Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition FEBRUARY 2007 - by Ian Gittins


The studio trilogy of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger represents some of Bowie's most personal and exciting work. Shame about Stage, the lacklustre live album, though.

By the end of recording Station To Station in Los Angeles in 1975, David Bowie was a meltdown. Strung-out, paranoid and at war with the world, he was relieved of his duties recording the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth when it became clear he was in no state to fulfil them.

"I was in serious decline, emotionally and socially," he would admit, two decades later. "I'm quite sure I wouldn't have survived the 1970s if I'd carried on doing what I was doing. I was lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I really was killing myself, and I had to do something drastic to pull myself out."

It was time to leave Los Angeles. In the summer of 1976, a brittle, cocaine-addicted Bowie relocated to Europe where, over the next three years, he was to record a challenging and groundbreaking trilogy of albums that were to not only save his sanity but also set the ground-rules for left-field electronic music in the next decade.

Up to this point, Bowie's muse had been all about theatrical characters and personae: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke. Wary of such showboating, he turned to a man whose aesthetic raison d'être, by stark contrast, was all about non-celebrity and the jettisoning of the rock star ego from the creative process: Brian Eno.

Having left Roxy Music in 1973, Eno had recorded several solo albums, two of which - Another Green World and Discreet Music - contained the sort of ambient sounds that chimed with the magpie-minded Bowie. Eno joined the Bowie team at Chateau d'Hérouville Studio outside Paris, with producer Tony Visconti in no doubt about the former's role: "Eno became Bowie's Zen master."

Eno made it his mission to wean Bowie off linear narrative and musical orthodoxy as they began work on the album that would become Low. Bowie needed little encouragement, telling Visconti he had no interest in making hit singles, and did not even care if the resulting album was so unusual that it was never released.

Suddenly a fervent Europhile, Bowie was also listening closely to such German electro-experimentalists as Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust. The latter's Neu! 75 album, with its 'night' and 'day' sides, was a particular influence: Low's working title was New Music Night And Day, and Bowie even asked Neu! guitarist Klaus Dinger to play on the record.

Eno's working methods were nothing if not unique. In a musical appropriation of William Burroughs' cut-up theory of literature, Bowie and his studio band (Ricky Gardiner, Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis) recorded material in isolation from each other to be spliced together later. Bowie was getting his wish to "learn a new musical language".

Eno also introduced his Oblique Strategies to proceedings. This involved a deck of more than a hundred cards, each carrying a random musical instruction that had to be obeyed: "Fill every beat with something", "Turn it upside down", "Emphasise the flaws".

"I keep trying to strip things back to something tense and taut, while Bowie keeps throwing new colours on the canvas," Eno was to explain. "It's a good duet."

Released in January 1977, Low both developed the avant-garde leanings of Station To Station and was like nothing Bowie had ever recorded before. Jagged, atonal guitars and synthesizers loomed in and out of earshot. Cluttered soundscapes were layered, dense and experimental, with melodies and chart-friendly choruses few and far between.

Lyrically, Low captured the numb world the cocaine-blanched Bowie had inhabited in LA. He recited blank words of private neurosis, isolation and paranoia with the robotic lack of emotion who had lived too much; on Sound And Vision, the lead-off single, he sat in a room with "Pale blinds drawn all day / Nothing to do, nothing to say."

Aping the 'night' and 'day' structure of Neu! 75, Low had two distinct characters. Side One featured itchy, fragmented panic attacks such as Breaking Glass and Always Crashing In The Same Car, wherein Bowie gazed into his shattered soul. "It was all about me, all that self-pitying crap," he was later to confess.

By contrast, Side Two consisted of four longer instrumental pieces, the most portentous of which, Warszawa, found Bowie murmuring in a made-up language that sounded rather like Serbo-Croat. The cover was a shot of Bowie's The Man Who Fell To Earth character, Thomas Jerome Newton, in profile (low profile - geddit?) against an orange sky. Bowie posted an album to director Nicolas Roeg with a note: "This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack."

Presented with the bleakly intense Low in autumn 1976, a horrified RCA's first reaction was to pull it from the Christmas release schedule. One senior executive offered to buy Bowie a house in Philadelphia if he would "go back and make Young Americans II". Tentatively, the label put the record out in January 1977 to decidedly mixed reviews.

Writing in NME, long-term Bowie supporter Charles Shaar Murray hated a record that was "so negative, it doesn't even contain emptiness or the void". By contrast, Creem's Simon Firth, who today chairs the Mercury Music Prize panel, bizarrely declared it "a fun record, such a refreshing jeu d'esprit... Low made me laugh a lot." US critic Bud Scoppa hit the nail close to the head, stating, "Low seems to be the inner document of someone either on the edge of psychosis or obsessed right down to the bone."

Bowie declined to promote the album, instead choosing to tour playing keyboards for Iggy Pop, yet his UK fans remained loyal and the album peaked at Number 2.

Although technically domiciled in Switzerland for tax purposes, Bowie was by now effectively living in Berlin with Iggy Pop. The city suited him. As David Buckley wrote in his Bowie biography Strange Fascination: "Berlin was in-between; neither wholly east nor west, a city of minorities, ethnic, cultural and sexual. It appealed... to Bowie's innate outsiderdom."

The cocaine paranoia of Los Angels was receding. "Berlin was my clinic. It brought me back in touch with people," Bowie later reflected. "But I would still have days when things were moving round the room - even when I was sober. It took two years to cleanse my system."

After Bowie finished touring with Iggy, he reassembled the Low recording team in Berlin to record the second album in the trilogy that he and Eno, with exquisite pretension, had taken to calling their "triptych". "Heroes", complete with its distancing ironic quotation marks, found Bowie in far ruder health than Low, yet was similarly shaped by its environment.

Hansa By The Wall Studio 2 was a converted dance hall next to the Berlin Wall. Thirty-five years earlier, Gestapo officers had used it for social events. "Every day I'd see Russian Red Guards on the Wall, looking into our studio with powerful binoculars," Visconti said later. "The atmosphere was so provocative, stimulating and frightening that it gave the band real energy."

"Heroes" was recorded in a matter of weeks, using similar compositional methods to Low. Bowie ad-libbed most of his lyrics, yet they were still far more lucid than the incoherent fragments scattered through Low. King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp gave the album ballast, amazing Eno by recording his part "in six hours, straight off a plane from New York. It was all done in first takes."

Released in the same year as Low, "Heroes" mirrored that album's structure of a song-based first side and a more ambient, instrumental flip. Similarly, it contained some experimental fillers and one killer single - the shimmering title track, which Bowie was to perform on Top Of The Pops and also record in both French and German.

Reappearing at the height of punk in 1977, Bowie could easily have been dismissed as an old fart alongside his contemporaries Rod Stewart and Elton John. Yet his perennial charisma still held sway: voted Album Of The Year by both NME and Melody Maker and marketed under the slogan "There's Old Wave, there's New Wave and there's David Bowie", "Heroes" charted at Number 3.

Things were not so rosy in America. Even after Bowie toured the album throughout 1978, "Heroes" only made it to Number 35 as US audiences tired of his wilful European obscurantism. RCA attempted to redeem the situation with the release of Stage, a live album recorded at April and May shows in Philadelphia, Providence and Boston.

Stage captured a band at the top of their game, racing through Bowie's back catalogue with forensic efficiency, but Visconti's puzzling decision to arrange the material chronologically (Ziggy Stardust songs first, "Heroes" last) and excise all crowd noise made it an unsatisfying experience. A UK Number 5, Stage remains of interest to Bowie completists only.

Bowie's decreasing American commercial clout was weighing on his mind as he repaired to Mountain Studios in the Swiss Alps in 1978 to record the final part of the triptych (although Low, "Heroes" and Lodger are often referred to as his Berlin trilogy, only "Heroes" was recorded there). The freshly recovered star was clearly planning a move back towards the musical mainstream.

Lodger began production with the working title of Planned Accidents. Brian Eno was still devising academic tasks: for Look Back In Anger he pinned his eight favourite chords to the studio wall and instructed the band to use only those, while Move On was based on a backwards tape of All The Young Dudes. Despite this, Lodger was a far more conventional record than its siblings.

The concept of the ambient Side Two was discreetly dropped, and to Eno's chagrin tracks such as Fantastic Voyage and Repetition saw Bowie return to concrete narrative themes (of the Cold War and spousal abuse respectively). No longer mired in a narcotic gloom, Bowie was now ready to re-engage with the wider world.

Eno has disparaged Lodger in subsequent interviews, remarking that he feels the trilogy "petered out". He has even mischievously suggested that Bowie originally came to him to escape the crippling psychological pressures of his earlier mass-market success: "What I think he was trying to do was to duck the momentum of a successful career."

Bowie is more magnanimous, acknowledging that Eno was to develop the proto-rap and Swahili chants of Lodger's second track, African Night Flight, in a prescient manner: "I never took world-beat to its fruition. Eno did. I think some of what we wrote together gave him the impetus to get on with stuff like [the Eno and David Byrne collaboration] My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts"

Nevertheless, Lodger spawned a Top 10 UK single in the vivacious Boys Keep Swinging, an up-for-it number that could have sat just as comfortably on Young Americans, and the album was yet another Top 5 hit. In Britain at least, even when David Bowie was being constantly artsy, he just couldn't help but sell records.

Bowie and Eno parted company as Bowie went commercial again with 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), but the trilogy of albums they left behind remain three of the most peculiar in modern rock history. Out of Bowie's cosmic overload and Eno's methodical whimsy had emerged something unique, odd and truly beguiling.

John Lennon was to end his five-year absence from the recording studio to make 1980's Double Fantasy with the express intention of "producing something as good as "Heroes"", while a whole generation of New Romantics - Human League, Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet - were to take their cue from Bowie's European period.

Bowie himself was also to reflect on the personal significance of these troubles albums within his canon. "For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds," he said in 1999. "In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. My complete being is within those three albums. They are my DNA.