Written by: David Bowie, Brian Eno, Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kızılçay, Sterling Campbell
Recorded: May 1994 – February 1995
Producers: David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Richards
Released: 25 September 1995
Brian Eno: keyboards, synthesizer
Reeves Gabrels: guitar
Erdal Kızılçay: bass guitar, synthesizer
Mike Garson: piano
Sterling Campbell: drums
Beginning as a space jazz excursion and ending with a dark and pounding relentlessness, ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ was one of the improvised pieces recorded for David Bowie’s 1.Outside in Montreux in 1994.
With ‘The Motel’, it is one of just two tracks on 1.Outside to break the six-minute barrier. It begins with Mike Garson’s piano to the fore, dancing over the twisting, contorting rhythms of drummer Sterling Campbell, underpinned by a motorik four-to-the-floor bass drum. The mostly-instrumental second half is dominated by Reeves Gabrels’ squalling guitar.
Wow. Oh my. Sterling and I really had a ball on this one. David gave us so much freedom. The piano solo on this is almost TOO out there for ME but the album IS called Outside.
Sterling is such a supportive drummer. Once again, I wouldn’t have all that freedom without the solidness from his drumming.
This is a strange, beautiful piece with a very long extended piano solo.
As a co-writer on many of these songs, I remember receiving a royalty check for $0.02. I only wish they would have sent me a stamp instead – it’d be worth more. Just goes to show you the fringes of life don’t always equate to dollars and cents.
We sure loved making this music. And only David could get away with making an album like this. People are really getting it now 25 years later which is what I always thought would happen with this one.
Erdal did some wonderful synth parts on this song.
Twitter, 5 July 2020
The presence of Scott Walker looms large – ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ would not have sounded out of place on his 1995 album Tilt. And although ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ defies easy categorisation, it is perhaps a forerunner of the groundbreaking experimental jazz heard on 2016’s Blackstar. Indeed, the Blackstar band recorded a version for Donny McCaslin’s 2016 album Beyond Now.
Scott Walker was a big influence on David. We had many private discussions about Scott's wonderful voice. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 5, 2020
With a handful of exceptions, the 1.Outside songs are sung from the perspective of selected characters in the murder mystery. ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ is, according to the Outside Tour programme, “To be sung by the residents of Oxford Town, New Jersey”.
The source of the title may have been Nat King Cole’s song ‘Thou Swell’, which contains the line: “Give me not a lot of, just a small plot of land”. The phrase also appears in the 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst Félix Guattari:
This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari
On 26 October 1994 Bowie and Brian Eno took part in an email correspondence for Q magazine, in which Eno spoke of a remix of ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ he was working on.
I forgot to tell you that I did a new beginning to that song which I like very much. It’s an atmospheric piece about ninety seconds long using your “poor soul” phrase played very slowly and forming long drifting overlays. In the background is a sound like motors or machines or transmissions of some kind. I think it’s lovely and you should get the tape soon.
Q magazine, January 1995
A longer Eno remix was used in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat, in which it soundtracked the death of Andy Warhol, played by Bowie. In his diary, Eno spoke of a meeting with Schnabel in New York in which the director expressed a desire to use the remix.
Back at the hotel we met David Phillips for lunch. Then to Julian S.’s for the party. All of Julian’s five (three by previous marriage) there, plus Olatz of the endlessly long legs and Rosemary and her little boy. Julian talking at length to me about David’s record – great heart but lack of space. Conversation started with him playing me an early version of ‘Small Plot of Land’ which he wants to use in the film. ‘Much better than what went on the record,’ he said. It turned out to be my original mix, where I left out everything except voice and strings, so it became a sort of orchestral piece with this beautiful sung poem over it. It did sound good – the voice so prominent. Julian said, ‘It’s so strange that people who have a real ability so often try to cover it up.’ I said I thought this was because people don’t trust what comes easily to them. (Oblique Strategy: ‘Don’t be afraid of using your own ideas.’)
A Year with Swollen Appendices
‘A Small Plot Of Land’ (Basquiat) was included on the bonus disc that came with the 2004 reissue of 1.Outside. Re:Call 5, in the 2021 box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), included ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ (long Basquiat soundtrack version).
I went to see the opening of the Basquiat film with so many great actors including our friend @GaryOldmanWeb and David himself playing Andy Warhol which features a lovely remix of this song. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 5, 2020
On 18 September 1995 David Bowie and Mike Garson appeared at New York’s Shakespeare Festival. They performed three songs: ‘A Small Plot Of Land’, ‘Outside’, and ‘My Death’.
In April 2022 the Brilliant Adventure EP was released on CD and 12″ vinyl for the annual Record Store Day. It included the Shakespeare Festival recordings of ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ and ‘My Death’.
I’ll never forget, a few years after recording this at the Manhattan Center doing this alone with David as a duet which was very hard without drums and bass to hold the piece together. I had to sort of play all the parts, so to speak. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 5, 2020
Bowie performed ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ with a full band arrangement throughout the Outside Tour. The first performance was on 12 September 1995 at the Meadows Music Theater in Hartford, CT, and the last on 16 July 1996 at the Ahoy in Rotterdam.
The live performances were an opportunity for some late-career theatrics from Bowie. It began with the stage in darkness except for a single spotlight on Bowie, singing with his back to the audience. An account of the performance was included in Nicholas Greco’s MA thesis David Bowie’s 1.Ouside: the creation of a liminoid space as a metaphor for pre-millennial society:
As the other musicians begin playing, the stage is washed with a blue light and Bowie proceeds to sit at the table with his back to the audience; he turns only as he begins to sing. As the performance continues, Bowie walks in a limited area slowly, often making quick but smooth gestures with his hands and arms. He then visits a lower portion of the stage, a few feet away from the audience, making slow graceful movements, although he doesn’t make any physical contact with the fans only a few feet away. He walks slowly to a hanging cord and pulls on it, causing a large rectangular banner to unfold above the stage, and repeats this action three more times at various locations around the stage. For the first banner, he reaches up to grab the cord with his right hand, while grabbing his right wrist with his left hand and then sliding it down to his elbow. He rests his head on his forearm as if in a state of sorrow, and then proceeds to pull the cord downward slowly but forcefully. The pulling of the cords occur during Gabrel’s guitar solo. The first reaction this author had to this action in the performance – which is one of the only instances of Bowie doing anything other than singing and wandering within a relatively small area – was that this was Bowie acting like a person separating himself from the audience, much like a person pulling down a window blind to avoid having to see a pesky neighbour. Sanford suggests that the banners served to change mood, but here they don’t seem to serve such a simple purpose.
In a personal email to the author dated 19 March 2000, Gabrels states that the practice of dropping the banners did not go on for very long, and he doesn’t recall the purpose of the action. He suggests that it was simply to give Bowie something to do during the guitar solo and to change the scenery a bit-he suggests the term, “functional theatricality.”