Switch On the TV, We May Pick Him Up On Channel Two

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Today is the anniversary of Bowie’s first live performance ‘as’ the character Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie had spent months preparing to ‘inhabit’ the character of a hedonistic alien bent on saving the human race, developing his persona, designing costumes for himself and his band, and getting ready to ‘live’ as Ziggy.  It was his hope that this ‘inhabited’ character would propel his career in ways that hadn’t happened yet.  Premiering at the Tolworth Toby Jug in London on this day in 1972, the performance wasn’t an overnight smash.  Truthfully, the Hunky Dory album was still in the shops, and the songs that comprised the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album, though mostly written, produced, and recorded in November of 1971, (a last few tracks would be put to tape in February of 1972) wouldn’t appear in the shops until June of 1972.  But it was common for acts of the time to be premiering new material live on stage prior to the release of an album.  But the early leg of the tour was a dud.  When Bowie finally performed “Starman” on Top of the Pops in July of 1972, he’d already been performing this new material for 5 months to little fanfare.  His ToTP performance changed that – TV helped catapult Bowie, as much built on image as on sound, into the hearts and minds of more performers than he could have hoped to reach with only album sales and tour receipts.  The performance was slightly scandalous, with Bowie having made remarks to the press that he was gay, and the appearance on ToTP showed him draped across his guitarist Mick Ronson, insinuating something naughty.  The orange mullet, odd jumpsuit, and silver circle on his forehead were revolutionary in rock costuming.

This brought Bowie the newfound notoriety he’d been looking for.  As the Ziggy Stardust tour progressed, Bowie crossed over to the US, then back to England, the US again, then over to Japan (in April of 1973), and finishing the world tour in England.  Nothing lasts forever though, and on July 3, 1973, Bowie ‘retired’ Ziggy Stardust live on-stage.  During this nonstop tour, Bowie was able to produce a follow up album, Aladdin Sane, featuring perhaps his most famous look, the lightning-bolt face.  It had been a wild 20-month ride that changed rock music forever.  It brought glam to the forefront as a viable musical genre.  It taught aspiring rockers how to invent characters for them to inhabit.  It presented a credible take on the ‘concept’ album.  It made David Bowie a bonafide rock star.  Not to mention it produced one of the best albums in the history of rock music, one whose blueprint can be heard in songs still being released today.  Here’s to Ziggy.

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She’s In The Pocket of a Homeboy

ElBowie

Bowie Week continues here at The Fault!

For Bowie, 1980 began much the same way his last few years had – writing and recording a new album.  Eventually appearing in September of that year, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was a dark, antisocial, ruminative album lyrically, and musically it was a near-perfect melding of his experimental and commercial leanings.  It sounds very much a new wave album, albeit one with a lot of muscle behind it.  Every song moves along briskly, and this album features lots of guest stars supporting Bowie’s usual core band of Alomar, Murray, and Davis.  Pete Townshend and Robert Fripp both show up to do what they do best, guitar-wise, while Chuck Hammer contributes the relatively new guitar-synth to the proceedings.  Be Bop Deluxe player Andy Clark provides synth (side note:  Bill Nelson, leader of BBD, Red Noise, and a solo artist, started BBD as very much a glam band, and their first album Axe Victim was especially saddled with comparisons to Bowie.  Luckily, BBD went on to produce great, futuristic sounding prog rock albums that probably deserve a post of their own some day).  There was also a member of Springsteen’s band in there.  Producer Tony Visconti was at the helm again, contributing Eventide Harmonizer to the drums.

In many ways, Scary Monsters was Bowie’s response to a world he was starting to not recognize (not surprising, given how he was always writing, recording, or touring – doesn’t leave a lot of time to catch up with the nightly news), as well as his response to the fresh crop of new wave artists that sprang up after punk, taking a healthy dose of Bowie as their main (sometimes only) cue.  It contains big hits “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes”, as well as gems like “It’s No Game”, “Up The Hill Backwards”, and the title cut.  It’s my favorite Bowie album, hands down, from lyrical content to musical delivery.  Bowie did at the start of the 80’s what so few ‘younger, fresher’ artists managed to achieve – a perfect album from start to finish.  Speaking of the song “Ashes To Ashes”, within the lyrics, Bowie buries Major Tom, the titular star from his very first hit, “Space Oddity.”  In many ways, it is David Bowie laying his past to rest to look towards the future.  His first album of the new decade, it was also his last for longtime label RCA (although the record company didn’t know that yet).  People probably didn’t think too much about the lyrical content of “Ashes”, but Bowie clearly did, as the rest of the decade would see him change directions fasters than a dog chasing a rabbit.

Bowie also did one other thing in 1980, in that he for a time starred as Joseph Merrick in the broadway play The Elephant Man.  1981 didn’t bring much musical activity from Bowie, unless you count a worldwide smash #1 hit single made in collaboration with group Queen.  There’s been a lot of controversy over who came up with the famous bassline (it wasn’t you, Vanilla Ice, you giant toolbox), with everyone in Queen (except for Brian May) and also Bowie himself at one time being credited for the musical passage.  Whoever really wrote it, I’m just happy Bowie was friends with the band, as we got a lasting, amazing song out of it.  Freddie Mercury was also responsible for Bowie (eventually) signing with EMI Records, Queen’s label at the time.  I am paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this:  [Mercury] “David, you may be rich, but EMI can make you Croesus rich.”  Also in 1981, and following up his previous turn in The Elephant Man, Bowie decided to take on the character of Baal, a play written in 1923 by Bertolt Brecht  for a BBC Production.  For this, he recorded his take on five of the songs, again with Visconti producing, at Hansa in Berlin once again.  It’s completely non-essential listening, but it did show that Bowie was stretching his creative muscles.  1982 saw him contribute a song called Cat People (Putting Out Fire) to the film of the same name, with music by legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder.  He would re-record this song for his next album, but in my opinion, the original single version crushes the remake like a grape.  He also rounded out 1982 with the release of a duet with Bing Crosby (originally from a 1977 Christmas Special, making its first official release in ’82), an update of a classic Christmas tune.  Bowie was unhappy with his original appearance and with the song as a whole.  When RCA released it without checking with Bowie, it was the final nail in the coffin for his relationship with the label.  Oddly enough, it’s become a Christmas classic, and in keeping with my true curmudgeonly attitude, I can’t stand it.  Bowie also took the time to be the leading man in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  Bowie received praise for his work in the film, which would see release in 1983.  Bowie also appeared in the 1983 vampire film The Hunger, which also featured Bauhaus in the opening club scene.  Bauhaus, of course, did a rocking cover of Ziggy Stardust (not in the film, but in general as a single.  No, the song used in the film is of course Bela Lugosi’s Dead, their own vampire ode.  Predictable, but appropriate.  The cover of Ziggy might have been cooler, and a little nod-and-wink to the audience at the same time).  The Hunger is a well done (if only moderately received) film, and Bowie’s performance seems very Bowie…he’s effortlessly acting as a version of himself.  However, before either of his cinematic contributions to the year 1983 would see light, Bowie would release an album that has polarized his fanbase ever since.

Let’s Dance, shall we?  In December of 1982, Bowie, having signed a multi-million dollar contract with EMI Records, went to work in NYC at Power Station Studios with Nile Rodgers, the guitarist for disco act Chic.  The album was supposed to be produced by longtime associate Visconti, who had even blocked out time in his schedule to make it, only for Bowie to decide to go in a funkier direction after meeting with Rodgers and telling him to ‘help me make hits.’  Bowie, tired of being seen as ‘that arty guy’ wanted to be a massive pop singer, and Let’s Dance made that dream a reality.  The songs are very American, very pop, very funk.  It was what American top 40 radio was playing, and that ‘new’ channel MTV helped further sales of the album by playing Bowie’s videos for the new album non-stop.  You know the title track, you know the single “China Girl” (originally from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot album from 1977), as well as the hit “Modern Love” and the new version of “Cat People.”  Apart from Cat People and China Girl, there was one further song borrowed from another release, “Criminal World”, originally released in 1977 by the band Metro.  The band was top notch.  Besides Rodgers, guitar duties were played by an unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan, with drumming by Chic drummer (and future Power Station drummer) Tony Thompson.  It was a popular album, but not a great one.  A few of the tunes just flat out don’t work, and the ones that did now sound dated and trite.  For many, however, this was Bowie’s introductory statement, that of a suit-wearing, smiling, blond man.  Let’s Dance was Bowie’s only #1 single in America, and to support his new sound and image, he went on tour in May of 1983 through December of the same year.  Propelled by hit singles, hit videos, an impressive promotional attack, and Bowie’s own press releases, the tour, which was to start in 10K seat venues (much like Bowie’s previous tours) had to expand to larger arenas as Bowie’s popularity grew.  The tour was a sellout everywhere it went.  It placed Bowie into the upper echelon of mainstream pop stars.  He soon realized it’s not where he wanted to be.  My opinion?  One of Bowie’s worst albums…a sellout, cash-in, boring, uninspired…look, the man’s a genius.  He wants to make American funk music?  Fine.  That was his call.  But I didn’t like the sound then, and I don’t like it now, and putting “David Bowie” on the cover doesn’t make the product any more enjoyable.  RCA still owned the rights to Bowie’s back catalog and put out the live album Ziggy Stardust:  The Motion Picture in October of 1983, partly to capitalize on the massive success Bowie was having with Let’s Dance.  When has a record label not tried to make money off an artist, and to boot, I’m sure they were kicking themselves for losing Bowie to EMI, and all the units of albums he was shifting for them with Let’s Dance.  Of his two releases in 1983, give me the live Ziggy album any time.

For a man used to following his own muse, the massive success of Let’s Dance both amused and confused Bowie.  While on his Serious Moonlight tour, he started the process of writing his next record.  It didn’t go well.  When Tonight was released in September of 1984, his newfound public were expecting Let’s Dance, part 2.  They didn’t get that.  Instead they got strange news from a distant star.  Of the 9 songs on the album, 5 of them had been performed by other artists prior to appearing in Bowie form on Tonight, even if 3 of those 5 were Bowie co-compositions from Iggy Pop albums.  It’s an inconsistent album, with a terrible cover of the Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”), a duet with Tina Turner (the title track), a duet with Iggy (“Dancing With The Big Boys”), and a couple of bona fide gems (“Loving The Alien”, “Blue Jean”).  Bowie now had the mainstreams ear, so a clearly pop-leaning song like “Blue Jean” climbed the charts.  A side effect of having the mainstreams ear was that even a weird song like “Alien” was an unlikely hit.  Tonight is just strange.  It’s like Bowie got the success and adoration he’d always craved, but then decided against it, but was stuck.  Commercial interest or artistic integrity?  That’s what you find on Tonight – a bit of both.  It’s like a lounge act doing David Bowie – if they only knew Iggy Pop’s Bowie compositions.  Bowie really seemed directionless here, and this is only reinforced by the pair of songs he wrote solely by himself.  The album was co-produced with Hugh Padgham, the man who helped pioneer the big gated drum sound you all know from “In The Air Tonight” by bald singing drummer Phil Collins, so don’t blame him.  While time has, in retrospect, been kind to Tonight, it still sounds like a man grasping to re-evaluate his place in the pop landscape after conquering it a year previous.  It was a cash-in album that used a lot of the same band members as on Let’s Dance, and Bowie tried to capture a lot of that ‘brand’ of sound as well, because that’s what his new fans expected.  For a man who was accustomed to making left turns with no forethought, this new pandering to a temporary audience seemed out of place. Be careful what you wish for.  It’s a good thing EMI didn’t saddle us with a cash-grab of its own in 1985.  Dance was supposed to be a remix album of songs from, of course, Let’s Dance and Tonight.  The plan was (wisely) dropped.  A few sleeves were produced, but it was never committed to vinyl or cd, so the world may never know if was good or not.  Most remix albums are not, so there’s my two cents on it.  Lastly in 1984, RCA released their back catalogue of Bowie albums on that ‘new’ medium of compact disc.  The albums weren’t mastered for the new digital medium and sounded garbage.

The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1985, a rare first for a man so used to putting out an album every year.  The world did get “This Is Not America“.  Better than most of the Tonight album, this song with Pat Metheny, for the soundtrack of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, is a much stronger song than almost anything off of Tonight – of course, Bowie only needed to write words, not music, in this instance.  Not so good (and not better than the Tonight album…not better than pretty much anything else you can think of) was his hyper-goofy, hyper-homoerotic, hyper-commercial, boring, trite, ill-conceived cover of the song “Dancing In The Street“, a duet with Mick Jagger.  Bowie had long been a fan of The Rolling Stones, covering “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane (and having a lot of the same album get sonic comparisons to some of the Stones’ work), so doing a duet with Jagger probably appealed to him.  The original plan was to have the two performers singing live via satellite from two separate stadiums in support of Live Aid charities.  The satellite uplink would have caused a time delay making the vocal performances seem off-kilter.  Instead, the two met in a studio and recorded their take on Dancing In The Street.  The video, when viewed now, looks ridiculously homoerotic – but it was the mid 80’s, a lot of videos looked that way at the time.  Prince, anybody?  Despite this, the song went to #3 in the US Charts, and all the money raised did go to a worthy charity.  I’m OK with garbage if the proceeds help the needy.

The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1986, either.  Well, not really.  1986 was more of an acting year for Bowie, with a little music thrown in on the side.  First up, Bowie appeared in Absolute Beginners in April of 1986, the title song of which is the only good thing about the movie.  You’d think a movie with Patsy Kensit, Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade would at least be competent, but it was an all-singing, all-dancing mess.  Absolute Beginners might have been DOA, but his next project certainly was…not.  Labyrinth released in late June of 1986 and starred Bowie, a young Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of muppets.  It’s a ridiculously silly movie, and I’ve only ever seen it the once, so I can’t say how well it holds up.  I know many of the stills from the movie show Bowie (as Jareth the Goblin King) and his massive crotch bulge.  Like I said, the mid-80’s were a homoerotic time.  Bowie also contributed 5 songs to the soundtrack, all of them are utterly terrible, featuring a cream of the studio crop of musicians and slick 80’s production.  It’s the slick 80’s production that do the songs in.  To round out 1986, Bowie contributed another soundtrack song, for the animated film “When The Wind Blows“, of which he sang the title track.  It’s a good tune, and a good film, with additional soundtrack contributions from Roger Waters.  Bowie’s tune was sung by him, with all instruments played by Erdal Kizilcay, a man who would figure prominently in Bowie’s musical vision for the next decade.  Kizilcay first got noticed by Bowie during the recording and producing of Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah record, of which Bowie had a hand in (because of course he did.)

1987 saw the release of the first ‘new’ David Bowie record in 3 years, Never Let Me Down.  It’s also one of Bowie’s most maligned records.  Many felt it continued his brash commercial direction, but I think it’s actually a decent record that suffers from that mid-80’s syndrome known as overproduction.  A lot of bands fell prey to slick, studio-controlled recordings, with no errors,no spontaneity, and no space to breathe in, where the performances were concerned.  Bowie was no exception.  The album is awash with superfluous synthesizers, backing vocals, and drum machines.  The songs themselves are well written and show a depth of character Bowie hadn’t exhibited since Scary Monsters at the beginning of the decade.  “Day-In, Day-Out”, “Time Will Crawl”, “Zeroes”, “Shining Star” (featuring Mickey Rourke)…really most of the songs show sparks of brilliance.  However, again, production (by Bowie and David Richards) really makes everything a dayglo nightmare of excess.  It’s more of this, more of that, no subtlety or nuance.  It prominently features new kid on the block Erdal Kizilcay, with performances from old standby Carlos Alomar, and lead guitar by some guy named Peter Frampton who had an annoying song called “Baby I Love Your Way” become a big hit for himself and a million other people.  He is a good guitarist though.  It sold better than many of Bowie’s earlier records (at the time).  This may be because by 1987, a lot of people had gotten a cd player, and, having familiarity with Bowie as a name, wanted to pick up his latest on that ‘new’ cd technology.  I know it was my first Bowie cd, and perhaps that’s why I rate this album higher than either Let’s Dance or Tonight, because I played it A LOT during my last year of high school.  So, either it grew on me in a way it didn’t for most people, or the songs are strong.  I believe it’s the latter.  That’s not to say there aren’t some mis-steps, lyrically.  Bowie tries to keep up with ‘the kids’ with the line “she’s in the pocket of a…homeboy!” on “Day-In, Day Out”, and the whole pre-song discussion about the Glass Spider (from the song of the same name) is interesting but silly.  Apparently, the vinyl and cd editions feature separate mixes already…I have both (well, I have the vinyl, not sure I still have the original cd).  Later versions on disc have the song “Too Dizzy” removed as Bowie never really liked the song.  “Too Dizzy” was the only song on the album he co-wrote with Kizilcay, and their relationship became strained about the time the first reissues of this cd started popping up, so there might be more to it than ‘not liking the song.’  Parlophone (who now owns Bowie’s entire back catalog) have been providing a new mix of a classic Bowie album on their retrospective box sets that have come out the last 3 years…if they do an 80’s box set for 2018, maybe someone can remix Never Let Me Down and take out some of the superfluous instrumentation.  It might be a new take on a divisive sound.  Bowie embarked on an ambitious tour to support the album in 1988 (appropriately called the Glass Spider tour, named after the album cut and featuring a huge spider as it’s centerpiece on stage), which would see Bowie really mix up his back catalogue in terms of arrangement and presentation.  This did not go over well with reviewers, who already disliked the source material for a lot of the live performances and called the presentation overblown and pretentious.  As the tour progressed, Bowie replaced many of the new songs with older, more well-loved songs from his back catalog.  Still, the tour made money, and was a theatrical spectacle.  It should have strengthened the David Bowie brand.  What happened next would shock everyone, except, perhaps, himself.

 

 

 

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.