Released: 3 February 1997
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, Roland VG-8, programming, samples
Mike Garson: keyboards
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar
Mark Plati: keyboards, programming, samples
Zachary Alford: drums
‘Looking For Satellites’ is the second song on David Bowie’s 1997 album Earthling.
I used words randomly: ‘Shampoo,’ ‘TV,’ ‘Boy’s Own.’ Whatever I said first, stayed in. It’s as near to a spiritual song as I’ve ever written: Now that the Christian narrative seems more distant than ever and we are poised with the prospect of imminent discovery of aliens, we start to pick up the pieces of our spiritual lives all over again.
Earthling press release
The song pits man’s Earth-bound existence against the exploratory trips into space, and the satellites orbiting Earth which, in the 1990s, were used for communications, navigation, weather, and space observation.
The opening chant here is a cut-up, but then it moves into a straight, rational piece about where we find ourselves at this particular point in this era: somewhere between religion and technology, and not quite sure where to go next. It’s kind of a poignant feeling, standing alone on a beach at night looking for a satellite: it connects you with how far man has evolved, and how far he has to go yet. It’s that feeling of being very much alone and looking for something in the sky, a physical object, but what you’re really looking for is an answer.
Mojo, March 1997
In 1999 Bowie took part in a live chat for BowieNet. Co-hosting the chat, somewhat improbably, was Ronan Keating, lead singer of Irish boy band Boyzone. During the chat Bowie was asked whether one of the repeated phrases in ‘Looking For Satellites’ was “Boyzone”.
Bowie stressed that he was actually singing “Boy’s Own”, a reference to various similarly-named publications in the US and UK. The longest-running was Boy’s Own Paper, which ran in the UK from 1879 to 1967.
I have to come clean, when I was very very young, there was a comic I used to buy called Boys Own Paper, lovingly called BOP and it was one of a fragments that I threw into ‘Satellite’. I was immediately buried under letters telling me that it was one of the hottest new bands in England as well, which I must say I was quite delighted with. It’s always pleasant to be unwittingly topical. AND it’s a great way to make new friends.
In the studio
The origins of ‘Looking For Satellites’ were from June 1996. During the Outside Summer Festivals Tour, Bowie’s band were delayed leaving Fukuoka in Japan for Moscow after an aeroplane caught fire on the runway and all flights were suspended.
Forced to stay in an airport hotel, from where he could see the aeroplane smouldering, Reeves Gabrels started work on the song using a MIDI sequencer on an Apple computer.
It was the early days of [sequencing] software and I had the Apple c295 or something. It looked like the laptop version of one of those Philips televisions – a big box with a tiny screen. I had software called Vision… it was like typing but with notes. It was perfect for long plane rides and hotel rooms. With the loop for ‘Looking For Satellites’ – I got stuck at Fukuoka Airport, where a plane had crashed on takeoff and we all just went to the airport hotel. I sat there watching the smoke rise from the airport, putting this music together.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
The song took shape in the studio, where Mark Plati was working on an electronic piece of music in 3/4 time.
This was the second track we worked on, and it sprung out of an idea I had created over the summer. I had wanted to try something in 3 – I hadn’t heard much electronic stuff in 3 so I set out to make one. This was one of the first attempts to consciously make something out of ‘junk’ – a theme throughout the record, of taking any sound and making something musical out of it. I used samples from lots of records I’d done before and reshaped them, twisted them, made them into new sounds through manipulation and combination with other sounds. When I played it to David and Reeves it was the foundation – the rhythm, some chord information, and a few musical lines. David and Reeves immediately scrapped the chords and built a new progression based around a diminished chord. This became the verse, and we returned to D major – the original key of the track, as so many of the samples were tuned to it – for the chorus. Again, it was a case of David and Reeves jamming against the track to come up with chord sequences. This was also the first time where they became aware that I was recording everything in the computer. Reeves’ solo came about by experimenting – as they usually do – and they were doodling, deciding on approaches to take. David thought that Reeves should try to play the entire solo on one string – it would shape his playing and note choices accordingly. All of the attempts were recorded and we made one coherent, fantastic solo out of a few different choices – we took little pieces, moved sections around a bit. We began to see what was possible with hard disk recording. A whirlwind of cigarettes and Post-It notes in the back of the room, and most of the vocal was done that day (a second verse was added in a few weeks). Of course, I didn’t realize they were finished vocals… I figured they were only amazing guide vocals, to be replaced by the ‘real’ vocal later, as is usually the case. When the band came in, this was the first track they played to. Gail’s bass really made the track sing. It was also my first attempt to compile Zach’s drums in the computer and straighten out the timing problems.
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley
The final third of the song is dominated by Reeves Gabrels’ guitar solo. Bowie instructed Gabrels to use just one guitar string per chord, and limited the notes he was allowed to play. The result was a customarily dissonant solo, with Gabrels’ customary squalls and squeals, but sounding not unlike an Indian raga in places.
I never in a million years would put a guitar solo on ‘Looking for Satellites’. But David said, ‘I think we should have a guitar solo on that song.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but on that first chord you can only use your low E string; the second chord you can only use your low A string; the third chord only the D string and the fourth chord only the G string. And you’ve got to play constant 16th notes.’ If I didn’t have some level of chops, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
By being put in that box, stylistically, you’re defined by your limitations. The arbitrary limitation of that approach made me do stuff that I normally wouldn’t have done. It’s actually one of my favorite guitar solos that I’ve recorded. The overall arc of it has this nice sex-like, orgasmic form. It has a nice starting point, a plateau stage, a peak, a climax and its resolution. In a way, it’s a statement of dick control.
It wasn’t a composed solo. I didn’t think it should have a solo and David insisted so what you’re hearing is me being pissed off that I had to put a guitar solo in a song that I thought shouldn’t have one. After it, I left the room, got a cup of coffee and thought that it might have been one of the best things I have ever did.
There were plans to release ‘Looking For Satellites’ as a single, and a radio edit was released on promotional discs in the USA. The b-side was to have been an unheard Mandarin-vocal version of the song.
Despite the plans, however, the song remained an album track.
I thought that was the best tune on the album. I got so turned off when they didn’t follow through with that and release it as a single that I lost my desire, because I thought that was the one. I thought that was a mistake. When I heard those vocals at the beginning I almost died, it was so good.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
‘Looking For Satellites’ was performed at David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997.
It was performed throughout the Earthling Tour later that year. A performance from 20 July was released on the 2021 live album Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).