White Rabbit Records - Blog

 RSS Feed

  1. Almost all of Bowie’s albums that we’ve visited thus far I could have written about without even listening to them again. I’ve told you previously I struggle with his 90’s output (we’ve skipped “Hours” as it’s another I don’t have on vinyl) and the same goes for much of the 2000’s too. So here we are in 2002 (the album, I am of course in 2023 and not claiming to have discovered the secret of time travel) and I’m sitting down with “Heathen” to try and make sense of it.

    I think I’m coming to something of a realisation/revelation about these 90’s and early 2000’s albums I’ve had such a hard time with. When I first heard “The Next Day” and “★ Blackstar” (both of which we will get to very soon) I “got” them immediately. I now think I have to listen to these records from 1993 to 2003 with those two records in mind as a final landing point that I had no way of knowing at the time. 1971 to 1980 Bowie was easy to fall for. From then until “Black Tie White Noise” it seems to me he was lost and made some very lazy records, or records that were expressly made to make the money the Mainman exit deal had denied him, and he can’t be blamed for that. But if you take 1993 to 2003 as him building a new musical framework for himself culminating in those last 2 superb records the period makes a lot more sense, to me at least. Coming back to “Heathen” after something of a recent revelation with “1. Outside” has helped, I can’t compare post 1995 Bowie to 71-80 Bowie, I have to compare forward, not back. And when these records were released I could not know what was to come.

    “Heathen” starts very gently with “Sunday” and then explodes into life with a cover of the Pixies “Cactus”. One thing that does surprise about “Heathen” is that there are 3 covers on this album (“Cactus”, Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” and of course The Legendary Stardust Cowboys “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spacecraft”) and none of them are bad, had he finally got the hang of covers ? I’m not a fan of the Pixies which gave me the advantage of not knowing initially that “Cactus” was one of their songs. The Neil Young song, again I didn’t originally know this was a cover, didn’t know the original and Neil Young is a master songwriter. It’s fair to point out that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy tune is not so much of a cover but more Bowie lifting a title, some lyrics and writing a complete new song around them.

    The centre piece of Side 1 is “Slip Away” (aka “Uncle Floyd” originally recorded as part of the “Toy” album sessions) a beautiful ballad sung brilliantly. It was inspired by, and mentions a 1980’s children’s TV show, “The Uncle Floyd Show”, which aired on New Jersey cable TV. The song is a meditation on lost life and opportunities. It’s an absolute stunner.

    Other highlights include “Slow Burn” (featuring Pete Townshend on guitar) which comes on all “Heroes” for a second on the intro, it does cause a double take when you first hear it; “Afraid” starts out sounding very late 70’s New Wave until Visconti introduces a string section; “Everyone Says Hi” and “Better Future”, an argument with god apparently, are perfectly warped Bowie pop songs.

    I’ll admit it, I’ve been wrong all these years, “Heathen“ is a great album. It picked up mainly great reviews, lots of “best album since Scary Monsters” types. After restoring his reputation post Tin Machine this record harked back toward the Bowie of Berlin and “Scary Monsters”. Bowie said of the album. 

    I know how good this album is. It’s an incredibly successful album for me creatively. I wouldn’t change a note of it…I almost feel that I will be writing some of my very best work over the next few years

    Little did he, or we, know that after his next album (2003’s “Reality” which we won’t cover here just yet as it’s another of the holes in my collection) circumstances would present us with no Bowie work over the next decade.

    Slip Away - https://youtu.be/oFtNAXxwn-I

  2. I have only owned “Earthling” on vinyl for a couple of weeks (a gorgeous Green vinyl limited edition if anyone is interested) but it’s an album I know well as I bought it on CD when it was originally released and I bloody love it. It was Bowie’s first album to be recorded completely digitally (which makes me wanting it on an analogue medium kinda stoopid). I can’t think why I bought it at the time as I really had lost interest in him, as discussed during my musings on “1. Outside”.

    “Earthling” should get more love, it is one of Bowie’s very best albums. It wears its influences very obviously (drum and bass in general, Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald, The Prodigy) but this time those influences were already mainstream, Bowie as follower rather than leader. What it does have is some absolutely wonderful songs, the opening “Little Wonder” and it’s furious drum pattern, “Telling Lies” the first song written and recorded for “Earthling” and its first single, “Dead Man Walking”, “Seven Years In Tibet” and “I’m Afraid Of Americans” an outtake from “1. Outside”.

    No discussion of “Earthling” would be complete without particular focus on the absolutely incredible “Battle For Britain (The Letter)” which for me is right up there with “Heroes”, “Look Back In Anger” and “Life On Mars ?” among Bowie’s finest songs. There, I’ve said it. Bowie felt it was the the very essence of the album, featuring cut up drum loops alongside live drumming by Zachary Alford. On this song, as on most of the album thankfully, Gabrels worst excesses have been reined in but his big crunching, distorted chords rip through this and Bowie serves up a great, great song discussing his take on nationality (he left Britain for the USA on the Ziggy Stardust tour and never permanently returned). 

    “ “Battle for Britain” is another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of  “Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back”.Bowie, 1997.

    I struggle with much of Bowie’s 90’s music (I’m getting there, slowly) but “Earthling” is a fantastic record and I commend it to the house…

    Battle For Britain (The Letter) - https://youtu.be/K0suv6Ci-a8

  3. Those paying attention will notice the big hole in my Bowie collection, just about 1987 to 1997. These years are something of a desert to me. Following “Never Let Me Down” it seems Bowie decided he needed a reset and his solution was to form a band. He’d met a new guitar player, Reeves Gabrels (or as he’s commonly referred to in our house “the man who made Bowie unlistenable for a decade”), and together with the Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, the rhythm section from Iggy’s “Lust For Life”, formed Tin Machine. I have spent the ensuing 34 years trying to excise the horror of their 2 albums from my memory.

    Consequently after 3 duff albums on the bounce I lost interest in Bowie, meaning that “The Buddha Of Suburbia”, “Black Tie White Noise” (apart from the single “Jump They Say”) and “1. Outside” simply passed me by (you can maybe “look forward” to my musing on 2 of those sometime this later this year as part of my plan for 2023 is to fill some holes in my collection. And as you can see I have done that with “1. Outside”, just for my esteemed readership I purchased a copy last week. It really makes a difference when I know someone is actually reading my ramblings).

    “1. Outside” (or “1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle)” to give it its full title) is a record I’ve always struggled with. I was aware there are good songs on here but as it’s a “concept album”, or at least there is a story to it, and I’ve never really understood the concept then I’ve always struggled to understand it. Let’s see if we can fix that.

    As far as I can grasp it the concept is “death as art” and a world in chaos. Loosely, Nathan Adler, a detective/professor is investigating the murder of Baby Grace Blue whose dismembered body was left arranged around the doorway of the Museum in Oxford Town, New Jersey. The album deals with a host of characters who may or may not be involved. Having only recently bought this album on vinyl (previously I’ve only had a download) I now realise it contains a pretty extensive booklet which appears to explain the “Hyper Cycle” in more detail. I need to get to that for further clarity.

    The album was produced by Bowie and Brian Eno. The band included Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson who is really let loose on parts of this one in a most “Aladdin Sane” style, Erdal Kizilçay and drummer Sterling Campbell, a former pupil of another of Bowie’s drummers, Dennis Davies. 

    There are good songs in here. The opening pair of “Outside” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” are superb, then later there is “Hello Spaceboy”, “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”…there are more. The music is some of Bowie’s most challenging since the Berlin years (Eno’s influence ?) in places hinting at the techno/garage of “Earthling” (“We Prick You”) and embracing the, primarily US, futuristic Industrial sound (NiN, Ministry etc.) rather than the backward reaching BritPop that was smothering the UK in the mid 90’s. There is a style I now see developing here that would reach its full development some years later. Bowie stretches his voice much more on this album than he has in a long time (again, Eno’s influence ?). 

    One thing I find confusing about it all are the “Segues”, short interludes with contributions from other characters in the story (Algeria Touchschriek,  Ramona A Stone etc.). It should be noted that when the album was released on vinyl originally in 1995 it was titled “Excerpts From Outside…” and not all the “Segues” (or tracks for that matter) were included. So maybe creating a digital version in that format might help. Added to that the “story” doesn’t seem to resolve itself. It’s an expectation we have when being told a story that it has an ending, but this doesn’t seem to have that. It was reported that Bowie saw this as part one of a 5 part cycle and that obviously fell by the way as he moved on to other things.

    There is definitely a line to be drawn from “1. Outside” directly through to “★ Blackstar” some years later both in their musical adventurousness and certainly vocally. Track 3 after that earlier brilliant opening pairing is “A Small Plot Of Land” with Bowie singing in a very “atonal” manner, not too dissimilar to his vocal style on the song “Blackstar”. A foundation is being laid, a new style being explored. The musical progression made between “Never Let Me Down” and here in just 8 years is almost as astounding as the development over the 1971 to 1980 period. I must know there is something in here as I keep coming back to it, or I really WANT to like it. I have friends who cite “1. Outside” as (among) their favourite Bowie records. I’m not there yet but the fog of confusion around it is certainly clearing.

    I Have Not Been To Oxford Town - https://youtu.be/bDh9QgzFBN4