Words & selections by Balearic Mike.
Today would have been David Bowie’s 75th birthday. Happy birthday Dave.
David Bowie – Low – RCA 1977 / EMI 1991
I’ve been flip-flopping around on the subject of my favourite Bowie LP recently, but now that I’m listening to it again, I can’t believe I ever had any doubts. Low, the first of Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ as it’s often known (although, if we wanted to ruin a perfectly great legend, lots of this one was actually recorded in France – let’s stick with the legend, eh), is one of the strangest, most futuristic, ground-breaking, and just jaw dropping-ly awesome albums you will ever hear.
Bowie had come to realise that while his stay in L.A. had been an incredibly creative period, if he didn’t leave and get off the coke sharpish, he would most likely die. So he relocated to Europe – first stop the UK, then France, then Berlin – with old pal Iggy Pop. When in Berlin he dragged Brian Eno and Tony Visconti over to work on the music they were making. The results were Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ – Low, Heroes, and the vastly under-appreciated Lodger – plus Iggy Pops two finest LPs, The Idiot and Lust For Life. There was also Iggy’s subsequent tour, where David played keyboards for him. This, the first record, is the jewel in a massively bling crown.
The a-side is a masterclass in short, sharp, to-the-point pop, of a very disturbing, yet beautiful nature, kicking off with the instrumental track Speed Of Life. It’s been described as Bowie`s ‘blues’ LP, as the songs deal directly with the terrible state of his business and personal life at the time, with standout track, Sound And Vision, just stealing the show. The side closes with another wonderfully optimistic and uplifting instrumental, A New Career In A New Town, which sounds like Groovin’ With Mr Bloe, but made by aliens with synthesisers. Which isn’t far from the truth, with Bowie admitting its influence on the track to Bauhaus` David J Haskins. This alone makes me so happy! Talent borrows, genius steals! To mis-quote Picasso.
Over on the flip Bowie and Eno really push the envelope, with four gorgeous, haunting instrumental – if you don’t count the ‘non-language vocalisations from Dave on Warszawa, which I don’t – soundscapes taking up the entire side. Warszawa must be one of the most synched Bowie records, as it crops up all the time in TV documentaries.
So to sum up, Dave’s greatest LP is more than half instrumentals. That’s just insane! What other artist in the history of pop would have even had the balls to think about doing that! I mean, The Beatles did some mad shit – Revolution #9, Flying – but even they would have balked at releasing an LP that was half instrumentals at the height of their fame.
I own two copies of this LP, and no, that’s not because I’m insane, although that’s a reasonable assumption to have about someone who has as many multiple copies as I do. My first, bought in Vinyl Exchange, Manchester before I worked there, is a nice original UK pressing with the track list sticker on the rear and the paper insert. My other copy is the excellent 1991 ‘Sound + Vision’ remaster, released just before my 21st birthday. It sounds wonderful for a remaster, comes in a beautiful gatefold sleeve with some lovely photos of Dave, and includes three bonus tracks, Some Are, All Saints, and a remix of Sound And Vision. All worthy, and welcome additions. I’ve just listened to both copies back-to-back, and now I think I’m going to listen to them both again. This time while drinking beer.
I think I can trace my Bowie obsession back to my dad, who decided to paint a lightening stripe across the main wall of the living room in our old council house in Mayfield in the mid `70s. It’s his birthday later this month too (not his 75th though, a few years short of that). Must remember to send a card. Never had a chance, did I!
There’s a very fine book on this period – Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town – by Thomas Jerome Seabrook. Well worth a read. Happy birthday David and thank you for the music.
Balearic sunshine here in Brighton today. Like Ibiza, but freezing cold, with stones on the beach instead of sand, and sewage in the sea. Oh well … perfect weather for this …
Herb Alpert – Rotation – A&M Records 1979
I came to this record in the summer of 1991 through the Italian cover version on Beat Club Records by Mr Luthero. Remember that one? I’d just landed in Manchester, working at Vinyl Exchange, and had been thrown headlong into the cities burgeoning ‘Balearic” scene of the time – parties such as Most Excellent, Glitter Baby, and LuvDup. Still a huge part of that scene’s playlist was that wonderful wave of Italo House that followed on from ‘Scream-Up’. The second track on the B-side was a mix – titled “Get Real” – which sampled Kariya`s Baby Let Me Love You For Tonight on the intro, and featuring the obligatory Italian rap that all these records had to have by law or something. It hasn’t stood the test of time all that well, but still. Memories, eh.
What has stood the test of time well though, is the original version. Released in 1979 on a beautiful clear vinyl 12” – which bucks the idea that all coloured / clear vinyl records are gimmicks that sound inferior, since this 12” sounds immense – this must have been quite big on one scene or another, as there were loads of copies out in the wild to be unearthed for peanuts by the committed musical archaeologists of the time.
Herb Alpert`s Rotation is one of those magical pieces of music that defies any easy categorisation. It showcases Herb’s gorgeous trumpet playing beautifully, but amongst the Latin and jazz influences that are certainly in there, the track is propelled along by a throbbing, pulsating synth-bassline more akin to an Italo Disco track. It is totally and utterly Balearic, and I love it dearly.
Herb Alpert is also an utter dude of a guy. His musical career spans seven decades, he co-founded A&M records, and had an extraordinary life. There was a great BBC 4 documentary about him a few years ago that was fascinating, and well worth watching if you can find it. Not on iPlayer right now sadly.
As a postscript to this post, on the subject of clear / coloured vinyl. Jolyon Green commented that he had given his copy of Rotation to David Mancuso to play at the London Loft party. Now David was someone who was a bit fussy about the best pressings!
“I know everything, I used to work in a record store …”LCD Soundsystem – I’m Losing My Edge – DFA Records 2002
Push / Pull – Bang The Drums (Feat. Zanzibar) – Gertie Records 1990
I love that lyric. Of course I do. I used to work in a record store. The thing about working in record stores / shops is that you know that you already have quite a good musical knowledge when you start. You must have, or you wouldn’t have got the job would you? But quite quickly you realise that you actually know nothing, and that everyone else who works there knows way more than you do. When you’ve realised that there will always be more that you don’t know about music – well, that`s when you really know your shit.
I worked with loads of great people over the years, working in Vinyl Exchange. Lots who know about areas of music that I’m familiar with, and lots who know about areas and genres that I know nothing about. We sold everything in the shop, so over the years, some of this knowledge is just absorbed by osmosis.
In the early noughties we hired Russ Marland to work in VE. We needed a house music expert, and boy did we get one! I think I can safely say I know quite a lot about house music. Right age, right time. I have maybe thousands of house records. Russ, however, REALLY knows house music. He started working in Manchester’s legendary Spin Inn Records just as house crept across the Atlantic. He then founded his own Underground Records, was a resident DJ at The Hacienda, and as such went out on tour with M-People. Once he arrived at VE, he did a couple of mixes of obscure early house that blew mine, Kath, and Duncan’s minds. He would start to hand me these obscure records I’d never seen or heard of before.
“You might like this. Zanzibar’s the best track”. He wasn’t wrong. The Push / Pull album is cheap as chips and fucking brilliant – and it’s been reissued in the last few years, so even easier to get – and the fact I had worked in a record shop for more than a decade and not come across it before just highlights what I’m saying.
Cheers Russ, for reminding me there’s always more to learn, and for handing me lots of amazing records.
After posting this piece on Facebook, Nick The Record had the following story to share:
“I remember kind of falling out with someone over this record. It was on my first trip to Ibiza in maybe 1990 or 91. My girlfriend at the time knew Pippi from previous trips and we went to meet him. I asked him if there were any records he was looking for and he said this one. I told him I had it, and another record he was looking for, and on the spot he decided I was bullshitting – because I had them both. This established DJ in Ibiza couldn’t believe that this 20 year old upstart had them. The record really did just show up in the UK in small amounts and then disappear really quickly. I was lucky enough to pick it up at the time and I guess it didn’t make it to Ibiza.”
The other record that Nick pissed Pippi off with was Trybe`s Psychedelic Shack, on Wild Pitch.