Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Earthling' by David Bowie
Despite huge chart success in the 1980’s David Bowie found himself in a creative rut following the release of 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’. Two half-assed releases followed before Bowie decided to jump ship and start Tin Machine (1988), a project which gave him the opportunity to create music without expectations.
Though short lived, the experiment jump-started Bowie’s creative juices and he reappeared as a solo artist releasing ‘Black Tie White Noise and ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ in 1993. Bowie was unhappy with the exposure the latter album - which soundtracked the BBC2 drama based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi – received and reworked some of its material for his first foray into electronic music ‘1. Outside’ two years later.
While the phrase Britpop was being coined, Bowie, ever the arch futurist embraced the industrial sounds of acts such as Nine Inch Nails and the trip hop of Portishead; whilst enjoying the plaudits his earlier work received thanks to its clear impact on successful acts of the era such as Suede, Blur and Oasis.
Though much of ‘1. Outside’ was created by samples created by Bowie and his band. By the time they finished touring the album the band was so tight that Bowie didn’t want to run the risk of them losing momentum, so despite having little if any material he booked them in to a studio to create his 21st solo album ‘Earthling’ as soon as they came off the road.
‘Earthling’ was recorded in Phillip Glass’ Looking Glass Studio in New York and co-produced by Mark Plati, whose credits include The Cure, Prince and Talking Heads. Plati would work with Bowie as a producer and multi-instrumentalist up until ‘Reality’ (2003) after which Bowie went into retirement following a heart attack.
‘Earthling’ turned 21 today (03/02/2018) which prompted us to revisit the album. However, though the elements are there, the results are not quite the drum’n’bass hoedown you’ve been led to believe, and despite misgivings about Bowie shamelessly stowing away on the zeitgeist and poor reviews at the time of release, ‘Earthling’ has aged much better than critics in 1997 could have ever foreseen.
‘1. Outside’ has also aged much better than expected, unlike Bowie’s next effort ‘Hours…’ which, like small pox should be avoided at all costs.
Having embraced cut up lyrics during his Ziggy Stardust phase it should come as no surprise to learn that Bowie embraced the possibilities digital recording brought for cut up song writing by utilising the technological breakthroughs to quickly create song structures and loops.
During this era Bowie had also become enamoured with the possibilities presented by the internet, another technological development also in its infancy at the time. Telling Lies was the first download only single by a major artist, with 300,000 downloads before it was released as a single proper two months later.
However, Bowie still maintained his penchant for recycling songs and sounds which he has always displayed throughout his career. Dead Man Walking features a riff written by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, which Page had given Bowie when he played session guitar on I Pity The Fool in 1961, which Bowie would later utilised on the song The Superman on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (1970).
Looking for Satellites meanwhile, delivers a somewhat dystopian echo of Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, which Bowie produced.
I’m Afraid of Americans was co-written with Brian Eno during the sessions for ‘1. Outside’ but was reworked for ‘Earthling’ and eventually remixed by Nine Inch Nails.
The track is currently the theme song for US espionage TV series Berlin Station, starring Rhys Ifans – undoubtedly the best posthumous use of Bowie’s music - which has been marred far too often by horrendous choral reimaginings of Heroes.
Perhaps, twenty-one years on ‘Earthling’ may get the revaluation it deserves as a vital, if not perfect cog in the artistic journey of David Bowie.