Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The European Canon is Here

The ideology and soundscape of Bowie's Station to Station was recycled and honed for Low, for many the best album of the 70s (a bold statement indeed). The first of three albums in the Berlin Trilogy collaborations with Brian Eno, the album reflects the state of mind of its creator due primarily to drug abuse. Many of the songs reflect how depressed, lethargic and self-destructive Bowie was at the time. As an example, in "Breaking Glass," he tells a story of how his wife, Angie Bowie, appeared in Berlin with her boyfriend, Roy Martin, leading to a harsh discussion between the triad; while in "Always Crashing in the Same Car," the Thin White Duke references a motor vehicle accident he'd had in his Mercedes. Low was released in 1977, and the track "Sound and Vision" reached number 3 in the U.K. charts. With songs relatively simple, repetitive, unadorned and almost entirely instrumental on the B-side, Low was a perverse reaction to punk rock; an album decades ahead of its time.  

Ten months after LowHeroes was recorded with the same musicians (though Robert Fripp replaced Ricky Gardener on lead guitar), and again produced by Tony Visconti. The album was more user-friendly and romantic than its predecessor; the title track telling the story of two lovers who meet at the Berlin Wall, while in "V-2 Schneider," Bowie makes reference to the weaponry of Nazi Germany. Heroes is a resplendent album in its own right (if overrated), though not as structured as Low. Together the two brought to the listener the sentiment of the Cold War, symbolized by the divided city that inspired them.  In 1978, the entire troupe embarked on a world tour that included songs from both albums as well as several from Ziggy, "Stay" and "Station to Station," with "TVC15" as an encore.

Released in 1979, Lodger was actually recorded in Switzerland not Berlin and was the last album of the trilogy or "Triptych" as Bowie referred to it. Lodger, a bit top heavy in its construct contained the singles "Boys Keep Swinging," "DJ" and "Look Back in Anger," and unlike the previous LPs, did not have instrumental tracks or ambient soundscapes. Though underrated, Lodger is probably not an LP for the Bowie novice; it is indeed a "fan's album." This was the last collaboration with Eno and Eno's influence is apparent: musicians switched instruments to sound amateurish on purpose, chord progressions were changed deliberately or turned backward to create something completely new, yet, and despite the heavy use of experimentation, Lodger was a return to a more straightforward rock format. Where the album truly falters is in its recording; this is a poorly mastered disc in any of its iterations.

Some background: Burnt from the excesses of Los Angeles, "the most vile piss-pot in the world," Bowie was at a breaking point in 1976. Having completed the recording of Station To Station, in a mere two weeks through a blizzard of cocaine (he often now claims he cannot even remember making the record), Bowie left Los Angeles forever. Realizing that much of the money he had made in his career (including the massively successful Ziggy and Young Americans LPs) had gone to support his corrupt manager, Tony Defries, as well as float the MainMan company, Bowie opted out as a tax exile in a small, quaint Swiss town, Vevey. 

After learning that Iggy Pop had been released from rehab at a "mental asylum" (Bowie was one of the only people to have visited him there, bringing with him cocaine as a gift) and looking to record a new album, Bowie was once again on the move; this time to France. Before even playing a note on his own Berlin trilogy, Bowie and Iggy co-wrote the songs that appeared on Iggy's The Idiot at the Chateau d'Herouville studio outside of Paris. After a quick stint on Iggy's subsequent tour, Bowie returned to Herouville and cut most of the tracks for Low, completing the albums closing instrumentals at Berlin's Hansa studio, next to the wall. From the comfort of his new apartment in Berlin, a recovering Bowie wrote and recorded Heroes and assisted Pop with his next LP Lust For Life (once again, co-writing many of the tracks). 

With a now trademark change of heart, Bowie upped-stakes after completing the Stage tour in 1978, went travelling and adopted the theme for his final "Berlin" album, Lodger. The great irony  is that like the majority of Low, Lodger was not recorded in Berlin, instead Bowie arranged sessions around globetrotting holidays, laying down tracks in Montreux, Switzerland and New York, making the Berlin Trilogy a more varied beast than its name suggests. As if making good on the line "The European canon is here" from Station to Station, Bowie had recorded a trilogy of albums that took much of their influence from Berlin, yet also took on the many-faceted influence of the continent as a whole. The best of the three, Low, is an AM9, fabulous, but not Ziggy.