Uncut Interviews
David Bowie on Berlin
The Real "Uncut" Version

David at Hansa Studios


UNCUT: Many reasons have been suggested for moving to Berlin: the local art and music scene, to escape superstardom, for spiritual and physical detox - plus the creative stimulation of being in an isolated, edgy, divided city. Are these theories accurate? Can you remember why the city appealed?

db: Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway.

Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk's Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.

Much has been made of Kraftwerks influence on our Berlin albums. Most of it lazy analyses I believe. Kraftwerks approach to music had in itself little place in my scheme. Theirs was a controlled, robotic, extremely measured series of compositions, almost a parody of minimalism. One had the feeling that Florian and Ralph were completely in charge of their environment, and that their compositions were well prepared and honed before entering the studio. My work tended to expressionist mood pieces, the protagonist (myself) abandoning himself to the 'zeitgeist' (a popular word at the time), with little or no control over his life. The music was spontaneous for the most part and created in the studio.

In substance too, we were poles apart. K.'s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only 'moved' but also was expressed in more than 'human' fashion. K. supported that unyielding machinelike beat with all synthetic sound generating sources. We used an R&B band. Since 'Station To Station' the hybridization of R&B and electronics had been a goal of mine. Indeed according to a 70's interview with Brian Eno, this is what had drawn him to working with me. (QUOTE).

One other lazy observation I would like to point up, btw, is the assumption that 'Station To Station' was homage to K's 'Trans-Europe Express'. In reality 'S to S' preceded 'Trans' by quite some time, 76 and 77 respectively.

Btw, the title drives from the Stations of the Cross and not the railway system.

What I WAS passionate about in relation to K. was their singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music. This was their very important influence on me.

Interesting sidebar. My original top of my wish list for guitar player on LOW was Michael Dinger, from Neu. Neu being passionate, even diametrically opposite to K.

I phoned Dinger from France in the first few days of recording but in the most polite and diplomatic fashion he said 'No'

UNCUT: Some biographers speculate the Berlin era was an instinctive reaction to the mid-Seventies ethos of punk rock - dressed down, blunt, serious, doom-laden, emotionally raw. A plausible theory?

db:Whether it was my befuddled brain or because of the lack of impact of the English variety of punk in the US, the whole movement was virtually over by the time it lodged itself in my awareness. Completely passed me by. The few punk bands that I saw in Berlin struck me as being sort of post 1969 Iggy and it seemed like he'd already done that. Though I do regret not being around for the whole Pistols Circus as that kind of entertainment would have done more for my depressed disposition than just about anything else that I could think of.

Of course, I had met them fairly early on when I was touring with Iggy, at least Johnny and Sid. John was obviously quite in awe of Jim but on the occasion of meeting Sid, Sid was near catatonic and I felt very bad for him. He was so young and in such need of help.

As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track 'Station'. It's often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album.

UNCUT: Was there ever a serious plan to record with Kraftwerk, as some biographers claim?

db: No, not at any time. We met a few times socially but that was as far as it went.

UNCUT: Did you cruise the autobahns listening to 'Autobahn' non-stop, as Ralf Hutter once insisted?

db: Certainly on the streets of LA in 1975, yes. But by Berlin Autobahn was rather last years news. So, in short , no..

UNCUT: Were there any meetings or planned collaborations with other 'Krautrock' bands like Cluster, Neu! or Tangerine Dream?

db: Not at all. I knew Edgar Froesse and his wife socially but I never met the others as I had no real inclination to go to Dusseldorf as I was very single minded about what I needed to do in the studio in Berlin.

db: I took it upon myself to introduce Eno to the Dusseldorf sound with which he was very taken, Connie Plank et al ( also to Devo btw who in turn had been introduced to me by Iggy) and Brian eventually made it up there to record with some of them.


UNCUT: Generally perceived as David at his most emotionally honest, but most unhappy. Looking back, is this interpretation accurate?

db: Yes, it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.

Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It's a city eight times bigger than Paris remember and so easy to 'get lost' in and to 'find' oneself too..

UNCUT: Is it true that Chateau d'Herouville was haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand, and David refused to sleep in the master bedroom because it was spooked? Did this affect the record's mood?

db: It was a spooky place. I did refuse one bedroom, as it felt impossibly cold in certain areas of it. To my knowledge though, the place itself had no bearing on the form or tonality of the work. The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot.

UNCUT: There are rumours that Robert Fripp was involved, but uncredited. Was he?

db: No.

UNCUT: Rumour also has it that an alternative version exists with different lyrics - is this true, and if so, why?

db: If there had been different lyrics to anything, then I'm sure they would have been working lyrics or 'placement' words to identify a melody that I wanted to use. I do remember singing joke words to some of the melodies but I frequently do that when I'm getting a feel for where I want it to go. Tony would have wiped or recorded over them when I put down final vocals. I'm not aware of any existing alternative versions.

UNCUT: The couplet in 'Breaking Glass which begins "don't look at the carpet" - is this a reference to drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the floor in LA?

db: Well, it is a contrived image, yes. It refers to both the cabbalistic drawings of the tree of life and the conjuring of spirits.

UNCUT: Is it true that 'Weeping Wall', 'Subterraneans' and 'Some Are' were left over from David's proposed soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth?

db: The only hold over from the proposed soundtrack that I actually used was the reverse bass part in Subterraneans. Everything else was written for LOW.


UNCUT: Widely seen as a more upbeat and positive album than 'Low'. Is this accurate?

db: It's louder and harder and played with more energy in a way. But lyrically it seems far more psychotic. By now I was living full time in Berlin so my own mood was good. Buoyant even. But those lyrics come from a nook in the unconscious. Still a lot of house cleaning going on I feel.

UNCUT: The album was mostly written in the studio and completed in very quick takes. Correct? Was there an intent behind this method?

db: A couple were very definitely first and only takes. I think the rest were probably run at two or more times until the feel was right. With such great musicians the notes were never in doubt so we looked at 'feel' as being the priority.

Most of my vocals were first takes, some written as I sang. Most famously 'Joe the Lion' I suppose. I would put the headphones on, stand at the mike, listen to a verse, jot down some key words that came into mind then take. Then I would repeat the same process for the next section etc. It was something that I learnt from working with Iggy and I thought a very effective way of breaking normality in the lyric.

UNCUT: It is often said that the album sleeve was an allusion to Gramatte's self-portrait, or to Heckel's Roquairol - is either of these correct? And did the Heckel painting also inspire Iggy's 'The Idiot' cover?

db: Heckel's 'Roquairol' and also his print from 1910 or thereabouts called 'Young Man.'s was a major influence on me as a painter. I personally couldn't stand Gramatte. He was wishy washy imo. I have seen the Grammatte in question but no, it was Heckel.

UNCUT: Is there a creative connection between the Brucke school of painting and this album?

db: Explained elsewhere I hope.

UNCUT: Eno says he and David spent most of the sessions doing Peter Cook and Dudley Moore voices, the recording was a real laugh, and that David was virtually living on one raw egg a day. True?

db: We certainly had our share of schoolboy giggling fits. I think that 'most of the sessions' is a little bit of an exaggeration. However, Brian and I did have Pete and Dud done pretty pat. Long dialogues about John Cage performing on a 'prepared layer' at the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road and such like. Quite silly.

I was eating extremely well as my drug intake was practically zero. I would eat a couple of raw eggs to start the day or finish it, with pretty big meals in between. Lots of meat and veg, thanks mum. Brian would start his day with a cup full of boiling water into which he would cut huge lumps of garlic. He was no fun to do backing vocals with on the same mike.

UNCUT: Conflicting stories: "Heroes" was inspired by (a) Two lovers David observed standing by the Berlin Wall, (b) Tony Visconti and Antonia Maass kissing by the Wall, (c) Otto Mueller's painting 'Lovers Between Garden Walls' (d) all of the above? (e) None of these.

db: I'd prefer Tony to answer this.

UNCUT: Conflicting stories: 'Blackout' is a reference to David collapsing in Berlin, or to the New York City power cut of 1977 - both of these? Neither?

db: It did indeed refer to power cuts. I can't in all honesty say that it was the NY one, though it is entirely likely that that image locked itself in my head. (you would have to check the date of both the recording and the NY blackout to make an intelligent assumption.)

UNCUT: 'V2 Schneider' - a tribute to Florian?

db: Of course.


UNCUT: An album which really divides Bowie fans - it is either devout love or total indifference. Can you understand both reactions?

db: I think Tony and I would both agree that we didn't take enough care mixing. This had a lot to do with my being distracted by personal events in my life and I think Tony lost heart a little because it never came together as easily as both Low and Heroes had. I would still maintain though that there are a number of really important ideas on Lodger. If I had more e time I would explore them for you... but... you can probably pick them out as easily.

UNCUT: Moving away from pure electronic sounds - was this a deliberate strategy to stay ahead of the synthesizercopycat bands who were busy aping 'Low' and "Heroes"?

db: I think it's the lack of instrumentals that give you the impression that our process was different. It really wasn't though. It was a lot more mischievous though. Brian and I did play a number of 'art pranks' on the band. They really didn't go down too well though. Especially with Carlos who tends to be quite 'grand'.

UNCUT: Was the backwards tape of 'All The Young Dudes' for 'Move On' originally an accident? And does this song have any connection to the unfinished Iggy collaboration 'Moving On'?

db: Not really an accident but I did stumble upon it. I had put one of my reel to reel tapes on backwards by mistake and really quite liked the melody it created. So I played quite a few more in this fashion and chose five or six that were really quite compelling. Dudes was the only one to make the album, as I didn't want to abandon the 'normal' writing I was doing completely. But it was a worthwhile exercise in my mind. It has the same title as the song I wrote for Iggy. But as the one for Jim was a working title, I passed it onto the Lodger song.

UNCUT: The final refrain in 'Red Money' - "project cancelled". Is this significant? A curtain being drawn on the Eno triptych?

db: Not at all. Mere whimsy.

UNCUT: What is 'cricket menace'?

db: Little crickety sounds that Brian produced from a combination of my drum machine ( I would and still do, use one to write with when I'm on my own) and his 'briefcase' synth. You can hear them on African Nightflight.

UNCUT: Moving to New York - had Berlin served its purpose? Was New York chosen for musical reasons?

db: I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better. It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience and probably the happiest time in my life up until that point. Coco, Jim and I had so many great times. But I just can't express the feeling of freedom I felt there. Some days the three of us would jump into the car and drive like crazy through East Germany and head down to the Black Forest, stopping off at any small village that caught our eye. Just go for days at a time. Or we'd take long all afternoon lunches at the Wannsee on winter days. The place had a glass roof and was surrounded by trees and still exuded an atmosphere of the long gone Berlin of the twenties. At night we'd hang with the intellectuals and beats at the Exile restaurant in Kreutzberg. In the back they had this smoky room with a billiard table and it was sort of like another living room except the company was always changing.

Sometimes we'd go shopping at Ka De We, the giant department store in the Centre of West Berlin, which had the hugest food counters anyone could imagine with displays that are only imaginable in a country which either must have been seriously deprived of food at one time or where the populace just plain likes to eat alot. We'd stock up occasionally on what felt like luxuries at the time like chocolates or a small tin of caviar. One day, while we were out, Jim had come in and ate everything in the fridge we had spent all morning shopping for. It was one of the few times that Co and I were truly mad at him. I could write a lot more on all this... but.

I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better. Jim decided to stay on a while longer as he had pretty much hitched up with a girl he's met there and had by now gotten his own apartment, next door to ours.. Then Elephant Man came up, which caused me to be in the US for a considerable spell. Then Berlin was ...over.


UNCUT: David and Iggy apparently met Giorgio Moroder during sessions for 'The Idiot'. Was there ever a plan to work with him on that record, or 'Low' or "Heroes"?

db: No.

UNCUT: Iggy claims 'Lust For Life' was written by David in front of the TV in Berlin, on a ukelele, with a rhythm copied from the tapping Morse Code beat of the Forces Network theme. Is this the case?

db: Absolutely.

UNCUT: A 'Stage' tour film was shot by David Hemmings at Earl's Court. Why was it never released?

db: I simply didn't like the way it had been shot. Now, of course, it looks pretty good and I would suspect that it would make it out some time in the future.

UNCUT: The Berlin albums are now widely seen as foundation stones of post-punk/ambient/electronica/world music. Does this surprise you?

db: No.

UNCUT: Were you aware of their importance when you were making them?

db: Yes, yes, yes.

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done. Nothing else sounded like those albums. Nothing else came close. If I never made another album it really wouldn't matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.

Close window