Discover: Berlin Calling, From Bowie & Eno To Can & Kraftwerk
While it may seem like Berlin was the place to be a few years back (see: such expats as Liars and every last techno producer worth their weight in 4/4 beats), the mid-aughts wasn’t the first time Germany’s cheap apartments and twisted music scene attracted a revolving door of artists. For that, we have to go back to the golden “Berlin Trilogy” era of David Bowie and his old friends Iggy and Eno.
Here are their most essential albums from that time period, along with a yesterday and today survey of krautrock and kosmische music.
The Berlin Trilogy
"One day I blew my nose and half my brains came out." That was David Bowie in 1976, nearing the end of a years-long coke binge that had burned through the better part of his nasal passages and rendered him so clammy and paranoid he was diving into black magic to escape, drawing pentagrams on the floor of his L.A. apartment, keeping his own urine in jars in the refrigerator and burning... black candles as protection from evil spirits. He was seeing ghosts, giving loopy interviews heavy on Hitler-praising pull-quotes and his marriage to Angie was on the verge of collapse.more »
And so Bowie, with Iggy Pop in tow, went to Berlin to get clean (an aim at which he only fitfully succeeded) and, as he put it, "[to discover] a new musical language." Low, the first part of his celebrated Berlin Trilogy and the first stage in a full sonic reinvention. Unlike the plastic soul of Young Americans or Station to Station's manic panic, Low revels in total existential blankness. Bowie was openly in the thrall of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk, and Low clearly reflects the influence of the former's stentorian, motorik rhythms and the latter's subzero synthesizers.
The album is famously divided into two halves, with a batch of Bowie-sung "song fragments" counterbalanced by a suite of gorgeous but deeply unsettling ambient-instrumentals; what's most notable is that, spiritually, Bowie feels as ice-cold and absent on the songs where he sings as on the ones where he doesn't. Herky-jerk "Breaking Glass," with its hectoring Carlos Alomar guitar line finds Bowie as self-referential as he'd ever been, darkly warning "don't look at the carpet — I drew something awful on it," before snidely declaring: "you're such a wonderful person — but you've got problems." De facto pop single "Sound And Vision" — if only because no other song on the album features an immediate hook — finds him distrusting his own senses, cooing "Don't you wonder, sometimes, 'bout sound and vision?" over the kind of chilly cascading synths that typically turn up on Joy Division albums.
As solid and striking as the vocals are, though, Low's back half is where it moves from experiment to masterpiece. Using layer upon layer of unholy synthesizer, Bowie — with the help of producer Brian Eno, himself no stranger to the power of ambiance — create an entire, flickering nighttime urban cityscape, where hustle and busyness ("A New Career in a New Town") slowly give way to the awful eeriness of nighttime ("Subterraneans"). Bowie's voice appears in fits and starts, mostly chanting strange, monosyllabic nonsense words — a thin, pale warlock looking glumly into his cauldron, drawn and spent. Taken together, the two halves of Low offer a picture of an artist at a crossroads, unsure of where to go next, but knowing all roads lead to darkness.
After the numb isolation of Low, hearing David Bowie proudly proclaim "I will be king, and you will be queen" in "Heroes" now-iconic title track is not unlike watching a time-lapse spring thaw. The second installment in Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, "Heroes" is just as warped, fractured and neurotic as its predecessor, but where Low was almost suffocating in its minimalism, "Heroes" expands its sonic palette substantially, making room for Robert Fripp's hyper-processed... and appropriately manic lead guitar. If Low's prevailing mood was spookiness "Heroes", if not exactly optimistic, at least makes room for the possibility of rescue. "'Heroes,' I think, is compassionate," Bowie said in an interview at the time of the album's release. And even at its bleakest — particularly in the twisting, tortured "Sons of the Silent Age" — Bowie still croaks, "Baby, I'll never let you down." The album's opening assault is riveting, a collection of bent-metal music powered by a proto-industrial grind and centering around Bowie's coming-unglued delivery. "Blackout," in particular, is a sonic typhoon, Fripp's needlepoint guitar scraping against sheets of steely synth. Bowie is frantic and mangled in the cogs, howling "Get me to a doctor's!" like a man mid-breakdown.more »
Like Low, the second half of "Heroes" is mostly instrumental, and it largely picks up where those icy compositions left off. "V-2 Schneider," the title of which is a coy hat-tip to Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, transfers the melody of "Beauty and the Beast" to saxophone and contorts it until it's barely recognizable; "Moss Garden" manages a kind of unsettling serenity, synthetic koto pinwheeling eerily in the synthetic breeze. Bowie returns to usher us out with "The Secret Life of Arabia," but his voice is so mangled it barely registers as human.
It's important to note that, for all of "Heroes"' feints toward positivity, the title of the album is in quotes. The choice is deliberate, and it serves two ends: to frame the very notion of heroism as something naïve and artificial, and to keep the song's uplifting sentiment at arm's length. Bowie may have brightened, but it's all still a construct — a novel device for Bowie the artist to pick up, toy with, exploit and cast aside. By the time Lodger arrived two years later, he was flat on his back again.
The final entry in the Berlin Trilogy boasts a picture of a beat-up Bowie on the cover and lyrical content that speaks to the same. RCA, Bowie's label at the time, characterized it as "a concept album [about a] homeless wanderer, shunned and victimized by life's pressures and technology." That's a bit high-minded, but not inaccurate: Lodger could be subtitled "Bodies and Motion, No Rest." It opens with "Fantastic Voyage," a weird,... warped-number that pitches and groans and stops dead on a chorus that goes, "We're learning to live with somebody's depression." Later, "Red Sails" tells of trouble lurking on the horizon, Bowie zig-zagging across the stave on the back of a strangled saxophone. Even the album's best excuse for a pop single, "Boys Keep Swinging," feels like the crowd-pleaser at a zombie disco.more »
Though Bowie and Eno's creative partnership was fizzling (after Lodger's completion, they wouldn't work together again for another 15 years), they still shore up a host of strange and suitably unsettling ideas. "Move On" contains a healthy helping of the Bowie-penned "All the Young Dudes" played backwards, "Boys Keep Swinging" duplicates the chord structure of "Fantastic Voyage," but in a different meter, "African Night Flight" inverts the melody of Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q." Robert Fripp had been replaced on guitar by his King Crimson bandmate Adrian Belew, who Bowie and Eno perversely required to play over tracks he'd never heard before. They pieced his final performance together from multiple takes, and the results feel appropriately disjointed. When it was released, Lodger was considered the least-adventurous of the trilogy, but that's only because the albums it followed were essentially inventing genres whole-cloth. While Lodger does edge back towards something like traditional rock music, its perspective is still decidedly askew, its sonic backdrops still full of thousands of tiny flourishes and filigrees: the weird wooshing noises that come and go throughout "Repetition," the hiccup in Bowie's voice as he sings the refrain of the cultish "Yassassain." His proper return to straightforward pop would arrive a year later, with the more direct — yet still distinctly unnerving — Scary Monsters . Taken as a whole, the Berlin Trilogy makes for a fascinating narrative, one man's journey out of the numbing wreckage of drug abuse and flirtations with witchcraft and Satanism back, at the end of Lodger, into normal society. The last words on the album are "Project Cancelled," and with good reason: its aims had been fulfilled — a thousandfold.
Released back in March 1977, The Idiot is the sound of two brilliant, exhausted men trying to find their feet again. Sound, not just the final product — the lurching rhythms on this album were far from the seething charge of the Stooges' 1973 Raw Power, which had been Iggy Pop's prior album, also produced by David Bowie. By the time they went to Paris, Munich and, crucially, Berlin to record,... though, they were ready for a change: Bowie was leaving L.A.'s cocaine culture behind, Iggy was getting off smack, and together they mocked their party-lifestyle plight. "Nightclubbing" leeringly refers to "bright-white clubbing," with Iggy smirking, "We learn dances, brand new dances/ Like the Nuclear Bomb." "Funtime" is even more deadpan: "We're gonna get stoned and run around," Iggy drawls, the pause right before "run around" as casually funny as Dylan during his Basement Tapes era, even as the music mimics the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" done up as an even flatter stomp. (It's not the album's only Lou Reed-besotted moment: "Tiny Girls" sounds like something accidentally left off of Transformer, which, not coincidentally, was also produced by Bowie.) As much of a piece with Bowie's own Low and "Heroes" as with the Stooges' work, The Idiot's hypnotic dirges and heavily treated guitars and synths set the tone for Pop's own future work as much as the faster Lust for Life would only a few months later.more »
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More than rock and its hard-to-budge sense of history, African-American popular music typically concentrates on the present — probably because the past wasn't such a great place to live in if your skin wasn't the right shade. Kraftwerk had ranked among the palest dance bands on the planet (a fact accentuated by 1978's Man-Machine artwork), but on the cover of 1981's Computer World, the quartet's faces were as black as a computer... screen, and their R&B profile rose exponentially. Nothing but electronic rhythms, multi-lingual counting and ricocheting sound effects, "Numbers" wasn't even released as a single, but it became a massive hit on WBLS,New York's pioneering and hugely popular black-owned urban contemporary station. There was rarely a moment during the summer of 1981 when someone wasn't breakdancing to a boombox blasting "Numbers" and "Computer World." By the following year, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his collaborators combined the DÃ¼sseldorf foursome's earlier "Trans-Europe Express" with "Numbers" and came up with "Planet Rock," one of hip-hop's most influential early records. Within a few months, R&B and rap alike was synonymous with synths and drum machines.more »
But if Computer World shaped future R&B, it also suggested Kraftwerk listened to Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and other early black synth adapters. Out went overt references to European classical melodies that shaped albums like Trans-Europe Express, and in came jazzier chords and streamlined melodies. "Computer World," "Home Computer" and "It's More Fun to Compute" all evoke the spy movie themes of John Barry and Quincy Jones, while the tricky syncopations and spry contrapuntal synth lines of "Pocket Calculator" nearly swing. "Computer Love," though, is where Kraftwerk shows its newfound emotional depth. Assisted by spearheading touch-sensitive keyboards, Ralf HÃ¼tter and Florian Schneider make their synths positively sing while percussionist Karl Bartos builds his rhythms in kind. If there was any doubt that synthesized music could have soul, Kraftwerk beautifully refuted it here.
The Krautrock bands were a peculiar progressive-era breed. While Britain's prog behemoths drew inspiration from the high romanticism of the 19th century composers, the German post-psych scene was far more impressed by new music that emphasized both rhythmic repetition (Steve Reich, Velvet Underground) and abstract sounds (Stockhausen). Thanks to an initiative by Virgin, who released The Faust Tapes in 1973 for the price of a single, Faust were the best... known and, due to the 26 disjointed fragments that made up the set, the most notorious. But The Faust Tapes is not all impenetrable experimentalism. "Flashback Caruso" is an elegant, piano-enhanced piece of post-psych folk, while the seven-minute-plus groove of "J'ai Mal Aux Dents" sounds like an unholy collision of Zappa and James Brown. Much else (usually titled "Exercise" or "Untitled") sounds like work-in-progress — itself a demystification of prog's perfectionism — utilizing multiple pianos, radio chatter and cavernous echo effects.more »
The Neu! School
There are all kinds of familiar elements at work on Emeralds' third album, and those elements will be especially familiar to anyone who was listening to avant pop electronic music in the 1970s. The slightly cheesy-sounding keyboard arpeggiations, the waveform generators, the sweet-and-sour analog synth sounds -- these are all basic elements of the earliest synthesized pop (and synthesized classical) music. To say that Emeralds take these elements and make them new... would be an exaggeration, but to say that they make them their own would not be. Does It Look Like I'm Here? consists largely of tracks previously issued as a series of 7" vinyl singles but also includes new material recorded exclusively for this CD release; some of it sounds like a more energized Fripp & Eno (notice in particular the uptempo Frippertronics of "Candy Shoppe") and some of it seems a bit too self-consciously dated (consider the rather silly Moogisms of "Genetic"), but there are many moments of pure genius: "Summerdata" is intensely involving despite being largely arrhythmic; "It Doesn't Arrive" sounds like a slow helicopter going by with Brian Eno's Music for Airports playing on its stereo; "Access Granted," the album's final track, is four minutes of pure, pulsing beauty. All of it occupies a slightly uneasy borderland between ambient music and avant-garde experimentation, and all of it is well worth hearing.more »
Don't let the nihilistic noise at the start of Oneohrtix Point Never's fourth album fool you: once the dust settles and the speaker-stabbing effects subside, Returnal segues into a series of dream sequences and becomes downright beautiful. While most of Daniel Lopatin's journey is dominated by cumulus chords and weightless synth waves, the ghosts in his machines escape ever-so-briefly during the title track, suggesting what Fever Ray would sound like if she... read Philip K. Dick novels as religiously as she watched David Lynch movies. Talk about an album that harnesses the power of your headphones from liftoff to landing.more »
As cofounder of DFA Records, early producer of the Rapture, and leader of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy is the crucial bridge between yesterday's punk and today's disco. A veteran of several rock bands, the New Jersey-born, New York-based rebel nevertheless knows underground dance music, as his Special Disco Version club nights behind the turntables have proven. Whereas his conventional albums bring together post-punk, art-rock and various club beats, 2006's 45:33 offers... an electronic update on the mutant disco sounds of Ze Records and New York's kindred early-'80s acts like Konk and Dinosaur L. Commissioned by Nike and initially sold as music specially designed to compliment jogging, Murphy later admitted that this was just a ruse for him to create a nonstop work in the spirit of Ash Ra Tempel guitarist Manuel Göttsching's pioneering 1984 trance epic, E2-E4, a Paradise Garage classic.more »
Indeed, 45:33 feels as though it was modeled after disco pioneer David Mancuso's strategy of sequencing music at his club, The Loft, as a reflection of nature's energy flow over the course of a day: It starts with a gentle warm-up, followed by a steady surge of movement, a burst of sustained activity, and then a restful cool-down. That arc — also the structure of most narrative fiction — became the ideal for many disco DJs playing lengthy sets for serious dancers, and here Murphy condenses it into a continuous 46-minute piece. He'd later recycle the third section for "Someone Great" on his 2007 disc Sound of Silver, but here it's a squiggly synth-led instrumental not unlike Patrick Adams's space disco jams with Cloud One. The section before it features Murphy at his most soulful; his impression of an '80s club crooner is almost as good as his imitation David Bowie, and the blaring, Arthur Russell-esque horns shortly after the 25-minute mark help make 45:33 LCD Soundsystem at its most ecstatic — and therefore, most disco.