Live And Well – In The Funhouse

Here’s some really cool cabin fever house music for all of you stuck in the house

Really Cool Art by SPAAL

In honor of the official release of the Is It Any Wonder? EP later this week, we thought we’d take a closer look at a related bootleg album, Funhouse: The Earthling Demo “Is It Any Wonder”, along with the bizarre story behind this auditory house of mirrors.

ARE WE HAVING FUN, YET?

A lot of folks probably first learned about “Fun” back in February 2020 via the official announcement from Parlophone while promoting the Is It Any Wonder? EP:

“FUN (CLOWNBOY MIX)” originated as a modern revamp of the Bowie classic “Fame” to be performed under the name “Is It Any Wonder?” during Bowie’s “club set” on the Earthling tour.

The basic backing and sequencer tracks were worked at the Factory in Dublin docklands during pre-tour rehearsals in early 1997. A live version of “Fame” recorded at the Amsterdam Paradiso on June 10th, 1997 was further worked on by Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels at Looking Glass Studios in New York and mixed at Sony Music Studios in New York in February 1998. At one point the live version of “FUN,” as it was now being called, was considered for inclusion on the BowieNet exclusive Liveandwell.com album and appeared on early reference masters. Referenced in interviews by Gabrels as “Funhouse,” the song further developed lyrically and musically and by the time Danny Saber created the “Clownboy Mix” in May 1998, it was a completely new piece of work written by Bowie and Gabrels and featuring no elements of “Fame.” The “Clownboy Mix” has previously only appeared on a BowieNet subscriber exclusive CD-ROM in 1998 and on Virgin Records in-house CDR’s along with four other “Clownboy Mix” variants.

The press release concludes, adding:

Also available is the drum and bass mix of “FUN” by UK D’N’B producer Dillinja as a one track digital download and streaming single to be released on March 20 2020, which had previously only been available on the Liveandwell.com CD which was exclusive to BowieNet members in 2000 and is making its debut digitally. This remix will also be found on the Club Bowie playlist. 

Far be it for me to contradict Parlophone and their claims of NEVER BEFORE HEARD DIGITAL DEBUTS, but in actuality it appears that “Fun” and it’s various mixes and mutations have been floating around YouTube since at least 2013 (either sourced from a Virgin Records promo CDR or the Glastonbury Messiah bootleg CD).

Relevant Youtube Links for Comparison:

Actual live footage of the song’s earlier permutation, confusingly also titled “Is It Any Wonder?” has also been available for at least as long:

Then in late 2019 some enterprising bootlegger gave the material a limited release on translucent green vinyl, which is how I first stumbled upon it, relatively late to a party that most people had been oblivious of in the first place.


“MY DREAM DOGS HAVE ARRIVED”

Here is the Dropbox link for Funhouse. If you want to know more about this house of mirrors, keep reading. It’ll be FUN! (MEGA and eventually YT links soon. I’m lazy at video editing, apparently.)

The listed track order is as follows:

  • A1. Fun (Dillinja Mix)
  • A2. Fun (Fade 2)
  • A3. Funhouse (BowieNet Mix)
  • A4. Funhouse (Clownboy Mix)
  • B1. Funhouse (Clownboy Mutant Mix)
  • B2. Funhouse (Clownboy Vocal Mix)
  • B3. Funhouse (Clownboy Instrumental Mix)
  • B4. Is It Any Wonder? (02.06.1997 First Time Live)

The liner notes from the Funhouse record provide their own history for these little-known recordings:

THE EART HL I NG TOUR AND THE BIRTH OF FUNHOUSE

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “Is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalogue. As he’s intended to release a live album from the Earthling Tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on June 10 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a cd-rom (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie has come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“My summer turns to fall…And I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 Liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” remixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler and promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, On 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed in CA. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.


The liner notes of a physical LP including a hyperlink struck me as odd… Especially as no source is actually cited on the record itself. Thankfully a quick search on BING! revealed that the text had been pulled from a Pushing Ahead Of The Dame article written back in 2013. The full article is well worth a read and helps provide a little more context on both Fun/Funhouse/Is It Any Wonder? and the relatively overlooked period of Bowie’s career they originated from. To this latter point, the Pushing Ahead Of The Dame article adds:

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.


Kicking off with a drone that sounds eerily like the linking book from Myst, the titular “Funhouse” (or “Fun,” or “Funho” or whatever you wanna call it) sounds like an intersection between the porno beat of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans”.

In fitting, I suppose, with the deranged carnival funhouse motif, the track listing on the record is riddled with misleading information; to start with, the album opens with one of the Danny Saber “Clownboy” mixes instead of the Dillinja version as stated. Its almost like the record is trying to BE the “funhouse”, full of signs pointing you toward dead ends until you’re thoroughly lost among its many winding corridors. Told you this would be FUN!


Just to take stock before things get any MORE confusing, I’ve listed the corrected track order below, including what little sense I’ve been able to make of each version:

  • A1. Fun (Clownboy Mix V?)
    • Mislabeled as the “Dillinja Mix”, sounds like the the Clownboy Mix to be included on the Is It Any Wonder? EP. Oddly enough, this version sounds different from the other main Clownboy mix available online, perhaps adjusted to a lower pitch per the sound of Bowie’s vocals.
  • A2. Fun (Fade 2)
    • Correctly labeled. That said, info on the “Fade 2” mix (or whatever happened to “Fade 1”) is scant.
  • A3. Funhouse (BowieNet Mix)
    • Same track as Fun “Live”. As noted on the Youtube page, and alluded to in the Pushing Ahead of the Dame article, this is a studio version with a live audience mixed in (and was apparently taken from a Liveandwell.com promo cassette).
    • As I missed out on both BowieNet and the Liveandwell.com CD I have no clue whether this was the exclusive downloadable version or not. FUN!
  • A4. Funhouse (Clownboy Vocal Up Mix)
    • Mislabeled as the main “Clownboy Mix”, sounds like the “Clownboy Vocal Up Mix”, which ironically contains very few actual vocals. MORE FUN!
  • B1. Funhouse (Clownboy Mutant Mix)
    • Correctly labeled. Actually seems to be exactly what it says it is, which is some sort of mixed up mutant clown roaming through a funhouse.
  • B2. Funhouse (Dillinja Mix)
    • Mislabeled as the “Clownboy Vocal Mix”, should be “Dillinja Mix”, which was a bonus track on the Liveandwell.com CD and a soon-to-be digital-only single (that’s been available digitally on YouTube since 2013). FUN, FUN, FUN, FUN!
  • B3. Funhouse (Clownboy Instrumental Mix)
    • Also correctly labeled. Phew!
  • B4. Is It Any Wonder? (02.06.1997 First Time Live)
    • As it so happens, this is also the only track on either the official EP or unofficial LP to actually bear the name “Is It Any Wonder?”
    • If the Funhouse liner notes are to be believed, this recording is the first time the song was performed live. However, the plethora of misinformation on the record begs the question: is this actually a live audience recording, or is it a studio take trying to pass for live?

To this last point, as mentioned in the blog/liner notes, the ‘Live at the Paradiso, Amsterdam’ recordings sound like they could just as likely be studio jobs incorporating pre-recorded (or canned) audience whoops and applause in to give off the impression of a live house show. It’s long been rumored that this is the case with the version of “Pallas Athena” recorded “live” at the Paradiso, Amsterdam.

“Little Wonder” from the proper Earthling album also employs similar devices (the sounds of people in a club can be heard around 3:42. This same general section, roughly around 2:56-3:48) bears a number of other musical similarities to “Fun/Funhouse/Is It Any Wonder?”).

So it’s hardly out of the question for Bowie to continue blurring those same lines elsewhere. If you consider all the studio over-dubbing on David Live (1974) and Stage (1978), or the canned audience at the end of “Future Legend” on Diamond Dogs, one could say Bowie’s been blurring the line between live and staged his whole career.

Speaking of “Amsterdam”, it might also bear mentioning that Bowie never released an official *studio* version of his other Jacque Brel cover, “My Death”, the only available versions being *live* performances. Almost seems a little superstitious of him


Maybe “Is It Any Wonder?” is intended more as a sardonic rhetorical question: Does any of this make you… WONDER? Does anything about it strike you as unusual? Maybe a little fishy? (“It’s not fishy.”)

Especially when one considers all the imagery associated with the funhouse: twisting corridors of distorted mirrors, maybe a murderous clown or two, and a carnivalesque sense of confusion as paradox builds upon paradox.

Just to hammer the nail home: Is it any wonder that a single relatively unheard-of Bowie track from 20+ years ago has enough material behind it to fuel a whole LP and then some?

Is it any wonder that so much confusion can arise from the origins of a single song?

Is it any wonder that even the line between “Live” and “Studio” has become inexorably blurred?

Is it any wonder that Bowie’s starting to drive me nuts? Get it?? NUTS! Okay, maybe that’s the cabin fever, but the end result is the sane.



Stay tuned, more quarantine music and crackpot theories will be coming down the pipe very soon.

&D

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