Did You Know That David Bowie and Brian Eno Did a Cyberpunk Record? #cyberpunk

Brian Eno and David Bowie had a lifelong friendship and a musical collaboration that produced several of the most influential records of the late 20th century. In the late 1970s, the two worked on Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, otherwise known as Bowie’s Berlin records. These albums would end up having a profound and lasting impact on rock in general, punk, new wave, electronica, and Eno’s work in ambient.

After reconnecting at David and Iman’s wedding in 1992, the two started emailing rants back and forth about modern music and what they thought was missing from it. They decided to try an experiment together, to go into the studio “with not even a gnat of an idea” of what they would create. The results of this experiment would be 1995’s 1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle).

The album wasn’t directly inspired by cyberpunk, per se, but through the various experimental techniques they employed, a near-future world emerged that definitely had a cyberpunk look and feel. In at least one interview, Bowie referred to it as “cyber-noir.”

To start their experimental process off, the two decided to interview patients at a psychiatric hospital in Vienna, Austria. The hospital was known for the “outsider art” some of its patients created, hence part of the inspiration for the title. They also felt like they wanted to work outside of the normal boundaries of composition and recording and that title reminded them of that. This album was their outsider art.

Working from the hospital interviews, Bowie and Eno cut together a three-hour recording that was mainly dialogue and studio jams. Called The Leon Suites, an edit of this project was submitted to the record company. When it was rejected for being completely uncommercial, Bowie and Eno began working on a version that would become Outside. Snippets from The Leon Suites would end up on Outside and narrative and character ideas came from it. There was talk of including some of The Leon Suites on future recordings, but that never happened.

The song “I’m Deranged” came directly from one of David’s interviews with a patient at the Vienna hospital. Besides being such a stand-out track on the album, “I’m Deranged” was also beautifully and effectively used in David Lynch’s 1997 art-noir classic, Lost Highway, as Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison character careens down an unlit highway at night, mesmerized by the broken yellow lines as they fire out of the darkness like tracer bullets.

Besides using the ideas and narrative fragments from schizophrenic patients as inspiration, the two incorporated other experimental techniques. William Burroughs and Brian Gysin’s “cut-up technique,” which Bowie had frequently employed over the years, especially on Diamond Dogs (his other dystopian concept record) and the Berlin records, was used again. For Bowie’s version of cut-up, he relied on a computer app he’d co-developed for the Mac, called the Verbasizer. It allowed him to generate randomized sentences and paragraphs that he could then use as-is, alter as he saw fit, or use a few words that popped out to inspire an idea for a character or an entire song. Here is David in a 1997 documentary describing how he used his Verbasizer.

You can see the results of this randomizing app in action in the lyrics to the title track to the record:

Now. Not tomorrow
Not tomorrow
It happens today
The damage today
They fall on today
They beat on the outside
And I’ll stand by you
Now. Not tomorrow
It’s happening now
Not tomorrow
It’s happening now
The crazed in the hot-zone
The mental and diva’s hands
The fisting of life
To the music outside
To the music outside

Other techniques used on Outside included Brian Eno handing out cards to the musicians in the studio each morning that instructed them to play that day as the character described on the card. The cards gave such absurd instructions as “You are the disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes that were suppressed.” Eno also employed the Oblique Strategies cards that he and artist Peter Schmidt had developed in 1975 as a series of prompts to be drawn when faced with a creative dilemma. Eno and Bowie had first made impressive use of these cards during the Berlin sessions.

Through all of this process and studio improvisation (Bowie wrote everything on-demand in the studio), the world of Nathan Adler began to emerge. That character and his story are detailed in a short story, “The diary of Nathan Adler or the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle,” written by Bowie, that came with the record’s liner notes booklet.

The diaries tell the story of Detective-Professor Adler, an investigator in the corporate-sponsored Art-Crimes, Inc bureau of a near future Oxford Town, NJ. In that grim world, murdering people as a form of artistic expression has become so popular that it warrants a separate department to investigate it (sponsored by a corporate art institution which then mounts shows of the art-criminals handiwork, BTW). Prior to working on his current case, Adler had been working the “concept muggings” beat and had grown weary of it. In the story told through 1. Outside, Adler is tasked with investigating the gristly art-murder of a 14-year-old girl, named Baby Grace Blue.

The diaries in the album’s booklet are written in a very Burroughsian/Gibsonian style. In short, hot sentences, notes, and sentence fragments, we get a very dark-noir tale larded with plenty of cyberpunk-sounding techno-neologisms: Memory information transport fluids, binary code translators, memory info-transport substances, the ROMbloids (whomever/whatever they are), Daubers (the public’s nickname for Art-Crimes, Inc.), the Data Bank, a death cult called the Caucasian Suicide Temple, and body-parts jewellery stores (trading in “lamb penis necklaces, goat-scrotum purses, nipple earrings, that sort of thing”).

Bowie was obviously very intrigued by some of the extreme and highly controversial art that was happening in the 90s, including Damien Hurst (whose work featured bisected and rotting animal carcasses) and extreme performance artists, like Ron Athey and Darryl Carlton (both the subject of much scandal and pearl-clutching in the mid-90s for their blood-ritual and self-harm performances). All three artists are mentioned in the Nathan Adler diaries and Athey’s work is referenced directly in the video to “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” This song and video also clearly reveal Bowie’s growing admiration for Trent Reznor, as the NIN influence, in sound and vision, are painfully evident.

Like the cyberpunky Warren Zevon concept record we looked at last week, most critics and Bowie’s otherwise diverse and open minded fan base didn’t really know what to make of this strange, experimental record. It remains one of the least popular and most misunderstood offerings in David Bowie’s catalog.

But that never stopped David and Brian from loving it themselves and wanting to do follow-ups. If you notice, there’s a “1” in the title and the subtitle suggests something ongoing. One of the things they talked about, all the way up to the last email exchange the two ever had, was the idea of doing further installments of the Nathan Adler diaries, perhaps a trilogy. Bowie was excited to explore this world more, maybe continuing with Art Crimes, Inc. or exploring other corners of Adler’s dark world. A few years after the release of Outside, he and Eno talked about doing an album called Inside, a behind-the-scenes record that would reveal their working process and include outtakes and some of the jams they’d done for the record.

Volume 2 in the Nathan Adler diaries was to be called 2. Contamination and Bowie already had some characters and ideas sketched out. Sadly, with Bowie’s death from cancer in 2016, we’ll never know what other music there might have been to discover Outside. And, as the murder of Baby Grace Blue was never solved in Volume 1, the case will forever remain open.

Listen to the entire record here.

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