David Bowie And His Berlin Era
David Bowie moved to Switzerland in 1976, purchasing a chalet in the hills to the north of Lake Geneva. In the new environment, his cocaine use decreased and he found time for other pursuits outside his musical career. He devoted more time to his painting, and produced a number of post-modernist pieces. When on tour, he took to sketching in a notebook, and photographing scenes for later reference. Visiting galleries in Geneva and the Brücke Museum in Berlin, Bowie became, in the words of biographer Christopher Sandford, “a prolific producer and collector of contemporary art. Not only did he become a well-known patron of expressionist art: locked in Clos des Mésanges he began an intensive self-improvement course in classical music and literature, and started work on an autobiography.”
Before the end of 1976, Bowie’s interest in the burgeoning German music scene, as well as his drug addiction, prompted him to move to West Berlin to clean up and revitalise his career. There he was often seen riding a bicycle between his apartment on Hauptstraße inSchöneberg and Hansa Tonstudio, the recording studio he used, located on Köthener Straße in Kreuzberg, near the Berlin Wall. While working with Brian Eno and sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop, he began to focus on minimalist, ambient music for the first of three albums, co-produced with Tony Visconti, that became known as his Berlin Trilogy. During the same period, Iggy Pop, with Bowie as a co-writer and musician, completed his solo album debut The Idiot and its follow-up Lust for Life, touring the UK, Europe, and the US in March and April 1977.
The album Low (1977), partly influenced by the Krautrock sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, evidenced a move away from narration in Bowie’s songwriting to a more abstract musical form in which lyrics were sporadic and optional. Although he completed the album in November 1976, it took his unsettled record company another three months to release it. It received considerable negative criticism upon its release—a release which RCA, anxious to maintain the established commercial momentum, did not welcome, and which Bowie’s ex-manager, Tony Defries, who still maintained a significant financial interest in the singer’s affairs, tried to prevent. Despite these forebodings, Low yielded the UK number three single “Sound and Vision”, and its own performance surpassed that of Station to Station in the UK chart, where it reached number two. Leading contemporary composer Philip Glass described Low as “a work of genius” in 1992, when he used it as the basis for his Symphony No. 1 “Low”; subsequently, Glass used Bowie’s next album as the basis for his 1996 Symphony No. 4 “Heroes”.Glass has praised Bowie’s gift for creating “fairly complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple pieces”.Heroes”
Echoing Low ’s minimalist, instrumental approach, the second of the trilogy, “Heroes” (1977), incorporated pop and rock to a greater extent, seeing Bowie joined by guitarist Robert Fripp. Like Low, “Heroes” evinced the zeitgeist of the Cold War, symbolised by the divided city of Berlin. Incorporating ambient sounds from a variety of sources including white noise generators, synthesisers and koto, the album was another hit, reaching number three in the UK. Its title track, though only reaching number 24 in the UK singles chart, gained lasting popularity, and within months had been released in both German and French. Towards the end of the year, Bowie performed the song for Marc Bolan’s television show Marc, and again two days later for Bing Crosby’s televised Christmas special, when he joined Crosby in “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”, a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” with a new, contrapuntal verse. Five years later, the duet proved a worldwide seasonal hit, charting in the UK at number three on Christmas Day, 1982.
After completing Low and “Heroes”, Bowie spent much of 1978 on the Isolar II world tour, bringing the music of the first two Berlin Trilogy albums to almost a million people during 70 concerts in 12 countries. By now he had broken his drug addiction; biographer David Buckley writes that Isolar II was “Bowie’s first tour for five years in which he had probably not anaesthetised himself with copious quantities of cocaine before taking the stage. … Without the oblivion that drugs had brought, he was now in a healthy enough mental condition to want to make friends.” Recordings from the tour made up the live album Stage, released the same year.
The final piece in what Bowie called his “triptych”, Lodger (1979), eschewed the minimalist, ambient nature of the other two, making a partial return to the drum- and guitar-based rock and pop of his pre-Berlin era. The result was a complex mixture of new wave and world music, in places incorporating Hijaz non-Western scales. Some tracks were composed using Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards: “Boys Keep Swinging” entailed band members swapping instruments, “Move On” used the chords from Bowie’s early composition “All the Young Dudes” played backwards, and “Red Money” took backing tracks from “Sister Midnight”, a piece previously composed with Iggy Pop. The album was recorded in Switzerland. Ahead of its release, RCA’s Mel Ilberman stated, “It would be fair to call it Bowie’s Sergeant Pepper … a concept album that portrays the Lodger as a homeless wanderer, shunned and victimized by life’s pressures and technology.” As described by biographer Christopher Sandford, “The record dashed such high hopes with dubious choices, and production that spelt the end—for fifteen years—of Bowie’s partnership with Eno.” Lodger reached number 4 in the UK and number 20 in the US, and yielded the UK hit singles “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ”. Towards the end of the year, Bowie and Angela initiated divorce proceedings, and after months of court battles the marriage was ended in early 1980.