INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo FEBRUARY 2012 - by Paul Trynka
SAFE EUROPEAN HOME
Conceived in an atmosphere of random experiment, and strong gin-and-tonics, originally dismissed as a "piece of crap", David Bowie's Low combined European intellectualism with American exuberance, and cemented the star's image as a suave '70s gentleman with the masterplan. Paul Trynka immerses himself in the chaos, ghosts, bruises and lockdowns that went into Bowie's music revolution.
It started with two crises, and a work of charity. Throughout David Bowie's time in Los Angeles in late 1975, as he descended into a cocaine-addled psychotic netherworld of alien visitations and Aryan mythology, he had also become obsessed with the abstract, electronic sound of Kraftwerk. But his first attempt at assimilating this new movement proved a disaster, when sessions with, arranger Paul Buckmaster at Cherokee studios were abandoned, essentially unfinished. This was a rare setback, for even in the midst of crisis, David Bowie had proved remarkably adept, in control of the situation despite the psychoses that assailed him. After escaping from LA, via rehearsals in Jamaica and Vancouver for his imminent world tour, Bowie seemed to rebuild himself once again. Yet it turned out that the one event that truly made David Bowie pull out of his psychological tailspin was the act of rescuing the man who would be his companion throughout 1976, namely Iggy Pop.
The troubled ex-Stooge had been through a period of self-abuse and vilification that made Bowie's LA meltdown look like a walk in the park. Iggy had stabbed himself on-stage, been confined to a mental institution, and by the winter of 1975 was reduced to sleeping on a stolen lounger mattress ir u garage in West Hollywood. Finally, he'd been arrested for stealing vegetables and called an old friend, Freddie Sessler, for help. A concentration camp survivor and man of rugged humour, Sessler was also the supplier of the finest pharmaceutical cocaine on the West Coast. Unsurprisingly, Freddie knew David Bowie very well indeed; for it was the discovery of Merck cocaine - what Sigmund Freud termed "this magical substance" - that had brought David to his own psychological low. Now, by putting him in contact with Iggy, giving him a damaged soul to heal, Freddie lifted Bowie up again.
He needed lifting. Bowie's first electronic music, an intended soundtrack for the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, was a mess; without the core of regular musicians who gave his work shape, the results were aimless meanderings. Then there were disputes with his newly acquired manager, Michael Lippman, as well as British Lion, the company who'd financed the movie. The soundtrack was abandoned, and the multi-track tapes left in LA. Yet in January 1976, when David hooked up with Iggy in San Diego, everything snapped into focus. Rather than talk in depth about personal problems, Bowie simply played him a song Sister Midnight, inspired by a funky riff guitarist Carlos Alomar had crafted. Within days, Bowie proposed he and Iggy record an album - perhaps in Munich, at Conny Plank's studio - partly inspired by the Kraftwerk albums Bowie would play in their long listening sessions in the car. With this project in mind, new songs seemed to flow out of Bowie, something that had not happened for years. And "There was a power to the music he was willing to provide for me," Iggy told Mojo. "It was perfect - and I loved it."
As Bowie returned to public view as The Thin White Duke in February 1976, for his first tour to take in both the US and Europe, there was plenty of megalomania on display - there was childish talk about Hitler, and his LA obsession with Aryan folklore still held a certain fascination, or at least helped generate press coverage. But behind the scenes, for arguably the first time in his life, he was relaxed, in control, enjoying conventional friendships. He and Iggy Pop - or, rather, Jimmy Osterberg, Iggy's engaging alter-ego - would sit down together in the morning, read the papers or sip espresso, chat... or simply not chat, as only old friends, confident in each others' company, can do. There was something "marvellously instantaneous" about their relationship, Carlos Alomar observed.
The return to Europe - "the European canon" - had engaged Bowie's thoughts for some time, and there was a delight in his explorations of the spring of 1976, particularly in his impromptu trip to Moscow that April. That March, he told interviewer Stuart Grundy he was planning a move to Berlin (an intention he didn't confide to his wife Angie). Yet around May 18, his journey took an unexpected route. He, Coco Schwab, his assistant and companion, and Iggy were ensconced at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, in Paris, constantly mobbed by fans, when the enterprising new management of the Château d'Herouville - the residential studio outside Paris where he'd recorded 1973's Pin Ups - reckoned he might need a break, and would, says commercial director Pierre Calamel, "appreciate some French cheese". The trio turned up for a couple of nights' break, bringing with them a huge trunk of LPs, which David played to engineer Laurent Thibault. Then Bowie told Laurent he had to take a trip to Switzerland, to look at a house Angie was buying, and would be back soon to record Iggy's solo LP.
The album they recorded on their return, The Idiot, was a crucial turning point in Iggy's career. It's also worth emphasising that it was a major turning point in Bowie's career too, and stands as a gateway to Bowie's so-called "Berlin period". Station To Station had taken an age to record, but for The Idiot, Bowie had a string of songs ready, many of which were unformed but brilliant. The studio, set in the rolling countryside of the Oise Valley, was isolated and nurturing; Bowie was relaxed, and looked healthy, like "un ange" - an angel - remembers Kuelan Nguyen, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who was staying at the studio, "ce qui' n'était pas!" ("which he wasn't"). Nguyen remembers Bowie as, "capricious, authoritarian, tormented, but also intelligent, alive, with a calm humour, discreet, totally English" (he had also taken to smoking a pipe). Bowie saw that Iggy was infatuated with Kuelan and encouraged the couple. Their story became one of the pair's finest songs, China Girl. Bowie played most of the instruments himself, calling in other musicians to augment The Idiot as necessary. Dark, jagged and deep, the recordings were unlike anything he'd attempted before; they also constituted the perfect prototype for his own next project. As David left the Château to make way for Bad Company, he booked the studio for a few weeks later, then left to check out apartments in Berlin.
As with many of Bowie's key projects, the principal elements of Low - initial working title New Music Night And Day - were laid out long before, while a huge amount was left to chance. Here, a main component was to be Brian Eno, whom Bowie knew from Ziggy days, and had met again that summer. The pair had long telephone conversations, and even before the sessions started the concept had arisen of making an album with one side of relatively conventional songs, and one of instrumentals.
Producer Tony Visconti, also part of those early discussions, remembers the thinking involved both what fans would appreciate, and what RCA would accept: "If the A side still had choruses and verses... [and the B-side was instrumental] we felt it was a perfect yin-yang balance. Six or seven great songs with David Bowie singing is a good album."
Complicating matters was the fact that Eno was working in Germany when the session was booked to start, on September 8. But all those details were simply left to chance.
The key contributors were gathered from random places, like one of those 1970s movies where a hit squad is assembled from grizzled veterans and sparkly-eyed tyros, then sent off for a mission into the unknown. Carlos Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray were the old hands. Guitarist Ricky Gardiner probably counted as the novice recruit; he had no idea why he'd been called up, beyond the fact his friend Tony Visconti had recommended him. Pianist Roy Young was nearly as uninformed; David had called him to work on Station To Station, but Young couldn't make the session. This time round the veteran British boogie woogie pianist - who'd played with The Beatles, Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers, and many others - got called to the phone one night at the Speakeasy club, picked up the receiver to hear David ask if he'd get a plane over to Paris. David was persuasive, polite, but like Ricky, Roy had no idea what the project was.
Of course, it seemed obvious that long-term Bowie collaborators such as Carlos Alomar - the man who, among others, gave birth to David's first US Number 1, Fame - would be given a clear idea of what to expect. But no, says Carlos, the opposite was the case: "I'm not privy to that kind of thing. Whatever planning David has made, I'm not part of it. The situation with me, George and Dennis is that we get a call, telling us to show up. Then we have to start from scratch; we have to pluck it from the air."
Gardiner and Young were on the same plane from London. Both discussed the project: "We were both saying, do you know what it is we're doing?" says Young, who remembers Ricky being especially nervous. Ricky, in contrast, remembers Young as being well-prepared, in that he was toting two bottles of spirits, "one was bourbon and the other, I think, was whisky. " The pair managed to polish off the bulk of the former on the flight. By the time they arrived in Paris, "We were not prying a great deal of attention to proceedings," says Gardiner; "and we failed to notice Coco waiting at the barrier to take us to the Château."
Carlos, George and Dennis had already laid down rhythms on perhaps a couple of songs when Young and Gardiner arrived - although no one's certain of which ones, because so many of the ideas seemed, in isolation, abstract and hard to grasp. David would give Carlos, usually, a snippet of lyric - which might or might not make the final version - which would inform the mood of the piece. Then there might be an eight-bar sequence of chords. And somehow the musicians had to make sense of it all. Each of them was chosen because they could contribute something unique; each one had to reach into their own musical personality, says Carlos: "Then when they realised, I just have to be myself, they brought their A game to it. " The Alomar-Murray-Davis trio was given the first go at the songs in order to find some focus, and cut down on the options. But most of the main songs on the first side evolved into recognisable shape with Gardiner and Young's arrival.
As one talks to the participants, like Visconti, Carlos Alomar, and most of all Iggy Pop - who, along with David, found personal salvation over this momentous year - a constant theme emerges: that of sculpting order out of chaos. David was short of money - his first cheque to the Château bounced, and Coco Schwab would chide him if he spent too much money on clothes - and he was contemplating how to extricate himself from his manager, Michael Lippman, his wife Angie and, lastly, his record company. The music was the one thing to pull him through.
In the popular conception, Low is often thought of as glacial and cold, inspired by a sense of withdrawal, a numbness, (or "autism", as Hugo Wilcken posited in his work on the album) inspired by Bowie's continuing cocaine intake. In fact, the album was inspired by a determined optimism, a reaching toward a new future. And although David had an occasional toot of cocaine, over this period he'd largely turned his back on the white powder. If he had a vice, it was alcohol, usually German beer, although early in recording the sessions hit a snag when he tried something stronger.
The unwitting villain of the piece was Roy Young. He'd been out on the studio floor with the rhythm section, Alomar and Gardiner as they worked on a song. They all revelled in working in a luxurious residential studio, with drink on tap. Young kept a large ice bucket, a bottle of gin, and a bottle of tonic by his piano, "So I could mlx them the way I like them." He heard a "rat a tat tat" on his headphones, "and there was David in the control room holding a glass up. So I sent him [a drink] in there. This happened a few times."
Later the musicians convened in the control room to listen to the playback. David was sitting in his customary lotus position, legs folded under him on the studio chair next to Tony, his head resting on his hands. All thole present waited expectantly for his verdict - until they realised he was fast asleep. Finally, says Young, someone shook him awake, "And I always remember, he scratched his head, like a scene from Laurel and Hardy, and then Tony said, 'David, you'd better go for a lie-down.'" As David attempted to walk down the steep stairs out of the control room, there was a thud and a series of bumps. The next day at breakfast, David pulled up his shirt to show Young the bruises and weals from when he'd fallen down the stairs: "And that was when Tory warned me," says Young, "'If you ever give David another gin and tonic you're going home.'"
Despite such bugs, the recording was focused. They moved on constantly from one idea to the next. Carlos Alomar remembers having real problems getting his head around one song, which from the beginning was named Always Crashing In The Same Car. The title had a black humour of its own, because David was attempting to sell his Mercedes at the time - the car was dented, and half the time it wouldn't start. The song, too, spluttered and lurched before it got going: "We didn't understand what David wanted," says Carlos, "and that was definitely the hardest one to get right. It had this kind of gloomy thing to it, so we kind of understood that. But it also had this chordal thing I was trying to get... the chorus is a bit different to the verse, and I felt it was a little disjointed." In the end, says Carlos, it was Ricky who unlocked the song; "Not so much [with] a riff as a signature sound and a signature guitar - which gives an essence."
Other songs did come together easily. Sound And Vision was a key breakthrough; the musicians thought it was an instrumental. "Carlos provided the riff," says Gardiner, "and we put the music together around that." One of Alomar's key contributions to Bowie's work was his funk-and soul-derived conviction that a song needed a key theme, right at the beginning, to differentiate it from whatever hot tune might pop up on the jukebox. Yet for Sound And Vision, his contribution was as much space as substance; a subtle, slight guitar lick that left huge gaps for the song to breathe, and let Murray and Davis's effervescent rhythm carry the listener along. As the crew sculpted the song out of chaos, David sat in the control room listening. Then, says Gardiner, "He just went into the studio and sang it straight off, words and all. He listened to [the playback] once, adjusted something in his head and did it again. And that was that."
Those who spent time with Bowie often found themselves tickled by the inspiration behind the songs; the final lyrics sounded enigmatic, but for those in the know, the story was often a literal depiction of a real event. For two key songs, the inspiration came from the one moment when the semi-domestic calm in the Château was shattered.
David and Angie had led almost separate lives for over three years now; in hindsight, it seems that David had decided to split from his wife at around the same time he decided to split from MainMan Management, back in 1974. Angie was still an integral part of Bowie's public persona, and he would often pay tribute to her in public. However, she was regularly kept in the dark about his immediate plans, a victim of Bowie's oft-mentioned genius for "compartmentalising". When Angie and her companion, Roy Martin, dropped in on the sessions, the Château went into lockdown. David became suddenly unavailable. The musicians, like Carlos, had only the most cursory conversations with Angie, although on this occasion Carlos remembers Angie's new persona: "It was all, 'Don't talk to me, I'm a big lesbian now,' and me and [wife and singer] Robin were, What's ail that about?" Alomar, meanwhile, would try and convince the musicians that all was normal: "Remember, as a bandleader it's up to me to be a buffer, so that none of that stuff influences the album."
Throughout such travails, Iggy was David's prime confidant, joking around and lifting people out of any depressions ("He was inspirational," says Alomar.) He would intervene in crises, such as the time there was a "big row with Angela," says Visconti. "She sent her new boyfriend round to cheer up David, hahahaha!" There was shouting, the sound of glasses being thrown, a "massive fight" and Iggy and Visconti had to run in and pull David away from Roy. Breaking Glass, an almost literal description of the incident became a later addition to the album, as did Be My Wife. On the face of it, this was a love song asking a lover to marry him. Yet its real message was a request to the woman to whom he was already married, to act like a conventional, supportive wife: "Sometimes I get so lonely - sometimes I get nowhere." It's ironic, of course, that such an arresting, novel album should have a plea for convention at its heart - but such contradictions were always at the heart of David Bowie's career.
Roughly a dozen days into the recording the sessions took a new turn with the arrival of Brian Eno. Brian had been working in the tiny German village of Forst with ambient pioneers Harmonia - comprising Neu!'s Michael Rother and Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius - on the album eventually released as Tracks And Traces. Eno's appearance is remembered well by all of the musicians. Not just because he was intense, or brainy, or amusing, or any of the other adjectives associated with him, but because he and Bowie shared their doubts about what they were attempting: "We were halfway through," says Young, "and this was when he decided to bring this music in; the music that had been turned down [from The Man Who Fell To Earth]. We all listened to it - but it was a little outside of my experience. And it wasn't only me."
With the bulk of side one completed, Ricky and Carlos stayed on for overdubs on what would be side two, while Young and the rhythm section flew home. In those latter moments, Young did confront David about how the album would be shaped: "What kind of rock'n'roll is it?" he asked him. "It's rock'n'roll... yet I'm not sure what it will be 'til we develop it," David replied.
There is much debate about which parts of The Man Who Fell To Earth made it to Low; David himself maintains there were only some parts of Subterraneans derived from the abortive sessions. Château engineer Laurent Thibault remembers conventional songs "like Burt Bacharach" were on the tapes brought in, that a bass drum and one string part surviving from a twenty-four-track tape, and points out also that part of Where In The World is another survivor this time from The Idiot. Whatever the plans, the second half of Low was mainly constructed from scratch, rather than recycled. By now, David was disappearing to Paris for gruelling legal meetings with Michael Lippman's representatives. In his absence, Eno quizzed the engineers on how to use the MCI recording console, then told them: "I have sound, I'm fine," and laboured away, painstakingly working out overdubs, on his own. Tony Visconti remembers that the principal song Eno came up with, the haunting, dystopian Warszawa, was inspired by three notes Brian heard Tony's son Morgan picking out on the piano. (One early mix of the song, say insiders, also featured Bowie on harmonica).
The last days at the Château were characterised by squabbling and ghost stories. Tory Visconti didn't get on with engineer Laurent Thibault - who'd been integral to the recording of The Idiot, and was becoming too intrusive. Meanwhile, Brian Eno in particular became convinced that he felt the spectral presence of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand, star-crossed lovers who had once lived in the Château. Brian developed a cough - "and Chopin died of consumption!" points out Gardiner. Thibault, who lived in the studio for years, at first plays down the stories - "the ghosts were in the echo chambers," he says - but on further questioning there are stories of Ouija board sessions, in which ghostly participants spoke perfect Polish: Chopin's native language. Finally, with the bulk of the recording done, Bowie, DeFries, Eno and Iggy decamped to Hansa Studio 1 in Berlin to complete Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. They were assisted by Edu Meyer - later a regular collaborator, he was initially called in to translate. Somehow, David discovered that Edu played cello and asked him to play on a final track, Art Decade: "I am a score-reading musician," Eduard replied, "not an improvising one." So David remembered his teenage years of arranging music on manuscript, and scribbled the part out for him.
Bowie's record company, RCA, hated the album, which was released in January 1977: "The attitude totally was, What are we going to do with this?" says then Head Of Press, Robin Eggar. Tony DeFries, the manager who'd overseen David's Ziggy breakthrough, was even more dismissive, describing it as a "piece of crap" that he refused to allow as part of David's contractual obligation towards him.
Today, the sound of Low so permeates our musical landscape that it's hard to understand the confusion and distaste it inspired. Recorded at a time when David was often down, or simply exhausted, today it sounds uplifting, a glorious evocation of a bright new future. One can only hope that, as David looks for a new label following the expiration of his deal with EMI, we will hear more of this landmark work - for there was "a lot of stuff ", says Carlos Alomar, that didn't make the cut. As it was, the confused response of DeFries and RCA only served to exacerbate Bowie's fearlessness and intensify his new sense of destiny. Before the album was even released, he was already planning his next gamble.
David Bowie drew on a wide variety of influences for Low and "Heroes", but via his roles in Kraftwerk, Neu! and Harmonia, guitarist Michael Rother was central to Bowie's fascination with German electronic music. If Bowie's breakthrough was to add funk, emotion and rock grittiness to glacial electronica, Rother was there first.
Rother's enduring influence on today's music derives from the fact he grew up "in a special situation - there were changes all over the world, specially in Germany." His youthful influences included The Beatles, Hendrix and "endless, hypnotic" music he'd heard in Pakistan, all of which gelled when he met Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter, Klaus Dinger and Florian Schneider early in 1971, via his work at a psychiatric hospital near Düsseldorf. Rother bonded musically with Hütter straight away; they both had, "a similar feeling for a blues-free music. We just jammed along, without needing any talk." Hütter left Kraftwerk shortly afterwards, and Rother joined Dinger and Schneider for a 1971 tour that was, "very exciting on good nights. And sometimes quite terrible because there was a lot of psychological warfare - spiky characters!"
Hence Dinger and Rother left to work as Neu! Their work was more textural, less ascetic, more emotional than Kraftwerk,and the three albums the duo recorded with famed producer, Conny Plank ("It's impossible to give him enough praise") were a huge influence on "Heroes" in particular. Then there was Harmonia, Rother's project with Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. Harmonia are often credited with creating ambient music; their importance is underlined by the fact that Brian Eno sought them out and worked with them in September 1976: "It was a great session," says Rother, "I was amazed how many ideas came." After staying eleven or twelve days with the trio in Harmonia's home studio in the rural tranquillity of Forst, Eno left for the Low sessions - taking the tapes that later became Tracks And Traces with him. Bowie studied the results closely.
Later, in a historic might've-been moment, Rother nearly worked on "Heroes". Bowie called up the guitarist in the summer af 1977 and the two discussed collaboration. "We went on for quite a long time," says Rother. "We were very enthusiastic and there was nothing close to any doubt." After their conversation, someone from David's office called to discuss money, and Rother replied "as long as the music is great, the money will not be a problem." Bizarrely, the next phone call was to say "David asked me to tell you he doesn't need you." Dieter was astonished; Bowie's later memory was that it was Rother who turned him down. Rother's guess is that someone in David's office had noted the initial poor sales off Low and decided that, "More crazy experimentalism wouId make the sales crash!"