Saturday, 19 September 2015

Wishful Beginnings - David Bowie's masterful concept album 1.Outside,turns twenty.

Every so often, I blog about my influences, and there's no denying that David Bowie is one of them, both musically and artistically. 

Bowie's frequently misunderstood concept album, 1.Outside was released 20 years ago today (much to my disbelief). 

In September 1995 I was 17, and just starting a two year college course in computer graphics - a journey that got me to where I am today, and 1.Outside was an important part of that time and a soundtrack to that period. It was the right album at the right time. I was already a huge fan of David's work by this point, but this album changed everything. I guess it was my Ziggy Stardust. 

For 1.Outside, Bowie returned to his "Berlin-era" style of music, and was at his most adventurous; not afraid to play with concepts and characters, and re-introduced his famous 'cut-up' technique of writing (originally borrowed from William Burroughs), alongside some truly experimental, unusual and exciting music. Here is an album which - twenty years later - still sounds unlike anything else, thanks to the combination of brilliant musicianship from the band, which included Bowie stalwart Mike Garson, and innovative production work from Brian Eno. 
The music merges heavy industrial and electronic soundscapes with rock and even jazz elements, finished off with some of Bowie's most distinctive vocals. At this point in his career he was making the music he wanted to make, and wasn't afraid to take risks, venturing into new and cutting edge  territories – and the result was a dark and unsettling album, dense with energy and playful creativity - Bowie at his theatrical best. 

Songs such as The Hearts Filthy Lesson, No Control and I'm Derranged still sound incredibly contemporary, while The Motel ought to rank alongside Bowie's very best tracks. The album's variety comes courtesy of Wishful Beginnings, We Prick You and A Small Plot of Land, which stand out as some of David's most creative works. 

The story/concept itself follows a private detective, Nathan Adler, investigating a series of brutal "art crimes" at the turn of the century. The album introduces various characters and suspects Adle encounters in this seedy underworld, all portrayed by Bowie. Not for everyone, and not your run of the mill concept for an album. However you can take or leave the concept itself with no detriment to the music. 

Sadly the album wasn't given the warmest reception at the time, but in recent years, fans, biographers and the music press alike have all since recognised the album's strengths (just as with his 1977 album Low, slated on release, now regarded as a classic!). 

Release day came, and, ignoring the bad reviews - as any hardcore fan would - I rushed into Sheffield on a grey, Autumnal morning and went into Our Price (a record shop sadly no longer with us) to part with £15 (yes, new CDs used to cost that much) to get my hands on this much-anticipated new release. 

I've often had seasonal associations with music, and 1.Outside is no exception, perfectly matching the time of year it was released. Summer had all but faded and longer nights were starting to draw in. The first golden-brown leaves were appearing on pavements and bright mornings came with a glistening dew. Things were changing and evolving - including me, at such an impressionable and formative age - and the variety of musical styles and moods on the album, fitted like a glove. 

It simply had everything that caught my interests and fired up my imagination, from the music to the package design, which featured Bowie's own photo-manipulations and digital artwork. In 1995, Photoshop was still a pretty new thing (version 3 if memory serves) and ever the pioneer, Bowie had used it to create all the artwork in the booklet, while the album cover itself featured one of his traditional medium paintings. As ever, his finger was clearly on the pulse with new technology, as some of the album's lyrics even referenced the Internet - then in its infancy and far from the thing we take for granted at our fingertips today. It's these things which give 1.Outside such a contemporary edge. 

Granted, it isn't the most accessible album, but Bowie has never been one for a mainstream approach. I'd never been taken to a cinematic musical world like this before. It was like a David Lynch film, in album form (Lynch would actually feature tracks from 1.Outside in his 1997 film, Lost Highway). There was so much to be excited about, before even getting into the music itself! This was back in the day when album releases were big things, and worth getting excited about. 

This was probably the first time I had become completely obsessed with and addicted to an album. At the time, the album's visuals influenced my graphics work in my college projects, and years later, the album's atmospheres and textures influenced my own musical compositions. 

So having had the album on pretty much constant repeat following its release, something even better and more exciting was just around the corner - the chance to see David live in concert. 

December 3rd 1995 was a wet and rainy evening. Me and my friends could hardly believe that in just a few hours, we would be looking at David Bowie, just metres away. We weren't in the slightest bit bothered that the mismatched support act of Morrissey had pulled out. 

Reflecting the album's themes, the stage set was part artist's studio, part crime scene, comprising hanging beam lights, torn curtains, fabric cadavers, a table and chairs and a wooden sign reading "Ouvrez le chien". We were really starting to wonder what kind of show we were in for, when the house lights finally dimmed, and rubbery-smelling smoke billowed out into the auditorium, shrouding the stage.

David Bowie crept on to the stage, in a paint-stained, torn tshirt, sack-like trousers and no shoes. And he still looked charismatic and distinctive as ever. Only David Bowie could come on stage dressed like that, and still look amazing. We were close enough to see his different eyes, and his every move was captivating. I've never seen anybody with such a commanding and fascinating presence. You simply couldn't take your eyes off him. 

The show itself heavily featured the new tracks, with carefully chosen songs from his back catalogue reworked to suit. Bowie stayed true to his word of deliberately not playing a greatest hits set, and it worked a treat. Few artists today could get away with such a bold move when it comes to live performance. After the show, we were left wondering if we had really witnessed it!

The Sheffield Star gave the show a good review the following day, and it was simply special to see photos from the show in the paper. A great souvenir. 

This period remains one of my favourite Bowie phases. You'll notice the "1" prefixed in the title - David's original plan was to continue the story through a series of concept albums, but sadly this never saw the light of day - though despite this, part of me is still waiting or hoping for at least one follow-up!

I imagine that we're unlikely to be treated to such, and the material intended for the series will remain in Bowie's musical vaults. I've come to accept that, but it doesn't stop 1.Outside from still sounding brilliant and original, twenty years later. It really doesn't feel that long at all. Either way, the time is right for reappraisal and rediscovery, and I have to admit a slight tinge of envy for the new generations of Bowie fans who may just be discovering the music outside for the first time...