In the studio

In the downtime between the Outside Tour and the Summer Festivals Tour, David Bowie worked on a new song alone in Montreux, Switzerland. ‘Telling Lies’ was written just before the first tour, but Bowie had struggled to find a form that fitted.

‘Telling Lies’ was a song that I actually started writing just before we started out on tour, because I wanted to work on it more thoroughly in that medium. We changed the arrangement all the time and tried new ideas on it. By the time we’d gotten it finished, we really found that how we structured this particular kind of music worked well and integrated it with what we do, which, fundamentally, was hybriding a very aggressive rock sound with drum ‘n’ bass.
David Bowie, 1997
Mr Showbiz

Bowie was experimenting heavily with cutting up samples of guitars and keyboards, manipulating the sounds into new forms. This process began on 1.Outside, was further refined on ‘Telling Lies’, and subsequently became the template for Earthling.

The making of the album that would become Earthling grew out of David wanting to finish up a song he had begun in Switzerland, called ‘Telling Lies’. The first thing we did was add more parts to what already existed. Zach Alford came in to do drums, Reeves added guitars, I did some programming, and David did more vocals and had some keyboard ideas. I then mixed this version at Electric Lady Studios. I also did my own remix at the time, which would become known as the ‘Feelgood’ mix when it was released as part of an internet-only single. After this, he said he wanted to do an album, with me involved, after they finished their summer ’96 festival tour. I didn’t really believe him – you hear that sort of thing all the time in this industry, and most promises don’t materialize in the end. I went to see them play in Leipzig, Germany during that tour, while I was working in Berlin. This was the first time I met Gail Ann Dorsey and Mike Garson. David continued to go on about making a record. I still wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him, but sure enough when they got off the road, two days later they showed up at the studio.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

The song was the first indication of Bowie’s burgeoning interest in drum and bass, which he had become fascinated by since 1993, when a friend sent him a tape of “the original Caribbean London guys like General Levy”. Drum and bass had reached the mainstream by the mid-90s, most notably with Goldie’s first studio album, 1995’s Timeless.

This record owes a debt to drum-and-bass in the use of rhythm, but I don’t have much interest in the top information; what we are doing is a million light-years away from what, say, Goldie or any number of other drum ‘n’ bass or purist artists would be doing. Groups like Storm Trooper are fantastic, but it’s not what we’re doing at all.
David Bowie
Modern Drummer, July 1997

The chorus of ‘Telling Lies’ alternated the title words with “starting fires”. This was most likely a nod to the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ – the band’s first number one UK single was released in March 1996 when Bowie was working on ‘Telling Lies’.

By the time Earthling was released in February 1997, drum and bass’s complex cut-up beats had largely fallen out of mainstream fashion, replaced by big beat, electronica and techno. There was some bemusement that Bowie had elected to release a drum and bass record – an incomplete impression given through the lead singles ‘Telling Lies’ and ‘Little Wonder’ – after its moment had passed.

On the second Tin Machine tour I was listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, and I used to play that all the time. I played it at the back of the tour bus and everybody would go to the front. So as I was listening to industrial music, David was listening to drum ’n’ bass. We used to argue a lot, as I used to like Underworld and he used to like Prodigy. Beatles and Stones, Oasis and Blur. By the time we started Earthling we had Pro Tools, so it became much easier to cut and paste and experiment. We were meant to be taking a break, but then David wanted to go back into the studio to work on material for Earthling, as musically there was so much going on. It only took two weeks to really put it together. We wanted to have the power of a rock band but introduce elements of drum ’n’ bass and elements of what became electronica. I went to raves, took ecstasy, and the scales fell from my eyes and I saw what worked. We even played ‘Little Wonder’ at his fiftieth birthday show. It wasn’t really a drum ’n’ bass record but that’s what the press called it.
Reeves Gabrels
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

In contrast to the expansive cast of musicians on 1.Outside, and its lengthy gestation which saw sessions in Montreux, New York and London, Earthling was recorded in a matter of weeks in August 1996. The sessions took place at Looking Glass Studios, after which it was mixed at Right Track Recording, another Manhattan studio.

I had heard from Reeves about the making of 1.Outside – hours of jam sessions which were then edited into songs and overdubbed further – and it seemed like this was an option at first. We tried this the first time the full band came in after a lot of the songs were already partially written and recorded, and it didn’t seem to pan out. Most of the song ideas that David, Reeves and I had already begun seemed like a better starting point, rather than fishing for a nugget through a couple of hours of jamming on miles of tape. When the tour ended, David and Reeves came in for two weeks before the rest of the band – Mike, Gail, and Zach – showed up…

When I visited the band on the ’96 festival tour, David asked Reeves and I to get together ideas and tracks for possible use on the album. When we met after the tour, we played all these ideas and chose bits and pieces to start with. I’ll get more into song-by-song specifics later on. As we’d work on a track I’d see David jotting things on Post-it notes or in his computer. Reeves and I would concentrate on the music, though David would have certain lines he would hear or certain sounds he’d want to try. The framework of most of the songs was done this way – once that was in place the band would overdub their parts.

Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Earthling was Bowie’s first album to be recorded entirely digitally. Instruments were often recorded, transferred to a sampler, then distorted and reworked on a synthesizer.

We began putting song ideas and arrangements into the computer, not to tape. I had begun getting into hard disk based recording, and at that time I was getting reasonably good at it, enough to track vocals and guitars right to the hard drive. My equipment at the time was pretty simple – a Jaz cartridge, two inputs and two outputs, and not much else – but it proved to be an ideal way of getting audio information into a format where you could easily move it around at a whim. We would come up with a verse and a chorus section, then David would say ‘let’s hear a verse, a chorus, a verse, a double chorus, a break, etc…’ and I would be able to do all that in about 30 seconds. If I were dubbing and splicing tape, it might take a few hours to get it right! We were all immediately sold on this, and this was how the songs were created. When the band came in they added their parts over what we had started – by this time we’d upgraded to a larger system capable of handling what we needed – and when it came time to do drums, this was the point where we’d finally put all the tracks from the computer onto tape. I anticipated that we’d be working on the album for six to nine months, then mix. I was pleasantly surprised.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley
Earthling studio progress chart © Mark Plati

Earthling studio progress chart © Mark Plati

After ‘Telling Lies’, seven new songs were recorded for Earthling, as well as the 1.Outside outtake ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’. The new songs were lead single ‘Little Wonder’, ‘Looking For Satellites’, ‘Battle For Britain (The Letter)’, ‘Seven Years In Tibet’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’, and ‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’.

Bowie also revived two Tin Machine songs. An acoustic version of ‘I Can’t Read’ was left off Earthling in favour of ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’, and was later included on the soundtrack for The Ice Storm. A re-recorded ‘Baby Universal’, meanwhile, was left unreleased, as was the song ‘Nuts’, although that song and the two Tin Machine re-recordings were all included on the Is It Any Wonder? EP in 2020.

I have to admit I miss ‘I Can’t Read’ not being on the record, and I disagreed strongly with David at the time. But his argument was that ‘Last Thing’ fitted in better conceptually. I think time has shown him to be correct.
Mark Plati
Strange Fascination, David Buckley