Remembering David Bowie's Berlin Years

The late singer's "Berlin Years" get the deluxe box set treatment

Bowie's "Berlin Years"—the period in which the singer released the groundbreaking, futuristic albums Low, "Heroes," and Lodger—were nothing short of monumental moments in the history of pop music. Over the course of those three albums, Bowie set himself apart from both his fellow megastars like Elton John, ABBA, and Queen in the U.K. and the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac in America; he even made a drastic shift in sound from his recent, chart-topping successes, Young Americans and Station to Station—not to mention his heady days as Ziggy Stardust, remarkably just three years earlier. The period, from 1977's Low to 1980's monumental Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is being celebrated in a lavish new box set, A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"I know how to mix a David Bowie record," producer and longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti says, without a hint of ego or arrogance. He's right. The highlight of A New Career in a New Town is the new mix of 1979's Lodger, the third installment in Bowie's Berlin trilogy and long an orphan in his storied catalog. Visconti's new mix, which had Bowie's approval before the singer's death from cancer in 2016, elevates it to the powerful impact Scary Monsters made upon its release. In fact, if you're unfamiliar with Lodger, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a brand new Bowie album, cut after his final sessions for 2016's Blackstar.

But before Lodger, Bowie and company had to find a way to chart a new course.

"David and Brian Eno and I had a three-way call," Visconti says of the phone call he received asking him to join the pair in France at the legendary Honky Château—the Château d'Hérouville studio outside Paris—to work on Low. "They said, 'We want to break all the rules. We know how to make a hit record. We want to make something creative and different and artistic. We don't want to repeat any old formulas.' They wanted everything to sound different—the guitars, the piano, and especially the drums—everything."

Bowie and Eno had grand ideas of what they could accomplish with their ambitious form of pop music, and the prospect of working with them excited Visconti. "They had been writing songs that were kind of 'minimalistic'" he says. "They were talking about doing ambient music for Side Two of the album. All of this was thought out between the two of them before it was brought to me, so I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. Of course, I was rubbing my hands together, saying, 'This is amazing.' Then David said, 'None of this might ever get released. It's purely experimental. Are you willing to sacrifice a month of your life?' Of course, that was even more thrilling. I said, 'I'm there!'"

"David said, 'None of this might ever get released. It's purely experimental.'"

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

If Low was to be minimalist, as Visconti describes, the period around Station to Station, Bowie's then-latest, were as debauched as they come, even by 1970s standards. Bowie kept vampiric hours, subsisted on mountains of cocaine and a diet of milk and peppers, and dabbled more than a little in the occult.

"I think that the move—the physical move—was very important," author Dylan Jones, whose fantastic new Bowie oral history, David Bowie: A Life, describes the period when Bowie was in the midst of an ugly divorce and split from his longtime management in exhaustive detail. "He needed to leave Los Angeles. He needed to leave the people around him. Most of all, he needed to go somewhere he'd never been before."

Low, now considered one of Bowie's best and most influential works, was met with shock from his record company and a mostly lukewarm response from his fans. Containing no obvious singles (although "Sound and Vision" is a certifiable Bowie classic) the cold, stark music, including an entire side of ambient, instrumental tracks, confounded nearly everyone. Remastered on A New Career in a New Town, and sounding as bright and rich as ever, it still does in many ways.

"There's an assumption, with the benefit of hindsight, that Bowie was reinventing the wheel and that he was conjuring up something out of nothing, as he had done before, but actually Low was more of a happy accident," says Jones. "It was more to do with his incredible collaborations with Brian Eno and embracing new ways of the recording—especially the second, instrumental side of Low—that made a lasting impact, and gave him a way forward. When Bowie moved to Berlin, he was enjoying being in a new place and a new environment. As for the recording, it was a combination of factors. In hindsight it looks like a work of blistering genius, but it was quite a lucky record, I think."

"David knew exactly what he was doing," Carlos Alomar, Bowie's guitarist on the Berlin era albums, says in his defense. "It was his vision that made the whole, and it was adventurous and exciting." Alomar also had to put his faith into Bowie and hope he knew what he was doing. "To be honest, I didn't get the way he and Brian were working in the studio," he continues. "They'd talk and talk when I just wanted to jam things out. And even after the album came out it took me a minute to get what he was up to. But just listen to the results! They were unlike anything else that was happening. And they were wildly ambitious for a star of his stature."

Either way, Bowie was reenergised by the process, according to both Almoar and Visconti. And while hardly a hit, Low crept into the consciousness of music fans seeking something more challenging than the strains of the hit parade.

"Growing up in Mercer, Pennsylvania, Low was a transmission from another dimension," says Trent Reznor, who collaborated with Bowie in the 1990s. "It scared me and confused me and made me feel lonely. Low was incredibly influential on The Downward Spiral. It was the detached sound of it: the loneliness of the strings, especially on the second, instrumental side. I became obsessed with it, I think, in a healthy way where I just studied it, appreciating the uniqueness of it."

Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and David Bowie pose for a portrait in Hansa Studio by the Wall, where they recorded 'Heroes' in 1977 in Berlin, Germany.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In the wake of the release of Low, Bowie toured with Iggy Pop, in support of his Bowie-produced album The Idiot, sitting at a keyboard on the righthand side of the stage, far from the glare of the spotlight on his friend. Eventually, he and Pop settled in Berlin, living a spartan existence and soaking up the dank, industrial rhythm of the post-war city, while working on Pop's Lust for Life.

"David had an apartment and looked completely different, and really healthy," Visconti recalls. "He wanted short hair, so I cut his hair for him. He got this cloth hat and he could actually walk around Berlin and go unrecognised. And if he was recognised, the Germans were very cool about it. They wouldn't bother him. Put it this way: They wouldn't run up and take selfies."

Inspired by his work with Pop, and the former Stooges' frontman's near-improvised lyrics on the album, Bowie settled in at Hansa Tonstudio—commonly known as "Hansa Studio by the Wall," as it was within spitting distance of the structure separating East and West Berlin—to work on his follow-up, "Heroes."

"My first impression was that Hansa was a very dark studio," Alomar recalls. "We were confined, and there was a lot of wood. The atmosphere was darker. So a lot of how we played had to do with the perception of the place. The music got slower. But it also got more nuanced, because we were more intent and because we'd done it before, but this time with a little more rhythm and a little more of a rock and roll feel."

"The sound was bigger in Berlin, because the room was bigger and had natural reverb," Visconti recalls, noting the elegiac title track in particular. "But he did seem heroic when he did the vocals for 'Heroes.' You know, the German word 'helden' was inspiring. Some countries just have more of a tradition of what a hero is. And after working and working and working on that track, I remember David, with this heroic posture, throwing his shoulders back. It was amazing. You could just feel it that David was on a high in Berlin; a real high. He was happy being there."

"There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's David Bowie," the advertising for "Heroes" blared. It set Bowie apart at a crucial time, with punk ascendant, says Dylan Jones. Bowie probably didn't need the gimmick.

"Again, through a mixture of talent and serendipity and environment, he came up with his greatest song ever," says Jones. "I think he had to know how good it was at the time. 'Heroes' is so simple and elegant and grand, I think when you're working on something like that—when you've got something like that under your belt—it has to give you an awful lot of confidence about what you're doing and moving forward."

"He knew," says Visconti.

On a creative high, Bowie toured the world in support of "Heroes." Stage, the live album originally released in 1978 to a lukewarm response and now included in two different versions as part of A New Career in a New Town, shows a performer at the top of his game, fronting a band not afraid to help their leader reinvent even his most beloved, classic songs, or to back him on the ambient, instrumental pieces from Low and "Heroes."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Ultimately, Bowie would find himself in Switzerland in the fall of 1978, and again in early 1979, with Visconti, Eno, Alomar and company in tow, full of ideas. The result, 1980's Lodger, released the following year, always felt half-baked, especially because when Bowie later performed songs from the album live—like "Boys Keep Swinging" and "Look Back in Anger"—they raised the roof.

"Decades ago we admitted to each other that we didn't like the mixes, and we both knew why," Visconti says. "David didn't blame me and I didn't blame him. We'd done the backing tracks in Montreax, Switzerland, and then took the tapes to New York, where he was living part-time, to mix them. We worked at the Record Plant, but because we showed up without much warning they gave us the only studio available, which also happened to be the worst studio available!"

Without a full compliment of gear at their disposal, Visconti and Bowie made due. But the results were unrealised, as far as the pair were concerned. That's where A New Career in a New Town gets interesting.

"Later, when we were mixing Scary Monsters—which was a crowning fucking glory in its day—we said to each other, 'If only we'd been able to do this with Lodger,'" recalls Visconti. "We said that over and over, over the years. Well, now we have."

A New Career in a New Town includes a remarkable new mix of Lodger, much of it approved by Bowie before his death.

"I was always waiting for him to give me the word, but he never did," says Visconti. "But during the making of Blackstar we had a long break—like about a month break or something, but not long enough that I could really take another job—and I had all the masters to Lodger here in my studio, so I said to myself, 'I'm just going to see what I can do to 'Fantastic Voyage.'"

Working from high resolution digital versions of the original multitrack tapes in his own full compliment studio, at his own pace, Visconti immediately knew he was on to something. In short order he'd completed mixes for five of Lodger's ten songs. "I couldn't just play David one song, now, could I?" Visconti asks with a hearty chuckle.

It was during the recording sessions for Bowie's final album that Visconti brought back a new sound—from his past. First playing the new mix of "Fantastic Voyage" for the singer, Visconti then shared the rest of the re-mixes—much to Bowie's delight. "He knew immediately that it was a fresh mix," Visconti says. "He just had this beaming smile on his face. Then I played him the rest and he thought they were terrific, too. Almost immediately I got the green light from his office to finish it up."

The results are astonishing. Fresh and clear, rich and warm, Lodger now sounds like a new David Bowie album for 2017.

"That's the thing about David, his music always sounds like it belongs in the here and now," says Alomar. "The song 'DJ'? That could have been recorded today! Whenever you worked with David, he was always inventing the future, right there in front of you."

"There's not a bad song on Lodger," Visconti says. "That's why it's sustained interest over the years. Everyone likes the album. In general people accepted it. But knowing how David was always constantly moving on and moving forward, I'm sure no one ever thought we'd revisit it and remix it." But revisiting Lodger as part of A New Career in a New Town was an effort to keep Bowie's legacy alive, to pay tribute to a friend and collaborator in an honourable way. "We did it just for us," Visconti explains of this new edition of Bowie's underrated Lodger. "We didn't want to gain a new audience; there was no commercial intent. We did it to satisfy ourselves."

From: Esquire