1977: Berlin

David Bowie’s Low album was released in January 1977. The following month Bowie began rehearsals in West Berlin for Iggy Pop’s The Idiot Tour.

The tour kicked off in England in March 1977. Bowie played keyboards and sang backing vocals, in a band which also included Low guitarist Ricky Gardiner, and brothers Hunt and Tony Sales – who also played on Pop’s Lust For Life album, and with whom Bowie would later collaborate in Tin Machine.

Bowie’s presence on the tour was not announced to the press, although word quickly got around. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the relatively unpressured position of being a band member rather than a frontman. Less welcome, however, was the presence of drugs on the tour.

It was the first time I’d ever really put myself into a band since the Spiders. It was great not having the pressure of being the singer up front. But there were too many drugs around at the time. I was trying to get away from those drugs and I was going through these really ambivalent things because I kept wanting to leave the tour to get off drugs. The drug use was unbelievable and I knew it was killing me, so that was a difficult side of it. But the playing was fun. Iggy would be preening himself before he went on and I’d be sitting there reading a book.
David Bowie
Q magazine, May 1993

The tour continued in North America and Japan, before Bowie and Pop returned to Berlin to record Lust For Life at Hansa Tonstudio. The album was recorded in a two-week period in June 1977, with minimal takes and overdubs.

Pop moved into an apartment behind Bowie’s own at Hauptstraße 155. Although Bowie was mostly clean from drugs by this time, Pop later admitted to “living on coke, hash, red wine, beer and German sausages”.

Pulling myself back out of that was not quick, it was a good two-to-three year process. There was a flashback effect. I must have put myself through the most bizarre physical ordeal, apart from anything else. For the first two or three years afterward, while I was living in Berlin, I would have days where things were moving in the room – and this was when I was totally straight. It took the first two years in Berlin to really cleanse my system. Especially psychically and emotionally. I really had to find myself again…

I’ve always had an immature attitude toward mental health detectors. There was a stigma attached to the whole thing which I felt was inhuman and I just didn’t want to become involved in. Also, I had a slight impression that I might go to a hospital and not get out again. I felt that imbalance at the time. This was late in 1976. Fortunately, I was able to pull out of it with the help of two or three friends who either came to Berlin with me or were in Berlin. I realised how close I was to either completely screwing myself up or just not being around anymore.

David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

In August 1977 Bowie began recording the “Heroes” album, again at Hansa. It took three weeks to complete. During the sessions Bowie was mostly drug-free, eating relatively well, and in far greater shape both physically and mentally.

There was a café in the Hansa building, run by an ex-boxing champion – my painting Champion Of The World is a portrait of him. We’d either have a lunch and dinner there or order up. But the egg thing is also true. I was eating extremely well as my drug intake was practically zero. I’d 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 [Eno] would start his day with a cup of boiling water, into which he’d cut huge lumps of garlic. He was no fun to do backing vocals with on the same mic.
David Bowie
Uncut, April 2001
Embed from Getty Images

Although he had largely – though not entirely – stopped using cocaine by this time, Bowie continued drinking heavily. He was inspired by Iggy Pop to sing about his personal experiences, and his alcohol consumption was referenced in the song “Heroes”: “You, you can be mean/And I, I’ll drink all the time.”

I went to Berlin and thought, Well, that’s my next stimulus, and I’ll see if I can do this drug-free. I went with Iggy and we both decided, Let’s try to clean ourselves up. So we both got apartments there and started this long trek uphill to kick drugs. Unfortunately, what happened was my drinking escalated as I kicked the coke. And it wasn’t long before I was an alcoholic, instead of a coke addict.
David Bowie
Interview magazine, February 1993

During the experimental sessions for Low, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti had been unsure whether the music would result in an album. They were buoyed by its success, despite the dismayed reaction of his label RCA, and on “Heroes” the song were bolder and denser, the experimental tracks more diverse and fragmentary. The sessions also took place in a greater spirit of positivity.

[Eno and I] spend most of our time joking. Laughing and falling on the floor. I think out of all the time we spent recording, forty minutes out of every hour was spent just crying with laughter. Do you know [Robert] Fripp? Have you ever spent time with him in an humorous state? He is incredibly funny. Unbelievable sense of humour. Having the two of them in one studio produces so much random humour – incredible stuff.
David Bowie
NME, 12 November 1977