Review: David Bowie’s Heroically Experimental Berlin Era Explored in 11-CD Box Set
No period in David Bowie‘s career is more curious than the trilogy of albums he recorded in the late Seventies while living in Berlin’s artsy Schöneberg district. They’re defiantly uncommercial, stacking soundtrack-y, atmospheric soundscapes alongside pop songs, and they’re bizarrely endearing – “The hin-ter-land, the hin-ter-land/We’re gonna sail to the hinterland,” goes one catchy-yet-strange passage in Lodger’s “Red Sails.” Stranger yet maybe, this era produced one of his most enduring hits, the anthemic “Heroes,” which has been covered by everyone from Oasis to Peter Gabriel and Janelle Monáe. The period, defined by Bowie’s collaborations with Brian Eno, was so far-out (even for the former spaceman) that it frustrated his record label and caused a slight dip in his popularity (all of his albums from this period have yet to be certified even gold), though the tales of Bowie’s drug-and-alcohol-fueled romps with Iggy Pop and musical experimentation at the time have become the subject of multiple books.
Now a new box set, A New Career in a New Town (1977 – 1982), is offering a freshly polished look at the time. It contains 1977’s brilliant and sprawling Low and “Heroes” LPs, 1978’s live outing Stage, 1979’s avant-rock experiment Lodger and 1980’s only slightly poppier Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), the last of which, recorded in New York, was intended as a return to commercialism, though it still reads like fractured pop. Additionally, the collection features an EP containing German and French versions of “Heroes,” an expanded version of Stage, a new remix of Lodger by co-producer Tony Visconti and Re:Call 3, a compilation of single versions, non-album tracks and B-sides. It also includes a hardcover book with lively, insightful liner notes full of behind-the-scenes stories by Visconti, as well as images of handwritten lyrics, alternate album covers and rare and previously unpublished photos galore.
The collection is a brilliant portrait of the most artistic era of Bowie’s career (after Scary Monsters he demanded that producer Nile Rodgers help him make pop hits on 1983’s Let’s Dance). But looking at A New Career in a New Town, it’s a pity there’s not even more music from this period to dig into. The only previously unreleased tracks here are live versions of “The Jean Genie” and “Suffragette City,” which appear on the new Stage. Moreover, the box is missing nearly all the period-specific bonus tracks that accompanied Bowie’s early Nineties reissues of the albums via Rykodisc, which remain mostly scattered across compilations like iSelect and All Saints, though some of those tracks have never been reissued. Also absent are some of the rarities from the era, such as various live recordings like the two Earls Court recordings that appeared on RarestOneBowie, the bizarre “Revolutionary Song” he recorded with the Rebels for the Just a Gigolo soundtrack and the instrumental cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” that Bowie recorded around Scary Monsters.
Instead, the rarities here are the CD debuts of Bowie’s Baal EP (a curious selection of melodramatic renditions of Bertolt Brecht’s story songs), an extended version of the “Heroes” single “Beauty and the Beast” (which makes the song a bit more danceable and disco-ish) and a single mix of Low’s “Breaking Glass” that was available only in Australia and doesn’t add much to the conversation.
Track-list quibbles aside, the box set features a brilliant new remastering job and Visconti’s new take on Lodger. It’s interesting that of all the albums here, he chose to fluff up the least celebrated album of the Berlin triptych. While Low gets credit for taking the nihilistic, progressive sounds of 1976’s Station to Station to dark new places and “Heroes” is the popular favorite because of the title track, Lodger is generally busier and more complex, straddling commercial pop song structures with patently obtuse melodies and lyrics. (Incidentally, it’s the only album of the three for which Bowie crafted the lyrics, rather than improvising them after the tracks were complete.)
Although the megalomaniacal “D.J.” and sexually charged “Boys Keep Swinging” both charted well as singles in the U.K., the rest of the record is an awesome mélange of syncopated percussion, off-kilter melodies and unusual paint-splatter guitar solos, bolstered by outside-of-the-box decisions made with Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards. Visconti’s original ’79 mix was able to fit it all in, down to minute details (the thumping, funky bass in “Boys Keep Swinging” leaps out), so, at first, it seems unusual he’d fidget with it. But Bowie expressed dissatisfaction with the mix, once saying Visconti “didn’t take enough care mixing [it].” (Visconti explains in the liner notes that he felt he never had the opportunity to give it a proper mix in 1979 since it was a time when all the studios were booked.)
Unsurprisingly, the new mix, much of which Bowie approved before his death, loosens the sound of the album up a bit. There are no new takes on the songs – no significant restored cutting-room castaways – but there is a greater emphasis on orchestral strings, and the percussion sometimes comes out of different speakers. Everything feels generally lighter, especially in musically dense tracks like “Red Money” and “Yassassin.” It makes the original mix sound even muddier by comparison.
The only thing A New Career in a New Town is missing, at least for the diehard
fans who would buy a lavish box set like this, is more of everything – more
rarities, more photos, more stories. But that’s also precisely why this period
in Bowie’s career remains captivating. There’s enough curious music here to
last several lifetimes.