Five years on from his death, Simon McDermott celebrates five songs from David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy era.
When thinking about David Bowie’s long and frankly intimidating career, most fans will agree that two eras stand out as the highlights. Firstly, his infamous Glam Rock period in the early ‘70s, where he put his androgynous spin on Rock and Roll. He simultaneously shocked parents across the nation and inspired its youth with his outlandish, designer Japanese outfits, bright red hair and iconic makeup designs. The other is his Berlin period, where Bowie retreated to with Iggy Pop in ’76 after his cocaine addiction had led him into “the darkest days of his life.” The two coolest friends ever thought the European city would be a good place to rehabilitate together and they couldn’t have been more right.
The pair went on to make arguably their finest work there. Bowie helped create Iggy’s excellent albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life; while Bowie himself produced the “Berlin Trilogy” of albums, made up of Low, Heroes and Lodger with the help of Roxy Music alumni and Ambient music creator Brian Eno. Together, with producer Tony Visconti, they crafted a new sound that would go on to influence the entire alternative music scene and especially the post-punk era. Their innovative music and production methods inspired bands such as Joy Division and Talking Heads, along with the next wave of indie bands in the mid-late ‘80s. If you want to explore this incredible trilogy of albums more, here are five favourite tracks of mine to get you started, but believe me, there are plenty more to discover:
5- “Boys Keep Swinging” (Lodger)
Lodger, the last album in the “Berlin Trilogy,” is often overlooked in favour of Low and Heroes but it shouldn’t be. It’s underrated and a great transition to Bowie’s following album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), yet another favourite. The song has a very playful, bouncy rhythm that reflects its tongue-in-cheek lyrics that convey what’s great about being a boy. The brilliantly simplistic video accentuates this even more with Bowie’s exaggerated dance moves (that he still pulls off as cool) and him dressing in three different drag get-ups to be his own backing singers. Ricky Gervais, a big fan of Bowie, used the song to great effect for a motif in his show, Extras. You can also see the first signs of Bowie’s transition to his divisive, poppy, campy ‘80s persona in the video.
4- “V-2 Schneider” (Heroes)
Bowie admitted to taking influence from the many artists he admired, but he always remembered to pay tribute to them as well. “V-2 Schneider” is dedicated to Florian Schneider, the co-founder of Kraftwerk, the Godfathers of Electronic music. It’s a simple, mainly instrumental song that feels like a blend of their methods with Bowie’s sensibilities. Its simple lyrics are distorted by phasing and just repeat the track’s title, which is a fitting reference to the German V-2 rocket developed during World War II; they accompany some quirky, looped saxophone playing. The song is most likely a retort to the Kraftwerk track “Trans-Europe Express” that was released earlier the same year, which mentions meeting Iggy and Bowie in Düsseldorf city.
3- “Heroes” (Heroes)
What’s left to be said about this classic, iconic song that hasn’t been said before? It’s hard to find any other track in history that has such sophisticated, uplifting lyrics and sounds like a victory march to the high point of your life. It’s even more difficult to find one that has the music to back it up as well. We have Robert Fripp and his effortless, soaring riffs to thank for that. His guitar blended with Eno’s synths to create a wall of sound that the latter said sounded grand and heroic before the lyrics were even added. Fripp was brought in to find the right sound to finish the track, and he delivered where no one else would have been able; it feels like divine intervention.
The lyrics were the catalyst for the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bowie was thanked by the German government for his influence in helping to bring it down. Many artists strive for their whole careers to write political songs that make a difference, and he managed to make one of the best without even trying. Again, it is a tribute, this time to the band Neu! and their track “Hero”. Bowie and Eno were transparent about their German krautrock influences. The former also said the “plodding tempo and rhythm” were inspired by The Velvet Underground song “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Even though it wasn’t very successful when it was released, it’s now considered to be one of the greatest songs ever written and also one of the most covered.
2- “Warszawa” (Low)
To me, this track is the pinnacle of Bowie and Eno’s experimental, ambient sound on the best album of the “Berlin Trilogy.” When Low, the first of the trilogy came along, it blew minds and was extremely divisive. It seemed like on first listen that one either thought it was genius or that Bowie had lost it. Radio legend John Peel was so impressed by it that he played the album in it’s entirety on air; whilst Charles Shaar Murray’s review for the NME was so negative and misguided, he’s never been allowed to forget it. The label RCA was shocked and rejected it, urging him to make a whole new album more like Young Americans. You also have to bear in mind that this was coming off the back of the soulful and largely inoffensive Station to Station album, which was a commercial success.
“Warszawa” was named after the Polish city Warsaw, which Bowie visited shortly before making the album and was at the forefront of the fight against Nazi oppression. The city was devastated and its residents massacred; therefore, the track has a haunting and melancholy tone to portray its desolate state at the time. Its lyrics are based on a recording of a Polish folk choir that Bowie bought there and he chants them in an almost religious tone. The label eventually released the album, albeit begrudgingly, and they didn’t promote it as they assumed it would perform poorly. Despite this, it was a commercial success and is widely considered to be one of Bowie’s best albums. “Warszawa” is a paragon of Low and his Berlin period. Bowie hung the rejection letter from the label on his wall.
1- Sound and Vision (Low)
Finally, we arrive at one of my all-time favourite Bowie songs. It’s joyful, raucous opening simply makes me think of the explosive power of art and makes me instantly happy every time I hear it. The track does exactly what the lyrics say and delivers “the gift of Sound and Vision,” something Bowie has done throughout his career. It’s stunning drum beats are the stuff of dreams; they were synthesised by Visconti using a harmoniser that he said “f*cks with the fabric of time.” It was so revolutionary that other producers were clamouring to learn how he created the sound, and it has since become one of the most imitated drum sounds ever. This technique mixes with Eno’s synths perfectly and creates a brilliant, avant-garde sound that never ages.
Bowie’s vocals don’t kick in until nearly two minutes; this was due to Eno’s insistence, as he said it would “confound listener expectations” and that’s exactly what it does. It’s an idea that’s genius in its simplicity and works perfectly with the track’s already innovative sound. For me, it’s the highlight of the Berlin period. The lyrics were written to reflect Bowie’s mental state during his addiction and much like “Ashes to Ashes,” I feel a bit bad saying that they’re some of his best. After Bowie got clean and met his wife Iman, his music changed forever; losing a certain quality that never returned. I wouldn’t dare advocate that the use of narcotics improved his creativity, so I’ll just leave you to draw your own conclusions from this.