Baal’s Hymn

Baal’s Hymn (broadcast).
Baal’s Hymn (studio).

Before he was a playwright, director, theorist or general undesirable (having to flee both Nazi Germany and the McCarthy-era USA), Bertolt Brecht was a poet, one whose works were meant to be sung to guitar. Brecht was inspired by performers he had seen in his native Bavaria, like Karl Valentin, a clown who was Germany’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, and Joachim Ringelnatz, a sailor/minesweeper turned poet and cabaret performer. Brecht’s poems were to be chanted or sung; they are often a kind of plainsong, as his future interpreter David Bowie once noted.

While Brecht drew on classic German literature and narrative ballads, he favored mass-produced pop culture more than the “approved” folk music praised by the German middle class. Following unification in the 1870s, there was a vogue for Germanic folklore and mythology (this didn’t end well). For Brecht, much of this Volkslieder was fossil-music which had nothing to offer the working class of, say, 1915 Munich. As Brecht later wrote, working people have no wish to be Folk. Many of Brecht’s early poems were set to melodies of trashy pop songs, while in the Twenties, Brecht’s discovery of jazz (a new sordid American import, later restricted by the Nazis) would lead to works like Threepenny Opera.

Baal, Brecht’s first play, is the culmination of his early work, the fruit of his youth in Augsburg, where Brecht was known for walking around town and in the woods, writing on scraps of paper that he kept in his pockets: the result was “the single, self-consistent poem whose stage expression was Baal “(John Willett). For Baal, Brecht recycled poems as dramatic interludes, in-scene performances or monologues in song (some, like the cruel “Legend of the Harlot Evelyn Roe,” were cut from the play upon revisions, while other poems would be swapped in and out, depending on the director’s choice (as we’ll see with “Remembering Marie A.”).

Written in 1918 and revised eight years later, Baal is an episodic portrait of a “a man stripped of character…[an] asocial man.” (Eric Bentley). Baal is a drunk, poet, moocher, singer, guitarist, seducer, murderer and general agent of chaos, but he’s not a “natural” man either. He’s not a feral beast unable to fit into modern society, but a modernist who clearly sees “the amorality of nature all around us, but beholds it from a distance, and with longing and envy.” (Brecht said his Baal was modeled on one “Josef K,” a washerwoman’s bastard who charmed society figures, seduced many women (leading one to kill herself) and finally died while living in the Black Forest.)

In 1981, Bowie starred in a BBC revival of Baal and as his parting gift to RCA, he recorded five Baal songs for an EP (it’s a kiss-off to a label Bowie had grown to hate: “you thought Low was too uncommercial? Good luck selling this one“). Baal is often considered a strange cul-de-sac in Bowie’s career, a time-filling ploy while Bowie was waiting out his contracts. Only two of Bowie’s many biographies give Baal more than scant mention.* But Baal, after Scary Monsters, is Bowie’s best record of the decade; it’s another farewell to the performer he once was (for Bowie, the early Eighties was a series of strategic retreats, of closing down outposts) and a glimpse of the artist he could have been.

In early 1981, the director Alan Clarke (best known for the vicious prison drama Scum) proposed reviving Baal for the BBC. Working with the producer Louis Marks,** Clarke planned to use split-screen to convey the Brechtian dramatic technique of characters addressing the audience during the play. Looking for a lead actor, Clarke and Marks recalled Bowie’s recent success in The Elephant Man and correctly guessed that he had some interest in Weimar Germany; after visiting him in Switzerland, they offered him the role, for which he received the standard BBC scale of £1,000.

During rehearsals, Marks and John Willett (who wrote the script, a fine, sharp translation) were stunned to find that the rock star they had recruited knew as much about Brecht and Weimar Germany as they did (and Willett had just finished assembling Brecht’s poems in their definitive compilation). His years of isolation in Los Angeles, with Bowie obsessively reading whatever he could find on Weimar, and his immersion in Berlin in 1976-77 had turned Bowie into an amateur scholar.

Sure, Baal was a way for Bowie to keep busy during a deliberate period of slack, but it’s too well-chosen a role for just that. Baal is a prototype rock star, a Weimar-era Ziggy, marked by his callousness, charisma and all-consuming need to devour all he sees, from the women that he tumbles into bed to the clouds that he spies in the forest sky. Portrayed by Bowie as a shabby East End bohemian, Baal seems like one last incarnation of a greedy, world-shattering youth, one marked, as Bowie’s had been, by a cold observant eye to match a ravenous appetite. It’s the angry, self-righteous, devouring voice of “Cygnet Committee,” heard again but now encased in a stage performance, preserved as a keepsake.

“Hymn of Baal the Great” (also translated as “Chorale of the Great Baal”) is Baal‘s 14-stanza prologue, although, as Clarke chose, the poem is often broken up in performance, its stanzas distributed throughout the play to serve as between-scenes commentary. (In Clarke’s production, the first three stanzas are the prologue, a compressed fourth and fifth stanza comes after the scene of Baal’s introduction, etc.)

Dominic Muldowney wrote music for it, using as the melody an uncredited piece included in Brecht’s 1927 Die Hauspostille: an 8-bar refrain in G major whose vocal melody rises in thirds for each line (the singer first keeps on E, then G, then B, culminating in the octave E on “MARV-eh-lous“). The BBC performance of “Baal’s Hymn” is just Bowie and banjo, serving as a needling, harsh commentary on the performances or intertitles flashing by in the right-hand frame of the split-screen. For complete version of the “Hymn” that Bowie recorded in Berlin a month later, Muldowney and Bowie had to rethink the song as a unified performance.

Bowie had convened Willett, Muldowney, Tony Visconti and Edu Meyer to record the Baal songs at Hansa Studios in Berlin in September 1981. Visconti said Bowie described the session as being a “souvenir,” merely recording the songs for posterity. The Baal session was also another farewell: it would be the last Visconti Bowie production for nearly 20 years, and the last time Bowie ever recorded in Berlin.

Muldowney scored the Baal songs for a 15-person band of Berlin musicians (mainly one musician per instrument (violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, cello, etc.), so to get a “German pit orchestra” sound, Visconti said), including the percussionist Sherry Bertram and “a 75-year-old bandoneónist who’d played in the first productions of the Threepenny Opera” (Trynka), Muldowney was startled to hear what Visconti was doing to the mix, compressing and flanging the recorded instruments, so that “four strings sounded like four tanks,” he told Trynka.

Bowie had wanted to sing live with the band, but he had showed up late to the session and, as these were German union musicians, the session needed to start and end on time. Bowie was happy to be tardy, as listening to the musicians gave him a chance to “mentally rehearse” his vocals, Visconti said.

The studio “Hymn” uses Bowie’s voice in the way a jazz ensemble would a lead saxophone—sometimes working in support of the group, sometimes as a wild soloist. The opening three stanzas are similar to the BBC production, with Bowie, using a very free meter that lets him extend or shorten lines as he sees fit, at first set only against piano, with the full band coming in as the verses go on. A brief interlude, then a second phase, with Bowie now singing in a march-like fixed meter, chained to the rhythms of the piece. A second interlude triggers the return of the initial free-ranging performance, with Bowie let off the leash again (listen to how he bites into “nothinggg could be HARD-er than the QUest for FUN“). After another interlude, Bowie is conscripted again, but he resists more now, capping off one verse with a gleeful “vulture SOUP!”. And the Hymn ends with Bowie free but bloodied, offering one final burst of defiance with the long-held “marvelous!” before he expires.

For Bowie’s vocal, Visconti and Meyer used the “Heroes” strategy of having several mikes placed around Hansa’s enormous Meistersaal, to capture Bowie’s voice at different levels and imbued with room ambiance. Bowie cut all of his vocals for the EP in a few hours. Then he took Muldowney on a guided tour of Berlin low-life, including transvestite bars and New Wave clubs; it was a night out with a Baal who had reached a comfortable middle age.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre, and was shown on BBC1 on 2 February 1982.*** The studio take of “Baal’s Hymn” was recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; released on 13 February 1982 on the EP David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (RCA BOW 11, #29 UK). “Baal’s Hymn” was later collected on the revised Sound + Vision.

(Baal‘s amazing UK chart placing—#29 on the singles chart for an EP of obscure Brecht—is a testament to British taste or devoted Bowie fandom; hats off in either case. There’s a wonderful unsourced anecdote from Wikipedia: “the EP was released as a 12″ which gained it some play in clubs.” Ah, the delight on the dance floor when some perverse DJ put on “Baal’s Hymn”…)

* Trynka’s new bio is excellent on Baal, and George Tremlett devoted some space to it. By contrast, Edwards/Zanetta, Sandford, Spitz and Buckley all dispatch Baal in a paragraph (Buckley calling Baal a “minor work,” too.)

** Marks, who died last year, was a BBC stalwart, even writing four Doctor Who scripts.

*** Unfortunately only the first 30 minutes (from someone’s off-air videotape) have turned up on Youtube. Why the BBC has never released Baal on either VHS or DVD at some point in the past 30 years is baffling; maybe it’s a rights issue (Brecht’s early poems are public domain, but not Baal). A complete version of the off-air tape is circulating, though the picture/sound is pretty dismal.

Top: Bowie as Baal, video and vinyl, respectively.

23 Responses to Baal’s Hymn

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    I have to admit that I could never get into the BAAL songs. I’ve tried, as I own the vinyl copy. It’s just not to my taste, but I love the fact that it represents another fascinating aspect of Bowie’s career – very unusual. Bizarre that this comes between SM and LD!

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    It’s a pity that a scheduling conflict – there was something more exciting on the other channel – meant that hardly anybody got to see Baal on television.
    I’m old enough to confirm this EP being played in at least one club. I think it was one of the other songs that packed the dance floor though. Can’t remember which one.

    • col1234 says:

      the conflict apparently was with a John Mortimer teleplay starring Olivier, in one of his last roles.

      very excited to hear Baal was actually played at clubs.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        It’s interesting to note how television has changed over the years. A total of three channels, one showing Bowie in an obscure Brecht play, the commercial channel showing a 2-hour plus serious play, and the other channel reserved for the arty, non-mainstream stuff.
        When I say it was played in clubs, I can only vouch for one place and that was one of those Bowie night places. I think it was played in an ‘ironic’ way.
        Does anybody recognise the musicians in the Drowned Girl video?

  3. David L says:

    I like this short clip from Baal, his voice is fantastic:

    CO edit: [wait until tuesday for this one]

    And with that scruffy look, he actually bears a resemblance to his son Duncan Jones.

  4. mike says:

    Can’t really get into this material, but it sure SOUNDS great. What a voice!

  5. giospurs says:

    Wow, I didn’t even know this existed!
    This is where the blog’s going to get really interesting for me. It’s made me appreciate old favourites even more but now it will be exciting to listen to Bowie songs I’ve never heard before!

  6. diamond dog says:

    I have the ep I bought it at the time though must confess I don,t listen at all to these days will dig it out as I liked drowned girl. Cannot say I enjoyed the tv play which I have and I’m sure its the full show and has an interview with tim rice from the period.

  7. peterpotter says:

    Wonderful EP! And, yes, sad that there’s so little about the music or play in print.

    Got a copy of an 80s Australian TV broadcast from a dear ex- a decade ago, and it’s much better than the usual one ‘doing the rounds’, Also saw a pristine tape of it at the Cinemateque in Brighton. Not sure it was quite ‘legal’, but it was certainly better than VHS.

    A slave to the BBC confirmed to me long ago that it’s either a rights issue their end and/or Bowie’s not willing to pay the price they’re asking (as with The Midnight Special). Odd as EMI and the BBC signed a deal years ago saying they’d would allow such things to be released… Still waiting for that, but glad the EP got a digital reissue.

  8. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I am getting more and more prepared to defend the merits of Let’s Dance as part of the Bowie Canon, as I think it’s a fantastic album that people are too down on, but this is nice too. Bowie’s vocals on this one are very nice – they remind me of his old “drama-songs” like Time.

  9. diamond dog says:

    With ya there pinstripe Let’s Dance is a superb album great songs ,production is great and performance top notch. People forget how different this sounded and I would say still sounds fresh. I give blk tie white noise a spin yesterday and that has dated badly and I would go as far to say I prefer never let me down as its devoid of any spark with a truly awful cover of cream. I would go as far as to say tonight is genius compared to blk tie , at least we have loving the alien and blue jean.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Thanks for this entry. I’d always gone along with the popular wisdom that this was just a minor footnote in Bowie’s career. I’ve completely changed my mind now. These songs/performances are really up there.
    The video for Drowned Girl puzzles me. I wonder what they were thinking when they made that. Why make the same video twice?
    Looks like it’s time to brace ourselves for Let’s Dance.

  11. Remco says:

    I’ve just listened to the EP and realized it’s only the second time I’ve played it even though I’ve had it for a few years. Somehow it’s very easy to forget about Baal but I’m glad you’re making me listen to it now becasue the vocal performance is wonderfully dramatic. Like Pristine Hourglass said it’s remniscent of ‘Time’, only with better lyrics.

  12. diamond dog says:

    I dug it out last night and must say I have played it very little ,it was mint. I did not like it at the time I just thought it self indulgent and pretentious , for Bowie that’s saying something. It is very well done and if your like amsterdam I suppose it interesting. Your piece on the work is actually made the work far more important so well done. The play is I suppose worth a look , I remember it embarrasingf watching as a lad with my mum. Much better would have been elephant man but I’ve only a few clips which is criminal.

  13. Maj says:

    I like this sort of music, I own a couple of albums featuring Brecht/Weill songs…so tell me why on earth haven’t I ever listened to this properly yet? Esp. since I think it was originally Bowie who got me hooked on Weimar Germany (and inspired other artists I listen to)?! I guess it’s the same as with Just A Gigolo. Everybody said it was shite (incl. Bowie) so I never watched it until a few months back – silly me! (I quite liked it.)
    In Baal’s case it’s got to do with the fact almost nobody writes about it – and even Pegg who was my only book on Bowie for many years only mentioned it briefly.

    Bowie would have made an excellent torch singer, chansonier or what have you. Well he always was one after all, wasn’t he.
    Baal’s Hymn’s just been added to my iPod (RIP Steve), oh these modern times.

    Thanks for writing about the Baal EP songs in detail! x

  14. Momus says:

    The whole of the Baal production is now on YouTube.

    This was a fantastically influential record for me personally, when I was coming up with “Momus”, the recording project and the persona. It goes back, of course, to Rimbaud (that’s who Brecht had in mind when he wrote the play). But it also predicts and foreshadows a whole strand of neo-cabaret that began in the 1980s: The Pogues, Gavin Friday, Band of Holy Joy…

  15. You can watch the whole of ‘Bowie in Baal’ here:

  16. Freddy Freeloader says:

    Pity he mispronounces ‘Baal’. You’d think having ‘pale’ as a rhyme would have been a clue. Ok, historically it would probably have been something like Baa-aal, but traditionally in English it’s pronounced Bail. Certainly two syllables, not one.

    • Maj says:

      Well, I’m not from an English speaking country but I think there are two options of pronouncing Baal in English. Bail or Ba’al. Thankfully Bowie chose to pronounce Baal like the rest of the world. 😉

  17. K. Nomi had this and lent it my-way; duly taped and savoured
    [lucky the lass or lad who -craving not the steady beat so favoured by the youth these days- happens onto this sui g treasure, in my top 10 DB alvins]

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