Some rock and roll reunions work out better than others, but in the case of David Bowie and Brian Eno joining forces again for the first time in a couple of decades, it’s fair to say the excitement about their renewed partnership paid off handsomely in terms of quality music...like, to the point where most critics didn’t even make fun of the fact that the pair made a concept album!
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Recorded variously at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, Westside Studios in London, Brondesbury Villas in London, and The Hit Factory in Manhattan, Outside, a.k.a. 1. Outside – The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-circle – revolves around a collective of characters in a dystopian world on the cusp of the 20th century. If that sounds like a complex concept... Well, c’mon, this is David Bowie and Brian Eno, after all.
Although Bowie and Eno hadn’t worked together in the studio since the conclusion of Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy, which – just in case you’ve forgotten, consisted of the LPs Low, "Heroes", and Lodger – the two gentlemen renewed their friendship/partnership as a result of reconnecting at Bowie’s wedding to Iman. “We were both interested in nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream rather than jumping in,” Bowie told USA Today in 1995. “We sent each other long manifestos about what was missing in music and what we should be doing. We decided to really experiment and go into the studio with not even a gnat of an idea."
To say that the duo’s songwriting techniques were experimental is an understatement. As Bowie detailed in a 1995 interview with Axsess, "What Brian did, which was really useful, is he provided everybody with flash cards at the beginning of the day. On each one, a character was written, like 'You are the disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes that were suppressed.'...Because that set the tone for the day, the music would take on all those obscure areas. And it would very rarely lapse into the cliché."
Call us crazy, but we find that very easy to believe.
Upon its release, Bowie knew that the length of Outside – almost 75 minutes – was going to be a tough sell for a lot of listeners, as he told journalist Mark Brown in 1997:
Outside was 76 minutes. And as soon as I released that I thought, "It's much too fucking long. It's gonna die." There's too much on it. I really should have made it two CDs. I think you can overwhelm an audience. I think the attention span is quite short, although I used to like the fact that there was 20 minutes on each side of the album. What did happen was that any rubbish really stood out! You had to be very careful about putting sort-of adequate pieces on or mediocre pieces. Because they really would show themselves when there was only 20 minutes a side. So it's really quite a discipline to work at 40, 45 minutes. Because it all better be good, because it'll really stand out if it isn't. With 76 you could feasibly--of course, not in my case--but you could feasibly get away with inferior material!
Upon its release, there were inevitably still a few critics who harped on about the conceptual nature of Outside, but it still proved to be another commercial success for Bowie, with the LP climbing to No. 21 on the Billboard 200 and all the way to No. 8 on the U.K. albums chart. Only one of the album’s singles cracked the Hot 100 – “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” – and even then it topped out at No. 92, but it scored three Top 40 hits in the U.K.: “Lesson” hit No. 35, “Strangers When We Meet” made it to No. 39, and “Hallo Spaceboy” – a collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys – climbed all the way to No. 12.