Seven Years In Tibet singleWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: March-November 1996
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati

Released: 3 February 1997

Available on:
Earthling
liveandwell.com
Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, saxophone
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, Roland VG-8, programming, samples
Mike Garson: organ
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar, vocals
Mark Plati: keyboards, programming, samples
Zachary Alford: drums

‘Seven Years In Tibet’ is the fourth song on David Bowie’s 21st studio album Earthling.

The title was taken from Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During and After by Austrian mountaineer and former Nazi Party member Heinrich Harrer. In the book, which was first published in English in 1954, Harrer wrote about his experiences travelling through Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950.

I guess that’s the only track that takes an obvious political stance. As a kid, Tibetan philosophy was important to me, I was totally seduced by it, and Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer was crucial for me. It seems a little dated now, but in my teens it made a major impression on me. I just wanted to be Tibetan – I wanted my eyes and skin-colour to change, I wanted short black hair and saffron robes. I met a Tibetan at that time, a monk called Chime Youngdong Rinpoche, and he told me I was out of my mind to want to be a monk. Best piece of advice I was ever given! I keep bumping into Chime every four or five years, and strangely enough, as I was writing this song, a fan, out of nowhere, sent me photograph of him as he looks now, from when he was lecturing a few years ago. Spooky!
David Bowie
Mojo, March 1997

Another coincidence was the film Seven Years In Tibet, starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis, which opened in September 1997, some seven months after Earthling’s release. The song and film came at a time when Tibet’s occupation by China and the continuation of the country’s religions and cultures became something of a cause célèbre. That year Bowie donated the song ‘Planet Of Dreams’ to the Tibet House Trust’s charity album Long Live Tibet, and he performed at the Trust’s benefit concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall in consecutive years from 2001 to 2003.

In the studio

We built this humungous chorus and it kicks. We were mixing it and playing on the big speakers, and I’d be like, ‘All right, I’m gonna hide now, because it’s two bars away and it’s gonna blow our faces off.’
Mark Plati
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

‘Seven Years In Tibet’ began life as ‘Brussels’, a composition by Reeves Gabrels. Bowie dismissed their early attempt at recording it as “very predictable, self-serious”, but Gabrels continued working on it and “turned it into something magical,” according to Bowie. “It went from being something I wanted off the album to almost my favourite song on the album”.

This came about from a track Reeves had written on the summer ’96 tour. I believe it was called ‘Brussels’. Again, it was a case of taking preconceived idea, and finding new chords. This one took on an amazing shape, in the end. The usual routine – use some of Reeves’ samples from the sample tape (David would have them on the keyboard, and he’d chose a few to use) break out the guitars and come up with chords, then a lyric at day’s end. This track seemed promising but it wasn’t favorite until the band came in. They made it take on a new life, especially Mike Garson’s Farfisa organ solo, inspired by Reeves. Reeves never gave up on this track, he was really the one who saw this one through, he had a real vision for it. This re-inspired David, who came up with ideas such as running his voice through a ring modulator in the choruses.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Like several tracks on Earthling, ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ contained samples recorded during the ‘Little Wonder’ session.

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

The working title was ‘Biscuit Lady’, a reference to the story which inspired the opening lines: “Are you OK? You’ve been shot in the head/And I’m holding your brains, the old woman said”.

We had done the track but there was no vocal melody or lyrics. We were sitting in the studio and David said, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to try something on this.’ I’d been on my laptop and printed out a news story about a woman in the southern US in the summer – she’d gone shopping and put her groceries in the back. It’s 100 degrees in the south. She has to go to the pharmacy and she comes back. She puts the key in the ignition and suddenly she hears ‘pow!’ and she feels something hit her in the back of the head and it’s all gooey. A woman comes over and says, ‘Are you OK?’ And she says, ‘I’ve been shot in the head and I’m holding my brains in.’ It turned out it was instant biscuits in a tin – they got heated up and it exploded and she got hit with a wad of dough. I showed it to David because it was funny, but the first thing he said [on the track] was, ‘Are you OK?’ For the longest time that song was called ‘Biscuit Lady’. A few days later he said, ‘Let’s call it ‘Seven Years In Tibet’.’ He used to introduce it for the Dalai Lama.
Reeves Gabrels
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Mike Garson played an organ solo, which was improvised in the studio. Garson later described it as one of his best performances since the 1970s.

They just played it for me and told me to play. I had no time to think, so I just grabbed an organ sound and I just played. My role was always, ‘What are you feeling here at this moment? Can you contribute something?’ He would never micromanage… David told me when I played the organ solo on ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ that that was one of the best things I had played since ‘Aladdin Sane’. It was an organ solo that was very snake-charmer sounding.
Mike Garson
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The release

David Bowie also sang a version of ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ with lyrics in Mandarin Chinese. It was released in some territories as ‘A Fleeting Moment’.

The recording was released as a single in Hong Kong. It hit the number one spot there in June 1997, during the handover of control of the region from the United Kingdom to China. As a result, Bowie became the first non-Asian artist to top the charts there.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt really guilty about the continuing situation. I wrote a couple of things in 1968 about this situation. One was called ‘Silly Boy Blue’ and another was called ‘Karma Man’.

I thought, what a perfect time to release an anti-Chinese song in Hong Kong, just as the Chinese take over. It got super-popular, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to tour there now, of course. I’ll probably try and play there next year, but we’ll see. I’ve probably fallen out with the Chinese now.

David Bowie, 1997
BBC Radio 1

The English-language version was released as a single elsewhere on 18 August, accompanied with a video consisting mostly of live footage. The video was directed by Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher, also known as the Torpedo Twins.

The single edit of ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ and the Mandarin version were included on Earthling In The City, a six-track CD given away with the November 1997 US edition of GQ magazine.

Both versions were also included on Re:Call 5, part of the 2021 box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001).

Live performances

David Bowie first performed ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ live on 13 September 1996 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and the following day at the Avalon in Boston, the only two performances of the song from that year.

He sang it with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl at the 50th birthday show at Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997.

‘Seven Years In Tibet’ was performed at every show on the Earthling Tour. A performance from July 1997 was released on the 2021 live album Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97), while another from October appears on liveandwell.com.