If There’s Someone In Charge, Then Listen To Me

David Bowie in Vasarely's workshop

In 1976, Bowie took a drastic step that would further cement his legacy and alter the musical landscape forever.  Bowie took a washed-up garage band singer named Iggy Pop under his wing and told him that he could help reinvent himself, and resurrect his career.  But Iggy had problems with heroin the same way Bowie had problems with coke.  So, they both made the decision to decamp to Berlin.  Berlin in the 70’s was a bohemian, depressing place.  The cold war was in full swing, the shadow economy was strong, and the sense of trepidation was high.  Bowie and Pop shared an apartment in Berlin’s Turkish district, and both became very interested in the electronic dance music of groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk.  Inspired, Bowie and Pop fled to France to begin tracking Iggy Pop’s (ostensibly first) solo album, The Idiot.  Recording then continued at Musicland in Germany before being mixed by Bowie’s frequent collaborator Tony Visconti at Hansa Tonstudio by the Berlin Wall.

Side Note:  when I visited Germany four years ago, my first stop was to tour the Hansa Tonstudio, as it was (and still is) a legendary recording studio that has seen, apart from Bowie and Pop, groups such as Depeche Mode and Wire record using it’s space and equipment.  I was shown a rusting stairwell that has amazing reverb, where DM recorded some vocals.  The large studio ballroom has been converted in an elegant dining hall, but the multi-bus plug-in rack still exists behind a very fine velvet curtain.  The smaller studio downstairs has a very cool control booth, and they apparently have a room far upstairs full of vintage keyboard equipment.  With drool running down my cheeks, I was very politely (yet forcefully) told that said room was forbidden to enter.

The Idiot was many moves away from Pop’s previous hard rock sound, and in a way, was the template for Bowie’s forthcoming Bowie album.  It was a different album that took chances with it’s cold, Kraftwerk-synth + funk soundscape.  Bowie could always backtrack and take a safer route for his next planned album.  Bowie was pleased with the results though, so much so that he held the release of the album back until he could release his own ‘take’ on the material (it should be noted that Bowie wrote, recorded, co-produced, and played keyboards on The Idiot.  He also had Pop signed to his management company.  It was largely recorded by Bowie’s backing band of the time.  Except for some of Pop’s lyrical writing contributions, and vocals, swap out Bowie’s voice and it’s a Bowie record).  The album starts off with the near industrial “Sister Midnight” (pay attention to this song) before segueing into the drum-machine led “Nightclubbing”, a song covered by The Human League, and most famously by Grace Jones, who made it a sizable hit single.  The rest of the album follows the cold industrial landscape of the first two songs.  The Idiot may not have a household-ready cache of hits that the average music fan would recognize, but, aside from Grace Jones’ cover hit, it does include a little tune called “China Girl” that Bowie himself would make a huge smash in 1983.  It seems Pop is the bridesmaid instead of the bride.

So, while The Idiot was in the can and ready for release, it didn’t actually come out until March of 1977.  Instead, while Pop cooled his heels waiting for his album to come out, Bowie took a cast of frequent and new collaborators into the studio and recorded the Low album.  It was the first of what would come to be called his “Berlin Trilogy”, because, as the legend states, the albums were recorded in, reflections of, and influenced by, Berlin.  Truth, however, is not always so kind as legends.  Low was mostly recorded in France, with only some of the mixing and recording done in Berlin.  Regardless of this, Bowie was firmly ensconced in Berlin when the album was released.

As a direct response to his cocaine addiction and recovery, Low is, in many ways, reminiscent of how Bowie was feeling at the time.  Stressed, drained, plaintive.  It was also in large part inspired by his rejected soundtrack work for his film The Man Who Fell To Earth, where the electronic landscapes would have fit in perfectly (whenever I watch the movie now I’m still amazed the director chose folksy, acoustic guitar inspired tunes).  This electronic music only enforced these feelings of isolation.  Much of the planning work was done in collaboration with Brian Eno, who provided invaluable synthesizer and effects processing production to the proceedings (it must be remembered that effects racks and synthesizers were not the commonplace pieces of equipment that they are today, and that, often, a specialist was needed to not only operate but provide guidance on ‘special effects’ in a studio.)  For me though, what really stands out about the Low album – looking back on it in hindsight, because I grew up in an era of synth-pop – are the drum sounds.  They’re big and booming, but not in the Phil Collins gated way (of “In The Air Tonight.”)  No, they’re artificial, reverberating, and…squidgy?  Sure, squidgy.  This effect was achieved by Tony Visconti’s (back again, producing the album) new acquisition, an Eventide Harmonizer.  There are a lot of different versions of this machine available now, but in 1977, Visconti owned the second unit to roll off the assembly line.  It produced an amazing effect, listen to the drums on “Sound & Vision” (or any song on the first side of the Low album) for an idea.  The whole production is clean, sparse, almost hollow in a way.  Low at the time was an anomaly.  Consisting of 5 vocal and 6 instrumental pieces, critical reaction was divided.  Some called it pretentious, avant-garde noodling.  Many (especially within his record company) wondered if this whole keyboards and no-vocals thing was such a good idea.  While side 1 contained a mix of vocal and instrumental tunes (including such recognized instruments as guitars and drums), side 2 was all instrumental, with mostly keyboards and occasional primitive drum machines, and the biggest ‘hit’ from the album is the already mentioned “Sound & Vision”.  It wasn’t about to set the world on fire.  Hindsight has generally been much kinder to Bowie’s first full-on foray into electronica.  And while I really like this album a lot, it was about to get overshadowed by Bowie’s very next release(s).  Yes I said releases.  Pay close attention.

No time to rest though.  After Low dropped in January of 1977, The Idiot dropped in March of the same year.  Pop went out on a brief tour of the album, and brought along one Mr. David Bowie as his keyboard player.  While on tour, Pop started writing material for his next record, along with Bowie.  After the short tour ended, the duo, along with Pop’s road band, decamped again to Hansa studios, this time not only to mix, but to record the album within its confines.  Produced by Bowie, Pop, and Colin Thurston, with contributions from Bowie’s regular guitarist Carlos Alomar, along with Tony and Hunt Sales on bass and drums, respectively, along with Bowie playing keyboards, and Pop singing, the album Lust For Life appeared in late August of 1977.  Tony and Hunt Sales are the sons of actor Soupy Sales, and will reappear in the David Bowie story over a decade later.  You know this album.  Everyone know this album.  The title track was most famously featured in the film Trainspotting, and song “The Passenger” has been covered by both R.E.M. and Siouxsie & The Banshees.  Perhaps the strangest thing about the album is that album cuts “Tonight” and “Neighborhood Threat” both reappeared in 1984 as part of Bowie’s “Tonight” album.  Lust For Life is much more ‘rock’ than The Idiot, and was released in the UK’s punk year zero, where it fit in quite well with the new crop of releases from punk’s angry young musicians.  In many ways, Pop was considered an ‘elder statesman of punk’, due largely to his work with his band The Stooges.  So, while he may have played guinea-pig on The Idiot for ‘new’ sounds that Bowie wanted to try out, Lust For Life, despite Bowie once again writing, producing, and performing on the album, was much more an Iggy Pop affair.

Right after Bowie finished his duties on Lust For Life, he essentially stayed put in Hansa studios, called in his backing band, and laid down the skeletons for what would turn out to be his best known album from of his Berlin Trilogy.  “Heroes” was recorded in only two months, and while it did keep some of the trappings of Low (a nearly-instrumental side 2), it, like Lust For Life, was more ‘rock’ than Low.  This was primarily down to Robert Fripp, King Crimson guitarist (and wifebeater t-shirt lover) extraordinaire, who was flown in at Eno’s suggestion to lay down lead guitar parts.  The album was recorded in a highly improvisational style, with Eno’s Oblique Strategies (a cut-and-paste style of writing and arranging) being employed to compose many of the instrumental parts.  The album was Bowie’s reaction to the Cold War, seeing as how his view from the window of the studio was of the Berlin Wall, with West Germany underfoot and East Germany within view (including a Soviet guard tower.)  Despite this, the album maintains a generally more positive vibe than Low, although from reading the lyrics to most of the cuts you wouldn’t get that impression.  Really, it’s only the title track “Heroes” that is mostly upbeat, and it’s a great track.  Everyone knows it, it’s been played numerous times as the soundtrack to…everything, and it’s been covered equally as many times.  But the original is where it’s at.  6 minutes of buzzing synth, reverb-drenched guitar, and a front-and-center vocal performance that demands attention.  It’s the culmination of what Bowie was trying to do in Berlin, both for himself and in search of new ways of making music.  Again, Tony Visconti produced, and his Eventide Harmonizer brought a lot of depth to the recordings.  The whole album deserves multiple listens, side 1 especially, but check out “V-2 Schneider” on side 2, named in honor of Floridan Schneider from the German band Kraftwerk, a big influence on both Low, “Heroes”, and The Idiot.  It should be noted that Bowie’s record company, RCA, had no belief in either Low or “Heroes”, and did much less promotion than they had for Young Americans or Station To Station.  It’s down to Bowie’s tenaciousness and belief in his work that it was taken to heart by fans as it has been.

Taking a very brief break, in March of 1978, Bowie hit the road for a world tour.  These performances were eventually compiled into a double-live album called Stage, a much more satisfying affair than his previous live album (David Live).  The band featured a violin player, a synth player, a pianist, as well as his usual trio backing band (Alomar, Murray, Davis) plus lead guitar whiz-kid Adrian Belew (who would go on to join Robert Fripp of the “Heroes” album in a new incarnation of King Crimson.  He managed to join Talking Heads as an unofficial band member prior to that though.  Those Talking Heads albums would be produced by one Brian Eno.  Small world).  The tour concluded in December of 1978.

I said that Bowie recorded what most call his Berlin Trilogy, yeah?  Well, album number three in the trilogy was started during the world tour, at Mountain Studios in Switzerland (made famous by Deep Purple in their song “Smoke On The Water”.  The studio is located inside a casino, which also holds a theatre, which caught fire a day before the casino closed for the season.  Deep Purple would have had the whole casino to record in, but it was destroyed by fire, and so they had to use a mobile recording studio.  It was repaired by the time Bowie went in there to record.  Queen also recorded 6 albums there).  The album was eventually completed in March of 1979 at New York’s Record Plant studios, and was called Lodger.  Once again it featured Bowie’s core band, plus the extra players from his recently concluded world tour, along with, once again, Brian Eno, who again laid out Oblique Strategies for the composing of tunes.  Lodger continues with the themes of paranoia and isolation and turns them up to ten.  Even the cover image echoes this, with a crumpled Bowie appearing to be held under glass, like a bug.  People often complain about the muddy quality of the Lodger album, and they would be right to.  Despite Bowie’s fame and money, while in NY, he and producer Visconti (back again) couldn’t find a more suitable studio to record in.  They were all booked up!  The Record Plant is more of a ‘tracking’ studio, meaning it lacked a lot of the technological equipment to help make a fully fleshed out recording.  However, it’s not the recording that makes Lodger a bad record.  It’s generally weak in overall performance and arrangement.  Lyrically, it’s pretty decent.  Every song on side 2 has a complex lyrical theme, ranging from sexual inequality, domestic violence, and ‘small’ famous people.  Side 1 song (and single) “Yassassin” also has a strangely paranoiac feel, despite being the title being Turkish for “Long Live”.  Maybe it’s Long Live in Misery.  I remember DJ being shown on fledgling video channels, and it is probably my earliest visual view of Bowie.  I’d heard his stuff plenty of times (especially Young Americans, which, reflecting its American roots, was played a lot on mainstream radio), even if I often didn’t know who he was at the time (let’s not forget that when Lodger came out, I was 9).  DJ made him a visual ,as well as auditory, presence.  Side 2 song “Boys Keep Swinging” has been covered by a multitude of performers.  The Associates made it the A-Side to their first single, without asking Bowie’s publishers’ permission.  Despite this, Bowie said he much preferred their version to his own.  Copies of the single start at about 135 dollars, and it’s not been repressed.  Other notable cover versions exist by Susannah Hoffs, Heaven 17, and Duran Duran.

No amount of covers can save the original release if it’s not gripping though – and that’s the problem.  Lodger seems like a castaway album, a leftovers album, it just seems to lack…spark.  I’ve tried, I’ve really tried to give this album a chance.  I’ve listened to it in jumbled order, on various occasions, I’ve even listened to the 2017 Tony Visconti remix on vinyl…and stuff comes close…sometimes…but not close enough.  It feels lifeless and dull in too many places.  Critics felt the same way, calling it a second-rate album.  Time has been kinder, of course, with many now claiming it’s one of his finest.  That always seems to be the case with late pop stars, you get to re-evaluate the work and make a new decision on it.  Or, like with Low and “Heroes”, you can look at the wider pop landscape through the lens of the past, and see how influential all three of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy albums were to the future of pop music.  Keyboard rock became a thing, and that’s in no small part down to Bowie’s belief in the work he was doing at the tail end of the Seventies.  But even he seemed to be tiring of his new direction by the time Lodger came along, as it wasn’t an austere synth landscape anymore, instead featuring lots of ethnic instruments and bringing clean guitars back into the mix.  Despite how Lodger turned out, the man wrote, produced, and performed on 5 ‘new’ (plus one live) records in less than 3 years.  All of them are now classics, or at least (in the case of Lodger) are spoken of fondly.  That’s an amazing achievement in and of itself.  While Bowie may not have kickstarted the Seventies, beginning with the Ziggy Stardust album, he certainly left an indelible mark as both a performer, creator, and innovator upon the musical landscape of the decade.

One last thing.  Remember Pop’s “Sister Midnight”, the song that started Bowie’s whole Berlin period?  The one I told you to pay attention to?  It makes a reappearance on Lodger, slightly altered, as “Red Money”, the final track on the album, wherein Bowie sings ‘project cancelled’, as if he was telling us (and himself) that it was time to set off on a new course.  That new course would be the 1980’s, and I doubt even Bowie was prepared for what he had in store for the listening public.

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