Earthling (album)

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Earthling (album).jpg
Studio album by
Released3 February 1997 (1997-02-03)
RecordedMarch – August 1996
David Bowie chronology
Singles from Earthling
  1. "Telling Lies"
    Released: 4 November 1996
  2. "Little Wonder"
    Released: 27 January 1997
  3. "Dead Man Walking"
    Released: 14 April 1997
  4. "Seven Years in Tibet"
    Released: 18 August 1997 [6]
  5. "I'm Afraid of Americans"
    Released: 14 October 1997

Earthling (stylised as EART HL I NG) is the 20th studio album by English recording artist David Bowie. It was originally released in February 1997 on Arista Records. The album showcases an electronica-influenced sound partly inspired by the industrial and drum and bass culture of the 1990s.[7]

Background and development[edit]

David Bowie returned to the studio five days after finishing up the tour for his previous album, 1. Outside (1995). About a week after the album's release, Bowie told an interviewer "I really thought it would be great if we could do a photo, almost a sonic photograph of what we were like at that time. So, Reeves [Gabrels] and I started writing immediately after we finished on the road."[8] Despite going into the studio with no material ready,[9] the album took only ​2 12 weeks to record[8] (typical for a Bowie album).[10] Bowie compared this album with his 1980 album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), saying "I think there's quite a link between Scary Monsters and this album, to a certain extent. Certainly, the same intensity of aggression."[11] Bowie described the album as an effort "to produce some really dynamic, aggressive-sounding material."[8]

On the production of the drum and bass sound of the album, Bowie said, "Unlike most drum and bass things, we didn't just take parts from other people's records and sample them. On the snare drum stuff, Zac [Alford] went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute. That's very much how we treat the album. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way."[8]

Earthling was the first Bowie album recorded entirely digitally, "entirely on hard disk."[7] During interviews promoting the album, Bowie stated "I did nearly everything on the guitar. A lot of screechy-scrawly stuff was done on saxophone, then transferred to sampler, and then distorted and worked on the synthesizer."[11]

Bowie and Gabrels used a technique they'd started while working on Bowie's previous album 1. Outside, where they'd transfer bits of guitar to a sampling keyboard and construct riffs from those pieces. "It's real guitar," said Bowie, "but constructed in a synthetic way. But Brian Eno got in the way - in the nicest possible way - so we didn't get to that until this album. We want to go further with that, because it's a very exciting idea."[7] Bowie considered this album, along with its predecessor, to be a "textural diary" of what the last few years of the millennium felt like.[12]

Bowie's and Gabrels' musical influences at the time had a big impact on the sound of the album: Bowie was influenced by a "euro" sound and bands like the Prodigy, while Gabrels was still into the American industrial sound and bands like Underworld.[7]

Bowie said that he approached the production of this album similarly to how he approached Young Americans (1975), saying, "[For Young Americans,] I wanted to work within the Philadelphia soul experience, and the only way that I knew was to bring what's thoroughly European about me to this intrinsically black American format. And this [album was] not a dissimilar situation. It was the hybridizing of the European and the American sensibilities, and for me, that's exciting. That's what I do best. I'm a synthesist.[13]

Bowie summed up the meaning of the songs on the album by saying, "I guess the common ground with all the songs is this abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of gnosticism. I keep going backwards and forwards between the two things, because they mean a lot in my life. I mean, the church doesn't enter into my writing, or my thought; I have no empathy with any organised religions. What I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise. And that period of time - from today until my demise - is the only thing that fascinates me.[14]

Album cover and title[edit]

The album's cover features a photograph of Bowie wearing a Union Jack-based coat designed by Alexander McQueen, who had previously designed stage costumes for Bowie and his band.[15] Before the album was released, Bowie considered using Earthlings (plural) for the album's title.[16]

Song development[edit]

Bowie and the band continued their experimental approach to making music, first used in the Berlin Trilogy: for the track "Looking for Satellites", Bowie told guitarist Gabrels that he "only wanted him to play on one string at a time. ... He was hemmed in by the chord until it changed, and that made his run-up most unorthodox." The guitar riff used for the track "Dead Man Walking" was based on a pattern Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin) had played for Bowie back in the '60s. According to Gabrels, part of the bass track on "Little Wonder" was a recording of bassist Gail Ann Dorsey as she tried to get a sound from her pedalboard while not knowing she was being recorded. For "Battle for Britain", Bowie challenged Mike Garson to play based on "the idea from a piece of Stravinsky wrote called "Ragtime for Eleven Instruments". I said 'If you could kind of get into the character of that...' and he did it immediately."[11]

"Little Wonder" was one of the first tracks Bowie and Gabrels wrote for the album,[11] and Bowie called writing the track a "ridiculous" exercise in pure stream of consciousness. "I just picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and made a line for each of the dwarves' names. And that's the song [laughs]. And then I ran out of dwarves' names, so there's new dwarves in it like 'Stinky'."[9]

Originally, Bowie thought he'd only have a few new songs for the album, and had intended to fill out the album with remakes of some of his past songs, including "Dead Against It" (from his 1993 "soundtrack" The Buddha of Suburbia), "I Can't Read" and "Baby Universal" from his time with Tin Machine, and "Bring Me the Disco King", which he'd tried his hand at once before in 1993 for his Black Tie White Noise album.[17] But, due to his unexpectedly prolific songwriting during the sessions, none of these songs were released on the album, although Bowie did in fact record new versions of "Bring Me the Disco King" and "Baby Universal".[17] Of the latter, Bowie said "I thought [it] was a really good song and I don't think it got heard. I didn't really want that to happen to it, so I put in on this album. I really like this. I think this version is very good."[18] The re-recorded version of "I Can't Read" was released on the soundtrack for the movie The Ice Storm, and the re-recorded "Baby Universal" would be released in 2020 as part of the intermittently-released EP Is it Any Wonder?[19] Bowie also re-recorded "I'm Afraid of Americans", having recorded a version for the soundtrack for the 1995 movie Showgirls during his Outside studio sessions: Bowie said "That was something that Eno and I put together, and I just didn't feel it fit Outside, so it didn't go on it. It just got left behind. So then we took just the embryo of it, and restructured it with this band."[11] Additionally, Bowie included "Telling Lies", which Bowie had written and released on the Internet the year before.[17]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic2.5/5 stars[5]
Chicago Tribune2.5/4 stars[20]
The Encyclopedia of Popular Music2/5 stars[21]
Entertainment WeeklyA[3]
Robert Christgau(dud)[24]
Rolling Stone3.5/5 stars[25]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide2.5/5 stars[26]

Though not a major commercial success, the album scored a number of positive reviews[8] with one reviewer calling it a "richly textured" "return to excellence"[28] and another saying the album represented "some of his [Bowie's] finest music in a decade".[20] In the 1998 Grammy Awards Earthling was nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance and the song "Dead Man Walking" was nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The album performed better than its highly experimental predecessor, Outside, reaching No. 6 in the UK charts and No. 39 in the US.[29] Rolling Stone magazine praised the album, noting that exposure to Nine Inch Nails on Bowie's previous tour had apparently influenced him on this album, and they called it "his best since 1980's Scary Monsters."[30] The album scored a minor hit with a Trent Reznor remix of "I'm Afraid of Americans".

A Mandarin version of the song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ topped the charts in Hong Kong marking Bowie as the first non-Asian artist to reach number 1 in that territory.[31]

Remixes and music videos[edit]

Bowie's enthusiasm for remixing reached its peak when this album was released and the numerous singles from it were also issued to clubs, as well as online: three versions of "Telling Lies" were released on Bowie's official website months prior to the album's release, constituting the first ever downloadable single by a major artist.[32] "Little Wonder" was the album's biggest hit, reaching No. 14 in the UK.

Three more singles — "Dead Man Walking", "Seven Years in Tibet" and "I'm Afraid of Americans" (with participation of Trent Reznor) — did not fare so well, although the latter did remain in the US charts for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 66.[29]

The music videos for Earthling were elaborate. Artist and director Floria Sigismondi directed the short films for "Little Wonder" and "Dead Man Walking", while Dom and Nic directed "I'm Afraid of Americans", the latter being nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. A video was also made for "Seven Years in Tibet", composed largely of concert footage.

Live performances[edit]

Bowie took songs from this album on the road in September 1996, performing four US east coast "club" shows, including one at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City, to positive reviews. Prior to taking the stage for the shows, Bowie would play his new song ("Telling Lies") over the loudspeaker, but as the single was only available for download over the Internet, most fans did not recognize the song. The set list for these shows was similar to the set list he'd use during the upcoming 1997 Earthling Tour.[33][34]

On 9 January 1997, the day after he turned 50, Bowie held a 50th birthday concert for himself, performing tracks off the album, as well as a selection of songs from his back catalogue. He played to nearly 15,000 fans at New York's Madison Square Garden.[35] Bowie was joined onstage by artists including Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Black Francis, Robert Smith and Lou Reed, to perform many of his songs.[35] Other non-performing guests included Beck, Moby, Julian Schnabel, Prince, Charlie Sexton, Fred Schneider, Christopher Walken, Matt Dillon and Bowie's wife Iman. Artist Tony Oursler designed some of the artwork for the video backdrop that played behind the band onstage. The event was recorded for a pay-per-view special commemorating the event,[36][37] and a portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to the charity Save the Children.[35] Tim Pope, who had previously worked with Bowie directing his 1987 video for "Time Will Crawl", directed the 50th Anniversary video,[38] and Duncan Jones, Bowie's son, was one of the camera operators at the event.[39]

In February 1997, Bowie performed songs from Earthling live on Saturday Night Live and on The Tonight Show.[40]

At the Phoenix Festival in July 1997, Bowie and his band played in the Radio 1 Dance tent as "Tao Jones Index". They performed in darkness with dry ice and strobe lights. Tao Jones Index was a pun based on Bowie's real name, David Jones, and the 1997 Bowie Bond issue (Tao is pronounced "Dow", as in Dow Jones Index from the US stock market).[41]

Bowie went back on the road in support of this album, with his Earthling Tour taking place between May 1997 and the end of the year.[8]

Some songs from the album's various live performances were released on the promotional-only album Earthling in the City (1997).

Bowie had said in mid-1996 that he intended to go into the studio to work on Outside's follow-up album after making the studio album using his touring band first,[42] but no follow-up to Outside was ever produced. Bowie's next album was his 1999 album Hours.

Track listing[edit]

All lyrics are written by David Bowie; all music is composed by Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati, except where noted.

1."Little Wonder" 6:02
2."Looking for Satellites" 5:21
3."Battle for Britain (The Letter)" 4:48
4."Seven Years in Tibet"Bowie, Gabrels6:22
5."Dead Man Walking"Bowie, Gabrels6:50
6."Telling Lies"Bowie4:49
7."The Last Thing You Should Do" 4:57
8."I'm Afraid of Americans"Bowie, Brian Eno5:00
9."Law (Earthlings on Fire)"Bowie, Gabrels4:48
Total length:48:57


  • "I'm Afraid of Americans" first appeared in 1995 on the soundtrack for the film Showgirls, in a version that was extremely rough compared to the Earthling recording.
  • Track 13 of the 2004 reissue, unlike the other bonus tracks on it, is not present on the 2004 Digibook expanded edition reissue's bonus disc.
  • Track 11 in the bonus disc for the 2004 Digibook expanded edition is mistakenly labeled as the V1 edit. Apparently, it is an edited album version, which previously only appeared on the 1997 promotional CD "The Radio Edits", along with the edits of "Seven Years in Tibet" (which was later released as a single) and a unique edit of "Looking for Satellites", which has never been released in any other form. Disc 1 in this edition contains a pregap of 36 seconds of silence between "Dead Man Walking" and "Telling Lies".[43][44]
  • The project concept for the Mandarin lyric interpretation of the dialect group's version of "Seven Years in Tibet" comes from Elvin Wong.


Adapted from the Earthling liner notes.[45]


Chart performance[edit]


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External links[edit]