Uncut APRIL 2001 - by Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton


"My complete being is within those three albums." Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton uncover the complete story of Bowie's life-saving escape to Berlin. How he turned Iggy Pop into a health freak, embraced Brian Eno's "oblique strategies", documented Tony Visconti's indiscretions, and made a fearless and remarkable trilogy...

Berlin, 1976. Strung out and fiercely paranoid, David Bowie is convinced he has been royally screwed by a coke supplier over a deal. Cruising the city's main drag, the Kurfürstendamm, in the rusty old open-topped Mercedes bought for him by faithful sidekicks Iggy "Jimmy" Pop and Corinne "Coco" Schwab, he spots the dealer in his car. Seething and possessed, Bowie rams his prey's car mercilessly. Then he rams it again. And again. Then again and again and again.

"He looked around every second and I could see he was mortally terrified for his life," Bowie would recall to a theatre audience assembled for his Bowie At The Beeb concert in 2000. "I rammed him for a good five to ten minutes. Nobody stopped me. Nobody did anything."

Bowie finally comes to his senses and quits the crash scene before it gets ugly, but that same night he reaches "some kind of spiritual impasse". He finds himself in a hotel garage, his foot jammed on the gas, racing around in circles at lunatic speed. The frazzled star decides "This is so Kirk Douglas in that film where he lets go of the steering wheel." So then, of course, he lets go of the wheel. But just as he does, the Mercedes runs out of petrol and splutters to a standstill. "Oh God," Bowie sobs, "This is the story of my life!"

But he's wrong. Because instead of running on empty, Bowie will now write a harrowing confessional called Always Crashing In The Same Car. And instead of dying at his peak, he will pick up the shattered pieces of his mind and distil them into the three most cathartic, challenging, influential, and plain magical albums of his career. And instead of becoming just another '70s rock casualty, Bowie will fuse punk with electronica, black magic with white noise, amphetamine psychosis with spiritual healing. And, as a by-product of this process, he will accidentally invent the future of rock.

But just now, slumped over his steering wheel in a Berlin car park, Bowie is at the lowest point of a very bleak period. "As it happens," he will later confess with gallows humour, "Things picked up after that."

Did they ever.

Bowie's headlong rush into Trans Europe Excess actually began in Hollywood in the early part of 1975. Residing at North Doheny Drive in Bel Air, after a disastrous move from New York, the artist formerly known as David Jones began a crazed downward spiral into rock'n'roll damnation. Amid the detritus of an ugly split with management company MainMan, the gradual dissolution of his marriage and mushrooming hordes of pushers and hangers-on, an increasingly fragile Bowie started to implode.

Fuelled by lack of sleep and a raging appetite for what wife Angie described as "fat packages of best Peruvian flake", Bowie became obsessed with the Kaballah and magick. Snow-blinded by cocaine, he convinced himself that two female fans wanted his sperm for impregnation on the Witches' Sabbath, thus bringing the spawn of Satan into the world. He later explained, "There was something horrible permeating the air in LA in those days. The stench of Manson and the Sharon Tate murders..."

His days were spent scrawling huge pentagrams on the walls, storing his urine in the fridge to protect him from spells, sculpting vast monoliths in front of the TV and looking for coded messages in Rolling Stones album sleeves. Most terrifying of all was the exorcism of his swimming pool, the waters churning and boiling until an image of the devil was seared into the bottom of the pool. "I drew gateways into different dimensions," Bowie has said, "and I'm quite sure that, for myself, I really walked into other worlds and saw what was on the other side."

Besides cocaine, the exiled star lived on a diet of peppers and milk, the curtains closed as he "didn't want the sun spoiling the vibe of eternal now". A walking skeleton, he was spoon-fed ice-cream just to maintain his weight. David Bowie was alive, but only just, and very unwell.

"I blew my nose one day and half my brains came out," he would later recount.

John Lennon and Elton John visited and became convinced that Bowie was close to death. He told friends his phone was bugged and he was being tailed. At the Grammies, Aretha Franklin refused to shake his hand, quipping, "I'm so happy, I could even kiss David Bowie," as she accepted her award. Even during the subsequent LA sessions for Station To Station, Bowie burned black candles to dispel "unwanted visitors" who'd come over from the other side. To make matters worse, he was falling out bitterly with his latest manager, Michael Lippman, after just a few months.

The grim irony of it all was that Bowie was now enjoying huge success in a land that had proved naggingly elusive for most Brit-rockers to crack. Young Americans had been huge, spawning a US Number 1 single in Fame. His vampiric visage was plastered across every entertainment weekly, and he became one of the first white artists ever to appear on ABC's prestigious Soul Train. He was also about to make his fêted acting debut in Nic Roeg's surreal sci-fi flick, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Station To Station would be another smash, eventually hitting Number 3 in the US. But by then, Bowie would be long gone and past caring.

Bowie was so addled during the Station To Station sessions in late '75, he barely remembers them: "I know it was in LA because I've read it was," he said recently. But it was on this LP that he began to create the brave new world that would lead him to Berlin and, eventually, to sanity. Homesick and bored with the MOR "plastic soul" of his Young Americans phase, Bowie became spellbound with the Teutonic electronica of Kraftwerk and Neu!.

"It's not the side-effects of the cocaine," Bowie growled on Station To Station's title track. Though still infused with US R'n'B, this shuddering rock juggernaut explicitly signposted his new direction: "The European canon is here," he shrieked over steam-driven, Krautrock-leaning machine rhythms. But any sonic similarities with Kraftwerk's 1977 classic Trans-Europe Express were coincidental. "Station To Station preceded Trans-Europe Express by quite some time," says Bowie, speaking exclusively to Uncut in January 2001, arguing that his synthetic fusion of R'n'B and electronica was poles apart from Kraftwerk's ordered machine symphonies. But he does salute Kraftwerk's "determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music."

Bowie certainly demonstrated his fondness for Kraftwerk on his White Light [Isolar] tour in 1976, using tapes of their music to set the pre-show mood. Iggy Pop was a permanent fixture on the tour, having discharged himself from UCLAs Neuro Psychological Institute and had made a pact with Bowie to kick drugs. They were chemical brothers, overdosing on America, rushing headlong into Europe's embrace. Ironically, both would be arrested on the tour's East Coast leg for possession of cannabis. "Rest assured the stuff was not mine," Bowie snapped a few months later. "I can't say much more, but it did belong to others in the room that we were busted in. Bloody potheads. What a dreadful irony, me popped for grass. The stuff sickens me. I haven't touched it in a decade."

Ditching the intricately staged theatrics of previous stage shows, the White Light tour was a Euro-fixated extravaganza, with Bowie steeped in banks of white light, offset with harsh black backdrops. Inspired by German Expressionist cinema, Brechtian theatre and the photography of Man Ray, these live shows cast Bowie as his last and cruellest "character" - The Thin White Duke. Uniformed in pleated black pants, waistcoat and white shirt, fire-blonde hair scraped back, Bowie calls the Duke "a very Aryan, fascist type - a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion."

The description proved chillingly apt, as Bowie's obsession with occultism and Germanic culture had evolved into an unhealthy fascination with The Third Reich, Arthurian Grail mythology, and Hitler himself. He gave unguarded interviews warning of a fascist backlash and sneering that "people aren't very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler, because he'd march into a room to speak, and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock'n'roll concert."

While the British press fiercely debated Bowie's fascist fixation, the White Light tour rumbled on towards Europe. Bowie emptied his Hollywood house during a three-night residency in LA, packing the contents off to the Clos des Mésanges, the new home that his wife Angie had found in Blonay, Switzerland. The backstage guests in LA included Christopher Isherwood - the original Berlin-exiled Brit whose writings inspired the film Cabaret. At the same shows, Bowie dropped hints about his future direction: "I quite like Eno. I'd like him to be in Iggy's band. How gauche. No, actually, I'm getting Iggy an all black-band of ex-basketball players..."

In April, the White Light tour enjoyed an extended layover in Berlin. Bowie and Iggy were smitten, sampling the city's clubs and transvestite bars. Tour photographer Andrew Kent recalls, "We went through Checkpoint Charlie and drove around East Berlin in David's limo. It was the President of Sierra Leone's old Mercedes 600 and it had one of those windows where you could stand and wave to the crowd. He had a great driver, Tony Mascia, and we went out at night and drove real fast. David and Iggy loved it, they were out all the time."

Following the Zurich show on April 17, with a week before the tour resumed, train tickets were arranged to take Bowie, his longtime PA Coco Schwab, Iggy, Andrew Kent and a handful of others up to Helsinki via Warsaw and Moscow. It was an eventful trip.

In Brest, on the Polish-Russian border, they were detained while books on Goebbels and Albert Speer were seized. Bowie claimed they were "research" materials for a film he was planning about Hitler's propaganda minister.

"Oh man, we didn't know what was going to happen," recalls Kent. "The train stops and an albino KGB man comes in! He takes us off the train, we go into this huge Russian inspection place and an interpreter comes up and says, 'We weren't expecting you.' We were all separated. Iggy and David got strip-searched. I think they took some books away, that was all. I don't know what they took from David, but they took a Playboy away from me."

Further complications lay ahead. "They said they'd have somebody to meet us in Moscow," says Kent, who organised tickets and transit visas. "There was nobody there. So when we got off the train we hired a military truck to take us to the Metropole hotel. We went to Red Square and the GUM department store, then back to the Metropole for caviar, then we met the next train in a different train station and left. We were in Moscow for seven hours, that's where all those pictures came from. And then in Helsinki they thought we were lost, as the train schedules were wrong. There were headlines saying we were lost in Russia."

As reports of this incident filtered back to Britain, plus further inflammatory comments about Hitler from a Swedish press conference, concern about Bowie's political leanings shook the UK music press. It was in this incendiary climate that Bowie finally arrived on home soil at Victoria Station in his open-topped Mercedes in May 1976. Here the notorious "heil and farewell" incident took place, a stiff-armed wave that no-one present took to be a Nazi salute. Only in subsequent press reports did Bowie's gesture turn sinister. "That did not happen," Bowie later fumed. "I just waved. Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And the bastard caught me. In mid-wave, man... as if I'd be foolish enough to pull a stunt like that. I died when I saw the photo."

According to one biographer, however, Bowie threw a genuine Nazi salute in Berlin for photographer Andrew Kent on the promise that the picture would never be made public. "I don't want to talk about it," says Kent. "I never felt David was a Nazi sympathiser. I'm Jewish, so if anybody would be sensitive to that and have bad feelings... I just think it was what I'd call an adolescent attraction."

Whether or not he struck the pose, Bowie's interest in fascism was clearly never a serious flirtation. He's spent twenty-five years explaining and apologising for the "glib theatrical observations" he made in '75 and '76. His band at the time, mostly black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, never took the comments seriously. Eno now dismisses them as pure posturing. Only the boneheads of the NF, who praised Bowie's "Aryan" sound in their literature, and the equally dim FBI, who reportedly listed Bowie as an "apparent Nazi sympathiser", could miss the illogical irony of his public statements.

What is clear is that Bowie's mental state was wracked and ravaged in the mid-'70s. Before the White Light shows at Wembley in May, he protested to Fleet Street journalist Jean Rook that The Thin White Duke was not so much a rock'n'roll Hitler as "pure clown... the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976." Rook noted that Bowie "looks terribly ill. Thin as a stick insect. And corpse pale, as if his lifeblood had all run up into his flaming hair."

Brian Eno attended one of the Wembley shows, returning to Bowie's rented digs in Maida Vale to discuss a serious collaboration. Bowie then moved on to finish the tour in Holland and France, finally returning to Switzerland for his son Joe's birthday party.

In the spring of 1976, Bowie stood at a crossroads. He could have returned to the US, where his commercial stock was high, and become a pampered mediocrity like Rod Stewart. Alas, that would have meant returning to LA, "The most repulsive wart on the backside of humanity... the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth," as he told Melody Maker in 1977. Alternatively, he could have settled into taxpayer-friendly domesticity in Switzerland, played happy families and become Phil Collins. Nice.

But Bowie also had another option: to rent a faceless apartment in "the most arduous city I could think of", a magnet for druggy dropouts and draft dodgers, a hub of bohemian decadence, an island of surrealism in a country that was never supposed to exist, hemmed in by barbed wire and Cold War power politics. Plus, incidentally, the heroin capital of Europe.

Before he even had time to yodel across the placid waters of Lake Geneva, Bowie was packing his bags.

Berlin offered Bowie sanctuary from the pressures of superstardom, marital and managerial turmoil, but perhaps most of all, from himself. Or at least the grotesque caricature of a coked-up, mentally scrambled rock star that he'd become in LA. "Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding," he tells Uncut. "I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take positive action. Berlin was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke, it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer..."

Although he visited several Nazi sites in Berlin, Bowie later admitted that his academic interest in Hitler suffered a fatal dose of reality after moving to Germany. "Suddenly I was in a situation where I was meeting young people of my age whose fathers had been SS men. That was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma, and start to re-function in a more orderly fashion... I came crashing down to earth when I got back to Europe."

Bowie was not alone in Berlin. Coco Schwab remained by his side, Iggy came along for the ride, and new friends like Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese helped ease all three into the city's social scene. Iggy later raved about Berlin's relaxed attitude towards "cult behaviour" in his fragmented autobiography, I Need More. "It was like a fairyland," he gushed, "a whole deserted city... and it's such an alcoholic city. Someone is always swaying down the street. They also don't really care about drug traffic - or rather, they don't care about people having fun."

Fun was certainly on the cards when Dave'n'Ig's big adventure first kicked off in Berlin. Although both were resolved to kick drugs, cocaine was still a feature in the early days. Dutch-born transsexual Romy Haag, who ran the Lutzower Lampe cabaret club and reportedly enjoyed a short-lived romance with Bowie, remembers Iggy and David stumbling into her bar "coked-up and wasted". British paratrooper Stuart Mackenzie, who was briefly Bowie's informal bodyguard in Berlin, later witnessed Iggy snorting coke from a vase while David would "booze, booze, booze" until he threw up or collapsed.

But these were early days, with the madness of LA still receding. Bowie's new get-clean regime also involved painting and visiting museums. Berlin for him was the home of Fritz Lang and Bertholt Brecht, plus the "angst-ridden" Expressionist painting school Die Brücke, which would later inspire album sleeves for both Bowie (Low and "Heroes") and Iggy (The Idiot and Lust For Life). "Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life," David says, "and a great feeling of release and healing. It's a city eight times bigger than Paris, remember, and so easy to 'get lost' in and to 'find' oneself, too."

Bowie and Iggy haunted the gay bars, beer houses and discotheques of Berlin, downing the local König-Pilsener brew in heroic quantities. One night, Iggy went to a punk club where a model of the Berlin Wall was prophetically smashed to pieces. On another boozy occasion, he stumbled onstage to deliver half an hour of Sinatra songs before a bewildered cabaret crowd hauled him off.

"I was drunk as hell," Iggy later admitted.

New music was never far away either.

"Germany was not a musical backwater," Bowie insists. "Apart from the local regeneration, every so-called cutting-edge act came through Berlin. Remember, Berlin was the 'home' of cool and black clothes. Art bands dreamt of playing Berlin."

After an initial spell at the Hotel Gehrus, Bowie and Coco found an apartment in the late summer of 1976 in the elegant, bohemian district of Schöneberg, once home to Christopher Isherwood. Though modest by rock-star standards, this dark, wood-panelled hideaway in a faceless tenement block was in fact a seven-room mansion flat with an office, a studio, plus bedrooms for Coco and Iggy. Bowie slept under one of his giant Neo-Expressionist paintings of controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima.

"155 Hauptstrasse, second floor," Bowie recalls to Uncut. "Knock hard because the bell sometimes doesn't work. Ig eventually moved in with a bird next door." Iggy's girlfriend was diplomat's daughter Esther Friedmann. Often they'd blast off in Esther's Volkswagen into the flat, wooded lakeland around Berlin. Iggy loved the "rinky-dink villages full of strange old German people. We used to get lost. I like to go out and get lost and be in places made of wood, just to wash every shred of America off. Taking a walk was like taking a shower."

Bowie enthuses about the growing sense of well-being which Berlin brought. "Some days the three of us would jump into the car and drive like crazy through East Germany and head down to the Black Forest, stopping off at any village that caught our eye. Just go for days at a time. Or we'd take all-afternoon lunches at the Wannsee on winter days. The place had a glass roof and was surrounded by trees and it still exuded an atmosphere of the long-gone Berlin of the '20s."

Bowie, Iggy and Coco shopped for caviar and chocolates at the Ka De We department store in West Berlin. At night, David says, they'd "hang with the intellectuals and beats at the Exile restaurant in Kreuzberg. In the back they had this smoky room with a billiard table, sort of like another living room, except the company was always changing."

Berlin's isolation behind the Iron Curtain also lent the city a chilly frisson of Cold War gloom. Ricky Gardiner, the Edinburgh-born guitarist who played on Low and Lust For Life, recalls driving towards this Oz-like oasis along the fiercely guarded motorway corridor through East Germany. "The autobahn was just as Hitler had built it," he says. "It had not had any repairs. The broken concrete slabs had taken on a tectonic plate-like life of their own and we bounced from slab to slab. The autobahn was occasionally crossed by overhead walkways. Here, small groups of people would gather to watch the affluent West exercising freedom they could only dream about. Their dress was drab and colourless. They had the demeanour of inmates of some restrictive institution."

Tony Visconti, who co-produced all three of Bowie's Berlin albums, remembers the city as a psychotic theme park. "The impending danger of the divided military zones, the bizarre nightlife, the extremely traditional restaurants with aproned servers, reminders of Hitler's not-too-distant presence, a studio five hundred yards from the Wall," he says. "You could've been on the set of The Prisoner."

Bowie called Berlin his "clinic", a therapeutic experiment in chemical and spiritual detox. He grew a moustache, got a crew cut from Visconti, took to dressing like a Polish peasant and cycling around the city unrecognised. This, he explained, was the perfect antidote to "that dull greeny-grey limelight of American rock'n'roll and its repercussions - pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying: 'For God's sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place. Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself more accurately. Find some people you don't understand and a place you don't want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries...'"

But Berlin was also a grand metaphor for Bowie's towering sense of alienation and schizophrenia in the late '70s, a vast canvas for the healing psychodrama of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Stranded in a bleak interzone between East and West, this fractured cityscape may well have appealed to Bowie's life-long love of sci-fi. But it was also to become the setting for his most adventurous voyage yet. A descent into his own cracked psyche, an exploration of inner space.

Part One of Bowie and Iggy's musical rehab was Pop's The Idiot. Recording began in June at the Château d'Herouville near Paris, soon after the White Light tour ended, with many of the same backing musicians. The duo then briefly relocated to Munich's Musicland studios, where they met future Bowie collaborator Giorgio Moroder. Finally, the wandering duo settled in Hansa in Berlin.

Iggy trailed The Idiot as a "cross between James Brown and Kraftwerk", with Bowie producing and playing "Angry Young Guitar". Featuring brutalist robo-punk workouts like Nightclubbing, Funtime and the rough blueprint for future Bowie 45 China Girl, the LP was a bruising collision of disco and rock, Europe and America. Eno described listening to The Idiot as "like having your head encased in concrete". He meant it as a compliment.

The Idiot was also a dry run for the radical new sounds on Bowie's Low, which would turn out less abrasive but no less emotionally intense. Initially christened New Music Night And Day, the LP was renamed to convey the visual pun of its sleeve shot from The Man Who Fell To Earth of Bowie in profile: low profile. Despite being enshrined in rock history as the first of Bowie's "triptych" of Berlin albums with Eno, Low was almost entirely cut in France, at Château d'Herouville. An opulent mansion hemmed in by high walls and heavy gates, the Château had hosted Bowie's Pin Ups sessions three years earlier, in happier times.

The musicians on Low were mostly Station To Station and White Light tour veterans - guitarist Carlos Alomar, bass player George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis, and Tony Visconti co-producing with Bowie. Iggy was another fixture at the Château, singing occasional backing vocals and sounding out Gardiner for his own future projects. But the most significant new team member was Eno, who arrived midway through the sessions with subversive strategies and a primitive, joystick-operated synthesiser. Visconti's then-wife, singer Mary Hopkin, duetted with Eno on the background sighs to Sound And Vision, jokily credited to "Peter and Paul". Former Beggars Opera guitarist Ricky Gardiner was also recruited on Visconti's recommendation. "He was totally left-field and savvy with special effects," says Visconti. "I was in awe of him." But Bowie reveals he had other plans for the sessions. "The original top of my wish list for a guitar player on Low was Michael Rother from Neu!," Bowie says. "Neu! being passionate, even diametrically opposite to Kraftwerk. I phoned Dinger from France in the first few days of recording, but in the most polite and diplomatic fashion he said no." Despite its incongruous genesis in rural Gallic splendour, Low was emphatically a Berlin album in spirit: a sonic distillation of the city whose isolated state chimed in with Bowie's ravaged brain in 1976. "That initial period of living in Berlin produced Low," Bowie revealed in 1977. "It was like, 'Isn't it great being on your own? Let's just pull down the blinds and fuck 'em all'. Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things. Anything else, you don't mention - and in the end you produce Low."

The chillingly beautiful instrumental pieces on the album paid explicit homage to Bowie's new bunker in the East. Warszawa caught the bleak mystery of Cold War Poland, but it takes no great leap of faith to draw parallels between the album's melancholic tone poems and Bowie's own deep-frozen mental state.

Besides the looming shadow of Berlin and the aftershocks of cocaine psychosis, Bowie brought a more immediate set of troubles to the Low sessions. Bitter divorce proceedings with Angie, a looming custody battle over their son Joe, and ongoing wrangles with ex-manager Michael Lippman kept dragging him away to legal hearings in Paris. Angie even dropped by the studio with her new boyfriend, sparking a huge row with David. "They had a punch-up and started throwing bottles around," Visconti later revealed. "David was going through a difficult period professionally and personally. To his credit, he didn't put on a brave face."

Brian Eno recently told Uncut that, while making Low, Bowie "was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system... he was very, very upset. I felt desperately sorry for him going through that and trying to make a record. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work."

Bowie now admits that "it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether, physically and emotionally, and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low.I can hear myself struggling to get well." Low is awash with anguish and despair, but catharsis, too. Some of its robotic, jerky vocal tracks contain the most emotionally naked lyrics of Bowie's career, while the opiated disco-pop diamond Sound And Vision offers a sublime hymn to numb withdrawal: David later called it "an ultimate retreat song... I was going through dreadful times, wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows." Meanwhile, the traumatised funk of Breaking Glass contains a blood-chilling flashback to Bowie's spirit-conjuring rituals in Hollywood: "Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it..."

Speaking of spirits, the Low sessions also suffered from supernatural visitations. Château d'Herouville contains two studios linked by a covered arcade, each named after former residents Frederic Chopin and George Sand. The ghosts of these doomed lovers are rumoured to patrol its rambling corridors. In fact, Bowie declined to sleep in the master bedroom because it seemed to be haunted. "It was a spooky place," Bowie told us. "I did refuse one bedroom, as it felt impossibly cold in certain areas."

Tony Visconti agrees. "There was certainly some strange energy in that château," he explains. "The master bedroom had a very dark corner, next to the window ironically, that seemed to just suck light into it. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck. Eno claimed he was awakened every morning with someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, no-one was there."

Most of the band went home after completing their parts in just five days. Bowie, Eno, Visconti and Gardiner stayed on at the Château to add vocals, textures and overdubs. Rumours that alternative lyrics were recorded on some songs are denied by Bowie. But Visconti remembers, "David wrote a third verse to Always Crashing In The Same Car and sang it in the style of Bob Dylan. It was done half in jest, but we were a little freaked as Dylan had been in that motorcycle accident and this seemed like bad taste, I guess. David asked me to erase it and I did."

Eno's contribution to Low is sometimes overstated. After all, instrumental tracks such as Speed Of Life and A New Career In A New Town use a muscular R'n'B backing, light years removed from Eno's ambient blueprint for discreet, abstract background sound. A late arrival to the sessions, he shares the writing credits and, contrary to folklore, was not a producer. "My name is printed in the credits as co-producer with David on all the sleeves," says an exasperated Visconti. "I don't recall Brian ever setting the record straight."

However, Eno's streak of avant-garde anarchy was undeniably crucial to Bowie's creative breakthrough on Low. It was Eno who suggested keeping demo versions rather than re-recording them: "Why fix it? It isn't broken." Pushing for a more "nervy and electronic" mood, he introduced radical new methods - including the notorious Oblique Strategies cards he devised with artist Peter Schmidt which contained such random instructions as "Honour your error as a hidden intention", "Use unqualified people", and so on.

Eno programmed the vintage machines on Low with quaintly Victorian names: Chamberlin, Rimmer, Tape Horn. He also worked up rough versions of Subterraneans and Warszawa without Bowie, the latter melody inspired by Visconti's four-year-old son Morgan plonking three notes on the studio piano. The ambient Zen master reasoned that he could always pay for the studio time and use the tape elsewhere if David disliked the results.

As it happened, Bowie embraced Brian Eno's deconstructionist methods and took them to another level. He added vocals to Warszawa in an invented tongue based on recordings of a Balkan boys' choir, which Visconti treated with a pitch-warping machine called an Eventide Harmonizer that "fucks with the fabric of time". Rather like the dry, squashed wallop of the gated snare drum which Visconti pioneered on Low,this sound would later come to dominate '80s stadium rock.

For such an experimental album, Eno did indeed have a deep impact. It was credited with helping to inspire several generations of synth-pop bands in the late '70s and early '80s, from Gary Numan to Ultravox to Human League. Joy Division reportedly borrowed their early name, Warsaw from the track Warszawa. Later, as New Order, they made an unsuccessful attempt to record using Eno's Oblique Strategies method.

But the superficially futurist sheen of Eno has been worn away by history and its instrumental pieces now sound like pure emotion, as timeless as Gregorian chants, as transcendent as religiously inspired neo-classical masters Arvo Pärt or Henryk Gorecki. Bowie would later talk of the album's "pure spirituality". In the '90s, glacial minimalist Philip Glass adapted three Low tracks into a symphony, followed by works based in the other two Berlin albums.

At the time, however, Low proved too far out for Bowie's record company. After returning to Berlin's Hansa studios to finish mixing and vocals, David delivered the album tapes to his panic-stricken label in London. Aghast at this chilly new direction, RCA dropped the LP from the Christmas release schedules. One executive reportedly suggested buying the star a house in Philadelphia in return for supplying another warm, commercial, disco-soul smash in the vein of Young Americans. All to no avail.

Contractual wrangles aside, the demons surrounding Bowie in '76 were still not wholly exorcised by Low. In November, he had another dramatic confrontation with Angie in Berlin. She considered it their "one last chance at reconciliation", but it ended with David collapsing from chest pains and being rushed to the British Army clinic. Later diagnosed as an anxiety attack, possibly caused by excessive drinking, this showdown was effectively the last straw for David and Angela's marriage. Incensed by Coco Schwab's influence over Bowie, Angie's final act of defiance followed soon after. She returned to the Schöneberg flat and took revenge on her absent rival. "I went into Coco's room," Angie later wrote, "gathered up her clothes and some of the gifts I'd given her in better times, threw them out of the window called a cab and caught a flight to London."

Low was finally released in January '77, followed by the incongruously jaunty hit Sound And Vision in February. Scoring an effortless Number 2 on the IIK charts and an impressive Number 11 in America, the album defied both Bowie's doubters at RCA and his sternest press critics, many of whom damned Low as an almost personal betrayal. The polarised press reaction to Low was most strikingly embodied by NME, where a rare double-header review by Ian MacDonald and long-time Bowie champion Charles Shaar Murray took diametrically opposite positions. MacDonald called the record "stunningly beautiful... the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers with no access to the English language." Conversely, Murray poured scorn on "an album so negative that it doesn't even contain emptiness or the void... Low is the sound of nothing and even the nothing is elusive... a state of mind beyond desperation... it stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeat..."

Significantly, Low also arrived at the height of punk. Bowie denies any subliminal connection between his bleak Berlin period and the anti-star, alienated, apocalyptic mood of rock's new revolutionaries. "You've just described my frame of mind in 1976," he quips. As Jon Savage wrote in England's Dreaming, both Low and "Heroes" had a "huge impact" during punk: "For every person who saw the necessity of getting into the world, of becoming politically active and thus translating the original commitment of punk into a fierce, organised protest campaign, there was another who wanted to get out of this world: to disengage, to sort out the turmoil within their own heads..."

While punk swept the rock world, Bowie was one of the few '70s titans to maintain his credibility. "Whether it was my befuddled brain or because of the lack of impact of the English variety of punk in the US, the whole movement was virtually over by the time it lodged itself in my awareness," he says. "The few punk bands I saw in Berlin struck me as being sort of post-'69 Iggy and it seemed like he'd already done that. Though I regret not being around for the whole Pistols circus as that kind of entertainment would have done more for my depressed disposition than just about anything else I could think of."

Bowie's association with Iggy probably helped protect his reputation during the Stalinist purges of punk. His savvy decision to play keyboards for Iggy on The Idiot tour in early '77 only underlined this dressed-down, man-of-the-people Dave. After recruiting Low guitarist Ricky Gardiner and American rhythm section Hunt and Tony Sales, later of Tin Machine, tour rehearsals took place in a screening room at Berlin's legendary UFA film studios. "Fritz Lang worked there before the Nazis took over," Iggy explained. "They still had all these wonderful German Expressionist films just sitting in cans rotting, because they still can't figure out the politics of who should get them."

Beginning in Aylesbury on March 1, the British shows were greeted by what Iggy called "a frenzied hail of gob". Cementing his punk connections, Bowie and Iggy also met up with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious in London. "John was quite in awe of Jim [Iggy]," recalls Bowie, "but Sid was near catatonic and I felt very bad for him. He was so young and in need of help."

As Sid succumbed to heroin, Iggy shunned it. Although he d later relapse, Berlin had temporarily cleansed his system, turning him into a "health freak". The shot of a maniacally grinning Iggy that Andrew Kent took during a BBC interview, which later became the Lust For Life cover, caught Pop's new mood of energised optimism. Even so, Bowie later confessed that the tour was far from drug-free. "I kept wanting to leave the tour to keep off drugs," he said in 1993. "The drug use was unbelievable and I knew it was killing me, so that was the difficult side of it. But the playing was fun."

Bowie finally overcame his long-standing fear of flying to play US dates with Iggy. The first leg of the tour broke up in late April in LA, where Bowie apparently went on a night on the tiles with Mick Jagger. Then both he and Iggy returned to Berlin to work on Iggy's Lust For Life, recorded in a three-week frenzy at Hansa By The Wall studios. Iggy took a more dominant role than on The Idiot a year before: "The band and David would leave the studio to go to sleep," he later recalled, "but not me."

Bowie confirms Iggy's claims that the bruising, percussive, invincible title tune was written by him on a ukulele in front of the TV at his Schöneberg apartment, its stuttering rhythm inspired by the Morse-code beat of the Allied Forces Network theme. But its fellow future classic, The Passenger, popped into the head of guitarist Ricky Gardiner during an idyllic spring walk. "David, Iggy and myself convened at David's flat in Berlin to pool ideas for Iggy's next album," says Gardiner. "David asked me if I had anything. I didn't realise they wanted material so I had nothing prepared. However, I remembered the chord sequence. I played it into Iggy's little cassette machine on my unplugged Strat. He returned the next day with the lyrics complete."

Iggy resumed touring without Bowie in late summer 1977. By June, David was back at Hansa to make what many consider to be his masterpiece: "Heroes". Most of the Low players were recalled - Visconti, Alomar, Davis, Murray. Eno was once again musical catalyst and sonic prankster, providing "guitar treatments" and playing synth. But unlike Low, Eno was involved from the start and his experimental methods were now embraced with confidence and vigour.

Hansa's elegantly shabby Studio Two, a cavernous room that Bowie christened "The hall by The Wall", had seen service as a Nazi social club. "It was a Weimar ballroom," Bowie says, "utilised by Gestapo in the '30s for their own little musical 'soirées'..."

Just a stone's throw from the Eastern Zone, Hansa overlooked the concrete curtain that split Berlin - and the world - in two. According to Visconti, the studio's location next to a watchtower staffed by gun-toting East German border guards lent the sessions an extra buzz. "Being so close to The Wall made it a pretty exotic place to make a record," he says. "It was a great moment in a special time. I heard U2 went to Hansa looking for what we'd created there and it didn't pan out for them. I heard they hated the place."

Swaggering and anthemic, "Heroes" sounds like Low on steroids. Numb introspection I had evolved into swashbuckling dynamism. Bowie was largely drug-free by now, although by his own admission he was drinking heavily during his first year in Berlin - which perhaps explains the references to booze on "Heroes". Bowie admits the album's edge of manic hysteria is not wholly free from the ghosts of Low. "It's louder and harder and played with more energy," he concedes. "But lyrically it seems far more psychotic. By now I was living full-time in Berlin so my own mood was good. Buoyant even. But those lyrics come from a nook in the unconscious. Still a lot of house cleaning going on, I feel."

Embracing everything from Wagnerian electronica to disco romanticism, the vocal tunes on "Heroes" crackle with lusty intensity, while the ambient sound-paintings bathe in Gothic shadows. The foundations for most tracks were laid down in days, prompting a normally painstaking Eno to remark, "Shit, it can't be this easy." Bowie favoured one or two takes, with rough and spontaneous edges left in the mix. Visconti recalls Bowie working "unbelievably fast", with songs like Joe The Lion virtually composed as he sang. "I'd put the headphones on, stand at the mic, listen to a verse, jot down keywords that came to mind, then take," says Bowie. "Then I'd repeat the process for the next section. It was something I learnt from working with Iggy and, I thought, a very effective way of breaking normality in the lyric."

The symphonic suite of instrumentals which dominates the latter half of "Heroes" was also improvised in the studio, some tracks using Eno's Oblique Strategies cards. The hilariously grim sturm-und-drang piano piece Sense Of Doubt evolved this way, while others were assembled in what Eno calls a "completely arbitrary" manner. Moss Garden, aluminous homage to Bowie's beloved Japan, began with Eno playing a chord sequence and telling Bowie, "Give us a shout when you think it's long enough." After a few minutes, Bowie looked at the clock and said, "Yeah, that'll probably do." Bosh, bosh, bosh. And it took Radiohead three years to make Kid A. Go figure.

Only one song on "Heroes" was written before recording took place - the achingly romantic alienation ballad Sons Of The Silent Age, with its allusions to pre-talkies cinema and ghostly urban dwellers who "glide in and out of life". Most of Bowie's lyrics are quick-fire collages or streams of consciousness, written on the hoof. The overblown refrain "Someone fetch a priest!" in Beauty And The Beast, for example, is an in-joke adapted from Visconti's favourite studio exclamation: "someone fuck a priest." And the shrill, nervous-breakdown screams of "Get me to the doctor!" in Blackout are not, Bowie insists, a dramatisation of his own collapse in late 1976, but a reference to power cuts. Either way, he seems to be milking the melodrama for high-camp humour.

Indeed, there's a rich seam of comedy within "Heroes", often overlooked. A whiff of self-mockery clings to the alcoholic anti-heroes who populate these tunes, jet black though the joke maybe. David later claimed that he and Eno spent the sessions "laughing and falling on the floor. I think out of all the time we spent recording, forty minutes out of every hour were spent just crying with laughter." Eno recently told Uncut that he and Bowie communicated in Peter Cook and Dudley Moore voices throughout the sessions. "Bowie was Pete and I was Dud... It was hilarious, I don't think I've ever laughed so much making a record."

Bowie now recalls, "We certainly had our share of schoolboy giggling fits. I think 'most of the sessions' is a bit of an exaggeration. However, Brian and I did have Pete and Dud down pretty pat. Long dialogues about John Cage performing on a 'prepared layer' at the Bricklayer's Arms on the Old Kent Road and the like. Quite silly."

But the "Heroes" sessions also involved intense nocturnal marathons, including one which produced the album's darkest track, Neuköln - named after an inner-city area of Berlin where Turkish "guest workers" crowded into brutalist tenement blocks, literally up against The Wall. After these late shifts, Bowie and Eno would stumble back to the Schöneberg apartment, where Eno and his girlfriend were staying.

"He gets into a very peculiar state when he's working," Eno said of Bowie soon after completing "Heroes". "He doesn't eat. It used to strike me as very paradoxical that two comparatively well-known people would be staggering home at 6AM, and he'd break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day, virtually. It was slummy. We'd sit around the kitchen table tired and a bit fed up - me with a bowl of crummy German cereal, him with albumen running down his shirt."

Bowie adds, "Again, I must stress that this is a bit romantic. There was a café in the Hansa building, run by an ex-boxing champion - my painting Champion Of The World is a portrait of him. We'd either have a lunch and dinner there or order up. But the egg thing is also true. I was eating extremely well as my drug intake was practically zero. I'd eat a couple of raw eggs to start the day or finish it, with pretty big meals in between. Lots of meat and veg, thanks Mum. Brian would start his day with a cup of boiling water, into which he'd cut huge lumps of garlic. He was no fun to do backing vocals with on the same mic."

Another lightening-speed worker was guitarist Robert Fripp, a late addition to the alchemic brew of "Heroes". The King Crimson vet had worked with Eno before (on '73's No Pussyfooting), and was summoned from New York at short notice when the Hansa sessions were deemed in need of fresh spark. Fripp stayed in Berlin for a single weekend, arriving late one night and immediately jamming along to half-finished tracks. According to Eno, Fripp recorded all his parts in six hours, straight off the plane. Eno plugged Fripp into his EMS briefcase synth and the guitarist plunged headlong into the album's fast-and-loose depths. "He'd start without even knowing the chord sequences," says Eno. "He'd just launch into them at full speed and somehow navigate his way through them."

Bowie's instructions to Fripp were minimal: "Play with total abandonment... play like Albert King... things like Joe The Lion were him having a bash at the blues." The bristling "Frippatronic" guitar parts were mostly recorded in single takes, which Bowie and Visconti would later manipulate and edit into composite collages. "Before we knew it," says Visconti, "we had a sound no-one had ever heard before."

Fripp also contributed to the Pythonesque hysteria of the "Heroes" sessions. Visconti recalls, "He wondered if he was going to get laid in Berlin that night, and used the euphemism, 'I have hopes to wave the sword of union tonight.' He'd lay on his Dorset accent extra thick for that. We couldn't stop laughing." The next day, like The Lone Ranger, Fripp rode off into the sunset - back on a jet to New York. Mission accomplished.

The monolithic title track to "Heroes" is both comic and serious, tender and tragic. Visconti used the bouncing reverb of Hansa to stunning effect, recording Bowie's vocal on a trio of mics in different locations - the second and third only activated above a certain volume level, producing a Spector-esque tidal wave which builds and builds to a level beyond hysteria. The tune's thumping, motorik rhythm was inspired by Lou Reed's Waiting For The Man, but the true story behind the lyric's semi-ironic hymn to doomed romance has long been debated by fans. Visconti has hinted that the lovers in "Heroes" were inspired by a "flirtatious kiss" between himself and backing singer Antonia Maass, which Bowie witnessed from the studio window. But in '77, Bowie claimed the characters were based on strangers who he spotted enjoying a secret lunchtime by The Berlin Wall. Visconti confirms to Uncut that his illicit involvement with Maass was the true genesis of "Heroes". "As I was married at the time, David protected me all these years by not saying he saw Antonia and me kiss. He asked to be left alone to write the lyrics and we took a walk by the wall. Antonia was a beautiful woman and a great singer. Our act of indiscretion certainly inspired that verse. Coco told me that."

"What a discreet dude I am," laughs Bowie today. But he also concedes the "subtext/backstory" to "Heroes" was deeply personal: "I'd got over the majority of my emotional decline, and felt like I was coming back to who I should have been... it's as much about me as it is about the protagonists in the song. 'We can get out of this, I'll be OK.'"

Bowie also clears up conflicting stories over the "Heroes" sleeve pose. Some claim it derives from a self-portrait by a Brücke Museum artist, Gramatté, while others insist it shares its inspiration with Iggy's The Idiot cover in Erich Heckel's portrait of a mad friend, Roquairol. "I couldn't stand [expressionist painter] Gramatté," he says today. "He was wishy-washy. I've seen the Gramatté, but no, it was Heckel. Heckel's Roquairol, and his print from around 1910, Young Man, were a major influence on me as a painter."

Visiting Britain for a promotional blitz in September 1972 Bowie reunited with former glam-rock buddy Marc Bolan to perform "Heroes" on Bolan's Granada TV show Marc. More surreally, he also recorded "Heroes" for the yuletide special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, then duetted with the crooner on Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy - released as an unlikely festive single five years later. In a macabre twist, both Bolan and Crosby would die within weeks of these meetings. After attending Bolan's funeral in north London, Bowie reportedly drove past his childhood homes in Brixton and Beckenham.

With Bowie's co-operation, RCA promoted "Heroes" more heavily than Low, coining the memorable slogan "There's Old Wave, there's New Wave, and there's David Bowie." Press notices in the UK were more positive, with NME branding the LP "mature and trenchant" while Melody Maker found it "adventurous and challenging" (both papers eventually made it Album Of The Year). Released in October, it hit Number 3 in the UK but only managed 35 in the US, where Bowie's track record was less established (prior to 1983's Let's Dance, anyway) and electronic rock still an alien novelty. Even so, "Heroes" was eulogised by Patti Smith in Hit Parader magazine as "a cryptic product of a high order of intelligence... behind my shades I imagine him there in Berlin, stumbling through old boxes and props in the street... I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead." When Bowie's buddy John Lennon started recording Double Fantasy, his stated ambition was to "do something as good as "Heroes"..."

Back in Britain in October, Bowie recorded another version of "Heroes" for Top Of The Pops at Visconti's Good Earth Studios in London, with Ricky Gardiner standing in for Fripp. In his first promotional interviews for two years, Bowie proved reluctant to interpret the LP's meaning. He told Melody Maker's Allan Jones that he was generally pessimistic, but added, "There's some relief in compassion - and I know that's not a word usually flung at my work. "Heroes" is, I hope, compassionate."

Almost twenty-five years on, "Heroes" sounds not just compassionate but triumphant. With the soul-sapping self-exorcism of Station To Station and numb withdraw al of Low behind him, Bowie was in his healthiest state for a decade. The album could have ended with the elemental bleakness and dissonant sax screams of Neuköln, but instead it swishes playfully into the twilight with the flighty, fleet-footed disco bauble The Secret Life Of Arabia. Even the instrumentals contain musical jokes, like the jaunty homage to Kraftwerk's deadpan joker Florian Schneider in V-2 Schneider. This was Bowie returning the favour to his Düsseldorf soul brothers for name-checking him and Iggy on Trans-Europe Express - but also kicking his Teutonic gloom habit for good.

There is a heaviness to "Heroes", but a hefty shot of black humour and post-traumatic relief, too. This is the sound of Bowie purging himself of three dark years of paranoia and self-abuse, musical therapy and chemical free-fall. Berlin was no longer his "clinic", although flashbacks to past madness still lingered in the shadows of his Schöneberg apartment. "It took two years in Berlin to really cleanse the system," he later admitted. "I'd have days where things were moving in the room and this was when I was totally straight!"

By late 1977, Bowie's globe-trotting curiosity was back to full strength. In the autumn he holidayed in Spain with Bianca Jagger and in Kenya with his young son, Joe (Duncan Jones). In November he flew to New York to narrate a version of Peter And The Wolf with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, ostensibly as a "present" for Joe. He was no longer a mere rock star, but a painter, actor, composer and "generalist" of the arts. Beneath its monochrome gravitas and jabbering hysteria, "Heroes" tells a tale of redemption and recovery.

The new year began with yet more drama for Bowie. In early January 1978, his estranged wife Angie ended up in hospital after a couple of apparent suicide attempts. At the time, Bowie was in Berlin, shooting Just A Gigolo with director David Hemmings.

Hemmings had flown to Switzerland just before Christmas to persuade Bowie to star as Paul, an emotionally numb ex-soldier who becomes a gigolo in Berlin during Hitler's rise. Intended as a black comedy, the film was released to widespread hostility a year later. Most reviewers singled out Bowie's wooden performance for special punishment.

"They missed the point," sighs Hemmings. "The point about that character is that he's a sponge - he's supposed to be cold and somewhat thick. You don't get Ziggy Stardust if you want to see someone playing a German soldier who survived the war. That's called acting."

Bowie himself later disowned the film, dismissing it as "my thirty-two Elvis Presley movies contained in one". Hemmings calls this judgment "massively unfair, and it does down himself, me and the film far more than it deserved. David thinks we didn't take it seriously enough, but that's not my directorial style. If we had taken it seriously, it would have been a very depressing shoot indeed."

After the shoot, Bowie took another safari with his son, before starting rehearsals for the Stage extravaganza, his most ambitious world tour to date. It would bring Low and "Heroes" alive for the first time, as well as coating half of Ziggy Stardust in a shiny varnish of New Wave modernism.

Alongside stalwart sidemen Alomar, Davis and Murray, Bowie recruited new players, including twenty-eight-year-old Kentucky-born guitarist Adrian Belew. On Eno's recommendation, Bowie poached Belew from Frank Zappa's band during one of Frank's own interminable guitar solos at a Berlin show. Spotting Bowie and Iggy over by the monitors, Belew strolled over for a surreptitious chat. "Later that night," says Belew "we tried real hard to sneak off and have a private talk, but inadvertently ended up in the same restaurant where Frank and some of the band were at. The jig was up. David tried to talk to Frank, but Frank wouldn't have anything to do with him. He kept calling him 'Captain Tom'. It was an ugly scene, really."

Eventually, Belew got Zappa's blessing and headed off to rehearsals in Dallas in March. Gathered at a hotel on the edge of town, the band crowded into Bowie's room one night to watch Beatles spoof The Rutles. Kicking off in San Diego on March 29, Stage was a juggernaut which toured the globe for six months in '78 filling arenas of twenty thousand people and more. With its neon backdrop and space-age jumpsuits, it received hugely positive reviews but translated into an oddly muted double live album, released in September.

The tour's European leg ended with three shows at Earl's Court in July, two of which were filmed by David Hemmings for a proposed movie. "We shot it with about ten cameras over two nights," Hemmings recalls. "We put it all together in Majorca, where I had a house, and David came to stay. But at the end of it he didn't like the cut, so he never released it." Bowie confirms, "I simply didn't like the way it had been shot. Now, of course, it looks pretty good and I suspect it would make it out some time in the future."

In September, Bowie and most of the Stage band took a break from touring to begin work on the last of the Berlin/Eno trilogy. Like Low, Lodger was not actually recorded in Berlin. Instead, it was started at Mountain Studios in Montreux, and eventually finished at New York's Record Plant in March 1979.

Originally titled Planned Accidents, Lodger was constructed using more self-consciously disruptive methods than Low or "Heroes", resulting in a kind of Dadaist collage effect. "It was a lot more mischievous," says Bowie of the third Eno instalment. "Brian and I did play a number of 'art pranks' on the band. They really didn't go down too well. Especially with Carlos, who tends to be quite 'grand'... "

Lodger overturned the monolithic minimalism of Low and "Heroes" with a cluttered pile-up of ethnic funk, sampled static and jarring musique concrète. In many ways, it was more experimental than its two siblings, but it lacked the emotional kick of either. A case could be argued that this is Bowie's lost classic, but its listless mood and muddy sound are undeniable flaws.

"I think Tony and I would both agree that we didn't take enough care mixing," says Bowie. "This had a lot to do with my being distracted by personal events and I think Tony lost heart a little as it never came together as easily as Low and "Heroes" had. I'd still maintain, though, that there are a number of really important ideas on Lodger."

Visconti calls it "a strange album, dark and light", made in "two uncomfortable studios" at a time when "cocaine was ubiquitous and naively abused".

Released soon after the critically savaged Just A Gigolo, in May '79, Lodger was not well reviewed. RCA tried to pitch it as Bowie's Sgt. Pepper, but Rolling Stone called it "a footnote to "Heroes", an act of marking time", while NME sniffed that Bowie was "ready for religion".

Smartly drifting away from pure electronica just as synth-pop copycats flooded the UK charts, Lodger predicted a decade of Western pop flirtation with multi- cultural flavours. But it also alienated die-hard fans hoping for Bowie's next bulletin from the depths of Teutonic despair. Siouxsie Sioux calls Lodger "the first of many to disappoint", while Stephen Morris says, "It's crap, everyone sounds bored..." Meanwhile, the demystification of Bowie continued. TV and radio appearances showcased droll, chatty, New Wave Dave. During a return match with The Daily Express, Jean Rook was amazed at the transformation from three years earlier, when Bowie had been "chalk-skinned, bloodless and apparently dying, if not undead. He looked like a cross between a stick insect and Dracula." This time, a beaming, tweedily dressed Bowie reminded Rook of "Edward before he met Mrs Simpson... interviewing him is like coming across a daisy in hell."

During his last months in Berlin, Bowie sensed an ugly new mood in the city. His local Turkish café was smashed up by neo-Nazis, and the owners attacked. Bowie began fretting about whether this was any longer a suitable place to bring up Joe, who was now in his father's custody. Fascism may not have attracted Bowie to Berlin, but it was clearly a factor in his decision to leave.

By the time he completed Lodger in NewYork, Bowie's Berlin therapy session was over. He moved into a Manhattan loft in spring '79, plugging back into mainstream art-rock currents. He recorded and performed with John Cale and Blondie's Jimmy Destri, attended shows by Talking Heads, Nico and The Clash.

He also began preparations to storm the post-punk high ground with his next album, Scary Monsters. Like Berlin, New York was an edgy melting pot of art and sleaze, music and sex. But it was also a fresh start, the next chapter, a blank page. A new career in a new town. "I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away" Bowie now says. "Maybe I was getting better. It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience and probably the happiest time in my life up until that point. Coco, Jim and I had so many great times... I just can't express the feeling of freedom I felt there."

With a quarter century of hindsight, Bowie eulogises his Berlin trilogy with a twinge of poetic nostalgia for the spooked chemistry and demonic depths which shaped them. "Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds," he says. "In some ways, sadly, they I captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done.

"Nothing else sounded like those albums. 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."