my last post I recounted and republished the very first article I received payment for; a summary of David Bowie’s career in the 1990s entitled Art Decade, which was published in the November 1999 issue of British music magazine Record Collector.

Andy Davis, then RC editor, was so happy with the results – and even happier when he heard I had occasional personal access to Bowie himself – that he asked if I could get hold of an advance copy of the impending ‘hours…’ album, and if so could I dash off a quick review for the same issue? There was an extra 100 quid in it. Oh, alright then!

Calls were made to the Outside Organisation, the Dame’s UK press and management office, and a CD-R was duly despatched by the rising star of PR, Stuart Bell. Stuart was fairly new to the London Bowie team, and seemed nice enough, though his new position and new office addition was necessitated by Bowie’s spokesman, Alan Edwards, having his hands full with the Spice Girls and another DB, the ubiquitous David Beckham.

I listened to ‘hours…’ and mindful of the fact that Andy had asked me – expectantly – whether there was a possibility of obtaining a Bowie interview for Record Collector, my brief (a.k.a straightjacket) was to try and be as positive as possible.

Christ, I thought to myself, that might be slightly mendacious. I wasn’t exactly crazy about the previous album, Earthling, even though I had a hand in naming that one. I knew my Bowie admiration was already on the wane, brought about in no small part by overkill and a definite distaste for some of the monstrous minions that worked for him. Still, this isn’t the time to discuss clowns.

Regarding the album, I did my best with what I still think is a rather limp and lacklustre effort. I called a friend and fellow surveyor of music, Spencer Kansa, for moral support, admitting I was at a loss what to make of it. “How about I play some of it down the phone at you? Just tell me what you think.” Spencer was great at detecting all the very many affectations in Bowie’s vocals, but the most hilarious exchange was his astonishment when I played him Something In The Air.

“God, what on earth is that? He sounds like the elephant man!” I knew that once I’d picked myself up from the floor several hours later, I’d have to get that wonderfully withering witticism in the review in some fashion. As you’re about to read, that I indeed managed, though it went down like a ton of lead balloons with the Bowie camp. That’s nothing though. A third article, which I’ll post tomorrow, made the Dame go “ballistic” and killed off all contact between DB and me.

In retrospect, the most interesting part of this album feature was interviewing Reeves Gabrels for the piece, just days before he sensationally quit as Bowie’s right hand man. One of the few to leave David’s employ rather than be frozen out by the icy Isolar establishment. I’ll have to try and dig out the complete interview… if only I knew where it was.

WEDNESDAY’S CHILD

Steve Pafford takes a look at David Bowie’s new album, ‘hours…’, to see whether he still loves the alien

So what to make of the latest Bowie album, then? Well, immediately, the title demands your attention. is he just misspelling “Heroes” or what?

Earlier this year, David would have been buoyed by readers polls in The Sun and America’s Entertainment Weekly naming him the No.1 Music Star Of The Century and the No.1 Classic Solo Artist of all time, respectively.

The latter poll is especially interesting, with Bowie cruising to pole position with a whopping 35% of the vote; more than double his nearest rival, Barbra Streisand – sweet revenge for her questionable covers of Life On Mars? and Under The God, no doubt – and more importantly, nudging Elvis into third.

The Classic Solo Artist poll seems timely, as ‘hours…’ is very much Bowie in a classic singer-songwriter sort of guise; and he’s not going for the younger listener in the way he did with Earthling.

A few years back, Bowie admitted: “I actually revolt against the last album that I made, especially if it’s been successful. It seems, in hindsight, I always want to do  the very opposite of what that last album did, just for my own satisfaction as an artist.” And he’s keeping his word. ‘hours…’ is the complete antithesis of its critically acclaimed predecessor.

This is a set of songs for David’s own generation. Which is surprising, as eight of those songs are featured in a futuristic new computer game, The Nomad Soul (Omikron in the US), that portrays Bowie morphed back 20 years. Its hard to imagine, hardcore fans excited, many forty-somethings rushing out to claim their copy.

The album is intriguingly entitled ‘hours…’, but is it one of his finest? Let’s explore…

Bowie was big. It’s the pictures that got small: Bowie & Gabrels announce Omikron on Sunset Boulevard, May 1999.

BACK TO BASICS

‘hours…’ is Bowie’s twenty-second solo studio set, his first for two-and-a-half years, and his last of the millennium. Produced by Bowie and his long-standing sidekick, Reeves Gabrels, the album is a return to more traditional, formal methods of recording. In the past year, Bowie and Gabrels set up special writing and acoustic demo sessions in Bermuda and Paris specifically for the interlinking album and game projects. Unlike most of Bowie’s material this decade, these were to be structured, melodic songs to be recorded, but not written, in the studio.

The most striking thing about ‘hours…’ is how atypically accessible the songs are. Now that he’s signed a new worldwide deal with Virgin, it’s almost as if Bowie thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give a potential new record label something a little more conventional, in the same way in which Let’s Dance and Black Tie White Noise, both barely recorded out of contract, would be so much more commercial than Scary Monsters and Tin Machine II, for instance.

‘hours…’ could well be the album that will appeal to those record buyers who own Let’s Dance, Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, and, the odd hits collection aside, not much more of his work.

An artist sometimes need to produce a more public-pleasing album in order to pursue less popular and more experimental endeavours, and ‘hours…’ firmly falls into this category.

But how did the interlinked album and computer games come about? As Reeves Gabrels tells me: “We originally wrote six vocal songs and a bunch of instrumental pieces in Bermuda for the Omikron game. Of those instrumental ideas, we completed about six for the game. We then continued to write another eight vocal tracks for the ‘hours…’ album.

OMG, it’s Omikron!

“Simultaneously, while co-producing and co-writing with David all the songs on ‘hours…’, I continued to work with the Eidos/Quantic Dream people (the game’s producers) and by mid-August I had written another 25 or so instrumental songs for the game on my own. Somehow, I managed to write over three hours’ worth of instrumental music, in varying permutations, in addition to the 55 minutes worth of music which David and I had originally written together and given to them.

“The instrumental tracks are more electronic and aggressive in nature than the ‘hours…’ album, and are titled according to the scenes in which they’re used. I expect that at some point in 2000 there will be an Omikron, The Nomad Soul instrumental album of the music I wrote.”

FAR TO GO

As for Thursday’s Child, the lead-off single from the album, “Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown,” sang Nico on All Tomorrow’s Parties, but I would hardly agree with that, seeing as I was born on a Thursday, as was Bowie’s mum, Peggy. As we should all know off by heart from the old traditional rhyme, Thursday’s child has far to go – and it didn’t do badly here at all. Thursday’s Child is Bowie’s 35th Top 20 single in the UK, and if you include his work with Tin Machine, his 65th chart hit in all. That honorary bus pass from the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles should be dropping on his doormat any day now.

The song itself has a gorgeous, old-fashioned melody run-down of the weekdays in the chorus, and yes, the vulnerability in the vocals are a hark back to Hunky Dory, though not necessarily quite as fluted. They do also remind me of some of Bowie’s mid ‘60s mod pieces. Bowie was born on a Wednesday, by the way.

Something In The Air, with its electronically treated, slightly deranged vocals, is eerie. To me, this is the song the Elephant Man would be singing if he were alive today. The tracks also features some great sedate and sinuous Gabrels guitar work that immediately recalls Seven Years In Tibet, and with a fake John, I’m Only Dancing-style outro half-way through, Mick Ronson at his best.

Survive is Bowie finding his half-cockney Anthony Newley voice again, and is reminiscent of The London Boys , probably the best track from Bowie’s ’67 debut, and the height of his Newley affliction.

Indeed, when I interviewed David’s old costumier chum, Natasha Kornilof, recently, she revealed that Bowie would actually earn his bread and butter back then by actually recording Newley’s demo discs so that the former Mr Joan Collins could choose which songs he liked well enough to want to record with an orchestra.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING

Survive sounds like a possible single, Seven even more so; a beautiful, reflective acoustic ballad with sexy slide guitar. Seven may well be Bowie’s lucky number, and its title got me thinking: Dead Man Walking, Fantastic Voyage, Velvet Goldmine – Bowie’s always had a penchant for nicking movie titles for his songs, and Seven is no exception, although this track marks the first time he’s thieved from a movie that featured one of his own tracks! (1995’s The Hearts Filthy Lesson was the closing theme of David Fincher’s serial thriller, Se7en). The into also reminds me of the acoustic version of Heroes that Bowie was performing in 1996.

While If I’m Dreaming My Life is a pleasant enough piece, it is a little overlong and is the kind of ditty Dave could toss off in his sleep (as it were).

What’s Really Happening is faintly reminiscent of Dodo, and boasts some fabulous Low-era searing guitar. The song made music history by being the featured track in last year’s web contest where thousands of songwriter wannabes and and internet junkies submitted verse lyrics online to add to David’s already written chorus. Winner Alex Grant from Ohio (who receives a co-writer’s credit), also provides back-ups with his friend Larry, and must be chuffed to bits at the song’s last minute inclusion on the album.

Stomping glam robotic rocker The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell started out life as an instrumental track that Reeves wrote for The Nomad Soul late last year. It’s already a single outside of Europe, and must surely be considered as one here, too. A remixed version of the song is included on the soundtrack to a new supernatural thriller, Stigmata, so a tie-in when the film hits these shores must be the way forward.

Even better is the Peter Gabriel-esque New Angels Of Promise, probably the track that will appeal to the die-hards, featuring, as it does, an Outside-style guitar build up on the intro, a touch of The ‘In’ Crowd, and vocals that could have been lifted straight from 1979’s Yassassin. There’s also some exquisite Beatley harmonies (very Walrus/Peppery) and a namecheck for Elvis’s finest moment, Suspicious Minds.

Brilliant Adventure is one of those brooding instrumentals which still infatuate Bowie from time to time, and this short serene piece with koto will immediately evoke Moss Garden and Crystal Japan, though this is far less electronic. The descending outro is also similar to Kate Bush’s Babooshka, and leads nicely into The Dreamers.

But which dreamers are we talking about here? Army Dreamers, Freddie And The Dreamers? No, perhaps it’s Steve Strange’s old beat combo, Visage, as each time I listen to the intro chimes, I’m instantly transported to Mind Of A Toy. There are moody synths (think 1982’s Cat People, minus the Toyahisms) and contorted vocals. Could there also be hints at the Aboriginal dreamtime in there too? (has DB been listening to a lot of Bush and Gabriel lately then?).

All in all, a well structured album, full of little reminiscences, and disarmingly honest in its approach. But if I am allowed to make one complaint, it is that it simply isn’t long enough. In the words of his old mucker Iggy, I Need More.

Special thanks to Reeves Gabrels and Tony Visconti for their help with these two features. Reeves’s second solo album, Ulysses (Della Notte) is now available exclusively as an MPEG download from his website (www.reevesgabrels.com) and includes Jewel, a four-way vocal spar between Bowie, Frank Black, Dave Grohl and Gabrels.

For details of Crankin’ Out!, Steve Pafford’s irregular but really excellent international David Bowie magazine, send SAE /IRC to PO Box 3268, London, NW6 4NH, UK.

 

2017 footnotes: 

Of course, Barbra Streisand – a confirmed Democrat that would usually bump into the Bowies at Clinton conventions – didn’t really cover Under The God. And yes, I was fully aware Velvet Goldmine was a Bowie song before the movie. They were merely a couple of fun little misnomers (or should that be mis-gnomes?) to make sure everyone was awake. Though I’m not sure John Harrison was.

John, an elderly bus driver from Bristol, read the RC review and snorted to a mutual friend, “Doesn’t Pafford even know David did a song called Velvet Goldmine in the ‘70s?” You really couldn’t make it up.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties has an additional significance in the Bowie canon: in 2009, a full ten years after I first interviewed him for the above article, Reeves Gabrels revealed to me, quite casually and with zero prompting (we were actually discussing a feature I’d written on ‘Unreleased Bowie’ the year before), that Tin Machine covered the very same VU classic during their first album sessions.

Also, Reeves added that there are a further three completely mixed and mastered 1989 recordings that have not even been documented, let alone bootlegged.

Quite why any of the other Bowie biographers that had access to the TM band members failed to discover these kind of strange, fascinating factoids is a complete mystery. The incomplete David Bowie, eh. Alas, I’ll go into more detail on those another time.

© Steve Pafford 1999, 2017

Bowienet’s write up here

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