Classic Pop APRIL 2018 - by Steve Harnell


Bowie's art-rock monoliths get reissued on individual 180g vinyl - proving why they remain his crowning off-kilter glories

For many of David Bowie's most successful incarnations, it could be argued that he was more of a trend-spotter than a trend-setter. With glam, 'plastic soul' and '80s stadium pop, he'd cannily have his finger on the pulse of a burgeoning genre before it hit the mainstream, then do it better than those ground-breakers and bring it to the masses. For the so-called Berlin trilogy, there is a sense, though, that this is a singular endeavour. A bold, experimental risk that set him apart from his peers. Bowie, too, sees these records as his own singular masterpiece. "Nothing else sounded like those albums", he once explained. "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." And subsequently, for a short period at least, the DNA of vast swathes of art-rock and post-rock bands that followed in the wake of the trilogy.

For those Bowie fans who baulked at the thirteen-disc nigh-on £200 boxset, A New Career In A New Town, the trilogy plus associated live album from the Isolar II tour, Stage (1978), and 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), have now been re-released as single albums. The rarities, add-ons and associated ephemera are missing, but you'll be able to cherry-pick from these treasures without being forced to sell a kidney.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Bowie's bold move from crowd-pleasing glam and odd but still palatable 'plastic soul' to cold art-rock remains impressively bloody-minded and almost reckless.

The kernels of progress are there, of course, in Station To Station's title track and the skewed funk of TVC 15, but the experimental edginess of Low must have come as a shock to Bowie's fans at the time. The thudding, compressed sound of Dennis Davis' drums on the opening instrumental Speed Of Life sets the tone for much of what is to follow - tough, angular, and a little forbidding. The skewed funk of blink-and-you'll-miss-it Breaking Glass, features striking lead guitar lines from Carlos Alomar - Brian Eno's odd synth interjections positively jump out of the speakers. What In The World seemingly pulls its backing track from a misfiring hiccupping '70s arcade game.

Even the apparently conventional Sound And Vision is a traditional pop song via the back door - half of its three minutes is taken up with an instrumental intro and it fades out just as it's getting into its stride.

Always Crashing In The Same Car, Bowie's nod to cocaine meltdowns in his Mercedes, has metaphorical significance to the perilous lifestyle that he was only just beginning to pull himself out of. Man can only exist on a diet of Colombian marching powder, milk and red peppers for so long.

For the uninitiated, Low's second side of instrumentals is likely to linger equally long in the memory. The icy desolation of Warszawa carries with it the doomy chill of Walter Carlos' soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange - it's a dark twisting of Kraftwerk's more introspective work with Brian Eno the key figure here. Equally elegiac and bleak is the West Berlin-influenced soundscape Art Decade and the woozy atmospherics of Weeping Wall.

The delicate balancing act of merging 'traditional' - and I use that term in its loosest sense - songs and instrumentals continued on the "Heroes" LP. Equally challenging and oblique in places as its predecessor, King Crimson's Robert Fripp makes his distinctive presence felt on lead guitar. Influenced by Bowie's coke-fuelled mood swings, the lyrics are pared down to the bone - Fripp's riffing is often the star of the show. There's a remarkable intensity to the frantic Joe The Lion - said to be Bowie's homage to performance artist Chris Burden who was famous for being nailed to a VW in a 1974 art stunt. "Nail me to my car and I'll tell you who you are."

The superlatives for the epochal title track are a given so let's skip to the dizzying ahead-of-the-curve art-rock attack of Blackout before the frankly terrifying synth instrumental Sense Of Doubt. Meanwhile, the tranquil Japanese influenced Moss Garden arrives like a jasmine-scented cold flannel to ease our fevered brows. But it's the briefest of respites on an album where Bowie and Eno are rarely content to give us an easy ride; Neuköln is darkly majestic, complete with David's skronking sax solos.

Considered by some as the lesser of the Berlin trilogy, Lodger still has the power to confound and amaze. It's rare that Bowie's vocals are the weak link in a song but his contribution to African Night Flight rather spoils a terrifically wonky backing track. The stylistic stabilisers are nowhere to be seen here, though. Yassassin is a Turkish influenced reggae tune, no less, and we pinball between the rockiness of Red Sails and funky Talking Heads-apeing (or baiting, depending on who you listen to) D.J.. Dennis Davis rides the hi-hat as he drives the rollicking Look Back In Anger and Boys Keep Swinging reconnects Bowie with his glam hit-making years.

Speaking of which, if the critics had come in droves for the Berlin works, the chart action and mainstream sales had dried up somewhat. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was Bowie's concerted effort to merge experimentalism with commercial appeal. It's a balancing act he pulls off with some aplomb.

The hits returned with Ashes To Ashes, Fashion and the title track while the remainder more than held its own including the expansive Teenage Wildlife and Because You're Young, which boasts a surprise guest appearance from Pete Townshend on guitar.

Stage is a fascinating mix of eras from throughout Bowie's super-productive 1970s. Culled from gigs in Philadelphia, Providence and Boston during his Isolar II tour, David's second live album, Stage, is a remarkable artefact in itself. Concentrating, naturally enough, on Low, "Heroes" and Station To Station, there's also the appearance from Ziggy-era material, too, including the frantic race-you-to-the-end Hang On To Yourself.

Bowie made more enjoyable albums than the handful reissued here, but very few that were more important.