May 26, 2011

Neuköln (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1997).

I found I didn’t have a very good relationship with the sax and that lasted right the way through. We’re sort of pretty embittered with each other. It lies there waiting for me to touch it. It defies me to (laughs). I really have to go through traumas to get anything out of it that has anything to do with what I want it to say. So it’s not a steady relationship; it’s not a good one.

David Bowie, 1983 (“Bowie’s Saxophone Struggle,” Steve Weitzman, Musician).

David Bowie began as a saxophone player: it was his only role in his first band, The Konrads, and he plays sax on his debut single, “Liza Jane.” Bowie as saxophonist is a minor theme of his professional life, but it’s a consistent one—Bowie plays the brief, melancholy solo in the coda of “Changes” as well as some of the sax on Let’s Dance. Yet Bowie also knew his limitations on the instrument, which he had never mastered and which he would abandon for years (especially in the late ’60s). He sometimes brought in a pro when a song called for prominent saxophone, like David Sanborn (“Young Americans”) and Ken Fordham (much of Aladdin Sane).

“Neuköln” features one of Bowie’s most ambitious saxophone performances, and the determination of Bowie’s playing here comes as a surprise (Bowie later called it his favorite sax performance on record). After Bowie’s two warm-up runs on sax, it seems as though the pattern of the track is settled, with Bowie’s sax serving as an occasional counterpoint to Eno’s synthesizer patterns (which at the start suggest his “Big Ship” and his work with Cluster), some of which are echoed by a three-note guitar line.

Then (@ 2:45) Bowie begins an extended solo that continues for the remainder of the track. While at first submerged in the mix, the sax builds up steam until (around 3:50) Bowie erupts into a series of shrieking runs inspired by Ornette Coleman or late John Coltrane. Bowie’s sax closes out the track alone, with two wailing falling lines that call back to the faintly mournful synthesizer heard at the start of the track.

During the Ziggy Stardust era, Bowie’s sax playing had been bent on imitating the sound of early rock & roll players (Bowie aiming for the massed-horn sound of Little Richard’s band on tracks like “Watch that Man”) or of R&B/jump bluesmen, with the fat-toned Earl Bostic a primary influence. On “Neuköln,” though, Bowie wanted to go avant-garde, but the limits of his technique and of his allotted time compromise the power of his playing—it’s startling but has no real depth. As with its sisters “Sense of Doubt” and “Moss Garden,” “Neuköln” is built around oppositions: here Bowie’s squawking against a static wash of synthesizers. And as with the other instrumental tracks, there’s also a feeling of dilettantism to it.

Bowie titled “Neuköln” after the southeastern Berlin neighborhood mainly populated  by Turkish gastarbeiters (Bowie dropping an “l” from the name*). This created a persistent myth that Bowie had lived in the neighborhood—he lived in Schöneberg, though to be fair, it’s not that far from Neukölln. And Bowie later claimed he had used a “Turkish modal scale” for his performance,** which makes its sequencing into “Secret Life of Arabia” both fitting and slightly ridiculous.

So several critics have found “Neuköln” to depict the isolation of Turkish immigrants in a harsh city that used them solely for labor, or a musing on Islam in the West (Bowie’s sax does appear to imitate a muezzin call at times), or the fate of a faceless, nameless individual living in the cradle of the Cold War. All of these theories could well be true, and the image of a stateless traveler would be central to Bowie’s next record. But the speculations are also a testament to the brute power of naming. Had Bowie instead called the track “Tiergarten,” would it now be considered a rumination on Nazi persecutions, some veiled depiction of Rosa Luxemberg’s murder? A single word creates worlds.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Used as the fifth movement of Glass’ “Heroes Symphony.”

* The misspelling led to speculation that Bowie was actually referring to the band Neu! and the city of Köln, but it appears to have been just a spelling error on Bowie’s part.

** The only clue Bowie gave as to what this scale was came in a 1983 interview, where he mentioned that the scale had “whole notes where one could take a half note,” suggesting it’s likely the Phrygian dominant scale or some variant.

Top: Don McCullin, “Mother and Son, Bradford,” 1978.

Moss Garden

May 24, 2011

Moss Garden.

Another product of Bowie and Eno playing “Oblique Strategies” and not revealing what their cards were (see “Sense of Doubt”), “Moss Garden” came about through a similar clash of intentions, with Bowie playing chaos (having drawn a card that read “destroy everything”), Eno, order (“change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency”).

The Oblique instructions were a minor ingredient of the mix, as Bowie mainly had intended to create a sonic depiction of Saiho-ji, the “moss temple” of Kyoto, which he had visited while on tour in Japan. He acquired a koto, a six-feet-long, 13-string traditional Japanese instrument, to serve as the main instrumental voice, and played it on the track with an amateur’s inspiration and sense of restraint, mainly keeping to a few repeating scale patterns (compare “Garden”‘s relatively spare lines to “Go Dan Ginuta,” a work by a master of the instrument, Michio Miyagi).

“Moss Garden” hangs between F-sharp and G-sharp, and so hints at being in the key of C#, but as it never falls back to the tonic, it exists in a shadow key. Much of the piece has a similar fluid nature. While “Garden” suggests a clash of West and East, with synthesized airplane drones disrupting the “traditional” musings of the koto, it’s far from that simple—Japan is as much a modernist country as it’s a traditional one (and the sound of an airplane over Japan calls back to the bombers heard in “V-2 Schneider,” though with an even deadlier cargo). The koto itself spans worlds, as it’s able to be tuned to both Japanese and Western “classical” tunings. The piece’s livelier ancestor is Eno’s “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” with its Kyoto-bound jet liners disturbing the wispy beard of a meditating sage miles below, likely sitting in some silent moss garden.

Gorgeous and static, the eye at the center of “Heroes” (and, arguably, the whole “Berlin” project), it’s one of the most successful ambient pieces Eno (and Bowie) created before the start of Eno’s Ambient series in 1978. That said, “Moss Garden” eventually builds to a small climax with a surge of synthesizers in the final minute, capped off with the appearance (4:40) of a synthetic dog barking, its timbre accurate enough to prick my dog’s ears.

Recorded: July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin.

Top: Philip Guston, Ladder, 1978.

Sense of Doubt

May 20, 2011

Sense of Doubt.
Sense of Doubt (promo, 1977).
Sense of Doubt (live, 1978).
Sense of Doubt (broadcast, 1978).

The trilogy within the Berlin trilogy—“Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neuköln”—are a suite as much as they are discrete songs, with the minimalism of “Doubt” giving way to the minor-scale beauties and wildlife humanity of the latter tracks.

Before starting what would become “Sense of Doubt,” Bowie and Brian Eno drew cards from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck. Devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt, it was part-Tarot, part-Monopoly “Chance” cards. Its intention was to spur random, even chaotic creative moves, and Bowie, who spent the late ’70s trying to rethink how to write songs, to write in what he called a new musical language, welcomed another means to clear the board. While Eno would torment the likes of Carlos Alomar with Oblique cards during the Lodger sessions, during “Heroes” Eno only used the deck in the latter stages, when Bowie and Eno were devising the instrumentals.

Bowie and Eno agreed not to reveal their cards until they finished the track. As Bowie’s card read “Emphasize differences,” and Eno’s “Try to make everything as similar as possible,” they went to work unknowingly at loggerheads. “It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next, and he’d do the next…I was trying to smooth it out and make it into one continuum [while] he was trying to do the opposite,” Eno said in 1978.

“Sense of Doubt” seems like a sound-picture of this conflict, with, mixed in the left channel, an unchanging, descending four-note piano passage (C-B-Bb-A, at the bass end of the piano, a bit reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata”) set against the random appearances of synthetic wind and waves. The variables are the reoccurring Chamberlin/synthesizers, which at first seem to be locked in the same cycles as the piano, until the patterns mutate—chords are cut short, a stunning faded-in sequence (1:43) suggests a way out. Bowie in 1978 described the track as pitting an “organic sound” against a falsehood, a synthesizer section pretending to be a horn section, but the “artificial” provides the only glimpses of sunlight in the piece.

In the liner notes for his first ambient record, Music for Airports, Eno wrote “whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities” (my emphasis). He wrote this in September 1978, a year after he made this track, and “Sense of Doubt” seems an early attempt at this scenario—it’s providing background music that’s also a series of disturbing sounds, making it hard to serve as aural wallpaper yet having no real sense of progression. Locking the ominous piano pattern in an apparently endless cycle diminishes its power to surprise, yet its continual reappearance undermines whatever flashes of hope appear.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977 at Hansa, Berlin. Performed during the 1978 tour (often as the pre-intermission finale) and used in Christiane F.

Top: Ute Mahler, “Motofoto für Sibylle,” Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, 1978.

V-2 Schneider

May 17, 2011

V-2 Schneider.
V-2 Schneider (live, 1997).
V-2 Schneider (live, 1997).
V-2 Schneider (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1997).

[A note, from 2016: as several have said over the years, this entry builds much of its arguments on a basic error—that Bowie was referencing the V-2 rocket and not, as seems far more likely, just referencing Florian Schneider’s nickname. This will be rectified in the book, and this entry will be improved—take it as a very flawed first draft. I likely will replace this text with the revised version whenever I’m done with the latter.]

“V-2 Schneider” is Bowie’s poisoned tribute to Florian Schneider, one of Kraftwerk’s founders, with Bowie prefixing Schneider’s name with one of Hitler’s last gambles, the Nazi rockets that fell on London in 1944-45. Though Tony Visconti said the title came together randomly, there seems more to it, at least on some subconscious level, as Bowie’s relations with Kraftwerk were a mingle of admiration and darker projections.

“I think there are two bands who now come close to a neo-Nazi kind of thing: Roxy Music and Kraftwerk,” Bowie told Ben Edmonds in 1976. “It’s not Nazism so much as nationalism. I think it may be too cliched to use the Nazi thing; it’s more nationalistic.” Of course this interview came at the height of Bowie’s Thin White Duke, fascist-sympathizing, cocaine-addled public incarnation, whose public excesses Bowie would later recant. Still, Bowie’s words gave some of the British press free reign to call Kraftwerk fascists, and it seems clear that, at least at the time, Bowie was willfully misreading Kraftwerk for his own ends.

In interviews Bowie would contrast Kraftwerk to his own work. Kraftwerk was emotionless, rigid, pristine, a sealed box, he said, where Bowie was making music that still had a human element in it, particularly the sound of his African-American rhythm section. Something about the Kraftwerk sensibility seemed to jar Bowie as much as it attracted him—not just the crystalline structures of their synthesizer and electronic percussion arrangements, but their utter lack of irony, or an irony so deep that it relegated much of Bowie’s work to the surfaces.

With their dress suits and investment bankers’ haircuts, their deadpan expressions and their absurdly literal lyrics, Kraftwerk seemed to court being called automatons, fascist droners. Coming out of the same milieu, postwar Düsseldorf, that had produced the painter Anselm Kiefer (born two years before Schneider), Schneider and his partner Ralf Hütter were of the generation that, as Werner Herzog said, “had no fathers, only grandfathers,”* coming of age in a country whose recent past had been erased by general consent. By the late ’60s, when Kiefer and Kraftwerk started working, they began picking at the scabs. Kiefer first got attention by photographing and painting himself giving the Nazi salute against various backdrops, while Kraftwerk took ideas from one of the Nazis’ favored composers, Carl Orff, while fetishizing what Richard Witts called “the shiny, new everyday objects of the Nazi period—its cars, its motorways, its short-range radios…and like Kiefer, present[ing] them in a utopian glow…the provocation is that of a society projected as though it is not yet defeated.”

As Witts wrote, Kraftwerk was combining the pre-Nazi utopianism of Bauhaus Germany (which was permissible, as it was now considered the “real” modern Germany), the now-verboten spiritual and technological obsessions of the Nazis (culminating in the Nazis’ desperate efforts to build an atom bomb and affix one to long-range rockets like the V-2, which seemed like a modernist adaptation of Das Rheingold) and, finally, the “miracle” transformation of West Germany into capitalism’s favorite child. These aspirations bled together: the gleaming Trans-Europe Express, celebrated by Kraftwerk, could easily have been a Nazi innovation, crossing a Europe without borders because it was all one cleansed Reich.

Bowie appears to have discovered Kraftwerk while in Los Angeles in 1975, constantly listening to Autobahn while being ferried in his limo. He had wanted them to open his 1976 tour, and when that didn’t work out, Bowie baffled his audiences by playing Kraftwerk as pre-show music.** “Station to Station,” opening with a slow assemblage of train sound effects, was directly inspired by the car-ignition opening of “Autobahn,” yet Bowie was already drawing distinctions, using an “analog” device (a sound effects LP) where Kraftwerk had used synthesizers. And where in “Autobahn” Kraftwerk had depicted a West Germany existing in a present tense of fast cars, superhighways and sunlit valleys, Bowie had brought back the sound of the train, the transport of wartime Europe, carrying troops going West and prisoners going East.

Kraftwerk’s masterpiece Trans-Europe Express (recorded around the time Bowie cut Low, released in March 1977) seems like their answer record to “Station.” In the title track Kraftwerk reclaims the train: it’s now another figure removed from history, cleaned up, modernized, humming along contentedly, rolling across the borders that had been fought over (and rewritten) for centuries. To top it off, they name-checked Bowie and Iggy Pop in the lyric.

So is “V-2 Schneider” Bowie’s retaliation, a little barb reminding Schneider that he was the heir of Nazis? The track opens with what sounds like an incoming wave of airplanes, and “Schneider” isn’t as much a Kraftwerk imitation (Low‘s “Speed of Life” is far more in their debt) as it’s a defacing or questioning of their sound, with its distorted, off-beat saxophone hooks and the track’s centering on a tensed, quivering muscle of a bassline by George Murray. There are two obvious call-backs: Dennis Davis’ snare fills, which seem like analog equivalents to the synth percussion fills on “Trans Europe Express,” and the vocoder-sounded title phrase, which coheres near the fadeout after being a murk of vowel sounds for much of the track.

(Keeping with the make-do improvisations of the “Heroes” sessions, the vocal wasn’t actually done by a vocoder. Visconti said that Bowie had been “too impatient” to track down a vocoder, so “we had a cheap little synthesizer in the studio and found sounds that had a vowel shape that resembled: Vee-Too-Schnei-Der. The idea was to use those four separate patches for each note and David would supply just the consonants with his voice filtered electronically (all the ‘body’ taken out), i.e.: V-T-Sch_D…and it kind of worked…”)

Bowie’s saxophone work, starting off-beat and mainly keeping there, was an error, Bowie missing his cue while doing overdubs. However, recalling one of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards about honoring your mistakes, he didn’t recut the saxophone track. Compared with the rest of the “Heroes” instrumentals, “V-2 Schneider” is more conventional in structure (after the intro, the track is basically a series of 4-bar horn or guitar passages and 8-bar vocal “choruses”) and is far more of a band track. A fresh challenge to Kraftwerk or yet another misreading of them, it’s one of Bowie’s most compelling instrumentals in any case.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Used as the closing movement of Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony. Performed live in 1997—a recording from the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 6 October 1997 was issued as a b-side of “Pallas Athena” (it’s the latter of the two live links above).

Of great help with this entry was Richard Witts’ “Vorsprung durch technik – Kraftwerk and the the British fixation with Germany,” reprinted as Chapter 8 of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop, ed. Albiez & Pattie; Continuum, 2011.

*Florian Schneider’s father, the architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, had served in the German army during the war, though not a Nazi party member. His ’50s work, including the Manesmann Hochhaus, was associated with the “Year Zero” movement of rejecting the Nazi obsession with neo-classicism and championing the “lost” modernism of the Bauhaus school.

**Edmonds, attending an early show in Vancouver in ’76, watched as Bowie’s audience at first were intrigued by Kraftwerk, then grew restive and finally angry, mocking the vocals, clapping to drown the music out.

Top: Kraftwerk, promotional photo for Trans-Europe Express, 1977. Schneider is first from left.

The Secret Life of Arabia

May 13, 2011

The Secret Life of Arabia.

The sequencing of “The Secret Life of Arabia,” an album-ending track that comes as a baffling tonal shift, the song incompatible with everything else on “Heroes,” works if you consider “Neuköln” the true album closer and “Arabia” a trailer for Bowie’s upcoming “exotica” LP (the song could’ve been titled “David Bowie Will Return In Lodger“). For listeners at the time, lacking the benefit of retrospect, the appearance of the goofy “Arabia” served as a tasteless mood-killer or, for some, a happy respite from the somberness of “Heroes”‘ instrumental side.

Mainly assembled during the early “Heroes” band sessions, “Arabia” is a throwback to the improvised funk workouts of Young Americans and Station to Station, with Carlos Alomar getting his only songwriting credit on the record (the two main guitar riffs, the harshly-strummed opening and the disco riff that makes the choruses swing, are classic Alomar: concise and rhythmically incisive). “Arabia” also has one of the LP’s best grooves, with George Murray in particularly inspired form (the Clash’s “The Call Up” sounds like a sped-up variation of the backing track).

It’s a D minor vamp that mainly consists of a pair of choruses colliding together, while two six-bar verses with Bowie in self-mocking form (“I walk through the desert song when the heroine dieeees“—it foreshadows Mick Jagger’s equally bizarre Bedouin reverie in “Emotional Rescue”) are stranded in the middle. “Arabia” ends with a shameless bit of padding, a four-bar refrain repeated nine times (with handclaps and sometimes a vocal hook) and then what threatens to be nearly the entire song replaying again, only faded out at a random moment.

Bowie’s vocal seems a checklist of past affectations, from the out-of-nowhere Cockney “uh-RY-bee-uh” to the sub-woofer vocal line mixed under some phrases (like “secret life ever green”) to the calisthenics of his opening lines, Bowie stringing out the title phrase over an octave jump (“the-SEE-CRET”) and fall (“life” to “bia”). There’s an infectious goony joy to much of it, helped when Antonia Maass (and possibly Eno and Visconti) turns up on backing vocals, somehow keeping a straight face.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Covered by Nina Hagen and Billy Mackenzie, who admirably out-camps Bowie.

Top: Fassbinder, In a Year With 13 Moons, 1978.


May 11, 2011

“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (Marc, 1977).
“Heroes” (Top of the Pops, 1977).
“Heroes” (Musikladen, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in West Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.


Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.

Beauty and the Beast

April 29, 2011

Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beat (12″ edit, 1977).
Beauty and the Beast (live, 1978).
Beauty and the Beast (Musikladen, 1978).

I asked them what they thought of Bowie’s interpretation. They said it was not rock n roll. It was cabaret. Behind my shades I can imagine him. There in Berlin. In the abandoned section. I imagine him stumbling through old boxes and props in the street. I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead.

Patti Smith, “Heroes: A Communiqué,” Hit Parader, April 1978.

“This song is somewhat schizophrenic in nature,” Bowie quipped before going into “Beauty and the Beast” on a German TV show in May 1978, but a better diagnosis would have been bipolar: “Heroes,” side A at least, is the manic side to Low‘s depression, particularly with its crackpot opening track.

“Beast” opens in grandiosity, like a parody of Roxy Music’s “The Thrill of It All” or Bowie’s own “Station to Station.” There’s eight measures of Bowie playing a simple pattern on the bass end of a piano, just a dyad (mainly E-G) and a single note (usually A), a pattern that occurs throughout the song. There’s a nudge of Robert Fripp’s treated guitar in the third bar (very similar to his work on Eno’s “Sky Saw”). Then George Murray’s bass (and a repeating pattern of octaves on the piano) builds momentum until Bowie’s entrance, an “oooooh!” glissando spanning over five bars and neatly tumbling into the opening verse.

Which is cracked and jittery, sung by a man reduced to a series of broken movements. “Walking down a by-road, singing the song,” Bowie begins, his vocal, though kept to a two-note range, sounding strained. Later verses find Bowie moving to his lower register, running his lines together, building to hysteria (the brief chorus) or mockery, or both.

Patti Smith’s review of “Heroes” for Hit Parader quoted a group of German teenagers who kicked Bowie out of “rock n roll,” calling him cabaret. And sure, “Beast” makes their case: it is cabaret, a piece of avant-garde pop with backing vocals by the Berlin club singer Antonia Maass, who at one point swoons out “Liebling!” and other times sounds like a hawk shrieking. The counterweight is Carlos Alomar, who does what he can to keep “Beast” a dance song, almost against Bowie’s will: there’s a funk riff buried under one of Fripp’s groaning solos, while the sly line that crops up after “Liebling” could have been the central riff of the whole song.

“Beast” mainly keeps to one chord, an A seventh*, with a move to C and C7 only on the “I wanted to believe” eight-bar bridge. It sums up how Bowie, by his “Berlin” period, had rethought his writing methods, moving away from the harmonic adventurousness of his early work. Bowie was a musical autodidact, with many of his early songs coming out of experiments on the guitar or piano, Bowie pitting various chords against each other. Or, while listening to Ronson or Alomar play guitar, Bowie would fasten onto whatever random progression intrigued him, whether it made musical “sense” or no.

So Bowie’s songs from 1966 to 1975 are filled with intricate, at times bizarre structures: a trifle like “Join the Gang” has five key changes; the dippy blues “The Gospel According to Tony Day” has a thirteenth in it; “Changes” is a tumble of altering time signatures; the Space Oddity LP has so many augmented and inverted chords it seems to have been designed as a guitarist’s advanced training module.

By the time he wrote “Beast,” Bowie had discarded this type of songwriting (whether because he couldn’t do it anymore, or was just bored with it) to concentrate on establishing a groove and directing a series of actions to play out over it, whether an odd vocal or one of Fripp’s Eno-fied guitar solos. Bowie’s lyrics had changed as well: no more characters or fractured stories, just a series of non-sequiturs and cryptic jokes that sang well together (Tony Visconti’s regular curse of exasperation during the LP sessions—“someone fuck a priest!”—inspired one of the best lines).

Some, like Thomas Seabrook, argue that “Beast”‘s lyric is an exhumation of the Thin White Duke, Bowie reviving the days of black magic and finally burying his book. I think it’s a bit more random than that, but there’s certainly something cold and malevolent about the track in its final form. “Something in the air,” Bowie sings, calling back to Thunderclap Newman. “Slaughter in the air, protest on the wind.” Despite his dedication to the random, Bowie was still storytelling. Bowie issued “Beast” as the follow-up single to “Heroes” and it flopped: even in a year of portent and noise like 1977, “Beast” proved a bit too much to take.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. A 12″ single with a longer edit, c/w “Fame,” was released in the US in December 1977, while also released as a 7″ single c/w “Sense of Doubt” (RCA PB 1190) in January 1978. Performed throughout 1978, with a version from Philadelphia on Stage. The live versions are a credit to Adrian Belew, who had to play in one go the various guitar parts that Fripp had overdubbed and Eno and Bowie had pieced together.

*According to the sheet music. Some tabbers have it as a B-flat.

Top: William Newton, “Eeyore’s Birthday Party,” April 1978.


April 26, 2011

Blackout (live, 1978).

In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head

…”The question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?” Eno said. “Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.”

Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian,” The New Yorker, 25 April 2011.

Time again to praise Dennis Davis. Davis’ drums, distorted by Tony Visconti’s Harmonizer (see “Breaking Glass”), are the sonic trademark of much of Low. By contrast, Visconti used the Harmonizer sparingly on “Heroes,” and only at the mixing stage, so Davis’ drums were mainly cut live, with few overdubs. “Heroes” is the sound of Davis playing to the room.

It helped that it was a colossal room, Hansa Tonstudio 2, which had been built to house a 150-person orchestra. Rather than using a drum booth, Davis set up his kit on a riser that, in a past life, had been used for choirs. At one end of the room, sitting about five feet off the floor, Davis could see George Murray down to his right (whenever Davis used his kick drum, Murray felt like he was being hit in the face), Carlos Alomar to his left, and Bowie, on piano, directly in front of him. Everyone but Davis used “gobos” (isolation panels); Davis’ drums instead were meant to fill the room. At the far end of the room was another microphone, intended to pick up the aftershock of Davis’ drumming. It’s easy to see what happened: Davis soon became the bandleader, conducting with his wrists and his feet.

Davis also had expanded his kit. He found a set of congas in the corner of the studio, hauled some timpani up on the riser. There are times on “Heroes” when Davis sounds like a percussive orchestra, or his fills seem a painstaking series of drum overdubs. But it’s just him, most of his drumming cut live, like the series of crazy fills Davis does twice on “Blackout” (cued by Bowie’s “get me to the doctor!” at 1:01 and 2:02), where he spins like the second hand of a clock, moving from toms to congas back to toms. There’s the little fills Davis throws in throughout, as if providing regular infusions of oxygen, or his move to what sounds like cowbell on the “get me off the streets” verse. And during it all Davis keeps perfect time. A human jazz metronome, Visconti later called him: playing flawlessly, yet never the same way twice.

“Blackout” is as abrasive as “Heroes” gets—the track seems to have been battled over by waves of armies. The verses are a series of assaults, with something resembling a chorus appearing only a minute-half in. Robert Fripp’s guitar, which early on calls back to his solo on Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire,” later approaches dog whistle frequencies; it seems bent on undermining Bowie’s vocal. Eno’s synthesizer burbles in the right channel. The backing vocals are conscripted to keep the lead from disintegrating (Bowie seems to falter while singing “kiss me in the rain,” as if he’s so drained he can barely form the words—the backing singers (Bowie and Visconti) keep at him, but he stumbles, finally inching out “in…the…rain.”) Pieces of old Bowie songs are churned up—Alomar’s guitar (kept to the left channel, he sounds like the only sane man left in the room) offers a riff that seems a marriage of “Suffragette City” and “Boney Maronie,” while the “chorus” section reworks “Stay.”

Bowie sings long, meandering lines that he severs with shouts and mutters. It’s an even more bizarre and mannered performance than “Joe the Lion”—there’s the ranted-out “I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at STAKE!” or, even crazier, the lines where Bowie seems to be attempting a New York accent: “I’m getting some SKIN EXPOSHUH to the BLACK-OUT!”

“Blackout”‘s lyric was another live-at-the mic production, though the lines are so deliberately random that it’s likely Bowie did some cut-up experiments to get a few of them. The lyric is said to be inspired by all sorts of disasters, like Bowie, agitated after the appearance of his wife Angie, passing out from drink and being hospitalized in late 1976. Bowie, perhaps mischievously, later said the song was a reaction to the New York City power outage of July ’77. And “Blackout” feels like an urban song, all crowds and paranoia, with the streets of Berlin subbing for the purgatorial Los Angeles of Station to Station or “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”

Still, delving too much into the ways and means of the lyric seems beside the point. In the final mix, Bowie’s vocal, often harried by Fripp’s guitar, is just another contributor of incidental noise, the equivalent of one of Eno’s synthesizer lines; it’s one more signal in an overloaded frequency.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. The version from Philadelphia, May 1978, collected on Stage, is arguably the definitive version of the song: Bowie’s vocal is tremendous and Davis sounds like a monster.

Note: most of the information on the recording of “Heroes” is from various interviews Tony Visconti has given over the years (particularly one with Sound on Sound in 2004) as well as his autobiography.

Top: The Burger Bistro adapts to the New York City power outage, 13 July 1977.

Joe the Lion

April 22, 2011

Joe the Lion.
Joe the Lion (live, 1983).
Joe the Lion (remix, 1991).
Joe the Lion (live, 1995).

“Heroes” gets less critical respect than its sister record, Low,* despite the two’s comparable qualities, despite “Heroes” having the epic title-track single, despite “Heroes” being the only album of the so-called “Berlin trilogy” to actually be recorded in Berlin. Like eldest children, Low made its silver by coming first: “Heroes,” with a similar sequencing (“pop songs” side A/”ambient” side B) and released just ten months after Low, couldn’t help but seem like Low Pt. 2. It’s also an even more abrasive, more manic record than Low, reflecting the speed and random methods of its creation.

Heroes” was the closest Bowie ever came to making a free jazz record. The rhythm tracks, cut by Bowie’s usual marksmen Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray, were nearly all single takes, taped over two or three days at the start of the sessions, and were cut live at Hansa in its cavernous Tonstudio 2, a room once used for Nazi Party functions, and with a control-room view of the Wall. Bowie, building on the keyboard work he’d done on Lust for Life and the first Iggy tour of 1977, did all the piano tracks himself.

The rhythm tracks came out of jam sessions and a series of in-studio rehearsals, much of which Tony Visconti taped in their entirety, marking whenever he heard a good riff or interesting chord progression. The speed of the work stunned even Brian Eno, who later said he was bewildered that it could be so easy, and the pace continued with the overdubbing.

Robert Fripp flew in one evening from New York, sat down in the studio, plugged his guitar into Eno’s EMS synthesizer and added lead lines to tracks that he’d never heard before, not knowing any of the chords, and getting only oblique advice from Bowie (who’d yet to write lyrics or vocal melodies). His work completed over about six hours (all of the lead guitars on “Heroes” and five other tracks, including “Joe the Lion”), Fripp left Berlin a day later. He didn’t even have time to get a drink.

Art doesn’t have a purpose. It’s a free spot in society, where you can do anything.

Chris Burden.

Bowie said he wanted on “Heroes” to discard narrative or anything resembling “real life” in his lyrics, but “Joe the Lion” was clearly inspired by the American body artist Chris Burden, notorious for such works as being bolted to a gallery floor between two buckets of water, each with a live 110-volt electric line submerged in it, so that a viewer could, if they wished, kick over a bucket and kill Burden (Prelude to 220, or 110, 1971); being crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen (Trans-Fixed, 1974); and having his friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle (Shoot, Santa Ana Gallery, 1971). (Bowie references the latter two works in his lyric.)

Burden once said that the process of making art was an art itself, a concept in tune with what Bowie was doing around the time of “Heroes.” Savaged at the time by critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes,** who considered his antics bullying, ludicrous and the dead-end of 20th Century avant garde art, Burden’s work in retrospect seems to be stranded in adolescence, though it made him a natural inspiration for a rock song.  (Ian goes into far more detail in a very nice piece, unfavorably comparing Burden to the (I agree) superior artist Marina Abramović.)

It’s unclear how familiar Bowie was with Burden’s work. Even if it was only a couple of newspaper articles, it didn’t really matter, as the mere idea of Burden, along with Iggy Pop, served as a totem for Bowie during “Heroes”. A reserved, mannered, middle-class Englishman at heart, a redactor by habit, Bowie was fascinated by the likes of Burden or Iggy, all of the wild men raving on stage. “Made of iron!” Bowie sings with admiration in “Joe.” Bowie, knowing he couldn’t match Burden in raw power or bloody-minded endurance, instead translated him: he would use the idea of an artist like Burden as a means of singing.

With Pop’s vocal improvisations on Lust for Life as a direct inspiration, Bowie went into the vocal booth without any lyrics. He would come up with a line or two, then immediately sing them onto tape. So there’s no coherence to how Bowie sings “Joe,” which is basically two 24-bar verses with the “it’s Monday” interlude—Bowie dips in and out of the flow, bellowing the title phrase in a smear of vowel sounds (“JOOOOE” blending into “LION”), leaving whole bars empty, then jamming in so many words that they overflow (“on the house and he was/a fortune teller he said”), and coming up with miniature refrains. The lyric is a transcript of Bowie’s mind at work, so the initial “couple of drinks” soon becomes “couple of dreams” which in turn births “you get up and sleep.” Then there’s the “interlude” verse, completely improvised at the mic, which has some of the most inspired singing Bowie did in the decade:

It’s Monday.
You slither down the greasy pipe—so far so good—no one SAW you
hobble over any FREEway
you will be like your DREEEEEEEEEEEEEAMS

It’s nothing brilliant, lyrically, but Bowie sings it—starting, as Thomas Seabrook wrote, in the tones of a newscaster, then in two bars building up to the tumbling run of words that initially peaks with “SAW you,” and culminating in the marvelous, hoarsely sung “DREAMS”—like someone trying to cut his way out of a box, or recounting a nightmare while it’s still happening. Throughout the song there’s a demented bravado to the vocal, furthered in the last verse when Bowie and Visconti add “Yeah! Yeah!s” (Bowie’s phrasing toward the fadeout seems to echo Johnny Rotten’s at the end of “Holidays In the Sun,” though the latter was released after “Heroes” was finished).***

Battling over all of this are Fripp and Alomar’s guitars, which were processed and distorted by Eno (live) and Visconti (later): the guitars are mixed into each other and tear at each other. One gains ground for a moment, the other mocks it. Bowie’s only guidance to Fripp was for him to play in a bluesy style, like Albert King, which possibly was the impetus for the three-note hook that’s one of the two basic riffs carried throughout the song. Murray and Davis, as always, keep everyone from flying apart, building an understated but supple foundation. Just a phenomenal song, a peak of Bowie’s late ’70s work.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live occasionally in 1983 (the murky recording linked above is from a rehearsal on 26 April 1983, with Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead) and throughout 1995. Bowie had Mark Richard do a pointless remix for the Ryko reissue of “Heroes” in 1991, beefing up the (already Harmonized) drums: I think Seabrook’s on the money when he speculated the remix was meant to sound like Bowie’s then-current project Tin Machine.

* One fairly recent example: Low is the #1 record of Pitchfork’s Best 100 Albums of the 1970s; “Heroes” didn’t even make the list.

** Hughes perversely added to the legend by misreporting in his 1972 Time article that Burden’s colleague, the Austrian artist Rudolf Schwarzkolger, had amputated his own penis. It wasn’t true, but the story stuck (& it foreshadows the urban legends that would build around heavy metal acts, like Alice Cooper allegedly biting the head off a chicken).

*** “I guess you’ll buy a gun/you’ll buy it secondhand.” There’s also a flaw (at least on the CD) at 2:38, with the left channel of the stereo mix vanishing for a second.

Top: Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974; Shoot, 1971. Details on Burden’s work from C. Carr’s On Edge: Performance at the Edge of the Twentieth Century.

Sons of the Silent Age

April 19, 2011

Sons of the Silent Age.
Sons of the Silent Age (live, 1987).
Sons of the Silent Age (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1996).

“Sons of the Silent Age,” the only song Bowie had written before he began recording “Heroes” in July 1977, is the odd man out on that record. It seems like a latter-day visitation of faded Bowie obsessions, the return of homo superior and the Bewlay Brothers.*

There’s a revivalist feel to much of “Sons,” sometimes literally: the chorus melody sounds inspired by one of Mick Ronson’s guitar solos in “Width of a Circle,” while Tony Visconti’s harmonies also call back to Man Who Sold the World. For much of the lyric, Bowie seems to have picked through old songs for spare images: the Gnosticism of “Station to Station” (“they never die, they just go to sleep one day”), the urban dreamscapes of “Diamond Dogs” and “Warszawa” and “Five Years,” even plastic rock stars (the Sons listen to the very Burroughsian “Sam Therapy and King Dice”). And with generally fine results: the last verse in particular is some of the eeriest writing Bowie’s done since MWSTW.

“Sons” is sequenced well on “Heroes,” serving as a breather after the epic title track and before the onslaught of the side-closer “Blackout.” Yet taken on its own, “Sons” is an odd, schizophrenic track, with the verses and chorus seemingly from different songs, each temporarily eclipsing the other; the 4-bar theme led by Bowie’s saxophone serves as a scene-changer.

The verses are harmonically stable (just moving back and forth between two augmented chords), are sung by Bowie in his Cockney voice (which helps flesh out the rhyme scheme, making the title phrase “sons of the SYlent AYdj”) in a near-conversational tone, and the lyric is surreal and possibly cut-up derived. By contrast the chorus, which spans much of the key of E-flat, is sung in Bowie’s “epic” register, has elaborate vocal harmonies, a simple, reassuring lyric and an overall grandiose tone. When Bowie revived “Sons” on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, he gave the chorus to Peter Frampton, which seemed fitting enough.

Recorded July to mid-August 1977, Hansa Tonstudio 2, Berlin. Performed throughout the 1987 tour, and used as the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony, composed 1996, recorded 1997 by The American Composers Orchestra.

* A marvelous insight in the comments by Ian W. Hill: a primary influence on “Sons” is Jacques Brel, particularly “Les Vieux” (Les vieux ne meurent pas, ils s’endorment un jour et dorment trop longtemps”).

Top: Michael Schmidt, “Berlin-Wedding, 1976-1978.”