Over at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, people are listening to a Bowie album every day of the month. This week: Bowie conquers America, leaves America for Europe, and hits his finest period with the help of Iggy Pop.
Of all the weeks I have to cover for Bowibury, I was looking forward to this one the most. Neil Tennant coined the term “Imperial Phase”, the period in an artist’s life where they can do no wrong, and while that certainly describes this stretch of albums, it’s too small a concept for someone like Bowie who’s had several throughout his career. But the mid 70s all the way up to 1980 definitely has the fattest riches for fans of Bowie the avant-pop star.
It starts with him finally breaking the States with Young Americans, a love letter to his adopted country written with poison ink. Any album that finally launches someone into the mainstream always gets sneered upon as not being as good as the earlier stuff, and it seems Bowie agreed, often describing it as “plastic soul…the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey”.
As assessments go, it’s pretty spot-on, but I don’t see that as a pejorative. The relationship between art and artifice has always been a thing with his music, and here the somewhat phony nature becomes an advantage. For a while, I couldn’t really get into the title track because of its opening couple of seconds – descending piano chords, twelve-string strumming, trumpets happily piping along. It sounded like it belonged in a Disneyland Rock n’ Roll Revue. But that was the point. On the surface it’s a good time singalong, but it reduces America to pantomime, a bunch of thinly-sketched characters (a young couple, a businessman who carries a razor “just in case of depression”) cast against a blur of images: Afro-Sheen, Ford Mustang, Nixon, Barbie, Soul Train. It’s a twisted soul album, full of breathless love songs to cocaine, and victory anthems for a faceless politician.
Calling it plastic also belies the fact that there’s real goddamn soul on this record. Bowie might have just been wearing a gouster’s clothes but damn if he couldn’t act the part, although having an amazing supporting cast (ex-James Brown man Carlos Alomar, backing singers including a young Luther Vandross) undoubtedly helped. When recording in Sigma Studios, he was horrified by the sound of his voice; where other studios had effects that could cushion the blow, Sigma was “dry”, so having a great backing band only pushed him further. He would be a worthy singer for the players, and the proof is in the gorgeous and soulful “Win”.
Young Americans nearly goes off the rails with an abysmal cover of “Across the Universe”, made solely to get John Lennon into Electric Lady Studios. Bowie doesn’t always have the best luck with covers, as we’ll get into next week, but the gentle spirituality of the original gets covered in a ton of thick syrup, to the point where he has to camp it up just to be heard. “Can You Hear Me” is another mid-tempo ballad that adds to the drag, but thankfully “Fame” comes along to course-correct. His first US #1, it’s the weird outlier of the record, more akin to the Berlin experiments. No horns, no strings, it’s just all rhythm, fractured and broken down, as taut and relentless as a shark. It’s a groove so potent that Mr Dynamite himself would later rip it off, and I don’t think you can get a higher compliment than that.
But that’s not close to Bowie’s apex as a performer. That honour goes to Station to Station, a futurist soul album that marks the start of his path as an art rock mystic who could go anywhere he pleased. There’s a lot of stories about this album – conceived in a cocaine blizzard, Bowie living on red peppers and milk while recording, witches allegedly trying to steal his semen – that added to its mystique, along with its striking minimalist sleeve and the severe figure of the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic revenant who dressed like a Berlin cabaret singer and sung about love as though from muscle memory. It’s also my favourite record.
When I put this on as part of Bowibury, I was amazed at how much I could sing along to it. It’s almost embedded onto my DNA, and what kept me coming back to it was the frightening level of style, power and control. They say the drugs don’t work, but Bowie was coked out of his mind while making this and it’s superbly mixed with truly fantastic performances from all involved. There’s not a dud track on here. The best way to describe the sound is “cold fire”, a deceptive term for a deceptive album; the title track begins with feedback and train noises, descends into neat minimalist krautrock, and then kicks into fifth with a joyous breakdown: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine! I’m thinking that it must be LOVE!”
Station to Station is Bowie’s first attempt at marrying R&B with krautrock, crafting neat minimalist lines and charging them with life. For all the Duke’s iciness, there are heart-stopping moments: desperate negotiations with God on “Word on a Wing”, the slick flattery of “Golden Years” transforming into pleading, and the decadent croon of “Wild is the Wind”, elevating an abstract song dashed off for a movie into pure art. Hybridisation seems to be the name of the game here. “TVC15” merges a 1950s teenage death ballad with the Ballardian idea of television as an all-consuming predator we willingly allow into our homes. Christianity is used interchangeably with the Kabbalah and Gnosticism and Aleister Crowley; English Pagans would throw random gods together if it would help them get through the day. Past and future, white and black magic, America and Europe – all colliding together, with Bowie harnessing the resultant energy. Transitional record? Sure, but it stands on its own, self-assured and manically confident.
Of course, that kind of insanity is something nobody could keep up, not even iron-willed Bowie, so after they finished touring the album, he and Iggy Pop packed up their bags and headed for Europe to kick the habits: first France, then later Berlin. The resulting partnership gave the world two albums that would end up launching a thousand post-punk acts: Iggy’s The Idiot, and Bowie’s Low.
I feel I have to talk about both together because, well, enough has been said about Low by many a talented writer, but also because I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. They’re like twin atoms.
For one, The Idiot came first. Bowie was using Iggy as a guinea pig, testing out new directions to go in. Mostly it was an outgrowth of Station to Station‘s fusion of American and European rock, what Iggy called “James Brown meets Kraftwerk”, with the instruments bent and warped out of shape. For Iggy, it means a sound and texture as thick and sludgy as molasses, murky and dense (mostly because Bowie isn’t much of a producer, but you can’t deny it works.) In Bowie’s case, the influence from krautrock and Brian Eno is more apparent. A brilliant R&B band – Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, George Murray on bass, and human hurricane Dennis Davis on drums – are forced to play music anathema to them. Davis’s drums sound hollow and sharp thanks to Tony Visconti’s production; the gated drum effect of the 1980s starts here.
The grooves on both albums are almost bent on locking the listener in place. On Low, it encourages this idea of stasis and feeling frozen, of instrumentals and chords cycling endlessly, rarely reaching a conclusion. There’s a reason why most of the first side is instrumental, after all; even lyrics escape Bowie. Over on The Idiot, though, they’re almost claustrophobic. “Sister Midnight”, “Nightclubbing and “Funtime” reduce dancing and debauchery to a series of mechanical motions; fittingly, the album ends with an eight-minute industrial dirge, inspired by Iggy’s memories of Michigan. Low, meanwhile, has a second side devoted to imaginary European cities. “Warszawa” is based only on the few hours Bowie spent there, walking through town and buying a folk record, with a synthetic choir singing what sounds like a long-forgotten European pidgin.
The big difference between the two? Iggy has never been afraid to cut himself open, and he does so constantly throughout The Idiot, spilling out the ugly secrets of his brain. He confesses to his muse on “Sister Midnight” about a sex dream with his mother. He croons despairingly about how innocent his lover is on “Baby”. On “China Girl”, it comes with the added taste of imperialist guilt – “I’ll give you television / I’ll give you eyes of blue / I’ll make you want to rule the world”. It’s a corrupted man afraid his disease will spread; “I’ll ruin ev’-ry-thing you ARRRREEEEEEE“. But Bowie? He’s more about isolation. Where Iggy flays himself open, Bowie watches the blood scab over. What few lyrics that are legible refer to hiding away from the world, staying in an electric-blue room, sketching awful things on the carpet, all seemingly to kill the time. The closing track, the cathedral-like “Subterraneans”, appears to have been written in private code. But it’s not doom and gloom, either. “Sound & Vision” puts a bright spin on the idea, a man sitting down, watching a song unfurl around him, seemingly content to wait for the full thing to come together. It’s a healing album, in a very weird way.
The next Berlin album, Lust for Life, is definitely more Iggy’s baby than Bowie. While he’d been a willing test subject on The Idiot, now he was carving out his own statement. Aware that Bowie worked fast, Iggy made himself faster, improvising whole vocals and lyrics in the studio. It probably helped that he was backed up by the Sales brothers, a ferociously talented bassist and drummer who could bring the thunder like no band of his since the Stooges.
Largely free of the murk from the last album, Lust for Life is full of energy. The first thing you hear is Hunt Sales beating out a Motown tattoo as though his drums did him wrong; the eponymous “Lust for Life” builds from there, growing in momentum and delirious joy that it found its calling nearly twenty years later as the theme for Trainspotting (and also for Royal Caribbean commercials). The whole album is a hoot, especially “Success”, where Iggy plays Southern Baptist preacher and challenges his backing singers to keep up with him, and “Tonight”, a dark joke of a song that’s a sincere declaration of love to his girlfriend overdosing on the floor. Lust for Life can’t quite sustain the momentum – the Jim Morrison cabaret of “True Blue” and chest-puffing bravado of “Neighborhood Threat” drag too long compared to the sprightliness of the first side – but everyone involved’s working at the height of their powers, and there are two perfect rock songs on there: the title track, and “The Passenger”, the sunnier side of “Nightclubbing” in that it makes prowling the city by night sound Zen.
Something about the speed of production, of watching Iggy working at the mic, inspired Bowie to get back in the studio with Eno and Visconti, setting up camp at Hansa Tonstudio (“Hansa By-the-Wall”) for what would eventually become “Heroes”. Compared to Low, “Heroes” gets less love, probably because its sister came first (and maybe because the instrumentals aren’t on the same level as “Warszawa” or “Subterraneans”). Where Low broke new ground, “Heroes” is building on those foundations. A shame, because this is almost the quintessential Seventies Bowie album – voice full of grandeur, weird go-for-broke experimentation, and wonderful pop melodies.
In a way, it’s the antithesis to Blackstar. Where that record has an avant-garde jazz group translating rock music into their own language, “Heroes” has a rock band (Robert Fripp plus the Alomar-Murray-Davis trio) taking a stab at making free jazz. The increased use of Oblique Strategies, a way of breaking creative blocks, led to more improvisation, with most of the music coming from jam sessions. It’s a looser, more confident sound, even with the tropical extremes in mood throughout. You go from the eerie “Neukoln”, full of Bowie skronking away on his sax, to the deliriously camp “The Secret Life of Arabia”. Where Low is probably about depression, “Heroes” is more bipolar, the songs mutating – “Blackout” drops away for Davis to drum up a storm amidst shrieks for a doctor, “Joe the Lion” sees Bowie go from a newsreader-like delivery to pure manic savagery.
Nowhere is this organic nature more apparent than the title track, or as I like to call it, The Greatest Song in the History of Anything. It’s just so wonderfully human, even with the ironic quotation marks around the title. The couple in it are barely functional. The man drinks all the time, the woman has a harsh temper, they accept it because “we’re lovers / and that is a fact”. It would almost be scathing if Bowie didn’t suddenly let loose four minutes in; during recording, the vocal gates around the mic would only open at a certain pitch, so Bowie’s essentially roaring to keep them all open. The narrator recalls the two of them kissing by the Wall, reacting to the guns, taking what could be the last opportunity to be human and in love again before they’re reduced to ash. It turns something so small into a heroic act; after his death, the 1987 Berlin performance is regarded as an important step in bringing down the Wall.
Just so we’re keeping count, that’s four albums with Bowie’s involvement released in 1977. Of course he’s going to take a break, and he makes an album, 1979’s Lodger, out of his diary entries. Bowie called it part of the “Berlin Trilogy” along with Low and “Heroes”, but it has little to do with either. The cast is largely the same, Visconti’s still producing, and there’s a similar experimental feel (Eno has a lot more involvement), but Lodger is a lot more difficult to piece together than the other two, hence its position as The Godfather Part III of the Bowie canon.
Take the record on its own terms, though, and it’s a fine grab-bag of ideas. Lodger isn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, although its use of world music predates Peter Gabriel and even Eno’s own My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It’s just Bowie throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Get your band to play chords when indicated on a chart? Cool, build two songs around it. Sample other music and do something weird with it? OK, let’s rap over a barely recognisable “Suzie Q” about being trapped in the jungle. Sample your own music and do something weird with it? Go nuts! There’s no coherent structure like the other Berlin albums; there’s a vague travelogue idea on the first side, with musical influence from Turkey and Africa (which part of Africa is up to you), but it doesn’t really hold up.
No, I’d say that this is an album built from salvage material, kind of like Diamond Dogs. Where that was built on failed narratives and ideas, however, Lodger‘s foundation is in a more recognisably human realm. This is Bowie as tourist, an alien on safari, re-engaging with the rest of us. We get songs about living with depression, drunken German mercenaries, Turkish workers, queer men, women abused by men, the record-buying public (Bowie records, to be precise: “DJ” can mean disc jockey or David Jones, remember). Even the angel of death, on the Wildean melodrama of “Look Back in Anger”, has a cough and wings that have seen better days.
It’s definitely the weakest part of the Berlin Project, but even a diminished Bowie album kicks the arse of most other records at the time. There’s a similar punkish energy to the New Wave albums of the time, but odd enough that it doesn’t look like a trend chaser, and there are some outstanding tracks here. “DJ” is the Talking Heads song David Byrne wishes he could have written, “Look Back in Anger” gives Bowie the voice of an archangel, and “Boys Keep Swinging” outcamps the Village People, sending up masculinity with tongue firmly in cheek as Adrian Belew’s guitar solo sets fire to the scenery. That’s the thing when you’re in an Imperial Phase; everything you touch turns to gold.
But empires also have to end.