Between 1977 and 1979, David Bowie released three albums that came to be known as “The Berlin Trilogy.” Despite the fact that only one of them was fully recorded in that German city, these albums reflect the influence of German “Krautrock” bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! & Can. In the past when I’ve listened to these albums, I enjoyed a lot of the music but never completely embraced them. Fortunately, in the past few years I’ve grown to love the aforementioned Krautrock bands. Also, after finally discovering the beauty of his prior album, Station To Station (which I discussed in the previous post), I was primed and ready for the non-commercial charms of this trio of albums…and I was not disappointed. All of these albums were produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti (who worked with him on several of his earlier records), but the most notable addition on this trilogy is former Roxy Music sonic architect, Brian Eno, who brings all kinds of synthesizers and other strange sounds to the proceedings.
Beginning Low (1977) with the instrumental track “Speed Of Life” was a bold statement. At a time when most artists still opened their albums with the most chart-friendly song, Bowie was clearly interested in artistic expression over commercial success. This is a great tune that stomps & swings, with lots of Eno’s synth treatments and a couple of catchy guitar hooks. It’s followed by “Breaking Glass,” a brief song featuring abstract lyrics, a great beat with synth washes and a fantastic guitar hook. It was co-written with drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray, which explains the cool rhythm throughout. Later that year, singer Nick Lowe (still a relative unknown) recorded an EP called Bowi, with tongue in cheek, as a response to this Bowie album title. I wonder if he was inspired by this track when he recorded his now-classic early single, “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass,” the following year. “What In The World,” a driving rocker with squealing guitar, has an early Roxy Music feel, which isn’t surprising considering Eno’s contributions.
The first truly breathtaking song here is “Sound And Vision,” with an amazingly funky rhythm (thanks to a killer bass line) and great percussion and synth effects. I love how his voice alternates between low & high, and the way he harmonizes with his own voice, as well as the vocal hook at “blue, blue, electric blue.” In an earlier post I mentioned Bowie acolyte Edwyn Collins (who had a mid-90s hit with “A Girl Like You”). I’m also a fan of his pre-solo work with the band Orange Juice, and now it’s clear to me that much of their recorded output can be traced to this particular Bowie song. I love making these kinds of musical connections. The most straightforward song here is the piano-driven “Be My Wife,” which sounds like his earlier glam-rock records. It’s very sparse, with just one verse & chorus repeated once, and has some of his most simple and heartfelt lyrics (“Please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife”). Two songs with steady beats and cool sonic effects that didn’t make huge impressions on me are “Always Crashing The Same Car” and “A New Career In A New Town.” The former is good but not as essential as the first four songs, and the latter just didn’t stick with me after numerous listens (although I do love the pulsing electronic rhythm).
[David Bowie - "Sound And Vision"]
The album closes with four songs that are essentially instrumentals. My favorite of these is “Warszawa” (it does have some chanted vocals, but they don’t come in until about 4 minutes into the song). It’s moody and eerie, with a haunting synth melody that sounds like a flute. It’s obvious that this was the blueprint for Gary Numan on his slower, more atmospheric songs. Also, one of my musical heroes, Joe Jackson, used this sound to great effect on songs from his 1994 album, Night Music. I think Joe was listening to the next song, “Art Decade,” at that time as well. It continues the eerie feel of the previous track with another haunting tune. Apparently the title was a play on the term “art deco,” but I think it’s also a pun for “art decayed.” It didn’t seem like he had a sense of humor during this era, but apparently he did. “Weeping Wall” is lighter and airier than the two previous songs, with lots of percussion flourishes and a pulsing, motorik rhythm. “Subterraneans” closes the album with a spacey, Pink Floyd vibe (circa The Dark Side Of The Moon), especially with that saxophone melody. There are a few abstract lyrics, but it’s more about creating a mood than telling a story. This is an album that rewards listeners with each listen. As much as I’ve come to love it the last two weeks, I expect it will continue to grow on me in the coming years.
The only album recorded completely in Berlin, “Heroes” (1977) follows the template set by Low, but smoothes out some of the rough edges, and even includes one of his most beloved songs. Also, King Crimson leader Robert Fripp adds his inimitable lead guitar sound throughout the album. Before discussing the music, I’ve always been curious about why the album title has those quotation marks. Is he saying that the heroes in question are not really heroes in his eyes? And who are these people? Let’s jump to the title track, “Heroes,” which is the third song on the album. It seems to be about two lovers who are constantly torn apart no matter how much they want to be together. The final verse implies that they’re from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, which might explain the obstacles in their relationship. Regardless of the meaning behind the song, the music is amazing. The tune is super-catchy, the synth heavy production is stellar, and Bowie’s vocal performance is among his best. It’s rightly considered a classic.
Now back to the start of the album, and opening track “Beauty And The Beast.” This song takes the fun, funky groove of “TVC15” to a new level, adding in slightly distorted vocals and a cool vocal hook (“You can’t say no to the beauty and the beast”). Talking Heads would soon be incorporating this funky sound into their music. “Joe The Lion” is another excellent song. His voice has a manic, crazed and yet controlled sound. One of the highlights of this album for me was “Sons Of The Silent Age.” It starts off like one of Roxy Music’s dramatic tunes with blasting sax, but the rest of the tune is midtempo with swirling synth sounds and dramatic rhythms. I love the watery vocal sound when he sings the title, and there’s a great hook in the chorus (“Sons of sound and sons of sound”). I don’t really know what this one’s about (I guess that could apply to most of this trilogy), but this song made a lasting impression. Eno is all over the fast rockin’ “Blackout,” but other than the “kiss you in the rain” refrain, there’s nothing terribly catchy here.
The second side of the original LP consisted of four instrumentals before ending with a vocal track. The saxophone melody on “V-2 Schneider” sets it apart from the obvious influence of Kraftwerk, but even the title references their founding member, Florian Schneider. This one is all about mood. “Sense Of Doubt” is actually scary (but in a good way), especially that descending 4-note melody. The synth part reminds me of Genesis’ “Watcher Of The Skies,” but like the previous track, it’s more “sound effect” than song. “Moss Garden” is given a Japanese feel with Bowie playing koto. It’s a peaceful tune with slow whooshing synths and chirpy sound effects. There are more creepy sound effects on “Neuköln,” with synth and sax intertwining. At times the keyboard tone, as well as the whale sounds at the end, recalls Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” The album closes with the funky and mildly hypnotic “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” a vocal tune with a chugging groove and a great Bernard Edwards-esque bass line. Like its predecessor, this is not an easy album to digest, but its beauty is revealed a little more with each listen. I love it now, and I expect that to grow over the years.
The final album in the trilogy, Lodger (1979), has several qualities that set it apart from the previous two. First, there are no instrumentals among its 10 tracks. The Krautrock influence is less noticeable, with other musical flavors popping up. Also, taking over lead guitar duties is Adrian Belew, who was working with Talking Heads at the time, and would join Robert Fripp in a revamped King Crimson a couple of years later. He has a distinct style that is instantly recognizable on several of these songs. The album opens with “Fantastic Voyage,” a pretty midtempo ballad with a strong vocal performance but downbeat lyrics (“We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression”). “African Night Flight” is a percussive track with processed piano sounds and Bowie tearing through the lyrics at a breakneck pace as though his life depended on it. Belew would use this rapid-fire vocal technique on King Crimson songs like “Elephant Talk” and “Thela Hun Ginjeet.” The vocal hook here is “One of these days, one of these days, gotta get a word through one of these days.” I enjoyed the chugging & galloping rhythm in “Move On.” Bowie uses his crooner voice early on, growing more manic later in the song (“I stumble like a blind man, can’t forget you, can’t forget you”). It’s not a major song but I love his vocal performance, especially the layered harmonies.
“Yassassin” floored me from the first time I heard it. It has a sort-of reggae feel with a Middle Eastern flair in the vocals, and a great violin melody played by Simon House. “Red Sails” is a driving rocker with a thumping beat that could’ve fit on an earlier album like Diamond Dogs. I love that Belew guitar squeal. I bet this tore the house down in concert. Is it possible that Talking Heads influenced Bowie on “D.J.”? Sonically & rhythmically it has the hallmarks of those art-rockers (whose catalog I covered last year), but the chorus (“I am a D.J., I am what I play”) is pure Bowie. One of the highlights of this album is “Look Back In Anger,” a driving rock song with a memorable backing vocal hook (“Waiting so long, I’ve been waiting so, waiting so long”) and Bowie’s pleading when he sings “Look back in anger!” Dennis Davis’ drumming is the engine behind this song. The guitar tone during the instrumental break reminds me of David Gilmour on his 1978 self-titled solo album.
“Boys Keep Swinging” recalls “Heroes,” but with a different vocal approach (“When you’re a boy, you can wear a uniform”). There’s a cool, angular Belew guitar solo, and I love the backing vocals by Bowie & Visconti. The steady, stomping 4/4 beat and monotone vocals on “Repetition,” as well as lyrics that address the everyday/mundane, point yet again to David Byrne and Talking Heads. Who was influencing who at this point? Album closer “Red Money” is a new favorite. I like the funky groove, the guitar textures from Belew and Carlos Alomar, and the robotic delivery of lyrics like “Project cancelled, tumbling central, Red money.” The bonus track on the Rykodisc CD, “I Pray, Olé,” with its memorable “Can you make, can you make it through” hook, is a pretty good song that would’ve fit on the album, but isn’t essential. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but this is yet another album that became more enjoyable each time I played it, and I expect that to continue in the future.
These three records may not have been planned as a trilogy, but they do work as a cohesive trio even though each album has its own unique charms. I certainly can’t choose a favorite. Low introduced the sonic template, as well as the mixture of vocal & instrumental tracks, and has a few amazing song. “Heroes” took it further, but even though I love several of those creepy instrumentals, I have to be in a certain mood to really enjoy those tracks. Lodger has more consistently great songs, but it’s not as sonically consistent as the other two. I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not I have a favorite. The important thing is that I now know these albums better than ever, and this era of his career is no longer a question mark for me. Now it’s time for me to revisit his first few albums of the ‘80s, including his biggest commercial success as well as one that I’ve often considered my favorite Bowie album. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up against new favorites like Station To Station and The Berlin Trilogy. I’ll be back soon to let you know how that turns out.