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

Released: 3 February 1997

Available on:
Earthling

Personnel

Contents

David Bowie: vocals
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, Roland VG-8, programming, samples
Mark Plati: bass guitar, keyboards, synthesizer, programming, samples

‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’ is the closing song on Earthling, David Bowie’s 21st studio album.

I used what I believe is a Bertrand Russell quote, ‘I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty’, which appealed to me cos that’s how we feel some of the time – we just want the answers, we don’t want to go through all this shit to find them! To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume that if you keep studying you’ll find the answers. As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty on this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realise there are no certainties. It’s much easier to let go of things and not see them in such a serious light all the time. You realise that life is created by the things you do each day, that it’s nothing more than the sum of the things you’ve done in the last 24 hours. That’s life!
David Bowie
Mojo, March 1997

In addition to paraphrasing Russell – the exact quotation is “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty” – Bowie referenced the 1933 death of Samuel Beckett’s father. Bill Beckett’s last words were recast by Bowie as “In a house a man drops dead/As he hits the floor he sighs/What a morning”.

The roots of ‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’ lay in a piece of music by guitarist Reeves Gabrels, which had the working title ‘Bits’.

The first track we started working on after the end of the summer ’96 tour, which was based on one of Reeves hotel-room ideas called ‘Bits’. It changed direction a few times, until it assumed more the shape of a sound collage. It’s also the only track with a real guitar amp – the rest of the record is VG-8 and pedals. Gail, Zach and Mike don’t play on it at all. David sang into an empty water cooler bottle, among other things, and we played around a lot with an Eventide 910 Harmonizer, an old electronic pitch shifter which David probably used in the ’70s.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’ was the first new song on Earthling to be recorded, although ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ was started during the making of 1.Outside, and two Tin Machine songs were also re-recorded in the sessions. Bowie, Plati, and Gabrels later became more adept at writing and recording new music digitally, and ‘Law’ remains the sound of the trio finding their feet.

It was fast because it was the first time any of us tried to do a record in the computer, a digital thing… The first thing we did was ‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’ – we were messing around with it and David said, ‘Why don’t you make that part a verse, that part a chorus,’ and he listed out this arrangement idea. He said, ‘Reeves and I are gonna go to lunch, we’ll be back in a few hours’, and by the time they gather their bits to leave, I said, ‘Hey wait, I’m finished!’ They looked at me like, ‘How is that possible?’ A giant lightbulb went off above their heads like, ‘Oh wow, this is the way to go’.
Mark Plati
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The track also contained sounds from the recording of ‘Little Wonder’; elements from the session were used on three Earthling songs.

Reeves and I began work on this track 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

‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’ is the only song on Earthling that Bowie never performed live.