Classic Pop SEPTEMBER 2017 - by Paul Lester


More ch-ch-changes as Bowie relocates to Germany and takes on the punks before pre-empting the New Romantics.

Leaving America behind in 1976, David Bowie settled for a more spartan existence in Berlin, the A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) boxset, picks up where 2016's collection Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) left off and brings his career up to the point he made his true global commercial breakthrough with Let's Dance, although of course Bowie had permeated the culture, in the US and Europe, for years.

If anything, becoming that big and selling that far and wide diminished his cultural potency, but that's another story, and perhaps another boxset.

For now, we have this eleven-CD trove (also available as a thirteen-piece vinyl set) of Bowie's work between 1977 and 1982, with a hundred-and-twenty-eight-page booklet featuring previously unpublished photos by Anton Corbijn, Helmut Newton and more. It comprises the so-called 'Berlin Trilogy' of collaborations with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti - Low, "Heroes" and Lodger (including a brand new for 2017 mix of the latter by Visconti, started with Bowie's blessing before his passing in January last year) - as well as live double-LP Stage, 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), 1982's Baal EP, appearing here for the first time in its entirety on CD, Re:Call 3 (contemporary single versions, non-album singles, B-sides and songs featured on soundtracks), and the "Heroes" EP, a compilation exclusive to this release celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the song, which rounds up the German and French album and single versions of the track.

These are sacred texts for the kind of musicians featured in Classic Pop, especially Low and "Heroes" from 1977, when Bowie was in full creative flight. Far from stalling or derailing him, punk galvanised Bowie. "There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's David Bowie" went the famous promotional campaign, while Bowie himself, on Nicky Horne's Capital Radio show, quizzed by a listener about his thoughts on the spiky-topped hordes, declared tartly, "But darling, I am new wave."

Low, with its brittle fragments of pop songs on side one and ambient atmospherica on side two, sounds as great as ever.

The song side will make you marvel at the great British public's ability to accept avant-garde sonics into their lives while the soundtrack side gives credence to the theory that Eno was as instrumental (no pun intended) in France (where Low was largely actually recorded) and Germany as Bowie himself.

"Heroes" remains just as strong - the great thing about this music was that it was so out of step with punk and yet so in tune. Blackout is thrilling modern rock that - as emphatically as Magazine, Siouxsie et al - helped to usher in the post-punk era. The instrumental flipside this time was interrupted by the thrilling The Secret Life Of Arabia, before which Sense Of Doubt and Neuköln had chilling echoes of old Berlin while the Oriental Moss Garden surely marked the moment the band Japan made their transition from glam-punk to etiolated funk.

"Sometimes I feel the need to move on," Bowie sang on Lodger's Move On. By 1979-'80, however, Bowie still had innovative cachet but his work was no more cutting edge than the contemporaneous output of Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones. Lodger's African Night Flight was nervy, paranoid funk along the jagged lines of Talking Heads - for the first time Bowie was working in parallel to, rather than ahead of, trends. Yassassin was world music, before that term stuck. Red Sails was conventional fare next to the likes of PiL, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. Boys Keep Swinging is more novelty than shock of the new. And Repetition is almost a mockery of the metronomic new DIY electronica (Thomas Leer, The Normal, Robert Rental, etc).

Scary Monsters featured too much plodding rock ordinaire, notwithstanding the outré apparel. Bowie even covered Kingdom Come by Tom Verlaine, a vanguard artist from two years earlier. Ashes To Ashes predicted much of what was to come in 1981, but really it was time for Bowie to move aside and allow in the New Romantic/electronic wave.

Still, this is carping when really, during this astonishingly productive period, Bowie was the unassailable king.