DAVID BOWIE: Earthling

A man runs down a New York street, a figure of intimidation, or maybe a product of paranoid overimagination. He’s chasing, but he’s no sprinter. His target is older but more nimble. Whip thin, dashing.

Johnny’s an American?


In 1997, there was big interest in the Dame. He turned 50 that January – has anyone else kept An Earthling at 50 on video, taped from the tellybox but now without any means of watching it? – but even though Earthling went top 10, the reviews weren’t top mark, not that I can recall anyway. Bowie back then, unlike 2013 and definitely unlike 2016, was not critic proof. His rehabilitation was still tentative, and his new direction raised questions: was it a bit forced, this Earthling appropriation of the Metalheadz rhythm pushers? A bit middle-aged desperate?

Not a bit. Earthling is a vivid technicolour assault from a prolific Bowie era that now seems less about reinvention than rediscovery – rediscovering confidence, artistry and those all-important New Sounds. Two years earlier it was Outside‘s hour and a quarter of artsome perfection that had fired Bowie from Black Tie/Buddha Suburbia clubfunk reawakenings into alt-rock’s contemporary orbit, bristling with distortion and aggression yet never at the expense of melody and experimental rock nous. The Outside album was/is Bowie at his (then) modern-day best, and a co-headline world tour with Nine Inch Nails shunned the safety of a megahitsbestof, stringing itself up instead on the new-age visceral. ‘twas bold and darkedge, gothy even. Bowie was 48.

Earthling, however, bore none of its predecessor’s interludes and art-murder narratives. Earthling gets back to songs – a lean 10 – all of ’em packed with Bowie hooks but jammed and comped with loops, cut-ups and electronic beats. Earthling has no space. Dense sensory overload is queen.

What this means is that even now, just about 20 years after its release, the

hypertwitching drumnbass bigbeat skitter of Little Wonder hits hard like no other opener in Bowie’s back catalogue (Blackstar excepted, but for very different reasons). With his zeitgeisting muse fully open and receiving, Earthling was the last of his records – again, until Blackstar – that really pushed it, form-wise. Must have scared the shit out of the Bowie casuals, though they probably weren’t listening too hard anyway. Who was?

David Bowie: Earthling

Earthling: db does dnb (a bit)

Young Lollapalooza and Sub Pop heads, surely – the 90s coming-of-agers, the naive souls who had no truck with Tin Machine’s Under the God, the NIN fans getting  a kick out of the crossover. It’s those (us) who’ve got the hots for Earthling, and we don’t understand those who haven’t.

Little Wonder and I’m Afraid of Americans are the best known tracks, and for all of Little Wonder’s beaty thrill, it was Americans – the most overt hook-up of Bowie and Trent Reznor – that really planted an alt slant on the album. Trent-man appeared in the video, bloated and looking like shit – his Fragile years – but in the studio was peak-condition lean, forging six I’m Afraid of Americans mixes for an album-length maxi single including a radical 11-minute ambient deconstruction. Ice Cube and Photek got drafted in as well, making it a satisfyingly experimental listen in its own right, but even the original Americans – from the album, not on the single – has an abrasive NIN-jection, souping up the Pretty Hate Machine-ry with industrial production.

Seven Years in Tibet is the album’s sole nod to something calmer – sleazy mechanics lurk under clean chords (like Reznor’s Closer?) – with sax to soften, but for the chorus, the Earthling Overload Factor does a wreak-and-destroy job that exposes the lyrical noir all the more:

Are you ok?

You’ve been shot in the head

And I’m holding your brains

the old woman said.

Yeah… Bowie’s having an absolute blast on this record. It/he is urgent and nicotined and caffeinated and PLAYFUL, and so is the band. Cut-up non-sequiturs a la Burroughs, la-di-da lyrical tail-offs and guitar assaults from Reeves Gabrels (see Battle for Britain, you’ll know) combine to blow pretension and self censure clean off … no subtlety here, and Gabrels’s fireworking solos are built for the self-sampling chop-ups we got going. The Last Thing You Should Do has THE most violent eruption of guitar in a Bowie track ever. Probably. Heavyweight euphoria, total fucking release, go bask in its sprawling crunch after the 2nd chorus. Gabrels stamps all over Earthling, but then again, so does everything. It’s that kind of record.

David Bowie: I'm Afraid of Americans

Be afraid: the remixes

Got to mention Mike Garson as well, doing his thing as un-usual since Aladdin … check his whacked-out plonk at the end of Battle. Does it blend? No. Does it work? Same as it ever did: YES.

Dead Man Walking beats a hi-nrg path to club night (is it true that the F-to-G riff was shown to Bowie by Jimmy Page back in the day and then used on The Supermen?) and Telling Lies takes the drum-bass flavour up a notch, but what about the last track, Law (Earthlings on Fire)?

Possibly the most overlooked track of an overlooked album, Law shifts Earthling’s balance. Without Law, we’d have had a neat I’m Afraid of Americans finale and a taut 44-minute record. With it, we get a paranoid streak of dark danceable menace that takes the self-sampling ethos of the album to an OTT climax: EVERYTHING is in here … robotic bass, disco hi hats, clipped guitar funk, heavy metallic chug, retro futuristic keyboards and, through it all, the endless repeat of a paraphrased Bertrand Russell:


Prescient stuff. The soundtrack to a chase.

Is Earthling the album Bowie shouldn’t have made? Listening to the classic forms he returned to, you could say that it was a step too far – but I don’t believe that. Earthling isn’t the seamless immersion in a genre that Young Americans and Low are, nor is it the creative totality that Station to Station, Heroes and Outside are. It can be a bit leaden at times, BUT…

…man, Earthling’s exciting. And for a production-heavy electronica-heavy record, it’s raw and alive with enough balls to rough things up. Earthling’s got an energy that has not waned – it STILL sounds tooled up on Red Bull and cigarettes. With no complex layers, no hidden meaning (though I suppose you never know) and no ballads, it’s like the brash younger sibling of Outside that you can rock out to. And again, true to Bowie form, it’s an album that sounds like no other in his back catalogue …another satisfying one-off from the Master.

Need convincing? Check a couple of live renditions right here.


David Bowie

Listening to David Bowie. Again. Sixth straight day now – nothing but Bowie, except for Iggy Pop’s The Idiot last night, which has DB within and all over anyway.

Man, what a week. No one saw that coming, did they? And yet here we are, a week in to a world without David Bowie, a week that started just hours after Blackstar emerged as a vigorous statement of presence and life.

It seems odd to feel this saddened and moved by the death of someone you never knew – it’s not grief, but it is loss of some sort, and the scale of comment and tribute to David Bowie means that it must be valid, it must be real. Listen to Marc Riley open his evening show on the day of Bowie’s passing and you’ll hear a seasoned broadcaster who struggles to hold it together. It’ll bring a tear. It did to me.

With Blackstar topping the charts, many people will have had it on heavy rotation this week. Me, I can’t bring myself to play it again just yet. It was the last music I played on Sunday evening, 10th January, and that exploratory first proper listen had good omens – not surprising given the Sue, Blackstar and Lazarus teasers ahead of the launch, all of which led to us being just a bit fckn excited by the Bowieotherness of this new music. Like everyone, I looked forward to sinking into Blackstar as an album after two months of trying not to hear the singles too often. Wanted to save some of freshness for the right context.

Waking the next day, we hear that Blackstar’s creator had died. Day by day the insights and revelations started to unfold with touching, revealing comments and tributes from the likes of Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Mike Garson and Henry Rollins who, as usual, pens a precise, impassioned piece of reportage, fanaticism and insight. He writes about music like the fan that he is, like the fans that we all are.

With Bowie though, we’ve all got our own version, haven’t we? No-one really knew who he was but he made connections, not just with people and listeners but with ideas, scenes, forms, genres, literature, cities even. He connected on a distant yet inexplicably deep level with us, so much so that you could pick him up at any time in his career or your life and still have him mean something massive. You didn’t have to have been there in his reputation-defining decade, transfixed by a full-beam Starman on the telly. Death of Ziggy? Nope – wasn’t around, read about it as an adult. Low, Heroes? Same deal. My earliest memories are a TOTP Ashes to Ashes vid and a lingering oddball imprint of Bowie in front of a mirror turning himself into a baldy alien – spooky as fuck. Still haven’t worked out how I saw that.

So he was part of the pop years of early childhood with Let’s Dance, Absolute Beginners, Under Pressure and the like, but when you reach adolescence and leave pop behind because you’re starting your guitar-heavy trip, how do you find David Bowie?

You don’t.

You don’t find Bowie because, unlike Zeppelin, Sabbath, Motorhead and other relative elders, he just doesn’t figure in those scenes. He’s irrelevant. Meanwhile you get busy with Soundgarden, Faith No More, Ministry, Tool and Nine Inch Nails, whose Broken becomes a big deal. So aggressive. The Downward Spiral becomes the best new album you’ve ever heard, and that’s when it all starts: Trent Reznor cites Low as an influence.

And you’ve never heard of Low but you can’t believe Bowie the Popstar could ever have informed Nine Inch Nails.

And then you discover the Stooges, and see Bowie’s name on Raw Power.

And you see that Nirvana’s Man Who Sold the World was not written by Nirvana.

And around the same time you hear some industrialised rock on daytime Radio 1, but there’s a proper singer and avant piano that your youngadult ears don’t understand … surely not NIN with a vocal transplant?

No. It’s Heart’s Filthy Lesson, and the Outside album – dark, vital, bold, conceptual, heavy and one of Bowie’s best – is the one that marks the start of a beautiful, labyrinthine journey with the man who took a permanent leave of absence from our world this week. 1995 was my Real Time convergence with the path of Bowie’s restless star.

So it wasn’t so much that I or people like me found David Bowie, but that – somehow – Bowie found us, and what he did in the next couple of years cemented his presence: tour with Nine Inch Nails, appear on Reznor’s Lost Highway soundtrack, bang on about Photek and drum n bass and fuse it all into Earthling (fckn great record, don’t know why it gets a so-so from cr*t*cs), sing on Goldie’s Saturnz Return album, become a player in the art world, publish a fake book that hoaxes the art world… and that’s just the stuff I either have or remember from a sliver of time in what were supposed to be his past-it years. Can you imagine how warp-speed the 1970s must have felt?

And can I say again how essential Outside and Earthling are?

But, like Blackstar, they haven’t been played (yet) this week … instead, solace has been found in the post-Earthling run of ‘Hours…’, Heathen and Reality, records that slightly underwhelmed on first listen but grew – like new Bowie pretty much always does – as soon as you accept that it is what it is, and it’s not what he was. Those albums, all air-conditioned cool and surface calm, give you SPACE to luxuriate in the lost man’s voice and do it far away from the mega hits that covered the news and the radio this week. Hours… may be the slightest of the three but even there, If I’m Dreaming My Life and What’s Really Happening are Bowietimeless. Black Tie White Noise, Buddha of Suburbia, All Saints Collected Instrumentals and Tin Machine (never understood the full-on trashing they got) have also all done the job this week. New detail is revealed with every listen, which is one reason why we end up with our very own strange fascinations of this far-reaching artist: he gave – no, gives – so much that we can always learn and will never, ever catch up.

David Bowie. Transmitter, seer, creator, and truly an artist of both sound and vision. A more significant rock music loss is impossible to imagine.

Check these other Bowie posts:
Blackstar Day
Earthling review
Lost Nuts track 2020
Brilliant Live Adventures CD series 2020
Bowie & I photo exhibition