David Bowie is most famous for his glam rock creation Ziggy Stardust, but his best and most interesting work centres around his ‘Berlin period’ – the three years he spent living in Berlin, producing the experimental electronic albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. At least that’s what the man himself thinks, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
So you can imagine my delight when Santa left me a copy of Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s new book, Bowie in Berlin, telling the story of this period of Bowie’s career. It’s a great read and full of lessons for the aspiring artist and creative entrepreneur. Here’s what I’ve got from it so far:
1. Zag When Others Zig
In the mid-70s Bowie kept his audience on their toes with a series of changes of direction. He famously ‘killed’ Ziggy Stardust at the height of his fame, when it looked easier and more profitable to carry on down the same glam rock path. He then went to America and attempted an ambitious rock musical (Diamond Dogs) which he abandoned mid-tour, ditching the expensive sets in favour of a stripped down stage on which he played the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans. Just as people were getting used to Bowie the soul singer, he left America for Europe and started dabbling in experimental electronic music.
Brian Eno described these shifts as attempts to “duck the momentum of a successful career” and keep his work fresh and interesting, for himself as much as for his audience. Bowie’s record company wasn’t always so enthusiastic – when the experimental album Low was handed into RCA it was met with “mild panic”:
one executive famously declared that he would buy Bowie a house in Philadelphia if he would, please, make another Young Americans.
Takeaway: Keep asking yourself – “What’s my obvious next move? Is it also the smartest/most interesting move?”
2. If You’re Always Crashing in the Same Car, Get Out
When Bowie first went to America he found it fresh and artistically stimulating. But by the time he recorded Young Americans and Station to Station he was on a downward spiral, shut away for long periods in his Los Angeles home, his paranoia fueled by cocaine and books about black magic and fascism. On the surface he had the dream lifestyle of an artistic celebrity, but in reality he knew he was destroying himself, and it was time for a complete change of scene.
Takeaway: If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something different.
3. Make the Most of Other People’s Talent
Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Nicholas Roeg, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti – these are just some of the better-known names with whom Bowie collaborated during his Berlin period. Others included obscure session musicians who couldn’t believe their luck when they found themselves in the studio with a superstar. Like the young guitarist Phil Palmer, who was at his Mum’s house when he received a call from David Bowie asking him to drop in and help out with some guitar work. Robert Fripp was unavailable and Bowie considered his own attempts at the guitar parts to be substandard – so without standing on ceremony, Bowie directed this virtual unknown to do a better job than he could himself.
Although best known as a front man, Bowie had a gift for collaboration, finding the right partners to create something bigger and better than any of them could do individually. Often, this meant drafting in musicians to help with his own albums, but he could also take direction from others (e.g. Nick Roeg, director of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie starred) or remain in the background, pulling strings and directing others’ talents (as the producer of Iggy Pop’s albums The Idiot and Lust for Life).
Takeaway: Multiply your talents with creative partnerships.
4. Give Yourself Culture Shock
After the opulence and celebrity culture of Los Angeles, the austerity and anonymity of Cold War Berlin was a deliberate culture shock for Bowie. His stated intention was to “find some people you don’t understand and a place you don’t want to be and just put yourself into it”. In LA, drugs, sex and other commodities were only a phone call away – but Berlin was a place where you “force yourself to buy your own groceries”:
“Nobody gives a shit about you in Berlin,” said Bowie. The city’s vague aggregation of social misfits, draft dodgers, and struggling artists had more than enough problems of their own to be worrying about an ex-pat British pop star.
Apart from the personal disorientation that came from losing his celebrity status, the political and social tensions within a city divided by the Berlin Wall had a profound influence on the edgy, alienated music he produced while living there.
Takeaway: If you’re stuck in a creative rut, go somewhere that will disorient you.
5. There’s a Time and a Place for Mucking About
Seabrook has a healthy scepticism about some of the wilder rumours about Bowie’s behaviour and state of mind while in LA, but Bowie himself has admitted that he seriously lost the plot during this period of his life. Seabrook concludes that he was frequently “not of sound mind” due to his drug intake and occcult obsessions. This resulted in a gap of several months between recordings, and he screwed up a few TV interviews with some pretty eccentric performances. But he still maintained a remarkable rate of artistic production, and the impression I get from the book is that, when it really mattered, Bowie was able to put his problems on hold – or use his work as a cathartic channel – and get down to business. Cocaine seems to have been a normal part of the creative process for musicians on the LA scene at the time, fueling marathon recording sessions. And Bowie seems to have largely stuck to his resolve to leave drugs alone during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth, stabilising his mental condition and turning in the best acting performance of his career.
In this respect, Bowie was in marked contrast to Iggy Pop during the same period. For all his excesses, Bowie managed to maintain a productive output and the status and trappings of fame. According to Seabrook, Iggy was living in “a nomadic, shambolic lifestyle, largely reliant on the kindness of friends and acquaintances who put him up and put up with him as he continued to fight a seemingly endless battle with heroin addiction”. Bumping into him on Sunset Boulevard, Bowie tried to help his friend by booking studio time to record a solo Iggy Pop album. But when Iggy failed to turn up for the second day’s recording, after a night of overindulgence, Bowie was furious and abandoned the project. To me, this vignette offers a glimpse of a disciplined, workaholic side of Bowie: when it was time to work, the work came first.
Takeaway: Know the difference between work and play. Mix the two up if you like, but be prepared to make sacrifices when it’s time to get down to work.
6. A Sound Business Model Makes up for a Multitude of Sins
One of the reasons Bowie was able to ‘coast’ during periods of indulgence without hitting the skids like Iggy was that he had a well oiled money-making machine in place. Notwithstanding disputes with and sackings of managers, he had a close-knit team of personal assistants and administrators who made sure things got done and he got paid.
Iggy was greatly impressed and inspired by the professionalism of the Bowie operation: Rolling into towns across America and Europe without a hitch, playing to crowds of thousands night after night, and making a tidy profit along the way, all the while maintaining a steady stream of high quality recorded output.
On the face of it, this wasn’t quite as rock ‘n’ roll as Iggy’s wild child persona, but it actually meant that a lot more rock ‘n’ roll got made. Bowie’s business sense not only saved him – and Iggy – from personal disaster, it meant he was in a position to help Iggy get his career back on track with the classic albums The Idiot and Lust for Life.
Takeaway: Explore and test different business models. Invest time and effort up front to create business systems that will take care of you – and your creativity – in the long term.
7. Trust Your Curiosity
Bowie has been criticised for being a cultural magpie, dabbling in various genres and cherry picking themes and styles for his own purposes. To me, this is one of the things that makes him interesting. As Oscar Wilde said, “talent borrows, genius steals”. To the uninformed, Bowie’s career during the 70s looks like a series of huge artistic leaps, but Seabrook shows that at every stage, he was assembling and building on influences in other people’s work. What sets them apart from more predictable artists was a restless curiosity that led him to explore different genres. Eno and Kraftwerk were two prominent influences on Bowie’s new electronic direction, but for him they were just two among several European artists working in similar territory, including Neu!, Faust, Tangerine Dream and Cluster.
Takeaway: Keep following up on your curiosity and hunches – you never know what they might lead to.
8. Embrace New Technology
One of the things that Tony Visconti brought to the Low sessions was a machine that “fucks with the fabric of time” – an early form of sampler, capable of capturing and distorting sounds. This resulted in what Rolling Stone magazine described as “one of rock’s all-time most imitated drum sounds”. Not to be outdone, Brian Eno turned up with an equally futuristic piece of kit:
His main tool was his current calling card, the EMS Synthi A, a ‘synthesiser in a briefcase’ comprising three oscillators and a patchbay system, controlled by joystick rather than a keyboard, which he used both to add colourful flourishes of his own and to manipulate the sound of parts played by the other musicians
Takeaway: Look for technology that opens up new creative possibilities. Hang around with people who know about the latest developments.
9. Don’t Assume It Will Be Difficult
Right from the start of the Low sessions, producer Tony Visconti made sure that recording tapes were rolling at all times, as he knew from experience that what Bowie might consider to be rehearsals and demos “could end up as masters, and they did”:
Bowie had originally assumed that the sessions would result merely in a collection of demos to use as a starting point for a ‘proper’ new record. But when Visconti made him a tape of what they’d done during the first two weeks, Bowie realised that, to his surprise and amazement, they were well on the way to making an album.
Takeaway: Be prepared to work hard, but don’t throw out ‘throwaway’ material without having a good look at it – you may have done a better job than you realise.
10. Rock Stars Get Special Treatment
The Man Who Fell to Earth has stood the test of time as Bowie’s greatest screen role, but in retrospect he was lucky it happened at all, considering his behaviour when the prospective director, Nick Roeg, requested an initial meeting:
[Bowie] arrived eight hours late – he had first forgotten that he was supposed to meet Roeg, and then assumed that the director would not have bothered waiting, so busied himself elsewhere. Eventually, Bowie returned to his rented New York residence in the early hours to find Roeg sitting at the kitchen table.
I guess we could all measure our reputation and influence by imagining how long the director would have waited for us at that table. Eight hours? Four hours? Five minutes if you’re lucky? I’m not suggesting we should all aspire to extravagantly inconsiderate behaviour, but if you want opportunities to come to you – even wait for you, on occasion – the smartest career move you can make is to build a reputation for yourself as a creative rock star.
Takeaway: Initiate creative projects that will build your reputation. Take commissions and do client work if you need to pay the bills, but don’t rely on this in the long term. And don’t act like a prima donna if you haven’t earned it.
Over to You
Which of these lessons resonate most strongly for you?
For the Bowie fans – what other lessons do you draw from his career?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.