Sunday 24 September 2017

The great chameleon's golden years

David Bowie hit his creative peak in the five years between 1977 and 1982, a period when he cemented his reputation as a true visionary

British singer and actor David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
British singer and actor David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
John Meagher

John Meagher

Forty years ago this month, David Bowie released a new single. 'Heroes' was an epic anthem underpinned by a spectacular guitar line courtesy of Robert Fripp of the progressive rock band King Crimson.

Its account of lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall would soon be seen as one of Bowie's most emblematic songs and today, more than 18 months after his death, it remains a firm favourite - and a song that connects with even those who have the most cursory knowledge of the man's extraordinary prolific output.

It was a taster for an album of the same name - also replete with those ironic quotation marks - which appeared a month later. It demonstrated that Bowie was in a rich purple patch, one that had been sign-posted at the start of 1977 when he released Low, the first album of what would later be described as his 'Berlin Trilogy', a trio comprised of Heroes and 1979's Lodger.

If Bowie had already created a remarkable legacy in the 1970s - going from the acoustic balladry of 'The Man Who Sold the World' to the funk-rock strangeness of 'Station to Station' via glam, theatrical rock and blue-eyed soul - he cemented his reputation as a daring, visionary figure in the immediate years after 1977.

And that remarkable period is being celebrated in a new, sprawling 11-CD box set, A New Career in a New Town, which is released later this month. Named after the jaunty instrumental that closed side one on the original vinyl pressing of Low, it takes in the Berlin Trilogy, the live album Stage, and 1980's Scary Monsters - the album that was generally thought of as his last great LP. Until, that is, he released his final two, The Next Day and Blackstar.

There's a huge selection of alternative takes, live cuts and songs that would turn up elsewhere later. Long-time Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti has remixed several of the tracks specially for this compilation. There's enough listening here to keep the Bowie obsessive busy for a very long time.

This was a period in his career where he didn't just co-opt prevailing trends for his own end, he set them. From Low onwards, there's boundless innovation, whether it's in the production, unusual arrangements or - in the case of Lodger - the embracing of what would become known as 'world music'. Bowie always had an exceptional gift at unearthing talent and choosing smart collaborators, and that really paid off at the end of the 1970s. And one of them came from a proto-punk pioneer. Bowie had produced the Stooges' incendiary 1973 album Raw Power, and he struck up a fast friendship with Iggy Pop. The American had gone on the road with Bowie during the Station to Station tour and when it concluded, they moved together to West Berlin to get clean.

Relocating to one of the most decadent cities in Europe, where the bohemian world had an enthusiastic appetite for drugs, seems counter-intuitive in retrospect, but what Berlin did for both men was utterly reinvigorate their sense of creativity.

I toured Bowie's Berlin a couple of years ago and was struck by the ordinariness of the living quarters he and Pop shared - a modest apartment down a working-class street. But after spending most of the 70s in the public's glare, he clearly adored the ability to feel anonymous somewhere.

And he threw himself into the work. Not only did Low and "Heroes" land in 1977, but that year also saw the release of Iggy Pop's first two albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life, both of which were produced by Bowie and whose track listing prominently featured Bowie co-writes. All four albums would feature in most lists of the best albums of that year - remarkable.

Brian Eno was another key collaborator for Bowie. Eno had delivered some marvellous albums after quitting Roxy Music, especially 1975's evocative Another Green World, and his desire to push the boat out sonically would be echoed by Bowie when the started working together.

Low was their first of many albums to bear the Eno imprint - and it's especially evident on the second, purely instrumental side. His ambient experiments inform the latter half of "Heroes" too, particularly the instrumentals 'Moss Garden' and 'Neuköln'.

But perhaps his most significant input was his 'oblique strategies' technique, which Bowie adopted with great enthusiasm. Essentially, this was an idea based on the concept of 'free association' where the artist was compelled to create songs from words and phrases picked at random. Such restrictiveness conversely pushed both he and Bowie to throw off the shackles, and one can certainly hear the fruits of it in the Berlin Trilogy, not least when it comes to the disorienting, off-kilter lyrics.

Bowie turned 30 in 1977 and that maturity is evident in songs that ask questions about his marriage, his sanity and his health. It's little wonder that so many contemporary musicians are transfixed by his work then - here was an artist exposing his vulnerabilities and doing so with truly inventive music.

It's impossible to listen to LCD Soundsystem's new album American Dream and not think of the music Bowie was creating 40 years ago. Frontman James Murphy has cheerfully admitted that this period in Bowie's life has informed so much of his creativity.

And it was even more evident on Murphy's previous album, This is Happening. The cover artwork was an homage to Lodger, 'Drunk Girls' was essentially Murphy's answer to 'Boys Keep Swinging' and the guitar on 'All I Want' was clearly inspired by Fripp's stunning work on 'Heroes'.

David Kitt was also motivated by Berlin-era Bowie when working on his New Jackson electronica project. His lengthy song 'Electric Blue' is a brilliantly reimagined cover of 'Sound and Vision', one of Low's standouts.

By the dawn of the 1980s, Bowie was anxious to expand his options. He had already starred as an alien in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth a few years before, but now he was attracting glowing reports for his portrayal of the hideously disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. And he was soon to accept several film roles of varying quality, including that of a British PoW in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

And he still had one great album up his sleeve. Many retrospective reviews have talked about how Scary Monsters helped fashion the processed sound of the 1980s and there's no question that the bizarrely brilliant video for 'Ashes to Ashes' ushered in the MTV era, but it's worth remembering how great its songs were too. 'Fame', 'Teenage Wildlife', 'Fashion'… classics all.

There was a three-year gap until the release of Let's Dance - and things would never be the same again. By then, Bowie was determined to be a global superstar and producer Nile Rodgers was charged with making those songs as humongous as possible.

But even at his most commercial, Bowie was thinking back to those years in Berlin. 'China Girl' - a huge single in 1983 - was co-written with Iggy Pop six years before and featured, in a very different guise, on The Idiot album.

A New Career in a New Town is released on September 29

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