Earthling album cover artworkWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati
Recorded: November 1996
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati

Released: 3 February 1997

Available on:
Earthling

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, synthesizer
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, keyboards, programming, samples
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar, vocals
Mark Plati: guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, programming, samples
Zachary Alford: drums

‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ was a late addition to David Bowie’s Earthling album.

All my grand advice! Actually, I started with that line, then had to support it with verses. I think it’s a cautionary tale – ‘What have you been doing to yourself?’ is the opening line. ‘It’s the last thing you should do.’ It gives you quite a lot of room for speculation: it could be about drugs, promiscuity, any number of the modern ‘don’ts’, but it’s not particularised.
David Bowie
Mojo, March 1997

The album was originally to have contained re-recordings of the Tin Machine songs ‘I Can’t Read’ and ‘Baby Universal’. The new version of ‘I Can’t Read’ was later included on the soundtrack for the 1997 film The Ice Storm.

This was meant to be a B-Side. After mastering the album it was decided we’d need some additional material for B-Sides. Reeves and I did the entire track in a day – drums, guitars, bass, programming, etc. David heard it, added a synth part in the middle (the descending piano part in the break) then did a lyric and vocal in something like 20 minutes. We did a quick mix right then and there, and figured, voila, our first B-Side, and a great one at that. The next day the plan changed – this would be on the album, replacing a remake of ‘Baby Universal’ and a beautiful acoustic version of ‘I Can’t Read’ (which eventually wound up on the BBC Radio acoustic special, The Birthday Show, and on the soundtrack to The Ice Storm). I had to admit I missed ‘I Can’t Read’ being on the record – I disagreed strongly with David at the time – but his argument was that ‘Last Thing’ fit in better conceptually. I think time has shown him to be correct.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ was recorded at Looking Glass Studios in New York in November 1996, during the final Earthling sessions.

‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ is aptly named: it was the last song we wrote for Earthling. We came up with this song AFTER we thought we’d finished the album and had even taken it to be mastered.

Back from [mastering the album in] Maine, Mark and I returned to Looking Glass to create some b-sides. David trusted us to do remaining instrumental work, programming and arrangements. ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ came out of some blazing drum programming by Mark, and a lot of leftover bits of previous tracks that we moved around to make a form. I got good mileage out of my guitar synth rig, especially the arpeggiation capability of my Yamaha CS-1X. Gail and Zack appear via fragments of obtanium.

Reeves Gabrels, May 2021
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book

The song was completed by Bowie’s descending synth line in the break, and some swiftly written lyrics and recorded vocals.

It was one of four songs on the album in the drum and bass style, the others being ‘Little Wonder’, ‘Battle Of Britain (The Letter)’, and ‘Telling Lies’.

The synth line on ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ comes from ‘The Laughing Gnome’, via ‘Speed Of Life’ and ‘Beat Of Your Drum‘. Bowie appears to be in a state of on-going dialogue with his past. ‘Dead Man Walking’ was a good example of this, as well as the updated ‘Fame’, ‘V-2 Schneider’, and ‘Stay’ from the Earthling Tour. But, as far as ‘The Last Thing’, I’m unaware of any conscious borrowing in this track. It didn’t strike me that we were avoiding his catalogue, to be sure. I had expected that working with David would mean no revisiting the oldies, a cue I got from the Sound + Vision tour, which was supposed to be the last time a lot of old tunes would see the light of day. From my perspective he seems rather comfortable with his past.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Plati’s mention of Bowie’s 1967 novelty song leads to the intriguing possibility that the phrase “The Last Thing…” stemmed from “The Laughing…”.

Although initially conceived as a b-side, Reeves Gabrels pressed for the inclusion of ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ on Earthling.

Though I was happy with everything we recorded while working on Earthling, David and I had co-written ‘I Can’t Read’ and ‘Baby Universal’ years before, and our band Tin Machine had released both. We were proud of them, but those songs were about the past to me. And I felt strongly that the new album should be made up of new music.

After David sang ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’, I had new grounds to press my case. When David agreed, we sent the track to Bob Ludwig with instructions to insert it, and to remove ‘I Can’t Read’ and ‘Baby Universal’. He did so, and thus our final, mastered album came in still under budget and ahead of deadline, with the song list as you know it.

Reeves Gabrels, May 2021
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book

‘I Can’t Read ’97’ and ‘Baby Universal ’97’ were eventually released on the 2020 EP Is It Any Wonder?.

While the song’s second incarnation, ‘I CAN’T READ ’97’, was David’s preferred solo version (the version available today), it was ultimately cut from Earthling and replaced at the last minute with ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’.
Is It Any Wonder? press release

Live performances

David Bowie first performed ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ with The Cure’s Robert Smith, at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997.

It was subsequently performed on around half of the Earthling Tour dates.

On 19 July 1997 Bowie and his band performed a secret gig at the BBC Radio 1 Dance Tent of the Phoenix Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, on the eve of their festival headlining set. Performing as The Tao Jones Index, they played seven songs: ‘I’m Deranged’, ‘Pallas Athena’, ‘V-2 Schneider’, ‘O Superman’, ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, and ‘Fame’.

Previous song: ‘Telling Lies’
Next song: ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’