Rock ‘n’ Roll’s chameleon… David Bowie. Since his beginnings, he’s been changing his style both visually and musically. The great thing about Bowie is that before it all began, he was an artist. In a true sense of the word, dipping his hands into painting and being creative with words and design. So the idea of constant change and pushing oneself to new limits was always present that it became normal and quite expected. He’s been credited with being quite influential in all sorts of genres, and it’s pretty evident with a career that has lasted about 40 years. And in 1997, he released Earthling… a dynamic change into the world of electronic music, and one of my all time favorite David Bowie albums.
Growing up, Bowie’s music wasn’t present in my house. That was left for me to find out and discover. I think I was in 8th grade when Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) came out, and the band that I was in just loved Nirvana to death. We would attempt to write original songs but we’d always end up covering Nirvana songs. Our guitarist, Robert, had all of the Nirvana guitar books and he took to getting a copy of Unplugged. To me, at least at that time, their cover of The Man Who Sold the World really stood out. And being a detailed orientated person, I noticed that David Bowie wrote the song and quickly remembered that Kurt Cobain would mention Bowie in a lot of interviews, especially the ones that mention his influences. So in order to fully understand, I would order through BMG or Columbia House (remember those?), David Bowie CDs under a fake name or to another address. Pretty fucking stupid, huh? But I got a hold of those albums, one of which was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).
Fast forward a couple of years, Bowie grabs my attention once again by being announced in a co-headlining tour with my favorite band Nine Inch Nails. And that album, Outside (1995), spawned an industrial rock theme that I was attracted to. I’ve been listening to industrial since about 6th or 7th grade. Anyway, my parents didn’t let me go to this show… either one of them. There were 2 shows booked at The Edge. I honestly have gone through major ups and downs with my parents, but not allowing me to go is simply unforgivable and I will never forget that! After that tour and album, Bowie went quiet. It wasn’t until Duran Duran released Electric Barbarella and announced that they would have a song in The Saint Soundtrack (1997), which is heavy on electronic rock and a better soundtrack than the movie, that I would rediscover Bowie (once again) and get hooked into this incarnation.
Earthling, as a whole, is a giant experimental dance rock album. Unlike his previous albums, this one seems to know exactly where it’s going. It seems pretty calculated and set on a direction, if the songs were set by accident then it doesn’t appear to be that way. A lot of the album, although electronic, is as organic as it can be. Making their own loops and sound effects to then process them and sculpt them into the songs that they are. Of course, the influence here is from the jungle and drum’n’bass genres, it is overall a rock album. A quite aggressive album compared to previous releases, including Outside. Which in turn only really has one aggressive song, Hallo Spaceboy.
Anyway, it captures what was going on at the time and not in a disposable time period way. That’s the wonderful thing about being a true artist. You can reflect without dating, it’s what makes these songs unique. Bowie’s vocals are top notch; being creative with different harmonies and effects. The band is simply one of the best he’s had. Guitar genius and co-writer Reeves Gabrels lets his guitar create different atmospheres and leads that simply amaze and amplify the songs. Long time bassist Gail Ann Dorsey keeps the rhythm in check with her cool almost hypnotic playing, along with Zachary Alford beating the hell out of the drums. Mike Garson adds style and sophistication with his avant-garde piano playing. Last but definitely not least, Mark Plati programming and keyboard extraordinaire guiding it all from beginning to end. In my opinion, this was Bowie’s best moment in a very long time. These band members brought out the best in him both live and in the studio, and the freedom that Bowie allowed really forced the band to be 100% all of the time.
Earthling was originally released in extremely limited amounts on vinyl back in 1997. I’ve been looking for a copy ever since, and it really has been impossible to find. Thankfully, Music on Vinyl received permission to release certain albums and one of which was Earthling! The packaging is beautiful, a high gloss sleeve with really bright colors on the outside. And deep, rich colors of gold and purple with pops of pink on the inside. The record, which is a 180 gram dark toned transparent green vinyl, is housed in a sleeve with a photograph of Bowie’s eye and the cross used for the Little Wonder single. The photographs used are taken by Frank Ockenfels, a Los Angeles photographer with a vast collection of album covers, movie posters, and magazine covers on his belt. David Bowie also contributes artwork and art direction. Editing and imaging comes from Davide De Angelis. And one cannot forget the iconic Union Jack jacket used on the cover, designed by Alexander Mc Queen and slightly edited by Bowie himself.
I can’t imagine not having this album in my collection. So many great songs on here, my overall favorite being Battle for Britain (The Letter). A reflective piece which simply explains that the past is the past, the best is yet to come. Kind of a bummer, if you let it become that, but open up to the future with open arms. Another one of my favorites is The Last Thing You Should Do, a minimalist approach to noise. There have been times where this song has pretty much been my thoughts vocals. It all starts pretty well organized and straight forward, until the break down… big amounts of guitars, sound effects, simple chaos breaks loose. And of course there is Dead Man Walking, a full on dance song about the future, here it comes and there it goes. I’ve seen Bowie perform this on TV, both in the album version and an acoustic version with Reeves Gabrels. It’s easily a Bowie classic.
Overall, I think this album would be great for people who listen to experimental music or is a fan of electronic rock, not necessarily industrial. The pop aspect is there; hooks and melodies and great rhythms, but it is a rock album. I would’ve liked for the reissue to have brought maybe bonus tracks, not bonus remixes, but this album was pretty much written in the studio and on the fly. Although some of the remixes found on the singles are pretty awesome. Trent Reznor’s I’m Afraid of Americans remixes are just amazing, and makes the song a lot more aggressive. Which as a whole, I think is a great representation of what type of road Bowie and the band were on.
PAIR THIS ALBUM WITH
Dearly Beloved – I Thee Red [Central Coast, California 2011]
What a fantastic find! This blend consists of Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc. Talk about juicy, I Thee Red holds a lot of body without having such an over powerful kick. The addition of the Cabernet Franc gives it such pleasant finish that it is an easy wine to enjoy on its own. I’ve mentioned a few blends in previous posts, and I am confident that this will make a great addition to those recommended. But unlike the others, this one is a bit softer toned so it’s perfect for people who lean more into the Merlot, Zinfandel wines.
Vinyl & Vino rating: 5 out of 5
TOP FAVORITE TRACKS
Battle for Britain (The Letter)
The Last Thing You Should Do
Looking for Satellites