Published on December 17th, 2017 | by Brent Chittenden1
52 Albums That Changed My Life, Chapter 51: Bowie’s Outside
The problem about writing about anything David Bowie, especially now, is that a lot of really good writers have tackled writing about David Bowie. Writers who are, in all fairness, better than I am.
But what I can say about Bowie is that from an entire personal standpoint, Bowie taught me to look at what a musical artist can be from an entirely different view than I had looked at them before I knew about Bowie.
And that journey started with one of his later albums, Outside.
Well sort of.
David Bowie was a musical phantom for me until I hit my teens. I remember him in Labyrinth. He was a staple at Christmas with Bing Crosby. Every now and then he would pop up on television with a new album. I have vague memories of staying up and seeing Tin Machine perform on Saturday Night Live.
But for some reason, it never stuck that these were all the same guy.
Until Trent Reznor came along.
Nine Inch Nails was and remains one of my favorite bands of all time. Through Reznor, I would go on to discover a number of artists, many have been written about in previous chapters in this series. Then one day, it was announced that Nine Inch Nails would be opening for David Bowie. Which seemed weird to me, why Bowie? Wasn’t he old? Out of touch? He did a movie with muppets, didn’t he?
When you’re a teenager, you think some really stupid things.
Around the same time, Much Music started to play the video for The Heart’s Filthy Lesson. I really dug it and took a leap of faith and buy it. This guy was obviously trying to do a Nine Inch Nails style album, I should like this.
Again, teens think stupid things.
I put in Outside and was surprised. While “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” may have made many think they were getting Bowie does Reznor, they were mistaken. What they got instead was this eclectic mix of electronic, industrial, with touches of jazz and Bowie’s ever amazing imagination. I was amazed. Bowie made an album that was in many ways light years ahead of other artists. If you’ve followed Nine Inch Nails, you can definitely see that Reznor would take a similar path with later records like The Fragile.
Produced by Brian Eno, Outside was progressive. It was also a loose concept album and it was oh so good. Beyond “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” there was “Halo Spaceboy,” a rocking number that deserved more recognition than it ever got. “A Small Plot of Land” was a jazzy, swing kind of number. I’m a big fan of “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is almost a weird pop number. It’s very catchy with an incredibly singable chorus. In many ways, Outside was really… well… outside… of what you would expect. Unless you followed Bowie’s career on a whole.
I would later study Bowie’s music, falling down holes on the internet, reading reviews on his work and stories about his recording process. I would borrow Bowie: The Singles Collection off of my best friend’s father. From there I’d learn that Bowie was truly a chameleon. Every couple of albums it was time to tear down the machine completely and create something new. That something new may not always work like Black Tie, White Noise, but it was different and interesting.
Now, it may be argued that there are other artists who do this. Madonna is a very similar example. Every couple of years, Madonna would tear down her music and look and start a new. The difference with how I hear the two artists in these regards is Madonna’s musical moods and changes always seem calculated to me. That’s not to take away from her mind you, she is very good at reading the tea leaves and doing some really good stuff with newer sounds. With Bowie, I always got the impression that he actually liked the music he was taking inspiration from. Like someone gave him a Nine Inch Nails album and Bowie went “Oh… that’s very interesting, I like this. I now want to make my own album” but then what he would make would be organic with no real plan other than, this is what I’m into right now.
I only have one issue with Outside and really part of that comes down to Bowie’s creative impulses, Outside was originally discussed as the first part of a three-album cycle. We never got the other two parts. Bowie would find new and different inspirations and go into other directions leaving outside as a great album but making you wonder what might have been if he had continued on that path. But at the same time, we got Earthling and The Next Day and Heathen so it’s really hard to complain. It’s not like he wasn’t making great albums, he just never really revisited Outside.
I’ve read in a number of different places that Outside had a ton of material recorded for it that was always meant to be revisited but never was. Eno has said on occasion that Outside is the Bowie album. Part of me would love to sit down with those archives, a good set of headphones or speakers and hear what else is in there. The other part of me wonders if that would change how I look at Outside.
As much as I love music, I very rarely see the artist who makes the music in a personal light. Bowie was different. Bowie was that uncle off on adventures that you would get postcards from but would never actually meet. He’s one of the few artists that I miss in a very personal manner. I miss his sense of humor in interviews. I hate the fact I will never get to see him perform live and I always get a little sad knowing that there won’t be new music from David Bowie. I’m sure we’ll here unreleased material but at the same time, we’ll never get Bowie being inspired by new sounds and releasing new music.
But I am thankful we had him for as long as we did.