In the studio
‘Little Wonder’ was recorded during the Earthling sessions, which took place between August and November 1996 at Philip Glass’s Looking Glass Studios in New York City.
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’.
The next day we presented David with what we’d done – basically a rhythm track with a sprinkling of noises and synth parts. First, David came up with a sequence of the samples Reeves had created – the sounds that make up the intro of the song. Then David sat down with an electric guitar – we had him and Reeves set up with miniature Fernandez electric guitars, which we were recording constantly – and came up with the chord sequence. He said it was like a ’50s chord sequence (I believe he called it ‘street corner singing’, though I recognized it as a doo-wop progression) with a twist – the last chord was a half step higher than usual. Perhaps this is what makes it ‘Bowie-esque’, this little quirk. Usually, each song had at least one or two. Then the ‘so far away’ section came straight after that and a basic arrangement was created in the computer. A flurry of Post-it notes later that day, and we had the framework of the lyrics, a guide vocal, and a title. The second verse was written a few weeks later.At this stage the idea for ‘Little Wonder’ was that it’d be a nine-minute jungle-electronic epic – much longer than on the album, but essentially the same idea.
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley
After the initial single ‘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 ‘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)’.
‘Little Wonder’ was originally a nine-minute drum and bass track. It was edited to six minutes for the album release, and cut further to 3:43 for the single.
At that point I would never have thought we could cut it down to a four-minute single. The middle was to be filled with all sorts of effects, atmospheres and breaks. Some ideas – the train after the second verse, for instance – made it into the body of the song. When the band showed up, they added their parts – Gail put down the bass, Zach the drums, Mike a harpsichord pad. These gave a much more rock shape to the track and for the first time it was apparent, to me at least, it could be a single.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
David Bowie’s cockney-style vocals were recorded in a single take. Although intended as guide vocals, they were retained for the final release.
I just wanted to capture everything I could, which meant recording and saving everything from the very beginning. Lucky for me, because the run-through guide vocal for ‘Little Wonder’ ended up being the only one he ever sang on that track! Most of the vocals were first take, which I had never seen before in my career.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
A drum sample of ‘Amen, Brother’, a 1969 b-side by US band The Winstons, runs throughout much of ‘Little Wonder’. The Winstons’ six-second drum solo, played by GC Coleman, has been extensively sampled, and is commonly known as the Amen break.
What I really wanted to do was not so very dissimilar to what I did in the ’70s – and something I’ve repeatedly done – which is to take the technological and combine it with the organic. It was very important to me that we didn’t lose the feel of real musicianship working in conjunction with anything that was sampled or looped or worked out on the computer.
Modern Drummer, July 1997
Another sample was from a live Steely Dan show, recorded on 4 July 1974 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. A line from the inebriated introduction by the band’s roadie Jerome Aniton – “If it good to ya, it gotta be good for ya” – appeared in the instrumental break of ‘Little Wonder’.
It was follow-up to ‘Telling Lies’, which had been issued in November 1996.
‘Little Wonder’ became Earthling’s most successful single, reaching number 14 in the UK. It peaked at number 10 in Finland, and 19 in Belgium, but was not otherwise a major international hit.
The single was issued in an array of formats. In the UK there were two CD singles. The first contained the edit of ‘Little Wonder’, the Ambient Junior Mix, Club Dub Junior Mix, 4/4 Junior Mix, and Juniors Club Instrumental. These remixes were by Junior Vasquez.
The second UK CD single was billed as a limited edition, and contained the song edit, ‘Telling Lies’ (Adam F Mix), ‘Jump They Say’ (Leftfield 12″ Vocal Mix), and ‘Little Wonder’ (Danny Saber Mix).
A 12″ single was also released in the UK, which contained the Junior Club and Danny Saber mixes of ‘Little Wonder’, and the Adam F mix of ‘Telling Lies’.
In mainland Europe there were three CD editions and one 12″ single. The first CD single contained five versions of ‘Little Wonder’: the album version, Ambient Junior Mix, Danny Saber Mix, Club Dub Junior Mix, and 4/4 Junior Mix.
The second CD single contained the edit and Junior Club Mix of ‘Little Wonder’, and ‘Telling Lies’ (Adam F Mix). The third CD omitted the Junior Club Mix, but was otherwise identical.
The European 12″ vinyl single contained the Junior Club and Danny Saber mixes.
In the US, the sole CD single contained four versions of ‘Little Wonder’: the album version, Ambient Junior Mix, Club Dub Junior Mix, and Danny Saber Dance Mix.
Japanese fans could buy yet another variant, containing the single edit, Junior Club Mix, Danny Saber Mix, Club Dub Junior Mix, and 4/4 Junior Mix.