Released: 25 September 1995
Brian Eno: keyboards, synthesizer
Reeves Gabrels: guitar
Erdal Kızılçay: bass guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Sterling Campbell: drums
‘The Motel’ is the seventh track on David Bowie’s 1995 album 1.Outside. It is sung from the perspective of Leon Blank, a former convict and outsider.
Much of 1.Outside was improvised in the studio at Montreux, Switzerland. Two songs, however, had been written prior to the sessions: ‘The Motel’, and the Buddha Of Suburbia holdover ‘Strangers When We Meet’.
There were two songs that he had written when he came in – [‘Strangers When We Meet’] and ‘The Motel’.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
At nearly seven minutes, ‘The Motel’ is the longest track on 1.Outside. Bowie gave his band much-needed space to breathe, adding layer upon layer of sound until the song takes flight at the five-minute mark.
‘Lady Grinning Soul’ brought out the romantic playing in me that comes from composers like Franz Liszt and Chopin. I mixed this with elements of Liberace and Rodger Williams, which were styles of music that were always put down because they were so mainstream. I played in a very undissonant way here, where ‘Aladdin Sane’ is about as dissonant as you can get. Actually, ‘The Motel’ on Outside is my twenty-five-years-later version of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’!
Aladdin Sane 30th anniversary edition
The closest antecedent is Scott Walker’s ‘The Electrician’, a track released on the final Walker Brothers album of 1978. Walker’s refrain “There’s no help, no” was paraphrased by Bowie as “There is no hell like an old hell,” and the two songs share an atmosphere of foreboding menace which breaks through to a climax via a key change.
Bowie’s depiction of hell may also have been inspired from the Guggin psychiatric hospital in Austria, which he and Brian Eno visited in 1994.
Brian and I wanted to work on the outside or the periphery of the mainstream, and that also meant setting ourselves up psychologically to be somewhere further out than the hub, the nub of popular music. So we did everything within our powers to achieve and understand those different states without taking drugs. [laughs] In early ’94, for example, we went to the Guggin mental hospital just outside of Vienna, where some of the famous old outsider artists lived and worked. Some of them have been in the painters’ wing for, like, thirty years, as an Austrian experiment to see what happens when you allow people with mental disabilities to give free rein to their artistic impetuses. Before you get to the outsiders’ wing, there’s this other wing you pass through where all the psychos and murderers live, and the only thing written on the wall is THIS IS HELL. But the painters’ wing is coloured with graffiti everywhere. They paint all the trees surrounding their wing – everything is painted! To see it against the starkness of this other wing next door is really hard-hitting. We were both very affected by this experience. It’s quite obvious that these outsider artists don’t have the parameters that are placed on most artists; they don’t have any real drive to sell what they do. Some of them don’t even do it as an expression of themselves; they do it because their work is them. Their motivation for painting and sculpting comes from a different place than that of the average artist who’s sane on society’s terms.
Interview, September 1995
Here’s my favorite song on this album and perhaps one of my top five songs of David’s altogether.
I guess for the five of us who actually know this song we have to relish in the beauty of the melody, the harmonic structure, the space and ambiance. It’s a really spectacular song. Do you agree?
They brought me a beautiful nine foot Steinway piano for this session. I always found it very humorous because Brian Eno was standing behind me with an old Yamaha DX7 keyboard.
Eno collected these small little boxes that would distort the sounds. So I’d be playing all this wild classical piano and in my earphones I’d hear these beeps and whirs from Brian.
Only David would be able to tolerate and encourage the extreme contrasts from our esthetic sensibilities.
Right here notice the spot where I added a half diminished chord or a G m7b5. It really gives the song a lift at that point. David’s eyes just lit up when I played that for the first time.
It’s these little small details we don’t really think about at the time. Then 26 years later when missing the guy I just really wish I could be playing this one again with him tonight.
The greatness of David is he could go from ‘Let’s Dance’ to ‘The Motel’ in the blink of an eye. Stunning.
Listening to this now, we could have recorded this yesterday.
Twitter, 5 July 2020
The vinyl edition of the album was titled Excerpts From 1.Outside. In addition to shorter edits of ‘Leon Takes Us Outside’ and ‘The Motel’, it omitted the songs ‘No Control’, ‘Wishful Beginnings’, ‘Thru’ These Architects Eyes’, and ‘Strangers When We Meet’, as well as the Algeria Touchshriek and second Nathan Adler segues.
Listened to D. B. disc (after swimming and park and lunch). Strong, muddy, prolix, gritty, Garsonic, modern (self-consciously, ironically so). Every rhythm section superb (even mine). Some acceptable complexity merging into not-so-acceptable muddle; several really beautiful songs (‘Motel’, ‘Oxford Town’, ‘Strangers’, others). The only thing missing: space – the nerve to be very simple. But an indisputably ‘outside’ record. I wish it was shorter. I wish nearly all records were shorter.
A Year with Swollen Appendices
David Bowie performed ‘The Motel’ during the European legs of his Outside and Earthling tours.
A performance from 13 December 1995 in Birmingham, England, can be heard on the 2020 live album No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95).
We may have played this one live 100 times and I never tired of it. This one is so moody. It has such a feeling. What do you think? #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 5, 2020
The 2000 live album liveandwell.com contains a performance of ‘The Motel’ from the Earthling Tour, introduced by Bowie as “probably a love song to desperation. It’s a favourite song of mine.” The recording dates from the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997.
‘The Motel’ was revived for A Reality Tour in 2003-4, one of the few 1.Outside songs to remain in Bowie’s set. A performance from Dublin in November 2003 was released on the A Reality Tour album and DVD.
Bowie’s final performance of ‘The Motel’ was on 23 June 2004 at the T-Mobile Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, his penultimate full concert.