The ’90s were a dark, dark time, no? Apparently so – with a clip of a sleek rendition of “Fame” and other cuts at Howard Stern’s birthday party in 1998 – and to drive the point home, with Stern’s massive posse swarming the dance floor as Bowie and co. looking not out of place, but uncomfortably dated fashion-wise, even for 1998.
But to delve even deeper into incredibly dated realms we must venture backward once more into 1967. “The Laughing Gnome” is the song David Bowie spent an entire lifetime trying to escape from. No matter how> eclectic his sounds and tastes became, this one song always found its way back to its creator, even being the punchline to a campaign NME led in 1990. Bowie was undertaking preparations for his Sound + Vision tour, with a ballot on which songs were to be included in the setlist – a specially curated “Greatest Hits” tour, but with the incentive that the songs included would then be retired at tour’s end. Of course, hits like “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, and “Blue Jean” made the cut, but one song was out of place: “The Laughing Gnome”, which somehow accumulated enough votes for Bowie to consider a Velvet Underground-influenced arrangement, although this was Bowie most likely taking the piss and making light of the NME’s “Just Say Gnome” campaign to rig the polls, which were immediately scrapped. It also would’ve been a nice curio for the 2003-04 Reality tour, where it was legitimately considered for performance. What can be said about the actual song, though? It’s quite infamous for its overbearing usage of gnome-based puns, a heavy dosage of Barrett-inspired whimsy and imagination, and a duet with the gnome via sped-up vocals. “Gnome” is in the vein of Bowie’s 1967 debut, with roots in music hall and psychedelia to appropriately date it over 50 years back; oddly enough, while it flopped on the charts, but at the height of Ziggy Stardust, it ascended to the sixth spot when reissued in 1973. “The Laughing Gnome” is one of Bowie’s truest oddities, and for an extravagantly grating bonus, the song even received a requiem as an in-joke following the “Just Say Gnome” campaign.*
While “Gnome” used varispeed vocals in a humorous light, the use of this studio technique was instrumental in achieving the feel “All the Madmen” sought to realize. Written for and about his half-brother, Terry (who suffered from schizophrenia), “Madmen” retained a more personal attachment to Bowie, who often feared mental illnesses that his brother and other relatives ailed from, would eventually cripple him as well. The song’s subject matter, while relating to the debilitating effects madness has on a person’s mind, also reaches for the methods used in institutions to treat various illnesses much like Terry’s: electro-shock therapy, Librium, and the most incapacitating of all, lobotomy. Varispeed vocals, this time, are used to portray the slippage of one’s sanity, overlapping with Bowie’s own monologue, making the section near-incoherent. “Madmen” is highly melodramatic for good reason, interspersing the distortic riffage of Mick Ronson with images of asylums going to extremes to keep the insane in check, away from normal society. Without such exaggeration, the final effect “Madmen” would have would be diminished — who would be invested in such a personal work without the depth the song has to it? The song, especially for the record its housed within (The Man Who Sold the World), is elaborately orchestrated to push its concept to its limit, blurring the lines between lucid psychedelia and hard-hitting heavy metal dramatics; and the most frightening aspect of all was the very real possibility that what happened to brother Terry could’ve certainly happen to young David as well. “All the Madmen”, for all we know, could’ve become David Bowie’s reality.
In the wake of the demise of Ziggy Stardust was what could’ve been the future: Ziggy taken to his complete actualized self in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, amidst paranoid subjects of the mysterious Big Brother and constant fear of being swept away by the Thought Police for “thoughtcrimes”, or the act of independent thinking. Bowie’s concept for a play based on the 1949 novel came to fruition, although in not the way he intended, with 1974’s Diamond Dogs. The end result of his meticulous planning — and the following quashing of his play by Orwell’s widow — the record had the same trajectory as Ziggy Stardust with a vague, if not confusing storyline. Although the story was restricted to just about half of Diamond Dogs, the influence of 1984 on these particular songs is obvious: “Future Legend”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Sweet Thing”, “We Are the Dead”, “1984”, and “Big Brother”.
While its inspiration was kept minor at a minimum, the opposite could be said for “We Are the Dead”; begrudgingly accepting the phrase constantly used by the protagonists Winston and Julia in the novel as a refrain to further drive the decay of society under a dystopia such as the one 1984‘s heroes endured and (in fitting into the morbid imagery in “Dead”) were ultimately silenced by. “Dead” takes notes from the school of Burroughs, using a cut-up technique, resulting in lines such as “You’re just an ally of the leecher / Locator for the virgin King” and “Heaven’s on the pillow, its silence competes with hell / It’s a twenty-four hour service, guaranteed to make you tell” to settle listeners into the frightening world of 1984. Had Bowie had his way, “We Are the Dead” most likely would’ve been a showstopper in his adaptation of Orwell’s masterpiece. However, it remains on Diamond Dogs as a remnant of what could’ve been: as the most faithful of the slew of songs Bowie wrote for the play, for a hellish world filled with nothing but chaos, stifled protest, and a hopeless rule under the powerful Big Brother.
Black Tie White Noise could easily be the record that brought David Bowie back to the big-time, an album that sought to try new things in the face of failure and do what a great deal of his works did before it: innovate. It didn’t do quite that, with a reunion with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers helping Bowie’s first solo album in six years do anything but innovate. Black Tie White Noise had the misfortune of various circumstances working against it – Bowie’s try at a “melodic form of House” garnered mixed reviews, and despite claiming the top spot of the U.K. charts and including the hit single “Jump They Say”, the record quickly went out of print because of Savage Records going bankrupt, leaving it to become a rare album before its 2003 reissue.
Despite its flaws, I maintain an opinion that Black Tie White Noise was a Young Americans for the ’90s. Like the 1975 album, Black Tie White Noise marked a significant departure in sound for Bowie in favor of what was “in” at the time — what was once soul and funk was now new jack swing and house music — and like Young Americans, Black Tie White Noise found Bowie infatuated with the American sound and culture. Roots of his band Tin Machine are within the blueprint for Black Tie White Noise, although relegated to the sexed-up “You’ve Been Around”, a song which traced back to Tin Machine’s live performances and featured its guitarist (and Bowie’s throughout the ’90s) Reeves Gabrels on the Black Tie reworking. “You’ve Been Around” is Bowie’s triumphant “I’m back!” song (complete with a reference to “Changes”), a cut that is ominous and has an air of mystery to it — it’s passionate, but angry, and Bowie all the meanwhile sounds more than happy to sing a song that he finds actual enjoyment in for once after the “dreadful late ’80s.”
Heathen is a record of doubt, of fear, of discovery, and of revival. Once more, David Bowie sought introspection going further into his fifties. An array of factors now took play: his newborn daughter and the mother of his child, Iman; his adult son, Duncan; his career; and most importantly, David Jones himself. “Afraid” packs all of Bowie’s innermost fears and worries into a fierce rocker, yet somehow wasn’t even considered as a single. Originally meant for inclusion on the shelved Toy, “Afraid” actually bears very little difference from the original track, with only a few overdubs being added to the final mix and left a little more polished production-wise; on Toy, “Afraid” takes on a whole new meaning, being included with a collection of decades-old tracks (and two other new songs, “Uncle Floyd”, which would become “Slip Away”, and “Your Turn to Drive”). Whereas on Heathen, “Afraid” is a song that aggressively tackles its creator’s nervous thoughts and various past claims to fame; its placement among the songs on Toy suggests a numbed narrative from the man who once created the nine-minute rant “Cygnet Committee”, which climaxed with howled refrains like John Lennon’s “God” and placed his hopes in a future that would never come. “Afraid” is the fall from grace; the artist has come down but has not resigned himself to failure, for he was a man “who used to walk on clouds”. It’s an internal struggle with one’s artistic reach, one of which that Bowie commented on when asked about the lack of music videos for Heathen‘s singles, replying, “There’s a certain age you get to when you’re not really going to be shown [on TV] anymore. The young have to kill the old.”
“Atomica”, for all its catchiness and conglomeration of sounds, was reduced to the lowly status as an outtake; one of the four new songs on The Next Day Extra, “Atomica” marches onward in a mechanical way. Bowie moans about one second, and sends a rapid-fire couplet your way the next. “Atomica”, despite being unfinished in the wake of The Next Day‘s 2013 surprise release, was one of the livelier cuts from the numerous songs recorded for the album. Personally, it sounds like it could’ve been included – and would’ve improved – Reality, which suffered from a lack of diversity outside the standout finale (and former inhabitant of Development Hell) “Bring Me the Disco King”. “Atomica”‘s bouncy rhythms and jagged, razor-sharp guitars hardly rouse Bowie from a performance that, vocally, was one of his finest in the latter half of his career and more in line with the vocals on Heathen, Toy, and Reality.
*And for those who read until the very end, I didn’t forget the requiem… who could forget such a tune?