Heathen album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: August 1998; August-October 2001; January 2002
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: June 2002

Available on:
Heathen (bonus track)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, 12-string guitar, Stylophone
David Torn, Gerry Leonard: guitar
Jordan Rudess: keyboards
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Matt Chamberlain: drums

Originally recorded as ‘(Safe In This) Sky Life’, ‘Safe’ was a bonus track on some editions of David Bowie’s Heathen album.

The song was written in early 1998, and was originally intended for inclusion in The Rugrats Movie. Bowie recorded an early version with co-writer Reeves Gabrels, but subsequently decided to rework it with producer Tony Visconti.

The producers of Rugrats wanted a tune that was classic Bowie – a little bit of ‘Space Oddity’, “Heroes”, and ‘Absolute Beginners‘ all rolled into one. I don’t know whose idea it was to get me, but I got the phone call from David.
Tony Visconti
Billboard, 26 Sep 1998

The song marked the reunion of the two men for the first time since the Baal sessions in 1981. They had begun talking again a year before the ‘Safe’ sessions, but Bowie had been upset by comments Visconti had made about the extent of his role on The Man Who Sold The World.

‘Sky Life’, as it was by then retitled, provided both men the opportunity to finally let bygones be bygones. It came at a time when Bowie’s working relationship with Gabrels was drawing to a close; Visconti was to remain Bowie’s closest collaborator for the rest of his life.

The reunion came during a string overdub session for the song in August 1998.

We both realized how, for people like us, who have a real history, it doesn’t pay to have any animosity against each other for something that comes from an external source [like the press].

I was conducting string overdubs for [“Sky Life”], and David walked in in the middle of it I could see him through the [studio] window with a big smile on his face. I knew I had $5,000 worth of string players in there, but we took time for enormous hugs. Not quite knowing what to say to each other, it was a little awkward. I finished the strings, and then we spent three hours reminiscing.

I engineered the singing session. We wanted it to be private. As soon as he opened his mouth, I honestly got chills. It was David Bowie, but better than ever.

Tony Visconti
Billboard, 26 Sep 1998

In the studio

‘Sky Life’ featured Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke, backing vocals by Richard Barone, Jordan Ruddess on keyboards, and a 24-piece string section. It was recorded at New York’s Sound On Sound Studios; during the sessions Bowie and Visconti also recorded overdubs for ‘Mother’.

The song was dropped from The Rugrats Movie during the editing period.

I have always wanted to work with David Bowie and I finally had my chance. He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it. The song is beautiful.
Karyn Rachtman, Rugrats musical coordinator
MTV, 9 October 1998

The future of ‘Sky Life’ looked uncertain. On 6 October 1998 Bowie’s website quoted him as saying: “Unfortunately, it really doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment. A shame really, as it was quite sweet for what it was.”

A new version of the song, retitled ‘Safe’, was recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001 and early 2002.

Almost everything was replaced for ‘Safe’ on Heathen – it was not a remix. It was easy to do as we had Matt Chamberlain all miked up and a studio full of instruments to play. The only thing that survived the original recording was the string section – a big one.
Tony Visconti, 2009
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

The release

Upon its release, the two-disc edition of Heathen had links to enhanced online content, including the album’s lyrics, rejected cover designs, and extracts of ‘Safe’ and the Toy version of ‘The London Boys’.

The full version of ‘Safe’ was finally released on 16 September 2002, as a b-side on some editions of the ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi” single.

In December 2002 Heathen became Bowie’s first album to be issued as an SACD. This contained a 5.1 surround sound mix by Tony Visconti with bonus tracks. The SACD version of ‘Safe’, at 5:53, was more than a minute longer than the original 4:44 playing time.

In 2007 a two-disc edition of Heathen was released in Japan. ‘Safe’ was one of the ten bonus tracks.