[dropcap]On[/dropcap] February 3rd 1997, our starman David Bowie had just turned 50 years old, and released his twentieth studio album Earthling—an album Bowie himself sometimes referred to as being almost a spiritual successor to 1980’s Scary Monsters.
Earthling—whose cover showcases Bowie in his tattered Alexander McQueen Union Jack coat— was the follow up to 1.Outside, 1995’s collaboration with Brian Eno. The album was self produced by Bowie and bandmates Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels, and featured industrial and drum and bass arrangements influenced by 90s electronic music culture— including Underworld, The Prodigy, and Nine Inch Nails, the latter who had recently toured with Bowie in Support of 1.Outside.
The album was an experimental exploration between Bowie and his long-serving musical partner—guitarist Reeves Gabrels—whom he had starting working with in the band Tin Machine. During Bowie’s televised 50th birthday celebration, The Cure’s frontman Robert Smith joined Bowie on stage to perform”The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Quicksand,” striking up a friendship that would lead to Gabrels eventually joining The Cure in 2012.
Earthling featured five singles—the first of which was “Telling Lies,” a song composed in a Bowienet chatroom (where users in quite the meta fashion had to guess which user was the real Bowie…). The single was also famous for being the first downloadable single by a major recording artist, ushering in the beginning of Bowie’s highly publicized embrace and interest in the internet.
The next single “Little Wonder” was a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stream of consciousness. The video, directed by Floria Sigismondi, featured an older and beguiling Space Pirate Bowie waxing his lyrics in a Burroughs-esque fashion while a younger Ziggy Stardust-esque persona wanders around New York City like a lost alien tourist.
The next single released was “Dead Man Walking,” a pummeling, yet catchy track that also works beautifully as an acoustic number, performed as such on television in 1997 as well as most recently by collaborators Gail Ann Dorsey and Mark Plati on the ongoing Celebrating David Bowie tour.
“Seven Years In Tibet” was released in a smaller run, featuring lyrics in Mandarin and invoking the Free Tibet movement. The track almost didn’t make the record, finding new life in constant revision. Bowie himself has stated that this track was his favorite.
Earthling‘s final single was “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a leftover track from the 1.Outside sessions that was originally recorded for the Showgirls soundtrack. The album version dresses the original track’s sludge in a much more hard-hitting aesthetic, expanded on further by a single remix by Nine Inch Nails. The Nine Inch Nails remix remains the best known version of the track, propelled into the charts by both Trent Reznor’s star power as well as a nightmarish video featuring both Bowie and Reznor running through city streets. The single CD and vinyl features four additional remixes of the track, as well as one by tourmate Photek.