'Earthling': David Bowie's Industrial Odyssey

David Bowie's 'Earthling'
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It’s never a bad day to take a quick dip into David Bowie’s back catalog, but with the upcoming arrival of the Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) box set – including the legendary, previously-unreleased Toy album – growing ever closer on the horizon, it’s a particularly excellent opportunity to more closely examine one of the albums from that set...namely, the one that found the Thin White Duke delivering unto his fan base some thin, white drum and bass as he explored his industrial side.

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An aggressive album by most anyone’s definition (including Bowie’s), Earthling was an album borne out of a desire to capture Bowie’s live sound at the time, which is why he and his band entered the studio a mere five days after completing the tour for his previous album, 1995's 1. Outside. Although they had virtually no songs fully written and ready to go upon beginning the recording the process, they were nonetheless finished with the album after only two-and-a-half weeks.

As noted, Earthling was very much inspired by the drum and bass and industrial sounds of the period, but it was also very much a Bowie album through and through.

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"Unlike most drum and bass things, we didn't just take parts from other people's records and sample them,” Bowie told the Seattle Times in 1997. “On the snare drum stuff, Zac [Alford] went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way."

In an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, keyboardist Mike Garson later reflected on his experiences while working on Earthling, including the fact that he was not what you’d call a Bowie super fan when he first got the gig.

“I think that attitude was helpful, that I was not bowing at the altar of Bowie,” Garson said. “I was like, ‘This is good. I don’t like that.’ I was upfront and honest about it all, rather than, ‘Everything you touch is gold!’ No. He needed that. We all need that. So that helped me I think...It was different once I started to play with him, and then I saw the whole other side of it. ‘Oh, God. This is...Wow!’ Because he just pulled these really strange things together...And then I would try it and go, ‘That’s weird.’ And then an hour or two later I’d go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s not something I would’ve dreamed of.’ And it would happen all the time. He’d just pull some strange thing out of the sky and then, eventually, you’d go, ‘Damn!’”

In a 2018 interview with Classic Rock, guitarist Reeves Gabrels pronounced that Earthling was “my favourite record that I did with David,” and there were many critics that agreed, but it was definitely a tough listen for those who were looking for any semblance of the Bowie they’d come to know and love on the pop charts. This was very much Bowie in full alternative-rock mode – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and while the end result was a No. 6 album in the U.K. and two Top 40 singles (“Little Wonder” and “Dead Man Walking”), the LP stalled at No. 39 in America. It did, however, spawn one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s nice to enjoy the irony as to which song scored that achievement: "I'm Afraid of Americans," a knotty number remixed for single release by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

In closing, we thought we’d offer up a clip that Conan O’Brien aired as a tribute upon learning of Bowie’s death: it’s a live performance of “Dead Man Walking,” and it proves conclusively that even if you weren’t necessarily a fan of the Earthling album, there truly are some classic Bowie songs hidden underneath the drum and bass.

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