Survive singleWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: 1998; February-June 1999
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Engineer: Kevin Paul

Released: 4 October 1999

Available on:
‘hours…’
Nothing Has Changed
VH1 Storytellers
Something In The Air (Live Paris 99)
At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99)
BBC Radio Theatre, London June 2000

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, 12-string guitar, keyboards, drum programming
Reeves Gabrels: guitar, synthesizer, drum programming
Mark Plati: bass guitar, synthesizer, Mellotron, drum programming
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.
David Bowie
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’.
Reeves Gabrels
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.

‘Survive’ was another song we worked on [at at London’s Mute Studios in summer 1998], and we nearly lost it. I had started writing it with my second solo album in mind, and in my initial demo the main riff was guitartastic. Then I doubled it with a sax sample. I played it for David, and he loved it (more of a mod R&B vibe, from his point of view). We transferred it from my 8-track, digital-to-digital, with no signal loss, yet David and his personal assistant felt it was different. Just as it seemed he might lose interest, I persuaded him to play his saxophone, live, on top of the synth saxes. David loved it (again) and suggested the two-chord vamp at the end, giving the song a Jimmy Webb vibe. I added the Morse Code guitar (‘Wichita Lineman’ by way of ‘Starman’) to drive the point home. ‘Survive’ survived.
Reeves Gabrels, April 2021
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book

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.
Reeves Gabrels
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!

David Bowie
Uncut, October 1999