The world at large has mostly forgotten about Outside. For most people, including a lot of younger Bowie fans, the discography pretty much jumps from Let’s Dance to Blackstar.1If they know anything from the mid-90s it’s likely to be “Hallo Spaceboy,” but unfortunately the version most circulated is the Pet Shop Boys remix, which is… well, let’s be polite here. I, personally, hate it. I think it eviscerates and needlessly discofies a pretty good song. But then I’ve never seen the point of anything the Pet Shop Boys did, so maybe it’s just me.
The original track is, in the parlance of the times, a banger. “I adore that track,” said Bowie. “In my mind, it was like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, ‘Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.’”
When he agreed to let PSB remix the song, he didn’t know that they were going to steal it from him. Nor did he know they would splice in bits of “Space Oddity,” which annoyed him.2But it was a hit, and he didn’t exactly disown it — as it climbed the charts he agreed to do several TV appearances where his omnipresent cool was severely tested by having two insufferable twerps behind him.3
Later he had regrets. Says Chris O’Leary,
Bowie would spend the last decade of his performing life trying to get “Hallo Spaceboy” back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (three drummers pounded the song into submission at his fiftieth birthday concert), sometimes acting as if he was covering it.
But if I had to choose one keeper from Outside, it would without question be “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is the most satisfying thing on the album both musically and narratively. Many of the songs had been labored over for weeks or months, with mixed results; this one came in a blinding flash. C. O’L. again:
It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.
Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable — long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’” (O’Leary)
Despite being largely improvised, “Oxford Town” is the only song on the album that tells a coherent part of the “art crime” story that’s supposedly at its heart. One of the surprises in relistening to Outside has been just how few of the songs connect to the “concept” at all; take away the spoken segues, and there’s almost no narrative left. To some extent “Oxford Town” plays like the product of an author who suddenly realizes that his deadline is approaching and tries to wrap up all the threads of his plot at once. But taken on its own merits, it’s a tremendous piece of work. It would have made a perfect ending to the album, but for some reason was buried smack in the middle of the running order.
In my version of Outside it’s the finale. From the catchy loop at the beginning, to the the chants of “Toll the bell/pay the private eye/all is well/20th century dies,” to the Carlos Alomar victory lap at the end, it feels like the closing of a circle. There’s nowhere else to go from here.