David Bowie (1947–2016) surprised his fans by releasing the single WHERE ARE WE NOW? on iTunes on 8 January 2013 at 5:00 AM, on his 66th birthday. At the same time, he published a video for the song on his official website. The song anticipated the release of the album The Next Day (8 March 2013), his 24th studio recording. Bowie had not released a new song since 2003 and had not played live since 2006 and had maintained a very low-key profile during the years.
For a couple of years Bowie rehearsed and recorded in secret with producer Tony Visconti, who had previously worked with Bowie on several of his albums (including among others “Heroes”, Low and Scary Monsters). Visconti said in an interview that Bowie sang melodies live in the studio (situated in New York, Columbia) and they worked together on arrangements. Visconti, Sterling Campbell and Gerry Leonard recorded the first demos at The Magic Shop studios in SoHo NYC. Musicians present at the album recording sessions included Earl Slick, Sterling Campbell, Zachary Alford, Gerry Leonard, David Torn, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Tony Levin.
Bowie lived in Berlin-Schöneberg between 1976 and 1978, where he produced three acclaimed albums Low, “Heroes”and Lodger, produced two Iggy Pop albums and starred in the film Just a Gigolo (1978). The song is a nostalgic look to Berlin in different times, in the 1970s, during the fall of the Wall in November 1989 and in the present.
The question “Where are we now?” can therefore be understood as temporal and as spatial insecurity. This is a common feeling among many visitors of the German capital, which is dominated by palimpsests. Palimpsest is a medieval scraped and re-written parchment; as an urban metaphor, it is used to refer to the erasure and re-writing of historical architectonical signifiers. Within the “short century”, Berlin has been the centre of six very different, mutually excluding historical experiences. These distant political, social, cultural, economic national projects left heritages, both real or imagined, still standing or removed, restored or hidden and haunt the city’s experience, determining its contemporary uncertain identity.
The song is a sort of emotional topography, which links places, palimpsests and addresses on one side to the individual experience of Bowie and, on the other side, to the city’s fluctuating history. Name-dropped are “Potsdamer Platz”, the Schöneberg club “Dschungel”, the “KaDeWe” shopping centre and the “Bösebrücke”. All elements played a role in Bowie’s Berlin years, being located in West-Berlin or between East and West. Dschungel was a discotheque in close proximity to Bowie’s address (Hauptstrasse 155) in Schöneberg, where a lot of German and international artists and musicians used to hang out. The Potsdamer Platz was the most important redevelopment area throughout the 1990s, the KaDeWe a central shopping centre and symbol of western consumerism, the Bösebrücke a bridge between East- and West-Berlin (Bornholmer Strasse border crossing) and among the first passageways on 9th November 1989.
WHERE ARE WE NOW? is a mellow ballad at 80 bpm with a simple chord progression, starting with a Fmaj7. There is a very sparse instrumentation of guitar, bass, piano, drums and some keys creating a low background for the voice.
The lyrics are a nostalgic look to Berlin and to specific spots of the city that the protagonist of the song seems to meander through or to remember. There are in fact references to movement (catching a train, crossing a bridge) and to people spotted as if in transit (“a man lost in time”). There are also references to remembering these events and telling them to someone (“you never knew that / that I could do that”) and there is a repeating sentence, “walking the dead”, which could refer to past events, people or buildings. The song closes with more universal statements about natural ever-lasting phenomena: the sun, rain, fire, me and you.
The video of the song, by American artist Tony Oursler, goes even deeper in the topographic exploration of Berlin in different time-frames. It shows a room (probably an art studio) where images from old home-films are shown on a drape. The landmarks sung in the lyrics are shown along others including the Wall, the Fernsehturm, the Bundestag, Berlin Cathedral, the Siegessäule and the entrance of a Mietskaserne (block of flats). In the foreground two puppets sit on a piece of furniture – one of them with Bowie’s and the other with an unknown woman’s superimposed face.
The sudden appearance of the song on the artist’s official homepage and on iTunes was a surprise for fans and critics. WHERE ARE WE NOW? went on top of the download charts in several countries.
Artist Momus made a cover of the song, accompanied by a video on the same day Bowie released it and documented the whole process on his website.
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”, 2013, ISO Records 886443826403, US (File, MP3, Single).
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”. On: The Next Day, 2013, ISO Records/Columbia, 88765 46186 2, Europe (CD, Album, Digipak).
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”. On: The Next Day Extra, 2013, Columbia, ISO Records, none (24xFile, Album, MP3).
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”. On: The Next Day Extra, 2013, Columbia/ISO Records, 88883787812, Europe (Box, Ltd + CD, Album + CD, Comp + DVD, NTSC) .
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”. On: The Next Day, 2013, Columbia, none (17xFile, MP3, Album).
- David Bowie. “Where Are We Now?”. On: The Next Day, 2013, ISO Records, Columbia/Sony Music, 88765 461861, UK (2xLP, Album, 180 + CD, Album + Ltd, Del).
- Momus. “Where Are We Now?”. On: Turpsycore, 2015, American Patchwork, AMPATCH016, US (3xCD/Album).
- Petridis, Alexis: “The inside story of how David Bowie made The Next Day”. In: The Guardian, 12 January 2013. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jan/12/david-bowie-how-made-next-day [15.05.2017].
- Pidd, Helen: “Where are we now? Here are some hints, Bowie”. In: The Guardian, 8 January 2013. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jan/08/where-are-we-now-hints-bowie [15.05.2017].
- Artist homepage: http://davidbowie.com [22.06.2017].
- Music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWtsV50_-p4&feature=youtu.be [22.06.2017].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Where Are We Now? (David Bowie)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/wherearewenow, 06/2017.Print