INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Long Live Vinyl OCTOBER 2017 - by Gareth Murphy
BOWIE IN BERLIN
Released on September 29, A New Career In A New Town completes a trilogy of reissue boxsets charting the career of possibly music's greatest-ever innovator and most recognisable icon. At the heart of this thirteen-disc celebration of Bowie's Berlin period is a brand-new remix of 1979's Lodger by Tony Visconti. If you're a Bowie fan, it's a big deal. Gareth Murphy investigates
If the definition of rock 'n' roll is a kid from Shitsville rising up on a sea of arms and heroically banging his head against the edifice, then the Berlin Trilogy is the parable of what happens after he crawls away with his cracked skull in his hands. For forty years, we've marvelled at the strange magic of what Bowie considered his masterpiece. But what is this music? European post-rock, the original stirrings of new wave or the mad ravings of a lone genius?
"Nothing else sounded like those albums," concluded the man himself. "Nothing else came close. If I never made another album, it really wouldn't matter now. My complete being is within those three. They are my DNA." One can understand Bowie's pride. Low, "Heroes" and Lodger are records in the original sense of the word - they're travelogues, diary pages and train-window photographs. What's so compelling is that the man we thought we knew in his various theatrical guises has removed his mask and turned away from the audience. With the Berlin Wall as his mirror, the elusive David Jones is asking himself: 'Who am I? Why am I doing this? Am I my own worst enemy?'
The story begins where it all started to go wrong. The Diamond Dogs tour of 1974 was when glam Bowie moved to America and began spiralling into rock-star hell. Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary filmed that autumn, documented the torment in Bowie's sunken eye sockets. He was wasting away on a diet of milk, red peppers and ten grams of cocaine per day. Skeletal, incoherent and spending himself into a financial hole, he had told journalists he was bisexual, a claim he later described as "the biggest mistake of my life". He was in fact a "closet heterosexual"; a prisoner of daredevil instincts to walk tightropes in public and keep playing characters in private.
Bowie's deepest pain was over his schizophrenic half-brother, Terry, the love child of his mother and a French barman. Terry had been raised by Bowie's abusive grandmother, who had already driven three of his aunts to psychosis. It was Terry who initiated David into music and art before losing his mind. Bowie grew up obsessed with schizophrenia, and it others an explanation for his fascination with identities, drugs and exploring the boundaries between reality and fantasy - as if by mastering the art of insanity, he could beat the curse. Alas, Terry was in and out of mental hospitals all his life, until in 1985, he threw himself under a train.
Throughout 1975, Bowie was becoming suicidal. His mansion on North Doheny Drive in Bel Air was nestled in the heart of Hollywood, an environment of gated lawns and smiling cut-throats. He hated it from day one, but being a believer in the creative positives of alienation, Bowie wanted to see what it would give his writing. With curtains drawn, the daily hamster wheel of cocaine and manic thinking spun faster: to the point that his emerging Thin White Duke character was a type of cabaret Nazi, seeing Los Angeles as "a blister on the backside of humanity".
In the autumn of 1975, shortly after playing the marooned alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie began recording what he thought would be the estranged wife Angie had moved with their four-year-old son, Joe.
Although he was a solitary individual, the few Bowie counted as friends told him how torturous his company had become. His loyal assistant was Coco Schwab, but there was also Iggy Pop, who'd battled heroin addiction through the early '70s. On tour, 'David and Ig' were a dangerous duo, but at least they were getting into trouble together. In Rochester, they got busted with a half-pound of grass and spent a night in jail. Between the Zürich and Helsinki shows, they snuck off on a train to Moscow, where Russian border police confiscated biographies of Goebbels and Speer that Bowie had in his suitcase.
Bowie was happiest on trains. What also liked his spirits was the idea of helping Iggy get his career back on track. At the end of the tour, they camped in Château d'Hé outside paris and began recording Idiot. In September, before Iggy's album was mixed, Bowie began his own experiments on New Music Night And Day, the working title for Low. Even in the French countryside, Bowie was still in and out of coke binges, going broke and locked in legal wrangles with his manager, Michael Lippman. At one point, Angie appeared with a new boyfriend and provoked a bottle-smashing punch-up - the inspiration for Breaking Glass. Bowie's whole life was collapsing, but: "To his credit," as Tony Visconti put it, "he didn't put on a brave face." Bowie's saving grace was his honesty to himself and those around him.
With Visconti's Eventide Harmonizer and Eno's EMS briefcase synth, Bowie's soul musicians took on a toy-town sound that was neither 'krautrock' nor 'plastic soul'. But it's the sighs and deep breaths of Bowie's depression that sweep through the grooves of Low and give it such a spiritual otherworldliness.
FRENCH CASTLE MAGIC
"There was certainly some strange energy in that château," explained Visconti. "The master bedroom had a very dark corner next to the window that ironically seemed to just suck light into it. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck." Following arguments with the owners about food poisoning, Bowie moved work to Berlin, where, of course, the demons were real.
Always Crashing In The Same Car is about a series of drug meltdowns in his new open-topped Mercedes. Realising that he'd been shortchanged in a coke deal, Bowie found his dealer's car on Kurfürstendamm and rammed it repeatedly in broad daylight. Another verse describes when, strung out and angry with himself, he accelerated in circles around the car park of Hotel Gehrus. When the empty motor spluttered to a halt, Bowie and Iggy burst into laughter.
Falling off the wagon in ludicrous ways was all part of the recovery. Coco Schwab found them a modest, seven-room apartment at 155 Hauptstrasse in Berlin's multicultural Schöneberg neighbourhood. To symbolise the fresh start, she hung on the walls empty white canvasses. The problem, however, was RCA.
Convinced Low was commercial suicide, they tried to shelve it, but compromised by pushing back the release from the pre-Christmas rush to a shier slot in January 1977. Despite negative reviews, many felt Low had a strange beauty about it. Without a tour, it reached Number 2 on the UK album charts. In America, it reached Number 11 - below Bowie's batting average, but by no means a flop.
SPEED OF LIFE
Anonymous in Berlin, Bowie dressed ordinarily, grew a moustache, put on weight and cycled all over the city. "Look at yourself more accurately," he kept thinking. "Find some people you don't understand and a place you don't want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries."
Making German friends and hearing their family stories soon cured Bowie of his Nazi fascination. He read, painted portraits of acquaintances, and often visited the Brücke Museum to view his favourite masters such as Kirchner, Kollwitz and Heckel. He explored Berlin's nightlife and hung out in Joe's Beer Haus, Dschungel and the Unlimited. He was drinking heavily, sometimes throwing up in public or grabbing microphones in cabaret bars, but the drug-taking became less frequent.
With the release of The Idiot in March 1977, also on RCA, Bowie offered to play keyboards in Iggy's touring band. Although coke was abundant on the road, Bowie kept a low profile and returned to Berlin, eager to get back into the studio. By then, Iggy had moved in with an attractive neighbour named Esther, and was becoming such a health freak he kept dragging Bowie into the back seat of Esther's Beetle to explore the wooded lake lands around Berlin. "Iggy loved the rinky-dink villages full of strange old German people," remembered Bowie. "We used to get lost... and be in places made of wood, just to wash every shred of America off. Taking a walk was like taking a shower."
Thus began Iggy's follow-up, Lust For Life, produced by Bowie that spring. Iggy, in fact, wrote The Passenger about not having a driver's licence and always being the couch crasher in everyone's lives.
Then came "Heroes" in the summer of 1977. With Eno and others camping in Bowie's flat, work was fast, reckless and joyous. As Tony Visconti described it: "Working with Bowie is much more than going to a studio, it's a social event, too. We would eat together, go to shows together, go to clubs together, and really soak in the local culture." Eno and Bowie communicated in Dudley Moore and Peter Cook voices. Tony Visconti had his own studio exclamations, such as "Someone fuck a priest!" - which inspired "Someone fetch a priest" in the opening track. When Robert Fripp flew in and was promised a wild night of clubs and Berlin girls, he announced in a deadpan Dorset accent: "I have hopes to wave the sword of union tonight." Eno later claimed: "I don't think I've ever laughed so much making a record." For Visconti, also: "We couldn't stop laughing!"
But serious business was getting done. Fripp's 'Frippertronic' effects were processed through Eno's briefcase, or were manipulated by Visconti and Bowie into collages. "Before we knew it," remembers Visconti, "we had a sound no one had ever heard before." To create surprises, Eno introduced his 'oblique strategies', randomly picked cards that forced everyone to step outside their comfort zones. Bowie also tried out tricks he'd learned from Iggy. Instead of preparing chords and lyrics at home, he'd let the music write itself and cough up words on the spot.
From a large window in the control room, they were looking straight at the Berlin Wall, complete with a gun tower manned by Russian soldiers. "Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things," said Bowie of this scarred warzone. A friend and fellow exile at the time was film director David Hemmings, who believed that: "Everything that was going to happen would show itself in Berlin." Channelling all these sights and feelings, Bowie delivered the trilogy's timeless anthem. A textbook definition of lightning in a bottle, not only does "Heroes" capture the turning point in Bowie's own personal battle, its thundering scenery immortalised a time and place that marked all our lives: the Cold War, and behind it, the mutual trauma of Hitler's war. For a deceptively simple pop song, "Heroes" is the most overwhelming flood of symbols and sensations. It stands beneath the crushing weight of history and kisses the girl.
Released to ecstatic reactions in October 1977, RCA announced: "There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's David Bowie." Lost in his Berlin bubble, Bowie had missed punk and yet ""Heroes"" seemed to fit in and up the ante. "The few punk bands I saw in Berlin struck me as being sort of post-'69 Iggy and it seemed like he'd already done that," said Bowie. In fact, he saw Johnny Rotten grovelling backstage at an Iggy gig, visibly awestruck. What most marked Bowie were the lost eyes of his sidekick, Sid Vicious - too young to be a poster junkie. When journalists quizzed Bowie about punk's themes of apocalyptic alienation, he neither saw the romance nor the originality. "You've just described my frame of mind in 1976," he replied, suggesting that Low had been its own lo-fi, anti-star reaction, complete with fights, bottle smashing, Nazi imagery and wasted disillusionment.
Throughout 1978, Bowie actively caught up with the world he'd checked out of. He embarked on his Isolar II tour, performing seventy-seven shows from which the double live album, Stage, was recorded. In January, Angie was hospitalised following apparent suicide attempts, so Bowie took Joe under his wing and twice whisked him off to Kenya on a father-and-son adventure. In September, when work on Lodger began, Bowie chose Mountain Studios, Montreux - for his son's sake. He even found time to play the lead role in a Berlin film, Just A Gigolo.
In an interview on Capital Radio halfway through the recording of Lodger, a young caller asked him what he thought of new wave. "Darling, I am new wave," answered Bowie, bewildered that people couldn't hear it. Listen to The Secret Life Of Arabia, the closing track on "Heroes". Not only does its opiated groove foretell Lodger - it's the template for all post-punky dance music.
As Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Long Live Vinyl: "David Bowie definitely had a god-like aura with our band. We devoured Low and "Heroes", not least because we began working with Eno in '78. Having said that, we were big Bowie fans before we ever even heard of Eno." The interest was mutual. Bowie loved Talking Heads and became fascinated with their entire scene.
In early 1979, "David came into Rough Trade to buy The Normal, Thomas Leer & Robert Rental and Cabaret Voltaire," confirms Geoff Travis. "He was checking out the very early post-punk electronic records." On the question of whether Bowie was the original pathfinder, Travis prefers to describe him as "above the fray, always singular... The Berlin albums are peerless".
Recorded over six months, Lodger proved to be the most audacious of the trilogy. "Built up of contradictions and ironies," it has Berlin cabaret, Downtown dance clubs, Chinese, Jamaican and Turkish modulations, concrete blocks and squawking jungles. The crew couldn't entirely understand why Bowie needed to stir up such a giant melting pot, and most remembered Lodger as the trilogy's difficult third album. Some had grown tired of Eno's oblique strategies, and in fact, Eno left before its completion. Cocaine had even crept into the studio, creating a madness they'd hitherto avoided.
Bowie loved Lodger. Conscious he was now the vanguard of new wave, he pushed its sonic and ethnic frontiers into a new world. With everyone still scratching their sore heads, Lodger was mixed in New York's Record Plant in spring 1979, at a time when Bowie was moving into Manhattan.
Joe's custody case was coming up, and Berlin was no place for a seven-year-old. As a result, Tony Visconti found himself grappling with Lodger's dense soundscapes, mostly alone - a regret Bowie felt for the rest of his life.
Released in May 1979, RCA billed Lodger as "Bowie's Sgt. Pepper". Many disagreed, but objectively, it was the Trilogy's culmination, answering those original questions: 'Who am I really?' and 'Why am I doing this?'. Berlin had been Bowie's 'clinic' and afterwards, he stepped out and embraced a brighter future - a citizen of the modern world.