Invigorated by Nineties sounds

by Paul Gorman / Miller Freeman Ent.

20th January 1997

There’s nothing the media enjoy more than an anniversary and David Bowie’s 50th birthday on January 8 offered ample opportunity for career retrospectives/dissections in the form of two TV specials, a Radio One acoustic broadcast and a star-studded celebratory New York concert.

The past decade has not featured highly in many people’s critical overview of his career, but that has been to ignore a steady recent musical regeneration, hinted at on the Buddha Of Suburbia and Black Tie White Noise in the early Nineties, and more evident on 1995’s Outside, his most rounded effort in years.

The revival continues with the hot new post-Prodigy single, Little Wonder, and forthcoming album, Earthling, which sees Bowie throwing down a hard rock/alternative dance gauntlet to performers half his age.

According to Bowie, 50 feels good, possibly because he is in as fine fettle musically as he is physically. Earthling is a testament to the rejuvenating powers of techno, industrial and drum & bass with Bowie supported by the other-worldly guitar technique of Reeves Gabrels, piano gymnastics of Mike Garson, drummer Zachary Alford and bass-player Gail Ann Dorsey.

On tracks like the self-deprecating single Little Wonder, the epic Seven Years In Tibet and the moody Dead Man Walking, it is evident that Bowie has regained his confidence in the studio. “The energy level and dynamics of Earthling come from us developing as a working band which enjoys playing live, particularly at the festivals,” he says.

As with his 1973 album, Aladdin Sane, most of the material on Earthling was written on the road. “It’s almost as though we duplicated the live experience in the studio,” says Bowie, who stresses that everything was recorded in eight days flat.

Bowie’s songwriting collaboration with Gabrels runs along different lines to that with Brian Eno – his partner on the acclaimed Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy. “Reeves and I work in essentially the same way, we have virtually the same sense of perspective,” says Bowie. “There is more of a bond concerning musical ideas, whereas Brian and I often start from different directions – he has a pretty set idea of where he wants to go, as do I. That’s what makes it interesting.”

The release of Little Wonder has emphasised Bowie’s conversion to drum & bass: two tracks on Outside also contained jungle elements and he reworked the classic The Man Who Sold The World in that style for single release last year. However, he points out that the genre’s rhythms are only detectable on three songs on the new album. “There’s also a lot of pure industrial on there, and one track, The Last Thing You Should Do, even goes back to the area I was working on with Low; it’s not that dissimilar from Sound & Vision,” he says.

RCA marketing director Kristina Kyriacou says that the record company will be pressing home the message that Earthling represents Bowie’s most accessible work for some time. “It’s a lot more commercial than his recent albums and we believe that it has a great deal of longevity,” she says. “Earthling is a very dynamic, bold statement and we aim to reflect that.”

Kyriacou adds that Bowie is always open to new ideas. “Although he essentially delivers the album to us, we all have a say in how it should be presented,” says Kyriacou, who points out that club promotions for Little Wonder centre on the mixes for the record by leading dance names like Junior Vasquez, Adam F, Leftfield and Danny Sabre. “The idea of this album was to take techno ideas and reproduce them with organic instruments,” says Bowie. “I find drum & bass very exciting, but my approach isn’t hardcore. I just enjoy listening to it and then putting that into a hard rock context.”

Given his musical roots in British R&B, rock and glam, an easier route to re-establishing credibility may have been for Bowie to plug into the post-Britpop boom, but his desire to experiment would not allow him to. “I didn’t go that way because I’m a stubborn git,” he says. “I go with my enthusiasms and although I think rock is a great artform, I’ve never had a predilection for that kind of formulaic sound.”

Bowie’s wayward muse may never lead him back to the creative heights he scaled in the Seventies, but it ensures that he remains at the centre of a diverse range of projects. Aside from a return to the road with his band in May and plans to record the next in the “pre-millennium tension” series with Eno this summer, he also intends to produce a solo album by bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.

And Bowie is not neglecting the visual arts; next month’s Milestones exhibition/auction in aid of War Child will feature his artistic tribute to Sixties singers The Walker Brothers.

Bowie’s admiration for Scott Walker dates back to the mid-Sixties and he has subsequently followed the enigmatic artist’s solo career with avid interest. In fact, Walker approached Bowie and Eno with plans for collaboration in the wake of Heroes, but these were never realised. “One of the few ambitions I have left is to work with Scott Walker,” says Bowie. “He’s a pioneer and a renegade, an artist who is a great role model.”

The vigour displayed on Earthling guarantees that this description is equally applicable to Bowie himself.

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