Remembering Blackstar: Bowie's Final Studio 'Experiment'

GRAMMY winners Tony Visconti and Tom Elmhirst reflect on the unique brilliance of David Bowie, the liberating and creative studio sessions for Blackstar and how Zen philosophy formed the heart of his production style

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. In this installment, producer/engineer Tony Visconti and engineer/mixer Tom Elmhirst detail the making of Blackstar, which earned David Bowie four posthumous awards at the 59th GRAMMYs: Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for "Blackstar.")

Tony Visconti: It had been a little more than a year since we finished David's previous album, The Next Day. We always had several meetings before every album began. We'd discuss the direction it would take, and also listen to what other artists had recently released.  

With Blackstar, we hired a studio and put down some ideas with a drummer and keyboard player, and me on bass, to test the waters. David also made demos on his own playing all the instruments. When we would work, though, we rarely referred to the demos. He didn't want the band to imitate the demos, he wanted to hear their first interpretations.  

Tom Elmhirst: I was in my room, Studio C, at Electric Lady Studios, when Tony Visconti and David booked the room next to my studio. Suddenly, David just walked into my control room, sat down and said, "Will you mix my album?" I said, "Of course!" And then we got on with it.

Visconti: There was never the same approach to a David Bowie album. He would preface every album by stating it was just an experiment. David chose the musicians most of the time. And often it would be David and me doing backing vocals. That's only us singing backups on the whole Heroes album, for instance, and also on most of Scary Monsters, and many others.

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Elmhirst: It was really easy to work with David. He was incredibly liberating. He'd say, "Just go. Go and have fun with it. Do what you do." I am really into reggae and dub, and he loved all that, and said, "Go for it." Not that there's much of that on Blackstar. But his attitude was very much "do what you do."

Visconti: He sang live with every take of the band while tracking. It was wonderful to see him singing live. He impressed the band, too. He was probably building up his chops for when the vocal sessions would take place.

Elmhirst: The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song "Blackstar," which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album ("Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away") as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn't have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.

Visconti: David always loved to do complete [vocal] takes, maybe as many as four. Usually, take one was the keeper with some words or lines used from the other takes. On rare occasions, he'd punch in. He always liked a good mix to sing to with some reverb on his voice. He didn't like hanging around if he was raring to go, so before he arrived I would create a very workable mix and my assistant would get the levels on my voice trying to sing as loud as he would. No matter how loud I would sing he'd always sing louder.

Elmhirst: "Blackstar" was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about 10 minutes long. It needed form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out 10-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can't give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through. When it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It's really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more.

Visconti: We worked on Blackstar for maybe six months, with three months for tracking and another three for overdubs. We'd visit [Tom Elmhirst] every day to modify the balances, special effects, etc. This wasn't a remote mix with us living in another city. We were hands on. Tom brought a magic to the mixes we never expected.

Elmhirst:  Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They'd come around 3 in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We'd go through stuff together, and then they'd take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn't really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.

Visconti: I never asked [David] if this was his final album. Some of the lyrics were very dark but I would never say to him, "Are you making a final album?" Absolutely not. It was written somewhere that I did ask him, but I was misquoted. He was already talking about making a new album before this one was released. He told me he had new demos for a new album, but I never heard them.

If anything, that idea [that he knew this was his final album] was an erroneous observation many people imagined after he had passed. After all, David's been writing about death and decay since the '70s.

Elmhirst: I could tell that David wasn't well. He couldn't stay very long. He didn't have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone's satisfaction.

I didn't know it would be his final album. We even talked about working on another record soon. And he was very keen. There wasn't a sense that this was it. Obviously, in the reflection, lyrically, it really was his last statement, wasn't it?

Visconti: David and I always had similar eclectic tastes in music and we took a great joy in turning each other on with something he or I hadn't heard before. Our style of production was, for want of a better word, Zen. We made sure we had master musicians working with us, and we'd sometimes jump on their mistakes as being perfect, the thing we'd least expect. For most people it would end in catastrophe. It takes a lot of experience to work at this level. I've hardly ever worked with anyone else like him.

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(As engineers on David Bowie's Blackstar, Tony Visconti and Tom Elmhirst earned Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for their work on the project. Elmhirst won two additional GRAMMY Awards for his work on Adele's 25: Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year for "Hello.")

(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)


We Will, We Will Shock You

A collection of shocking album covers that might make you look twice (or look away)

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

As the baby boomer-fueled market moved from singles to albums in the '60s and '70s, artists began using LP covers as a means to create bold visual statements, occasionally using nudity, sexual imagery or striking graphics. Sometimes the purpose was to create art for the ages, while other times it was to push boundaries. Either way, the most controversial covers were often banned or altered by record companies for fear of public or retail outrage. One of the most famous cases of censorship was one of the first — the Beatles' "butcher" cover for 1966's Yesterday And Today, which featured a grinning Fab Four covered in raw meat and plastic baby doll parts. (The cover was reportedly an anti-Vietnam war commentary by the group.) Capitol Records issued a new cover with a less-shocking photo after the original caused an uproar. In the '70s and '80s, German rock band the Scorpions made a series of albums with disturbing sexual imagery, including 1976's notorious (and quickly banned) Virgin Killer featuring a nude young girl. The cover was replaced by a conventional band portrait.

While shocking album covers do still exist, they have occurred with less frequency since the '90s as CDs, which de-emphasized cover art, replaced LPs and pop culture grew more permissive. Now, as album sales shift from physical to digital, the age of shock album covers is starting to seem like a bygone era. Here are a few other album covers that shocked us, and might shock you too.

Moby Grape
Moby Grape, 1967
Shocking fact: Drummer Don Stevenson's (center) middle finger was airbrushed out on later pressings.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Electric Ladyland, 1968
Shocking fact: The British release featured a bevy of naked women on the cover.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, 1968
Shocking fact: Distributors covered the explicit content — nude front and back portraits of Lennon and Ono — in brown paper. Even today, full frontal nudity remains objectionable for many.

The Rolling Stones
Beggars Banquet, 1968
Shocking fact: The band's U.S. and UK labels originally rejected the cover featuring a toilet and graffiti-covered bathroom wall. Today, the cover seems remarkably tame.

Blind Faith
Blind Faith, 1969
Shocking fact: The original cover featured a young nude girl holding a small plane. The replacement cover featured a shot of the band.

David Bowie
Diamond Dogs, 1974
Shocking fact: The cover illustration of Bowie as a (noticeably male) dog had the offending organs edited out.

Ohio Players
Honey, 1975
Shocking fact: The sexually suggestive cover features Playboy Playmate Ester Cordet swallowing honey from a spoon.

Jane's Addiction
Nothing's Shocking, 1988
Shocking fact: An ironic twist to the list. This artsy cover depicts a realistic sculpture, created by frontman Perry Farrell, featuring nude conjoined twins with hair afire.

Millie Jackson
Back To The S*!, 1989
Shocking fact: The take-no-prisoners soul singer poses on a toilet seat with one shoe off while grimacing. Often called the worst album cover ever.

The Black Crowes
Amorica, 1994
Shocking fact: Original cover featured an American flag-printed G-string showing pubic hair.



Jay Z Tops 56th GRAMMY Nominations With Nine

Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams earn seven nods each; other top nominees include Daft Punk, Drake, Lorde, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Nominations for the 56th GRAMMY Awards were announced tonight by The Recording Academy and reflected one of the most diverse years with the Album Of The Year category alone representing the rap, pop, country and dance/electronica genres, as determined by the voting members of The Academy. Once again, nominations in select categories for the annual GRAMMY Awards were announced on primetime television as part of "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!! — Countdown To Music's Biggest Night," a one-hour CBS entertainment special broadcast live from Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.

Jay Z tops the nominations with nine; Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams each garner seven nods; Drake and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig are up for five awards.

"This year's nominations reflect the talented community of music makers who represent some of the highest levels of excellence and artistry of the year in their respective fields," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "Once again, The Academy's awards process and its voting membership have produced an impressive list of nominations across various genres promising music fans a spectacular show filled with stellar performances and unique 'GRAMMY Moments.' We are off to a great start and look forward to GRAMMY Sunday as Music's Biggest Night takes the stage."

Following are the nominations in the General Field categories: 

Album Of The Year:
The Blessed Unrest — Sara Bareilles
Random Access Memories — Daft Punk
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — Kendrick Lamar
The Heist — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Red — Taylor Swift

Record Of The Year:
"Get Lucky" — Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams
"Radioactive" — Imagine Dragons
"Royals" — Lorde
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Bruno Mars
"Blurred Lines" — Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams

Song Of The Year:
"Just Give Me A Reason" — Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
"Roar" — Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
"Royals" — Joel Little & Ella Yelich O'Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
"Same Love" — Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert & Ryan Lewis, songwriters (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Mary Lambert)

Best New Artist:
James Blake
Kendrick Lamar
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Kacey Musgraves
Ed Sheeran

Following is a sampling of nominations in the GRAMMY Awards' other 29 Fields:

For Best Pop Solo Performance, the nominees are "Brave" by Sara Bareilles; "Royals" by Lorde; "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars; "Roar" by Katy Perry; and "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake.

The nominees for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance are "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams; "Just Give Me A Reason" by Pink Featuring Nate Ruess; "Stay" by Rihanna Featuring Mikky Ekko; "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams; and "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z.

For Best Dance/Electronica Album, the nominees are Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Settle by Disclosure; 18 Months by Calvin Harris; Atmosphere by Kaskade; and A Color Map Of The Sun by Pretty Lights.

The Best Rock Performance nominees are "Always Alright" by Alabama Shakes; "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" by David Bowie; "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons; "Kashmir (Live)" by Led Zeppelin; "My God Is The Sun" by Queens Of The Stone Age; and "I'm Shakin'" by Jack White.

For Best Alternative Music Album, the nominees are The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case; Trouble Will Find Me by The National; Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails; Lonerism by Tame Impala; Modern Vampires Of The City by Vampire Weekend.

The nominees for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration are "Power Trip" by J.Cole Featuring Miguel; "Part II (On The Run)" by Jay Z Featuring Beyoncé; "Holy Grail" by Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake; "Now Or Never" by Kendrick Lamar Featuring Mary J. Blige; and "Remember You" by Wiz Khalifa Featuring The Weeknd.

For Best Rap Album, the nominees are Nothing Was The Same by Drake; Magna Carta…Holy Grail by Jay Z; Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar; The Heist by Macklemore  & Ryan Lewis; and Yeezus by Kanye West.

The Best Country Album nominees are Night Train by Jason Aldean; Two Lanes Of Freedom by Tim McGraw; Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves; Based On A True Story by Blake Shelton; and Red by Taylor Swift.

The nominees for Best Americana Album are Old Yellow Moon by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell; Love Has Come For You by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell; Buddy And Jim by Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale; One True Vine by Mavis Staples; and Songbook by Allen Toussaint.

This year's Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical nominations go to Rob Cavallo, Dr. Luke, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jeff Tweedy, and Pharrell Williams.

This year's GRAMMY Awards process registered more than 22,000 submissions over a 12-month eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2012 – Sept. 30, 2013). GRAMMY ballots for the final round of voting will be mailed on Dec. 11 to the voting members of The Recording Academy. They are due back to the accounting firm of Deloitte by Jan. 8, 2014, when they will be tabulated and the results kept secret until the 56th GRAMMY telecast.

The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards will be held Jan. 26, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and once again will be broadcast live in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards are produced by AEG Ehrlich Ventures for The Recording Academy. Ken Ehrlich is executive producer, and Louis J. Horvitz is director.

For updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook




GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2015 - 12:07 am
HBO's 'David Bowie: The Last Five Years' Arrives January 2018

David Bowie

Photo: Kevin Mazur/


HBO's 'David Bowie: The Last Five Years' Arrives January 2018

Upcoming doc offers unique look at genius' response to the final years of his career

GRAMMYs/Dec 14, 2017 - 04:58 am

David Bowie fans are in for a bit of a late holiday gift. This upcoming Jan. 8, 2018, on what would have been Bowie's 71st birthday, the HBO documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years will be released.

Documentary director Francis Whately was concerned at first how to fill the screen for more than an hour covering just the last five years of Bowie's incredible career, but countless fellow artists who worked with Bowie stepped forward with their stories, augmenting the film's remarkable archival clips.

The projects from these final years were his albums Blackstar, The Next Day and the musical "Lazarus," but the artist's creativity in the face of his cancer diagnosis stands out, embracing the positive and decisively making some of his best work. At the 59th GRAMMY Awards, Blackstar and the title track won Bowie four GRAMMYs.

"Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in," Bowie concludes in the doc's trailer. "When you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about at the right place to do something exciting."

Millions inspired by Bowie's legacy will continue to turn to him as a touchstone to embrace taking their own special risks, both artistic and personal.

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