This extract from David Bowie: The Music & The Changes by David Buckley, published by Omnibus Press in May of this year, concentrates on The Next Day, Bowie’s ‘surprise’ album that arrived out of the blue in 2013. The book is an updated edition of David Buckley’s earlier guide to Bowie’s music, originally published in 1996 which a year later Bowie himself used in the promotion of his Earthling album, packaging it for private use.
The extract is in three parts, opening with some background information on the record, to be followed tomorrow by an analysis of the tracks, and finally details of the music to be found on the Collector’s Edition.
When David Bowie was photographed walking near his home in New York in October 2012, it was assumed that the anonymous figure in downbeat grey with a satchel and cap was wiling away his days in happy retirement. Few were aware that his man-bag carried sheets of lyrics and ideas for songs, and that he was actually on his way to work.
In the small hours of January 8, his 66th birthday, the fruits of Bowie’s clandestine recording sessions with long-term producer Tony Visconti were, finally, heard. The beauteously downbeat ‘Where Are We Now?’ – the lead song released from a brand new album – became his biggest hit single since ‘Absolute Beginners’, way back in 1986.
The arrival of the new track was kept so secret that even his band members had no inkling. “I was so shocked when I woke up on the morning of his birthday and suddenly I had all these emails and Facebook had exploded,” says Gail Ann Dorsey who contributed bass and backing vocals on the album. Never has a record by a major artist been made under so much secrecy. When Bowie contacted his band members with the idea of making a new record, the email’s subject line read: “schtum!” “We weren’t even talking among ourselves about this because if we get a leak, it will take all the gloss off it,” is how Earl Slick puts it.
Notwithstanding its slow-paced melancholia, ‘Where Are We Now?’ was greeted with almost universal critical praise, leading to an unusually high degree of media coverage that spoke volumes about how Bowie had been missed and, perhaps, relief that he was evidently fit and well despite rumours to the contrary. The Guardian had Bowie on its front page with a substantial story inside, as did other UK broadsheets. When even political journalist Andrew Neil on the late-night politics show This Week was moved to mention David Bowie’s ‘terrible dirge’ you knew that Bowie’s return wasn’t simply the property of popular culture. It seems absolutely everybody from across the broad spectrum of human activity had to have a view. For some Bowie watchers, it was all too much; much, much too much.
Those with longer memories realised that its appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, on i-Tunes and on YouTube was in many ways very much in keeping with Bowie’s shock tactics of old. In February 1974, he released a single, ‘Rebel, Rebel’, which had only been recorded six weeks earlier and which almost no one knew about until advance copies were given to radio, two weeks before its release. The return of Bowie in 2013 was completely in keeping with how Bowie had worked in the past and not so strange after all. It was also a reminder of how exciting pop music used to be, when it could hit you from nowhere, without the endless pre-ordering, pre-pre-promotion and tiresome media campaigning leading up the big day. That all this was missing was a big story in itself, an assault on an industry that nowadays relied more on packaging and publicity than content and merit.
Another parallel went largely unnoticed. In 1975 Bowie’s great friend John Lennon was finally given his ‘green card’ which granted him permanent residency in the US and, more importantly, permitted him to travel outside of the country and return without hindrance. Lennon then did much the same thing as Bowie had done, absenting himself from the music business so as to help rear his son (in Bowie’s case it was a daughter), await the termination of various contractual obligations and live a life away from the glare of celebrity. When Lennon re-emerged five years later with a new album and single he gave interviews galore, the spotlight returning with such ferocity that it attracted the attention of a crazed assassin. This too may have weighed on Bowie’s mind.
People were also intrigued by something unrelated to the music. The artwork, co-ordinated by Jonathan Barnbrook in collaboration with Bowie, reminded us all of the days when sleeve design was as important as the music. On The Next Day, perhaps the classic Bowie album cover, “Heroes”, is ‘defamed’ by a block of white space and its title struck through. “There were good reasons for using the ‘Heroes’ cover,” says Barnbrook, “and there are good reasons for it being ‘undesigned’ so it’s very carefully thought about. It’s making people think about David, the music, his age, his legacy. I do think it’s quite an intellectual cover and does what Bowie does best which is bring a concept into the mainstream which maybe people are not comfortable with. Nobody has done this before – play with their old imagery in service of the new. It doesn’t play the pop star game of image or rather the conventional ‘new image for new consumption’ that people expect for an album cover. It had the right kind of impact. The pose also, it’s forward looking, the white square is an obliterating contrast to its organic form.”
The new recordings began life as a series of demos back in October 2010. Visconti, along with guitarist Gerry Leonard and drummer Sterling Campbell (both retained from the Reality tour), began work in a tiny demo studio. Around 20 songs were routined and only on the final day was Bowie persuaded to record them. “He said, ‘We have to keep this secret’,” says Visconti. “We signed NDA’s [non-disclosure agreements]. Then we would take a lunch break and eat at the local Italian restaurant where everyone recognised him! Someone who worked at the Italian cafe snapped a photo of us and he got up and said, ‘Don’t do that! We won’t come back here if you do that again.’ David took the demos home with him for about three months. He then called me again and said, ‘I think we can start an album.’”
The next sessions took place in May 2011 at recording studio called The Magic Shop. “It’s very close to where David lives,” says guitarist Gerry Leonard. “I think he wanted to walk to work. He’s got his book bag with all the lyrics in there, he gets his Macchiato (coffee) and he’s off. But we had to keep things so secret. On my calendar on my computer I used a code name for when I was working on the album.”
“He’s old school when it comes to writing; he has his book bag, his legal pad,” adds Leonard, who shares guitar duties with David Torn and Bowie veteran Slick. “He’s got a great way with melodies. He’s really interested in the progression of the chords and the sections. You have to work fast with David. You’d spend more time discussing a video or a book than you will when you’re playing. When you’re playing he wants your first thought, best thought. I remember playing the song and David’s got his lyrics out and he’s singing and writing the song right there on his piano, actually writing the lyrics as we’re going down on tape, or ProTools as it is now. I thought, ‘That’s great, that’s not something you see every day’. He knows what he’s going for.”
The album debuted at number one in the UK charts, the ninth of his career. In America it reached number two (beating his previous-highest-charting album, not as might be assumed, Let’s Dance, but Station To Station), kept off the top by Bon Jovi, and in Germany it became his first-ever number one album. But still, no interviews and certainly no promotional gigs. Some speculated that this was some grand Warholian device, in an age in which there is so much comment across so many platforms, saying nothing was the loudest sound of all. The ‘mythogenic’ Bowie was back: we would know him only through his music and his art, not by any form of direct communication in interviews. Yet another reason for the silence may have a far more human, and humble origin; perhaps Bowie knew that the first question on every journalist’s lips would be about his health, his absence, his period ‘retired’. It would appear by 2013 that Bowie was tired of talking about himself, particularly having to give answers to personal questions. According to Earl Slick, there was no need to worry in any case: “Because he got quiet, everyone assumed he was definitely ill. And he’s not. He’s fine. He looks pretty damn good for a guy who’s sick, to me. He’s on his game, he’s singing his ass off, he’s writing great. He’s David! Maybe he just needed a break… maybe he just didn’t feel like it.”
On The Next Day, there is now doubt that Bowie does “feel like it”. The music is honed, crafted and brilliantly written with no weak moments. In style, it is art rock in the mould of “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters, yet in tone, many of the songs pick out moods and situations from other eras too. What is certain is that the ten-year wait was worth every minute.