INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New Musical Express JANUARY 19, 2013 - by Mark Beaumont
"IT KEEPS DRAGGING ME BACK"
After almost a decade of radio silence, David Bowie has returned, revisiting his Berlin period - and creative peak - with the surprise comeback single Where Are We now?. Mark Beaumont traces Bowie's relationships with Iggy, Eno, drugs and the city itself through classic NME encounters.
"Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz" sings the frail, two-headed David Bowie bear sat on the chair in an artist's studio, beatifically crooning misty memories of his peak creative period in Berlin as if some kid on angel dust has just asked him to "tell us about the '70s cocaine wars, grandad". As black-and-white footage of the city reels by on a screen behind him and nostalgic strings swell, he recalls "sitting in the Dschbungel on Nürnburger Strasse", one of his less salubrious drinking haunts of I976, and pictures a lost version of himself shopping for caviar in department store KaDeWe, "a man lost in time... just walking the dead".
As the first musical output from David Bowie since 2003's Reality album, and the first sign of life since a 2004 heart attack led him to seemingly retire from music in 2006, Where Are We now? is a warm floodlight of nostalgia, regret and ultimate redemption that has caused a global pulse of shocked delight since its release, under the utmost secrecy and with nil fanfare, at midnight NYC time on January 8, Bowie's sixty-sixth birthday.
What the song doesn't go into, though, are the paranoid coke freak-outs, the tranny club all-nighters, the hit-and-run attacks on dodgy drug dealers, the suicidal Mercedes burn-ups, the dodgy obsessions with Aryan politics, the black magic and the armed patrol guards watching over the music-altering masterpieces he made there, almost by accident. The chaos, crises and feelings of immense freedom that somehow cohered into one of the most pivotal creative periods in modern music and a trilogy of albums that Bowie describes as "my complete being... my DNA". This is the story of how Berlin broke, then rebuilt Bowie...
• • •
"I don't live anywhere. I must have complete freedom from bases. If I ever had anything that resembled a base, like a flat on a long lease or anything, I felt so incredibly trapped. Even if I go away I know that it's waiting for me. It's like it has me on a string, and it's dragging me back." - David Bowie, NME NOVEMBER 1977
• • •
Early in I975, Bowie's non-base was Bel Air, Los Angeles, and his mind was swiftly blowing. In the wake of recording sessions for 1976's Station To Station that were so drenched in hard drugs that Bowie only knows they happened in LA because he's read about it since, he'd become a skeletal, reclusive addict roaming a curtain-darkened mansion house, paranoid that his phone was tapped and living off peppers, milk, ice-cream and whopping bags of high-grade Peruvian flake cocaine. He'd got into black magic and Kaballah, become convinced that he had to store his urine in the fridge to guard against spells, started drawing pentagrams on walls and carpets to conjure demons (hence the line in Breaking Glass: "Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it") and believed that a couple of fans wanted to steal his semen to create the Antichrist on the Witches' Sabbath. It's fair to say he needed a change of scene.
"I'd been exposed," he told NME's Charles Shaar Murray in 1977, with what Shaar Murray called "a savage, ironic twist", "to a general LA-ism which, quite frankly, I can't cope with. It's the most vile piss-pot in the world. It's [like being trapped in] a movie that is so corrupt with a script that is so devious and insidious. It's the scariest movie ever written."
Station To Station had, however, introduced the influence of Kraftwerk and Neu! into the "plastic" funk soul that had made his Young Americans album a huge US hit, and the stark staging of his White Light tour of 1976 was built on the styles of Brecht and German expressionist cinema, unveiling his Thin White Duke persona. "If detachment was his objective," wrote the paper's Max Bell, comparing the tour to "a large-scale political rally" during its six nights at Wembley in May, "he succeeded in creating his own unique vacuum".
A more literal detachment was on Bowie's mind though. He'd formed a pact with the ever-present fellow addict Iggy Pop to quit drugs simultaneously and, as NME's Lisa Robinson found when she joined the White Light tour in LA in February I976, a vague concept was forming. "I quite like Eno," Bowie told her, "I'd like him to be in Iggy's band."
He was expressing more sinister Teutonic leanings during his interviews too - besides developing interests in Arthurian legend and occultism, Bowie's readings on Hitler and the Third Reich began to seep out in the press. He described the Thin White Duke character as "a very Aryan, fascist type" and talked of fascist uprisings in the UK. Even in an era when a show as racist as Mind Your Language was deemed light entertainment, this caused outrage.
"I'd made some very trite theatrical observations which in fact backfired," he told Shaar Murray. "But I thrive on mistakes. - If I haven't made three good mistakes a week, then I'm not worth anything. You only learn from mistakes. What I said on the continent was based on anticipation [of coming to England after a long break], and when I got here I thought I'd got it right. I seem to have a knack for putting myself in those kind of dangerous positions."
So he found when, arriving at London's Victoria train station to start the UK leg of the White Light tour, he was photographed appearing to hoist a Nazi salute. "That didn't happen," he insisted to Melody Maker's Allan Jones in '77. "THAT DID NOT HAPPEN. I waved. I just WAVED. Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And the bastard caught me. In MID-WAVE, man. And, God, did that photo get some coverage... As if I'd be foolish enough to pull a stunt like that. I died when I saw the photo. And even the people who were with me said, 'David! How could you?' The bastards."
So Bowie decided to get away from the bastards, and got on another plane...
Bohemian, narcotic and hedonistic, Berlin seemed archetypically Bowie - "arduous", but a place he and Iggy had enjoyed joyriding around in the President of Sierra Leone's car during the tour. He and Iggy would venture out of their shared apartment at Hauptstrasse 155 in the Schöneberg area to take tea at the gay-leaning Neues Ufer café or Kreuzberg's intellectualist speakeasy Café Exil, dine at Paris Bar or take copious amounts of cocaine at the SO36 club, Berlin's own CBGB where Einstürzende Neubauten once legendarily played a gig that consisted of drilling holes in the wall. Early in their stay they'd booze 'til they puked at Dschungel and The Unlimited nightclubs, or the Lutzower Lampe cabaret dive where Bowie allegedly sparked a tryst with Dutch transsexual Romy Haag.
As they made forays to picturesque East German villages or toured the drinking halls and gay bars with a drunken Iggy singing Frank Sinatra medleys or smashing up chunks of the Berlin Wall in punk clubs, Bowie felt "a joy of life... a great feeling of release and healing". He shaved his head, grew a moustache and cycled around this bleak concrete city dressed like a Hungarian brickie.
Before long, Bowie's emancipation turned into music. Via stints at studios in Paris and Munich, they settled on a studio called Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, literally in the shadow of the Wall. "It's about twenty or thirty metres away from the studio and the control room looks out onto it," Bowie told Shaar Murray. "There's a turret on top of the wall where the guards sit." The desolation of the scene was inspiring to Bowie's stark new vision. "I have to put myself on a dangerous level, whether emotionally or mentally or physically, and it resolves in things like that: living in Berlin leading what is quite a spartan life for a person of my means, and in forcing myself to live according to the restrictions of that city. It produces very good writing. I've almost taken as much experience as I wanted out of the city."
At Hansa they recorded Pop's milestone album The Idiot, with Bowie producing, and that recording bled into an album Bowie planned to call New Music Night And Day, co-produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti largely at the supposedly haunted Chateau d'Hérouville near Paris, where Brian Eno arrived halfway through the recording - the album was put to tape in barely a week - touting a 'suitcase' synth with a joystick on it and some radical sonic ideas. "Brian isn't interested in context," Bowie told NME. "He's a man with peculiar notions, some of which are most accessible, and some way above my head in terms of his analytical studies of cybernetics and his application of those things to music and his general fine-arts approach."
Inventing the music on the spot in the studio, with Bowie and Eno taking turns to work on the tracks in short bursts, the album, renamed Low, turned out to be a dizzying masterpiece of invention and experimentation. The motorik, dislocated but relatively accessible melodies of Side One (in old money) - Sound And Vision, Be My Wife, What In The World - gave way to an Eno-led second half of largely instrumental mood pieces such as Warszawa, a track full of invented language, and inspired by Visconti's four-year-old son smacking three notes on the studio piano.
"That initial period in Berlin produced Low," Bowie said, "which is, 'Isn't it great to be on your own, let's just pull down the blinds and fuck 'em all'. The first side of Low was all about me: Always Crashing In The Same Car and all that self-pitying crap, but Side Two was more an observation in musical terms, my reaction to seeing the Eastern Bloc, how West Berlin survives, which was something I couldn't express in words. Rather it required textures, and of all the people I've heard write textures, Brian's always appeal to me the most."
Two reviews of Low ran side by side in NME in January I977. Ian MacDonald hailed it "the ultimate futurist punk sound... the ONLY contemporary rock album" and claimed "David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion... he vanishes". Charles Shaar Murray's review, on the other hand, criticised the record as vacuous, "an album so negative that it doesn't even contain emptiness or the void... an act of purest hatred and destructiveness... a bunch of intros that fade out while you're still waiting for something to happen... the sound of nothing, and even the nothing is elusive", before concluding, "OK: who needs this shit?"
Interviewing Bowie that September, Shaar Murray pointed out Low's sense of "attractive light-withdrawal from the world almost to the point of catatonic schizophrenia". "There is more than an element of truth in what you say," Bowie rejoined. "What you have read from the experience of that album is accurate. I did achieve something, because there's very few albums that I haven't experienced first-hand."
What Bowie wasn't telling was that Low's sessions were fraught with bitter legal wrangles with ex-managers, divorce and custody hearings with his estranged wife Angie, in-studio fights with her new boyfriend, and life-threatening cocaine psychosis. At one meeting with Angie he collapsed with chest pains. He was, he later admitted, "at the end of my tether... I had serious doubts about my sanity".
Sound And Vision, for instance, was his musical visualisation of a cathartic 'happy place', while the Lou Reed-esque Always Crashing In The Same Car was about a night when, paranoid and furious at a Berlin coke dealer for ripping him off, Bowie rammed the dealer's car with his Mercedes for ten minutes solid before fleeing the scene for a suicidal spin around a hotel car park, tyres smoking, his hands off the wheel. "David was going through a difficult period professionally and personally," Visconti said. "To his credit, he didn't put on a brave face."
At first the album met with horror at Bowie's label RCA but, charting well, Low would go on to inspire a generation of electronic acts and '80s arena-rock drummers and help kick off the post-punk movement. Bowie earned himself serious punk credentials by playing moody keyboards on Iggy's '77 Idiot Tour, a coke-crazed jaunt despite Pop's supposed new health kick. And the June sessions for the next instalment in the projected Berlin Trilogy, "Heroes", were to be no less bizarre.
"It was much harder working on "Heroes" than Low," Eno told NME that December. "The whole thing, except Sons Of The Silent Age, which was written beforehand, was evolved on the spot in the studio. Everything on the album is a first take! It was all done in a very casual kind of way."
Indeed, some vocal lines and stream-of-consciousness lyrics on "Heroes" were written as Bowie sang them. Entire songs were constructed by Eno's strange Oblique Strategies method, in which cards were placed around the studio marked with directions on how to approach the current track: 'Retrace your steps', 'Turn it upside down', 'Is it finished?', 'Don't break the silence'. "It was like a game," Eno said. "We took turns working on it. The idea was that each was to observe his Oblique Strategy. And as it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively, mine said, 'Try to make everything as similar as possible'... and his said, 'Emphasise differences'."
With "Heroes" flying onto tape with random precision and Bowie virtually clean, a forty-eight-hour flying visit from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp helped lighten the mood - all Pete'n'Dud voices, wonky euphemisms for shagging ("I have hopes to wave the sword of union tonight") and hours of hardcore corpsing. "We spend most of our time joking," Bowie told NME. "Laughing and falling on the floor. I think out of all the time we spent recording, forty minutes out of every hour was spent just crying with laughter... having [Fripp and Eno] in one studio produces so much random humour - incredible stuff."
Mirroring the two-tone structure of Low but less delineated, "Heroes" was a masterstroke, both bleak yet comic, weighty yet rousing, insecure yet air-punching, the sound of Bowie turning a psychological corner towards personal and artistic redemption. "The last two things have made for a complete re-evaluation of my writing style," Bowie told Shaar Murray. "It had a lot to do with being bored with the traditional things I'd been writing, and with wanting to put myself in the position of having to come up with a new musical language for myself. What I'm doing in this wonderful new world of discovery and experimentation, is a refocus about what I'm trying to do."
For all the Kraftwerk/Talking Heads mash-ups of Beauty And The Beast, the Eastern disco frivolities of The Secret Life Of Arabia and the camp cellar punk of Joe The Lion, the album's title track was its pièce de résistance, a chest-swelling, cloud-surfing anthem of love triumphing over oppression, made for Olympians and cinema boxers. "During the course of lunch break every day," Bowie told NME of the story behind the song, "a boy and girl would meet out there and carry on. I thought, 'Of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the Wall?' I - using licence - presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they'd imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act." Many years later the then-married Visconti would admit it was him and backing singer Antonia Maass that Bowie had been watching.
"Bowie's most moving performance in years," gushed NME's reviewer Angus MacKinnon, and Bowie's Berlin recovery was complete. There would be a third album, 1979's "mischievous" but disappointing style-collage Lodger, but it would be recorded with Eno in Switzerland and New York between dates on the Stage world tour that would see Bowie leave Berlin behind, his demons trapped forever beneath its seedy, stentorian streets.
And while his seminal work in the city helped to shunt pop music onto bold and brittle new rails, Bowie would never look back. Until now; until Where Are We Now? appeared to wistfully recall those monochrome days of hedonism, heartbreak and heroism lost in time, walking the dead.
THE BEST OF BERLIN
NME staffers choose their favourite Berlin-period song to create the ultimate David Bowie playlist.
"HEROES" (Mark Williams, Editor) - Every song on this list can claim to be the best Berlin-era Bowie tune, but only one can say that it actually changed the world forever. Bowie's move to Berlin marked his transition from androgynous, drug-ravaged glam-rocker to introverted, avant-garde artist, and his 1977 masterpiece "Heroes" captures the moment when a city divided and conquered by a devastating war finally stepped back towards the light. But it was Bowie's performance of the song during his return to Berlin in 1987 that cemented its legend. With the stage erected against the Berlin Wall, East and West united as thousands of fans on both sides sang along to "Heroes" in unison. Bowie said it felt "anthemic, almost like a prayer". A week later, in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Ronald reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall", and the process of unification was set in motion. Kind of puts its adoption as the London Olympic anthem into perspective, doesn't it? Best. Song. Ever.
LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Barry Nicholson, writer) - It boasts a soaringly melodramatic Bowie vocal, but it's also a testament to the brilliant musicians - take a bow, Carlos Alomar - that he surrounded himself with in Berlin. It doesn't speed up or slow down, it just goes, like a toy car that's been primed and released. As soon as it finishes, you just want to wind it back and start again.
WARSZAWA (Eva Barlow, Deputy Editor) - That's Polish for 'Warsaw', by the way. What a load of nonsense. A load of brilliant, shit-scary nonsense. In six minutes, Eno and Bowie translate the destruction of Warsaw into sci-fi synths and some mysterious chanting that sounds like monks doing yoga. Joy Division were major fans.
THE PASSENGER (Jamie Fullerton, Features Editor) - Imagine having Iggy Pop as your flatmate. David Bowie didn't have to during his Berlin Period: the pair shared an apartment as well as a creative fusion that peaked with the captivating The Passenger from Iggy's Lust For Life album, complete with Bowie "lalalala"s in the chorus. It's as dirty-beautiful as anything Bowie released under his own name.
BE MY WIFE (Mark Beaumont, writer) - Like a Cockney proposing during a piano-thumping rock'n'roll number in a bar-room in the eighteenth dimension, Be My Wife was, somehow, Low's poppiest moment. All the atonal psych guitar solos, metallic piano and emotionless, robotic pleas for matrimony merely to fend off the relentless loneliness seems to make it all the more romantic.
SPEED OF LIFE (Matt Wilkinson, New Music Editor) - Bowie's undoubtedly the king of musical mindfuckery, but Speed Of Life was arguably his most out-there song upon its release in 1977. Despite being instrumental, it's still easily one of Low's best songs - setting the entire tone for the Berlin period, while also managing to sound not unlike a spaceship landing.
THE SECRET LIFE OF ARABIA (Hamish Macbain, Assistant Editor) - And as you think the last sax wall of Neuköln has brought the gorgeous instrumental side of "Heroes" to a close, up this pop-funk gem bafflingly pops. Essentially a precursor to Lodger, some might say it kills the mood of its parent album, which it sort of does. Taken in isolation, though, it's a thing of beauty.
BREAKING GLASS (Tom Howard, Reviews Editor) - The intro that inspired a thousand other intros (see: Hello Operator by The White Stripes). The lyrics that reference Bowie's brief obsession with Kabbalah and his penchant for scrawling the related Tree Of Life symbol on stuff ("Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it"). The fact it's a hundred-and-twelve seconds long. A perfect slice of bonkers Bowie genius.
SOUND AND VISION (Jenny Stevens, Deputy News Editor) - EPIC guitar swing? MONSTER Niagra Falls-level synth cascades? Bowie crying "BLUE, BLUE, ELECTRIC BLUE" like he's about to lynch Dulux dog, such is the scale of his post-party paranoia? If this song doesn't make you launch into an eye-scrunched, lips-puckered, sweaty-palmed swagger, then Lord have mercy on your poor dead soul.
ALWAYS CRASHING THE SAME CAR (David Renshaw, News Reporter) - Written as he attempted to get clean from drugs (not a great idea when you're living with one Iggy Pop, but still), it's a metaphor-heavy ride down Bowie's narcotic motorway. Swirling synths open a window into the psyche of a remorseful addict who knows his next relapse is just one turn of ignition away.
"DAVID AND I HAD A SECRET CODE"
Graphic artist Jonathan Barnbrook on creating the new LP artwork with Bowie
"It was an evolution of ideas and selecting and refining. If he didn't like a direction he would say so. For instance, for the single cover - a picture of him from Radio City in the 1970s - it was his idea to put the image on upside down. It was looking too much like a digital cover and maybe you thought it was a re-recorded version of an old song, but just that simple, almost childlike subversion of it creates a surprise.
"He seemed to be fit and during the collaboration he seemed to be happy and relaxed. It's incredible we kept it secret for so long. Every time I made a phone call about it I had to go outside. The people here found out on Facebook that we'd done it. We had a code-name for when we talked about it in case any emails were intercepted. The code-name was 'table'."
A FEW MORE CLASSIC SEQUELS
Is Bowie's new single the follow-up to "Heroes"? Looks like it - and it's not the only great sequel song
DAVID BOWIE: Ashes To Ashes (sequel to Space Oddity) - Did Major Tom ever make it back to Earth? Of course he didn't. Because, despite copious blood-tests and training regimes, a junkie had slipped through NASA's net and made it into space in charge of a billion-dollar spacecraft. May as well have sent another dog up.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: The Promise (sequel to Thunder Road) - Those runaway lovers ended up in The Promise - a song originally intended for the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album - sleeping in borrowed cars, playing in bad bar bands, gambling their lives away, drinking themselves silly and no doubt sucking cock for crack.
EMINEM: 97 Bonnie And Clyde (sequel to Kim) - A sequel that happened to be released before the first track in the tale, 97 Bonnie And Clyde follows the aftermath of Eminem violently slaughtering his wife, her new boyfriend and his son as Em and his baby-talking daughter take a nice family jaunt to dump the bodies in a lake.
CHUCK BERRY: Bye Bye Johnny (sequel to Johnny B Goode) - "Maybe someday your name will be in lights / Saying 'Johnny B Goode tonight'" said the mother of little Johnny the Louisiana railroad guitar prodigy in Johnny B Goode, and guess what? The tyke done, um, goode. Come Bye Bye Johnny he was shipping his mum a mansion back by that Louisiana railroad.
THE RAMONES: The Return Of Jackie And Judy (sequel to Judy Is A Punk) - Jackie and Judy's biographies were crying out for expansion, so in The Return Of Jackie And Judy they became pool-playing truants making cash as bookies, touts and loan sharks; they got drunk, watched The Ramones and got kicked out of backstage for not having passes.