I think if you care about David Bowie, choose to wear a David Bowie t-shirt, list David Bowie as an influence and name drop David Bowie in a sentence in order to illustrate your musical credentials and you don’t own or care about this era of
his career then I really wonder about whether you actually “get” or “understand” David Bowie. I am of course being harsh and elitist with that attitude and I understand that things like “taste” and “resonance” come into play but at the end of the day it comes down to at least having a healthy respect for this radical period. I totally get and understand that people have different reasons for engaging an artist as long-term as David Bowie but if you want a place to start or want to escape the “best of” route then I think the first three albums you should own by David Bowie are:
It is simple artistic mathematics and good business for your music career to own these records.
So what makes these albums and this era so vital and so important?
The answer to that is quite simple really. I reckon “The Berlin Era” is quite a monumental piece of the David Bowie discography. This era contains albums that any serious lover of music should own, you know that whole “ahead of its” time spiel. This is the kind of pop music I love, songs that are saturated in hooks and weirdness. Although Bowie’s vision is front and centre of it all I think the influence of his environment and the minds of Tony Visconti and Brian Eno also helped elevate these album to new heights. I think a real artist does their best to make the audience uncomfortable and these albums certainly do that. Some people can view the kind of “career suicide” Bowie conducted on these albums as self-indulgent trash, but I think in the case of the whole Berlin Trilogy Bowie made a vital movement of music that helped free him from being just a hit factory. That kind of boldness and radical thinking from any artist will always get top marks from me.
When I listen to the albums from this era I hear how influential they have been to so many different artists. Without them I often wonder if a band like U2 would have bothered with Eno and if Radiohead would have had the balls to do something like Kid A. I also hear how this album could have given ideas to all the post rock fiends that have filled the last decade with their rising crescendos and mood drones and I’m fairly certain that Sonic Youth would have tasted the greatness of this era and in their own way paid tribute to it. Then of course there is the whole trip-hop and other influential modern electronic artists that no doubt at some point saw what Bowie was doing with these records and made a whole genre out of it. That is the most basic reason for me liking these albums as much as I do, because of its influence in terms of evolving music. To modern ears it probably sounds dated, but at the time it would have been extremely radical. It still sounds radical to me and the first time I heard them was in 2004 when I was only 20 going on 21.
Individually, each album plays out like a movie soundtrack with “Low” and “Heroes” in particular having a clear Side A and Side B divide of pop songs (side a) and avant-garde instrumentals (side b). This is what makes “Low” and “Heroes” in particular so strong and such forward thinking albums. When you introduce “Lodger” into this equation you get the beautiful finale which brings the weirdness and the pop music skills all together which results in 10 strong songs that provide the perfect full endpoint to a truly experimental period. At the end of the day, the re-invention had been achieved and Bowie really opened up his career to a new direction. The ache of Bowie’s latest single carries the echoes of what he started on the Berlin Trilogy and I do believe that his new album will be saturated in the kind of forward thinking avant-gardisms that he illustrated during this period of time.
So let me breakdown each album for you and outline why I like them so much.
From the opening notes of “Speed Of Life” you get the opening credits feel and it segues wonderfully into “Breaking Glass” another interlude moment that gives birth to a movement of pop music brilliance “What In The World,” “Sound and Vision,” “Always Crashing The Same Car” and “Be My Wife.” After another small interlude moment (“A New Career in Town”) the real beauty of this album occurs. The movement of instrumental brilliance that includes “Warszawa,” “Art Decade,” “Weeping Wall” and “Subterraneans” is just so unbelievably beautiful. It is incredibly visual and you just surrender to the electronic swoons of it all. There is pain, there is passion and although it unfolds in a very minimal way the music itself engulfs every part of your being. On a dark highway driving it will open your heart to the swoon of the ache, lying flat on your back with the lights turned off in your room and the headphones on it will take you deep inside your mind and help give you the space to answer some deep philosophical questions. It will haunt you and fuck, it will make you shiver. The best part of all is that it will keep you wanting more and you will reach to press repeat on the stereo over and over again. Like all good trilogy’s it is the perfect introduction to the drama.
Much like “Low” this album opens up with a series of great pop songs but something about “Heroes” is different. This is a darker album all round and that tad bit weirder. I debate a lot but lately I think I’m willing to put “Heroes” forth as my favourite from this era, purely for its darkness. It is almost mysterious in the way it executes itself across the course of ten tracks. More to the point, the album contains one of Bowie’s greatest songs, the title track “Heroes.” One of the most recognisable songs across the history of pop music, it is a beautiful piece of sound. Once again the real shining stars on this album are the instrumental tracks “V-2 Schneider,” “Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neukoln” which again bend and twist all kinds of drones together to birth some of the first forays into electronic music. It is visually dark and is a wonderful soundtrack to any lonely moment of joy. Adhering to the rules of a trilogy, the album sees the drama become a tragedy with a redemption buzzing on the horizon.
This album ends the trilogy with class and with the feeling of peace being restored to the galaxy. It still hums with darkness but there is a triumphant feel to all ten tracks. This is a pure pop record that takes the early feels of “Low” and “Heroes” and wraps it up in songs proper. No instrumental passages which at first may take the edge out of the album but in reality it doesn’t. The same drone can be heard in the arrangements; Bowie clearly found the way to mix that in with his songs proper. There is the melancholy stalking each sunny moment ensuring that we don’t get total resolve. Each song slithers along with a patient understanding of the avant-garde but it doesn’t fully descend into weirdness. By the time the last notes of “Red Money” have rung out you can almost see the rolling end credits and in a strange way it carries the hints of the opening track from Iggy Pop’s album “The Idiot” – Sister Midnight – (which Bowie helped write and produce) as if we get the finale but the hint of the new chapter. It’s a fucking glorious movement of pop music.
So there is my analysis of David Bowie’s most creative series of albums. Everything he has done has been monumental and amazing, but these three albums saw Bowie take a bold new direction. It sounded radical then and it sounds radical now. I’m not going to post youtube links for you because I believe if you’re a true believer in music you will do your best to go out and do your own research and purchase accordingly.
I hope these albums change your life the way they have changed mine.
Big Love xo
By Dan Newton