“Get me in on the right key, do whatever you want in the middle, and don’t make a sham out of the ending”: pianist Mike Garson on the joy of working with David Bowie at his most bold and free

Mike Garson in 2018, David Bowie in 2003
(Image credit: Chris McKay/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Mike Garson was one of David Bowie’s longest-running collaborators, a virtuoso pianist who played on a series of '70s classics such as Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs and then reconvened with Bowie for his run of bold, re-inventive '90s albums. But despite having a huge selection of iconic Bowie tunes to pick as a particular highlight that he played on, it’s a lesser-known cut that Garson nominates as one of his favourites – the 1995 single The Hearts Filthy Lesson.

“I always loved playing The Hearts Filthy Lesson live, there's a piano solo on it where I go just crazy, and because I helped write that song,” Garson explained to the music Substack letter The New Cue. “Every band I played in with David was great, but David gave us the most freedom to improvise on the Outside tour, specifically me, so I was having a ball. It was like my own jazz gig because it was just a free for all.”

Of the album’s studio sessions, Garson recalls that they went to Montreux in Switzerland to work at Mountain Studios, a facility previously frequented by Queen.

“It was an improvised album, so we were each in our own little booths and I had this nine-foot beautiful Steinway piano,” Garson recounted. “David would just go in and improvise for hours every day and him and Brian Eno put the music together based on that, so we all got equal composing credits.”

Garson said that everyone else in all the Bowie bands he played in had designated parts to play, but he was given free reign with only one stipulation from his boss.

“David just said, “please just get me in on the right key on the introduction and don’t make a sham out of the ending.” It was his only request, and then do whatever the fuck you want in the middle of the song. I was always changing shit around, so I was the loose cannon.” 

Listen to The Hearts Filthy Lesson below:

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.