Music Heroes I: David Bowie (Part 4: In Berlin, by the wall)

Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno first gained a certain amount of notoriety as the weirdest looking one in colourful art-glam pioneers Roxy Music.  It wasn’t so much that he looked weird, though he did, it was more the vision of him stood behind his odd-looking equipment, twiddling knobs and dials to make the strangest sounds hitherto gracing top 20 smash hits.  Ferry pouted, the others posed, and Professor Eno twiddled, mysteriously.  When he left Roxy Music, Eno created some of the best albums ever recorded, his sometimes child-like imagery floating atop a sea of wonderful noises, often simple melodies, but brimming with quirk, strangeness and charm.  After Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), came Another Green World, and we got the first taste of what was to come, though there were hints aplenty in his collaborations with Robert Fripp.  To put it bluntly, Eno introduced the unwashed masses to a whole style and genre of music: ambient music, intended to blend into the background, a different way of perceiving music.  His 1975 album Discreet Music was ground-breaking.  Side One, after elaborate set-up with tape delays, overlaps and electronic jiggery pokery (described diagrammatically on the cover, like the methodology of a scientific paper), was essentially automated music, set to record whilst he had a cup of tea with Fripp (according to Fripp himself, in one of his bizarre YouTube duets with Toyah).   Side 2, is the gorgeous result of real string quartet musicians being manipulated experimentally, repeating fragments of a classical piece, but with introduced variations, such as each musician playing to a different tempo or playing notes for differing lengths of time. The effect is stunning.  The album made quite an impression on many people, including David Bowie.

For most of the British public in the mid-seventies, despite the best efforts of the fiction writers (TV and film) and some comedians, the war was already a thing of the distant past.  Even for those who lived through it, there were new distractions, creature comforts, and entertainments to occupy the mind.  It still freaks me out to think that I was born only 16 years after WW2 ended, yet it feels like ancient history.  I should have more sympathy when events of the 70s, 80s or even 90s seem like ancient history to young people.  I should, but I don’t…

In Western Europe, Berlin stood as a monument.  1970s Berlin could only be understood in the context of WW2, its location deep with East Germany, with those areas allocated to the Western Allies walled, ostensibly to protect the population from Western contamination, but mainly to prevent escape – and many died trying.  It must inevitably have been a schizophrenic place, with its inherent contradictions and neuroses, providing unique circumstances for artistic endeavour to thrive; a magnet for alternative culture vultures, dropouts and non-conformists; a place somewhat left behind in the now booming, modernised West Germany. The money men were not so interested – too high risk, too little potential return – but creative people were attracted to this living anachronism, a city somewhat frozen in time.

It was to Europe, and ultimately Berlin, that Bowie eventually fled, escaping the cocaine, and all kinds of other strife associated with his time in LA.  The plan was to defeat his addiction, recover his health, and not die.   It sounds like a good plan, until you realise that he had Iggy Pop with him… However, despite that apparent flaw, he did start to look almost normal, and healthier than ever before, so the plan worked.  He then called upon Professor Eno.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Low (1977):  The album Low was recorded around the same time as Bowie was working with Iggy Pop on The Idiot.  Parts of Side One may be influenced by that, as well as the output of various German bands, with Side Two being much more Eno influenced.  In addition to Eno, Tony Visconti was also a key player in the sound of the album, especially the drums, a sound much copied afterwards – probably too much copied amidst the general aberration of eighties music.  Although mostly recorded in France, it stands metaphorically and conceptually with its compatriot, the follow-up album Heroes, as intertwined with Berlin.  To me, it is the ultimate vinyl album.  Imagine an album with a Berlin Wall right down the middle.  This is an album where the act of turning over the record takes on a greater significance.  During this pause, you change from one world to another.  On Side One, you have the West: fast-moving, decadent, superficial, neurotic, seedy, with music driven by a pulsing, thudding heartbeat.  On Side Two, you have the East: sombre, desolate, serious, dark, moody, melancholic sounds, with the only vocals expressing some strange indecipherable language.

On the cover, we see Bowie looking like a romanticised cold war fugitive, against a background that could either be the most spectacular of sunsets or the blaze following a nuclear explosion.  The album came out when the punk revolution was in full swing in the UK.  Somehow, unlike many of his contemporaries, Bowie not only survived the putsch, but on the opening side of Low, he embraces the short-sharp-shock tactics of the new phenomenon, albeit somewhat more melodically.  Gone are the seven-minute tracks (there’s nothing longer than three and half minutes).  Here, many of the songs feel like sampler fragments, fading out leaving you wanting more.  It’s no great surprise that the album freaked out the record company but, fortunately, they did release it.  Nobody had any inkling of what it would be like (there was no prior single release).  The initial listen was one of the great WTF was that? moments for me.  I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it.  It was Bowie’s voice, and his face was on the sleeve.  Other than that, it was hard to see any reference to his previous work at all.  I immediately started it up again to make sure that I hadn’t misheard the whole thing…

The instrumental Speed of Life introduces the surprising soundscape of the opening side, the relentless unusual pulsing drums pounding into your psyche.  Breaking Glass does have some words, but not that many.  Nevertheless, the sordid, unnerving atmosphere is perfectly well established atop the thudding beat and guitar motifs, before the early fade, as if we are just in too much of a rush to worry about further depth.  No time dwell; a hint of throwaway culture.  Got to move on.  “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems. I’ll never touch you.” Bowie informs us, somewhat matter-of-factly…

The same energy continues with What in the World.  Here, it’s easier to perceive that there are in fact subtle decorations to the music.  Throughout Side One, once you recover from the shock, you notice that the guitar sound is exquisitely mad, and there are other treats thrown in, including synthesised Enossifications.  Sound and Vision was a pretty successful single (making number 3 in the charts), despite its lengthy introduction section without vocals, and it represents the mood of Side One perfectly, though with pleasingly added backing vocals by none other than Mary Hopkin, as well as keyboard and saxophone.  Short and sweet.  Always Crashing in the Same Car slows the tempo somewhat and, initially, allows some respite from the brutal drum sound, though it comes back after the initial verse.  The tempo is raised once more for Be My Wife, with its wonderful meandering bass and jangly piano.  Lyrically, Bowie delves into alienation, loneliness, addiction, and obsessive behaviour, whist using very few words.  For symmetry, the side concludes with another pulsing instrumental track.  On first listening, the end of Side One induced a feeling not entirely unlike trauma, but somehow in a good way… However, that was nothing compared to the surprises in store on Side Two.

Warszawa sets the tone, the repeated swirling ominous synthesizer note and deep melodic melancholia establishing the sombre mood and strange beauty of the piece, with ethereal deep chants providing a backing for Bowie’s vocals, in some non-existent language.  Art Decade is built upon a gentle rhythm but has a similar melancholic feel, with a simple melody giving way to periods of repetition supplemented by a range of interesting and somewhat disturbing aural treats.  The track floats along pleasingly.  It could easily sustain for longer.  The same can be said of Weeping Wall, which hits you with a repetitive refrain made up of multiple instruments, including vibraphone and xylophone as well as synthesisers.  Melodic bursts and eery voices contribute to a peculiar but pleasing atmosphere driven by percussive rhythms.  The final track Subterraneansrevisits the repetition with a simple series of notes, with melancholic synthesised orchestral sounds, and those deep monk-like choir voices again, creating a celestial atmosphere.  On this album, Bowie’s ambient music is not minimalist and bleak; rather it is graceful, evocative and elegant.  On the final track, resonant saxophone and more curious vocal motifs are amongst the additions to the repeated background.  Again, the track could go on for longer, but Bowie was brimming with ideas.  In the end, you can’t complain about the four pieces chosen to occupy the 20 minutes.  Each has its own character and qualities, whilst contributing to the whole.

And so it ends…  It is hard to convey from this far in the future the genuine shock of this album at the time.  It marked the start of Bowie’s mostly overtly experimental period, but it was the sheer audacity that impressed.  He literally jettisoned the sounds that had gained him a massive following in order to try something different, again.  Although the NME hugely missed the point with a churlish, rather too self-centred review by Charles Shaar Murray (later explanations seem to suggest that he disliked it because of its brilliance), the album was generally well received and sold well.  It has since found a high place on lists of greatest albums.  I still see it as one of his very best, and probably the finest example of the vinyl album as an artform.

Heroes (1977): I always associate the album Heroes with 1978, because otherwise it skews my entire mental calendar of the decade that marked out my time as a teenager (based on Bowie albums for each year).  However, it was actually released in October 1977, following quite hot on the heels of Low. Having established the break musically (in the studio at least) from his entire back catalogue, Bowie set about taking the new innovations further still (whilst allowing himself to relax back into some old habits).  And who better to help with that than Robert Fripp, the already legendary guitarist/eccentric focal point of King Crimson; and also sometime collaborator and friend of the equally legendary and eccentric Brian Eno.

The title track has, of course, become a national treasure, so it’s worth reminding people that it only peaked at 24 in the charts, some 21 places lower than the position achieved by Sound and Vision.  It’s a very simple composition.  The epic quality is due entirely to the production, arrangement and performances of the contributing musicians and studio maestros.  In particular, the airy atmosphere created by Visconti, along with Fripp’s seemingly endless sustained notes and Eno’s synthesiser, allows Bowie’s words to float as they embark on the journey Bolero-like from quiet reflection to rousing crescendo.  The genius of this arrangement, and the people involved, is best demonstrated by listening to the Oasis cover version, if you can bear it.  I heard it blared out at half-time in a match at the Etihad and had to rush inwardly screaming to the safety of the inner corridors to escape the aberration.  Compare and contrast…

The album retains the mixture of more conventional (albeit Bowie conventional) rock and synthetic ambient music, broadly split into two sides.  But the separation is not so strict, and the songs are given more space to breathe and develop.  Overall, the mood is far less sombre and bleak.  Eno is given four co-writing credits, emphasising his more hands-on role.  However, the most remarkable thing is how little time Fripp was with them, reportedly only three days, laying most of his contribution down as first takes, without much time, or in some cases any, to digest the music created before his arrival.  Yet his influence is enormous.  In fact, when you hear those involved talk about it, much of the album was the result of spontaneity.  The finishing off might have taken a while, but the essential components were laid down pretty quickly, leaving in experiments and even elements that began as mistakes, but sounded better than the original idea.  

As the album opens with Beauty and the Beast, it’s Fripp’s plaintiff, pleading guitar sounds that catch the attention.  Bowie’s deep-voiced vocals ride the wave to create a rather seedy, disturbing mood.  Lyrically, the meaning isn’t obvious, but you get a feeling of something not quite right.  The song break has Bowie explaining “I wanted to be good, I wanted no distractions, Like every good boy should.”  But we get the impression that it all went wrong.  Fripp’s manic guitar suggests so…

Joe the Lion, reputably referencing an American artist known for publicity stunts, recreates the Bowie rock mood of songs like Cracked Actor, with one guitar emitting a yapping growl and a second playing the melody, though again the lyrics are rather obscure.  “You get up and sleep, The wind blows on your cheek, The day laughs in your face.”  It’s a short but very sweet precursor to the title track, which dominates Side One (the longest track by far).  The message is more uplifting than anything from Low.  For once, there seems to be hope, of sorts, though perhaps not long-lived: “We can beat them, just for one day”.  The division and instability, represented by the Berlin Wall, still looms large.  As Fripp’s ever sustained guitar notes meander more, the vocal delivery gets more urgent and passionate, and maybe just a tad desperate… It’s beautifully constructed, despite the simplicity of the basic underlying structure.

After the title track Sons of the Silent Age, gentler musically, continues the general lyrical feel without revealing intended meaning: “Sons of the silent age pace their rooms like a cell’s dimensions”.  The background music swirls strangely as Bowie’s voice rises above the backing choir before pausing for some rather pleasing saxophonic embellishment. In some ways, there are similarities with Hunky Dory in the lyrical style, hinting at hidden meanings, drawing on various sources, creating a mood of ambiguity and confusion.

Blackout returns us to the harder rock feel of Joe the Lion, Bowie’s vocal delivery emphasising the fear and disorientation conveyed by the words, as he again mixes some general feeling of societal disturbance with interludes referring to the saving grace of more personal interactions.  In the background, Fripp goes into full Crimson mode.  It’s a great end to a flawless side of music, with artists and producers on top form. 

Side 2 opens with V2-Schneider (the Schneider referencing a member of Kraftwerk), a rhythmic repetitious ride capturing the essence of much of the hypnotic output of German bands like Neu! but with added saxophonic enhancement and Eno treatments to flavour the mix.  It marks an introduction to a run of more experimental, electronic ambient music, starting with Sense of Doubt.  Though driven by a slow repetition, with variable gaps, of a run of deep bass notes, there’s a gentle, eerie flow, leading to an occasional oasis of peaceful respite, with what sounds like lazy tidal waves merging with eerie winds as we float towards the gorgeous Moss Garden, featuring Bowie plucking notes on a Japanese koko atop Eno’s blissful synthesised soundscape.  To me, it’s one of Bowie’s most beautiful musical accomplishments.  There’s a wonderful, serene vibe generated, with even the odd chirpy synthesised bird sound to add to the atmospherics.  You just want it to go on forever, but the tranquillity is broken somewhat as we merge into Neuköln, where the mood music is disturbed periodically by what sounds like a despairing cry from Bowie’s saxophone, which concludes the whole ambient section in painful isolation.  In a stroke of genius, The Secret Life of Arabia is used to lift the spirits once more and close the album, with its upbeat tempo and funky guitar, Carlos Alomar also getting a co-writing credit.  The song has an unusual structure, seemingly gearing up for a fade out before resurrecting itself for a final reprise, followed by a surprisingly sudden actual fade out: Bowie playing little tricks again.  You must see the movie the sand in my eyes, I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies”.  Marvellous.

Lodger (1979):  Following as it did in the footsteps of heavyweight giants, the third Eno collaboration Lodger is a bit like the younger sibling who nobody takes seriously, making you want to shower it with more love by way of compensation.  Compared to Low and Heroes, it’s lighter and more playful, though not necessarily in the material tackled, with lyrics that are often more accessible than its predecessors.  Weighing in at 36 minutes, it’s also shorter.  I’ve never been sure whether that’s a sign that they were running out of ideas or rushing to get it finished.  However, in its own way it is just as experimental, throwing in an array of odd instruments, from mandolins, horns, a chamberlin and, of course, multiple Eno treatments and manipulations, to create eccentric sounds as a supplement to the more conventional compositions.

The King Crimson quota was maintained by a guest appearance from Adrian Belew, though in all the musical credits we mustn’t overlook the excellent, stellar contributions of Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), Dennis Davis (drums and percussion) and George Murray (bass) on all three of the Eno collaboration albums.  Mind you, Belew hadn’t yet joined King Crimson, so nobody knew that the quota had been maintained… As with Heroes, the guest guitarist contributed to mostly formed songs without any prior preparation, with Professor Eno steering the improvisation approach using various odd tricks and directions to the cast, some involving the use of a kind-of chance card instruction system.  The album aims for culture clash music on several tracks (a discordant variant on the dreadful description “fusion”).  By all accounts, there was some resistance and resentment amongst members of the cast, but the frustration and discontentment may well have also contributed to the creative juices, so I’m guessing that it wasn’t a major concern.  The main danger was of too many ideas cancelling each other out.  However, the resulting record is pleasing enough to stand amongst the Bowie 70s classics, even though it brought a conclusion to the working relationship with Eno, for now.

The album opens with Fantastic Voyage, with its three mandolin players, creating a lighter mood somewhat at odds with the lyrical content.  The chorus is hardly a rousing affirmation of the glory of life: “We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression.  And I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression.  We’ll get by, I suppose.”  Bowie sings the last line with a palpable air of resignation.  With references to shooting of missiles and thinking of us as fatherless scum, the album signals a willingness to engage less obliquely with some of the issues particular to modern society.  Despite the lyrical content, the song works as an exercise in musing, without anger, the melodic textures of the music calming the urge for more aggressive responses; the aural equivalent of Valium…  In stark contrast, African Night Life bursts into life with joyous rhythmic energy, crammed with ideas, the exotic percussion and vocal sounds bouncing off each other.  It’s a track quite unlike anything else in the Bowie catalogue.  Move On, like Boys Keep Swinging, has the feel of 60s or 70s throwaway pop songs, but includes sufficient twists of weirdness to keep you listening.  Some of the lyrics are, at times, almost deliberately simplistic pop: “Well I might take a train, or sail at dawn, might take a girl, when I move on.”  Although Boys Keep Swinging is on Side Two, I see it as a camper, deliberately tongue-in-cheek soul-mate to Move On.  Again, there are lyrics that could have been scribbled by a 15-year old copying old rock and roll hits: “When you’re a boy, You can wear a uniform, When you’re a boy, Other boys check you out, You get a girl, These are your favourite things, When you’re a boy.”  There’s a hint of Bowie taking the piss out of the whole thing.  The video tends to confirm this. A rare snippet of the humour he was well known for to those close to him.

Yassassin is a rather more successful attempt to incorporate reggae rhythms than later tracks included on his first majorly disappointing album, Tonight.  Violin is used to create a middle Eastern folk song feel, as the lyrics touch on the lives of Turkish immigrants in Germany.  We are told that the title means ‘long live’ in Turkish.  It’s another Bowie oddity.  The first side ends with Red Sails, again drawing on that flowing krautrock style to conjure up the sensation of a journey as we head for the hinterland.  Amongst the many noises accompanying our excursion, they throw in some Fripp-like mad guitar.  As on the rest of the album, diverse and creative use of voice enhances the trip. 

DJ seems to be Bowie musing on that sometimes noble, often ignoble profession; “I am what I play”.  The lyrics suggest something less than a glamorous lifestyle.  “One more weekend of lights and evening faces, fast food, living nostalgia, humble pie or bitter fruit.”  The music is a more classic rock single-friendly style, but again with added quirks and unusual instrument sounds.  Look Back in Anger rattles along at a higher tempo, describing a bizarre little vignette: an encounter with a somewhat unconventional angel, who coughed and shook his crumpled wings and leafed through a magazine.  The chorus refrain refers to waiting so long, perhaps until the angel returns, perhaps to lead him somewhere else.  Perhaps not… Either way, it’s a nice treat squeezed in between the two singles, DJ and Boys Keep Swinging.  

Repetition is much more an exercise in realism.  Reminiscent of the story telling of Bowie’s early work, the lyrics address the life of an abused wife.  The violent husband is classically self-pitying and resentful: “…he could have had a Cadillac, if the school had taught him right” and “he could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse.”  Lucky escape for Anne… The album ends with Red Money, which recycles the same music as Iggy Pop’s Sister Midnight from The Idiot.  The music was written by Bowie, but it’s an odd thing to do, and maybe the first sign that the creative well was not inexhaustible.  The lyrics return to the obscure, perhaps hinting at some dark conspiracy.  Perhaps not.  “Project cancelled, Tumbling central, Red Money.”

In many ways, Lodger is an odd mixture compared to its predecessors, but it has its own charm.  Looking back, it kind of gets lost between the more ambient albums, taken so seriously that Philip Glass has drawn on them to compose symphonies, and Dylan Howe has arranged and adapted some of the music for a futurist jazz project (both well worth listening to, incidentally), and the hit single packed albums to come (Scary MonstersLet’s Dance).  Thus, it is often somewhat neglected, but not by me. It’s an album that you have to listen to quite closely or you will miss the numerous treats in amongst the sound jungle undergrowth.  Boys Keep Swinging, for example, has a lot going on in the shadows.

The release of Lodger coincided with the end of sixth form for me, as well as the end of the 70s.  It was a significant time.  Perhaps that also colours my view.  Overall, the period 1977-79 marks one of Bowie’s most creative and innovative.  Since 1969, he had produced eleven albums, at one per year, very different from each other and packed with ideas: a remarkable and unmatched period of consistency and quality.  It would have been unreasonable to expect it to continue at the same level and frequency.  Maybe it’s because he tried to keep up the pace that the standards dipped in the decade to follow, but that should never be allowed to detract from the wonders produced in the seventies.  After all, standards dropped in the eighties in so many ways…

Published by Craig Winstanley

I make music. I create videos and photographic collages, some of which are accompanied by music.

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