Monday, 8 February 2016

David Bowie: Zeit! 77-79: Anthems of the Mind

Seeds, angles, ghostchests. It's been a long time since I bought some physical records, but Zeit stood out because it's a cheap way of getting digital copies of some albums I have on vinyl. Zeit has roughly 3.5gb of data spread across five CDs for £14 or so. It's cheaper than buying the individual albums on iTunes and you can use the discs as physical backups, or you can sell them on eBay for $800 MINT L##K BOWIE RARE to cash in on Bowie's untimely death. The Berlin Trilogy has been compiled once before, back in the 1980s as an LP boxed set called Portrait of a Star, but it was only available in France as a limited edition, so this is the first time that these albums have been widely available as a set outside of France not as a limited edition on compact disc with Stage as well.

You already know about David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy. A thousand years from now history will record that the emaciated, cocaine-addled walking corpse of David Bowie fled Los Angeles for Berlin, where he teamed up with heroin-addled bipolar rock beast Iggy Pop and cerebral balding jacket-wearing clever man Brian Eno, and together they went to lots of decadent parties leaving Eno behind in the studio with his synthesisers - don't worry, he was happy there - and between the three of them they recorded two classic albums and Lodger in Berlin's Hansa Studio while East German guards peered at them through the windows. David Bowie wore a black leather jacket and it was always snowing and everything was black and white. He shopped in normal shops like a normal person, for peas and coffee and it was awesome, like a spy movie.

The details aren't correct but you get the gist. That's what history will record. It will be forgotten that the albums were actually produced by sinister sonic wizard Tony Visconti, and only "Heroes" with quotes was recorded in its entirety in Berlin. Visconti's name is in the album liner notes, but people in the future will assume that Tony Visconti was a pseudonym or a misprint, or they will simply refuse to believe the written record. Tony Visconti is an angram of Tiny TV Icons, perhaps that is a clue. There were other musicians besides Bowie and Eno, and there were more than three albums, there were five. Six if you count Stage. The trilogy began with Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which was recorded in France and Munich and then touched up in Berlin, and in between Low and "Heroes" the gang put out Pop's Lust for Life. They were very busy.

David Bowie was a more attractive woman than many women

To complicate matters the trilogy wasn't a complete musical break from Bowie's previous work. Bowie's music gradually evolved, even when his personal life was marked by abrupt shifts. Low feels like a development of Station to Station and Lodger feels like a set of demo recordings for Scary Monsters. The Berlin albums don't really work as a musical trilogy, because Lodger sounds nothing like Low. On a musical level Bowie's run of Station to Station-Low-"Heroes"-Stage feels of a piece, followed by Lodger-Scary Monsters and then a break before Let's Dance and career oblivion.

As a thing unto itself Zeit is perfunctory. The only thing going for it is the price. You get four albums in a cardboard slipcase. The studio records were remastered in 1999. No bonus tracks. Low's cover image has been tampered with. On the original vinyl it's obviously a normal photograph of Bowie cut-and-pasted onto what looks like a fiery hellscape; for the CD they've treated Bowie's face so that it looks orange, and they've used the clone brush to extend the background a bit. I could have done a better job, why didn't they ask me? For the sake of completeness the CDs appear to be 2014 repressings made specially for the boxed set; the packaging is very subtly different from the standalone pressings. Stage is a two-CD set that was remastered and expanded in 2005. It has liner notes from Tony Visconti, who reveals that he tried so hard to make the album sound like a studio recording that reviewers assumed it was a fake, like Kiss Alive or Thin Lizzy's Alive and Dangerous, coincidentally also produced by Tony Visconti.

Stage is the stand-out for me because I've never heard it before. It's a recreation of Bowie's 1978 world tour, cobbled together from three dates in the United States. There are tracks from Low and "Heroes", plus a short set of songs from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Etc for the old folks in the audience. And "Fame" because it got to number one in the States.

Bowie only released two live albums, David Live (1974) and Stage (1978). There was also a video album of the late-80s Glass Spider tour. Nobody liked any of them. Stage gets a bum rap for being too slick, for sounding like thinner recreations of the studio tracks with faint audience noise. The original release had the tracks presented in chronological order, which meant that the double-vinyl went Ziggy - Station to Station - Low - "Heroes". Unfortunately the Ziggy tracks are only okay, and the Low tracks are mostly instrumentals, which meant that sides two and four were much better than sides one and three. Also, the original studio version of Low was a sonic masterpiece; the songs were excellent but the overall sound and atmosphere was just as important, and in a live setting that doesn't come across as well, so what's the point?

The 2005 remaster fixes the sequencing, which means that the instrumentals are spread out. The band is incredibly tight viz "Stay", and the songs are instant classics. Bowie deploys an early version of his big 1980s voice, but here it's subtler, and of course the material is a lot stronger. "Heroes" doesn't quite have the same squalling force as the original and I'm not convinced by the extended version of "Breaking Glass" - the band just drags out the ending - but on the other hand "Station to Station" is easily as good as the album version and the likes of "What in the World", "Blackout", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Hang on to Yourself" are great fun. "Stay" is terrific and culminates in a fantastic jam that could have gone for half an hour easy I wouldn't have minded. Rumour has it that the band slowed down the tempo for the recorded shows so that they wouldn't make any mistakes, which -if true - means that the rest of the tour must have been fantastic. In my opinion music can't be too fast, the faster the better, more notes.

The Ziggy suite doesn't move me but then again neither does the original album. It's an alien relic from the days of blues-based guitar rock. There's a funny thing about the Ziggy songs. On "Heroes" and Scary Monsters Bowie worked with asshole guitar wizard Robert Fripp, but for the 1978 tour he had Adrian Belew, who was a kind of nicer junior version of Robert Fripp and less of an asshole. Belew was one of those late-70s-early-80s stunt guitarists who was on lots of godawful albums by assholes such as Frank Zappa and David Byrne and Paul Simon etc.

Belew's thing was elephant noises. He made elephant noises with his guitar. This wowed people in the early 1980s. He makes elephant noises on Stage but not during the Ziggy suite, where he seems surprisingly restrained on what were originally guitar-heavy tracks. On the original album the title track is based around a distinctive guitar riff, but on Stage the riff is done with synth horns, and overall the Ziggy songs feel like an afterthought. As a straightforward rhythm guitarist Belew doesn't really stand out. No, tell a lie, there was a third Bowie live album, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, which was recorded a year and a lifetime before David Live. I haven't heard it.

Elsewhere on the record Belew's solos are generally a mess, neither as rocky-flashy as Eddie Van Halen or as techno-flashy as Robert Fripp; he's no doubt immensely talented and skilled with a guitar, but my impression of Belew on Stage is of a wibbly trebly forgettable mess. He is on Lodger as well, where again he manages to be flashily extroverted and anonymously forgettable at the same time. The only guitary thing I remember from Lodger is Carlos Alomar's choppy two-note rhythm solo from "Look Back in Anger".

Lodger. I used to have Lodger on vinyl. The first half of side two is pretty good. "DJ", "Look Back in Anger", "Boys Keep Swinging", that's a good run. Add "Alabama Song" and "Fantastic Voyage" and you would have a decent LP side. Not a great one but decent. I don't think Lodger can be saved. In an ideal world Bowie might have released "Anger" and "DJ" as a double-A, holding back "Boys Keep Swinging" for Scary Monsters, where it would fit right in. Lodger was reviewed poorly when it was new and inevitably there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate it since then, but it's nowhere near as good as Low or "Heroes", in fact it's not good at all. "Red Sails" sounds like a 12" b-side, the rest of side one is rotten in different ways.

The irony is that during the height of the New Wave, Bowie suddenly found himself being outsold by electronic T Rex riff-rock throwback Gary Numan and out-smarted by twitchy nerdy proto-world-music man-drummer woman-bassist Talking Heads, whose Fear of Music would have been a better Lodger than Lodger. Brian Eno is in theory on Lodger, but his soul had already defected to the Talking Heads camp so only his body was present, his unimpressive weedy balding nerdy body. With Talking Heads he went on to make Remain in Light, which was awesome but could never have been a David Bowie record, so perhaps this is Brian Eno's story after all.

In a neat touch the albums were the right order in the slipcase. See what I mean about Low's cover art. It's not a bootleg or nothin', there's a page about it on Bowie's official website

I haven't heard Lust for Life all the way through. I do however own Pop's The Idiot. It's terrifying that Bowie had all these great songs and just gave them away! Imagine if "Heroes" and "Lodger" had been bulked out with the best of The Idiot and Lust for Life. They would have been two-fifths and nine-tenths better respectively. And at the same time it's great that The Idiot exists. It's sludgy, decadent, bitchy, robotic, mean, scary, hilarious, menacing, toasted sesame seed oil, "multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles"; it sounds more Berlin-y than Bowie's own Berlin records, I picture grim-faced men marching through Berlin during the Weimar period, although the bulk of it was recorded in France, before they left for Berlin. "Tiny Girls" is a bit weak, especially coming so soon after "China Girl", and "Baby" is only okay. "Mass Production" is a super idea that would have benefited from better production. The rest of the album is golden. The Berlin Trilogy was a massive influence on the likes of Japan and Ultravox etc, but Pop's voice-of-doom on The Idiot was the template for Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen and so forth.

"The first time I met the Dum Dum Boys I was fascinated. They just stood in front of the old drug store. I was most impressed. No-one else was impressed, not at all."

Low is my favourite of the lot. At the time the critics were unsure if it was a one-off novelty or a serious career change; forty years later it is still a breath of fresh air. Side one has seven concise little songs, each of which has at least one and sometimes several clever ideas. There's the flu-flump at the beginning of "Breaking Glass", the beautiful little electronic melody at the beginning and middle of "A New Career in a New Town", the Pac-Man noises in "What in the World", the way that "Sound and Vision" feels like a single very long extended verse, the clanky piano in "Be My Wife". Taken individually the songs are fascinating, but they flow well as an album; unlike "Heroes", none of them overshadow the others.

The record is often stereotyped as a downbeat bummer, but "What in the World" has a giddy hysteria to it and "New Career" is quietly hopeful. It sounds exactly like the title, which is clever given that it's an instrumental. It starts off tentatively and then becomes a harmonica-laden road song, as if the subject of the song was embracing life on the road; it becomes tentative again, as if he or she was wistfully recalling their past life, and then the harmonica returns. We are driven into the future whether we like it or not. "Be My Wife" is sad and desperate but at least the singer is honest. Overall the record spans the gamut from deranged hysteria to paranoid madness via deep melancholy, but it never becomes a Goth cliché. "Warszawa" begins with a doom-laden piano but eventually soars to the heavens. It is the anthem of a country that only exists in the mind.

The electronic instrumentals are reminiscent of Brian Eno's Music for Films, but with a thicker production and stronger melodies. I got into Bowie via side two of Low; I grew up with ambient electronic music and was curious to hear this apparently excellent album from the past that I had read about. Compared to the likes of Future Sound of London and The Orb Bowie's ambient experiments sound old-fashioned, analogue, and a bit thin and simple, but I have grown to love them. "Warszawa" and "Art Decade" have one-finger melodies rendered with a distinctive mixture of Mellotron and simple analogue synthesisers. Many years later Philip Glass fleshed out the orchestration with a symphony orchestra, but the extra complexity didn't really improve them. I wonder how "Warszawa" would sound as a solo piece for viola, performed in an underground tunnel at night.

I have the impression that critics in the 1970s disrespected David Bowie for the same reason that critics in the 1980s disrespected Madonna, the same reason that critics occasionally bash Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch; there was a feeling that Bowie wasn't a proper musician with ideas of his own, he was just a copycat using a session band to assemble parodies of other people's music. Low is both a good counterargument and a bad one. The instrumentals sound like Brian Eno solo compositions with Bowie singing on top - Eno worked on several of them while Bowie was in Paris dealing with a lawsuit - and for the rest of the record Bowie would turn up to the studio and ask his band to jam while he improvised lyrics. Furthermore there was a huge infrastructure of musical and studio equipment plus Tony Visconti working the machines, but ultimately the only thing that matters is the end result, and in the case of Low the end result is a fantastic record.

Bowie proved over the course of his subsequent records that he had a limited pool of ideas that needed the right environment to shine, but it doesn't matter. Perhaps it feels unfair to praise Bowie for merely being the visible head of a large team, but whose fault is that? Neil Armstrong didn't make himself a legend, that was our doing. We want to idolise individuals, and Bowie was happy to go along with that.


I've left "Heroes" until last. It's a synthesis of Low and Lodger and Stage, good but not great. It has the slick performances of Stage, the experimentation of Low, and some of the... well it has almost nothing of Lodger but quite a bit of the 1980s, because the rock songs would have fit perfectly in that decade. The production sounds more modern than 1977. Visconti pioneered the big drum sound of the 1980s but with a different technology; he used slapback echo and a pitch-shifter instead of gated reverb. The result is very similar, a big thwacking drum sound with a sharp, very short reverberation. It's all over Low, more restrained on "Heroes" (it comes to the forefront on "Joe the Lion"), very subdued on Lodger. As a result the likes of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Blackout" have an odd mix of early-mid-80s drums, late-70s disco bass, and the kind of inspired guitar experimentation that doesn't belong to a particular era.

The problem with "Heroes" is that it feels a bit phoned-in. Every track on Low earned its place and had something interesting about it. "Joe the Lion" is fine, an excellent second track, but it feels anonymous. "Sons of the Silent Age" feels like an out-take from one of Bowie's early-70s records and the instrumental tracks skirt the boundary between inspired minimalism and just plain unfinished. "Crystal Japan", which was recorded for a Japanese TV commercial as a kind of last-gasp of the Berlin period, would have improved the record slightly. "The Secret Life of Arabia" is stuck on the end like an advert for Lodger, and I'm not just cribbing that from Pushing Ahead of the Dame, I came up with that idea independently, by myself. The ambient pieces are a bit too successful, in that they blend into the background.

"Heroes" is also thrown off-balance by the title track, which I have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy. It's huge and domineering. The tracks on Low work as individual pieces but they also flow coherently into an album, whereas "Heroes" feels like the title track plus a set of excellent singles. Imagine if Bowie had given up on albums and just released "Heroes" and Lodger as a set of singles, with perhaps a double-album compilation in 1979, a la New Order's Substance. That would have been awesome.

As a kid I was disappointed with the Berlin records, because I was expecting them to sound just like Kraftwerk, totally synthesised with electronic drums etc. I have always loved the sound of records, the precise clockwork sound of electronic music, the lush beautiful sound of electronic music, and to my ears Low was just boogie-rock with old-fashioned-sounding synthesisers. In reality I just had a very limited exposure to boogie-rock. It's impossible for one man to appreciate all the different flavours of music that the human animal has devised. I would have to be a master of Chinese and Indian classical music and the oddest electronic experiments of Stockhausen in addition to all forms of Western popular music past and present. I have to specialise in a narrow field, and it just happens that boogie-rock is tangential to that field. There comes a point in a man's personal development when he realises that his culture is not the sole, dominant, objective world culture, it is just one tiny petal on a vast flower, no more important than the others. I hate Baby Boomers and their insistence that Herman's Hermits and Crosby, Stills, and Nash is the only music that has value. I will not miss them after they are dead.

It's difficult for me to write about the Berlin Trilogy. Firstly because I'm aware of Chris O'Leary's Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a blog that has covered Bowie's entire output in great detail. The man chucks in references to books I haven't even heard of. His posts have mysterious photographs and film stills, and so do mine, but his are drawn from a more diverse pool. His writing is subtler, smarter, less narcissistic than my own, consistently and genuinely intelligent, although in my defence I am at least aware of my own limitations. One of Dame's regular commentators is a chap called Momus, whose writing resembles good writing but is no good because he is oblivious of his own shortcomings; O'Leary is a better writer than either of us.

The main reason I have concentrated on emphasising style over content is... the two main reasons are firstly that I was greatly influenced by Monty Python's Flying Circus, in which the style of the sketches was often more important than the words, and also because I'm trying to mask a fundamental emptiness in my writing which comes not so much from a lack of thought or a lack of material but because I have always been drawn to write about things that don't interest me, things that are not from MY past, viz the article you are currently reading. Re-reading this paragraph I can't help but picture Jimmy Savile. The emptiness, the distance, the hollowness. And yet from Savile's point of view, life was a pop of the cherry. In his mind he was Iggy Pop, having his way with tiny girls, and he died a millionaire and pillar of the establishment. Nothing stood in his way, and if that is my fate so be it.

Like a lot of famous bloggers Chris O'Leary used his blog as a springboard for the real deal, an actual physical book. It is by all accounts a very good book. I have been writing about pop music on the internet in one form or another since 1995, back in the days when there was still a residue of cyber-techno-utopianism, and it's melancholic that so many bloggers ended up writing paper books. All the promise of the multimedia revolution came to pass. It turned out that a blog with an embedded video and some coloured text was not in fact the ultimate evolution of media, it was just one more thing.

The future of media - it will change the way our brains work

To what extent was Harold Shand doomed? Could he have cut a deal and saved his life, if not his empire? After demonstrating that they could accurately hit a target the size of a missile solo, wouldn't it have been a better idea for the superpowers to simply ban solid-fuel missiles, in favour of liquid-fuelled designs - which would then be stored unfuelled, question mark? It would have greatly reduced the chance of an accidental nuclear attack whilst retaining a live nuclear deterrent. Ballistic missile submarines would have complicated matters, but both sides had nuclear submarines, and they only had a limited strike capability; there would have been a separate deal limiting the numbers of missile submarines. Yes, the Russian submarines were technologically inferior, but the Russians would never have admitted this. I wonder if he regrets calling it "Pushing Ahead of the Dame". If there's one thing I've learned from David Bowie, it's that once you have a name and identity, it is stuck for life and you can't change it. Unless you decide to.

And also because it's not my past. I was only ten months old when Low was released. Lodger came out when I was three. I wasn't aware that they existed until my late teens, but only because I read a lot of rock music magazines. My impression is that by the time I was ten the meejah had forgotten about the Berlin records, not so much because they were unfashionable but simply because there was limited space in the contemporary media and the newspapers would rather write about Absolute Beginners, a sure-fire hit that would keep the British film industry afloat. I'm not sure if the dying, wailing saxophone at the end of "Neukoln" is brilliant or naff.

The new fanbase that Bowie gained with "Let's Dance" weren't interested in stark late-70s New Wave electronic music, and even if they were, how would they communicate in the pre-Facebook era? How would they even find out about the likes of Low and Lodger? In those days you really had to make an effort to find out about old music, and kids faced with the choice of spending two weeks' pocket money on "Blue Jean" or Dynamite Dan - or an album with some unfamiliar songs - they probably chose one of the former. There was no Youtube back then.

By the time I was twenty, however, the Berlin Trilogy had become legendary. "Heroes", the song, had gone from chart flop to second-or-third-best-rock-song-ever. My recollection is that there was a kind of New Rock Seriousness in the late 1980s, perhaps a result of Live Aid. It was suddenly fashionable to be an old rock star, and the likes of Q magazine and Record Collector had the space and inclination to run lengthy features about old music, which was suddenly available on CD for £5.99 or so. I have most of the Berlin Trilogy on vinyl, not because I am a vinyl snob - I don't own a record player any more - but because when I bought them they were £2.99 at a record fair. I bought them for the same reason I bought Zeit (and for that matter Tangerine Dream's Zeit, which was recorded in West Germany a few years before Bowie arrived). They were cheap. I wasn't prepared to pay more because I don't love them that much. It's not my past. By the time I was thirty the Berlin records were still legends, and now I am in my late thirties Bowie is dead and the Berlin Trilogy has earned its place on our space ark; it will fade, but no faster than everything else.

A bad idea that doesn't work. You should actually sand the paint in between coats

The internet tends to ghettoise people, it locks them into a bubble. From my point of view everybody in the world is familiar with the Berlin Trilogy. I update this blog infrequently because I assume that the audience knows everything I know, which is a lot, so why bother writing about anything unless it's new, but there is very little that is new. Why not write about the things that I grew up with? Because they seem trivial and unimportant. There's no mystery, no drama, because real life is small.

But surely the same is true of pop music from the past. It must have seemed trivial and unimportant back then, when it was new. When Lester Bangs wrote about Chicago and Grand Funk Railroad he was writing about things that seemed trivial back then; it is only the passage of time that gives his words gravitas, and then only some of his words (his constant use of "faggots" and the n-word hasn't aged well). What drove Lester Bangs? Well, he was being paid to write about something he enjoyed - not paid very much, but it gives you legitimacy, it means that you are real, and in those days you could resell the promotional discs for a little bit more money, you can't do that nowadays because review samples are sent out as MP3s, you can't sell MP3s - and he took a lot of cocaine and he was a pompous asshole who liked the sound of his own voice.

Imagine being a pompous asshole who likes the sound of his own voice. How horrible that must be. Lester Bangs was not a good role model. He was an obsessive Linux leper, a Bitcoin bore, a muttering mysogynist, a demented drug dude, it's just that Bangs was obsessed with CBGB-era punk and he had a superficially glamorous lifestyle so he was cool instead of naff. Beyond that, he was a trainspotter, and I don't want to be like that. Besides which, if I write the definitive word on Half-Life 2 or Whigfield's "Saturday Night" and it is revered thirty years from now as a masterpiece of historical writing, how does that benefit me? Part of the reason Lester Bangs is widely-published today is because he died and his works are presumably cheaper to anthologise because he's dead. It doesn't benefit him. It lines the pockets of book publishers. Vultures feeding off his dead brains. And even then he isn't really widely-published. He earned almost nothing during his career, died poor, and no-one has made a fortune out of his work. He was a terrific writer whose words are unfortunately bonded to the corpse of dead rock bands, like at the end of Alien3 where Ripley jumps into the molten metal while the alien bursts out of her stomach. That's Lester Bangs, he was the alien and Ripley was the corpse of dead rock bands and the molten metal is time itself.

The Berlin Trilogy will slowly fade away. Most people are unaware of it. Whenever a pop culture thing from my youth appears on Imgur or Reddit - very rarely, because I'm British - the comments reinforce the fact that my culture is not as widespread as I instinctively believe. Nobody's culture is as widespread as they believe. Periodically Imgur revives Bob Ross and Mr Rogers, who I know only from the internet; the predominantly teenage white male American commentators recognise them, but not from television, instead they recognise them from the last time they appeared on Imgur. Even American culture has been turned into a set of reposts. When Bowie died he briefly lit up the internet, but he was overshadowed a few days later by Alan Rickman, who had been in the Harry Potter films. Rickman meant more to the kids of Imgur than Bowie. The young Americans that Bowie wooed in the 1970s still remember him, although probably not his Berlin records; the audience he gained in the 1980s had moved on by the middle of the decade, and although he tried hard to woo their kids in the 1990s and early 2000s, by and large he failed. I am an exception but that's because I'm exceptional.

It's not my past, but over a long enough timescale nothing is anybody's past. The present overwhelms it and the future is agile. Surviving after death is like playing a game of chess where you have to write all your moves down in advance. That might work if you are navigating the oceans or the depths of space, provided that there are no storms, and it might work in a game of noughts and crosses, but chess is too complex, there are too many imponderables. You have to react, and in a game of pre-programmed chess you are at the mercy of the other player.