David Bowie & The Legend of The Berlin Trilogy

With David Bowie's new album released today, we take a look at the belief that he recorded some of the greatest post-krautrock music in history behind the Berlin wall...
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With David Bowie's new album released today, we take a look at the belief that he recorded some of the greatest post-krautrock music in history behind the Berlin wall...

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It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that between 1970 and 1980, David Bowie made the greatest albums of his career, at the rate of at least one per year. Throughout this art decade, Bowie went through a number of changes, his trio of albums commonly associated with Berlin (Low/”Heroes”/Lodger) believed by many to have all been recorded in that iconic city, and with their post-krautrock, obscure instrumentals alongside disturbing pop gems, they are probably the most influential of his entire output.
Bowie now seems to have come full circle with his new album, The Next Day, released today featuring “artwork” that recycles/bastardises the cover of “Heroes” by slapping a new title sticker over the central image and with the surprise teaser single Where Are We Now?, appearing two months before the album’s release after a long and insanely secret recording process. The song itself is a slow, sad lament for the bygone Berlin period, clumsily evoking the city through a montage video of 70s footage and direct references to U-bahn stations.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

The album itself has been given a good airing through an iTunes preview with very positive reviews and can roughly be summed-up as a mash-up of 1980 album, Scary Monsters and 1995’s 1. Outside, heavy on guitar with a lyrical and thematic focus on stars, paranoia and an obtuse kind of lyrical darkness, though the songs mark a return to the story-telling style that made him famous and have a great pop sheen just short of being hit singles. So self-conscious are the nods to Bowie’s history, the track Love Is Lost uses the high-gated snare drum effect from Low’s Sound And Vision (1977) which even a freakish Bowie acolyte such as myself wouldn’t have noticed if long-term producer, Tony Visconti had not dropped a bombshell hint in interview.

So, back to Bowie in Berlin and the music he made there. Here are just a few pieces of trivia that hopefully shed a little more light on the truths behind the myth.

The Great Escape

Burnt-out from the excesses of Los Angeles, “the most vile piss-pot in the world”, Bowie was near breaking point. Having completed recording of his 1976 album, Station To Station, in a mere two weeks through a blizzard of cocaine, such that he often now claims he cannot even remember making the record, Bowie left Los Angeles forever. Upon realising that much of the money he had made in his career so far (including the massively successful Ziggy albums and Young Americans) had gone to support his corrupt manager, Tony Defries as well as float the MainMan company, Bowie parted ways and pitched up as a tax exile in a small, quaint town, Vevey in Switzerland, but after learning that his friend Iggy Pop had been released from rehab in a mental asylum (Bowie was one of the only people to have visited him there, bringing with him some cocaine as a gift) and looking to record a new album, Bowie was once again on the move…to France.

Stay - Live

A New Career In A New Town

Before even playing a note on his own Berlin trilogy, Bowie and Iggy co-wrote almost all of the songs that appeared on Iggy’s, The Idiot album , at the Chateau d’Herouville studio outside of Paris. After a quick stint on Iggy Pop’s subsequent tour, as a keyboard player, Bowie returned to Herouville and cut most of the tracks for Low, before completing some of the albums closing instrumentals in Berlin’s Hansa studio, next to the wall. Comfortably back in Berlin, Bowie made “Heroes” and helped Iggy with his next record, Lust For Life, once again, co-writing many of the tracks including the main riff of the title track.

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Then, with a trademark change of heart, Bowie upped-sticks and after completing the Stage tour in 1978, went travelling, adopting the theme for his final “Berlin” album, Lodger. The great irony here is that like the majority of Low, Lodger was not recorded in Berlin, instead Bowie arranged sessions around globetrotting holidays, laying down tracks in Montreux, Switzerland and New York, making the Berlin Trilogy a more varied beast than its name might suggest. As if making good on the line “The European canon is here” from the title track of his 1976 album, STATION TO STATION, recorded in LA, Bowie had made a trilogy of albums that took much of their influence from Berlin, but also took on the influence of the continent as a whole.

Iggy Pop - Nightclubbing

David Bowie is Alive and Well…

Almost, but not quite. There is never any clear record of Bowie kicking cocaine until the late 80s, in truth, the relationship seems to have trailed off into purely recreational use, as opposed to full-blown dependency. Instead, Bowie had resolved to drink more and could often be found rambling about the bars and cafes of Berlin in various states of sobriety, sometimes puking his guts up in a quiet alleyway.

Whereas Iggy Pop had started lifting weights and walking miles around the city, Bowie was a more reluctant exerciser, his greatest health kick being to have a stab at skiing, while continuing to smoke 40 Gitanes a day.

Much has also been made of Bowie’s diet during the period. From his Californian diet of milk and green peppers, a diet he says looking back, seemed to give him everything he needed, to developing a fondness for ice cream while filming the Man Who Fell To Earth such that he started to become a healthier weight and threatened continuity so Director, Nic Roeg had to ask him to stop. In Berlin, cocaine was largely out so Bowie indulged in more normal meals, as well as lots of booze, though most people who worked with him in the studio only remember him cracking an egg in to his mouth every morning before getting down to work.
“Standing by the wall…”

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It is worth mentioning that much of the lyrics of the Berlin Trilogy, particularly those on Low, were about an exorcism of the LA period and the dark times Bowie had experienced there, and was still trying to shake off. Broken glass, occult scrawling on the carpets and a drug deal gone wrong which lead a stressed-out Bowie to repeatedly ram into the car of his dealer as he gave chase (in a Berlin car park!) all weighed heavy on the mood of that album and contrast starkly with the upbeat tunes that back them.

One of the great questions that still hangs over the recording of the song Heroes, perhaps Bowie’s most loved and well-recognised song, is the inspiration for the passing theme of lovers standing by a wall as guards shoot overhead. It is commonly believed that these lines refer to producer Visconti and an illicit affair, or a news item where a young couple were shot at near the wall that divided East and West Berlin. All of these are possible sparks for Bowie’s lyrics and are still widely argued upon. But to the burst the romantic bubble, many biogrpahers now claim that Bowie’s inspiration was in fact much more prosaic and he simply adapted the tale from a neo-expressionist painting he had seen in a Berlin gallery. Perhaps the beauty of the lyric is that we will never really know the full truth, there is simply an amazing, iconic song.

Bowie - Heroes

Changes

As with the secrecy-shrouded recording of The Next Day, the initial move to Berlin, gave Bowie the impetus and anonymity needed to make a record in relative seclusion, free from record company interference and an inquisitive and adoring fanbase, as well as encouraging him to be as experimental with his music as he liked, Bowie once described the shift as the process of “closing the blinds and saying ‘fuck them all!’”. As part of this evolution, Bowie lost his now iconic shock of flame red hair and with a short back and sides in regular mousey-brown, he could easily go unrecognised, there was even a short-lived moustache growing completion, as part of the “Heroes” sessions.

Though only loosely connected, the idea of the Berlin Trilogy of Bowie post-America, with Bowie once commenting that his very DNA was represented in each of the records, a definitive statement of his influences and experiences, and who Bowie was in that time and place.