Released: 11 September 1995
Brian Eno: keyboards, synthesizer
Reeves Gabrels: guitar
Erdal Kızılçay: bass guitar
Mike Garson: piano, keyboards
Sterling Campbell: drums
Bryony Edwards, Josey Edwards, Lola Edwards, Ruby Edwards: backing vocals
The lead single from David Bowie’s 1.Outside, ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ showed Bowie’s new style: dense, industrial sonic landscapes, heavy beats, samples, and stream-of-consciousness improvisations.
We improvised those sessions on Outside. David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in. We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape, the improvisations. They have tons of tape. Outside is just some songs that got made and put together by Eno. Him and David would take these improvs that were all on these tapes, and then they’d hear a little hook here and a little hook there and cut it up. They would create a song like ‘Hearts Filthy Lesson’, which I wrote with him and the other guys. That ended up in the movie Seven. It must have been something that they heard, and then they formed it into a song. We were just improvising the way I was just doing it now.
The piece was improvised during the initial studio sessions in Montreux in 1994, based around a radio broadcast sampled by Brian Eno.
One set-up that we had on the album for one of the pieces, ‘Hearts Filthy Lesson’ – when we started playing the thing, Brian just put the radio on. He heard a French broadcast or something and looped it immediately and put into the mix every four beats. He works with whatever’s there in the air…
Brian’s always worked like that. That’s what he’s always done, finding atmospheres and throwing them into the whole thing.
Seconds magazine, August/September 1995
The lyrics are sung by the detective Nathan Adler character, although the juxtaposition of random phrases, including fragments from newspapers and magazines, were not intended to provide a linear narrative. They included the phrases “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”, “What a fantastic death abyss”, and “Paddy, tell the others”.
Asked by a reader of Q magazine’s ‘Cash For Questions’, “Have you ever written a song and gone, ‘Buggered if I know what that means’?”, Bowie gave an insight into the compositional process.
Well, that covers about 50 per cent of what I’ve written, right there. Something like ‘Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was a montage of subject matter, bits from newspapers, storylines, dreams and half-formed thoughts. But the content was altogether different. Overall it became quite powerful and a forbidding piece of work that still disturbs. But I’m buggered if I know what it means. Like, what does a tree ‘mean’, man. Can you dig it?
Q magazine, July 2000
Bowie was, however, initially unsure about the lyrics, and re-recorded his vocals with a different set of words. According to Reeves Gabrels, the subject matter was English landscape painters.
Maybe I was too critical, so he said, ‘Why don’t you go away and come back in two hours?’ I came back and heard it and said, ‘David, that’s nice and all – but it’s kind of destroyed the essence of the song, don’t you think?’ And he just waved his hand, ‘Fine, we’ll just move on.’ ‘No no, David, I don’t mean to hurt you.’ ‘No, forget it, we’ll just go to another track. We’ll come back to that next month.’
Starman, Paul Trynka
Although Bowie abandoned the lyrical rewrite, ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was worked on further at London’s Westside Recording Studios in 1995. Kevin Armstrong added guitar to the song and ‘Thru’ These Architects Eyes’.
Present at the session was wealthy socialite Sabrina Guinness, who was setting up a video workshop for deprived children. The session was filmed, and the children also interviewed Brian Eno and sang on ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’.
I was always looking forward to playing this song live with David when we toured this album around the world. It’s one of my very favorite tracks on the album.
I couldn’t play a wrong note on this as I had Reeves Gabrels creating sounds from another universe.
This is a wild piano solo. I had no idea it was coming out of me as it was totally improvised from scratch without any rules. It was only later that David and Brian Eno polished these into songs so masterfully.
Out of nowhere I played this solo – one of my best with David. It’s very octave orientated – from the tradition of Franz Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
There’s a cool little piano lick right there. David and Brian had this great ability to grab the special moments and form a song from something we may have improvised on for 20 minutes. And turn it into a 5 minute masterpiece.
As a musician, the fact that this song is in F-sharp minor blows me away because most rock musicians don’t play much more than E!
Twitter, 5 July 2020
The song was used to soundtrack the closing credits of DAvid Fincher’s 1995 film Se7en. It did not, however, appear on the soundtrack album, which included works by Marvin Gaye, Haircut One Hundred, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and composer Howard Shore.
There’s a very scary movie called Seven with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and just as the movie ends, under the closing credits, this song comes blasting in and sounds spectacular. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 5, 2020
‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was issued as a single on 11 September 1995, two weeks before the release of 1.Outside.
It was not a commercial success. In the UK it peaked at number 35 on the official singles chart, and in the USA it went no higher than 192.
Bowie called from St Louis – ‘No drift, just a chat’ – and said how hard the band had become, how Mozza had better watch out. Also said ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ didn’t get a single radio play in England.
A Year with Swollen Appendices
Bowie was used to not having hits by 1995, and by releasing an abrasive slab of industrial art-rock as a lead single was a clear statement of intent: gone was the commercial-minded Bowie of Black Tie White Noise and his 1980s follies – although he sang “I think I’ve lost my way”, he was entering a new artistic renaissance in which his music became ever more experimental and multi-faceted.
The promotional video for ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was directed by Sam Bayer. The original cut was rejected by MTV, but the final edit – featuring a manic, kohl-eyed Bowie, acupuncture, and artists sawing body parts and assembling a minotaur figure – was unsettling and powerful. This was little short of an exorcism, or an art-ritual murder, of Bowie’s pre-1995 solo career.
Various remixes were issued across the vinyl and CD singles, with the album outtake ‘Nothing To Be Desired’ exclusive to the US and Canadian CDs.
The remixes were: Alt Mix by Trent Reznor, Dave Ogilvie, and Chris Vrenna; Good Karma Mix/Simenon Mix by Tim Simenon; and the Rubber Mix, Simple Text Mix, and Filthy Mix, all by Tony Maserati and Robert Holmes. All five remixes were included on the bonus disc included in the 2004 expanded version of 1.Outside.
There was also a shorter Radio Edit of ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ and the so-called Bowie Mix, which was credited to Tony Maserati and Robert Holmes, but was actually the album version. The Radio Edit was included on the compilations Best Of Bowie and Nothing Has Changed.
That’s an amazing track, right? It shows up at the end of the movie Se7en – it’s frightening, when that piano solo comes in blasting. We would be doing all this jamming for hours every day and I remember finding a couple of chords and playing a little riff. And that’s the riff that appears on that album over and over. I played many things and they obviously liked that and it combined with the solo I played. Reeves’ great contribution was the beat and the feel of that and how it was mixed and produced. It’s a phenomenal track. I knew that I had spearheaded that particular one more than others.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Bowie first performed ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ live on 1 September 1995, during a six-song set at Sony Music Studios in New York. The set was ‘Andy Warhol’, ‘Nite Flights’, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’, ‘Hurt’, and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’.
He also played it on The Late Show with David Letterman on 25 September 1995, the day before the album’s US release.
The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realisation, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.
1.Outside promotional film
‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was played throughout the Outside and Earthling Tours in 1995 and 1997. A recording from 1995 was issued on the 2020 live album Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95).
Bowie also performed the song at the 1997 Phoenix Festival. The entire concert was released on the 2021 live album Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).
‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ was among the songs performed at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997. It was the second song on the setlist, after ‘Little Wonder’. The recording was released on the limited edition EP Earthling In The City.
Bowie’s final performance of ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ came on 7 December 1997 at the Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco.