Control or Deranged?

You don’t really need both “No Control” and “I’m Deranged” on the album, as they pretty much cover the same territory. I tend to favor “No Control,” which is sleeker and sexier:

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Brian Eno agreed with me, calling “I’m Deranged” “a poorly organized song with no meaningful structure,” adding, “It goes something like ABBBBBBBBCBBBBBBB but the hook is A. I’ve had relationships like that, where the bit you liked never happens again.”

But David Lynch liked “Deranged,” which comes to life when paired with Lynch’s hypnotically minimal visuals:

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In fact, playing that right now in another window, I’m changing my mind in real time. Maybe we lose “No Control” instead? Maybe we keep both, put one at the beginning and one at the end? Or even put them back-to-back, lean into the repetition. One or both would need to be edited, though; or maybe they could be combined somehow. There are a lot of options. When is the release date for this thing, anyway?

Outside the Motel

Speaking of “The Electrician,” it is also most definitely an influence on “The Motel,” which many people consider one of the best songs on Outside — including David Bowie, who continued to perform it all the way through his final tour in 2003–04. (The only other song from the album similarly honored was “Hallo Spaceboy.”)

I’ve never been quite so crazy about it. It’s atmospheric, to be sure; but it’s too long, and I’m not sure about the grandiose turn it takes in the last couple minutes. I’m not too sure about this video, either, but maybe you’ll know what to make of it.

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According to Chris O’Leary “The Motel” was recorded around the same time as the title track, which for me is the most frustrating song on the album. I’m pretty sure there’s a great composition in there — it has sweep, it has melody, it has drama — but the production is awful: tinny and trebly and littered with wince-inducing skronk sounds. I mean, am I wrong?

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Wishful Pricks

The sequencing of Outside was willfully haphazard. It wasn’t worth worrying about, Bowie and Eno said; in the CD era people would cherry-pick their favorite songs and create their own versions of the album. But occasionally, as in any random process, little eddies of apparent design crop up. One such moment is the pairing of the minimalist “Wishful Beginnings” with the maximalist, but somehow kindred, “We Prick You.”

Neither one is overtly connected to the album’s “narrative.” “Wishful” could be a sequel to “Strangers When We Meet,” chronicling the breakup’s aftermath:

I’m no longer your golden boy….
We had such
Wishful beginnings
But we lived
Unbearable lives
I’m sorry little girl
Sorry little girl
So so sorry little girl
The pain must feel like snow

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The spacious soundscape recalls — not for the first or last time in Bowie’s work — the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician,” a lodestar of his for many years.

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Strangers and Architects

At Berkeley I took a student-run writing class where we all agreed to write stories using a set of characters that we had created together. Less than half the class actually did that; some people just changed the names in already-written pieces, while others ignored the premise altogether. I’m still a little pissed off 35 years later.

Outside is kind of like that: Some songs are directly linked to the “non-linear Gothic drama hyper-cycle” concept, some are tangentially linked, and some not at all. The latter include “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” which is not only an awkward and terrible title, but has a misplaced apostrophe that pains my proofreader’s eye.

“TTAE” is one of those songs that I quite like when I hear it and never think of otherwise. Maybe it’s the title.

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With its references to famous architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers, this song is — dare I say it? — a little nerdy. And the music flirts with Trying a Little Too Hard to Be Funky (a recurring Bowie vice). But for the most part it works; I especially like the slinky keyboard line that introduces then undergirds the chorus.

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A Small Filthy Lesson

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.”

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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.

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David and Brian Take Us Outside

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:

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