David Bowie: How Berlin still obsesses him

His surprise new single harks back to the golden years of his Berlin trilogy, both musically and in its lyrics. Chris Mugan looks at the superstar's love for the city

So now we know what David Bowie has been up to for the past year or so. After years of omerta, the mercurial artist has revealed he has been working on his first album for 10 years, posting a surreal video of "Where Are We Now?" After all the speculation, this suggests he is in reasonable health, even if this new material suggests nostalgia for a time when he was arguably at his creative peak.

Releasing the single on his 66th birthday is a suitably playful move for a performer who has taken on so many striking roles through his stellar career. It must also have required a certain amount of discipline as he ignored the rumours of ill-health that filled the ensuing news vacuum, most rabidly when he turned down an invitation to play last year's Olympics closing ceremony. Until Tuesday morning, all we had from Bowie was a terse communique refuting suggestions he was involved in a forthcoming exhibition about his work set to open this March at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Now the South Kensington institution can look a bit smug at its timing as Bowie's new single races up the iTunes chart. "Where Are We Now?" is certainly an affecting piece, as the artist croons, "As long as there's me/ As long as there's you". But the question he posits in the song's title is an intriguing one. While Bowie has been based in New York for a while, part of him has stayed in that dynamic metropolis Berlin, as the lyrics make clear. In fact, Bowie is singing about specific areas of the German capital, far from the trendy contemporary Berlin or the gentrified district in the former East, Prenzlauer Berg, or even counter-cultural Oranienburger Strasse. Instead, he takes a train from the gleaming new station at Potsdamer Platz to one of his old haunts –"you never knew I could do that" suggests he is talking to someone only around when the deserted square was bisected by the Berlin Wall. He heads to Dschungel on Nürnberger Strasse, formerly the city's hottest nightclub, frequented by Bowie, his friend Iggy Pop and Barbra Streisand, among others. He describes "a man lost in time near KaDeWe", the mammoth department store that is Berlin's answer to Harrods, before bringing to mind 20,000 people on Bösebrücke, "...fingers are crossed/ Just in case", perhaps referencing when the bridge was one of the first crossings to be opened before the Wall fell in 1989.

While hearing Bowie's first new material in a decade has been a treat, I am not the only fan to have soon reached for the three albums that the artist recorded or at least inspired by his time in Berlin. Low and Heroes are indisputably amongst his finest and, if Lodger fails to satisfy as completely as the first two, it still reflects a fecund period and one of the most fabled segments of Bowie's career. In 1976, he was at a low ebb, facing business difficulties and arguing with his wife Angie. Berlin, the western city marooned in East Germany, was the perfect escape, in its divided state a decadent playground rather than grandiose capital.

With interest in its louche Weimar Republic days reignited by the hit film version of the musical Cabaret, Berlin was attracting alienated figures from across Europe and beyond. Notorious cokeheads, Bowie and Iggy found it the perfect base to mix the latter's album The Idiot. He maintained momentum by beginning sessions for Low, inviting to join him the ambient music pioneer Brian Eno and long-term producer Tony Visconti, who had previously worked with Bowie on Young Americans (and is back for 'Where Are We Now?'). Later, guitarist Robert Fripp would join the fray, the former King Crimson prog-rocker having previously collaborated with Eno on ground-breaking albums Here Come The Warm Jets and Another Green World.

They would work with a trusted team of musicians Bowie had assembled – guitarist Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis on percussion and bass player George Murray. Yet the first two albums to come out of Berlin would be like nothing Bowie had done before. Rather than follow a stylistic concept like the character that inhabits Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke of Station to Station, Low and Heroes each came with two distinct sides. One half of each album contained songs in vaguely recognisable forms, most notably Low's "Sound and Vision" and the title track to Heroes, while the other was inspired by the minimalist instrumentals devised by Eno and the more propulsive strains of German experimental music known as Krautrock.

Bringing these two influences together, Bowie defiantly broke away from his past, adding a dark, exotic edge to his recent dabblings in US funk and soul, and moving decisively away from them on the parched vistas of "Warszawa" and the man-machine assault of "V2 Schneider". The next album, Lodger, followed a more traditional format and, although it is seen as part of a trilogy, the only link to its predecessors is the contribution of Eno.

None of the albums, though, were especially well received by critics, given the impact they have enjoyed over ensuing years. And while Bowie's UK sales held up surprisingly well given their content, he was lost to the US mainstream until Let's Dance. Yet while punk imposed its year zero, the shape-shifting chameleon was able to remain relevant through late Seventies post-punk and into the New Romantic era of the early Eighties. Low and Heroes in particular have stood the test of time, with the latter's title track regularly cited as Bowie's most compelling work, beguiling simplicity that meant a song inspired by two lovers meeting by the Wall could be used 35 years later for the entrance of Great Britain's Olympic hopefuls. Bowie may be looking back, but only as we have been for all that time.

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