Exactly 19 years ago, David Bowie‘s Earthling album was released and it’s definitely one of my favorite of his 90s albums. I don’t know why his works in this decade are so underrated, I think he wrote so many great songs also in this period and in my opinion his style was gorgeous. He was just turned 50 and he was in really good shape and still so charming.
Earthling was the celebration of the excellent relationship of Bowie with the musicians who played with him during Outside tour. “It’s probably the group of musicians most pleasant with which I ever worked” Bowie told in 1996 to Alan Yentob “the biggest amusement and satisfaction I ever felt with a band, since Spiders time“.
In April 1996 Bowie recorded Telling Lies alone in Montreux, as model for the sound he intended to realize, and the song was played for the first time during the Summer Festivals tour. In the end of August, Bowie brought the band at the Looking Glass Studios, of Philip Glass proprety in Manhattan, where were recorded Low and “Heroes” symphonies.
An important arrival was the one of Mark Plati, a NY technician who worked at the Shakedown Studios of Arthur Baker before to work with Prince in Graffiti Bridge and at the Looking Glass Studioes with artists like Dee-Lite. Beside his work of technician and co-author of several pieces, Plati joined Reeves Gabrels in the role of co-producer, supporting Bowie himself, which was co-producing is second album after Diamond Dogs. “I exactly knew what I wanted” explained Bowie “We didn’t have time to call a co-producer… so in some way I thought about it”.
Velocity and spontaneity were the distinguish features of the sessions (it wasn’t the first time, actually)… “There wasn’t predestination. Everything was very spontaneous and basically the disc was building on its own. Two weeks and half for writing and recording it, then few weeks for the mixing… it was really fast!“.
Earthling was the develop of techno style already heard in 1. Outside in tracks like I’m Deranged and We Prick You, that Bowie described like “almost a measured version of jungle style“. The new songs ventured into a territory that attracted Bowie’s attention in 1993, when a friend sent him a tape of “boys born in the Caribbean occupied in London, like General Levy… I thought it was very exciting, exciting like every new ryhthm that is going to become the language of the new time“. As usual, Bowie was focused on modifying and adapting the material that came from his sources: “We came into the studio with the idea to try to juxtapose all dance styles with which we usually work live“, told Bowie “Jungle, harsh rock and industrial stuff“.
They focused on cut-ups again, that was put together in a random way by the computer of 1. Outside. David co-designed the Verbasizer, a improvement of his previous programme that created random real sentences from the words put inside it.
The sperimental spirit of the 1. Outside sessions was transmissed in the new work like Bowie explained: “While we were recording 1. Outside, Gabrels and I had an idea to transfer little guitar pieces into the samplers and create riffs starting from these pieces. A part of real guitar, but built in an artificial way. But Brian Eno succeeded – in the best way possible – so it was only in this album that we could realize all that“. The percussion samples of Zachary Alford was handcrafted too, like explained Bowie in Melody Maker: “He created snare drum loops on his own, making sequences of 120 bpm that then sped up to 160 bpm… he extemporized on them playing a whole drum kit. So the result was a great combination between an android approach, almost robotic, to a basic ryhthm and a free interpretation overlapping to it“. In the same interview he explained that “what I really wanted to do wasn’t so different from what I did in the 70s, something I did so many times, to take the technologic to combine with the natural. It was really important to me working with anything we sampled, put in loop or created on the computer, to don’t loose our musical sense“.
Beside Telling Lies and a new version of I’m Afraid Of Americans, previously not included into 1. Outside, seven new tracks were born. During Earthling sessions was also recorded an actualize (and yet unreleased) version of Baby Universal, it was played live earlier that year, and a new acoustic version of I Can’t Read initially thought for the disc and later replaced by The Last Thing You Should Do. It appeared as single and in The Ice Storm soundtrack.
In the beginning of September Little Wonder and Seven Years In Tibet was included in the repertoire of the band for the East Coast Ballroom tour, while Telling Lies was broadcast online in the same month.
The processing time of the album continued in October, interrupted only by Bowie appearances in the benefit concerts at Bridge School, where the amazing live set presented by Neil Young inspired Dead Man Walking lyrics.
Telling Lies was officially released as single in November. The album was presented live in the beginning of January, when all the songs execpt two was included in Bowie’s 50th birthday concert. Little Wonder was released as single on January 27.
As usual foreign countries offered alternative versions of Earthling album. The Japanese edition included a poster and a booklet with the lyrics and Telling Lies (Adam F. Mix) as bonus track. In Hong Kong the Mandarin version of Seven Years In Tibet was included in a bonus CD, while in French it was released with a promotional disc in limited edition including live version of The Hearts Filthy Lesson and Hallo Spaceboy recorded in 1996 at Phoenix festival.
Earthling reviews was great, among the best Bowie received in these years, surpassing also 1. Outside reviews that were already good. But some bad critics didn’t miss, someone accused Bowie to have simply followed the last musical trend, like it was something he never did. Unfortunately the traditional press tagged Earthling like a drum’n’bass or jungle album, based only to the listening of Little Wonder.
There can be influences of Tricky, Goldie and Prodigy music but Earthling is deeply-rooted in a traditional sensibility of the composition that you can clearly listen behind the trendy drum loops in Little Wonder or in any other part of the disc. Nobody would describes Looking For Satellites or Seven Years in Tibet like jungle tracks: they are simply Bowie classics.
“This album owes something to drum’n’bass for the rhythm use, but I harbor lacking interest for the shallow information: what we are doing is a million light year far from what Goldie or any other artist considered the drum’n’bass leader could do” said Bowie.
The lyrics sign a spiritually come back like it was in Station To Station: Looking For Satellites and Dead Man Walking talk about the difficult universal situation of the man with a moving intensity. “I think the common point of all the songs is this constant need in me to floating from atheism and a sort of gnosticism” said Bowie in Q magazine “I continue to go back and forth between two things because they mean a lot in my life. I mean, the Church doesn’t enter in my writtens or in my thoughts; I don’t have complicity with any organized religion. What I need to find is a spiritually balance, between the way I live and my passing. That period of time – from today since my death – is the only one thing that fascinates me“. Talking about the music he ended saying: “I think it’s really good and edifying… I’m really happy when I listen to it”.
About the title: “it had to describe the Earth; the man and his pure habitat on the Earth. And I hope the ironic sense of the fact I play the role of myself in that that maybe is the most earthly of my human costumes till now doesn’t slip away“
Even though it was recorded in New York with only US musicians, Earthling is probably the most “British” album of Bowie after those of 70s. After years in which he searched for European and American influences, now it seems to have put his attension on young British artists and the subterrenean current of transoceanic friction included in the album isn’t only limited in I’m Afraid Of Americans. Since 1993 there was the feeling Bowie was a British rock hero that come back home and with Earthling release, less than a month after his 50th birthday, his renovation from British musical press was complete. When they asked him if he still felt British, in the end of 1996, he replied: “More than ever!”.
During the Summer Festivals tour he started to wear a redingote with the Union Jack designed by Alexander McQueen, inspired by Indoor Flag exhibit of Gavin Turk.
It wasn’t a new, the Union Jack was already a common accessory in Britpop promotion on musical issues and more than a band was covered by the flag for a photoshoot. After Earthling, this trend became an authentic mania: everyone for Spice Girls to Eurithmics appeared at Brit Awards dressed with the Union Jack.
About the cover of the album Bowie told: “It was Frank Ockenfels to shoot the photography and Dave De Angelis, one of the best English computer designers, put a piece of UK in front of me because I was in New York when the photo was shot“. In the distorted portraits of the band members inside the booklet, there are pictures that recall Bowie exile in LA in the 70s. The flying saucer is “a satellite built with the tinfoil of a Malboro pack… part of an art movie I did in 1974” explained Bowie. The Little Wonder single cover is a Kirlian photo of Bowie fingerprint always of Los Angeles period. The Kirlian energy is “a power that is around our body and can help to explain the idea of the halo and of the healers, the energy they have. There was a doctor, Thelma Moss, that directed a research department at UCLA supported by the Pentagon for the exploration of Kirlian energy, because they heard Russians was studying it. So she developed the project of a machine and she built one for me” told Bowie. This particular experiment involved two Kirlian photographies. One, shot earlier before Bowie started to work thanks a huge amount of cocaine, it shows the fingerprint and the cross with a simple layout. The second one, shot 30 minutes after, is the image of Little Wonder cover.
Earthling reached the 6th place in UK charts and was nominated at Grammy Awards as “Best Alternative Performance” (beated by Radiohead’s Ok Computer). “There’s nothing of complicated in the album, it’s pretty primitve, in some way” said Bowie in this period.
Enjoy the whole album below:
Happy 19th birthday Earthling!
What’s your favorite song and music video of this album?
I’m in love with I’m Afraid Of Americans since forever…