Bowie In Berlin – [Book]

Friday, 22 August 2008

Bowie in Berlin is an in-depth examination of the making of David Bowie's Low and Heroes albums. It contains a wealth of detail about the recording sessions, which will make it a treasure for any serious Bowie fan. But it goes far beyond who played what to explore the psychological and philosophical basis for the music. In the end, it is a perceptive study of how an artist's life influences their art.

By the middle of 1976, Bowie was at the peak of his commercial success (after the hits "Young Americans," "Fame" and "Golden Years"), but he was also addicted to cocaine and on the verge of mental collapse. He and Iggy Pop—also in a precarious mental state—retreated to Berlin to put their lives back together. Along the way, they recorded some of the most powerful and original music of either career. This included Bowie's aforementioned work with Brian Eno, plus Iggy's The Idiot and Lust for Life.

The book gives a complete breakdown of who played what on the various albums, far beyond their respective liner notes. For example, it has the first song-by-song listing I've seen of the musicians on Iggy Pop's The Idiot, long a mystery. Equally interesting is the description of Bowie's recording technique. Rhythm tracks were laid down fairly quickly, usually in a couple of days. Then the guitar parts were overdubbed. Bowie asked his guitarists (Robert Fripp on "Heroes" and Adrian Belew on "the third Berlin album," Lodger) to improvise their parts as they listened to the rhythm tracks for the very first time, lending a freshness to their solos. Only when all the musical tracks were finalized did Bowie begin to work on his vocals.

A similar process was followed on Iggy's albums. The primary difference seems to be that Iggy was able to improvise his vocals on the spot, whereas Bowie struggled with the lyrics for his songs.

The instrumental tracks, on side 2 of both Low and Heroes, were obviously constructed differently, as most only had two musicians—Bowie and Eno. Still, they often started with a rhythm track, usually played by Eno on a synthesizer, on top of which they layered their compositions, finally finishing—on some of the songs—with wordless vocals from Bowie, a sort of futuristic scat singing.

But the book's primary interest is not in recording techniques, nor is it in the gossipy background to the songs, matching lyrical names to real people (although it does do a bit of that, identifying Iggy's "China Girl" and the couple kissing at the wall in "Heroes"). Bowie in Berlin attempts to explain why Bowie made the music he did at that point in his life.

Bowie was, not surprisingly, under extreme pressure from his record company to produce "Young Americans Two,” another record full of hits. However, he had already been down that route and it had nearly killed him. He needed to reach inside himself and produce the music that was there, regardless of its commercial potential.

Furthermore, up until this point Bowie's entire career had been based on a series of personas. Almost every album introduced a new character—Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke. Bowie, on the verge of nervous breakdown, had to break through his personas, and write honestly about himself, about his true nature. Seabrook shows how the lyrics on Low reflect Bowie's paranoid mental state at the time, basically locked in his room with no external contact.

The instrumentals take the process one step further. Seabrook points out that two tracks on side one of Low ended up instrumentals because Bowie ran out of words; he had nothing more to say. He could only express his inner condition through bare music. In the end, the instrumentals are as expressive and emotional as any music Bowie recorded.

(One thing Seabrook doesn’t explore is the meditative nature of the instrumentals. One of the goals of meditation is to get beyond ego, ie: personality and persona. It is possible that the meditative nature of these songs helped Bowie clear his mind of his various personas.)

Seabrook traces Bowie's recovery through the music and lyrics of the various albums. The Idiot, recorded first (although released after Low) is as bleak an album as any in either artist's catalog. Low is a little warmer musically, even if its lyrics are equally dark. By Heroes, Bowie is out of his room, looking around, blinking in the daylight. If the music is darker and harsher than on Low, it is also more alive. Lust for Life is Iggy's celebration of recovery. Bowie's came a year later with Lodger, a travelogue chronicling his return to the larger world.

Few books attempt to get at the real depths of how an artist's life influences his work. They prefer to remain on the level of gossip. But great artists work at a much deeper level than just transcribing their life. Bowie in Berlin attempts to get at that deeper level where true artistic synthesis occurs. For the most part it succeeds, giving us a great understanding of both Bowie the person and his late 70's work. In the process, it becomes a book that will appeal to both Bowie fans and anyone interested in the nature of the artistic process.

For More Information:

Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is available now. Buy it on Amazon.


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