The first two songs recorded for Outside say a lot about where Bowie’s head was at at the time. One is an abstract, almost jazzy piece with a distinct Twin Peaks vibe; the other is a punishing industrial track that nonetheless was accessible enough to make the British Top 40.
“A Small Plot of Land” was a relic of the Leon sessions, and for whatever reason seemed to be a special favorite of David’s. Often performed smack-dab in the middle of his mid-90s live sets — complete with spoken-word intro and lengthy, atonal Reeves Gabrels solo — it came across as sort of a challenge to the audience. “Get through this,” it implies, “and we’ll see about maybe entertaining you for a while longer.”
Listening to it again just now, it occurred to me that “ASPoL” could plausibly be an outtake from Blackstar, which may explain Bowie’s fondness for it — that extraterrestrial rebop was a sound he aspired to for a long time.
Recorded around the same time was “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” [sic], which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Loud and aggressive, it was released as a single in advance of the album, accompanied by a video shot by the director of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
I don’t think I ever saw it at the time, as MTV was already well into its Real World period, and nobody else played music videos. And yet people continued to make them, mostly out of habit I think.
This is a pretty good one, in all its hyper-mid-90s, Nine Inch Nails–derived glory. The song works a lot better with a visual component; it makes me think that Outside should have been made as a video album in its entirety, which would have tracked with Bowie and Eno’s multimedia ambitions. But probably no record company would have funded such a project, there being no established market for it.
Meanwhile, in Chris O’Leary’s considered opinion, the definitive performance of “THFL” is the one done for the Late Show with David Letterman just before the release of Outside.
Clad in black leather and wearing eyeliner and black nail polish, Bowie had a hostile, jittery vibe. He acted as if the audience wasn’t there, that he was singing to a mirror, then acknowledged the camera with leers and a cryptic smile.
Both here and in the video, there is a sense of liberation in Bowie’s performance. “Wait, weirdness is in again? I can do that! Watch this, kids….”
There was a YouTube comment on its video a few years ago, by someone who’d been fifteen at the time. “Hearts Filthy Lesson” was the first Bowie song they had ever heard, and it freaked them out…. Tell the others, Bowie murmured toward the end. Tell the others. There’s a generation gap between those who grew up in the Seventies and those who first knew him with 1. Outside. For the latter, this cadaverous aging creep, muttering about Ramona and blood and filthy things, was their Ziggy Stardust.
This was the role David was born to play: an infiltrator in popular culture, an Agent of the Strange who pops up on the TV screen to bend young minds, leaving chaos and creativity his wake. As luck and time would have it, today is the 50th anniversary of Bowie and the Spiders from Mars’ first appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test — a moment somewhat less impactful than their performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops five months later, but an important historic marker nonetheless. There’s no way I’m going to be able to follow that, so that’s where I’ll leave you for now.