In 1993 David Bowie had married the model Iman Abdumajid. (Several songs on Black Tie White Noise were inspired by her and the blessed nuptials.) Among those in attendance was David’s old pal Brian Eno, and — legend has it — Bowie used the wedding sound system to play Eno some new music he’d been working on. Eno was intrigued, and so the partnership of the two titans was rekindled.
In March 1994 they went into the studio with a small group and started improvising all day long, with Bowie the bandleader and Eno the provocateur/irritant, creating characters for the musicians to play and applying “strategies designed to stop the thing from becoming over-coherent.” The intent was to do something truly different. “We don’t want to make another record of songs,” Eno said at the time. “There’s got to be a bigger landscape than that.”
As they stockpiled hours and hours of material, their ambition grew. At one point the project was going to be a 3-CD set of lengthy, formless suites — an idea that may or may not have been an artistic success, but was almost certainly commercial poison. If Bowie had been at the pinnacle of his career at the time — or if Bandcamp had existed then — it probably would have gone down that way, for good or ill. But he was without a record company and no one wanted the stuff, so it languished in the vaults, with a few bits and pieces repurposed for what eventually became the Outside album.
Thanks to some unknown bootlegger, we can get a glimpse of what this material was like through three 20-minute-plus excerpts:
Experimental triumph or grandiose boondoggle? To be honest I lean toward the latter. Even taken one at a time, these suites — which are themselves edited down from much longer originals — are a bit of an ordeal. They’re worth listening to once — some parts are beautiful, some are hilarious — but it’s likely to be a slog for even the most devoted fan.
So perhaps it’s just as well that in the interest of getting a record deal, Bowie and Eno broke down and started recording more conventional songs. But the scope of the project only grew: When the album finally appeared in 1995, it was called 1. Outside and promoted as the first of a five-album series that would come out one per year, concluding with a gigantic live performance on the eve of the millennium.
Had things gone according to plan, we could have sat down on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with the five CDs on shuffle mode in our five-disc players and had the full experience, then maybe watched the big concert on MTV while waiting fruitlessly for the world to end. Alas, David Bowie had a short attention span and Outside is all we ever got. (I don’t like to include the “1.” because it just makes me sad.)
Now, maybe each album would have been progressively worse and we would have been glad when it was over. Or maybe they would have made the kind of real breakthrough that Outside only hints at. I’d love to spend a few hours in one of the universes where all five albums were made, just to get an inkling.
But in this world we have just the one. It’s a big one, though: 19 tracks and almost 75 minutes. Really it is entirely too much, by design:
[Eno] liked the idea of an overstuffed, incomplete album for which listeners controlled the narrative, “releasing something which says ‘here’s a whole lot of things. You sort it out.’” CDs had already killed LP listening habits — now you jumped around a disc or programmed it to play only your favorite songs…. “Make the medium fail. Do something that sounds like it’s bigger than can be fitted onto a CD,” Eno said. (Chris O’Leary, Ashes to Ashes)
Since I am in a holding pattern on some other projects for various reasons, I’m going to spend a little time “sorting it out” over the next couple weeks. This is probably a classic case of The Content That No One Wants, but when has that ever stopped me?