Earthling album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati
Recorded: March-November 1996
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati

Released: 3 February 1997

Available on:
Earthling
liveandwell.com
Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97)
A Reality Tour

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, Roland VG-8, programming, samples
Mike Garson: piano
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar
Mark Plati: keyboards, programming, samples
Zachary Alford: drums

‘Battle For Britain (The Letter)’ is the third song on Earthling, David Bowie’s 21st studio album.

It’s another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of, ‘Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back.
David Bowie
Mojo, March 1997

The lyrics for the song emerged from conversations that took place during the album sessions.

Certain themes became more personal. It was biographical, not autobiographical. We would go out for lunch and part of our conversation would show up in the song. ‘Battle For Britain’ was one of them.
Reeves Gabrels
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Despite being sometimes described as Bowies drum and bass album, Earthling only contains four songs in that style: ‘Battle Of Britain (The Letter)’, ‘Little Wonder’, ‘Telling Lies’, and ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’.

The song emerged from the recording of ‘Little Wonder’. The recording sessions for that song resulted in a variety of samples and snippets which formed the basis of a number of other Earthling songs.

Reeves and I began work on this track [‘Little Wonder’] one day when David was otherwise occupied. Armed with some new drum loops and a tape of Reeves making guitars noises, we set to it. Reeves had been getting really into the VG-8 and coming up with all sorts of wacky sounds. I had to go home the previous night to babysit, so Reeves spent the evening with my assistant, Dante DeSole, laying down all sorts of sonic treats. This tape they made was extremely valuable – from it we also drew sounds that inspired the development of ‘Battle For Britain’, ‘Law’, and ‘Seven Years In Tibet’.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Co-producer Mark Plati had begun the track by attempting “to do a jazz-tinged jungle track”, which Bowie took and rewrote the chords. The song was recorded under the working title ‘The Letter’, which Bowie occasionally used when introducing it live.

The only real jungle thing I’d done was the Feelgood mix of ‘Telling Lies’, which I found to be great fun. There weren’t any boundaries, and I didn’t have any particular reverence for the form or anything. Again, David scrapped the chords, and the electric guitars came out to figure out new ones. I found the chord progression to be real catchy but unique, and I felt like this could be our first real ‘Bowie’ song. I think at this point I felt the focus of the record come together, it was the first time I heard mention of David’s intent for the record to be melody driven – there would be actual songs over intense atmospheres, but the atmosphere wouldn’t dominate. I got excited.

Again, a repeat if the day before – we were cranking these out one per day. Reeves would be coming up with guitar parts and sounds, I’d be at the computer recording him or working on the arrangement, and David would be on the couch listening to the track over and over, writing the lyric. At day’s end he’d do a vocal. The arrangement of this track took an interesting turn. In the middle David wanted to have a piano solo – he imagined Mike Garson playing Stravinsky over mad beats. Also, I had been experimenting with chopping things up in the computer and throwing them about – I’d read about the Beatles during Sgt Pepper, chopping up bits of tapes for ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’, and reassembling them in a random fashion. My attempt to do this became the break after the piano. Once again, when the band came in they added their parts. Gail’s bass once again provided supple support to the programming, and Mike’s piano worked out perfectly.

Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Zachary Alford’s drums were sampled and sped-up, to which the drummer played live over the top.

I indicated to Zach the style and tempo of the piece of music; virtually, that’s all I gave him. He would take like half a day and work out loops of his own on the snare, and create patterns at 120 bpm that we would then speed up to the requisite 160. Then he would have that as a bedrock to play on top of. That loop would be fairly minimal—maybe four or eight bars maximum. And then over the top of that he would improvise on a real kit. So what you had was a great combination of an almost robotic, automaton approach to fundamental rhythm, with really free interpretive playing over the top of it. I think the best example of that on Earthling is a track called ‘Battle For Britain’, where you really get a feeling for how Zach and the loops are interacting.
David Bowie
Modern Drummer, July 1997

The results were painstakingly arranged by Plati in a sequencer to precisely match the beats.

When I recorded Zach on ‘Telling Lies’ earlier in the year, David wanted to make a loop of his drums – Zach played a few bars, and I sampled it and sped it up to a typical jungle tempo of 160 BPM. It then took on the frenetic, double time feel of jungle. He then played his live drums over this in half time, so that you had both sets of rhythms going at the same time. The trick would be that he had to play exactly in time or it would sound like a train wreck. We didn’t have a lot of time during ‘Telling Lies’ – he did a few takes and we bounced them together on tape. It was pretty solid, and I just ducked the loop a bit when Zach was a little out of time. Zach is a good drummer, but I really couldn’t expect anybody to keep in time with 160 BPM. When it came time to do ‘Battle for Britain’ (only called ‘The Letter’ at this time) we decided to go one better – the drums and programming had to be seamless. The drums were loaded in the computer and manipulated each and every beat to match the programming. It took days. The results speak for themselves.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Mike Garson’s piano was one of the few non-manipulated sounds on the song. The direction from Bowie was to bring a flavour of Stravinsky to the recording.

David sent me down to Tower Records, which was right downstairs on Bleecker Street, and he said, ‘Go check out this Stravinsky octet, then let that inspire you to play a piano solo on ‘Battle For Britain’.’ I thought, ‘This guy has a wealth of knowledge.’ He knew that much about art, painting, philosophers, classical music, contemporary music. I went downstairs and bought the album and it was pretty much a one-take, another very crazy solo.
Mike Garson
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Live performances

‘Battle For Britain (The Letter)’ was performed at David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997.

It was also a fixture of every live date of the Earthling Tour later that year. A performance from 20 July 1997 was released on the 2021 live album Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).

Mike Garson was part of Bowie’s band for the tour, and sometimes played the introduction of the Aladdin Sane song ‘Time’ towards the end of ‘Battle For Britain (The Letter)’ – as heard on the album liveandwell.com, a performance from New York on 15 October 1997.

‘Battle For Britain (The Letter)’ was revived for A Reality Tour in 2003-4. A performance from Dublin appears on the A Reality Tour album and DVD.