Released: 21 September 1999
David Bowie: vocals, 12-string guitar, keyboards, drum programming
Reeves Gabrels: guitar, synthesizer, drum programming
Mark Plati: bass guitar, Mellotron
Mike Levesque: drums
‘Survive’ was the third single released from David Bowie’s 21st studio album …hours.
It’s ostensibly about a girl, but actually I think it might well have been more about a state of mind. You know, all that writer’s stuff. [laughs] So it’s not really a girl it’s a state of mind. And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
BBC Radio Theatre, 27 June 2000
‘Survive’ was, like all the …hours songs, co-written by Bowie and Reeves Gabrels. It was originally intended – as were ‘Seven’ and ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ – for Gabrels’ second solo album Ulysses (Della Notte).
There were three songs I had started writing for a solo record, so I brought those to Bermuda to get them jump-started. I brought them without vocal melody ideas: ‘Seven’, ‘Pretty Things…’, ‘Survive’.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
The sound of ‘Survive’ harks back to Bowie’s early Seventies styles, with its strummed 12-string and closing morse code guitar motif recalling ‘Starman’, the Supremes, and Glen Campbell.
— reeves gabrels (@reevesgabrels) September 4, 2020
It was also nakedly romantic. Bowie had only sung “I love you” on a handful of earlier songs – ‘Cygnet Committee’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘We Are The Dead’, ‘Without You’, ‘Miracle Goodnight’, ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’ – and often couched in caveats and qualification. Here he was looking back to the past with regret for lost love, missed opportunities and misspent years: “I miss you… I love you… Wish I’d sent a valentine”.
Because the album was taking a decidedly more introspective turn, it meant that I needed to approach the guitar playing in a different way in order to wrap around the vocals and support the mood of the song in the solos. As co-writer and co-producer I had to be extra careful that the guitar player in me was responding to the lyric content of the songs.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
Many of the songs on …hours focused on nostalgia, the ageing process, and mortality. Yet Bowie was at pains to point out that little of it was autobiographical, and instead he was adopting another in a long line of personas.
There was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl – and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! So in this case on the album the guy’s thinking about a girl he knew many years ago, and she was ‘the great mistake he never made’. See, I know how that feels, but it’s not part of my current situation. I’m much too jolly. I’m inwardly jolly…
I don’t have regrets. If I am cajoled into looking at the past, which I do very infrequently, I tend to look on it as not so much luggage as… wings. My past has given me such a fantastic life. A lot of it negative, a lot positive. For me it’s been an incredible learning process, arriving now at a situation where I… know far far less than I knew when I started out!
Uncut, October 1999