There’s a great book to be written about Bowie & Iggy’s late-70’s Berlin phase, but this doesn’t quite make it. However, it does what it says on the tin - mostly - & its well produced with some good photos. Thomas Jerome Seabrook (TJS) has done plenty of research & some serious editing in writing & assembling this book, but it can’t conceal the book’s major weakness - its entirely based on old interviews & cuttings without any original research or new interviews. Also, TJS’s style & focus tend to be steady rather than inspired, although he does allow himself a bit more speculation/interpretation later in the book.
I’d have preferred a book exclusively on the Berlin phase - the combined perspective on how “low”, “the Idiot”, “Lust for life” & “Heroes” works really well & could have led in some intriguing directions (as hinted at in “Velvet Goldmine”). TJS never seems quite able to make up his mind on the connections between the albums. He begins by proposing a “Berlin Trilogy” of Bowie albums - Low/Heroes/Lodger - but by the end of the book gets in a right old tangle around “Lodger”, which has the same personnel (Bowie, Tony Visconti, Eno) as the previous albums but wasn’t actually recorded in Berlin. As TJS observes, Low & Heroes are about the only 2 Bowie albums which are basically the same musically & thematically (a great concern to Bowie at the time apparently). For that reason I’ve always thought of them as a pair - just as “Lodger” seems to have much more to do with the next album, “Scary Monsters” than the preceding ones.
The book begins with a rather unnecessary preamble of Bowie’s pre-Berlin career, which I’m sure anyone reading this book will already be familiar with. Still, there are merits to TJS’ relentlessly factual approach. I now know the exact dates of some Bowie gigs I saw where before I just about knew which year they were in.
Its fair enough for the book to set the scene by dealing with “Station to Station”, “Man who fell to earth” (sorry folks, there isn’t a lost masterpiece Bowie soundtrack after all), & the LA coke madhouse phase. But there’s rather too much google -derived digressing (once we get to Berlin) about Auden & Isherwood, German Expressionism etc. Bowie & Iggy’s battles with addiction & over-indulgence are handled with respect & a reasonable amount of insight.
The main structure of the book is a chapter dedicated to each of the 3 Bowie & 2 Iggy albums, followed by a track-by-track review of each album. This is a bit laboured, as it often tends to repeat quite a lot of what we’ve just read & go off into lists of studios/instruments etc. Still, bet you didn’t know that “Move On” (“Lodger”) is based on “All the Young Dudes” played backwards…
TJS does a workmanlike job of describing the many qualities of Low & Heroes, and gradually a picture emerges of Bowie (particularly when Eno is around) becoming much more disciplined & confident in his approach to music. Iggy, on the other hand, seems to swing wildly between inspiration & insecurity, especially once it became clear that RCA were only interested in promoting Bowie’s records. Luckily for him, advert fave “The Passenger” would prove to be his pension plan.
The last part of the book is a slightly breathless updating of the story & pretty straightforward party line analysis on Bowie’s influence on everyone from John Foxx, Gary Numan et al, up to Radiohead & Trent Reznor. I don’t think I’ve listened to an entire new Bowie album since the drum’n’bass one in ‘97. I’d rather remember him when he was ahead of the game.
This book never entirely manages to shake off its paste’n’scissors cuttings-job feel, but its well-written & much more carefully put together than a lot of the music books I read. it’s a good beginning point for anyone wanting to know about Bowie’s extraordinary career in the Seventies. It raises some interesting points regarding punk - which Bowie never quite “got” apparently - and how at the time, his work - although totally different - sat alongside the new punk sounds without any problem. Anyway, barriers weren’t always clear then, any more than they are now. We dashed out to buy “Low” the morning it came out - & got Steve Miller Band’s “Fly like an Eagle” album at the same time, went home to play them both (“Low” about 5 times in succession), before going down to Camden to buy a load of Lee Perry hardcore dub 45’s. I’ve got a huge love for “Station to Station” & “Diamond Dogs”, but for me “Low” is still the album that does it every time. There’s an extraordinary narcotic glaze to the sound, & the songs feel like dreams you’d rather wake up from but can’t.
Thomas Jerome Seabrook can’t quite convey this passion & avoids the more personal subtexts of the Bowie/Iggy story but if you want a straightforward account of how some amazing music was made at a pretty strange time, and an excuse to listen to some extraordinary albums, this’ll do fine.
Reviewed by Den Browne