So a new David Bowie single is released, and the world goes mad. Again.
If I sound a bit jaded, that’s because – like some Twilight Zone clairvoyant who sees the future repeated over and over again and wishes he could change it – I know every single, horrible little detail of what comes next.
The album. The retrospectives. The interviews. The Culture Show. And all of it a slow-motion prelude to the inevitable crash, the reviews. I’ve seen them all, with their endlessly repeated punchline. This year, once again, the world’s combined bright sparks will declare a new Bowie product to be The Best Thing He’s Done Since Scary Monsters.
Honestly, it’s not the line I mind. It's the whole idiot orthodoxy that ‘70s Bowie is a good thing, followed by one 33-year-long parade of duds, duets, drum’n’bass and dotage. Like all orthodoxy, it gets handed down complete: you know what to say without ever needing to go back and listen to the music itself. It’s easy. But it’s also a lie. And it’s one that deprives the world of the chance to encounter some of the man’s very best work.
This matters. With Bowie now 66, and the prospect of another run of amazing albums receding, his legacy is confined to what he produced in the 1970s. Yet even now, there are half a dozen albums that belong in that canon. Albums that should be heard; that stand with, or even above, his most famous work. And albums that change our understanding of his career. Because David Bowie’s most creative, unexpected, maverick and artistically satisfying hot streak of all came not amid the glare of ’70s superstardom, but when he set a course right off the map – and away from the charts – in the 1990s.
Hear me out. Of course – of course – Bowie’s ‘70s was phenomenal: a manic run of 15 albums in a decade that, even if they weren’t all great – stand up Pinups, David Live, Stage and Peter & The Wolf – stand as some sort of record-breaking testament to artistic confidence and sheer stylistic chutzpah.
But Bowie in the 1990s was different. His output between 1989 and 1999 is the sound of a decade-long writer's block being blown to smithereens, and with a manic, questing, sulphurous joy that all the deeper and more genuine for that nobody, least of all Bowie, could take his gift for granted any more. This was Bowie discovering a whole new set of frontiers by going further than he’d gone before.
The problem was, nobody could see it at the time. The spectre of David Bowie, rock aristocrat dancing in the streets with Mick Jagger or crooning in a tux at Tina Turner was still too fresh for us to take his volte-face seriously. When he turned round and gave the world his 1990s postcards from the edge, the world asked if he was pulling its leg.
In our defence, Bowie himself didn’t seem too sure of himself either, at least to start with. Having belatedly realised that he couldn’t trust the glossy productions to tell him whether the songs were any good, Tin Machine was an exercise in seeing what happened without it. Depressed after the Glass Spider tour, he'd started knocking around with avant-noise guitarist Reeves Gabrels. It was Gabrels who told him to fuck his career, fuck big tours, fuck entertainment and the mainstream: he was David Bowie for Chrissakes. And, well, you can see he was pretty keen to try it, but maybe not sure he’d get away with it under his own name.
Tin Machine the album is a slight piece of work. In fact, listen to it today and what strikes you is how much the writing resembles Let's Dance and Never Let Me Down, just without the breathy sax, syn-drums and white funk arrangements: these are short, shouted-chorus affairs with big, bassy riffs and an eye on live performance. I remember when it came out. We all scratched our heads. Was it another game? A beard for his writer’s block? Why was he trying to be The Pixies? In retrospect, Tin Machine was Bowie's way of taking his name off the record, an attempt to dispense with the stadium sheen, the sax and star duets, while mitigating the feeling of nakedness and risk. It wasn't a faux-modest 'all boys together' attempt to join a band: it was the closest someone this distinctive could get to going in disguise to his own pop funeral.
He may have been surprised that the world didn't end. People seemed to like it, or at least tolerate it with more grace than they had the Glass Spider stuff. The decks were cleared. It was time to get back to work. Time to make up for that lost decade.
Bowie, like Dylan, like Scott Walker, like all of us really, is at his best when he's got the fear. When he's aware he’s wasted time, has some wrongs to right. In other words, when he's trying. If Tin Machine was a test – did the people want big production numbers, the family entertainer? – Tin Machine II is Bowie at the start of a new creative streak. Criminally underrated at the time, all but unknown now, in a lot of ways it's not really a Tin Machine album at all, but the first solo album by a reborn Bowie, and one who genuinely could not give less of a shit about sales or charts or what people thought. The prescient proto-grunge is gone; the music zips from haunting to elegiac to disassociated to downright spooky rock'n'roll... And all of it (bar the two numbers at the end he let the band to sing and perform without him) is fantastic.
The songs came with an ease they hadn't for years. Look at the studio session log: Bowie produced more music, wrote more songs, performed more takes for Tin Machine II than for any other album he'd ever made, and in a terrifyingly short space of time, straight after coming off tour. And those songs - even the ones he dropped from the final album, with great titles like ‘Needles On The Beach’ – are uniformly brilliant. ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’ is dazed urban beauty; ‘One Shot’ somehow manages to make what sounds like a cut-up 911 call log sound slinky and seductive; ‘Baby Universal’ and ‘You Belong in Rock ‘n’Roll’ both make groovy pop do things it will never, ever tell its parents about.
Best of all, for a man so recently reduced to plundering his own '70s songbook and styles to the point where he hated himself for it and retired the songs, the album sounds like nothing else he's recorded before or since. It may be among his best; what it is, beyond doubt, is his most off-kilter. I guess if it has any affinities, it's with Lodger: not in terms of how it sounds, but just because of its air of defiant oddness, freedom and play by a man in absolute and dead-eyed control.
Bowie knew he had a live one. He put a degree of thought into it that would have been unthinkable for Tonight or Never Let Me Down, albums he couldn't wait to see the back of. The song 'Amlapura', an astonishing, wonky, spectral ballad about Bali, reincarnation and love-suicide, was re-recorded with Bowie singing translated lyrics for the Indonesian market. The naked statues on the cover, once they had fallen foul of American Christian groups, had their cocks Photoshopped for Wal-Mart. This was first-rate music and Bowie wanted it heard... So much so that when the reviews that should have appeared for the last album were belatedly issued for this (we reviewers overcompensate for missed calls too) and the album was dismissed as a lark, Bowie put its songs out on a live album called Oy Vey Baby too, just to give them a second chance at being heard.
It didn't matter. Bowie was still paying for his ‘80s dilettantism. The world still suspected – still suspects today – that the band was nothing but a put-on by an insincere man incapable of anything but dabbling. The album struggled to a lowly 126 on the billboard charts.
So he retired Tin Machine. But he didn’t retire its spirit. The creative nucleus, a writing partnership between him and experimental guitarist Reeves Gabrels, regrouped in 1992 to make the big Bowie comeback everyone had been hoping for. Record company execs were delighted, the public was happy, after all they thought they were finally getting a reliable, Paul McCartney-type heritage rock act they wanted. They got Nile ‘Let’s Dance’ Rodgers on board again, arranged overdub sessions with hot-at-the-time soul singer Al B Sure! and ex-Spider From Mars Mick Ronson, cleared permission for some covers, then sat back and awaited commercial paydirt.
Bowie had other ideas.
Black Tie White Noise is an album so strange, so subversive, that I’m not even sure I understand it even now, let alone like it. But fucking hell, it was thrilling to have it land. The key was in one of the covers: Scott Walker’s Nite Flights was the former balladeer’s frightening 1978 fuck-you to the mainstream and to the ballads his record companies kept asking him to record. If you know Walker – a personal hero of Bowie – then you know where Black Tie White Noise (that title, another clue) is coming from. The album was made up of ballads (including a Morrissey cover) being taken on a series of lonely walks down a number of very dark alleyways, then snuffed with glassy-eyed precision of a David Lynch hitman, with occasional noise-rock dissonance soundtracking the murders.
A spooky, cold, playful, expert, fond yet rather sinister act of convention-fucking, the album is Bowie’s Twin Peaks. (In fact, he’d made the movie spin-off Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with Lynch immediately before commencing sessions.) The music practically dared you to take it at face value. ‘Jump They Say’, the lead single, was a pinprick-eyed krautrock disco number that some said was about his schizophrenic brother Terry, but sounds for all the world like a note telling us that he’s not making the record we think he’s making. For the first time in years, he’s listening to his own inner voices again. Commercial suicide? They say: Jump. Even the TV ad for the album was 30 seconds of complete silence. If anyone ever, ever tells you Bowie’s Thin White Duke period sounds arch, cokey and Replicanty, play them this. It’ll terrify them.
Black Tie White Noise was a warning shot. Then shit got real.
From his soundtrack for the BBC TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia – a killer single, haunting, ambient instrumentals, off-kilter dance grooves, issued with zero marketing then almost immediately deleted – Bowie discarded all the maps. A hymn to South London by way of Philip Glass, the Kray twins and East Germany, it felt flash, flick-knifey and pastoral, druggy and decadent and wistful and folky at the same time, acoustic guitars blending into drones and deep beats. It was a hell of a trick to pull off, and it sounded nothing like Low or "Heroes" either. Again, he seemed to be enjoying flying under the radar – the book’s multi-culti England became his brief, his jumping off point, just as his train journeys through the East had inspired Low. It is an astonishing album.
It came out with the book TV tie-in cover on the sleeve. Someone at the record company got hot-at-the-time soul-rock crossover muppet Lenny Kravitz to overdub some rockist guitar on the title track and issued it as a single. Nobody noticed.
As his creative roll gathered speed and power, it spun him further and further from what his record company kept telling journalists. You could almost sense his publicists’ glee as he announced he’d do the next album with Brian Eno in Montreux… and their despair as he returned with something like 20 hours of a cut-up music theatre piece influenced by Nietzsche, Einstein, body modification, ‘50s film noir and the concept of a digitized future.
That became a triple CD, then a single album. It was called 1.Outside. It was fantastic. Songs like ‘Thru These Architects’ Eyes’ and ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ were hit singles from another universe; ‘Leon Takes Us Outside’ and ‘We Prick You’ show the kind of controlled theatrics even Berlin-era Bowie never had, and outtakes ‘Nothing To Be Desired’ and ‘Hide Me’ show the Bowie/Eno axis throwing caution overboard, free-associating and sparking more amazing ideas per bar than most artists manage in a lifetime.
What’s really odd, in retrospect, isn’t the music, but the reaction to it. It became a critical truism that he’d ‘gone techno’ – even though the music itself really only suggested it in as many places as it suggested avant-garde cocktail jazz or Dashiel Hammett. Fans and critics alike asked why Bowie insisted on doing this weirdy stuff, and sniggered at the idea he’d stoop to some sort of futuristic narrative with story interludes – as if Diamond Dogs and The1980 Floor Show had never actually happened. They wanted unpredictable Bowie to be good old Bowie, doing the hits, like he always used to. Me, I was glad to have music this different and dark and amazing, and when it failed – and there are moments on 1.Outside when he overreaches badly, just like there always had been on Young Americans and Diamond Dogs and the rest – that was OK too because, well, just watch him blazing away.
Bowie was clearly having the time of his life with this new material too, and that manic joy just explodes from anything and everything he did in the 1990s. His next appearance was probably the single most savage, thrilling, hilarious and joyful performance he’s ever recorded, a split performance (‘duet’ just doesn’t capture it) with actor Gary Oldman on the track ‘The King of Stamford Hill’ from Gabrels’ solo album The Sacred Squall Of Now. Recorded as part of an abandoned adaptation of Steven Berkoff's London gangland play West, it is an almost unhinged cry of power, fury and liberation. Gabrels and the drummer are clearly trying to race each other to the end of the song, Oldman performs his best Dickensian Cockney commentary and Bowie is in character as a pissed-off Hackney gangster who’s had just about enough. The key moment is Bowie’s refrain, “Ain’t it fucking curious, some other cunts are trying to ditch the king of Stamford Hill”, and to this day it remains my favourite performance by either Bowie the singer or Oldman the actor. Snuck out on Gabrels' album, like Tin Machine II, Black Tie White Noise and the Buddha soundtrack, it zipped over the heads of Bowie fans and critics who seemed to want their Bowie to become a jukebox again, like the Stones or Paul McCartney.
Yet that glinty-eyed mania, that sense of creative liberation, was something you could practically smell at the gigs. The tours around this time were a hoot. Out with Nine Inch Nails, Morrissey, whoever fancied taking him on, Bowie and the steady group of outcasts who’d coalesced around him and Gabrels would confront, subvert and strobe-fuck the audience.
He gigged at parties, he gigged in stadiums, he gigged incognito at festivals (as Tao Jones Index, sometimes even opening for David Bowie and performing electronic noise versions of ‘V2-Schneider’ and whatever else he felt like taking apart). This was Tin Machine by another name – a secret, low-pressure way of shedding (then grilling and eating) his career albatross. Searing new arrangements of old hits, extended, deepening grooves that sucked you in like whirlpools then spat you into the middle of somewhere you thought you’d known but now weren’t sure: I took some acid along to one gig, only to nix the plan the moment the music started, just because I wanted to be 100% sure it really was this off-kilter.
The live-without-a-net vibe informed 1997’s Earthling – probably the prime document of this period, and the single Bowie album of any period to which I return most often.
Every song was a single, the band was tight, and Bowie the performer and songwriter and bandleader was stomping all over it with the sublime confidence of a man who knows what he’s got. His partner in crime Reeves Gabrels was all over this one, playing punkish provocateur to Bowie’s purer pop sensibilities. The pair egged each other on, taking on dares and imposing seemingly insane rules (On ‘Looking For Satellites’, Bowie told Gabrels to divide his guitar solo into four parts, each using just one string on his guitar (E, A, D, G) and keeping it in constant 16th notes. The result is as amazing as it is unlikely, Bowie by way of Beefheart). The whole thing is stunning.
'I'm Afraid Of Americans', 'Battle for Britain', 'Telling Lies', even uncharacteristically chirpy single 'Little Wonder' with its unforgettable video, would have made this the debut album of the year. This is some of his best music. Not since Scary Monsters… but his best music, period. Critics called it his drum’n’bass album, but again, it’s pretty hard to hear what they were thinking of, or why its skewed electronics make it more of a drum’n’bass album than, say, Blur’s 13. Time Out berated 'I'm Afraid of Americans' for being racist with regard to Americans.
Every artist needs honest engagement to survive. Even Dylan at least got booed when he went electric. But 1990s Bowie got second-hand feedback from people who heard everything but the music, bought the lazy orthodoxies, told him he’d made a techno album, or joined a pub-rock band, or whatever, and really just wanted Rebel Rebel. The Earthling tour ended. The Buddha of Suburbia suffered the ignominy of being deleted. And then, perhaps having realised nobody was listening, or perhaps having run his own energy reserves down – just as he had after his 1970s hot streak – something changed. As the 1990s ended, it seemed Bowie just ran out of fight.
The result was a retreat – probably the first artistic retreat (as opposed to a misstep) he’d ever really made.
1999’s Hours… was like some horrible act of public contrition for being so risky and abandoned and downright weird for the past few years; an exercise in showing everyone he’d shed the neophyte nonsense, and could be trusted to be good old David again, honest. There he was on the cover, cradling the dead body of the crop-haired, goateed 1990s Bowie. The music is... I don't know. To me it sounds like a songwriter going, “I don’t bloody know, you tell me: is this what you want?”
Thus began the most depressing rehabilitation in pop history. The retreat continued, Bowie enlisting his ‘70s producer Tony Visconti and a host of heritage rock guests (Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl) and started a career as David Bowie, national treasure, even touring 1976’s Low album in its entirety together with Heathen (2002). He took to curating his own established body of work instead of adding to it in any meaningful way. Gabrels, his demon familiar for a decade, was out. Tasteful, Tonight-style covers – of George Harrison, Neil Young, The Pixies – were back in. Heathen and Reality (2003) were just fine, if you came to hear something that made noises a bit like David Bowie. They contained precisely nothing remotely new, unexpected or off-message. Those bug-eyed, mind-bending 1990s albums were squeezed out of conservative, crowd-pleasing setlists. It was a numbers game again.
Me, I’m not surprised he wanted a whole ten years away from the game after he had his heart attack on the Reality tour. Where’s the fun in being a waxwork?
The real tragedy of Bowie’s career isn’t that he frittered away his credibility on the production sheen, superstar duets and auto-pilot albums of the 1980s. It’s that by the time he conquered his monumental writer’s block and set off blazing a crazed trail of deep, searching creativity that even his ‘70s work only foreshadowed, the world had stopped listening.
Or perhaps it's that we only took him back to our hearts again when he came to heel, stopped challenging us and became a David Bowie impersonator. Lately, belatedly, people have started to discover 1990s Bowie. Gary Numan and XFM’s Eddy Temple Morris have both come out as fans of the earthling, while in 2010 Uncut called Tin Machine II one of the most unfairly overlooked albums in history. Well, small pockets of resistance and all that. We could form a support group. There’s 4 of us now.
So here’s the new single. It’s elegiac, quite lovely. It quotes his past, talks about his Berlin period. The critics are falling over themselves to praise it. And any minute now, here comes the album. And if it doesn’t sound anything like the David Bowie album you’d hoped it would be after all these years away? Be careful what you wish for.