The TV broadcast
The BBC retitled Alan Clarke’s production David Bowie In Baal. It was screened on BBC 1 at 9.25pm on Tuesday 2 March 1982. However, it was scheduled against another drama on ITV – A Voyage Round My Father, John Mortimer’s memoir starring Laurence Olivier in one of his final roles, was a critical success which garnered much press attention, and duly trounced Baal in the ratings.
On BBC One now, a star vehicle for a big star – Bertolt Brecht’s first character creation, the anarchic genius Baal, is portrayed in tonight’s television presentation by David Bowie…
In the studio
The five songs on the Baal EP were re-recorded over two days at Hansa Studios in Berlin. They were Bowie’s final recordings in the city, and also his last collaboration for nearly two decades with co-producer Tony Visconti.
Dominic Muldowney, who composed music for the BBC version, provided full arrangements of the songs. He was present at the Berlin recordings, as was writer John Willett.
[Bowie] wanted to record this as a souvenir. David said it wasn’t going to be any big deal and probably wouldn’t sell, but he felt it should be recorded for posterity.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
The musicians – known as the Orchestra Sherry Bertram, after the percussionist who helped assemble them – included several Berlin stalwarts, including a septuagenarian bandoneonist, Bernd Machus, who had performed on the original productions of Brecht’s The Threepenny Orchestra.
Bowie had hoped to sing live with the band, but this was not possible for technical reasons. Instead, Muldowney conducted the musicians without vocals, and Bowie’s parts were overdubbed within just four hours.
The stand-out was ‘The Drowned Girl’, which is like an Ophelia song, where she dies in the river. He’s singing about ‘Her slow descent’ below the water, right down in the bass baritone. Then halfway through he jumps up the octave. I play this song to composers at the Royal Opera House on courses. When he sings up to the word ‘smoke’ it’s got smoke all around it, it’s cloudy. Then we get to the ‘k’ of smoke and you can see again. It’s an absolute tutorial in how to paint a text. The only other person I know can do that is Frank Sinatra.
Starman, Paul Trynka
Following the recording, Bowie took Muldowney on a tour of Berlin’s nightclubs. They first visited a Kreuzberg venue where the patrons lounged on dentists’ chairs, before visiting the Dschungel, a new wave club on Nürnberger Straße. They ended the night in a transvestite bar in a basement, where Muldowney left Bowie at 4am.
Bowie intended the Baal EP to be his final release for RCA, his label throughout the 1970s. Relations with the label had been steadily deteriorating; he signed to EMI shortly afterwards, embracing ’80s pop with the Nile Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance. As such, Baal marks Bowie’s final foray for several years into theatricalism and the avant garde.
Despite his low commercial expectations, the Baal EP reached number 29 on the UK singles chart. It was released as a 7″ gatefold edition, with a sleeve containing copious notes on the music and musicians, as well as a brief biography of Brecht.
The 7″ EP was released in the UK and Canada. There was also a 12″ vinyl version issued in the US, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, Greece, Spain and Italy, and a cassette edition in the US and Canada.
‘Baal’s Hymn’ and ‘The Drowned Girl’ were included on the 2004 and 2014 Sound + Vision compilations. The full EP was reissued as a digital download in 2007, and as part of the Re:Call 3 compilation in the 2017 box set A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982).
On 29 June 2018 the songs were reissued on a 10″ vinyl EP, with a six-panel sleeve replicating the original 1982 packaging. This edition was only made available in record stores.