Transition | Transmission 3: see how far a sinful man burns his tracks

When we left off, we were five albums in and found Bowie stepping back into the diverse, genre-spanning 1990s. Reading backwards as currently we are, we’ve moved from the guitar-driven, Visconti-produced noughties through to the eclectic (if patchy)  ‘Hours…’, and from there to…

6: Seven Years in Tibet (1997)  

 The Earthling era starts off with a bang. From the opening chords of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, we know we’re in a different world than that presented in ‘Hours…’. At the time, this incarnation of Bowie was seen as a little tired and behind the time, chasing a trend rather than being out in front. But compared to the tracks we’ve heard to date, it seems like we have a Bowie here who’s full of vigour, willing to push himself and his sound into new territories. 

‘Seven Years in Tibet’ hasn’t been the first time we’ve heard Reeve Gabrels, Bowie’s guitarist and co-songwriter for much of the 1990s, but few of his collaborations with David Bowie showcase his experimental style better than Earthling. Gabrels doesn’t have the same name recognition as earlier collaborators like Ronson, Alomar or Slick, but he was critical in moving Bowie from the soulless, dead-end Eighties to a period of creativity and imagination. 

The song itself is lyrically sparse. Where ‘Something in the Air’ seemed painfully personal, ‘Seven Years…’ mixes the literal and elliptical. “Are you OK?,” asks an old woman, “you’ve been shot in the head and I’m holding your brains.” The subject drinks in the night sky and snow before the lyrics ascend into a mantra of repeated phrases; “I praise to you / Nothing ever goes away / I praise to you / Nothing ever goes”. While many of Earthling‘s tracks can feel slightly dated by quasi-Prodigy drum beats, ‘Seven Years…’ soars. 

7: Dead Man Walking (1997)   

 If you recall my rules, no album was going to get more than two songs dedicated to it – any more than that and this playlist would become even more of an epic than it’s shaping up to be. Earthling doesn’t play with other eras, so if I’m going to add a second track then now’s the time. 

‘Dead Man Walking’ was, like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, a single released from Earthling. While it’d seem that neither song is therefore much of a deep cut, they did not make a huge impact so I feel safe in adding them to this collection. Where ‘Seven Years…’ chugs along and drowns the listener in distortion, ‘Dead Man Walking’ skips and trips. It’s filled with movement – an old soul, flitting past young men and recalling an earlier time “sliding naked and new like a bad tempered child”. But it’s not just about remembrance; it’s about having the wisdom to let go, to shed old selves and step into the future. As he sings;

“And I’m gone gone gone, now I’m older than movies
Let me dance away now I’m wiser than dreams
Let me fly fly fly while I’m touching tomorrow
And I know who’s there when silhouettes fall
And I’m gone like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone through a crack in the past
Like a dead man walking.”

As well as Reeve Gabrels’ influence, the song is lifted by Gail Ann Dorsey’s backing vocals (also heard on ‘Seven Years…’). Dorsey worked with Bowie as a bassist for almost twenty years and notably duetted on live performances of ‘Heroes’ and ‘Under Pressure’. Her voice is heard more on Earthling than other albums, so now’s the time to recognise her tremendous presence, stagecraft and musicianship.  

In addition to Gabrels and Dorsey, the song also features the avant-garde piano of Mike Garson. Excluding Tony Visconti, Garson was Bowie’s longest-serving collaborator. With a partnership spanning thirty years, we will become more familiar with his work in later entries. 

8: No Control (1995)  
  “Stay away from the future,” warns Bowie as this song opens, “Back away from the light. It’s all deranged – no control.” The narrator seeks to lock down some sense of meaning and understand their fate, to wrest some meaning out of the randomness of life. Only that will give them peace; “If I could control tomorrow’s haze the darkened shore wouldn’t bother me. If I can’t control the web we weave, my life will be lost in the fallen leaves”. 

‘No Control’ is perhaps the deepest of deep cuts, an overlooked number from the expansive 1. Outside, Bowie’s most committed concept album. As the title suggests, this album was intended to be the beginning of a broader cycle. This was always unlikely to occur – 1995 marked Bowie’s final collaboration with Brian Eno, who contributed to and produced the album – and now never will. 

1. Outside is a tremendous album which launched a new and thoroughly dark image for our subject. The invigoration of Bowie that we see here will only be clear as we delve further into the back catalogue; it is difficult to grasp how shockingly different his appearance on, say, The Late Show was in comparison with what had come before. Despite the critical praise and attention this new era brought Bowie, the album’s complexity and concept makes it unapproachable for many. As a result, much of 1. Outside is rarely delved into by casual listeners.

 ‘No Control’ never got released as a single, never got a remix with the Pet Shop Boys or get performed live with Nine Inch Nails, and failed to feature on any David Lynch soundtracks. It’s a complete mystery to most. There are plenty of songs from 1. Outside that are at least as good – the disdain of ‘We Prick You’, the plaintive unfurling of ‘The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)’ – but I love everything about this one.

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