INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q MARCH 2016 - by John Harris
DAVID BOWIE: 1977-79
On the face of it, the hulking apartment block on Hauptstrasse does not exactly suggest the home of an internationally feted star. Located in the Schöneberg area of the old West Berlin, built next to a dual carriageway, and done out in a queasy shade of off-white, it's one of those urban buildings that seems to signify nothing much at all. Nothing, that is, unless you know your history, and the role number 155 played in the recuperation and reinvention - yet again - of David Bowie.
Starting in October 1976, Bowie lived here, at first with his personal assistant Coco Schwab and Iggy Pop, before the latter found another flat around the back of the same building. He was set on curing himself of the toxic effects of his time in Los Angeles - "the most vile piss-pot in the world," he reckoned - and finding new ways of living and working. "I'm becoming incredibly straight, level, assertive, moderate," he said in November 1977. "Very different from, say, two years ago."
Given that he was referring back to a period when he had apparently hoovered up the Gross Domestic Product of Latin America, lived on a diet of milk and fresh peppers, become fixated with the occult, and cultivated the image of a dandified skeleton, this was no bad thing. Indeed, he would later talk about his pre-Berlin days in terms of a narrow escape from death. After that, who wouldn't have lusted for the pleasures of a simple life, lived in near-anonymity?
But Bowie being Bowie, the story of his time in Berlin is that bit more colourful. His new artistic foil Brian Eno later recalled regularly returning to Haupstrasse at six o'clock in the morning after frantic recording sessions, and watching Bowie "break a raw egg into his mouth - and that was his food for the day, virtually." He went on: "It was really slummy. We'd sit around the kitchen table at dawn, feeling tired and a bit fed up - me with a bowl of some crummy German cereal, and him with albumen from the egg running down his shirt."
In the middle-distance, no end of intrigue bubbled away. There were altercations with drug dealers involving a crashed car, the attempted suicide of Bowie's estranged wife, his brief relationship with a transgender German cabaret star, and more. Moreover, contrary to the idea of a period of quiet retreat, Bowie frantically created new music - and, by 1978, he would be back on tour.
In the wake of the European shows that promoted Station To Station, there was a plan for Bowie to move into a new seven-bedroom house near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, with his wife Angie and their five-year-old son Zowie. The reasoning was partly bound up with a $300,000 tax bill, but the idea didn't last. Angie stayed put; Bowie was soon on his way to Berlin.
Looking back, some of the things that drew him there seem pretty clear. On the Station To Station tour, instead of a support act, there had been a screening of Luis Buñuel's surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou, soundtracked by Kraftwerk's 1975 album Radio-Activity - an indication of his passion for the experimental music being made by a new generation of Germans, which blurred out into a consuming interest in so-called Krautrock, not least the pared-down, streamlined records released by the Düsseldorf duo Neu!.
When the same tour stopped for three nights in LA in February 1976, the painter David Hockney introduced Bowie to Christopher Isherwood, whose literary output had not only crystallised the legend of pre-war Berlin bohemia - the iconic musical Cabaret (turned into a 1972 film) was based on Isherwood's 1945 book The Berlin Stories - but also embodied the seductive idea of a footloose Englishman taking inspiration from the city's bohemian wonders.
In retrospect, there was also a sense of Bowie's interest in Berlin being tangled up with his coke-assisted interest in the Nazis, something revealed by some of his most ill-advised interview quotes ("I am the only alternative for the premier in England... Britain could benefit from a fascist leader," he told an interviewer in Sweden, a claim he soon disowned). The idea of Bowie as some frazzled Hitler-believer was hyped up on the infamous occasion when he was wrongly alleged to have greeted British fans with a Nazi salute - but his fascination with German fascism was revealed soon after the Swedish interview, when in April 1976, he and Iggy (among others) travelled by train from Switzerland to Moscow, and Soviet customs officers confiscated books about Hitler's propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and his architect, Albert Speer.
Iggy had been part of Bowie's entourage since the LA dates, serving as a backing vocalist, and quickly cementing a friendship that would define the next two years. Indeed, the Berlin period is defined not just by three Bowie albums, but the two Iggy records on which the pair worked - the first of which is so completely entwined with Bowie's Berlin music that it has to be understood as being part of the same body of work.
Starting in July 1976, The Idiot was mostly recorded at the Château D'Hérouville, twenty miles north of Paris, but taken to completion at Hansa Tonstudio, the place that still stands as a byword for Bowie's time in Berlin. The Idiot has a lot in common with the Bowie music recorded in its wake: sparse, angular arrangements; a sense of American R&B influences being thoroughly twisted out of shape, and guitars habitually cutting into the songs, as if to break them open. By way of confirming the idea that the two of them were in the same creative mindset, the cover picture nodded to Roquairol, a portrait by the German expressionist painter Erich Heckel; the same painting would later inspire the sleeve of Bowie's "Heroes".
Exactly when The Idiot stopped and Bowie's Low started has always been unclear, partly thanks to the fact that they both involved producer Tony Visconti. What is clear is that despite having settled on the idea of living in Berlin, Bowie went back to the French château - "It was a joy - ramshackle and comfy," he said - for a month, before returning to Berlin to add Low's lyrics and vocals. The sessions soon included Brian Eno, who co-wrote some of the songs, added synthesizer parts, and introduced Bowie to a new element of disruptive creativity.
Eno straightaway understood that Bowie was somehow "trying to duck the momentum of a successful career"; Bowie credited Eno with nudging him away from his last ties to rock conventions, not least when it came to lyrics. "He got me off narration, which I was so bored with," he said: among the proof were not just a selection of instrumentals, but two pieces of music - Warszawa and Subterraneans - on which there were vocals, but no discernible language.
Eno's presence crystallised the influences that swirled around this phase of Bowie's career. The supposed Berlin trilogy is really the ultimate flowering of a musical aesthetic that had been bubbling away since the early 1970s - built on an experimental push to tear up rock orthodoxy, but free of the indulgences of so-called progressive rock. To understand it, you have to soak up such Eno records as Here Come The Warm Jets (1974), Another Green World (1975), the proto-ambient Discreet Music (1975) and (No Pussyfooting), the amorphous album Eno made in 1973 with the visionary guitarist Robert Fripp, one of the founders of King Crimson. Eno and Bowie were both huge fans of the three albums made by Neu! in the 1970s, and in particular Neu! 75 - which, like Low and "Heroes", was split into two distinct sides (and, whether coincidentally or not, featured a song called Hero). They also thrilled to the early work of Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and other German iconoclasts such as Can and Cluster, with whom Eno would soon work.
On Low, as with every album that followed it, Bowie stuck to a three-stage creative process. He would arrive at the studio bearing not much more than fragments. First, the initial building blocks of the songs would be created very quickly. Next, overdubs would begin to flesh out what had been recorded. Finally, Bowie would work on his lyrics and vocal parts - though as evidenced by the fact that half of Low (Side Two, in old money) was pretty much instrumental, it was obvious that he wanted the music to take precedence over the words. "He couldn't come up with more than a verse for some songs, which is why a lot of the tracks fade out," said Tony Visconti. The lyrics were fractured and minimal, and often - as on the pretty much perfect Sound And Vision, on which the first verse didn't begin until ninety seconds in - based on backwards glances to his wretched time in LA.
That said, some of what Bowie sang described his experiences in Berlin. Always Crashing In The Same Car - which sounds like an early try-out for the basic musical idea behind "Heroes" (the song) - was a glimpse of an incident that had occurred when Bowie and Iggy had spotted a drug dealer who had ripped them off, on the Kurfürstendamm, one of West Berlin's main streets. Bowie reversed his Mercedes into the dealer's car: "I rammed him for a good five to ten minutes," he later recalled. "Nobody stopped. Nobody did anything." Behind the wheel, he later flipped out in the car park of his and Iggy's hotel, something described in the second verse: "As I pushed my foot down to the floor / I was going 'round and 'round/The hotel garage / Must have been touching close to 94."
Contrary to the idea of some spell of self-authored rehab, such were the more reckless aspects of the Berlin period. By the time Low was taken to completion at Hansa, Bowie and Iggy had moved from their initial base in a hotel to 155 Hauptstrasse. They had got into the habit of socialising at such clubs as the Dschungel (German for "Jungle") on Nürnberger Strasse, and SO36, a punk-oriented venue in the Kreuzberg district. Bowie had continued an on-off relationship with Romy Haag, a six-foot tall Dutch transgender woman who had turned herself into an icon of Berlin's cabaret scene.
The kind of grinding excess that had defined Bowie's time in LA was off limits, though he developed a pronounced fondness for German beer, and the odd bit of chemical refreshment definitely entered the picture. Iggy gave some indication of how their schedule tended to work: "There's seven days in a week: two for bingeing, two for recovery, and three more for any other activity."
In early 1977, Bowie re-entered Iggy's creative world. On the UK tour that promoted The Idiot, he took the seemingly unlikely role of keyboard player, and when they returned to Berlin, the two of them worked on Lust For Life, the album that would bring back Iggy's innate rock'n'roll sensibility, and thereby push Bowie's overt influence slightly to one side (bass and drums were played by Tony and Hunt Sales, the brothers who would later join Bowie in his rum designer-hard rock project Tin Machine). Besides the reckless title track, its key highlight was The Passenger, a glimpse of Bowie and Iggy's time in Berlin, seen through the prism of the latter's standard issue rock'n'roll romance ("We'll ride through the city tonight / We'll see the city's ripped backsides") rather than Bowie's very English sense of slightly bookish outsiderdom.
And then came "Heroes": the one Bowie album that was wholly conceived, written and recorded in Berlin, and which evokes the city in almost every note. It was recorded in Hansa's spacious Studio 2 (AKA the Meistersaal), a former ballroom which looked out onto the wall that separated the Communist East from the capitalist West: as Tony Visconti later put it, the space in which the music came to life was, "five hundred feet from barbed wire, and a tall tower where you could see gun turrets, with foreign soldiers looking at us with binoculars."
It was at these sessions that Brian Eno made repeated use of his Oblique Strategies cards, a collection of one hundred random instructions - "Use an old idea", "Work at a different speed" - used to try and push the musicians out of any dead ends. Visconti had a brief fling with a German jazz singer called Antonia Maass, who sang backing vocals on the title track - and, when Bowie glimpsed the couple kissing in the shadow of the wall, provided inspiration for one of that song's most evocative lines ("And the guns shot above our heads/And we kissed, as though nothing could fall"). Robert Fripp, who stayed at the sessions for a mere six hours, overlaid the same song with bittersweet, gliding guitar lines: the result, on an album altogether more prickly and confrontational than Low, was a stand-out track that somehow combined a sense of euphoria with an unshakeable sadness. Other songs on the album - Sons Of The Silent Age, the instrumental pieces V-2 Schneider and Neuköln - brilliantly evoked Berlin, but it was "Heroes" that most sounded like the city it was recorded in, full of what Bowie called, "a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass."
"Heroes" - the album - was released in October 1977. Two months later, Bowie went back to the house his wife had bought in Switzerland to spend Christmas with their son. At the same time, the wider world saw the brilliantly incongruous guest spot he had recorded for a TV Christmas special built around that icon of the pre-rock age, Bing Crosby. Bowie sang "Heroes" and indulged in some scripted banter with the host ("I've got a six-year-old son, and he gets really excited around the Christmas holiday thing"), before the two of them performed a duet that mixed the old Christmas standard Little Drummer Boy with an original piece called Peace On Earth. As against the skeletal man-alien who had promoted Young Americans and Station To Station, Bowie looked elegant and calm, while holding on to his customary sense of otherness: here, it seemed, was proof of the restorative wonders of his time in Berlin.
Angie Bowie returned to the Swiss house on January 2 to find her husband and their son gone. She then attempted suicide; she would do the same thing three months later.
In early 1978, Bowie went back to Berlin to film his part in Just A Gigolo, directed by the English actor David Hemmings, in which he took the part of a Prussian army officer-turned-male prostitute who works in a brothel run by a madam played by Marlene Dietrich (her iconic presence was the main reason Bowie had agreed to take part, but she filmed all her scenes separately, in Paris). That March, he began the seventy-seven-date world tour titled Isolar II, which would be commemorated by the live album Stage. And in between its dates, he began work on Lodger, the supposed closing album of the Berlin trilogy, which was actually begun in Switzerland, and completed in New York.
Its ten songs clearly brimmed over with ideas: the surreally complex African Night Flight, for example, suggests someone trying to soundtrack hundreds of thoughts at once. Some of the tracks - Fantastic Voyage, Look Back In Anger, the "Heroes"-ish Boys Keep Swinging - were superb. But there was also a sense of the artistic set-up Bowie had employed over the last few years bringing diminishing returns. Tony Visconti would later recall Brian Eno taking the Oblique Strategies mindset to mind-boggling extremes, at one point writing eight guitar chords on a blackboard, instructing the musicians to "play a funky groove", and then demanding they switch to whichever chord he pointed to. "This was not Brian's finest idea," said Visconti, "and I could see the rhythm section exchanging irritable looks as if to say, 'What an asshole'."
By this point, Iggy Pop had taken his own path, which would quickly lead to what one critic later called "a haze of dope and booze". Bowie, meanwhile, would record his next album without Eno, in New York, decisively leaving the Berlin period behind. But the influence of the music he made between 1976 and 1979 would soon be built into music for keeps.
Joy Division were at first called Warsaw, in tribute to the Low track Warszawa. Ian Curtis killed himself after an evening spent watching Werner Herzog's film Stroszek and listening to The Idiot; the Joy Division and New Order drummer Stephen Morris would later recall listening to Low, and realising he was hearing "the Sound Of The Future". Such post-punk groups as Wire and Magazine had clearly been tuning in, and a little later on, Simple Minds - who took their name from a line in The Jean Genie - developed the dramatic, European, electronic Berlin ethos into something approaching an ideal of living, later revived by the Manic Street Preachers on Futurology, an album partly recorded at Hansa. But perhaps the most obvious proof of the Berlin era's influence was the arrival - just as Bowie put out Lodger - of Gary Numan, whose every move suggested someone staging his own tribute to this phase of Bowie's career. "I never meant for cloning to be part of the '80s," Bowie sniffed.
Thirty-four years after he had moved into the apartment on Hauptstrasse, Bowie himself returned to the Berlin period on Where Are We Now?, the jaw-dropping single that heralded the release of 2013's The Next Day whose sleeve reprised the cover image of "Heroes". The song's impossibly evocative, beautifully melancholic four minutes caught Bowie looking back at himself, "Sitting in the Dschungel / On Nürnberger Strasse / A man lost in time." The lines suggested someone who had been adrift and unsure of what he was up to. But the music he had created back then attested to something very different: Bowie being Bowie, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing.