Released: 13 March 1982
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982)
Eckehard Scholl: piano
Bernd Machus: bandoneon
Ingo Cramer: guitar
Michael Bucher: tuba
Thomas Hoffmann: drums
Erwin Milzkott: flute
Joachim Welz: clarinet
David Kreitner: alto saxophone
Axel-Glenn Müller: tenor saxophone
René Waintz: trumpet
Ralf Armbruster: trombone
Hans-Joachim Glas: concert master
Uwe Weniger: viola
Rolf Becker: cello
Ulrich Berggold: contrabass
‘Baal’s Hymn’, the opening song on David Bowie’s Baal EP, was a translated version of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Der Choral Vom Großen Baal’.
Brecht wrote Baal, his first full-length play, in 1918, yet it was not performed in public until 1923. Its premiere took place on 8 December that year at the Altes Theater in Leipzig, and it was reworked for a 1926 production in Berlin.
In 1981 Bowie took the title role of a BBC television adaptation of Baal. The titular protagonist is a drunken poet, iconoclast and womaniser, whose decline is charted over the course of the play.
The BBC version was first broadcast in March 1992, and a five-song EP, David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, was released to coincide.
Bowie performed a series of songs in the play, with lyrics translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. They were given a simple banjo accompaniment on screen, but it was decided that they would benefit from a fuller arrangement for the record release.
‘Der Choral Vom Großen Baal’ – ‘Chorale of the Baal the Great’, or ‘Baal’s Hymn’ – contains Brecht’s prologue, 14 stanzas which were scattered throughout the play in Clarke’s adaptation. In Muldowney’s arrangement a flute and strings introduction gives way to strident piano work recalling Mike Garson’s performance on ‘Time’, with Bowie contributing a similarly theatrical vocal.
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.
[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 Baal EP reached number 29 on the UK singles chart. It was released as a 7″ gatefold edition in the UK and Canada, with a sleeve containing extensive notes on the music and musicians, as well as a brief biography of Brecht.
There was also a 12″ vinyl version 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).
Whilst his mother’s womb contained the growing Baal
Even then the sky was waiting quiet and pale
Naked, young, immensely marvellous
Like Baal loved it, when he came to us
That same sky remained with him in joy and care
Even when Baal slept peaceful and unaware
At night a lilac sky, a drunken Baal
Turning pious as the sky grows pale
So through hospital, cathedral, whiskey bar
Baal kept moving onwards and just let things go
When Baal’s tired, boys, Baal cannot fall far
He will have his sky down there below
When the sinners congregate in shame together
Baal lay naked, revelling in their distress
Only sky, a sky that will go on forever
Formed a blanket for his nakedness
And that lusty girl, the world, who’ll laughing yield
To the men who’ll stand the pressure of her thighs
Sometimes gave him love-bites, such as can’t be healed
Baal survived it, he just used his eyes
And when Baal saw lots of corpses scattered round
He felt twice the thrill, despite the lack of room
“Space enough” said Baal, “then I’ll thicken the ground
Space enough within this woman’s womb”
Any vice for Baal has got its useful side
It’s the men who practice it, he can’t abide
Vices have their point, once you see it as such
Stick to two for one will be too much
Slackness, softness are the sort of things to shun
Nothing could be harder than the quest for fun
Lots of strength is needed and experience too
Swollen bellies can embarrass you
Under gloomy stars and this poor veil of tears
Baal will graze a pasture till it disappears
Once it’s been digested to the forest’s teeth
Baal trod singing for a well earned sleep
Baal can spot the vultures in the stormy sky
As they wait up there to see if Baal will die
Sometimes Baal pretends he’s dead, but vultures swoop
Baal in silence dines on vulture-soup
When the dark womb drags him down to its prize
What’s the world still mean to Baal, he’s overfed
So much sky is lurking still behind his eyes
He’ll just have enough sky when he’s dead
Once the Earth’s dark womb engulfed the rotting Baal
Even then the sky was up there, quiet and pale
Naked, young, immensely marvellous
Like Baal loved it when he lived with us