Safe European Home

How David Bowie rescued Iggy, found himself – and made Low. Reprinted by kind permission of MOJO magazine.


IT STARTED WITH TWO CRISES, AND A WORK OF CHARITY.  Throughout David Bowie's emotional maelstrom of LA in late 1975, as he descended into a cocaine-addled psychotic netherworld of alien visitations and aryan mythology, he had also become obsessed with the abstract, electronic sound of Kraftwerk. But his first attempt at assimilating this new genre proved a disaster, when sessions with arranger Paul Buckmaster at Cherokee studios were abandoned, essentially unfinished. This was a rare setback, for even in the midst of a crisis, David Bowie had proved remarkably adept, in control of the situation despite the psychoses that assailed him. After escaping from LA, via rehearsals in Jamaica and then Vancouver for his imminent world tour, he seemed to rebuild himself once again. Yet it turned out that the one event that truly made David Bowie pull out of his psychological tailspin was the act of rescuing the man who would be his companion throughout 1976, namely Iggy Pop.


The troubled ex-Stooge had been through a period of self-abuse and vilification that made David's LA meltdown look like a walk in the park. Iggy had stabbed himself on stage, been confined to a mental institution, and by the winter of 1975 was reduced to sleeping on a stolen lounger mattress in a garage. Finally, Iggy had been arrested for stealing vegetables and called an old friend, Freddie Sessler, for help. Sessler, a concentration camp survivor and man of rugged humour, also happened to be the supplier of the finest pharmaceutical cocaine on the West Coast. Unsurprisingly, Freddie knew David Bowie very well indeed; for it was the discovery of Merck – what Sigmund Freud termed “this magical substance” – that had brought David to his own psychological low. Now, by putting him in contact with Iggy, giving him a damaged soul to heal, Freddie lifted David up again.


He needed lifting. David's first electronic music, an intended soundtrack for the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth was a mess; without the core of regular musicians who gave his work shape, the results were aimless meanderings. Then there were disputes with his newly-acquired manager, Michael Lippman, as well as British Lion, the company who'd financed the movie. The soundtrack was abandoned, and the multitrack tapes left in LA. Yet in February 1976, when David hooked up with Iggy in San Diego, everything snapped into focus. Rather than talk in depth about personal problems, David simply played him a song; Sister Midnight, inspired by a funky riff guitarist Carlos Alomar had crafted. Within days, David proposed he and Iggy record an album – perhaps in Munich, at Connie Plank's studio – partly inspired by the Kraftwerk albums David would play in their long listening sessions in the car.  With this project in mind, new songs seemed to flow out of David, something that had not happened for years. And “There was a power to the music he was willing to provide for me,” Iggy told MOJO; “it was perfect – and I loved it.”


As David returned to public view as The Thin White Duke in February 1976, for his first tour to take in both America and Europe, there was plenty of megalomania on display – there was childish talk about Hitler, and his LA obsession with Aryan folklore still held a certain fascination, or at least helped generate press coverage. But behind the scenes, for arguably the first time in his life, he was relaxed, in control, enjoying conventional friendships. He and Iggy Pop – or, rather, Jimmy Osterberg, Iggy's engaging, avuncular alter-ego – would sit down together in the morning, read the papers or sip espresso, chat... or simply not chat, as only old friends, confident in each others' company, can do. There was something “marvellously instantaneous” about their relationship, Carlos Alomar observed.


The return to Europe – “the European canon” – had engaged Bowie's thoughts for some time, and there was a childish delight in his explorations of the spring of 1976, particularly in his impromptu trip to Moscow that April. That March, he told interviewer Stuart Grundy he was planning a move to Berlin (an intention he didn't confide to his wife Angie). Yet around May 18, his journey took an unexpected route. He, Coco Schwab, his assistant and companion, and Iggy were ensconced at  the Hotel Plaza Athenee, in Paris, constantly mobbed by fans, when the enterprising new management of the Chateau D'Herouville – the residential studio outside Paris where he'd recorded Pinups – reckoned he might need a break, and would, says commercial director Pierre Calamel “appreciate some French cheese.” The trio turned up for a couple of nights break, bringing along with them a huge trunk of LPs, which David played to engineer Laurent Thibault. Then David told Laurent he had to take a trip to Switzerland, to look at a house Angie was buying, and would be back soon to record Iggy's solo album. 


The album they recorded on their return, The Idiot, was a crucial turning point in Iggy's career. It's also worth emphasising that it was a major turning point in David's career, too, and stands as a gateway to Bowie's so-called “Berlin period”. Station to Station had taken an age to record, but for The Idiot David had a string of songs ready, many of which were unformed but brilliant. The studio, set in the rolling countryside of the Oise Valley, was isolated and nurturing; David was relaxed, and looked healthy, like “un Ange” – an angel –  remembers Kuelan Nguyen, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who was staying at the studio, “ce qui' n'etait pas!” (“which he wasn't”). Nugyen remembers him as “capricious, authoritarian, tormented, but also intelligent, alive, with a calm humour, discreet, totally English” (he had also taken to smoking a pipe). When Bowie saw that Iggy was infatuated with Kuelan, he encouraged the couple, and their story became one of the pair's finest songs, China Girl. Bowie played most of the instruments himself, calling in other musicians to augment The Idiot as necessary. Dark, jagged and deep, the recordings were unlike anything he'd attempted before; they also constituted the perfect prototype for his own next project. As David left the Chateau to make way for Bad Company, he booked the studio for just a few weeks later, then left to check out apartments in Berlin.


As with many of Bowie's key projects, Low – initial working title New Music Night And Day  - had its principal elements laid out long before, while a huge amount was left to chance. Here, the principal element would be Brian Eno, whom David knew from Ziggy days, and had met again that summer. The pair had long telephone conversations, and even before the sessions started the concept had arisen of making an album with one side of relatively conventional songs, and one of instrumentals. Producer Tony Visconti, also part of those early discussions, remembers the thinking involved both what fans would appreciate, and what the RCA would accept: “ If the A side still had choruses and verses... [and the B side was instrumental] we felt it was  a perfect ying yang balance. Six or seven great songs with David Bowie singing is a good album.” Complicating matters was the fact that Eno was working in Germany when the session was booked to start, on 8 September. But all those details were simply left to fate. 


* * *


The key contributors were gathered from random places, like one of those 1970s movies where a hit squad is assembled from grizzled veterans and sparkly eyed tyros, then sent off for a mission into the unknown. 


Carlos Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray were the old hands. Guitarist Ricky Gardiner probably counted as the novice recruit; he had no idea why he'd been called up, beyond the fact his friend Tony Visconti had recommended him. Pianist Roy Young was nearly as uninformed; David had called him to work on Station To Station, but Young couldn't make the session. This time round the veteran British boogie woogie pianist - who'd played with The Beatles, the Rebel Rousers, and countless others – got called to the phone one night at the Speakeasy club, picked up the receiver to hear David ask if he'd get a plane over to Paris. David was persuasive, polite, but like Ricky, Roy had no idea whatsoever what the project was.


Of course, it seemed obvious that long-term Bowie collaborators like Carlos Alomar – the man who, amongst others, gave birth to David's first US Number 1, Fame – would be given a clear idea of what to expect. But No, says Carlos, the opposite was the case: “I'm not privy to that kind of thing. Whatever planning David has made, I'm not part of it. The situation with me, George and Dennis is that we get a call, telling us to show up. Then we have to start from scratch; we have to pluck it from the air.”


Gardiner and Young were on the same plane from London. Both discussed the project:  “We were both saying, do you know what it is we're doing?” says Young, who remembers Ricky being especially nervous. Ricky, in contrast, remembers Young as being well-prepared, in that he was toting two bottles of spirits “one was bourbon and the other, I think, was whisky.” The pair managed to polish off the bulk of the former on the flight. By the time they arrived in Paris, “We were not paying a great deal of attention to proceedings,” says Gardiner;  “and we failed to notice Coco waiting at the barrier to take us to the Chateau.”


Carlos, George and Dennis had already laid down rhythms on perhaps a couple of songs when Young and Gardiner arrived – although no-one's certain of which ones, because so many of the ideas seemed, in isolation, abstract and hard to grasp. David would give Carlos, usually, a snippet of lyric – which might or might not make the final version – which would inform the mood of the piece. Then there might be an eight bar sequence of chords. And somehow the musicians had to make sense of it all. Each of them was chosen because they could contribute something unique; each one had to reach into their own musical personality, says Carlos: “then when they realised, I just have to be myself, they brought their A game to it.” The Alomar-Murray-Davis trio was given the first go at the songs in order to find some focus, and cut down on the options. But most of the main songs on the first side evolved into recognisable shape with Gardiner and Young's arrival.


As one talks to the participants, like Visconti, Carlos Alomar, and most of all Iggy Pop – who, along with David, found personal salvation over this momentous year – a constant theme emerges: that of sculpting order out of chaos. David was short of money – his first cheque to the Chateau bounced, and Coco Schwab would chide him if he spent too much money on clothes – and he was contemplating how to extricate from his manager, Michael Lippman, his wife Angie and, ultimately, his record company. The music was the one thing to pull him through.


In the popular conception, Low is often thought of as glacial and cold, inspired by a sense of withdrawal, a coldness, (or “autism”, as Hugo Wilcken suggested in his elegant work on the album ) inspired by Bowie's continuing consumption of cocaine. In fact, the album was inspired by a determined optimism, a reaching toward a new future. And although David had an occasional toot of cocaine, over this period he'd largely turned his back on white powder. If he had a vice, it was alcohol, usually German beer, although early in the recording, the sessions hit a snag when he tried something stronger.


The unwitting villain of the piece was Roy Young; he'd been down on the studio floor with the rhythm section, Alomar and Gardiner as they worked on a song. Like the others, Young revelled in working in a luxurious residential studio, with drink constantly on tap. Hence he kept a large ice bucket, a bottle of gin, and a bottle of tonic by his piano, “so I could mix them the way I like them.” Then he heard a “rat a tat tat” on his headphones, “and there was David in the control room and he was holding a glass up. So I sent him [a drink] in there. And this happened a few times.”


Later the musicians convened in the control room to listen to the playback.  David was sitting in his customary lotus position, legs folded under him on the  studio chair next to Tony, his head resting on his hands. All those present waited expectantly for his verdict – until they realised he was fast asleep. Finally, says Young, someone shook him awake, “And I always remember, he scratched his head, like a scene from Laurel and Hardy, and then Tony said, David, you'd better go for a lie-down.” As David attempted to walk down the steep stairs out of the control room, there was a thud and a series of bumps. The next day at breakfast, David pulled up his shirt to show Young the bruises and weals from when he'd fallen down the stairs: “And that was when Tony warned me,” says Young, “if you ever give David another gin and tonic you're going home.”  


Despite such bugs, the recording was focused. They moved on constantly from one idea to the next. Carlos Alomar remembers having real problems getting his head around one song, which from the beginning was named Always Crashing In The Same Car. The title had a  black humour of its own, because David was attempting to sell his Mercedes at the time – the car was dented, and half the time wouldn't start. The song, too, spluttered and lurched before it got going: “We didn't understand what David wanted,” says Carlos,”and that was definitely the hardest one to get right. It had this kind of gloomy thing to it, so we kind of understood that. But it also had this chordal thing I was trying to get... the chorus is a bit different to the verse, and I felt it was a little disjointed.” In the end, says Carlos, it was Ricky who unlocked the song; “Not so much [with] a riff as a signature  sound and a signature guitar  - which gives an essence.”


Working on the songs was like constructing a jigsaw, where you were given a couple of pieces, and had to paint and cut out the other pieces yourself – then it would be down to David to actually piece the thing together. Usually there was some lyrical cue but often this would disappear from the final version, its purpose only to give the band a specific feeling. And as Carlos points out, it was often the sound of a particular song that gave it its essence: “Technology had a lot to do with where we were going and how we heard things. You have to think of  what was happening electronically at the time. When you find yourself hitting a wall we'd always depend on those things. If I'm just playing three chords, I'm going to use as many pedals and effects as I can. Then that might take us to a different level – and from that level we find the key to a song.n Or it might be an instrument – for instance, Sister Midnight came from this Olympic guitar, which gave me sounds I was fascinated with.”


Other songs did come together easily. Sound + Vision was a key breakthrough; the musicians thought it was an instrumental. “Carlos provided the riff,” says Gardiner, “and we put the music together around that.” One of Alomar's key contributions to Bowie's work was his funk- and soul-derived conviction that a song needed a key theme, right at the beginning, to differentiate it from whatever hot tune might pop up on the jukebox. Yet for Sound + Vision, his contribution was as much space as substance; a subtle, slight guitar lick that left huge gaps for the song to breathe, and let Murray and Davis's effervescent rhythm carry the listener along. As the crew sculpted the song out of chaos, David sat in the control room listening. Then, says Gardiner, “He just went into the studio and sang it straight off, words and all. He listened to [the playback] once, adjusted something in his head and did it again. And that was that.”


Those who spent time with Bowie often found themselves tickled by the inspiration behind  the songs; the final lyrics sounded enigmatic, but for those in the know, the story was often a literal  depiction of a real event. For a two key songs, the inspiration came from the one moment when the semi-domestic calm in the Chateau was shattered.


David and Angie had led almost separate lives for over three years now; in hindsight, it seems that David had decided to split from his wife at around the same time he decided to split from MainMan, back in 1974. Yet Angie was still an integral part of his public persona, and he would often pay tribute to her in public. Angie, however, was kept in the dark about David's plans, a victim of his oft-mentioned genius for “compartmentalising”. When Angie and her companion, Roy Martin, dropped in on the sessions, the chateau went into lockdown. David became suddenly unavailable. The musicians, like Carlos, had only the most cursory conversations with Angie, although on this occasion Carlos remembers Angie's new persona: “it was all, don't talk to me, I'm a big lesbian now, and me and [wife and singer] Robin were, What's all that about?” Alomar, meanwhile, would try and convince the musicians that all was normal: “Remember, as a bandleader it's up to me to be a buffer, so that none of that stuff influences the album.”


Throughout such travails, Iggy was David's prime confidant, joking around and lifting people out of any depressions (“he was inspirational,” says Alomar.) He would intervene in crises, such as the time there was a “big row with Angela,” says Visconti. “She sent her new boyfriend round to cheer up David, hahahaha!” There was shouting, the sound of glasses being thrown, a “massive fight” and Iggy and Visconti had to run in and pull David away from Roy. Breaking Glass, an almost literal description of the incident became a later addition to the album, as was Be My Wife. On the face of it, this was  a love song, asking a lover to marry him. Yet its real message was a request to the woman to whom he was already married, to act like a conventional, supportive wife: “Sometimes I get so lonely – sometimes I get nowhere.”  It's ironic, of course, that such an arresting, novel album should have a plea for convention at its heart – but such contradictions were always at the heart of David Bowie's career.


Roughly a dozen days into the recording the sessions took a new turn with the arrival of Brian Eno.  Brian had been working in the tiny German village of Forst with ambient pioneers Harmonia – comprising Neu's Michael Rother and Cluster's Hans-Joachim Roedelius and  Dieter Möbius - on the album eventually released as Tracks and Traces. Eno's appearance is remembered well by all of the musicians. Not just because he was intense, or brainy, or amusing, or any of the other adjectives associated with  him, but because he and David shared their doubts about what they were attempting: “We were halfway through,” says Young, “and this was when he decided to bring this music in; the music that had been turned down [from The Man Who Fell To Earth]. We all listened to it – but it was a little outside of my experience. And it wasn't only me.” With the bulk of Side One completed, Ricky and Carlos stayed on for overdubs on what would be Side Two, while Young and the rhythm section flew home. In those latter moments, Young did confront David about how the album would be shaped: “What kind of rock'n'roll is it?”, he asked him. “It's rock'n'roll... yet I'm not sure what it will be till we develop it,” David replied.


There is debate about which parts of TMWFTE made it to Low; David himself maintains there were only some parts of Subterraneans derived from the abortive sessions. Chateau engineer Laurent Thibault remembers conventional songs “like Burt Bacharach” were on the tapes brought in, that a bass drum and one string part surviving from a 24 track tape, and points out also that part  of Where In The World is another survivor, this time from The Idiot. Whatever the plans, the second half of Low was mainly constructed from scratch, rather than recycled. By now, David was disappearing to Paris for gruelling legal meetings with Michael Lippman's representatives. In his absence, Eno quizzed the engineers on how to use the MCI recording console, then told them: “I have sound, I'm fine,” and laboured away, painstakingly working out overdubs, on his own. Tony Visconti remembers that the principal song Eno came up with, the haunting, dystopian Warszawa, was inspired by three notes Brian heard Tony's son Morgan, picking out on the piano. (One early mix of the song, say insiders, also featured Bowie on harmonica).


The last days at the chateau were characterised by squabbling and ghost stories. Tony Visconti didn't get on with engineer Laurent Thibault – who'd been integral to the recording of The Idiot, and was becoming too intrusive. Meanwhile, Brian Eno in particular became convinced that he felt the spectral presence of Frederic Chopin and Georges Sand, star-crossed lovers who had once lived in the chateau. Brian developed a cough - “and Chopin died of consumption!” points out Gardiner. Thibault, who lived in the studio for years, at first plays down the stories - “the ghosts were in the echo chambers,” he says – but on further questioning there are stories of Ouiji board sessions, in which ghostly participants spoke perfect Polish: Chopin's native language. Finally, with the bulk of the recording done, David, Tony, Brian and Iggy decamped to Hansa Studio 1 in Berlin to complete Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. They were assisted by Edu Meyer – later a regular collaborator, he was initially called in to translate. Somehow, David discovered that Edu played cello and asked him to play on a final track, Art Decade: “I am a score-reading musician,” Eduard replied, “not an improvising one.” So David remembered his teenage years of arranging music on manuscript, and scribbled the part out for him. 


Notoriously, David Bowie's record company, RCA, hated the album, which was released in January 1977: “the attitude totally was, What are we going to do with this?” says then Head Of Press, Robin Eggar. Tony DeFries, the manager who'd overseen David's Ziggy breakthrough, was even more dismissive, describing it as a “piece of crap” that he refused to allow as part of David's contractual obligation towards him.


Today, the sound of Low so permeates our musical landscape that it's hard to understand the confusion and distaste it inspired. Recorded at a time when David was often low, or simply exhausted, today it sounds uplifting, a glorious evocation of a bright new future. One can only hope that, as David looks for a new label following the expiration of his deal with EMI, we will hear more of this landmark work – for there was “a lot of stuff”, says Carlos Alomar, that didn't make the cut. As it was, the confusion inspired by Low served only to exacerbate David Bowie's best quality: his fearlessness. The reaction of people like Defries and RCA only intensified David's new sense of destiny, a conviction that the experiment – “that might waste a month of our lives” was complete. Before the album was even released, he was already planning his next gamble.