Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now
Oh I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird
(© 2016 David Bowie – Lazarus)
Today was supposed to be David Bowie’s 70th birthday, but on January 10th 2016 David Bowie died, 2 days after his 69th birthday (the same day of the release of his latest album Blackstar). At the time I didn’t write stories yet and I (therefore) didn’t have this blog. David Bowie hasn’t been the subject of an article yet, which is completely undeserving. Almost no-one is more deserving than David Bowie. Because of the upcoming 1-year anniversary of his death and the fact that both Low and “Heroes“ are both 40 years old this year, I give you David Bowie and what he/his music meant to me.
David Bowie Is
At the beginning of January 2016 I ordered Blackstar through davidbowie.com. On December 25th, 2015 I had visited the (beautiful) exhibition David Bowie Is at the Groningen museum, together with my eldest son Rachid, and was reminded of the importance and uniqueness of David Bowie. The then just released song Lazarus made it even more clear: a world-class song with, as was evidenced later, lyrics that contained quite a number of hints to what became global knowledge on January 10th, 2016. As a consequence of the exhibit and the song I was on the search for old Bowie material and found quite a lot on Youtube. Looking back on my timeline on Facebook, I see that a lot of messages concerned Bowie, among which (now deleted) beautiful images of the last night of the Isolar II tour in Tokyo on 12/12/1978.
Sound And Vision
Don’t you wonder sometimes / About sound and vision
Blue, blue, electric blue / That’s the colour of my room
Where i will live / Blue, blue
Pale blinds drawn all day / Nothing to do, nothing to say
I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And i will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude, over my head
Don’t you wonder sometimes / About sound and vision
(© 1977 David Bowie – Sound And Vision)
As stated in my album top 50, numbers 10 to 1, my first real introduction to Bowie took place in 1977 when I was watching Toppop and Sound And Vision was played. This was something else! The song was accompanied by a clip with fascinating images (which turned out to be from the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth). I clearly remember images of Bowie in front of a mirror. And that music! The kick-off with the 3 snaredrum-beats, the long intro, the funky guitar, the bass, those synthesizers, the incredible drumsound. I was heavily impressed.
The song is easily identifiable by the drumsound and comes off of the fantastic album Low; the first (commercially available) album which features a digital pitch shifter, a Harmonizer in this case.
A pitch shifter changes the set of frequencies of a sound and combines it with the original sound, resulting in a full and alienating sound. Tony Visconti (regular producer until 1981 and again from 2002) decided to use the pitch shifter on the snaredrum; a genius move.
About that time, Bowie asked whether I’d mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into his headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer’s drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn’t do it in the mix, we did it live!
(Tony Visconti, regular producer, 2007)
After all this time I still get goose bumps every time I hear Sound And Vision and that sound. That song and the album Low have proved to be a major influence and inspiration. Really, this story should be ‘limited’ to Sound And Vision and Low alone; it is all that special and beautiful.
Bowie pre Sound And Vision
As previously stated (on this blog) I must have seen Bowie earlier (on Toppop), but it didn’t leave a lasting impression. I can’t remember what I thought about Life On Mars?, Rebel Rebel or Fame at the time. Since I can’t remember: I suspect I thought Queen to be more important and better at the time.
My opinion has slightly been altered (to say the least). It’s not my favorite Bowie period, but a few beautiful songs were made during this period and (to be fair) The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars is a stunning album. However, the ‘early’ Bowie, to me, is more of a singles-artist…
Leading up to Low
In the fall of 1976 David Bowie was exhausted. Of touring, the collapse of his marriage and the break up from his manager. His finances were in disarray and he desperately tried to kick his cocaine-addiction. He was still extremely thin; not as bad as the 45 (!) kilos he, reportedly, weighed during Young Americans, but still too thin. On top of that he hadn’t written a new song since six months. About that time, Bowie commented (in 1980 in NME): “That whole period stretching through to ’76 was probably the worst year or year and a half of my life”.
It all started with Iggy Pop. Bowie wanted to help his friend out and make music with him, which resulted in The Idiot, a very good album. Bowie liked it at Château d’Hérouville, France, where the recording of The Idiot took place. He went on to make music for himself. Brian Eno was to participate as a guest. After about a month Bowie relocated to Berlin, together with Iggy Pop, to find some peace and rebuild hid life. It initially led to Low: the best Bowie album.
The originally planned title to the album was New Music Night And Day. Some songs on Low were meant to be part of the soundtrack to the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth (in which Bowie played the main part). The first side (A) of Low contained short(er) avant-pop songs; the second half contained longer, largely instrumental compositions. The lyrics on Low deal with difficult subjects:
There’s oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke centre (*) of the world [i.e. Los Angeles, where Station to Station was recorded] into the smack centre of the world. Thankfully, I didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat.
(David Bowie, Details magazine, 1991)
(*) Los Angeles, where Station To Station was recorded
Tony Visconti claimed that the title partly referenced Bowie’s ‘low’ moods at the time of writing and recording the album.
Besides Sound And Vision, Low consists of much more beautiful music: Speed Of Life, Breaking Glass, Always Crashing In the Same Car, Be My Wife, A New Career In Town and Warszawa; nearly every song is mentioned here. It really is that good an album and is rightfully placed at number 7 of my album top 50 of all time.
Bowie’s muse had returned: the very same year “Heroes” was also released. Its title song is, if that were possible, even more impressive than Sound And Vision. Particularly the (guitar) sound is beautiful: the result of, once again, a hunch of Tony Visconti. Robert Fripp had laid down three different guitar parts for the song, but none of them sufficed.
At Visconti´s request everybody left the room and he went to work. It resulted in using all three the parts, simultaneously, throughout the whole song. The end result is mesmerizing.
Just like Sound And Vision this song is instantly recognizable and the moment it starts you´re ‘in’ the song. I (still) can’t listen to “Heroes” and not have goose bumps. The long (album) version is stunning. After completing the instrumental part of the song it was time to do the vocals. Only one track was available for the lead-vocals. This had to be right in 1 take. Visconti placed Bowie in a large room (of the Hansa studio in Berlin, West-Germany) which had 3 microphones set up in a row, each a few meters apart. The more noise Bowie’s voice produced, microphones 2 and 3 would record also. The recording was done in one take. The result, once again, was beautiful. The echo on Bowie’s voice at the end of the song is completely natural, because of Bowie’s louder singing making all three microphones registering the vocals. One of the most impressive recordings of all time.
The video clip belonging to “Heroes” is also iconic. A typical image of Bowie during his Berlin days:
Just like the album Low the A side of the “Heroes” album consists of more avant-pop songs and the second half again contained longer, instrumental pieces. The album “Heroes” was released with a special version of the title song in Germany. The song was partially sung in German and received the title “Heroes”/”Helden”. Besides the title song this album too had many top songs: Beauty And The Beast, Joe The Lion, Sons Of The Silent Age, V-2 Schneider and Sense Of Doubt.
In 1981 the movie Christiane F. – Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo was released, a film based on the shocking autobiography of a girl that was addicted to heroin and prostituted herself at just fourteen years old. Bowie’s music played a big part in the film (just as in the book). In the book Christiane F. tells the story of her visiting a concert by David Bowie, after which she had her first heroin experience. Live recording were shot in New York especially for the movie. Bowie’s music was contained in the movie’s soundtrack.
Low and “Heroes”, together with Lodger make up Bowie’s so-called Berlin-trilogy, called after the city where much of the recording/mixing took place: Berlin. At the time a divided city. The Hansa studios where recording took place was very near to the Berlin wall, the artificial border between the ‘free’ West and the ‘enchained’ communist Eastern-Europe.
Personally I think the Eno trilogy would be a more concise entitlement (Lodger wasn’t recorded at Berlin, but it did feature the musicians who were part of the Isolar II tour Bowie undertook in 1978, in various studios).
Anyway: the Berlin trilogy, including the following Scary Monsters, are the best Bowie ever did: an incredible musical range. Bowie dared to step outside what was commonly accepted and (therefore?) made some great music, which is considered classic nowadays. The (electronic) experiments on the B-sides of Low and “Heroes” resulted in stunningly beautiful music, like Warszawa (to which, in my opinion, Angelo Badalamenti listened to very carefully for his Music From Twin Peaks), Sense Of Doubt and V2-Schneider. The last song is a tribute to Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider, as an ‘answer’ to Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express in which both Bowie and Iggy Pop are name-checked. Kraftwerk was a huge influence at the time:
Their very important influence on me was their singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences, and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music.
(David Bowie on Kraftwerk, 1977)
The end result of this period were Bowie’s Low, “Heroes” and Lodger and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life. An impressive number of great albums.
Bowie post artistic highlights
Coming after Scary Monsters Bowie decided to change things up completely. He wanted to know what it meant to have a hit album. He signed a multimillion contract with EMI, enlisted Chic’s Nile Rodgers and the result was Let’s Dance, the greatest hit from his career. Musically less interesting (although the album has some top songs like the title song and Modern Love), but he reached a far greater number of people. The following albums became ever less interesting (and some even bad). With the project Tin Machine Bowie tried to do something different than usual, which I respected at the time, but still was not interesting enough.
At the time very poorly received (and/or understood) was 1.Outside. I didn’t really get it either, by the way. I liked Hello Spaceboy very much, because of the combination of rock and dance (which made U2 create beautiful music on their Pop album 2 years later). The album largely passed me by. Now I hold 1.Outside in high regard and think it’s one of the highlight from his (later) career. The renewed cooperation with Brian Eno turns out really well. The concept is somewhat unclear and the segues between the songs (a typical 1990’s phenomenon, sadly frequently utilized on hip-hop albums) make the album somewhat messy, but the songs are strong. The album following this one (Earthling) contained some top songs as well, with Litte Wonder and I’m Afraid Of Americans.
The Next Day
Until The Next Day from 2013 things went quiet around Bowie. After health issues and the birth of his daughter he withdrew from public life, until, completely unexpectedly, on January 8th 2013, his 66th birthday, the song Where Are We Now? was released. A very melancholy, beautiful song, containing many (lyrical) references to Berlin. The album followed two months later and was rather hyped (in the press), but turned out to be not as good as it was led to believe. Still it contained some great songs. The cover of the album stood out: the cover of the “Heroes” album was used, on which a big white square was placed and the text “Heroes” was crossed out. A (in)direct reference to the iconic Berlin-trilogy and the fact that those times were over and would never come back? Of was it nothing more that a marketing trick, by using an iconic cover for a new album?
After this it went just as quiet as before.
In October 2015 the song Blackstar suddenly appeared, a (very) dark song, with many strange rhythms and melodies. Dark and intriguing. David Bowie once again did something completely new. The chameleon seemed to do it one more time! Again different, new and, most of all, innovating. An amazing performance.
In the meantime the exhibition David Bowie Is came to Holland, Groningen. I got tickets and was, once again, heavily impressed with the man´s abilities and influence on (popular) culture.
Shortly thereafter the song Lazarus was released with the clip of Bowie in bed en the opening lines, mentioned at the top of this article. A beautiful song, that moves.
And then, suddenly, it was all over: on January 10th 2016 David Bowie died of cancer. A shockwave shot through the (music)world. Many tributes were done during concerts. Even Prince honored Bowie with a version of “Heroes”.
At the time of Let’s Dance I was befriended with two huge Bowie fans, who had tickets for the Serious Moonlight shows at the stadium in Rotterdam. For months they were nervous and couldn’t wait! I didn’t go, as I didn’t go all the times that followed.
I never saw David Bowie live. In a strange kind of way I don’t mind that much. I wouldn’t have minded seeing him though.
I think that is because I wasn’t able to see him at the time that it (in my opinion anyway) really mattered, because I was too young at the time. The 1978 world tour (titled Isolar II) came to the Rotterdam Ahoy on June 7th, 8th and 9th. The band, the setlist, the stage: it must have been beautiful concerts…
Top 10 albums
My top 10 Bowie albums:
- Scary Monsters
- The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars
- Young Americans
- Station To Station
Top 10 songs
My top 10 Bowie songs:
- Sound And Vision
- Ashes To Ashes
- Space Oddity (1979 version)
- Life On Mars?
- Breaking Glass
- Five Years
- Always Crashing In The Same Car
- It’s No Game (Part 1)
What do you think of David Bowie. Do you agree with the Berlin period being the favorite one? Or do you prefer the glam period coming before or the pop after?
Let me know and leave a comment!
Bowie kop image: cosmicintelligenceagency.com
Bowie tweet 10-01-2016: Bowie/twitter.com
Bowie 1976 & 2016: reddit.com
Sound Of Vision clip: giphy.com
Harmonizer H190: wikimedia.org
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars: popspotsnyc.com
Low, “Heroes” en Scary Monsters ad: RCA records
De “Heroes” video: davidbowie.com
Christina F. film image: listal.com
Brian Eno, Robert Fripp & David Bowie, Hansa studios, Berlin, 1977: dgmlive.com
Let’s Dance, 1.Outside & The Next Day images: davidbowie.com
Blackstar image: cult.tpo.nl
Isolar II world tour image: genesis-publications.com