Lyrics and themes

The Berlin Wall symbolised David Bowie’s detachment from prevailing musical fashions, which in 1977 were dominated by two contrasting styles, disco and punk.

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. The few punk bands I saw in Berlin struck me as being sort of post-’69 Iggy and it seemed like he’d already done that. Though I 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 I could think of.
David Bowie
Uncut, April 2001

Having led trends and played the Pied Piper for much of the 1970s, Bowie chose instead to immerse himself in the cultures of Berlin, with its cabaret, drag clubs and late-night drinking dens.

We would go out at night to the darker elements of the city, to the underground subway red-light districts, just to walk around and check out all the decadence. I would say that his mental stimulation was at an all-time high at that point. It was actually a very good period; there was a lot of clarity to David at that point, in that he was back to being a literary person, very interested in the politics of the day, knowing the news, which I found amazing because he never cared about that. Obviously, there were other things on his mind than doing his record.
Carlos Alomar
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie’s move to Berlin was made partly to wean himself off cocaine, following a crippling addiction while living in Los Angeles during the mid-Seventies. “I moved out of the coke centre of the world into the smack centre of the world,” he said in 1991. “Thankfully, I didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat.”

Although he still used cocaine sporadically well into the 1980s, it was to a far lesser degree, and to all intents and purposes he kicked his addiction in Berlin. While making “Heroes” he instead drank heavily, which made its mark in his lyrics, most notably on the title track and ‘Blackout’.

It’s louder and harder and played with more energy. 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.
David Bowie
Uncut, April 2001

As well finding inspiration in the art and literature of Germany, the influence of Krautrock bands such as Kraftwerk, Can and Neu! was evident. Neu!’s guitarist Michael Rother had been approached to play on Low, but was unavailable; their album Neu ’75 had contained a track called ‘Hero’.

The affection was two-way: Kraftwerk ‘Trans-Europe Express’, released in March 1977, mentioned travelling “From station to station/Back to Dusseldorf City/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”, and the band’s Florian Schneider was in turn name checked in the title of Bowie’s ‘V-2 Schneider’.

Now I’m fit and happy and well again. I’m enjoying the process of work for the first time in years. It’s more than work. That’s why I say that I’m not interested in posterity.

I’m now concerned with my work being appreciated on a more personal level. Once I had all those big dreams. Oh I had all those big dreams, man. I had them until I learned about simply enjoying the process of working and the process of living.

David Bowie
Melody Maker, 29 October 1977

1977 also saw Bowie confront his fear of flying, and he travelled to England, the USA, Canada, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Japan. This itinerant lifestyle and exposure to different cultures, in conjunction with Berlin’s cosmopolitan nature, presented itself in the “Japanese influence” of ‘Blackout’ and ‘Moss Garden’, as well as the Middle Eastern sounds of ‘Neuköln’ and ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’.

Although Bowie’s lyrics often indicated nervousness and tension, the recording sessions were reportedly relaxed and enjoyable.

We spent a lot of time laughing, actually. Laughing at ourselves, laughing at our pretentiousness and at some of the stuff that came out and never got on to the album. It was rich with self-parody as well as a lot of inventive ideas. There’s a sense of foreboding that one wouldn’t have expected to come out of that environment, but it did. [Berlin] is not a relaxed place, certainly, and it produces a kind of nervous mirth – whistling in the dark.
David Bowie
The Observer, 20 November 1977