The inside story of how David Bowie made The Next Day

David Bowie sprang the biggest surprise the pop industry has seen in years by recording his new single Where Are We Now? and a new album in complete secrecy. Producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Earl Slick and others in the know reveal how it happened – and spill more about the singer's plans

On Tuesday morning, the astonishment that greeted the release of David Bowie's first single in a decade seemed almost universal. The shock was not merely that Bowie – long since presumed retired – was back, with an album, The Next Day, to follow in March; it was that one of the biggest stars in the history of rock music had managed to spend two years making a record without even a hint of rumour reaching the wider world. This in an age of cameraphones and gossip websites and social media.

"We haven't seen this before, a real legend dropping the announcement, the music, the photographs, everything in the blink of an eye," says Tim Ingham, editor of music industry magazine Music Week. "At 66, he's run the whole machinery of the music industry and the music media ragged, and he's run social media ragged too. Social media by its very nature demands facts or – in the absence of facts – speculation; if it doesn't know, it'll make it up itself. But the lack of chatter enhanced the PR impact. In terms of a basic product announcement, which is all this is, he's come back with more of a media storm than any other artist has produced in recent years."

At least part of the reason Bowie was able to keep his comeback a secret until the last minute is down to the remarkably low-key nature of his business arrangements: a reaction, long-standing producer Tony Visconti suggests, to the early 70s, when Bowie's management company Mainman "had about 45 people looking after him, or allegedly looking after him", an arrangement that ended in chaos and litigation. Today, his New York office has a staff of one. He has no official manager, relying instead on his business manager Bill Zysblat – a figure "as low-key as you can get," according to Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka – who began life as the Rolling Stones' tour accountant before joining Bowie in the early 80s, and his fiercely loyal PA Corrine "Coco" Schwab. The latter is something of a legend in Bowie mythology and rumoured to be the subject of his song Never Let Me Down. "She's been with him since the mid-70s," says Trynka. "Some of the musicians who worked with him hated her, but they invariably point out she's smart, sometimes intimidatingly so, and utterly devoted to Bowie. He trusts her absolutely."

David Bowie - Where Are We Now? on MUZU.TV.

"It means you can react to things very quickly, you can do things incredibly secretively, which you couldn't do if it was one of those situations where there are 20 different managers involved," says a source close to Bowie. "When David comes into Britain to do something like his appearance on [Ricky Gervais sitcom] Extras, nobody knows he's here. He's very good at being low-key. How many times over the last 10 years have you seen pictures of him? There have maybe been two or three paparazzi shots of him in a decade. He's not a recluse, but he's seen when he wants to be seen."

His deal with his record label seems equally unique: he has no A&R man supervising his work, which, says Visconti, "is not normal for any star". Even Rob Stringer, the president of the Sony Music Label Group and one of the most powerful men in the music industry, only became aware of The Next Day's existence a month ago, when he was invited to the studio in New York to hear some tracks. "We still haven't given him a copy of the album," chuckles Visconti. "He came to the studio. He was thrilled. He said 'what about the PR campaign?' And David said, 'there is no PR campaign. We're just going to drop it on 8 January. That's it.' It's such a simple idea, but Bowie came up with it."

Meanwhile, when I contact the British arm of Sony, they won't discuss the project at all, which could be related to rumours that while Bowie's UK PR company, the Outside Organisation, were given notice last Friday, the label itself knew nothing right up until the point at which Where Are We Now? materialised on iTunes at 5am on Tuesday. "They certainly seemed as surprised as the rest of us," notes Ingham wryly.

By contrast, the people who actually worked on the album seem not so much happy as desperate to talk about The Next Day. "I was on the cover of Guitar Player magazine," laments Earl Slick, the Bowie sideman responsible for, among other things, the astonishing soloing on 1976's Station to Station. "It was the Christmas issue, the one you want to be on the cover of, the one that's on the newsstands twice as long. And I'm making a new Bowie album and I can't tell them anything. The only person I told was my manager."

David Bowie
Bowie in Paris, 1977. Photograph: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis Photograph: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis

Tony Visconti, who says he only finished work on the album last week and wasn't expecting it to be announced on Tuesday – "I thought they were just going to put out a single" – also seems delighted to be rid of two years of subterfuge, non-disclosure agreements and, as he bluntly puts it, "bare-faced lies". He told only his partner and his children what was going on. "People would ask 'what are you working on at the moment?'. About a year ago, I started saying well, I'm working on a very big project but I can't tell you what it is. That satisfied most people, but then a few people would say 'it's Bowie, isn't it?'. And I'd go, I can't tell you who it is, even if you said the person's name I can't say yes or no. And they'd go 'it's Bowie'. And I'd go 'no, really it isn't'. I was a little uncomfortable with that, but it was the only way to do it."

Now he's free to gush about the album at will. The elegiac balladry of Where Are We Now? isn't particularly representative, he says. "The album is eclectic, it's got five really blistering rock tracks. The rest is really mid-tempo, mysterious and evocative. He's been obsessed with medieval English history, which, believe it or not, makes great material for a rock song. And contemporary Russian history, which makes a great rock song. The subject matter he choses to write about is amazing. The Next Day is a song about a tyrant, let me leave it at that. One thing the album's got is a lot of substance. You're going to have to listen to it many times, because the lyrical content's going to take a long time to absorb.

He's been obsessed with medieval English history, which, believe it or not, makes great material for a rock song.

"It's got an instantly familiar sound, because the band are rocking away and it's David Bowie's voice. He's singing very low-key on the single. A lot of people have misinterpreted that, thinking that he's going to sound old and frail on this record, but for that song he wanted to sound vulnerable. Big difference. Elsewhere, he's singing in full voice, that voice you hear on Heroes, so loud that I literally had to step away from him in the studio."

Visconti says he wasn't surprised when Bowie contacted him about recording two years ago, despite the fact that the singer had told him barely a year before that he had no interest in making more music and furthermore hadn't written any songs, a statement he now thinks was a fib. "You know, he's an artist, he can't sit on his creativity forever. You could tell from the beginning that the songs were stunning even in primitive form. They were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he had all along."

Complete secrecy was a precondition from the start: early on, they were obliged to move studios after the owners allegedly leaked information about who was working there. "We told them to keep it a secret and they blew it within 24 hours. We hadn't even started the album but we got a phone call: 'is it true you're making a record at such and such a studio?'. We just denied everything. Even when we made the first demos, we were sworn to secrecy. The three musicians working on them – me, Sterling Campbell on drums and Jerry Leonard on guitar – had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It was unnecessary with the the three of us, we were long-time Bowie people – if he'd just said keep it a secret and don't tell a soul, we would have done that without signing – but later on, as the crew on the album got bigger, the NDAs were necessary because we didn't know everyone that well. We got lucky with the studio, a place called The Magic Shop in SoHo. Normally there are interns at studios, but whenever we were there, they gave their interns time off. They didn't want them to witness it. When we were working there, they had a skeleton staff of two, which is not normal."

Did the secrecy affect the sessions? "Definitely. We had to talk about it about it as a group, share our experience of the insanity, the frustration. And David would just sit there smiling. The fun we were having in the studio overshadowed all the neuroses, but there definitely were neuroses."

Even with security so strict that when Earl Slick turned up to work on the album last July, not even his own roadie was allowed in the studio – "I told him to pick me up Tuesday at 1pm and drop me off at the studio, but I said, they got guys to haul the gear in at the studio, you just sit in the truck" – Visconti seems astonished than no one found out. "The evidence was there, but no one put all the pieces together. He was photographed near the studio. Over a year ago, he asked Robert Fripp to play on the album and Robert Fripp put it on his blog, something like 'David Bowie's asked me to play on his album but I'm too busy', and no one believed it! If someone was actually monitoring all these leaks, they could have put it together."

I know we have the makings of another album

No one did, enabling an artist who has always thrived on mystique to return in suitably mysterious style. "There might be a lesson in there for the wider music industry," suggests Tim Ingham. "We live in an age when distraction is everywhere, consumers are multi-screening – and multi-screening is actually an acceptable verb – and the industry assumes that to get what marketing departments call cut-through or mind-share for music you have to bombard people: artists are supposed to be in a constant dialogue with their fans, via Twitter or blogs or Facebook. It's a timely reminder that mystique is a valuable commodity. You can perhaps give people more by giving them less."

As for Bowie, Tony Visconti seems confident that The Next Day is a new beginning rather than simply one last hurrah. They ended up recording 29 songs, he says, and even on the deluxe edition of the album, there are only 17 tracks. "We have tracks left over that are really great, that just didn't fit with this batch, so I know we have the makings of another album. And I know he wants to keep recording. I'm not sure when, but I think he'll be back in the studio later this year."

David Bowie
Bowie with his wife Iman. Photograph: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DKMS Photograph: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DKMS

Meanwhile, despite the fact that no live dates have been announced for the forseeable future, Earl Slick says he'd like to tour the album. "Of course I would! I'm the biggest roadhog on the planet." He's not holding his breath, he says, but "as far as I'm concerned, anything he says or does could change. Nothing he does surprises me, ever. Never has, never will. When he contacted me about working on the album it was like, what's this about? 'Are you available?' Yeah, I'm available, what's going on? 'Well I wanna do some recording,' – like he was asking you to go have a cup of tea."

In the meantime, he says, he's trying to work out which of the songs on The Next Day feature him. "You gotta understand, I haven't heard the finished thing yet. He was still finishing and polishing the lyrics when I left. I can't actually figure out the titles I've seen. I don't know which ones I actually played on."

The last time Slick heard from Bowie, he says, it was via email: "I got a nice message from him saying 'thank you for keeping quiet'." He laughs. "He knows what I'm like. I'm a Brooklyn Italian, you know what I mean? I got a big fuckin' mouth."

• This article was amended on 16 January 2013. The original said that Rob Stringer, president of the Sony Music Label Group, only knew about the release of the David Bowie album a month ago, when in fact he knew about it in October. This has been corrected.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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