Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 15 September 2011; 9 May 2012; August 2013
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Engineers: Mario McNulty, Tony Visconti
Released: 8 March 2013
The Next Day
Gerry Leonard: guitar
Tony Levin: bass guitar
Zachary Alford: drums
Tony Visconti: bass guitar (Venetian Mix)
Henry Hey: harpsichord (Venetian Mix)
‘I’d Rather Be High’ is the eighth song on The Next Day, David Bowie’s penultimate studio album.
The song’s protagonist is a seventeen-year-old soldier, seeking mental escape from his service by dreaming of Berlin, London, and Cairo, and wishing to be anywhere but “training these guns on the men in the sand”.
The timeline is ambiguous – it is tempting to place it in the Iraq War or the War in Afghanistan, but it could equally have been any number of conflicts. ‘I’d Rather Be High’ opens with the lines “Nabokov is sun-licked now/Upon the beach at Grunewald” – a reference to The Gift, a 1938 novel by Vladimir Nabokov written in Berlin.
Bowie then pivots to a more rarefied setting: “Clare and Lady Manners drink/Until the other cows go home/Gossip till their lips are bleeding/Politics and all”. This is likely a reference to Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen (1955), which features a soldier named Ivor Claire who is protected by Julia Stitch, a character based on the early 20th Century socialite Lady Diana Manners.
Although Bowie gave no interviews to promote The Next Day, delegating promotional duties to his musicians and producer, he did send novelist Rick Moody a list of 42 words – three for each song on the album. Those for ‘I’d Rather Be High’ were: Indifference, Miasma, Pressgang.
There’s a few songs about world wars, about soldiers… ‘I’d Rather Be High’ is about a soldier who’s come out of the war and he’s just burnt out, and rather than becoming a human being again, I think he laments, “I’d rather be high/I don’t want to know/I’m trying to erase these thoughts from my mind.”
Rolling Stone, 15 January 2013
In the studio
‘I’d Rather Be High’ was recorded at New York’s Magic Shop studio on 15 September 2011. Bowie’s lead vocals were added on 9 May the following year.
A different version, known as ‘I’d Rather Be High’ (Venetian Mix), was created in August 2013. Bowie brought Henry Hey into the studio to play harpsichord, giving the song a baroque edge. Tony Visconti also add a new bass guitar part, and Bowie added a number of new vocal tracks.
The Venetian Mix was used in a Louis Vuitton advertisement directed by Romain Gavras, which was first shown in November 2013. Bowie appeared in the ad, which starred model Arizona Muse in a Venetian ballroom setting.
Various mixes of the new version were created for different commercial edits. One, known as the Venetian Mix (Wasted Edit), was uploaded to Bowie’s YouTube account on 4 December. It was directed by Tom Hingston, who later made promos for ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ and ‘No Plan’.
We wanted it to feel like a found relic, discovered, as if from another time. In early conversations, Mr Bowie and I discussed exploring archival footage that brought to life another side of war – footage that featured soldiers celebrating; young servicemen and women, in moments of jubilation and euphoria – drinking, dancing and partying…these moments of total euphoria, juxtaposed with extreme violence, serve as a powerful reminder of the futility of war.
‘I’d Rather Be High’ (Venetian Mix) was included on the bonus CD which came with The Next Day Extra, an expanded version of the album released on 4 November 2013.
The fifth and final single released from The Next Day was an edit of ‘Love Is Lost’ (Hello Steve Reich Mix by James Murphy for the DFA), released to promote The Next Day Extra. It was issued as a digital download and on 12″ white vinyl, with ‘I’d Rather Be High’ (Venetian Mix) on the b-side.