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Where Are We Now? The Story Behind David Bowie’s Shock Comeback
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Where Are We Now? The Story Behind David Bowie’s Shock Comeback

Released without warning on his 66th birthday, Where Are We Now? found David Bowie reconnecting with his fans after years of silence.

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A surprise release in the early hours of 8 January 2013, Where Are We Now? was David Bowie’s first new song in ten years. With Bowie himself turning 66 that same day, the track found him in an unusually reflective mood, the doggedly forward-thinking artist looking back fondly at an exceptional period in his life. But Where Are We Now? was no mere exercise in nostalgia: heralding the release of a new album no one saw coming, it also reached out to fans, checking in on millions of loyal devotees who had begun to think they would never hear from Bowie again.

Where were they now? Glued to their computer screens, social-media feeds or radios, eager for more details on the comeback of the century. Here’s the story of how it happened…

Listen to the best of David Bowie here.

The backstory: “I didn’t even tell my children what I was doing”

It had been a decade since Bowie stepped away from the spotlight: a heart attack and emergency surgery in the summer of 2004, while on the road with his latest album, Reality, had led him to abandon touring altogether. Bar the odd public appearance – a 2006 guest spot with David Gilmour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, during which he sang on versions of Arnold Layne and Comfortably Numb; adding backing vocals to studio recordings by indie outfit TV On The Radio (on the song Province) and actress Scarlett Johansson (on the Tom Waits covers Falling Down and Fannin Street) – things had seemed worryingly quiet for fans used to Bowie’s prolific work rate. In 2011, The Flaming Lips released a song simply titled Is David Bowie Dying?, voicing concerns many would rather have not admitted to sharing.

Speaking to The Times just days after Where Are We Now?’s release, producer Tony Visconti was adamant that this was not the case: “If there’s one thing I would like to dispel it’s the rumours about his ill-health,” Visconti said. “He’s incredibly fit and takes care of himself. Obviously after the heart attack he wasn’t too thrilled, but he has amazing family and friends.”

Indeed, as unconcerned as ever with adhering to expectations, rather than return to the album-tour cycle, Bowie had spent the years since his surgery happily committing himself to fatherhood, raising his and Iman’s daughter, Alexandria “Lexi” Jones. Any music he made was largely for his own enjoyment, recorded at his home studio, with no intention of releasing it to the wider world. When he did choose to pursue some ideas further, it was in secret, with a trusted group of prior collaborators and a newcomer, all bound by non-disclosure agreements – not that such measures were necessary. “We respected David’s wishes. Simple as that,” Visconti told The Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t even tell my children what I was doing.”

The recording: “Oh my God, this is still bare bones almost, the way we did it”

Beginning in May 2011, recording sessions for an as-yet unnamed project continued at a leisurely pace over an 18-month period at The Magic Shop, in Bowie’s adopted hometown of New York City, with Bowie taking the results away for months at a time in order to ruminate on them, writing lyrics which he would record only when he felt they captured what he wanted to say. Simply titled 067 when he brought it into The Magic Shop, Where Are We Now? was a standout from a batch of demos Bowie had recorded at home – and which, to alleviate the pressure for himself and everyone else involved, he was emphatically not calling an album.

“He had those chords on his keyboard and I remember getting him to slowly play the chords and writing them down, transposing them onto the guitar and making the guitar part sticking to his original architecture,” guitarist Gerry Leonard later told Uncut magazine, recalling the day they recorded Where Are We Now?’s backing track. But what drummer Zachary Alford thought would be fleshed out across further sessions ended up being the finished song, bar some gentle piano work from Bowie first-timer Henry Hey, whose playing was combined with Bowie’s own.

“I did think, he’s going to add a lot more to this stuff, there’s going to be all kinds of synths and loops and things, and that never happened,” Alford admitted. “When I heard the final mixes I was like, Oh my God, this is still bare bones almost, the way we did it.”

The lyrics: “He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period”

Sparse in its arrangement, and taken at a funereal pace, Where Are We Now? gave Bowie the space he needed to record some of the most reflective lyrics of his career. Five months after laying down the backing track, he told Visconti, “I’ve written words for that. I wrote a song about Berlin,” now the capital of Germany, but once a city divided by the Berlin Wall, where, in West Berlin, Bowie, Visconti and Brian Eno had worked on the Low and “Heroes” albums together during the groundbreaking experimental sessions that also paved the way for the Lodger album – a trio of records later dubbed the “Berlin Trilogy”.

“It was just a pretty ballad; it was called something else, I forget what,” Visconti told Billboard magazine of Where Are We Now?’s status at that point. “And he gave me a copy [of the lyrics] and got on mic and started warming up, and I read the lyrics and it gave me goosebumps because I spent quite a while in Berlin, too… I knew what he was talking about.”

Namechecking places where he would hang out with Iggy Pop, among them the now-defunct West Berlin nightclub Dschungel and the department store Kaufhaus Des Westens (KaDeWe), Bowie’s lyrics also referenced events in the city’s political history, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, during which a reported 20,000 German citizens crossed Bösebrücke bridge on foot, in order to pass through the border between East and West Germany. “It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience and probably the happiest time in my life up until that point,” Bowie had once said of his Berlin period. “I just can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there.”

The promo video: “I did weep, actually. I’ll confess… I think that evokes nostalgic feelings”

Directed by Tony Oursler, Where Are We Now?’s promo video incorporated black-and-white footage of a bygone Berlin and modern-day shots of Bowie clutching a notepad and wearing a T-shirt printed with the words “m/s Song of Norway” – a direct reference to a former girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, who had inspired the song Letter To Hermione, from Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, which Bowie had written after she left him in order to move to Scandinavia and film a part in the musical Song Of Norway.

Oursler had previously worked with Bowie on the promo video for Little Wonder, from his 1997 album, Earthling. That same year, Bowie had used some of Oursler’s creations for his 50th birthday party – what Oursler has called “doppelgänger electronic effigies”: hand-sewn dolls onto whose blank faces footage of real-life faces are projected. For Where Are We Now?, Bowie suggested taking them out of storage for use in the clip. “At first I wondered if I’d be able to live up to a project like this, given the gravity of the situation, the surprise of coming back after ten years of silence,” Oursler admitted to Uncut magazine. “But I listened very carefully to what David was saying and he already had this crystallised, fully articulated image for the video in his head… It was wonderful to see the birth of this song riding in on some kind of electronic magic carpet in my crazy studio.”

Shot over two days, the video largely featured a Bowie doll sitting next to another doll, in front of projections of the city he once called home. The set was festooned with carefully placed items that sent fans scurrying to decode their meaning in relation to Bowie’s life – an opening shot which lingers on a diamond; a piece of Berlin footage featuring a dog strolling down the street. Some viewers thought that Oursler’s wife, the artist Jacqueline Humphries, who played the part of Bowie’s doll companion, bore a resemblance to Bowie’s long-term assistant, Coco Schwab. (Though he acknowledged the likeness, Visconti couldn’t confirm whether it had led Bowie to cast her: “I read this on the internet,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.)

Humphries made for a dispassionate counterpart to a sometimes pensive-seeming Bowie, who sings while the song’s lyrics appear on the screen; his aged presence added extra gravitas to their meaning. “I did weep, actually. I’ll confess,” Visconti recalled of the first time he watched the video. “But it’s more about being at a certain place in your life, where everything was really good and happening. I think that evokes nostalgic feelings in people.”

The release: “I couldn’t sleep. I stared at my computer until the first person realised it was simply dropped in iTunes”

Even with Where Are We Now? complete, few people knew of its existence. Speaking to The Times after the song’s release, Visconti revealed how much of a struggle he’d found it to keep not only the song, but also the brand-new album Bowie was sitting on, under wraps: “I couldn’t sleep. I’d kept a secret for two years, I knew the release date for two months, it was a countdown.” With just one day to go, Bowie and Visconti took to emailing each other with to-the-minute updates until, at 5am UK time, on 8 January 2013 – midnight where Bowie was, in New York – the song and its video appeared on streaming and download services. “When it was finally released, I stared at my computer for 15 minutes until the first person realised it was simply dropped in iTunes,” Visconti later recalled.

A few select radio stations and media personalities had been tipped off by Bowie’s team to check their emails at the time of the song’s release. Almost immediately, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast the news to the world: Bowie was back.

Led by a stealth campaign which The Quietus observed had been “presented and choreographed with matchless elegance, cool and subtlety”, Where Are We Now? shot to the top of the iTunes charts that same day. Trailing the even more shocking revelation that Bowie had a whole new album’s worth of material, titled The Next Day, due to land exactly two months down the line, the song also went Top 10 around Europe, reaching No.6 in the UK and becoming Bowie’s first UK Top 10 hit since the release of Black Tie White Noise’s lead single, Jump They Say, 20 years earlier.

The artwork: “He was telling me about how isolated he felt, and that was the basis”

Hailed by The Daily Telegraph as “the most surprising, perfect and welcome comeback in rock history”, Where Are We Now? “posed a question Bowie wouldn’t have asked in the same way in the 1970s”, wrote Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, who declared it the website’s Best New Track, and concluded, “Back then he might have expected an answer, but now he’s old enough to understand you never really figure it out.”

Listening to Bowie attempt to figure his past out on record, however, was part of Where Are We Now?’s allure – and the mood pervaded not only the song and its video, but also its artwork: a photo of Bowie live on stage during the Soul Tour portion of his Diamond Dogs Tour of 1974, during which material from the Diamond Dogs album began to give way to early outings for songs from his upcoming Young Americans album. Taken during a short residency at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, the black-and-white photo was simply flipped upside down, with “Where Are We Now?” and Bowie’s name laid over the top – a precursor of the approach that designer Jonathan Barnbrook would give to one of the most surprising David Bowie album covers of all time, when he recontextualised the “Heroes” sleeve for The Next Day.

Speaking to NME, Barnbrook, who would also go on to oversee the artwork for Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, explained how the 1974 photo paved the way for The Next Day’s design: “The starting point was an image he had of this concert he did at Radio City. He was telling me about how isolated he felt at that time, and that was the basis of the feeling he wanted.”

The meaning: “It’s a very reflective track for David… it’s very melancholy”

Praised by fans and critics alike, Where Are We Now? proved that, while Bowie was comfortable living a more private life away from the media glare, his supporters would always be there to embrace him. And if the recurring refrain “Just walking the dead” suggested that Bowie wasn’t only dealing with ghosts of his past, but also challenging recent rumours surrounding his health, the closing lines, “As long as there’s sun/… As long as there’s rain/… As long as there’s fire/… As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you,” made for a hopeful end that looked ahead to brighter times – a reunion between Bowie and his supporters, reflected in the reunification of Berlin.

Though there was much to read into Where Are We Now?, Bowie himself was, as ever, reluctant to directly explain the song’s meaning, letting confidants such as Tony Visconti elaborate on their own thoughts. “I think it’s a very reflective track for David,” the producer told BBC News. “He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period and it evokes this feeling… it’s very melancholy.”

However, when asked by novelist Rick Moody to provide a list of words that would describe The Next Day as a whole, Bowie delivered 42 words with no elaboration. When observers noticed that the list could be broken up into blocks of three, each block corresponding, in order, with the lyrical themes of each of the album’s 14 songs, the words Bowie seemed to chose to for Where Are We Now? were “Mauer” (German for “wall”), “Interface” and “Flittings”.

The legacy: “It was a very smart move, linking the past with the future”

Despite being an unqualified success, Tony Visconti initially had reservations about releasing Where Are We Now? as Bowie’s comeback single. Compared to the rest of the songs they had recorded for The Next Day, it was an anomaly. But he came to realise that Bowie “understood immediately – before I even did – that people had to deal with the shock that he was back. That, in itself, is news breaking. So like the song, maybe he was easing people in with a slow ballad.”

Speaking to BBC News, Visconti elaborated: “I thought to myself, Why is David coming out with this very slow, albeit beautiful ballad. Why is he doing this? He should come out with a bang.” The producer eventually realised exactly what Bowie had done: “But he is a master of his own life. I think this was a very smart move, linking the past with the future.”

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