David Bowie returns to drama

by Melinda Newman / Billboard

19th August 1995

New York–Throughout his career, David Bowie has assumed several personas, including those of glam rocker Ziggy Stardust and the debonair Thin White Duke. But on his latest project, “Outside,” he outdoes himself, taking on no less than seven characters.

“Outside,” coming Sept. 26 on Virgin Records in North America and BMG in the rest of the world, is a musical Gothic drama that elevates murder to an art form. It is the first in a series of albums for Bowie that will delve into the lives of the new characters he has created.

“The albums will go through the end of 1999,” says Bowie. “And the overriding sort of idea would be to, in musical diary form, capture the atmosphere of the last five years of the millennium using the device of a storyline and characters.”

The atmospheric, textured work of “Outside” recalls Bowie’s early work rather than his more accessible, mainstream pop of “Let’s Dance” or his last album, 1993’s “Black Tie, White Noise.” The first single, “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is an edgy, industrial, layered tune that will go to college, alternative, and album rock radio in early September. That will be followed by another version, remixed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, that will be serviced to radio later in the month. Samuel Bayer is directing a video for the song.

“At the end of the day, we’re promoting the artist, and a spin is a spin, whether it comes from the album version or the remix,” says Phil Quartararo, president/CEO of Virgin Records America. “I’m trying to re-establish David Bowie. In a perfect world, the remix will ensure us extra mileage as the song gets established. This is the first real concept album David has made in several years. I think for him, it’s a return to his roots–not so much in music, but in style. We need to go to his core fan and say, ‘The guy you grew up with has a new record that’s indicative of where he’s been and where he’s going.'”

That goal can be accomplished by airplay and media coverage via avenues that reach Bowie’s older demographic. To reach the younger Bowie fans, the idea is to identify him with the newer acts that have been influenced by him. Quartararo says that no plan will work better than having Bowie tour with Nine Inch Nails. The six-week amphitheater tour will start Sept. 14 in Hartford, Conn. Additionally, Quartararo says that Virgin will take special care of the indie mom-and-pop record stores that cater to alternative music to make sure they are included in all retail plans for the project.

For Bowie, recording in character for the first time in nearly 20 years was not difficult. “That’s not scary for me anymore, because I’m much more aware that I’m working in a narrator/creator capacity [rather than allowing] myself to merge with the character as the same person. I’m in a lot healthier place now to undertake that kind of work. But I did come up with seven characters, so that’s kind of scary,” Bowie says with a laugh. “It’s sort of ‘Sybil’-ish, isn’t it? But she had 33 characters, so I’m still doing all right.”

The project reunites Bowie with producer Brian Eno, who last worked with Bowie on his 1979 album, “Lodger.” The two hooked up at Bowie’s 1992 wedding. “We both share a great passion for the breakdown of boundaries between the art forms, because we’ve both always been involved in this nebulous area called multimedia,” says Bowie. “I’ve always felt that film and theater and fashion and art and music all go together. I have no problem dealing with any of those areas. My principle is that if you’re not an outright idiot, you should be able to apply the tools of one trade to any of the other art forms. I think Brian is much of the same opinion, so we tend to grasshopper about between all the art forms a lot.”

Bowie and Eno began working on the project in March 1994. “We had the skeleton of the story line, and I was developing characters whilst we were working,” says Bowie. “It was quite obvious within a 3 1/2-hour improvisation that we’d set this in a place called Oxford Town, N.J. And we had this guy called [Nathan] Adler and this other guy called Leon and this very scary woman named Ramona, and there was some kind of murder thing that had happened, and it had to do with the art world.”

Then Bowie got help in the form of British music magazine Q, which asked him to contribute to its celebrity diary section by keeping a journal for 10 days. “And I thought, ‘What an incredibly boring thing to do.’ Because we did all our recording in Switzerland, it’s about, ‘Day one: went skiing, looked at mountain, looked at lake. Day two: bought fromage.’ So I wondered, ‘What would Nathan Adler be doing?'”

The Q piece, titled “The Diary Of Nathan Adler Or The Art-Ritual Murder Of Baby Grace Blue,” reveals Adler as the detective assigned to investigate the death of 14-year-old Baby Grace Blue. The piece became the framework for “Outside.”

Bowie considers the album’s context–the seedy underbelly of the art world–to be only a few, albeit exaggerated, steps from the current scene. “You have so many artists who are dealing with the body in a way that we’ve never experienced in art,” says Bowie. “My natural leanings were to go with that and say where could it go, as We’ve gotten to a point where people are exhibiting pieces of body and stuff in pickle jars. We have to get to a point where murder itself is going to become an art form. Why is this? What is promoting this? And I kind of put it down to certain paganism and a tacit agreement that we should ap-pease the gods by some kind of virtual sacrifice so we can get into the next millennium unscathed.”

After all volumes of the project are completed in 1999, Bowie would like to stage the drama. “One foresees that at the end, you may well have 20-25 different characters flying around, and then we could do some wonderful, epic production in the year 2000. It would be like ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ on acid. Something like that and a cross between Grand Guignol in 19th-century Paris. I think I would probably opt to play Nathan Adler.”

While Bowie remains on BMG International outside of North America, he found himself without a label in the U.S. and Canada when he began working on “Outside.” Savage Records, which released “Black Tie, White Noise,” folded almost as soon as the album came out in the U.S.

“I couldn’t do anything but just get on with my work. I think otherwise I would have just spiraled into a pit of gloom, because I loved that album,” says Bowie. “Tragically, it just didn’t see the light of day over here. It couldn’t have been worse for me.”

As he and Eno were working on “Outside,” Bowie says, “Virgin literally came and found me and signed me up. They really felt that Brian and I getting together was one of the more exciting things that they’d heard about, and they just wanted to be there.”

Although “Black Tie, White Noise” quickly disappeared in the U.S., it fared much better in the rest of the world. Heinz Henn, senior VP of A&R and marketing for BMG Entertainment International, says that “Black Tie” sold more than one million units outside of North America and was Bowie’s best seller internationally outside of “Let’s Dance.”

Henn says the key to exploiting “Outside” in the rest of the world is targeting the right audience.

“This is far more of a record for music lovers than music consumers,” he says. “So we’ll go to magazines, TV shows, and radio shows that cater to people who are interested in music, rather than every daily newspaper and magazine like Cosmopolitan and God knows what. The focus is to get back to the people who love music.”

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