THROUGH THE (STAINED) LOOKING GLASS: David Bowie & the Berlin Trilogy

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One year ago, David Bowie passed away, much to the surprise and sorrow of the music world. To mark the anniversary of his death, we will celebrate his acclaimed, visionary German recording trifecta of the late ‘70s. Special narrative cameos: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp (both pictured above, with Bowie), Tony Visconti, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, and Scott Walker.

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from the short book We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie (published in June, 2016, Liberty Island Media). Full details at Amazon.com.

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In the late 1970’s, David Bowie released a trio of albums that continue to be regarded by many critics as the defining statement of his career, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, recorded in 1976, 1977, and 1978, respectively. The first two albums in particular convey the aural impression of stained glass that has been smashed and then carefully, though incorrectly, reassembled. Everything is a bit “off”: Choruses arrive late or not at all; certain songs offer the promise of a dramatic build but then end without warning; in many cases, the expected vocals never appear, leaving the music to churn and bubble and glide along into a hazy sunset.

There is very little in the way of Nietzschean triumphalism on these albums. Instead, uncertainty predominates—perhaps most strikingly in the song “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (from Low), which, while lyrically inscrutable, conveys unmistakable feelings of lucklessness and inertia.

In such an atmosphere of doubt and brokenness, the song “Heroes,” which is arguably Bowie’s most mature distillation of his individualistic philosophy, stands in stark relief, its narrative coherence almost a rejoinder to the surrounding cut-ups. “Heroes” contains its share of obstacles both internal and external. Not only does the narrator “drink all the time,” but he has to keep his love affair alive in a war-torn land in which “guns [are] shot above our heads” and a wall arbitrarily divides the population—a clear nod to the divided Berlin in which Bowie lived at the time of the song’s composition. The song seems to echo the doomed love affair between Winston and Julia, the protagonists of Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose fledgling attempts at finding a personal space of joy and happiness are ultimately crushed by the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother that rules Orwell’s fictional future England.

As it turned out, Bowie had real-life models for his protagonists. From the window of the studio where he and the musicians worked on the album every day, he saw a young couple embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, directly below a turret. Not only was he struck by the incongruity of this image, but he quickly realized that the couple in question consisted of Tony Visconti—Bowie’s lifelong friend and the album’s producer—and Antonia Maas, one of his backing singers. The fact that Visconti was limping through the last stages of a failing marriage at the time lent the situation an added poignancy—and futility.low_album

Writer Nicholas Pegg notes that the song’s elevation of the small and ordinary into the heroic signifies a move away from Bowie’s Nietzschean Superman preoccupations into more nuanced territory. And yet, this is not quite the same as a literary realist’s attempt to capture life as it is. “Heroes” is more akin to alchemy: We may be average and regular in the present moment, but we have the potential, at any time, for heroic thought and action—even if only for one day. The transformation can be brought about by an external event or through an internal change in perspective. Bowie would never become a champion of the everyman in the vein of Springsteen, yet the narrator of “Heroes” is certainly more human, and consequently more accessible, than some of the icier figures of Bowie’s earlier songs. And this, along with the song’s soaring vocals and Robert Fripp’s transcendent guitar work, goes a long way in explaining the longevity of “Heroes.” It remains one of Bowie’s most beloved, and most often-covered, compositions.

Bowie’s music had always been distinctive, but in the Berlin Trilogy he created something wholly original. “These albums have song structures that were never designed before, production tricks that had never been used before, themes that had never been touched before, and a cool factor that absolutely cannot be beat,” says screenwriter/musician Darren Callahan, one of the many artists of the succeeding generation to draw his inspiration from this period of Bowie’s work:

This music was parallel to, but never imitative of, punk rock, new wave, and disco, three of the most iconic periods in American music. Think of it: he DID NOT rip off these genres. You cannot say, “Hey, check out this awesome disco song by Bowie,” in the way you might say that about “I Was Made For Lovin’ You Baby” by KISS. He took all those forms (and others, like ambient music) and folded them into a completely original blend. No other period of his career was he so brave, so ahead of things, so absolutely free (and, let’s be honest, so unhappy and drugged up). It is the only period, for me, where he is not calculating anything; he is truly just smoking the pipe of creativity, an absolute open channel with no regard for anyone.

A number of creative and personal factors contributed to the artistic breakthrough of the Berlin albums. In keyboardist/arranger Brian Eno, Bowie had found a kindred spirit, someone who was adventurous enough to extend the cut-up technique beyond the realm of lyrics and into the music itself. Bowie and Eno would often compose sequences of music, write down the chords on notecards, shuffle them up, and then put the new combinations up on a bulletin board for the musicians to play. In many cases this resulted in discordant chaos, but not infrequently the exercise produced exciting new combinations that made their way onto the record.

heroes-albumWith no regard for his record company’s commercial considerations, Bowie opted to fill the second sides of both the Low and “Heroes” LPs with mostly instrumental music—an especially bold move given that most listeners gravitated to Bowie due to his dynamic singing. “Low and ‘Heroes’ are really made for the LP experience,” Callahan notes. “If you hear them on CD or streaming, the albums both seem to die out. But if you queued up Side 2 of Low and then put Side 2 of ‘Heroes’ on the post, let them drop in that order on the turntable, it was one of the best ambient records of the ’70s.”

On the personal front, the Berlin Trilogy came at a point of crisis and transition. Finding himself addicted to cocaine and at an emotional dead end in Los Angeles by the mid-’70s, Bowie made the seemingly harebrained decision to move to Berlin (“the smack capital of Europe,” he later remarked) with friend and fellow self-destructive rocker Iggy Pop, of all people, in an attempt to clean up his act. Bizarrely, his plan worked, though the recovery was gradual—its shaky trajectory charted over the course of the three albums. “The Berlin albums are the inner stage on which the crisis plays out,” says American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy, a longtime Bowie fan:

They’re emotionally powerful because they’re a very conscious confrontation of Bowie with himself—he overcomes his afflictions not by rediscovering some purer, inner, more innocent figure but by carefully building a new persona that can express sympathy with other people’s suffering—as heard on “Repetition” and “Fantastic Voyage” on Lodger, as well as on much of [post-Berlin release] Scary Monsters—even when he still feels set apart. It’s not warm empathy for humanity that one finds on Lodger or Scary Monsters (or any later Bowie album), it’s a sincere but cold simulation. He’s thinking what he cannot feel, probably because after the introspection of Low he now understands just what he is and isn’t capable of feeling.

Like Callahan, McCarthy regards the Berlin Trilogy (along with its immediate precursor and successor albums) as the pinnacle of Bowie’s catalog, and refers to the accompanying persona of this period as “Weimar Bowie.” 1979_lodger_us_cvr_fix_800sq

It’s safe to say that Bowie’s new approach baffled both his audience and the critics, even if the latter group ultimately came to regard these records as classics. Although his records had routinely achieved platinum status in the past, Bowie’s sales now hovered around 200,000. But if the albums alienated the general pop audience, they also attracted a new type of listener, best personified by the experimental composer Philip Glass, who was so taken with Low and “Heroes” that he went on to compose entire symphonies based around the albums twenty years later.

With the Berlin Trilogy, David Bowie built something new. And over time he attracted a sympathetic and influential audience. Younger acts such as Gary Numan, Devo (whom Bowie produced), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Human League, and virtually all of the British “new pop” bands of the early 1980s picked up on Bowie’s lead and explored its implications within the context of their own work. And contemporaries such as the Walker Brothers and Marianne Faithfull made radical course corrections in the wake of the music’s release. (Below, listen to the Walker Brothers’ Bowie-influenced “Nite Flights” track from ’78.)

Bowie was certainly not the first, nor would he be the last, major pop star to take a bizarre left turn in the midst of a successful career. But he was relatively unique in his willingness to double down on his off-center ideas despite the drubbing he received. Most performers, when confronted with the cold shock of declining sales and an audience backlash, are quick to backpedal and return to the tried and true. Bowie, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on the animosity coming at him from all directions. If anything, it spurred him on to greater heights—a situation that would repeat itself almost exactly a decade later, and with arguably greater ferocity, during his foray with Tin Machine.

In both instances his protracted intransigence put him at odds with his record label and led to a break—first with RCA at the end of the 1970s, then, at the end of the 1980s, with EMI, the very label that had rescued him. Tin Machine never did earn the respect Bowie felt it deserved, but in the case of the Berlin Trilogy he had the last laugh. In 1980 he released Scary Monsters…And Super Creeps, a bold and challenging album by any standard. But by that point audiences had caught up with him. The trilogy had already influenced key individuals in the nascent post-punk and new wave movements, who in turn had made inroads into the pop music mainstream, and so listeners were now more receptive to Bowie’s chilly vocals; Robert Fripp’s jagged, atonal riffs; and Visconti’s treated drum sounds than they had been just three years ago. Also, Bowie’s songs on this album, while still off-center, at least seemed to have choruses again. Audiences sighed in relief and bought the album in considerable numbers. Scary Monsters became a hit, particularly in the UK, and managed to vindicate its three predecessors in one fell swoop. Most important, it achieved this feat without compromise. (Below: Scary Monsters track “Ashes to Ashes.”)

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Robert Dean Lurie is a writer and musician based in Tempe, AZ. He is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church (reviewed HERE) and was the primary instigator of the tribute album The Dark Side of Hall and Oates. He’s also a regular contributor to BLURT; his most recent story was about the return of Athens, GA, band Seven Simons.

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