Weird ’90s – David Bowie’s 1. Outside (1995)

weird90s

Weird '90s

David Bowie's 1. Outside

In his latest column, Graham Williamson investigates David Bowie's 'quite astonishingly dark' 1995 opus, 1.Outside. Welcome to Weird '90s...

It’s 1995. You’re in the cinema watching Se7en (US, David Fincher, 1995), which people have told you is the scariest film of the year, a fin de siècle masterpiece. It seemed unlikely, coming from the director of Alien 3 (US, Fincher, 1992), but now the credits are rolling and you’re a convert. Everyone in the theatre is terrified – of the film’s villain John Doe, the grisly crime-scene images, even the end credits themselves, which are scrolling backwards down the screen. 

One man, though, gets the shock of his life when he hears a piano. That man is Mike Garson, legendary pianist and regular player in David Bowie’s backing band. He’d worked on a song – ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ – for Bowie over the winter, and he ‘almost got scared to death’ [1] when he heard it playing at the end of Se7en. A lot of other people were also surprised to hear it, albeit for a less personal reason. 

If you stopped listening to Bowie in the 1980s – and the infamously off-a-cliff second-week sales of his 1984 album Tonight indicate that most people did – you’ll have written him off as a spent force. How did he restore his mojo to the extent where he was soundtracking radically modern horror movies? The answer will involve the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in Austria, but not just yet. 

Shortly after Bowie dissolved Tin Machine in 1992, he met up with Brian Eno, who had collaborated with Bowie on several of his late ’70s albums. Eno had heard Bowie’s soundtrack for the BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (UK, Roger Michell, 1993) and found himself ‘really excited about’ [2] his old friend’s creative renewal. They began plotting an ambitious cycle of albums and performances, culminating in an eight-hour concert at the Salzburg Festival. It would lead up to an apocalyptic deadline even stricter than Ziggy Stardust’s five-year plan: the coming millennium. 

The fact that this grand plan didn’t happen is no matter. Bowie always promised more than he delivered; once, there was to be a Ziggy musical, a Diamond Dogs movie. No-one today argues that those albums are diminished by their status as ‘mere’ albums. Bowie’s ability to get bored of his grandest schemes, to move on from a success before it became stale, was the engine of his genius. Whatever grand Millenarianist concepts were being discussed by Bowie and Eno now exist on one artwork: the 1995 album 1.Outside. 

As Bowie’s portrait of the 1990s, the first thing that ought to be noted about 1.Outside is that it is quite astonishingly dark. Garson’s piano and Reeves Gabrels’s guitar, previously deployed to add a frisson of experimentalism, dominate lengthy, dissonant tracks like ‘A Small Plot of Land’. The album’s futuristic setting makes previous Bowie dystopias like Hunger City look escapist. Rather than being the product of some hypothetical future fascism, 1.Outside‘s Oxford Town is clearly our world a few years down the line. It’s not a humourless stab at prophecy – one of the characters is a cyborg art dealer called Ramona A Stone, who is having a ‘MIDI-life crisis’ – but each futuristic conceit is designed to be recognised as an exaggeration of the listener’s current reality.

How did Bowie see that reality? Let’s turn to Chris O’Leary’s blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame to understand Bowie’s mid-90s concerns:

‘…the growing appeal of piercing and tattooing, how that reflected a growing ‘tribalism’ and how it was a domestic version of the extremities of the body artists […] the collapse of cultural “narratives”, usurped by an ever-broadening chaotic stream of information; his love of Twin Peaks. And his sense that the West, in the Nineties, was entering into a period of cultural binging and purging, a shedding of skins before the millennium, with a taste for violent sex and stylish murder…’ [3]

The ‘body artists’ O’Leary mentions had appeared in Bowie’s songs before – 1977’s Joe the Lion commemorated the artist Chris Burden’s performance nailing himself to a Volkswagen. The inlay notes for 1.Outside namecheck Burden, Ron Athey and Bowie himself. Damien Hirst, then the bad boy of Brit Art, is affectionately razzed as ‘the acceptable face of gore’ [4] for mutilating animals rather than humans. 

If 1.Outside has one key inspiration, it was Bowie and Eno’s trip to the Gugging clinic, where patients were given free rein to express themselves through art. The results were dubbed ‘outsider art’, and this concept of the outsider, explored on the album’s title track, would become Bowie’s lodestar. He wanted to get out of the mainstream and get back into the wilderness, to come up with something truly radical again.

The album’s storyline is notoriously opaque, but this much is discernible: Nathan Adler, a noir gumshoe specialising in ‘art-crime’, is hunting the killer of Baby Grace Blue, whose disembowelled remains became an installation in the Museum of Modern Parts. ‘It was definitely murder’, he notes, ‘but was it art?’ 

The suspect is Leon Blank, a 22-year-old with prior convictions for plagiarism without a license. He’s been set up by Ramona A Stone and her client, a nameless art-criminal at the centre of this labyrinth. And what else would you find at the centre of a labyrinth but a Minotaur?

Bowie was fascinated by minotaurs. They kept turning up in his paintings, and he was keeping a close eye on the recent discovery of prehistoric art at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, which he excitedly noted featured ‘one composite of a human being with a bull’s head – 26,000 years before the Greeks came up with it’. [5] A particularly dark rumour from the period was that Bowie and Hirst were planning to make a real minotaur using a cow carcass and the body of a man who had bequeathed his remains to Hirst.

Many of 1.Outside’s most astonishing songs are written from the perspective of The Minotaur, the nameless artist-psychopath responsible for Baby Grace’s murder. There is the minimal, chilling Wishful Beginnings, the thrilling, accelerating electro-funk of The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty), the self-explanatory I’m Deranged. That song was used over the opening credits for Lost Highway (US, David Lynch, 1997), a match of sound and vision so flawless that Chris Rodley suggested ‘It could almost have been written for the movie’, and Lynch quipped ‘It was!’ [6] 

1.Outside probably reached its widest audience on the soundtracks of movies which shared the album’s mordant attitudes. The Motel, a stunning slow-build from the perspective of Leon, was used to explore a different kind of guilt in another Kureshi adaptation, Intimacy (France/UK, Patrice Chéreau, 2001). Other tracks appeared in Starship Troopers (US, Paul Verhoeven, 1997) and Memento (US, Christopher Nolan, 2000). And then, of course, there’s Se7en.

Comparing the core ideas of Fincher’s film and Bowie’s album – grisly murders performed to make an artistic statement – might imply one influenced the other. Yet they were developed at the same time, confirming that for the first time in many years Bowie had put his finger on the zeitgeist. Sonically, too, the album returned Bowie to the cutting edge. He graciously accepted praise from Britpop acts while keeping a respectful distance from the scene. Bowie preferred the company of musicians whose dense, paranoid, experimental sounds were reflected on 1.Outside: the industrial metal of Nine Inch Nails, the drum and bass of Goldie, the trip-hop of Tricky.

O’Leary sees Tricky as a possible inspiration for Leon [7], along with Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose biopic (US, Julian Schnabel, 1996) would feature Bowie as Andy Warhol. I wondered if Bowie voicing a mixed-race man would seem misjudged today, but Leon has no stereotypical characteristics, and his songs – particularly The Motel – are some of the album’s most yearning and humane. 

There’s something else, too. As we’ve noted, the storyline of 1.Outside sees Leon take the fall for crimes committed by a wealthy artistic elite. Ramona may be the most absurd character on the album – Bowie gives her a robot voice, and the picture of her in the record’s inlay resembles the human-orc hybrid Paula Patton would play for Bowie’s son in Warcraft (US, Duncan Jones, 2016). Yet she is the one who sees a young black man and realises he’d make a good patsy. The green-skinned cyborg Stone might appear beyond race, gender, even species – but these freedoms have only entrenched her privilege. 

Bowie’s previous album Black Tie White Noise was inspired both by his wedding to Iman and the racial unrest that broke out in LA five days later. The latter event reminded him that the cross-cultural harmony of the former was still far from universal. Recently the LA riots were revisited in the documentary Whirlybird (US, Matt Yoka, 2020), about Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard’s groundbreaking news helicopter footage. Whirlybird shows you how events like this, or the OJ Simpson chase, were consumed back in the 90s: a god’s-eye view, encouraging audiences to engage with the news not as concerned citizens but as voyeurs of utter destruction (as beauty).

Everything here – the voyeurism, the sensationalism, the class divide, the racial divide – feeds into 1.Outside, yet it is hardly a moralistic album. Compared to the direct protest songs Bowie wrote for Tin Machine, it’s notable for its refusal of judgement, its dabbling in paranoia and horror for the pleasure of it. 

Hanif Kureshi recalls Bowie’s ‘terrible monologues’ as he became ‘really obsessed with serial killers’ [8], and this leaves traces on the album. O’Leary and Pegg both suggested the track ‘Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)’ was inspired by the tape Ian Brady and Myra Hindley made as they killed Lesley Ann Downey. If researching this awoke any pity or sympathy in Bowie, it’s not audible. 

The point is the morbid fascination, the magnetic appeal of true horror. This, too, is a way in which 1.Outside caught the spirit of the era. [9] The Minotaur is never caught, the crime is never solved and the final track merely expresses relief that one day this will all be forgotten. The only end is death, much as it usually was for Bowie’s creations.

Ziggy Stardust had his rock and roll suicide, and even Bowie’s self-titled debut ends by dropping the Laughing Gnome vaudeville for an unnerving (and very 1.Outside) serial killer’s monologue. 1.Outside now stands as a particularly, pungently 1990s exploration of a theme that fascinated Bowie right up until 2016’s Blackstar, the album which famously made the singer’s own death into the skeleton key which unlocked its cryptic lyrics. To misquote Nathan Adler, it’s death – but is it art?


Sources:

[1] Buckley, David, Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story, 1999, p. 499

[2] Pegg, Nicholas, The Complete David Bowie, 2002, p.295

[3] https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/ok-riot-id-rather-be-chrome/

[4] Bowie, David, The Diary of Nathan Addler: or, The Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew – An Occasionally On-Going Short Story, Q Magazine, issue 181, January 1995, pp. 175-81

[5] Pegg, p. 297

[6] Rodley, Chris, Lynch on Lynch, 2005, p. 241

[7] https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/leon-takes-us-outside/

[8] Jones, Dylan, David Bowie: A Life, 2017, p. 380

[9] Buckley, pp. 502-50

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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