David Bowie was "the man who sold the world," all right--the man who sold the world on the idea that he was retired for good.
It was only in January that we found out his decade-long disappearance wouldn't be a permanent one--when he used his 66th birthday as the occasion to spring a new single on us without so much as a leak that he'd even darkened the doorway of a recording studio. With this week's release of his comeback album, The Next Day, he's the man who got good reviews from the world, too, as critics rush to proclaim it his best work since the 1980s, if not '70s.
The supersecrecy leading up to the release represents quite a hat trick in an age when literally almost nothing about celebrities is held secret. How'd Bowie manage to pull the wool over our eyes for the past 10 years, when fans assumed he was in failing health since his 2004 heart problems, or content to quit the business to quietly raise his daughter out of the limelight, or both?
For starters, he wasn't fooling for the first eight of those last 10 years, when he apparently really had resigned himself to musical inactivity. "I’d had some correspondence with him where he’d said that he just wasn’t interested in writing music any more," his longtime bassist, Gail Ann Dorsey, told England's NME magazine, "because he didn’t have anything to say."
But the muse had struck by November 2011, when he contacted producer Tony Visconti to start the process. But Bowie didn't want anyone to know, and there's a short answer to how he managed to keep a lid on the recording process for over two years that can be summed up in four short letters: NDAs.
Bowie isn't doing any interviews to chat about the new album, much less tweeting about it, so some of his motives remain a mystery--even to the people who worked with him on it, since they apparently weren't much inclined to probe him for deep psychological details. But a handful of them have spoken up about how the process went down, and it borders on cloak-and-dagger stuff. The intelligence community may want to take some tips.
As drummer Zachary Alford has said: "It was like being in Mission: Impossible."
Guitarist Earl Slick has worked on 10 Bowie albums, including the classic Station To Station. He told Ultimate Classic Rock this one was a little different. "One day I went out to have a cigarette in front of the studio, and something felt weird...and I peered across the street, and there was a guy there with a camera on a tripod. So I put my cigarette out and went back inside, 'cause if they see me, they can put two and two together." There was an initial giddiness to the secrecy, Slick said, "but after I got all excited after I finished doing the tracks and I was bursting, it wasn’t fun anymore...Do you have any idea how many interviews I’ve done... with this under my belt, which I couldn’t say anything about? It was horrible...especially because I had the cover for the Christmas issue of Guitar Player magazine...and they did a 14-page spread on me, and I’m thinking, 'Christ, I can’t even say anything.' Anyway, he appreciated that--and I got a nice 'thank you' for keeping my big mouth shut."
There are reports everyone involved had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, although the musicians involved have only talked about oral commitments. As Visconti told Rolling Stone, "He said, 'Keep it a secret, and don't tell anybody. Not even your best friend.' I said, 'Can I tell my girlfriend?' He says, 'Yes, you can tell your girlfriend, but she can't tell anybody.' The real trick was just not telling even your best friend. Bowie fans are just unpredictable–if they hear news like this, the cover would have been blown years ago. Now one person did leak it, but nobody believed him... Robert Fripp! He was asked to play on it, he didn't want to do it and then he wrote on his blog that he was asked. And nobody kinda believed him."
Loose lips sink ships, as the first studio that had sessions booked for Bowie and his band found out. After demos had been put down, Alford was on his way to the first day of official recording in a real studio in spring 2011 when he got a phone call that plans were changing and they were switching to a different location, because of a leak. "I heard that David’s office received a call from a photographer who asked if he could come to the studio to take pictures," the drummer told NME. "People were flabbergasted by that: 'Who told you there was even gonna be a session?’”
The sessions instead took place at New York's Magic Shop studio, where manager Kabir Hermon had to work extra-hard to keep a lid on things. When other bands would come by and look at the calendar, “I had to close the door behind me and explain that they weren’t allowed in the studio, and that I couldn’t tell them why. A lot of people would try to guess who we had in there. They’d say ‘Is it the Rolling Stones?’ and I’d go ‘Well, I don’t know…’ Sometimes I’d get people going by saying it was a Smiths reunion.”
Hermon remembers that the first day of recording took place the day after Osama bin Laden was killed. And thus, what had been the world's best-kept secret gave way to what ended up being one of the most closely guarded secrets in music history.
Fellow pop stars have been incredulous that Bowie managed to keep his comeback under wraps until now. And former Oasis member Noel Gallagher is particularly impressed that Bowie is returning with new music instead of trotting out the old hits on a tour.
“If you had turned on the news and it had said ‘David Bowie is to do a series of concerts next year,’ everyone would have gone, ‘Oh great, can’t wait, that’s it, let’s talk about something else.’ But we’re still talking about that song," he said, shortly after the single "Where Are We Now?" was sprung on the world in January. "New music and records rule, but reunions for gigs are s---, you know?"
Gallagher didn't believe it himself when his wife told him about the single the morning it was released. "There aren’t that many times in your life, particularly in this day and age, where you wake up in the morning and it’s already gone off in the middle of the night. My missus was going, ‘David Bowie has made a new record, it’s just been on the radio,’ and I was like, ‘Are you sure it’s not just f---ing Ziggy Stardust?’... The fact that he kept his comeback a secret is mind-blowing. I mean, what was he doing, writing it under his duvet at night when his missus had gone out?"
Bowie's antipromotion campaign for the album is also staggering in this day and age. He's not doing any interviews for the album, but he did make a concession for NME, when it came to being photographed for the cover. He had his friend Jimmy King take a photo of him wearing a mask and send it to the weekly British music magazine. Some shoppers have assumed the image is a graphic the magazine cobbled together, but those really are Bowie's bangs and blue eyes.
The album cover was also a closely guarded secret. The designer said they managed to fool people connected with it by making them think it was connected to an upcoming exhibition about Bowie in a British museum, and by using a code name.
Visconti, who has known and worked with Bowie since 1967, had the longest and toughest job of keeping the project a secret for two and a half years.
How'd the disappearing act start in the first place? As Bowie fans well remember, his 2003-2004 tour was cut short by a health scare, which led to the emergency angioplasty. Before then, there'd been no talk of taking time off, to his collaborators' knowledge. Drummer Sterling Campbell said that Bowie was talking about going back into the studio as soon as that tour was over, "because we were on a roll." But, noted Dorsey, after the angioplasty, "those sort of moments are a wake-up call in anybody's life, and you have to make some decisions about how you want to spend your time. He didn’t want to be living in buses and hotels any more.” Sax player Steve Elson said he ran into Bowie in the interim and was told "that he was happy staying home and raising his daughter."
Any photographs that appeared of Bowie walking to the market were carefully examined for signs that the rocker might be infirm or dying. But reports of his imminent real death as well as creative demise were greatly exaggerated.
At the start of the process, Visconti told NME, "He was finding his voice--he’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day. But, boy, did it kick in. Then, for a whole year he was doing vocals. He did all his own backing vocals, too, which is pretty laborious to do. He’s got no health issues that I know of at the moment.”
Elaborating on Bowie's condition for the BBC, Visconti said, "He’s rosy-cheeked...During the recording, he was smiling all the time. He was so happy to be back in the studio. From the old days, I as recall, he was always the loudest singer I’ve ever worked with. When he starts singing, I have to back off. I have to go into another room and just leave him in front of the microphone. And he still has that power in his chest--in his voice, he still has it. We all know he had a health scare in 2003 or 2004, I think. But he’s a very healthy man, I can assure you. And I’ve been saying this for the past few years. I couldn’t explain how I knew that."
Bowie helped win vows of secrecy by appealing to his collaborators' sense of surprise. "I said to him, ‘You know, David, this is gonna be a hard thing for me to keep under my belt. This is something I wanna boast about.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but just think how good you’ll feel when the recore comes out.’ And he was right," sax player Elson said in NME. "I could tell that this was something that really neeed to be kept quiet, so that he could work the way he wanted to work. So I kept my mouth shut.”
And yet some wondered if they had held Bowie's secret in vain, as they wondered whether the album would come out, since most of the full-band sessions wrapped up in the fall of 2011, and Bowie did not keep everyone who'd participated filled in on plans in the meantime. "I don’t think any of us really believed that it was gonna come out until we saw the song online," said Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal. Bassist Dorsey had her doubts over the last year, as Bowie continued work, reclusively, without her: "I was beginning to think he had...changed his mind about releasing the record."
Touring? Not now, which is not to say not ever. When Visconti was quoted as saying Bowie had repeatedly nixed the idea of hitting the road, he used Twitter to follow up: "I never said Bowie would never perform live again. Pitchfork made that up. He won't tour for this album--that's all I said."
Earl Slick said his "mindset would go back and forth both ways" over the past 10 years as he wondered whether Bowie would ever officially return to the music business again. But "one thing I did know is that once you're an artist, you're an artist until the day you die," the guitarist told Rolling Stone. "The urge is always going to be there. I was never sold on the idea that he was done. Never." That's why he won't believe that a tour won't happen until it doesn't happen, even though he and the other musicians have gotten no encouragement in that regard. "I can’t speak for him or the organization," he told Ultimate Classic Rock. "Obviously, the band would love to go out. Even if it’s not a huge tour, we would like to go out and do some gigs. But that’s yet to be seen. I could get a phone call tomorrow saying, 'Hey, you know what? Here’s the setlist.'"
Here's hoping Bowie is keeping another big secret from us...and from every single person he works with. As everyone now knows, it wouldn't be a first.