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‘Reality’: The Album That Made David Bowie Rethink Life
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Reality’: The Album That Made David Bowie Rethink Life

His last album for ten years, ‘Reality’ found David Bowie seeking ‘the optimistic in my life’, before being forced into semi-retirement.


When David Bowie released his 25th solo studio album, Reality, in September 2003, it marked his quickest turnaround between records since the seven-month gap that separated the Nile Rodgers-produced Black Tie White Noise album and Bowie’s The Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack in 1993. But where those two records found him edging towards the more challenging studio constructions of his 90s work – the peak of which would arguably be the 1. Outside albumReality was the sound of a man revelling in the immediacy of his road-hardened touring band and reckoning with the world around him in the early 21st century.

“The actuality of reality is so much in flux right now,” Bowie told music critic Paul Du Noyer for The Word magazine shortly after the album’s release. “The word has got such a lot of spin attached to it these days… It’s different realities for different people.” With startling prescience, he elaborated to Sound On Sound: “Things that they regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it’s almost as if we’re thinking post-philosophically now. There’s nothing to rely on any more. No knowledge, only interpretation of those facts that we seem to be inundated with on a daily basis.”

Here is the story of how, with Reality, Bowie sought a way through the information overload as he questioned whether there could ever be such a thing as a single truth.

Listen to ‘Reality’ here.

The backstory: “We got off so much on being kind of a club band”

Bowie was on a roll in the early 2000s. Having opened the decade with one of the best Glastonbury Festival performances of all time, he took his touring band into the studio to revisit some of his pre-fame songs, for a planned album called Toy. With ideas coming thick and fast, however, that project was shelved in favour of a new batch of songs that would inspire Bowie to reunite with producer Tony Visconti, who had manned the boards for many of his game-changing 70s albums. What became the Heathen album marked yet another creative renaissance for Bowie, who, to Visconti’s mind, had “created this kind of genre… of very broad strokes and a grand sonic landscape” with the record.

Though sonic subtleties had been a hallmark of Heathen, while touring the album Bowie fell back in love with the sound of his band rocking hard on stage. After closing the Heathen Tour with a run of intimate theatre shows on the US East Coast in October 2002, he immediately began writing material that would capture the energy of his live show in a studio setting. “We got off so much on being kind of a club band for five days in the bars,” Bowie said of the final run of Heathen gigs. “It just bought it home to me that that’s the kind of album I should make. It really should reflect where I am now and how I live, the people I know and make music with. I did decide before anything else this album would really represent the stage band.”

The recording: “I did so much of it myself”

Back home in New York City, Bowie began recording nascent song ideas using a small setup – a vintage ARP Odyssey synth, a Korg Trinity keyboard and a Korg Pandora effects processor, through which he fed his guitar – mapping out chord sequences and laying down guide vocals. As early as November, he was ready to take the results to Looking Glass Studios, whose Studio B Tony Visconti had leased from Philip Glass at the end of the Heathen sessions. “David loves the sound of Studio B,” the producer told Sound On Sound, noting that the small room was perfect for capturing the “real tight New York sound” Bowie wanted his new album to have.

There the pair spent a couple of days working up demos which would form the basis of the finished Reality songs. “We charged into Reality absolutely gung-ho about doing what we used to do, which is produce a signature sound and an interesting construct that would sound quite not like anybody else’s work,” Bowie told piano makers Steinway.

“There’s a sense of freedom working with Tony that I rarely find with other producers,” he furthered to Sound On Sound. “A non-judgemental situation where I can just fart about and play quite badly on all manner of instruments, and Tony doesn’t laugh! I can’t tell you how important it is to feel that free in the studio, and that somebody isn’t judging your musical abilities.”

Returning to Looking Glass in January, Bowie and Visconti set themselves up in Studio B for recording sessions that lasted into May. Also invited to the sessions were his band, which included regular collaborator Mark Plati on bass and guitar, along with drummer Sterling Campbell and guitarist Gerry Leonard, plus long-running piano sidekick Mike Garson (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans) and Station To Station guitarist Earl Slick, who overdubbed their own parts onto the previous year’s demos. With Bowie adding his own saxophone and laying down vocals in batches during sessions in February and May, Visconti had an array of options to choose from when it came to mixing the final record.

“We could easily cut from one vocal track to another,” the producer old Sound On Sound. “Each time, David would usually do two passes and call it quits, because he goes for feel and passion. He sings great, he’s always singing in tune, he always sings full voice… Also, he recently gave up smoking, so he’s recaptured some of his high range.”

To enhance the drum sound, Visconti took the tapes to Allaire Studios, in Shokan, 100 miles north of New York City, where much of Heathen had been recorded. Playing the drum tracks through the facility’s speakers, he re-recorded them with live mics, so as to capture the ambience of the larger room (“It’s got a nice one-second decay in there, which is ideal for drums,” Visconti noted). Back at Looking Glass, he switched between the different drum sounds, depending on what each song required.

Reflecting on the finished record, Bowie stressed how careful he and Visconti had been to retain the in-the-moment feel of his demos – to the point of leaving scrappier performances in when they felt it would benefit the end result. “I’m so scared of losing that original quality,” he admitted. “I did so much of it myself, with Tony just taking everything down as I played it. But what you have there, a lot of the time, is kind of the feel of the original demos, because a lot of it we didn’t replace… So most of the rhythm tracks, I’m plunking away in there. So it has a quasi-demo feel to a lot of the tracks, which is really good – a demo energy to the tracks.”

The songs: “There are recurrent themes – the sense of anxiety about the times that we’re living through”

What had “started off as a random collection of songs”, as Bowie put it to Interview magazine, written in the flush of a post-tour excitement, began to take on a different hue once he began to reflect on what he had created. “There are recurrent themes,” he said of Reality’s songs. “The sense of anxiety about the times that we’re living through and a strong sense of place. It was unwitting, though, because I wasn’t planning on doing that.”

Indeed, the first lyrics Bowie sings on the album’s opening track, New Killer Star – “See the great white scar/Over Battery Park” – nod to the events of 9/11, while a garage-band churn and a squiggly keyboard line bring what Bowie described as the “street-beat” energy of his adopted hometown to the fore. The similarly muscular Looking For Water, which recalls the plight of Thomas Jerome Newton, the character Bowie played in Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth, finds him losing God “in a New York minute”, while on the soul-inflected She’ll Drive The Big Car, Bowie traces his dejected narrator’s journey south along the Hudson River to what he later hinted may have been a tragic end.

And yet Bowie made it clear to Interview that Reality was “not ‘Bowie’s New York album’” and that he “didn’t want to get crippled by all the events of this last couple of years”. To prove the point, two cover songs, an angular take on The Modern Lovers’ Pablo Picasso (“It’s just a treat,” he told Rolling Stone of the original) and George Harrison’s Try Some, Buy Some (“We were pretty true to the original arrangement, but the overall atmosphere is somewhat different”), reached back to the 70s songbooks of artists he admired, for tunes he’d once earmarked for a follow-up to his 1973 covers album, Pin Ups. “I kind of plucked them off for this album because I’m enjoying the part of just being the fan,” he explained.

Elsewhere, fatherhood put him in a more reflective state of mind, as on the ruminative The Loneliest Guy (“All the pages that have turned/All the errors left unlearned, oh/Well I’m the luckiest guy/Not the loneliest guy/In the world”) and the defiant pop-rock of Never Get Old (“And I’m never gonna let you die/And I’m never ever gonna get old”). On Reality’s title track, Bowie mined his ideas about shifting notions of reality (“I still don’t get the wherefores and the whys/I look for sense but I get next to nothing”) while taking the opportunity to pick at the façade of fame in an era of reality TV. Commenting on that fast-rising medium of entertainment, Bowie wrote in a post on his website, “The act of voting gives folks the idea that they have a say over something, if not the world picture, then at least which singer should be a star or something. Grim.”

Bowie’s own fame, and how he put it to use, occupied Reality’s majestic closing song, Bring Me The Disco King. Initially attempted during sessions for Black Tie White Noise and then again while recording the drum’n’bass-led Earthling album (“It never worked because I made it disco – a virtual audio glitter ball,” Bowie said of those earlier attempts), the song finally clicked into place after Bowie sang his lyrics on top of a looped drum part lifted from the Heathen-era song When The Boys Come Marching Home, before handing the minimalist track over to pianist Mike Garson, who embellished it with his trademark forays into avant-garde jazz. With Bowie disentangling a past life of “Damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs” and “Killing time in the 70s”, Bring Me The Disco King stands as one of the best David Bowie songs of the era. “It means a lot to me, that particular song, because I was trying to summarise my feelings about certain events in my past,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was in a very happy period when I wrote Disco King in 1991… It was a glorious time in my life back then, and I can still feel that vibe now.”

The release: “As eclectic and puzzling album as Bowie’s ever made”

Released on 15 September 2003, Reality featured one of the most atypical David Bowie album covers: a design by Jonathan Barnbrook (Heathen, The Next Day, Blackstar) and illustrator Rex Ray (‘hours…’) which used Japanese anime as a jumping-off point for a portrait of Bowie, based on a Frank W Ockenfels III photo used inside the album’s packaging. “It’s the old chestnut: What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen the world,” Ray said of the design five year’s after the album’s release. “The whole thing has a subtext of ‘I’m taking the piss, this is not supposed to be reality’,” Bowie himself clarified.

In reviewing the album, The New York Times observed how the recordings themselves seemed to bend reality, to the effect “that Mr Bowie and his spectacularly hard-rocking band might be about to materialise in your room”, while The Guardian praised the way Bowie mixed “classic – not nostalgic – rock” with “ambient duskiness and the electronic furbelows he has embraced since the 1990s”, before adding, “As for the ‘reality’ business, the lyrics leave you guessing.”

Noting the questions that coursed through the album’s 11 songs, Pitchfork called Reality “as eclectic and puzzling album as Bowie’s ever made”. But if Rolling Stone felt that Bowie’s search “for some version of truth” led him back to his prior conclusions that “truth is nothing but another mask… To his mixed dismay and amusement, meaning comes and goes,” Bowie himself countered that the search was ongoing.

“You know, in a few years my daughter is going to be asking, ‘Is there a God, Dad?’” he told Interview. “Am I going to be able to resolve that issue for myself before then? I don’t think so.” Elsewhere, he said, “It behooves me to find positivism in the way that I’m living more than anything else… I am actually searching for the optimistic in my life. And that’s generated by being a father again… Seeing in her eyes all the hope and optimism of the future, I have to reflect that somewhat in what I’m doing.”

The legacy: “There is something to be said for our future, and it will be a good future”

As Bowie prepared to launch his worldwide A Reality Tour – the longest of his career – the future promised great things. “We’re already half-talking about the next album,” he told Steinway, weeks ahead of opening the tour in Copenhagen on 7 October. “We leave an album always thinking, This is a good piece of work, and we judge it very much on the last day of when we’re listening to our final mixes. And at that point, it’s critical for us to look at each other and say, ‘This is a real success.’”

“He was in such a good place,” guitarist Earl Slick told Dylan Jones, for the book David Bowie: A Life. “On the road he had such a blast, smiling all the day, I’d never seen him happier.”

Certainly, touring the Reality material enthused Bowie, who told Sound On Sound, “The songs on this album are fantastic live – I was so excited about how they feel. They were the first things that we learned when we went into rehearsals, and they are truly going to be great stage songs.” Mike Garson would later tell Bowie biographer Paul Trynka that the band’s full repertoire extended to “60 or 70 songs”, and that, “He would call things out from nowhere sometimes and we would just play them in front of 3,000 people. It was pretty brave.” But after eight months on the road, on 23 June 2004 Bowie had to end a show in Prague early when he experienced pain in his shoulder – initially thought to be a trapped nerve, but later diagnosed as a mild heart attack. Two nights later, Bowie played his last full concert, at the Hurricane Festival, in Scheeßel, Germany, before being rushed to hospital to undergo a coronary angioplasty to treat a blocked artery.

“We had plans to make three more albums, at least,” Tony Visconti subsequently revealed. Among the projects Bowie had discussed was “an electronica album” and records issued under a pseudonym. “He wanted to have more fun and not have the pressure of releasing another David Bowie album for a while,” the producer said.

In the event, Bowie went into semi-retirement, surfacing only to make guest appearances with a typically wide range of artists, including indie favourites TV On The Radio and Hollywood siren Scarlett Johansson. It wasn’t until 8 January 2013, and his 66th birthday, that Bowie issued any new material of his own, the reflective Where Are We Now?, which signalled the release of Reality’s belated follow-up, The Next Day.

“It occurs to me that we have been living under a lot of stress in the last few years,” Bowie had told Paul Du Noyer around the release of Reality. Forced to take time off to recover from his own stresses, the halcyon days were, as he’d put it in that same interview, “well and truly over”. As ever keeping an eye on what lay ahead, he left fans with words that only seemed to take on greater importance during his absence: “I want the ultimate feeling after hearing [Reality] to be a good feeling. That there is something to be said for our future, and it will be a good future.”

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