Released: 14 October 1977
Brian Eno: synthesizers, guitar treatments
Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
‘Blackout’ closed the first half of “Heroes”, David Bowie’s 12th studio album.
Bowie began recording “Heroes” in Berlin in July 1977. Although he had largely – though not entirely – stopped using cocaine by this time, he continued to drink heavily. His alcohol consumption was referenced in the song “Heroes”: “You, you can be mean/And I, I’ll drink all the time.”
Of the six “Heroes” tracks with lyrics, only ‘Beauty And The Beast’ and ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ do not mention alcohol, drinking, or bars. In ‘Blackout’ he sings of drinking “rotting wine from your hands”, before exclaiming “Get me to a doctor!”
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.
Interview magazine, February 1993
On 10 November 1976, shortly after the completion of Low, Bowie had a major confrontation with his wife Angela. The argument ended with Bowie collapsing while suffering from chest pains, and being rushed to the British Army clinic with a suspected heart attack. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat caused by heavy drinking.
Virtually every time I saw him in Berlin he was drunk, or working on getting drunk, and his stress level seemed as high as in his several-grams-a-night period. On one of my visits he got so worked up he thought he was having a heart attack. I rushed him to the British military hospital, where the doctors checked him out and told him his heart was just fine, but maybe he should relax a little.
Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie
In 1999 Bowie was asked whether ‘Blackout’ was written about his collapse in Berlin, or the New York City blackout of 1977. The latter event had plunged much of the city into darkness, leading to rising criminal activity including looting and arson. Bowie said he was uncertain whether the song was inspired by the events.
It did indeed refer to power cuts. I can’t in all honesty say that it was the NY one, though it is entirely likely that that image locked itself in my head. (you would have to check the date of both the recording and the NY blackout to make an intelligent assumption.)
By 2003 he was more certain, stating that he was definitely in NYC during the blackout.
A hard black line was scored through the history of New York on 9/11. It really has changed everything in this culture. Even in the most subtle ways. I was amazed at the way New Yorkers came together during the  black-out. That was absolutely unprecedented. I think the last time was in about 1977 and I wrote a song called ‘Blackout’ because I was there then as well. I remember burnings, looting, it got very nasty. But this time around everybody was looking out for everybody else. It was extraordinary. There was no looting. Normally it’s rule number one, there’s a black-out, all the alarms are off, loot. But this time was extraordinary. There is definitely a sense of community here that there wasn’t before.
The Word, October 2003
Since the “Heroes” sessions started on 11 July 1977, it is unlikely – though not impossible – that Bowie was in New York two days later. It is more likely that he heard about the blackout via news reports or from contacts in the city. Since Bowie often told falsehoods in interviews, we may never know the entire truth.
For ‘Blackout’, Dennis found a lonely conga drum in the studio and placed it on one end of his toms rack. Sometimes he played it as part of the rhythm pattern and sometimes as part of a drum fill. Check out the stunning fills at 0:58 and 2:02. By now he very much approved of the Eventide Harmonizer as part of his sound.
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book
The Stage recording of ‘Soul Love’ was released as a single in Japan in September 1978, with ‘Blackout’ on the b-side. The single failed to chart.
A 40th anniversary 7″ picture disc of ‘Beauty And The Beast’ was released on 5 January 2018, with a May 1978 recording of ‘Blackout’ on the b-side. The latter was included later that year on the limited edition mini album Live In Berlin (1978).
David Bowie performed ‘Blackout’ throughout the Isolar II Tour in 1978.
In a case of life imitating art, during a concert in Marseilles in May 1978 there was a blackout followed by a near riot, just after a performance of ‘Blackout’.
It was a young scruffy crowd but they were noisily welcoming and the show went well ‘Warsawa’, “Heroes”… ‘Jean Genie’. We had just finished ‘Blackout’ when there was a sound like speakers farting, then the lights went. For a moment we all stood there stunned, then Carlos shouted “Off-stage everyone!” We covered the space between the stage and dressing-room area under the eyes of the crowd. Eric [Barrett, tour manager] came in.
“We’ve got to get out, guys. Where are the cars?”
The cars were out at the back, locked and empty and facing the wrong way. I found the drivers and explained we had to leave d’urgence! We walked out, casually sauntering to the back exit. David, captain of the ship, came last to give us maximum time before the crowd started to riot.
It was an unpleasant, tense and silent ride back to the hotel. Eric sent us up to our rooms and told us not to come out at all that night. There was a horrible feeling of anticlimax and frustration.
Then Eric called apparently there was some hope of the gig being saved. It was strange driving back to the hall. There was a roar when we took to the stage and I felt some kind of nervous exhilaration as on the first night. The stage neon lighting rig was dead so everything was lit starkly by the follow-spots out front. It felt like doing a show for the troops just behind the front line the neons didn’t blaze but the music did.
Life on Tour with Bowie
Recordings of ‘Blackout’ from the tour are available on Stage, Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78), and on Live In Berlin (1978), the limited-edition mini-album sold at New York’s David Bowie Is exhibition.