Something really fishy: 1.

In 1994, David Bowie – aged 47, with 21 studio albums behind him and nothing to prove – did something peculiar.

He booked a studio and assembled a four-piece band, all of whom he’d worked with before – Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine) on guitar, Mike Garson (Aladdin Sane/Buddha of Suburbia) on keyboards, multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay (Never Let Me Down/Buddha/Blah Blah Blah) on bass and Sterling Campbell (Black Tie White Noise) on drums. Then, under the supervision and direction of Brian Eno, they improvised – for several weeks. (“They” here refers to the four musicians; Bowie was in the studio, but spent most of his time painting.)

Building on whatever it was that had brewed over this period, Eno then came up with futuristic character profiles for everyone involved – including Bowie, himself and the two engineers – and they carried on working. Here’s Bowie’s profile:

You are a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band. You make incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing. The language you use is mysterious and rich – and you use a melange of several languages, since anyway most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof. Using on-stage computers, instant sampling techniques and long delay echo systems, you are able to build up dense clouds of coloured words during performance. Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

“a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof … Samuel Beckett is a big influence”. Make a note of that. (We can quietly ignore the “early 21st century” reference, though. It was the 1990s.)

The other players were also given pseudonyms, which were anagrams of their names: Mike Garson was “G. Noisemark”, Kızılçay was “Azile Clark-Iday”. Kızılçay’s profile told him:

It’s 2005. You are a musician in a soul-Arab band in a North-African role-sex club. The clientele are rich, sophisticated and unshockable – this is to the Arab world what New York was to the US in the Eighties. You play a kind of repetitive atonal funk with occasional wildly ambitious ornaments to impress your future father-in-law, the Minister of Networks for Siliconia, who is in the audience. You love the recordings of Farid El Atrache.

It was the kind of thing you either ‘got’ or didn’t, and by all accounts Kızılçay didn’t (“I don’t need a letter to play Oriental stuff”). To be fair, if you’re going to take on a futuristic imaginary persona, you might want to aim a bit higher than the house band in a sex club (something more like ‘greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry’, for instance). He probably wasn’t overjoyed to be confined to bass, either; when he’d worked with Bowie before he’d played keyboards and drums, and occasionally guitar, violin and trumpet. For whatever reason, Bowie dropped Kızılçay cold soon after these sessions.

Bowie himself wasn’t playing anything – not saxophone, not even his trusty twelve-string – which meant that he had a lot of time to fill. He also had a lot of work to do. Whatever music was eventually going to be created by G. Noisemark and Azile Clark-Iday (together with Elvas Ge’Beer and P. Maclert Singbell, I’m afraid), the chances were it wasn’t going to be instrumental. Bowie wrote songs: across those twenty-one albums there are, by my count, 16 instrumentals, and they’re confined to four albums (Low, Heroes, Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha of Suburbia). But he didn’t improvise songs – at least, not while working with a band, who were also improvising. If he were to improvise a song (or a whole set of songs) while in the persona of a renowned performer of “live abstract poetry”, how would that work – and (borrowing a question from Sudden Sway) how would it actually sound?

This is where things get confusing. We know where the process ended up: the album Outside (or 1. Outside, or possibly 1. Outside. The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-Cycle). Outside tells the story of a “ritual art murder” taking place on the 31st of December 1999 – more than five years in the future at the time Bowie began work – and introduces a whole cast of characters: Nathan Adler, art-world private eye; Baby Grace Blue, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a sadistic artist, who then put her body parts on display as an installation; Leon Blank, a young artist who appears to have been framed for the murder; Ramona A. Stone, the sinister art dealer who seems to have been involved; and the (even more) curiously named Algeria Touchshriek, an old shopkeeper whose involvement in any of this can only be guessed at. The actual culprit also appears but is never named (although canonically he is known as “the Minotaur”). The whole thing draws on Bowie’s involvement with the contemporary art world and expresses his longstanding fascination with religion and its replacements; beginning with the idea that suppressed religious urges were being discharged through the medium of art, he speculated that those urges would grow stronger as we approached the year 2000, ultimately finding outlet in what was essentially a human sacrifice.

(And then he did the voices.)

This is all well and good – albeit that it’s weird as hell and more than a little unpleasant, particularly the details of the Baby Grace ‘installation’ – but how do you get there from a band convincing themselves they’re playing in various 21st-century scenarios (Gabrels in “the Afro-Chinese ghetto in Osaka”, Campbell orbiting the moon) and a vocalist making sonic patchworks in “a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof”?

The answer is: Leon. Or Leon, or “Leon!” – or all three.

[to be continued]

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