Friday 29 January 2016

David Bowie in the 90s: A Cyberspace Oddity

"I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring." - David Bowie, 1997
After the shocking passing of perhaps one of the greatest contributors to the zeitgeist of every decade since the 1960s, the mainstream music media has been flooded with career retrospectives of the late David Bowie. One area that is universally brushed over though is his work in the 90s, which is generally lumped in with the artistic plateau of the mid 1980s. And I think it is time for a re-evaluation of the output during this time.

The 1980s saw a high-watermark for Bowie in terms of popularity, however there were only really two albums in this period that screamed of any flair and originality; 1980's 'Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)' and 1983's 'Let's Dance'. The subsequent albums of this period may have sold well but they were infused with a sense of disinterest from their creator who seemed to be having more fun working on films and their soundtracks than focusing on his main albums.

Fast-forward to 1988 and David Bowie does a complete u-turn by forming a band called Tin Machine. Although this wasn't an unprecedented move in Bowies' career, he had gone on tour as Iggy Pop's keyboard player in the '70s, this was however his first democratic band since the 1960s. The band's eponymous début received mixed but overall positive reviews. But Bowie's low profile in a band that had four equal members (who contributed to the writing and as a result reaped the rewards equally), prooved a sticking point for fans of his high profile solo performances. Gone were the theatrics and in its stead was stripped back rock 'n' roll. However this was he first and most necessary step on the road to an artistic rehabilitation.

1. 'Tin Machine II'
In 1990 Bowie's solo career took precedent as he embarked on his only "best of" tour which was dubbed Sound + Vision. This was accompanied by a retrospective box set of the same name and then followed-up with a compilation album 'ChangesBowie' with its new remix of the song 'Fame'. It was apparent Bowie was simply treading water. But in 1991 Tin Machine would return with 'Tin Machine II' giving Bowie his first original studio album of the new decade. It was less successful than it's predecessor but still charted well and showed progression in song writing and style – particularly on the part of guitarist Reeves Gabrels – who would go on to colour a lot of Bowie's output for the rest of the decade.

Reviews of the album were less favourable this time around despite some inspired tracks such as 'Baby Universal', 'If There Was Something' (a Roxy Music cover), 'You Belong To Rock 'n' Roll', and 'Shopping For Girls'. Retrospective reviews have been much kinder to the album, and when listened to in isolation from Bowie's solo back catalogue and in conjunction with 'Tin Machine', it is a much stronger album than most gave it credit for at the time.

Gabrels begins to add an industrial edge to his guitars thanks in part to a personal obsession with Nine Inch Nails' 'Pretty Hate Machine'. Bowie's presence isn't diminished and there is a greater sense of fun in his performances. The band as a whole sound more confident in their compositions and performance than on their début.

Sadly though (depending on your point of view), the band's second album would be their last. A live album 'Live: Oy Vey Baby' would follow in 1992, but this was universally panned by critics and plans for a second live album were shelved. Yet Tin Machine had achieved its main purpose at least and re-energised Bowie. Going back to his roots had rekindled his inspiration.

2. 'Black Tie White Noise'

Re-energised from his work with Tin Machine and inspired by his recent marriage to supermodel Iman Abdulmajid, 'Black Tie White Noise' showed a level of passion not seen in Bowie's work since 'Let's Dance' ten years prior. This was Bowie looking forward while taking stock of the past. Old school r&b, soul and rock influences shine through. As does the performance of former Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, who would sadly die after the release of this album. The David Bowie pop sound was given a more contemporary twist with electronic and house music influences coming through. And the subject matter given greater significance due to the Rodney King verdict and subsequent LA riots.

As with 'Let's Dance' it was right on the money for its time. Chic guitarist and song writer Nile Rogers was brought on board just as he had been in '83 to give it the sheen it needed. This was Bowie reclaiming the pop mantel of his first undisputed hit album, and as with 'Let's Dance' it sold well even if critics lamented the lack of pure Bowie-esque artistic innovation. But it was a further rehabilitation in the eyes of his long-time fans and even if it wasn't as forward thinking as the subsequent output of the decade would be, 'Black Tie White Noise' was nonetheless an album that saw Bowie take stock and reflect with.

Songs such as 'Jump They Say', 'Miracle Goodnight', 'Black Tie White Noise', and 'Pallas Athena' were received particularly well. But what would ultimately prevent the album becoming more of a hit was the sudden filing for bankruptcy of the label it was released on. It wouldn't be until the late 90s when it would see a re-release. Also Bowie didn't tour the album so as a result its profile inevitably shrunk.

3. 'The Buddha Of Suburbia'

Not a true Bowie album in the sense of the rest of this list, but worthy of inclusion all the same. 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' was the soundtrack to a four-part television series based on the Hanif Kureishi novel of the same name, and initially broadcast on BBC 2 in 1993. Despite the fact the album was conceived as a soundtrack it is more of a conceptual piece due to the fact that only one song was actually used in the programme. For the actual score of the series Bowie worked on the same motifs but reached different end results in order to musically colour the show.

Joined by multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay. Pianist Mike Garson and even Lenny Kravitz the album is a unique one in Bowie's catalogue and reconnects with his more experimental side; incorporating art rock, jazz, electronic and ambient elements throughout. Songs such as 'The Buddha Of Suburbia', 'The Mysteries', 'Bleed Like A Craze, Dad', 'Strangers When We Meet', and 'Untitled No. 1' all hold their own against earlier works.

Had the album not been simply classified as a soundtrack and thus receiving barely any promotion, it would undoubtedly have been received as one of Bowie's best albums of the decade. It feels raw, almost unfinished – Bowie wrote and recorded it in less than a week – bristling with a fevered energy and dynamic experimentation that pulls toward a more alternative rock formula. This was Bowie truly cutting himself loose from expectation and the end result is absolutely beautiful.

Again this was an album that was unjustly unavailable for many years with many people thinking the title track, which was released as a single, was the only true version. Thankfully though in 2007 it was re-released with a new cover and has taken its place in the pantheon of Bowie's discography. Although still unjustly written off as a mere soundtrack rather than a complete conceptual work in its own right.

4. '1. Outside'

'Outside', or to give it it's full title '1. Outside: ("The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle")' saw Bowie reconnect with producer and ex-Roxy Music member Brian Eno. The two last worked together for Bowie's famed “Berlin Trilogy” of albums which comprised of 'Low' (1977), 'Heroes' (1977), and 'Lodger' (1979).

The album was a sprawling conceptual piece that was based around a fictional diary story Bowie wrote for Q Magazine in 1994. The story is set in the 21st century and revisits the dystopian themes last aired on 'Diamond Dogs' in 1974. The plot follows detective Nathan Adler as he attempts to solve a murder case bringing him into contact with a cast of strange characters. It is equal parts Blade Runner and Twin Peaks in terms of its concept, and with the improvisational techniques of Eno returning to the process it is easily one of Bowie's most intellectual, experimental and heaviest albums.

The songs veer from electronic, to alternative rock and into full-on industrial. Bowie and his band went into the studio with no demos or ideas and Eno directed the creativity using flash cards and exercises designed to break away from song writing norms much in the same way he did in Berlin. Bowie even revisits the cut up technique he showed the world on Alan Yentob's 'Cracked Actor' documentary in the '70s.

The studio band was joined by former Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels whose avant garde take on industrial rock contributed a lot to the final sound of the album. Throw in the distinctive piano playing of Mike Garson once again and the album displays some of the most unique leads in his repertoire.

Songs such as 'Hearts Filthy Lesson', 'Strangers When We Meet', and 'Hallo Spaceboy' – the single of which was a remix/duet with The Pet Shop Boys – gained significant airplay on radio and MTV and introduced Bowie's darker and more artistic side to a younger audience already enamoured with grunge and alternative rock. Soundtrack appearances followed in films such as 'Lost Highway', 'Se7en', and 'Starship Troopers'. A now legendary tour with Nine Inch Nails was undertaken and Bowie seemed to be fully and artistically rehabilitated.

Sales were reasonable and reviews generally positive. The sprawling nineteen track long album complete with segues from the different characters made it a little hard to take for fans of his pop era. But there are some real gems here that would go on to give Bowie's live show a riotous update and would lead him to re-imagine early works such as 'Andy Warhol', and 'The Man Who Sold The World' in order for them to sit alongside the new material.

5. 'Earthling'

Bowie had intended '1. Outside' to be followed by two further albums, the second of which had been announced as 'Contamination'. But Bowie quickly moved on to newer ideas and in 1997 would release the tighter and more drum 'n' bass and jungle influenced 'Earthling'. At the same time Bowie turned 50 years old and was working and touring at the rate of a man half his age. His live band included Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson and new bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and together they were delivering the kind of stand-out performances not seen since the 1970s.

'Earthling' was a far more linear affair that continued Bowie's exploration of electronic music and still effectively tapped into the anxiety of the last years of the Millennium. This was Bowie's first fully self-produced album since 1974's 'Diamond Dogs' and on it he channelled the same intensity as his 1980 album 'Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)'. Recorded all digitally but forsaking the sample based techniques of the usual drum 'n' bass and jungle artists in favour of recording from guitar, drums and saxophone before distorting the sounds in a synthesizer. The result is a brilliant and dynamic exploration of aggressive electronic dance music that would become synonymous with the turn of the century.

Where 'Outside' was an indulgent and experimental album, 'Earthing' was more concise in its approach to song writing. The album hits hard and fast with up-tempo numbers like 'Telling Lies' (the first ever downloadable single to be released), 'Little Wonder', and 'Dead Man Walking', while heavier numbers such as 'I'm Afraid Of Americans' and 'Seven Years In Tibet' kept the rich texturing and connection to the art rock and alternative rock of his previous albums intact. The reviews and sales were once again generally positive and the album charted higher than its predecessor. A long touring and promotional campaign ensued further elevating its presence.

Elaborate videos were shot for the tracks 'Little Wonder', 'Dead Man Walking', 'I'm Afraid Of Americans', and a concert footage video was created for 'Seven Years In Tibet'. Bowie and his band headlined festivals and enjoyed a critically acclaimed world tour as well as a 50th Birthday celebration live at Madison Square Garden in New York which was broadcast on Pay Per View and saw Bowie and co. joined by musicians such as Foo Fighters, Robert Smith and Lou Reed.

While sales were still not topping his platinum years Bowie's profile was as high as it had ever been and the artist was enjoying cross-generational success with his mature and intelligent take on alternative rock and dance music. As a result mainstream media acknowledged this with  a flurry of award nominations.

6. 'Hours...'

After the whirlwind energy of the previous two albums and Bowie's place as a pioneer of the digital age was assured. With two ground-breaking albums as well as the first steps made into the world of digital downloads now behind him, Bowie closed the millennium with a more thoughtful outing.

'Hours...' kept the nods to alternative rock, dance music and electronica from the previous albums but the pace is a much more mellow affair. The cover art of a youthful looking Bowie cradling the exhausted 'Earthling' version of himself gave a clue as to the content within.

'Hours...' is the inevitable come-down after the adrenalin spike of the mid-90s. The thoughtful look back at his life as well as the previous 1000 years that accompanied the countdown to Y2K. The album kept the concise and linear construction of 'Earthling' but dropped the tempo and stripped back the textures for a more contemplative record. The result is comparable to a more polished and considered version of 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' soundtrack. It's art rock meets easy listening. The influences of Moby, Beck, and even Ryuchi Sakamoto in particular feature highly in this album, while Reeves Gabrels tones down the guitar without taking away from his avant garde flair.

The album had its roots in the soundtrack for a video game called 'Omikron: The Nomad Soul' for which Bowie also contributed voice-over parts for a character based on him. This quickly evolved into a full album release. Bowie in the 90s was obsessed with all things digital; 'Black Tie White Noise' had included and interactive CD-rom disc that promised a virtual world to explore (though the final product didn't quite live up to that). He also dabbled digital art and photo manipulation in his own artwork as well as on albums like 'Outside'. He even launched his own ISP called BowieNet which included live casts, video streaming from his studio and even a 3D chat environment (which is still accessible 'Hours...' was no different with Bowie running an online competition for a fan to submit lyrics for a song (that would ultimately become 'What's Really Happening?'), as well as building on the ground-breaking digital single release of 'Telling Lies' by making 'Hours...' available for download two weeks prior to its physical release.

'Hours...' critically faired as well as any of Bowie's previous albums, but the sales were poorer this time. Which is a shame as the electronics may be more easygoing and the rock elements a bit more smooth yet there is still a great deal to take away from this album. Songs like 'Thursday's Child', 'Survive', and 'Seven' are fine examples of Bowie's more contemplative mood, while 'The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell', 'What's Really Happening?', and 'New Angels Of Promise' inject some harder rock. The album's penultimate track, the stunning but brief instrumental, 'Brilliant Adventure' recalls the second side of the 'Low' album and blends it with his long-standing fascination with Japan.

'Hours...' may have been a commercial disappointment for Bowie at the end of a decade where sales figures were generally fluctuating for him. But it is still a distinct and artistically valid album that would lay the foundations for his post millennial releases 'Heathen' and 'Reality' and therefore should not be dismissed.

Every generation had its own take on David Bowie and his work. For someone born in the 1980s and growing up in a 90s household where music was as import part of life, Bowie's earlier works were always present. But in particular the albums of 'Outside', 'Earthling', and 'Hours...' were the ones for my generation where we didn't necessarily discover Bowie but rather he helped us discover ourselves. It's easy for someone who has made so many albums that were ahead of their time to have multiple albums dismissed as as less relevant based on their sales or exposure, but that doesn't dull their worth or lasting legacy. Bowie's vision in the 1990s was right on the money. He embraced the forthcoming digital revolution and the music he made was just as innovative and relevant as any of the new artists that were emerging at the time. As a result these albums have stood the test of time well and remain a rewarding listening experience.

Bowie – The Essential 90s Playlist:

'Baby Universal' (Tin Machine)
'Shopping For Girls' (Tin Machine)
'Black Tie White Noise'
'Jump They Say'
'Pallas Athena'
'The Buddha Of Suburbia'
'Bleed Like A Craze, Dad'
'Hearts Filthy Lesson'
'Strangers When We Meet'
'Hallo Spaceboy'
'Little Wonder'
'Telling Lies'
'Seven Years In Tibet'
'Dead Man Walking'
'I'm Afraid Of Americans'
'Thursday's Child'
'The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell'

Also check out...

Tin Machine: Live In Tokyo 1992

Nine Inch Nails / David Bowie: Dissonance 1995

David Bowie: Live At Rockpalast 1996

David Bowie & Friends: 50
th Birthday Celebration 1997

David Bowie: VH1 Storytellers 1999

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