David Bowie - the Earthling who shaped the world

[I am working an a book about the year 1997, the year that made the future. Made up of 26 short chapters, alphabetically labelled with one of '97's cultural highlights, it will offer a series of reflections and some polemics, about the year. This is an early draft of chapter 5. Any comments and improvements would be much appreciated. There is no referencing as yet... tut tut.]

Earthling – Finance, Fashion, and the centrality of David Bowie

On January 8th 1997, David Bowie turned 50 and hosted a huge party at Maddison Square Gardens. At it, he played nine songs from his forthcoming new album, Earthling, as well as a range of other tracks from his extensive career including firm fan favourites such as “Heroes”, ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘The Man who sold the world’, and rather m ore obscure numbers such as ‘I can’t read’ and ‘the voyeur of utter destruction asbeauty’. The new songs appeared to be heavily influenced by drum ‘n’ bass. For many at the time, this seemed to confirm Bowie’s lack of creative edge, it fed a certain narrative about how he had produced nothing of worth sine Scary Monsters (and super creeps), and proved that he was now much more a follower than an innovator.

In fact, this show, and rest of the year would see Bowie predict and influence the future in ways that even his most ardent fans would have had difficulty believing. But before we see the future legend, let’s take a look at the battle for Britain that had been emerging throughout the mid-1990s.  In politics (see chapter one) the Conservative party was led by Europhile John Major, and he crushed euro-sceptic John Redwood’s leadership challenge. A weakened Conservative government, nevertheless was (not unproblematically) pro-EU. The EU itself was in buoyant mood with a group accession states such as Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania seeking to gain membership; Austria, Finland and Sweden joining in the 1995 and the Schengen agreement coming into force allowing free movement between cooperating states.

So a seemingly optimistic, outward-looking political scene (that Tony Blair would capitalise on and develop into the centrist consensus – see chapter one) was matched by an equally confident sense of the UK’s leadership across a range of popular cultural forms. In an interview from 1996 conducted between Bowie and influential fashion enfant terrible, Alexander McQueen, Bowie asked the newly installed head of Givenchy about his life, influences, food choices and a host of other subjects both trivial and profound, and during the discussion offered this:

David Bowie: Is the British renaissance a reality or a hype do you think? The world is being told that it’s so. Through all strata of British life and from fashion to visual arts, music, obviously, architecture, I mean there’s not one aspect of culture where Brits haven’t got some pretty fair leaders, English designers in French houses, you know what I mean? It’s like we’re pervading the whole zeitgeist at the moment.
Alexander McQueen: Being British yourself, I think you understand that Britain always led the way in every field possible in the world from art to pop music. Even from the days of Henry VIII. It’s a nation where people come and gloat at what we have as a valuable heritage, be it some good, some bad, but there’s no place like it on earth.
David Bowie: But why is it we can’t follow through once we’ve initially created something? We’re far better innovators than we are manufacturers.

While a few teaspoons of salt may be needed to unweave the truth from the sheer joy each man clearly takes in the rhetorical games being played, it is obvious that both of them do see a real resurgence of the power of British culture. Bowie’s observation about innovation versus production is beguiling, and McQueen’s claims about Henry III are best addressed by someone else, but the point is clear.

In music, the overriding British expression is so-called BritPop. Reaching its climax in 1995 with the curious media generated rivalry between Blur and Oasis over which of their albums (released on the same day to maximise publicity and sales) would reach number one. The Gallagher brothers are often painted as the exemplum of BritPop – brash, uncouth, strongly masculine and expressive of a laddish confidence that could be quirky or violent, satisfyingly authentic or sulkily brittle. But Damon Albarn’s Blur were not afraid to have the puerile ‘Country House’ video nor were they above reversing the seeming outward optimism of the era into a spiteful, narrow, little-islander attack on American music, especially grunge. His introduction to BBC2’s BritPop Now (which also highlighted the animosity and hostility between many of the bands with Oasis and Suede notably snubbed) presented itself as a refusal of US cultural imperialism, seemingly immune to the irony of the introduction’s own nostalgia-reeking ‘us against the world’ post-Empire isolationism.

During this period, Bowie had been resolutely un-Britpop. The grunge-garage-avante-rock Tin Machine II was the last vestige of his retreat from solo work after the bloated (but commercially hugely lucrative) Never Let Me Down tour of 1987. On his return to solo albums, he produced the house-jazz Black Tie White Noise (featuring old Ziggy-era Mick Ronson on guitar) which marked a clear creative renaissance outside the influence of prevailing trends.

Matt Potter makes an impassioned plea for the 90s to be re-evaluated for Bowie. This is an especially delicious passage celebrating 'Don't l;et me down and down' from Black Tie:

Few spotted that the song was a cover of a song originally in Arabic by a Mauritanian singer, Tahra Mint Hembara, that he’d picked up on a CD Iman had brought back from an Arab market in Paris; fewer still that Bowie was singing it as someone – say, the writer – who spoke no English would sing it to an Anglophone audience from a phonetic sheet. Goodbye, soppy ballad; hello again, Brechtian alienation device. The song is no longer about love at all; but about the difficulty of communicating. It’s the immigrant’s lament: no-one hears what I want to say, be it ever so heartfelt or wise, because they hear this stupid inarticulacy.

 This album as followed by The Buddha of Suburbia. Officially a soundtrack album to the TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi novel of the same name, only one track featured on the TV show. A novel about an emerging new Britain of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and artistic hybridity in 1970s suburbia, the album is an amazing and much overlooked musical tour-de-force. With ambient soundscapes reminiscent of late-70’s Eno, but also resolutely of the 90s, alongside slow difficult jazz-inspired numbers, and out-and-out pop-rock ballads, it is Bowie doing what he did best: taking what is there in the past and present and making the future with it. The Eno-inspired tracks on Buddha may have contributed the pair’s return to collaboration for the first time in over a decade on 1. Outside in 1995, the Brit Pop annus mirabilis. An avant-garde future-oriented murder mystery, it is a difficult, macabre and beautiful work that, with it stand out rock-pop numbers, managed to get Bowie back in the mainstream, but on his terms musically, not as any part of the Brit Pop scene.

And so, we get to his birthday party. The guests are all very much of the past, but a past that both inspired, influenced (and in turn was influenced by) Bowie. But more important was the coat Bowie wore.

When Bowie and Alexander McQueen chatted in 1996, McQueen had already designed the coat. A frock coat, made of woollen fabric, dominated by the union flag, and purposefully and significantly distressed. McQueen recounted:

We took it to the Hoxton garden and just walked on it and threw it and rubbed it with stones and all sorts of things and pulled it,” Danan recalls. Bowie was so pleased with the Union Jack coat, he decided to wear it on the cover of his next album, Earthling; on the VH1 Fashion Awards; and as the opening look on the Earthling tour, which would start in early 1997.

Bowie was so delighted with it he asked McQueen to make more, and the frock coat in distressed silk and rococo trim with brass buttons he wore at his birthday party was one such item. McQueen was drawing on a style that emerged as part of officer-class wear in the early 19th century as part of the Napoleonic wars, and which was subsequently popularised by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. A European fashion with a distinctly Empire hue, the style waned and McQueen’s use of it is important. Brit Pop’s frivolous and often isolationist stance was over by 1997, but in its stead was the more broadly articulated cultural confidence of Blair’s centrist UK: Cool Britannia. McQueen’s union jack coat that Bowie chose to wear on the picture of the album Earthling, with its drum and base leanings plays with the iconography. Not least, it poses the question should we turn our backs on this Nationalistic rhetoric, or has Bowie turned his back on those who would rush to adore the flag while occluding its histories?

Later in the year, Spice Girl (Thatcherite, post-feminist, Poppy Brit, Grrrl power cultural megalith) Geri Halliwell performed with her group at the Brit awards. A Gucci commissioned black mini skirt was to be her costume, but she was unhappy at how boring it was and so asked her sister to sew a large tea towel of the Union Jack on to it, as a celebration of her Britishness. The pseudo-punk sensibility does not mask the Gucci background, nor the un-ironic, un-questoning, assertion of Britain as culturally, historically and politically primary.

McQueen’s frock coat (every bit as much part of high fashion and high finance as the Gucci one) was nevertheless always already a symbol of a more contradictory, culturally complex, historically implicated nation. Undoubtedly intended to celebrate British culture, it also offers critique in its distressed, worn, faded hues. A robust, colourful, strong coat, tainted, even if ever so slightly. Cool Britannia cannot escape the Imperial legacy of Rule Britannia, a legacy soundtracked by Bowie in Buddha of Suburbia, and obliquely but sincerely marked in Earthling. While lambasted by critics still caught up in the remnants of Brit Pop, or cheering the Cool Britannia grrrrl power of the Spice Girls, the album’s drum ‘n’ bass notes are a celebration of a certain expression of urban, counter-cultural, non-mainstream British music that developed in the back streets and clubs away from the blurry-eyed metropolitanism of the Brit Pop brigade. In addition, for Potter, the album is one of Bowie's chief artistic achievements: .

"This live-without-a-net vibe informed 1997’s Earthling – probably the prime document of this period, and the single Bowie album of any period to which I return most often.

Every song was a single, the band was tight, and Bowie the performer and songwriter and bandleader was stomping all over it with the sublime confidence of a man who knows what he’s got. His partner in crime Reeves Gabrels was all over this one, playing punkish provocateur to Bowie’s purer pop sensibilities. The pair egged each other on, taking on dares and imposing seemingly insane rules. ‘Little Wonder’ was to include the names of all seven dwarfs in its lyric, in such a way that nobody would notice. (Nobody did.) On ‘Looking For Satellites’, Bowie told Gabrels to divide his guitar solo into four parts, each using just one string on his guitar (E, A, D, G) and keeping it in constant 16th notes. The result is as amazing as it is unlikely, Bowie by way of Beefheart. The whole album, the whole exercise, is stunning."

But even this impassioned celebration of a much overlooked album is not the main reason why 1997 is the year that Bowie made the future (phew, finally got there!). Bowie had been seeking ways to raise money, and among the options was selling the masters to his catalogue which at that time was estimated to have been valued at $100,000,000. His business manager was working with an investment banker, David Pullman, and together they decided there were other ways to secure up-front cash injections while retaining rights to the masters. Essentially, Pullman encouraged Bowie to bet that over a ten year period he could forego the full income from possible royalties that would accrue slowly and without clear (or even, probable) frequency in favour of a one-off cash payment.

This payment came from Bowie licensing to EMI the rights to his back catalogue from 1969 to 1990. The agreement guaranteed Bowie 25% of gross royalties, but paid upfront. The $55 million was sold in $1,000 denomination bonds underwritten by Pullman’s firm, Fahnestock and Co. The Bowie Bonds were purchased by Prudential Insurance Company of America in 1997, and Prudential sold off the Bowie Bonds with its 2003 sale of Prudential Securities to Wachovia Securities, which in turn was merged with Wells Fargo on Dec 31, 2008.A company spokesperson for Wells Fargo couldn’t immediately confirm what happened to the asset after that. Initially given a very high credit rating by the big three credit rating companies, the bonds sold well. However, by the time the ten year life span of the bonds (each promising 7.9% per annum for their investors) they were rated only marginally above junk. EMI itself had bonds rated as junk.

So what had happened. The answer to this lies in some senses in Bowie’s initial consideration to sell his masters at all? Why, as an artist who from his earliest days had jealously guarded his ownership of his own work (unlike many, many stars who own nothing of their own creative output) why choose now to lose not only the income now, but the future revenues too?

As ever, Bowie was well aware of what the future held, and how, in many respects the ownership or otherwise of rights located in physically locatable objects that held the actual recordings of the work would become moot. Speaking in 2002, but clearly already part of his thinking ion 1997, Bowie told the New York Times,

”The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.”
“Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he added. ”So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”
Bowie clearly recognised the massive impact the internet was going to have and was prepared to back his hunch by selling his entire catalogue. That he did not do that, thanks to Pullman, means that 20 years on with the small but real re-emergence of vinyl, and a desire for more tangible figurations of digital artefacts, Bowie won both ways – the securitised up-front cash injection and the retaining of rights.

But it may not have gone like that, so Bowie launched himself into the forefront of the very thing that was being identified as the possible end of copyright at all – the internet. Developed throughout 1997 and early 1998, BowieNet was a fully-functional Internet Service Provider but with significant enhancements. A press release on August 28th 1998 explained this:

BowieNet will provide users access to David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, including live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bulletin boards. The live in-studio video feeds will be available thanks to FullViewÆ’, a 360-degree panoramic Webcam designed by Bell Labs, the research and development of Lucent Technologies. Initial applications call for the camera to be used for in-studio question-and-answer sessions with Bowie, as well as live "you-are-there" rehearsal sessions with Bowie and his band.

BowieNet will offer users a fully customizable home page, davidbowie e-mail address (your name@davidbowie.com), news groups, chat rooms, online shareware, multi-player, gaming and much more with local access from over 2,000 cities in North America. The BowieNet will support both Microsoft and Netscape browsers. All users will be given the latest version of Internet Explorer, customized specifically for BowieNet. Highly rated live technical and customer support is available 24 hours/7 days a week by Concentric Network.

More than an ISP, BowieNet was, years ahead of MySpace, Fcebook, Twitter, even Napster, a space designed to offer noit just connectivity but inter-connectivity: a virtual community of like minded people who could interact with each other and with their stars and heroes. Over in California, Buffy the Vampire Slayer  hosted a discussion board, The Bronze,  that is often heralded as the first fully interactive, immersive fan-producer medium of its kind: but BowieNet did that (with Bowie appearing as ‘Sailor’) as a simple aspect of the totality of its functionality. While the ISP may not have survived, what it envisioned is now so normal that it is easy to overlook Bowie’s contribution to it.

One aspect of the future heralded by him in 1997 that he is not responsible for is the catastrophic economic crash of 2008. The blame placed at the feet of the sub-prime mortgage market led some to see a link between the securitisation of unsecured loans in even decreasingly lucrative bundles of bonds to be the inevitable conclusion of BowieBonds. While it is true that Bowie’s announcement in 1997 made the world of financial markets, sub-prime investing, securitisation and bonds somewhat interesting (and while it is true that Pullman’s ability to securitise intellectual property was innovative) the fact is that securities of this kind had been around since the 1970s and Bowie – at the early stage of creatives’ involvement, can not claim or be blamed for the financing structures that led to the crash.

But he did benefit from the arrangement. The upfront cash allowed him to buy out his one-time manager Tony deFreitas, and the liquidation of the bonds after 10 years reverted masters rights back to him. His ability to recognise the future of music as streaming and touring meant that the song ‘Telling Lies’ from Earthling was among the first singles to be streamed in 1996. After the Earthling tour of 86 shows, he undertook a series of relatively short tours between 1999 and 2002 before undertaking his final ever tour to promote his Reality album: the Reality tour that encompassed 113 shows – his biggest ever tour.

Although he never toured again, and was very absent from the cultural scene until the unexpected internet release of the lead off single from his 2013 album The Next Day, ‘Where are we now’, Bowie was living in a world he had helped to shape: streaming music; virtual communities existing in inter-connected feedback loops; music flowing like water; touring being the way for bands to make money; and in a UK riven by the doubts and extremes that Brit Pop and Cool Britannia had both exposed and sought to deny; a global economy still built on securitised debt with financial systems unsure whether to work within trade agreement blocks or range freely across any and all territories. In the early 70s, Bowie had deemed RuleBritannia out of Bounds, in 1997 he announced he was afraid of the world and at his death in 2016 he opined that it was nothing if he never saw the English evergreens he was running to. A bucolic, almost Edwardian feel suffuses this last engagement with Britain: a grounded, earthy, weighty end from this Earthling who shaped the world.


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