Things You Didn't Know... - February 22, 2018

10 Things You Didn't Know About... David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

10 Things You Didn't Know About... David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy

Any hardcore David Bowie fans will no doubt already be aware of the various box sets and reissues that have emerged since his death, including Five Years, covering the albums from his early career, and Who Can I Be Now?, which documents Bowie's “American phase” from 1974 to 1976.

The most recent of these, A New Career In A New Town, arrived in September last year in the form of a deluxe box set which included an 84-page hardback book, the live album stage and the four studio albums Bowie recorded between 1977 and 1980. These include his “Berlin Trilogy” - Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – as well as his 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

The box set makes for a highly collectable item for fans, but if you're just looking to plug a gap in your collection, or if you only want the reissued vinyl without all the various extras, then we have good news for you: this week sees the release of all four remastered albums individually. 

To celebrate their release, we went digging and came up with 10 of the lesser-known facts about Bowie's time in Berlin...

 

Only one of the three “Berlin” albums was recorded entirely in the city...

Although the trifecta of albums released by Bowie between 1977 and 1979 are commonly known as the Berlin Trilogy, only “Heroes” was actually recorded in its entirety at the city's Hansa Studios. Low, the first album in the trilogy, was mostly recorded in France at Château d'Hérouville, owned at that time by French film composer Michel Magne. Known for his work on films such as Barbarella and Gigot, Magne had a 16-track recording studio installed at the 30-room Château, which was used by artists including Elton John, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac.

Only a handful of the Low sessions were recorded in Berlin, while Lodger, the final album in the trilogy, wasn't recorded in Berlin at all – most of it was done at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, the rest at New York's Power Plant.

 

Brian Eno employed his 'Oblique Strategies' on Bowie's Berlin albums...

It's fairly well documented that the former Roxy Music member was a key part of the Berlin albums, beginning with his contributions to the Low sessions in 1977. Two years earlier, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt had developed and published a set of cards with short sentences printed on them as a way of helping to shift any creative block by reminding them to adopt different approaches and strategies. Examples include “Only one element of each kind”, “What would your closest friend do?” and “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”.

Not everyone was thrilled by this way of working at first, but guitarist Carlos Alomar later admitted: “Some of it worked, some of it didn't, but quite honestly it did take me out of my comfort zone and look at it from a different point of view. And although I didn't like the point of view, when I came back, I was fresh”.

 

Bowie hardly ate anything while he was working in the studio...

Part of the reason for the appearance of the Thin White Duke persona in the mid-1970s was related to Bowie's unusual eating habits; while recording Station to Station in L.A., Bowie's diet reportedly consisted of nothing but red peppers, milk, and shedloads of cocaine. Although his move away from the city was partly to kick the enormous coke habit he had developed, his eating habits didn't improve much in Berlin. Tony Visconti has said that he hardly ever saw Bowie eat while they were working: “He’d break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day, virtually”.

 

One particular piece of equipment played a big part in Low's sound...

Bowie has already started to work on some ideas for Low when they decided to call Tony Visconti and ask him to produce the album. When they asked him what he could bring to the table, Visconti told them he'd just bought a new piece of kit, the Eventide 910 Harmonizer. “They said 'what does this thing do?'... and I said 'It f*cks with the fabric of time'.”

Basically a pitch-shifter, the Eventide was employed on everything from the snare drum on 'Breaking Glass' to the vocals on 'Warszawa', which Visconti used to alter Bowie's voice by pitching it up and down, then layering them as a way of mimicking the Bulgarian boys' choir that had inspired the song.

 

Bowie produced two Iggy Pop albums in the same year as making Low and "Heroes"...

It's no secret that Bowie was a highly prolific artist and 1977 was a particularly productive year for Bowie, who not only recorded and released two of his own records that year but also found time to produce two more for his friend Iggy Pop, with whom he was sharing a flat in Berlin's Schöneberg neighbourhood at the time. Both of these, The Idiot and Lust for Life, became the only two of Lust for Life to break the Top 30 in the UK and remained so until 2016's Post-Pop Depression, which reached No. 5 on the UK Album Chart.

 

The cover artwork for “Heroes” was inspired by a painting created by German artist Erich Heckel...

During his time in Berlin, Bowie immersed himself in the city's culture and was a big fan of not only the music being created there, but other art forms too. The pose he's striking on the front cover was inspired by a 1917 painting named Roquairol by the German artist Erich Heckel. The same is true of Iggy Pop's Bowie-produced album The Idiot.

 

The song 'V-2 Schneider' is a tribute to one of Kraftwerk's founding members...

Even before he made the decision to move to Berlin, Bowie had cited Kraftwerk as a big influence on Station to Station and although the German electronic pioneers had turned down the opportunity to tour with Bowie, they became friends during Bowie's time in Germany and after he and Iggy Pop were name-checked on the title track to Trans-Europe Express, Bowie returned the favour by writing a song for “Heroes” inspired by one of Kraftwerk's co-founders, Florian Schneider.

 

Two songs on Lodger follow the exact same chord sequence...

Of the three albums in the Berlin trilogy, Lodger is arguably the most experimental and among the ideas on the album was the suggestion that Bowie should write two very different songs with the same chord sequence, which he does with the album's opener 'Fantastic Voyage' and again on 'Boys Keep Swinging'. Years later, in a continuation of the same idea, the same chord sequence and other elements were used by Blur for their song 'M.O.R.', which appeared on their eponymous fifth album in 1997.

 

Bowie loved Germany's music in the 1970s, but the feeling wasn't necessarily mutual...

Although all three of the Berlin albums reached the Top 40 in almost every country in which they were released, the somewhat ironic exception was Germany, where Low and “Heroes” peaked at No. 84 and No. 44 respectively, and Lodger failed to chart at all. In fact, of all his previous albums only Diamond Dogs reached the Top 40 of Germany's album chart, and even then only just.

Bowie's relative lack of celebrity in the country was one of its main attractions, of course, but it wasn't until Scary Monsters that Bowie scored a Top 10 album in Germany (it reached No. 8) and he would have to wait until 2013's The Next Day for his first German No. 1.

 

Most of Robert Fripp's guitar parts on “Heroes” were recorded in one evening...

There's a common story about Fripp's soaring guitar part on the album's title track that it was recorded in one take, without him even hearing the song beforehand. It's almost true, but not quite: Fripp actually recorded three takes for that song and Tony Visconti used parts of all of them in the final mix. The King Crimson guitarist reportedly used bits of sticky tape to mark the spots on the live room floor where the distance between his guitar and the amplifier meant that the feedback produced was fairly consistent.

What is true though is that his part on the album's opener, 'Beauty and the Beast', was recorded as soon as he arrived, and while they normally did two or three takes on each song, Brian Eno has said that they always used the first one. Most of his parts on the whole album were recorded over the course of the evening on the first day he arrived. Bowie was so impressed with his work that Fripp was asked to contribute guitars on Scary Monsters too – that's him you can hear adding the angular, discordant parts on 'Fashion'.

 

You can check out the full range of David Bowie reissues here in hmv's online store. 

Scary Monsters (2017 Remaster)
Scary Monsters (2017 Remaster) David Bowie

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