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1. Outside: Inside The Dark Heart Of Bowie’s Most Challenging Album
In Depth

1. Outside: Inside The Dark Heart Of Bowie’s Most Challenging Album

Reuniting with Brian Eno for the first time since the 70s, David Bowie created ‘1. Outside’, a complex work in which murder becomes an ‘art’.

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After reshaping the future of rock music with a breathtaking run of albums in the 70s (see The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station To Station and Low, just for starters), David Bowie refashioned himself in the following decade as a pop artist capable of turning out post-disco dancefloor hits courtesy of the Let’s Dance album, and maintaining that run on the charts with its follow-up, Tonight. Look to the end of the 80s and the early 90s, however, and you see hints of his return to uncompromising art-rock. Take the harder-edged abstractions of Never Let Me Down, the muscular aggression that underpinned much of Tin Machine and Tin Machine II, and the more experimental moments of Black Tie White Noise and the The Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack, draw them together and you find everything that Bowie wove into arguably his most challenging album, 1995’s 1. Outside – a record that not only found him once again assuming fictional characters as part of a wider thematic whole, but which also reunited him in the studio with Brian Eno for the first time since their visionary “Berlin Trilogy” of the mid-70s.

“We were both interested in nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream rather than jumping in,” Bowie later told USA Today of the pair’s decision to work together after almost two decades apart. Having first mooted the idea in June 1992, at the public celebration of his wedding to Iman, Bowie recalled, “We decided to really experiment and go into the studio with not even a gnat of an idea.”

Listen to ‘1. Outside’ here.

“Some of the stories are so bizarre”

That “not even a gnat of an idea” grew to become a large-scale concept which couldn’t solely be contained on the 75-minute album it birthed. Recorded across a year’s worth of sessions, from March 1994 to February 1995, with key 70s collaborators such as guitarist Carlos Alomar and pianist Mike Garson returning to the fold alongside newer Bowie cohorts, among them guitarist Reeves Gabrels and bassist Erdal Kızılçay, 1. Outside was also infused by Bowie’s deep interest in contemporary art, and his long-standing fascination with outsider artists.

The visual arts had been an influence on Bowie’s work for decades. Erich Heckel’s 1917 painting Roquairol had inspired the cover for his 1977 album “Heroes” – another Eno collaboration – and, when his own private collection went up for auction in 2016, it contained works by late-20th-century trailblazers such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. Bowie also championed obscure creative talents, being one of the first people to publicly praise The Velvet Underground, and periodically drawing attention to cult-level musicians such as Tiny Tim and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. After a joint visit to the now-defunct Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in early 1994 – the same year that Bowie became an editorial advisor on Modern Painters magazine – he and Eno came away with the seeds of an idea that would combine all these pursuits.

Situated on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, the Gugging featured a wing dubbed “House For Artists”, in which patients’ creativity was encouraged as a part of therapy. “They paint and they sculpt and they do all these fantastic things, and they’re allowed to sell their work,” Bowie later marvelled to Ray Gun magazine. Noting that the “experiment” had dated back to the 50s, and that this “outsider art” was being created by patients in their 60s, 70s and 80s, Bowie added, “So we spent two days with them and sort of had their stories translated. Some of their stories are so bizarre and off the wall. I can’t even begin to tell you…”

“We had a blindingly orgiastic session”

Inadvertently giving Bowie his new album’s eventual title, the experience also fed into an overarching storyline which Bowie hit upon during some of 1. Outside’s earliest, most experimental recording sessions, held in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, where he had previously recorded the Lodger album, and led the charge on the Queen co-write Under Pressure. With Bowie and Eno guiding the band through challenging improvisations across a ten-day stint in March 1994, one particularly fruitful session led Bowie to a breakthrough.

“We had a blindingly orgiastic session where it just didn’t stop,” he later recalled. As the band improvised behind him, Bowie slipped in and out of an array of new personae, living with each “for maybe five minutes at a time” while he developed their interior lives through his own spoken-word improvisations. “Almost the entire genesis for this album is contained in those three and a half hours, but it’s nearly all dialogue and narrative description and wandering off into characters,” Bowie revealed.

The emergent concept pictured a world on the verge of the 21st century, when ritual “Art Crimes” – murder and mutilation for public consumption – have become the latest trend. Perhaps part-inspired by works such as Damien Hirst’s breakthrough 1990 piece A Thousand Years, in which live maggots hatch into flies that feed on a cow’s severed head, in a gruesome but beautifully simple portrayal of the cycle of life, 1. Outside was also indebted to Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s postmodern take on TV murder mysteries. For his story, Bowie sent a detective, Nathan Adler, and his assistant, Paddy, out to solve the murder of 14-year-old Baby Grace Blue, whose dismembered body is left on display in front of the Museum Of Modern Parts, in Oxford Town, New Jersey.

With 1. Outside, Bowie sought to reimagine “the eerie environment of Diamond Dogs city” for the 90s, giving it “an entirely different spin”, he told Ikon magazine. “It was important for this town, this locale, to have a populace, a number of characters,” all of which were voiced by Bowie in segues throughout the album. “I tried to diversify these really eccentric types as much as possible.”

A shadowy figure known simply as The Minotaur is the detectives’ prime suspect, but 1. Outside also features characters such as Leon Blank, an ex-con and outsider artist; Ramona A Stone, a former lover of Blank’s, and a critic whose own nefarious artworks connect her to the “Art Crimes” scene; and Algeria Touchshriek, a 78-year-old shopkeeper who may or may not know more than he’s letting on.

“David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in”

Subtitled The Diary Of Nathan Adler Or The Art-Ritual Murder Of Baby Grace Blue – A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, 1. Outside presents a far-from-complete narrative, though Bowie, who, in the mid-70s, had used William S Burroughs’ cut-up technique to write his lyrics, happily left it open-ended, adding fictional liner notes as an aid for listeners to complete the story as they saw fit. “It’s a diary within a diary,” he said. “The narrative and the stories are not the content – the content is the spaces in between the linear bits. The strange, queasy textures.”

The fractured nature of the album’s framework was bang on time for a world then getting to grips with the very concept of the internet, whose barrage of conflicting, bite-sized information – often devoid of context, let alone consensus – had yet to reach full flow. It was also matched in the approach Bowie and Eno took to leading the Mountain Studios sessions.

With Eno once again deploying his Oblique Strategies cards – a trusty deck which, once shuffled and dealt, made randomised, destabilising demands of its recipient, such as, “Make a sudden, unpredictable action; incorporate” – he also gave each musician an alter ego, insisting they keep their fictional identities secret from each other. Writing in his diary of the era, later published as A Year With Swollen Appendices, Eno revealed that one such character portrait included the description, “It’s 2008. You are a musician in one of the new ‘Neo-Science’ bands, playing in an underground club in the Afro-Chinese ghetto in Osaka, not far from the university. The whole audience is high on ‘Dreamwater’, an auditory hallucinogen so powerful that it can be transmitted by sweat condensation alone… You are in no particular key – making random bursts of data which you beam into the performance.”

Other creative jumping-off points involved having the musicians improvise against songs by other artists, such as Marvin Gaye, while Bowie and Eno sought to keep the instrumentalists’ contributions a mystery until playback. “David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in,” pianist Mike Garson later recalled. “We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape.”

“When he’s on, he’s really on”

When he wasn’t singing, Bowie sketched and painted portraits of the musicians; one later self-portrait, known variously as The Dhead – Outside and Head Of DB, would make for 1. Outside’s artwork – the only one of David Bowie’s album covers to have been created by Bowie himself. In keeping with the anything-goes spirit of the sessions, he also sought to randomise his lyrics using a computer program he’d co-developed and called the Verbasizer, which took poems, newspaper articles and other source material, and spat them back out in new configurations. “So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topics and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other,” Bowie later explained while demonstrating how the program worked for the 1997 documentary Inspirations.

Estimates of anywhere between 20 to 35 hours’ worth of material emerged from the Mountain Studios sessions, with Mike Garson later telling Bowie biographer David Buckley, “There’s a load of stuff that was never edited, so they have ten albums there if they want.” After decamping to London’s Westside Recording Studios, an initial attempt to edit the tapes left Bowie and Eno with a double-album’s worth of material, tentatively titled Leon, which included more narrative segues than would survive the final 1. Outside edit. Seeking to give the collection more focus, however, Bowie embarked on further recording sessions at New York City’s Hit Factory, before returning to Westside, throughout the early months of 1995.

Though the backbone of 1. Outside’s material already existed, these new sessions resulted in some of the album’s standout tracks, among them I’m Deranged; a reworking of an earlier song, Moondust, as Hallo Spaceboy; and a re-recording of Strangers When We Meet, given a fuller, more soaring and heart-rending treatment than its earlier incarnation on The Buddha Of Suburbia.

Having lived with the original recordings for almost a year by this point, Bowie’s killer instincts eventually led to the long-drawn-out project’s conclusion. “When he’s on, he’s really on,” Eno observed of these later sessions. “Perhaps I should accept that he’s the hunter to my pastoralist – he hangs round for a long time and then springs for the kill, whereas I get results by slower, semi-agricultural processes. It seems to work every time when we use these rules.” Split between the avant-garde material captured in Montreux and the more direct songs finished in New York and London, when 1. Outside was released, on 25 September 1995, it was greeted as a welcome return to Bowie as artistic provocateur (“… arguably his best work since the 70s… a potent collection of avant-garde riffs and rhythm notions”, as Rolling Stone put it), but also as his most challenging album to date.

“Legions will be left completely bewildered”

With fewer narrative touchpoints than before, the eventual 19-track, single-disc record was even less cohesive than first intended, but what 1. Outside lost in explanatory segues it gained in some of the best David Bowie songs of the 90s. However, with Q magazine predicting, “… those legions who came in on Let’s Dance will most certainly be left completely and utterly bewildered. Perhaps, though, that’s entirely the point,” the album made no excuses for its unsettling material.

With a controversial video that brought the “Art Crimes” of the storyline into viewers’ living rooms (after being edited to pass the MTV censors) courtesy of a wonderfully unhinged performance by Bowie, The Hearts Filthy Lesson offered an abrasive blast of electro-gore whose chilling ending becomes impossible to shake (“Paddy – what a fantastic death abyss/… Tell the others”). Elsewhere, Hallo Spaceboy launches from the speakers like a jet-propelled collision of sounds, presaging the drum’n’bass experiments of 1997’s Earthling and giving Pet Shop Boys enough fuel for a Top 20 remix, complete with cut-up lyric references to Space Oddity, while I’m Deranged, propelled by skittish beats at odds with Bowie’s haunting, perfectly poised vocals, rounds out a trio of pummelling songs that proved Bowie was at his visceral best.

Adding texture, pianist Mike Garson’s jazz abstractions shine on the brooding, ominous A Small Plot Of Land, while the more meditative The Motel practically weeps with desolation. If I Have Not Been To Oxford Town flirts with a downbeat poppy melody, it’s a fleeting respite on a song in which Leon Blank perhaps vainly declares his innocence of Baby Grace’s murder.

“It’s just the kind of music I need in my life”

The fate of Leon – and all the album’s characters, save for Baby Grace, whose final known words appear on the segue Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette) – was never fully revealed, though Bowie had initially intended to return to the epic Montreux recordings and extend the story into a trilogy of albums released throughout the remainder of the decade. Aiming to “try to capture, using this device, what the last five years of this millennium feel like”, he even flirted with the ideas of reconfiguring 1. Outside for an interactive CD-ROM and adapting it into an opera for the stage. As late as 1999, he revealed – with eerie prescience – that the second instalment would be called 2. Contamination, a “so very avant-garde” work whose “theme is going to be incurable diseases. Diseases from ‘the Hot Zone area’ like Ebola, AIDS and that new tuberculosis that nobody knows what to do about. Those are our greatest enemies right now.”

Though, from conception through to execution, 1. Outside reflected the cultural and technological anxieties that became more prevalent as the 21st century approached, by the time Bowie released his first album of the new millennium, 2002’s Heathen, he was several records and eight years away from the initial inspiration for a work which, decades on from its release, still baffles and marvels in equal measure – so much so that Bowie himself may have eventually found it too weighty to return to. “I think the most daunting aspect of Contamination, other than the itching, is the fact that there is hours and hours and hours of sifting to do through the tapes that we recorded, some of them going back to 1994,” he said in a 2000 web chat. Three years later, he admitted, “I just don’t have the patience.”

Undoubtedly, however, Bowie remained proud of what 1. Outside had become, and his newfound creative streak spilled into his subsequent tour, whose setlists – as evidenced in several releases in the posthumous Brilliant Live Adventures series – benefitted greatly from not only the 1. Outside material, but Bowie’s willingness to use his new sound as a jumping-off point for radical overhauls of select songs from his back catalogue.

“‘Happy’ is not the word, I’m absolutely enraptured with it at the moment,” he told Seconds magazine at the time of the album’s release. “I think it’s a wonderful piece of work. It’s just the kind of music I need in my life.”

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