David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”: The Under Review UK doc examines his 1976-1979 recordings

By on March 29, 2016

David Bowie – Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy — available now on Night Flight Plus — is an 85-minute British-made documentary which takes a deep dive into Bowie’s co-writing and co-production of Iggy Pop’s great 1977 albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, as well as discussing his work with longtime producer Tony Visconti, and experimental collaborative partner Brian Eno, on the production of his three remarkable albums of his own from the late 70s: Low, Heroes and Lodger.

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The British-made doc — part of the Under Review documentary series we’re featuring several titles on Night Flight Plus, and subtitled “An Independent Critical Analysis” — features performances by Bowie (both live and studio) interspersed with rare interviews from that era, along with independent review and criticism from a panel of esteemed experts who mostly opine about the impact, both immediate and to the future of music, of Low and Heroes, and, to an admittedly lesser degree, Lodger.

These experts include: Dieter Moebius and Michael Rother (both members of both Neu! And Cluster and key Bowie influences); broadcaster, journalist and ambient author, Mark Prendergast (author of The Ambient Century); author and Melody Maker/MOJO journalist, David Stubbs; journalist and author Daryl Easlea; author and style aficionado Paolo Hewitt (formerly a writer for New Musical Express); composer David Toop; and journalist and musician Chris Roberts.

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This documentary actually begins with, and spends a great deal of time on, the period leading up to his move to Berlin, telling us about the album Station to Station (recorded in Los Angeles during vampire hours) and his appearance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (a heavily treated still from the film provides the album cover artwork for Low), both of which presage the next phase of his career.

We learn of Bowie’s time spent in L.A., where he’d moved during what Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe would describe as “somewhat of a primal scream phase for him.” He was, by all accounts, a rampant cokehead at the time, and would later claim that this was the single worst time of his life and that he couldn’t even remember most of it.

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For Crowe’s Rolling Stone cover story, published in February 1976, we read how Bowie hung out with Crowe, giving the young writer — he had turned nineteen in July of 1976 — complete access and freedom to put down on paper what was happening in his life as he transitioned from his Thin White Duke/Station to Station period to whatever was coming next, which seemed to be that Bowie was ready to put aside the various masks and personas he’d previously created, and focus instead on simply being himself.

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1976 seems to have been the year Bowie’s personal drug use had reached its apex, telling one interviewer, many years later, the experience would leave him with “an overwhelming sense of foreboding…” and he was living a life that wasn’t too far apart from the fictional character he’d played in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, only instead of having Thomas Jerome Newton’s issues with alcohol, Bowie’s problems were with cocaine

Let’s also remember Bowie (and Iggy Pop) were both busted a little over fifty years ago, in Rochester, New York, on March 22, 1976, for possessing 182 grams (a little over 6.4 ounces) of marijuana. Bowie was on his “Isolar” trek around America (aka “The Thin White Duke tour”) and “Golden Years” was high on the US pop singles charts:

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During interviews he would frequently blurt out non sequiturs like the fact he believed Jimmy Page was attempting to possess his soul; he thought that witches were trying to steal his semen; and, he even claimed to see Satan in his swimming pool. Crowe describes Bowie as half-expected bodies to come falling out of windows as he passed below them.

Bowie and Crowe would keep in touch until Bowie’s death, and during their last conversation, Crowe read Bowie some of his quotes from what he called their “wild years in L.A.,” to which Bowie is said to have remarked: “It really represents the morbid and misdirected enthusiasm of a young man with too much time on his hands and too many grams of PCP, amphetamine or cocaine or maybe all three in my system, really.” (Read more of Crowe’s memories about Bowie here).

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Back to the music: in L.A., Bowie was already experimenting writing lyrics with what he called the “cut-out method,” which was something William S. Burroughs had famously employed on his novel Nova Express, an anti-narrative method that he’d actually devised with writer-artist Brion Gysin which involved randomly splicing together phrases from various sources and inserting them into his own text.

Bowie demonstrated the technique to Crowe during one visit: “He was on his knees on his floor, moving clipped single pieces of papers containing lines he’d just written. Like a three card-monty street-corner magician, he shuffled together the words of a new song until it made just enough sense… and no more. The rest would be left to the listener.”

Musically, as early as 1975, Bowie also began experimenting with creating new sounds that were likely influenced, to some extent, by repeated listenings to Kraftwerk‘s album Autobahn.

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Night Flight contributor Chris Morris, writing Bowie’s obit for Variety, described this new material as “rich in texture, cool to the touch but underpinned by insistent, passionate rhythm, they put a wholly personalized stamp on the mechanized electronic music that had preceded it.”

Indeed, Bowie’s motorik title track for Station to Station — a “hybridization of R&B and electronics” as Bowie himself described it — seems to have spurred him on to go off in whole new direction, the track itself acting as a kind of precursor and an indication of where he was heading, musically.

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The track and subsequent recordings in Berlin have been tangentially connected to the influential Krautrock of German band Kraftwerk, although Bowie’s 1976 track “Station To Station” — which many presumed was an homage to Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” — had actually preceded the track by at least a year. Its title, in fact, also had nothing to do with going from “station to station” in the railway system, but instead was derived from the Stations of the Cross.

Bowie would later dismiss critic’s linkage of Kraftwerk’s music and his own as a “lazy analysis,” saying this:

“Theirs was a controlled, robotic, extremely measured series of compositions, almost a parody of minimalism. One had the feeling that Florian and Ralph were completely in charge of their environment, and that their compositions were well prepared and honed before entering the studio. My work tended to expressionist mood pieces, the protagonist (myself) abandoning himself to the ‘zeitgeist’ (a popular word at the time), with little or no control over his life. The music was spontaneous for the most part and created in the studio.”

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To create these new studio sounds, Bowie needed a change of scenery but it was clear he was also needing to get away from the people he’d met in Los Angeles too — the phonies, the the groupies, the hangers-on and the druggies — in order to put himself in the kind of creative headspace you can only get by isolating yourself.

And so, in the fall of 1976, Bowie and his wife Angela headed for Europe, and after stopping first in Switzerland, he ended up in France, where he did some recording at Chateau d’Herouville studios, in Pontoise (near Paris), where he’d recorded his covers album Pin-Ups.

It was also where Iggy Pop’s The Idiot had just been finished — by all accounts it was also a “spooky place” which was rumored to have been haunted by the ghosts of two previous occupants, composers Frédéric Chopin and novelist George Sand.

Bowie, in fact, refused to sleep in the master bedroom there, and instead surrendered the room to ambient music pioneer and former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno, who claims he was awakened early every morning by a ghostly hand shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes no one was there.

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Bowie, Visconti and assistant engineer, Edu Meyer, taken in the control room of Hansa Studios. Photo by Edu Meyer’s wife, Barbara.

Eno — who was then focusing on producing other artists, experimenting with sound, guitar, and production techniques — provided keyboards (Splinter mini-moog, Reporter ARP, Rimmer EMI, Chamberlain) as well as guitar treatments to Bowie’s new recordings.

His contributions are possibly a little overemphasized in the documentary, which surely doesn’t help but add to the mistaken belief that he produced the “Berlin Trilogy” when, in fact, the albums were actually produced by David Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti, who had last worked with Bowie on Young Americans (his 1975 album) and he’d been called to Europe to mix Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (Bowie would also soon be producing Pop’s Lust for Life in 1977).

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The other musicians present on these Low sessions included Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner (guitar), Dennis Davis (percussion), George Murray (bass), Roy Young (piano, Farfisa), with additional guest musicians and vocal performances by Iggy Pop (vocals on “What in the World”), Peter and Paul (pianos and ARP on “Subterraneans”), Eduard Meyer (cellos on “Art Decade”) and Mary Visconti (vocals on “Sound and Vision”).

These first recordings in France in September 1976 were actually meant for Nicolas Roeg’s film soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth, but by the time he received the tapes from Bowie, with a note requesting that they be used in the film, Roeg had already brought in John Phillips to do the score. In the documentary we learn the reverse bassline for one of these tracks, “Subterraneans,” had simply arrived to the director too late for him to be able to use it but Roeg has said Bowie’s music would have made a wonderful score. (This bass part would be the only piece of music intended for the score that would end up on the next album).

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The majority of Bowie’s first album in the “Berlin Trilogy”, in fact, come not from Berlin but from these first sessions in France, but it wasn’t an easy time for all concerned as much of the recordings were done in the month of August, when much of Europe goes on holiday. There were apparently difficulties in getting the recording facilities maintained, and there were also difficulties in getting themselves fed properly. Bowie and producer Tony Visconti ended up getting food poisoning after dining on some unrefrigerated cheese that had been left out, and then were doubly fucked when they weren’t able to get proper care from any French doctor.

Bowie ended up additionally recording tracks at Hansa Tonstudio, located since 1974 in a former builders’ guild hall on Köthener Straße No. 38 in the Kreuzberg district of West Berlin, Germany, in a city then still divided by the Berlin Wall. Bowie noted at the time the fact that Berlin is eight times bigger than Paris, and so he felt it was easier to “get lost” there while searching for his new identity.

And so, Bowie and Iggy Pop — who was battling his own issues with heroin use — both moved into an seven-room apartment above a shop that sold car parts that was found by Corinne “Coco” Schwab, who was Bowie’s personal assistant. The apartment’s address was Hauptstraße 155, Berlin-Schöneberg, in a neighborhood of Berlin populated largely by Turkish immigrants.

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Coco Schwab had known Bowie ever since answering an advert in 1973, published in the London Evening Standard, from Bowie’s management company MainMan asking for a “girl Friday for a busy office.” That job led to her becoming Bowie’s closest confidante and his best friend (Bowie would leave her $2 million dollars in his will when he died earlier this year).

Coco Schwab was the person he credited with saving his life by helping him kick his addiction to coke. There were some suggestions that she may have been his lover for a time too, but that may have just been a rumor. She did, however, bring Bowie a glass or orange juice every morning and light his cigarette. Bowie would later say: “My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming and she made me snap out of it.”

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Schwab’s protection of Bowie during this time was apparently seen as a provocation to Bowie’s wife Angie — their marriage had begun to crumble in November 1976, and she decided not to stay with him in Berlin, going back in London, where she was soon to appear in a play. When she came to back to Berlin to discuss their the state of their marriage, Angie Bowie found all of Coco’s stuff in Bowie’s apartment, and so she through it out of his bedroom window, where it landed on a car parked below. She moved back to London and their marriage officially ended in divorce when papers were filed in February 1980.

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Bowie seemed to enjoy his new bachelor status Berlin, and would tell the local Berliner Morgen Post, “Berlin gives me something I don’t get from London or Los Angeles.”

Bowie:

“I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway. Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.”

These recordings — meant for an album for which the Eno-esque working title was New Music: Night and Day — would be released one week after Bowie’s 30th birthday in January 1977 as Low, the title itself being a jab at his maintaining a “low profile” while living abroad in Berlin, a time that Bowie provided him with a “sense of real optimism through the veils of despair.”

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Bowie and Eno worked together vigorously in the studio, creating soothing slabs of sound and occasionally adding ever more oblique lyrics that hinted at Bowie’s isolation and even agoraphobia. Eno, who would only end up with one co-writing credit on Low, in addition to playing on just six or the album’s eleven tracks, would eventually be credited by revisionists as having produced the album too (Philip Glass, who re-worked sections of the music as his Low Symphony in 1992, would credit it to the “music of David Bowie and Brian Eno”). Even Bowie himself would play up Eno’s participation on the album.

Following the complete of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life album, in May 1977, Bowie began working on the second album of the so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” Heroes, which was to be recorded in Hansa’s Studio 2 (“Hansa by the Wall”), a larger studio that was just five hundred yards from the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin. Visconti would later remark that it was possible to see Russian Red Guards looking over at them through binoculars.

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One of Eno’s occasional collaborators, guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson, joined them although Bowie’s first choice was actually guitarist Michael Dinger, from Neu! (Bowie says that he had phoned Dinger, from France, where he was politely and diplomatically told “No.”). Bowie had known Fripp since 1969.

What’s fairly remarkable about Fripp’s performances on the songs he plays on is the fact that he did it all in roughly six hours of studio time, coming straight off a plane from New York, arriving in the studio by 11pm, and playing everything in single takes with no overdubbing.

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Colin Thurston, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, and Brian Eno in the Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin.

As on Low, the lyrics were performed by Bowie mostly off-the-cuff, having not been written down prior to going into the studio, and they were done with just Bowie and Visconti in the studio, no one else. Bowie would arrive, listen to playback of the songs they’d already recorded, scribble down lyrics and sing. Sometimes Bowie would hold up his hand after finishing a few verses of a song — asking to hear the playback — and then continue recording his vocals, with the third verse of lyrics being sung spontaneously.

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Of all the songs on the album, it’s the title track that stands today as one of his true masterpieces. It’s been said that the track was inspired by Visconti and his girlfriend, Berlin jazz singer Antonia Maass, kissing by the Berlin Wall, but since Visconti — who was married at the time — didn’t want the world to know about his side action, Bowie hid the fact that the lyrics were about his extramarital affair, and only revealed the truth much later.

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The track “Heroes” was not always the title track — in fact, Bowie told NME in 1977 that its selection for the title itself was “arbitrary, really, because there’s no concept to the album… it could have been called The Sons of Silent Ages. It was just a collection of stuff that I and Eno and Fripp had put together. Some of the stuff that was left off was very amusing, but this was the best of the batch, the stuff that knocked us out.”

This time, however, Bowie — sometimes joined by Iggy Pop and the others — were able to enjoy full meals at the local workingmen’s café, or dinner with what Bowie called “the intellectuals and beats” at the Exile restaurant in Kreuzberg.

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There were also times when they would occasionally not want to stop working, and Bowie would end up getting back to his apartment at six in the morning, and because he was too tired to cook himself food, he would end breaking a raw egg into his mouth, which Eno has said was virtually the only food he’d eat for an entire day many times. Eno, meanwhile, would also reportedly drop cut-up pieces of raw garlic into boiling water and drink that down in the studio, which meant that sharing a microphone with him during the day would not be much fun.

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The album — released in October 1977 with it’s iconic photo of Bowie by Masayoshi Sukita — continued a similar format that Bowie had used on Low: Side A featured rock songs, while Side B were instrumental soundscapes. It was mixed at Mountain Studios in Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, a studio that would become one of Bowie’s regular haunts thereafter. He would also promote the album more than he had Low, which he’d basically avoided in order to focus on Heroes — this time he appeared on the UK’s “Top of the Pops” (singing the title track, naturally), and he also spent time in Europe, vacationing with Bianca Jagger in Spain and attending the French premiere of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Feel To Earth.

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RCA records, meanwhile, whipped up a marketing campaign that clearly spelled it out for music fans that Bowie was on his own plateau: “There’s Old Wave, there’s New Wave, and there’s David Bowie.” Also included was this: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

Amazingly, while “Heroes” has become one of Bowie’s signature tunes, the single of the song stalled out at #35 on the Billboard Top 100, but it climbed to #3 on the UK’s charts. Melody Maker named Heroes its album of the year, and Patti Smith eulogized the album in a long poem for Hit Parader in 1978.

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That same year, however, a photograph of Bowie — taken in 1976 at Victoria Station on the eve of the UK leg of the Isolar Tour — was cited as the apparent catalyst for the founding of Britain’s Rock Against Racism. The photo — showing Bowie raising his hand in a Nazi salute — had been taken when he was simply waving and the photographer had snapped the photo at a precise moment when it looked like the Thin White Duke was having an apparent “Sieg Heil!” moment. It fueled an incendiary rumor that Bowie was secretly a Nazi after he told Cameron Crowe:

“I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn’t have been hard. Concerts alone got so enormously frightening that even the papers were saying, ‘This ain’t rock music, this is bloody Hitler! Something must be done!’ And they were right. It was awesome. Actually, I wonder … I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad.”

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Quite true, he was also saying things like this at the time: “Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

At the time he said these things, we must remember, Bowie was at the very zenith of his cocaine use in Los Angeles, and was describing his latest persona, The Thin White Duke, as “a very Aryan, fascist type.” Bowie was also delving into historical reading on Hitler and the Third Reich, and collecting Nazi paraphernalia (he would later be detained at an Eastern European border for transporting Nazi memorabilia).

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“My interest in [the Nazis],” he later told NME in 1993, “was the fact they supposedly came to England before the war to find the Holy Grail at Glastonbury… the idea that it was about putting Jews in concentration camps and the complete oppression of different races completely evaded my extraordinary fucked-up nature at that particular time.”

Bowie would eventually and fully renounced any interest in Nazi imagery whatsoever, telling Rolling Stone: “I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed.”

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In September 1978, Bowie released a live album Stage, culled from recordings made at four concerts: two each in Philadelphia (April 28-29), and one each in Providence, RI (May 5), and Boston (May 6). The double LP featured vintage crowd-pleasing hits on the first album, and tracks from both Low and Heroes on the second, with the audience mics cut off during the tracks themselves so the songs weren’t spoiled by the jeers and whistles from the crowd, many of whom weren’t apparently enjoying this new direction in Bowie’s career.

The album actually was released while Bowie was on a four-month break in the tour, recording his third and last album for the “Berlin Trilogy,” Lodger, at Mountain Studios in Montreux (some of the tracks were also recorded at the Record Plant in New York City), and so there’s no clear reason why it would also be included in a “Berlin” trilogy when no tracks were recorded in Germany whatsoever.

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For Lodger, Bowie was keen on returning to the straight rock album format, with ten tracks — none of them moody instrumentals assigned to Side B — devoted to actual rock song structure (verse, chorus, verse, etc.), but he continued to experiment in the studio (no doubt because Eno was still involved), including having the musicians trade off instruments and the addition of sometimes muddled, Eastern-flavored Arabic-tinged influences. Although the documentary makes a case that it’s part of a so-called trilogy, it’s less a follow-up to Heroes and more like a prediction of where Bowie would be going in the future, beginning with Scary Monsters.

The great guitarist Adrian Belew took over for Fripp on guitar, but it’s Eno’s continuing influence — particular on tracks like “African Nightflight,” which feature something called “cricket menace,” which were sounds that Eno made with a drum machine and a “briefcase synth” (we believe this is what he called his portable EMS Synthi A synthesizer) — that still stand out today. Still, the album polarizes Bowie fanatics — some of them love it, but many remain totally indifferent to the album.

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In the end, RCA Records were disappointed with the sales of Bowie’s albums, which failed to spin off any hit singles, but they were critically lauded and the experimental instrumental b-sides of both Low and Heroes, in particular, would have a major impact on post-punk bands like Joy Division, who were originally called Warsaw, which they told UK journos was inspired by “Warzawa,” the moody instrumental on the b-side of Bowie’s Low (they would later learn of the existence of a group called Warsaw Pakt, which would necessitate a name change).

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Bowie himself would later say that Low and Heroes, in particular, were some of “the best work that the three of us had ever done” (meaning Eno, Fripp and himself).

Bowie: “Nothing else sounded like those albums. Nothing else came close. If I never made another album it really wouldn’t matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.