INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo SEPTEMBER 2012 - by Jon Savage
A SAINT IN THE CITY
In 1993 David Bowie compiled a double CD for friends. Titled All Saints it combined instrumentals from Low and "Heroes" with more contemporary tracks and signalled the singer's rediscovery of the electronic sounds that revolutionised his music in 1977. Delving deep into All Saints, Jon Savage examines the impact of Bowie's sonic revolution on post-punk, electronica and, in the end, Bowie himself.
1993 was a fantastic year for electronic music. Six years after Steve 'Silk' Hurley's Jack Your Body - the UK's first house Number 1 - the pure energy of house and techno had diversified into more than just a series of artificially stimulated genres: it had become a whole new sound world that had very little to do with what had gone before, and that meant rock. Despite the best efforts of Suede and Nirvana that year, electronica sounded like the future.
Passing from the irresistible Euro cheese of 2 Unlimited's No Limit - Number 1 in February - to Acen's brutal classic Window In The Sky - collected on the early junglist compilation Hard Leaders III: Enter The Darkside, there were several releases by Richard ]ames/Aphex Twin, including Polygon Window's Surfing On Sine Waves; Richie Hawtin's first album on Warp, Dimension Intrusion as F.U.S.E., Underworld's Rez, Sabres Of Paradise's Smokebelch II and the R&S compilation In Order To Dance 4 - brilliant records all.
1993 was also the year that David Bowie rediscovered his mojo, It had been a decade since Let's Dance - the rock/R&B fusion that launched him into the global mainstream for the first time. The subsequent years saw Bowie blindsided by that somewhat unexpected success: after two poor studio albums (Tonight and Never Let Me Down), an attempt to recapture his rock roots with Tin Machine had been unsuccessful - despite a couple of good songs. So what to do next?"
"A way through the labyrinth was offered by the past: going forward by going back. During 1991, Rykodisc undertook a comprehensive reissue programme of all the albums between 1967's David Bowie and 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), trailed in 1989 by the successful 3-CD compilation Sound + Vision. The cumulative effect of these fifteen records - including the electronic highpoints, Low and "Heroes" - reaffirmed Bowie's status as modernist and innovator.
Released in April 1993, Black Tie White Noise was Bowie's first solo album for six years. It contains what would, with variations, become his basic template for the next decade: mature, almost crooning vocals; iconic covers, in this case Cream's I Feel Free and The Walker Brothers' Nite Flights; an interest in black dance rhythms (assisted here by Nile Rodgers); and futuristic ideas integrated within a full, enveloping sound. It went to Number 1.
Bowie has always been a synthesist of contemporary modes: unlike many rock stars, he actually likes music. His commercial renaissance in 1993 coincided with a greater receptivity to the world around him and a corresponding reassessment of his achievements. Pallas Athena is a string-drenched baggy shuffle, while the title track, Black Tie White Noise, matches a lyric about the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles with a guest vocal from New Jack Swing singer Al B. Sure!
That November, Nirvana plugged Bowie right into the heart of contemporary rock music with their version of The Man Who Sold The World on MTV Unplugged. A month later, Bowie released his second album of 1993, The Buddha Of Suburbia, an album of all new, subtly electronic material - inspired by his soundtrack work on the BBC Film of Hanif Kureishi's novel, set in their shared south London locale of Bromley - a forgotten gem in his catalogue.
Right from the opening track, which collages the riff from Space Oddity and the chorus from All The Madmen, The Buddha Of Suburbia plugs Bowie back into his avant-garde past. This was deliberate: as Bowie wrote in the linernotes, "My personal brief for this collection was to marry my present way of writing and playing with the stockpile of residue from the 1970s." That meant a list of inspirations that included free association lyrics, Brücke-Museum, Kraftwerk, Eno and Neu!
As if to celebrate the continued influence of Eno on his "working forms", Bowie put together his third release of the year: a double CD compilation called All Saints, produced in an edition of a hundred and fifty and handed out to friends. This was an explicit homage to electronica: mixing all the instrumentals from Low and "Heroes" with stray outtakes like Abdulmajid and All Saints, as well as relevant material from Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha Of Suburbia.
The result is surprisingly homogeneous: sixteen years of material collaged into a flowing whole, with the The Buddha Of Suburbia material, The Mysteries and Ian Fish UK Heir, among the strongest. Which prompts a few questions. If Low and "Heroes" represent Bowie's highpoint of formal inspiration, then how did he get there? Why did they sound so good in the context of their time, and what has their influence been - not just on his own music - but electronica in general? Did that future happen?
It all began, appropriately enough, in science fiction. During the mid to late summer of 1975, Bowie was in New Mexico and other southern locations, filming Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth. His central role required him to play the part of Thomas Jerome Newton, an extraterrestrial visitor on a quest to find water for his dying planet. Newton is charming, cold, and totally emotionless: as Bowie later admitted, he hardly had to act because that's how he felt at the time.
Space travel and aliens have been a constant theme in Bowie's songs, from Space Oddity through Life On Mars?, Ashes To Ashes and Hello Spaceboy. The possibility of other worlds - and the transformation achieved by leaving this one - is a sure-re way of abstracting from any problems that one has on this Earth. Bowie had always felt apart, and much of his work - for instance, his first masterpiece, 1966's The London Boys - centres around the themes of being in or out, between belonging and not belonging.
His first big hit, 1969's Space Oddity, was a trip to nowhere, in the short term. Bowie achieved fusion in his second phase of chart success: he understood and identified with his new audience, a mixture of weirdos, gays, urban stylists and teenyboppers. But superstardom and artistic restlessness drove him into new, uncharted areas: as he continued his sequence of hyper-speed transformations in 1974 and 1975 - from Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs and Young Americans - he became more and more remote.
In summer 1975 he was coked-out and fame blitzed. But The Man Who Fell To Earth offered a lifeline. Saturated in science fiction, becoming the alien, Bowie was able to project forward, into his future, into the future - out of a barren, bleak and occasionally terrifying present. (At the time he was living in Los Angeles, beset by demons, imagined or otherwise, and involved in a sequence of paralysing business disputes).
The first sign of this change was all over his next album. Recorded in autumn 1973, Station To Station was a compelling mixture of abstracted disco and contemporary crooning. TVC 15 set to a vicious funk rhythm the famous scene in The Man Who Fell To Earth, where Newton, rendered incapable by alcohol, goggles at a wall of TV sets: "I give my complete attention to a very good friend of mine / He's quadrophonic / He's a / He's got more channels/ So hologramic / Oh my TVC 15."
The title track was a ten-minute tour de force, with as many twists and turns as a 1967 single or a prog epic, that charted a spiritual journey from the darkside ("Here I am / Dredging the ocean / Lost in my circle") to some kind of possibility that life could continue. Whether consciously or not, Bowie was visualising his own escape: "The European canon is here." Here also are the first traces of modern German music: the motorik rhythms, the panoramic sweep of the train sounds.
The idea of a physical journey was stimulated by the most successful German record to date, Kraftwerk's Autobahn - the title track of which aimed to capture the feeling of driving along the German A roads without speed limits. You hear the car starting, a horn toots, and then you're off into a repetitive, hypnotic twenty-two-minute journey that reflects the different, phasing perspectives of travelling fast as well as the boredom of motorway driving.
As important as the idea of simulating shifts through time and space was Kraftwerk's use of synthesizers to express a melodic sensibility that, at various points, suggested distance, loss, cosiness and large horizons. The two wordless versions of Kometenmelodie, on the album's second side, are saturated in deep, warm analogue synth sounds. This was a futuristic, self-generated, distinct European sensibility that had very little American or English influence.
An edited single of Autobahn went to Number 11 in the UK charts in June 1975. The Kosmische Musik was going overground in 1974/5 just as it hit an artistic peak, with records by Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream (Phaedra and Ricochet), Cluster (Zuckerzeit), Harmonia (Muzik Von Harmonia), Can (Soon Over Babaluma), Neu! (Neu! 75), and Faust, whose Faust IV began with an earth-shaking drone that satirised the flip name given to the genre by British journalists - Krautrock.
This was a music born out of a national rupture: Germany's post-war devastation and reconstruction. As Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter told this writer in 1991: "When we started it was like, shock, silence. Where do we stand? Nothing. The classical music being nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century: nothing. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the '50s and '60s, everything was Americanised, directed towards consumer behaviour.
"We were part of this '68 movement, where suddenly there were possibilities: we performed at happenings and art situations. Then we founded our Kling Klang studio. German word for sound is 'klang', 'kling' is the verb. Phonetics, establishing the sound, we added more electronics. You had performances from Cologne Radio, Stockhausen, and something new was in the air, with electronic sounds, tape machines. We were a younger generation, we came up with different textures."
With a cover that used a still taken from The Man Who Fell To Earth, Station To Station was released in January 1976, followed a couple of months later by the film: a double whammy that kept Bowie at the forefront of popular culture. In February, Bowie began the sixty-four-date Station To Station tour - for many fans, his peak as a performer - which, after forty or so dates in the US, visited Germany in April. He liked it so much that, in late summer 1976, he moved to Berlin with Iggy Pop in tow.
In the late '70s, Berlin was a schizophrenic city, brutally divided in two by the heavily policed wall that separated the two warring super-power systems of the day - Cold War zoning in excelsis. Totally surrounded by the communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the Western side was an oasis of capitalist values, half depressed and half manically liberated. (For two contrasting views, see the contemporary Berlin films Taxi Zum Klo and Christiane F..
Berlin had come back from nothing. It allowed Bowie anonymity, a safe enough haven within which to reconstitute himself and an environment that matched his own psychological state. It also had layers of history that went back beyond the Cold War and World War II: always visually stimulated, Bowie was fascinated by the Brücke-Museum, an institution dedicated to the often stark Work of the first expressionists, the 'Brücke', or Bridge, who celebrated spontaneity and raw emotion.
It also allowed Bowie to immerse himself further in German music: that year he met Edgar Froese, Giorgio Moroder, and Kraftwerk - who would write about it in 1977's Trans-Europe Express: "From station to station / Back to Dusseldorf city / Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie." This was the melting pot that would go into the four key 1977 albums that Bowie began recording that summer: first Iggy Pop's The Idiot, then his next, begun in France and finished at the Hansa Tonstudio ("By the wall") in Berlin.
Low was a major surprise when it came out in early 1977 but it's a perfect record - conceptually and emotionally. Adorned with a treated cover still from The Man Who Fell To Earth, it's split into two halves: a first side of seven tracks - two instrumentals and ve songs clipped brutally short - and a second of almost wordless, hypnotic instrumentals. The entire album is drenched in electronics, used to evoke a variety of emotions - not the least of which is a strange serenity: the curious comfort in near-total withdrawal.
The record fades in on Speed Of Life, a theme that tied into one of the preoccupations of punk; as Bowie stated in 1977, "People simply can't cope with the rate of change in this world. It's all far too fast." This instrumental matches a ferocious Dennis Davis snare drum sound - achieved by Tony Visconti's Eventide Harmonizer, which fed back a dying echo to the drummer as he played - with synthesizer textures that were at once harsh and melodic, uplifting and decaying.
These were provided by Brian Eno, Bowie's principal collaborator, who was already saturated in German music. During the sessions for Low, he recorded with Harmonia, while his 1975 album, Another Green World, had been partly inspired by Cluster's Zuckerzeit, an album of playful, sugary but relentless synthesizer instrumentals, and the oscillation between recognisable, if slightly swerved pop songs and ambient instrumentals were what Bowie was aiming to achieve.
The five songs on Low's first side are almost randomly edited, formally unconventional - the vocal on the hit, Sound And Vision, doesn't come in for a minute and a half - and almost autistically uncommunicative. Normally profligate with words and storylines, Bowie here offers fragments from unpleasant scenarios that thrust themselves up into the consciousness (Always Crashing In The Same Car, Breaking Glass) or almost desperate attempts at connection (Be My Wife).
The excitement of the record's formal innovations - the successful integration of a new electronic sound with pop/rock music: just listen to the popping synth in What In The World - contrast with a mood that is shut down, cocooned. This feeling of remoteness is deepened by the four instrumentals that begin with Warszawa. Mixing minimalism with random elements, like the discarded Vibraphone found in the studio, they remain shape-shifting pulses of great clarity and beauty.
Low might have alienated the Americans, but it reached Number 2 in the UK: at the same time, Sound And Vision was a UK Top 3 single. While not of punk, it seemed to share a similar mood: the clipped feel, the acceleration, the traumatised emotions - on the surface at least. It was quickly followed by another album, this time totally recorded at the Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin: "Heroes". Although sharing the same split format as Low, this was a very different beast.
The first thing that you notice is that the songs are longer. There are synthesizers and randomness - like the flat interjection on Joe The Lion: "It's Monday" - but the feeling is generally more expansive, as though Bowie has begun to open up to the world again. The sound is fuller, and reaches a peak on the justly celebrated title track, inspired by two lovers meeting under the Berlin Wall, which, with a totally committed, if not desperate vocal, celebrates the uncertain possibility that love can transcend geopolitics.
The second side is like a waking dream. The Kraftwerk homage V-2 Schneider begins with a downward sweep - like a jet, or a rocket terror weapon, levelling out - before hitting a heavy motorik groove as relentless as anything on Neu! 75. Sense Of Doubt leaves a descending, four-note theme hanging in atmospherics and synthesizer washes: you can hear the dripping rain and feel the physical and mental as psychology matches environment.
Moss Garden takes from Edgar Froese's Epsilon In Malaysian Pale in mood - that lush, exotic soundscape - and in its repeating synth whorls. Bowie added a deep, machine-like hum that travels across the channels, and an improvisation played on a koto: the Japanese stringed instrument. The final instrumental, Neuköln, features Bowie's saxophone in a strangulated, highly Expressionist evocation of a drab Berlin district then mainly populated by Turkish immigrants.
These four tracks are the high point of Bowie's career, his point of furthest formal and expressive outreach: sound paintings that have all the complexity and power of a feature film, they take you there, right into their emotional and physical landscape. Just as much as the purely instrumental albums that Brian Eno would release over the next few years, they represent the beginnings of ambient music, certainly in the form that would become popular in the early 1990s.
The impact of Low and "Heroes" was immediate. Both albums were signposts to the young musicians who would come to the fore in 1978 and 1979, after punk's fury had dissipated: among them were Gary Numan, whose super-alienated chart-topper, Are 'Friends' Electric, welded TVC 15 with Speed Of Life, and Joy Division, originally called Warsaw after the opening instrumental on side two of Low, who took that album's distinctive drum sound, mixed with a lot of Can, into their vision of rock and electronics.
The influence went even further. Berlin and bleak Mitteleurope became a pop trope in the late '70s, with the cold wave of The Human League, Ultravox's Vienna and Joy Division's haunted Komakino, written after a visit to the city. The Mobiles went kitsch with the melodramatic Drowning In Berlin, while Spandau Ballet, the breakthrough group of the new romantics (true children of Bowie all), took their name from the district to the west of the city.
Part of this was just pop faddishness, but Low and "Heroes" had, by the end of 1977, offered a way out of punk's stylistic cul-de-sac. Electronics had been a definite no-no for punks - "Moog synthe-si-zer" Joe Strummer had sneered on London Weekend Television in November 1976 - but they returned with a vengeance after Donna Summer's I Feel Love and Space's Magic Fly, with great 1978 singles by The Normal, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, plus key albums by Suicide and Kraftwerk.
Punk had been the future, but that was quickly superseded by real-time, political events. In the polarising atmosphere of late 1977 and early 1978, it was all too easy to feel shot by both sides. As they had to David Bowie, electronics offered a way of side-stepping impossible demands, while their association with various physical and psychological states - movement late in the night through the city, withdrawal and isolation - were attractive to alienated youth.
In many ways, it was the return of psychedelia, only darker in keeping with the mood of the time. The counter-intuitive analogue synth sound was key: it was deep enough to create an environment and bleak enough to evoke estrangement, while at the same time enveloping the listener in a warm bath of ambience, that "sensurround sound" that would be explored further by The Human League (The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1-4), Joy Division (Atmosphere, The Eternal) and PiL (Radio 4).
Like his post-punk acolytes, Bowie too kept coming back to these albums in the later '70s and early '80s. In 1978, he played Warszawa and Sense Of Doubt on the long Isolar II tour, later collected on the Stage live album. Both also cropped up, together with V-2 Schneider and "Heroes"/Helden on the soundtrack of Christiane F., a stark but overlong depiction of teenage heroin addicts at the central Berlin station that became one of the most popular German films ever.
But apart from Crystal Japan, a Japanese B-side, Bowie retreated from pure electronica thereafter. By the time that he returned with Let's Dance in 1983, the spores he had helped to cast to the wind were beginning to bear fruit in the most unexpected way, as the late '70s white synthetic sound was taken up by black Americans, most notably in rap and techno tracks by Cybotron - 1981's Alleys Of Your Mind and 1984's Techno City - and Afrika Bambaataa And Soulsonic Force on 1983's Planet Rock.
While Bowie busied himself in the mainstream, dance culture proliferated into a myriad forms, assisted by the onset of digital and sampling technology. With such an eclectic, voracious and fast-moving culture, it was hardly surprising that it began to loop back to the analogue late '70s. Just as Low and "Heroes" reappeared on CD in 1991, with several extra tracks, the first products of ambient's second wave were being released: Aphex Twin's Didgeridoo and Biosphere's classic Microgravity.
Reconnecting with his electronic past gave Bowie a burst of energy that has taken him through the '90s and, in fact, the rest of his career to date. During 1992, the year that Philip Glass put out the Low Symphony, he reunited with Brian Eno - on "synthesizers, treatments, and strategies" - for the ambitious 1.Outside. Released in 1995, this was a return to the dystopian landscape of Diamond Dogs with added pre-millennial tension and extra technological weirdness.
The fourteen songs on 1.Outside stretch time and form. Random reappears in the cut-up lyrics, while the constant 4/4 of house phases in-and-out of funk and baggy beats, in the segues Bowie's voice is varispeeded through time and space: one minute he's a fourteen-year-old girl, another a forty-six-year-old "Tyrannical Futurist". The album's big hit, Hello Spaceboy, has hints of Rebel Rebel and Space Oddity. By this stage, in his late forties, Bowie could look back at his catalogue and his obsessions, and still move forward.
The motion was even more extreme on 1997's direct, uptempo and intense Earthling, in which Bowie mixed heavily sampled often squeezed into squalling riffs, as on the opener Little Wonder, with self-generated drum'n'bass rhythms that co-existed with rave patterns (Dead Man Walking). With hints of The Prodigy and Underworld, this was Bowie's most dance-friendly album, adding remixes by Moby, Danny Saber, Nine Inch Nails, and Junior Vasquez.
Both 1.Outside and Earthling made the UK Top 10, as did the more eclectic and uptempo Hours..., from 1999. Two years later, Bowie finally released All Saints as a single disc: dropping the Black Tie White Noise tracks and South Horizon from The Buddha Of Suburbia, and adding Crystal Japan and Brilliant Adventure from Hours.... The result is eminently playable, Bowie's purest, most elemental electronic album.
The extraordinary thing about 2001's All Saints is how well it all hangs together, with nine tracks from 1977 flowing easily in and out of the material from the 1990s, the most recent being the brief, but beautiful Brilliant Adventure. The Mysteries could have segued straight into the second side of "Heroes", and Moss Garden into The Buddha Of Suburbia. That continuity is not a result of standing still, but of being able to retain a love of sound, the wish to move forward.
The long loop of All Saints, from 1977 to 1993 and, finally, 2001, takes Bowie near the close of his musical career to date. In 2002 he released Heathen, an excellent record with tinges of sadness and mortality alongside a surprising cover of Neil Young's I've Been Waiting For You. The next year there was Reality and since then there has been nothing. In a strange way All Saints feels like a closing of the circle: a celebration of an extraordinary breakthrough that remained an inspiration and a talisman.
Just as the prophecies of The Man Who Fell To Earth have come to pass - that bank of TV screens, all showing different channels: if only someone could have told us how boring that would become - then the startling futurism of Low and "Heroes" has been borne out by the events of the last thirty-five years. A radical departure then, seemingly out of their time, they continue to exist in their own world, but they also remain signposts to a future that came to pass.