David Bowie Earthling

David Bowie’s Danceable Assault on the Senses ‘Earthling’ Turns 25

Twenty-five years old today, David Bowie’s Earthling embodies multifaceted, sometimes contradictory currents of 1990s pop culture, including industrial metal and drum ‘n’ bass.

David Bowie
Arista / BMG / RCA / Virgin
3 February 1997

To promote the lead single from his 21st studio LP, 1997’s Earthling, David Bowie hosted an “online chat”—the height of novelty at the time—in which he and two other people pretending to be him addressed questions from the audience. Bowie answered by telling the truth, while his cohorts referenced the single’s name by “telling lies”. Today, this stunt may seem like it had the whimsical naiveté of the early web. Still, at the time, it was a way of announcing that Earthling was to be a futuristic album in an age when deep musical nostalgia was affecting British popular music. The Britpop craze was dominant, and bands like Suede were picking Bowie’s back catalog dry for ideas while Oasis and their legions of imitators peddled Beatlesesque whimsy.

Earthling, in contrast, mined American alternative rock (as exemplified by the industrial band Nine Inch Nails). It also yoinked from drum ‘n’ bass, Britain’s newest and most underground music scene. Earthling is a concoction of 1990s trends that don’t seem like they should go together, resulting in a record that’s simultaneously danceable and a paranoid, dissociative assault on the senses. Despite the album’s outlying status within Bowie’s career, Earthling embodies several multifaceted, sometimes contradictory currents of 1990s pop culture.

Its cover—which depicts Bowie wearing a Union Jack frock coat and brandishing the dyed red hair that made him instantly recognizable in the 1970s—belies the music’s futuristic, sometimes near-dystopian content. It was released three months before Tony Blair (who made Britpop the official sound of “Cool Britannia” when he invited Oasis’ Noel Gallagher to a Downing Street party) swept to power. Union Jacks became commonplace, adorning posters, clothing, and album and magazine covers. Emblazoning pop culture artifacts with the flag was—for a short time, at least—a way of signaling affiliation with British pop culture rather than jingoism. This, then, would appear to be the perfect 1997 album cover.

The flag, and its prominence on the front artwork, may have seemed an unusual choice for Bowie since he’d not lived in Britain since the 1970s. Yet the veneer of cool Britannia contrasts with the intentions of the coat’s creator. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen (whose name is now another luxury brand) created the piece, but his provocative collections in the 1990s earned him enfant terrible status. The Independent’s Fashion Editor, Molly Hume, saw McQueen’s debut collection and complained of “models who look as if they have recently experienced serious traffic accidents, in sheer and sweaty clingfilm knickers, with what appeared to be bloody, suppurating, post-operative breasts”. In that spirit, McQueen – initially somewhat unimpressed by Bowie – walked all over the coat and threw stones at it in the middle of the community garden in Hoxton. If the coat had imperialist connotations, then it was an imperialism that had been neglected and left to decay. If it referenced Cool Brittannia, it suggested that this consisted mostly of recycled imagery. 

Although Earthling is often pigeonholed as a drum ‘n’ bass album, only five of the nine tracks have the manic and instantly recognizable rhythms associated with the genre. As it was an unexpected choice for Bowie and the album’s most conspicuous feature, it’s understandable why critics wanted to pigeonhole the album in this way. Bowie quickly adopted drum ‘n’ bass: his previous album, Outside, was released only a year after the genre had become mainstream with the release of “Original Nuttah” by Shy FX and UK Apache. Bowie must have cut an incongruous figure as a regular at Goldie‘s Metalheadz nights in Shoreditch, but he was certainly paying attention. While he may have been something of a cultural tourist, he was certainly a well-informed one. The music press mocked Bowie for adopting the musical style, but criticisms that his beats themselves were inferior in their own right weren’t really on the agenda.

Much of Bowie’s drum ‘n’ bass mentor Goldie’s music has a stripped-down quality to it, giving plenty of space for the frenetic beats to breathe. His 21-minute-long track “Timeless” is a prime example. Bowie had a different mindset. He had just toured Outside jointly with Nine Inch Nails and was either now a full convert to the industrial genre or just wanted to appeal to black trenchcoated teenagers who had recently learned of his music. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels made the American alternative rock sound a reality: his guitar is either a wall of power chord riffing, open chords that ring out, or manic solos in Eastern modes. Though Bowie may have had his touring partners Nine Inch Nails in mind, the crisp, processed sound of Gabrels’ guitar has more in common with Ministry. Whatever the influences, Bowie and Gabrels built on the rock sound they had developed for their side-project Tin Machine to make Earthling Bowie’s heaviest album.

Along with Bowie and Gabrels, there are only four more credited musicians. Second co-producer Mark Plati realized the drum ‘n’ bass sound through programming, encouraging drummer Zack Alford to play a live drum kit against the sped-up loops. Mike Garson provides the keyboard and piano sounds, often opting for a clean piano sound that contrasts with the highly processed sound of the rest of the instrumentation. With so much else going on, Gail Ann Dorsey has the bass player’s burden of anchoring the tracks with consistent repetition. It’s almost a conventional rock band set-up, and the song structures and melodies are fairly conventional, or at least accessible. But each song is jam-packed with overdubs, samples, and grating industrial noises. The overall effect is of graffiti artists frantically working to create a vast installation before your eyes.

Outside had also been made under the influence of industrial rock with a few drum ‘n’ bass touches but was a winding double album with ambient music and spoken word stretches, a concept album about “art crimes” in a dystopian London. On Earthling, Bowie wisely scaled back these elements, thankfully jettisoning in-character monologues delivered over free jazz backing and presenting the whole thing in nine clearly-structured tracks. This was a return to the flow of a long-playing record rather than filling up an entire CD’s runtime as he had done on the previous album. 

Earthling begins with “Little Wonder”, introduced by a frenetic drum ‘n’ bass beat and grating noises. The melody is sung over four simple piano chords, in the fey Anthony Newley-like accent that Bowie had rarely used since the 1960s. The lyrics mention “dopey”, “sleepy”, “bashful” – Disney’s seven dwarfs. Just as it starts to dawn on the listener that this is a drum ‘n’ bass reimagining of Bowie’s twee 1967s single “The Laughing Gnome”, the song launches into a half-time chorus that seems more appropriate to stadium rock.

The mood shifts rapidly with the second track, “Looking for Satellites”, as Bowie harmonizes with himself. Grating feedback soon undermines this harmony, but then the song slips into a slow groove that is Earthling at its most relaxed. Three minutes in, and a distorted guitar playing in an Eastern-sounding scale rips into a furious solo. Things don’t stay laid back and harmonious on Earthling for long. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” returns to the formula of “Little Wonder” with a rapid drum ‘n’ bass beat underpinning a simple chord progression and a catchy melody that is almost nursery-rhyme-like at times. Gabrels’ guitar and a manic, avant-garde piano contribute to the auditory overload.

“Seven Years in Tibet’s” song title shows how much Earthling is of its time, as a film version of Heinrich Harrer’s memoir came out that same year. This is another one of the album’s slower, less overloaded tracks. Yet it’s still brimming over with ideas and is another reason that Earthling is – albeit obliquely – an emblematic 1997 album. Bowie also recorded a Mandarin version, with lyrics translated by prolific Cantopop songwriter Lin Xi. This version, retitled “A Fleeting Moment”, was released in Hong Kong and became the final number-one single before the Chinese handover. It also made Bowie the first non-Asian artist to top the charts in that territory.

In “Dead Man Walking”, a squelchy oscillating keyboard and Gabrels’ metal guitar seem to compete for dominance. Meanwhile, Bowie layers his vocals, once again singing a simple, nursery-rhyme-like refrain. Dorsey’s backing vocals echo early 1990s British soul and add another genre to this overstuffed record. Once again, there’s an echo of Bowie’s early career: the main riff is a re-worked version of the one in the 1970 track “The Supermen”.

The lead single “Telling Lies” is an insistent, paranoid, and claustrophobic song. But by this point, Earthling is nothing if not internally consistent: another crazy drum ‘n’ bass beat and more big guitar chords that are left to ring out. “The Last Thing You Should Do” is similarly sinister. An incongruous-sounding descending synth riff is played like an attempt to sabotage the potential impact of the heavy guitar.

On “I’m Afraid of Americans”, Bowie doesn’t sound particularly afraid of Americans as he borrows the swagger from alternative rock and a groove from Nine Inch Nails in particular. Though the satire may be low-hanging fruit, the track is a break from the relentless drum ‘n’ bass rhythms, and this is ultimately the catchiest song on the album and the easiest one to listen to as a standalone number. It was released as a single in the US market.

Album closer “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” begins with a paraphrased Bertrand Russell quote, “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty”, shouted by what sounds like Alan Partridge. This queasy, off-kilter track has an ominous riff similar to the one heard on “The Empty Spaces” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The beat and synth sounds don’t belong to drum ‘n’ bass, they are more akin to other club genres such as house and techno, but the sheer noise overload is very much in keeping with the rest of Earthling.

In a year that Radiohead redefined guitar music with OK Computer, and the Prodigy and Roni Size & Reprazent released crossover club records, Earthling is easily overlooked. But as a time capsule of seemingly incompatible 1990s musical trends and the sound of a massive star who could have easily rested on his laurels both experimenting relentlessly and having fun, Earthling warrants closer attention. The album that was relentlessly futuristic during a nostalgic era has become a nostalgic curio itself but is nonetheless intriguing for that.

Works Cited

Hume, Marion. “McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty” The Independent, Thursday 21 October 1993, p. 29.