Zeroes (2018) singleWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: September-December 1986
Producers: David Bowie, David Richards

Released: 20 April 1987

Available on:
Never Let Me Down


David Bowie: vocals, keyboards
Peter Frampton: guitar, electric sitar
Carlos Alomar: guitar
Philippe Saisse: piano
Erdal Kızılçay: keyboards, synthesizer, bass guitar, drums
Errol ‘Crusher’ Bennett: percussion
Earl Gardner: trumpet
Stan Harrison: alto saxophone
Steve Elson: baritone saxophone
Lenny Pickett: tenor saxophone
Robin Clark, Loni Groves, Diva Gray, Gordon Grodie, Coco Schwab, Sandro Sursock, Charuvan Suchi, Joe (Duncan Jones), Clement, John, Aglae: backing vocals

David Bowie: vocals
Reeves Gabrels: lead guitar, acoustic guitar
Peter Frampton: electric sitar
Tim Lefebvre: bass guitar
Sterling Campbell: drums
Mario J McNulty: percussion

‘Zeroes’ closed the opening half of Never Let Me Down, David Bowie’s 17th studio album.

‘Zeroes’ is stripping away all the meanness of rock and coming back to the spirit with which one entered the thing. It’s the ultimate happy-go-lucky rock tune, based in the nonsensical period of psychedelia. So it’s a naivete song about rock, using a lot of cliches.
David Bowie
Music & Sound Output, June 1987

The vibe of ‘Zeroes’ harked back to the 1960s. Although a decade in which Bowie struggled to find success, it was nonetheless a crucial time in his development as a songwriter and performer.

Peter Frampton’s electric sitar, massed harmony vocals (including Bowie’s son Duncan and assistant Coco Schwab), a self-referential paraphrase of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ (“Something good is happening/I don’t know what it is”), and chord changes inspired by the Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’ add to the sense of nostalgia that runs throughout.

The album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, I think. And also all the influences I’ve had in rock. On one song, ‘Zeroes’, I wanted to put in every cliché that was around in the Sixties – ‘letting the love in,’ those kinds of lines. But it was done with affection – it’s not supposed to be a snipe. I just wanted the feeling of that particular period, the very late Sixties.
David Bowie
Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987

Yet the 1980s production sheen gives it an ersatz effect, a feeling of inauthenticity, as though Bowie was merely trying on yet another costume. The reference to a “little red corvette” suggests the influence of Prince, whose 1985 album Around The World In A Day was another experiment in neo-psychedelia.

I think it had to do with the realization that all things that are supposed to come from superstardom let you down, and the real thing you’ve got to live with is yourself. That’s why the “little red Corvette” is driven by, all really naïve… Also I wanted to put every 60s cliché I could think of! [laughs] “Stopping and preaching and letting love in,” all those things. I hope there’s a humorous undertone to it. But the subtext is definitely that trappings of rock are not what they’re made out to be. It’s been said over and over, but it’s a different way of saying the same thing. There’s nothing very deep there…

I never hold it against an artist for being successful. It’s wonderful that somebody like Prince should be accepted on such a vast scale. He’s really important, and his music’s dynamite.

David Bowie
Musician, August 1987

‘Zeroes’ was briefly intended as the closing song on Never Let Me Down. An early running order was assembled in December 1986, prior to the recording of the title track. At that time the album had ‘Beat Of Your Drum’, ‘Day-In Day-Out’, ‘Time Will Crawl’, ‘New York’s In Love’ and ‘Bang Bang’ on side one, and ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’, ‘Glass Spider’, ‘Too Dizzy’, ‘’87 And Cry’, ‘Girls’ (Extended Edit), and ‘Zeroes’ on side two.

Bowie performed ‘Zeroes’ during the European dates of the Glass Spider Tour in 1987. No live recordings of the song are officially available.

2018 version

The Loving The Alien (1983–1988) box set contained Never Let Me Down (2018), for which Bowie’s 1987 vocals were retained and a new backing track added.

Aside from ‘Time Will Crawl’, which dated from 2008, the re-recordings were made after Bowie’s death. Never Let Me Down (2018) was produced by Mario J McNulty.

It was an emotional process. One theme that I kept to every day, but also stated this to the band, was ‘I want to think of David being in the room at all times.’ This mindset made it possible to take on this new version. Back in 2008, I didn’t think a re-produced album would come to fruition. Now it’s complete, and it feels like a new David Bowie album – and a part of the Bowie lexicon.
Mario J McNulty, May 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

One of the first songs to be tackled for Never Let Me Down (2018) was ‘Zeroes’. The clutter of the 1980s production was removed, allowing Bowie’s songwriting to shine through.

Mario played it to me with bass, drums and just David’s acoustic guitar and vocals on the first day at Electric Lady. I was like, ‘Wow! There’s a song here!’ It was obvious that a second acoustic guitar would beef it up a little. One of the things David and I often used to do, from Tin Machine through to Hours, is play double acoustic guitar together. Sometimes he’d play 12-string and I’d play six-string, and vice versa. We’d sit facing each other with our guitars in front of the mics. So I started playing ‘Zeroes’ on acoustic guitar, with my eyes closed while we were recording. In my mind’s eye I saw David sitting across from me. I could see the way he would move his shoulder and even the way he’d cross his legs and bounce the crossed leg while he was playing. He’d look at you, but at the same time get this faraway look in his eye. When I got to the end of the track, I opened my eyes and of course he wasn’t there. I knew at some point during the session that I was going to feel like I was about to cry. I was just glad I was sitting alone in the studio when it happened.
Reeves Gabrels
Uncut, November 2018

Aside from the vocals, only Peter Frampton’s electric sitar was retained on the song.

On ‘Beat Of Your Drum’ [sic] we kept Peter’s sitar, because to me that part was so ingrained in the song. If I had played it, I would have done something pretty much the same.
Reeves Gabrels
Guitar Player, 2 November 2018

Yeah, I built that up in the end. That song kind of took me by surprise. It was the first track that I worked on at Electric Lady. Mario and I listened to it, and we figured out what sounded really good and what could be different. The first thing we did was strengthen the acoustic guitar. We miked up my Breedlove acoustic, and I got the headphones on, and I realized that I had the same separation in my head that I used to have with David. His guitar would be in one ear, and my guitar would be in the other.

We used to cut acoustic guitars together like that. Often he’d play 12-string, and we would sit facing each other — two mics, headphones on. David felt things on the one and three, and I kind of sat more in the two and four, so we had a little push-pull thing going on. He would move his shoulders a certain way. He would look at me, but it was like he wasn’t there — he was somewhere else. He would cross his legs and one of his feet would bounce. I would take cues from his body language.

Anyway, at Electric Lady, I played the track with my eyes closed, and I would see him. But then when the track was done, I opened my eyes and he wasn’t there. [sighs] I was glad that I was in the live room all by myself. I had about 30 seconds to wipe the tears away before anybody came in. [pauses] It wasn’t always like that. Most of the time, it was like when we were working together, meaning he wasn’t always in the studio. He would say things like, “I’ll see you Friday. You know what to do.”

Reeves Gabrels
Guitar Player, 2 November 2018

The digital single ‘Zeroes’ (2018) (Radio Edit) was released on 19 July 2018, ahead of the box set. It was followed on 7 September by a double a-side 7″ picture disc single, containing ‘Zeroes’ (2018) and a 4:26 radio edit of ‘Beat Of Your Drum’ (2018).

It was a labour of love and we were following David’s wishes and, to some degree, instructions. At one point I thought to myself, ‘He’s just doing this to fuck with us.’ [David] Torn and I cut some of the guitar overdubs spontaneously. We were really having fun, and in a way you’re thinking, ‘Wait ’til David hears this tomorrow.’

It was like Mario had cast a great movie. We all looked at each other at one point and went, ‘Fuck, we should take this band out on the road if only the singer was still alive.’ There were a number of things that were said where I could imagine David laughing at them. He was the one who once told me, ‘Death will never hurt an artist’s career.’

Reeves Gabrels
Uncut, November 2018
Previous song: ‘Never Let Me Down’
Next song: ‘Glass Spider’
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