Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’: Berlin as a State of Mind

Iggy Pop will release reissues of The Idiot and Lust for Life as 2xCD sets that include live material as well as a 7xCD set entitled The Bowie Years that includes those two albums as well as a reissue of TV Eye, a live set recorded in 1977 on tour with David Bowie on keyboards. There is also a disc of rarities and outtakes and three additional live shows from the 1977 tour. 

This article takes a closer look at The Idiot, the first of Bowie & Iggy’s ‘Berlin cycle’ of albums to be recorded…

by Marshall Bowden

I bought a copy of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot at a used record store for maybe $4 around 30 years ago. The record was in excellent shape, probably VG+ or better, but it was housed in a plain white generic album cover on which someone had scrawled ‘Iggy Pop “The Idiot”‘ with a medium Sharpie. Somehow it seemed more important that I hear the album than that I have a copy with a proper printed cover. And it turns out it didn’t matter much: the original release of The Idiot didn’t have musician credits or any useful information really, just that odd cover shot of Iggy inspired by German artist Erich Heckel’s ‘Roquairol.’

The Idiot was a revolutionary record, and it should have registered immediately as something really new and weird. But by the time I heard it I had already assimilated Low, already assimilated Kraftwerk and their contemporaries. I had a copy of Lust For Life that I bought new in a cutout bin, and I liked it better. It was a more rock band album, heavier on guitars and actual drums than The Idiot. Over time I feel like I convinced myself that The Idiot sounded pretty much like Lust for Life but with songs that weren’t as good.

The reality of what The Idiot sounded like faded as I listened to it less and imagined it to be Lust For Life II. But then one day I put The Idiot on the turntable again, and there it was, painfully obvious: The Idiot was nothing like Lust For Life, and in fact, it was better. Or at least it was more groundbreaking and unique, and that seemed better to me at the time.

The Idiot was produced (as was Lust for Life) by David Bowie at the beginning of the sojourn he and Pop made to West Berlin beginning at the end of 1976. Bowie had worked with lots of electronics and recording sounds in odd ways. It was in every way the precursor to the approach he and Brian Eno took to his own album Low. But in typical Bowie fashion, not wanting it to appear that he had been influenced by Iggy’s record, he released his record first, in January of 1977 while The Idiot waited until March to make its debut.

Only recently has it become accepted that The Idiot was a trial run for Bowie and the ability to play in Iggy’s touring band unannounced gave him a lot of ideas that he and Eno utilized on Low. In the liner notes to the Sound + Vision CD set Bowie is quoted by Kurt Loder discussing this period:

Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn’t have the material at the time, and I didn’t feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else’s work, so that album was opportune, creatively.

During this period, when David and Iggy first arrived in Berlin they fell back on old rock and roll habits. They were part of the city’s nightlife, and according to Rory McLean’s account, could be found “drinking KöPi at Joe’s Beer House, stumbling into gutters and transvestite bars, clubbing at the Dschungel and the Unlimited.”

That period is best captured by The Idiot, even though it was largely recorded not in Berlin, but at Château d’Hérouville outside Paris. Though Bowie and Iggy were already looking to get away from the drug-soaked atmosphere of mid-seventies Los Angeles and they had specifically booked studio time to work on Iggy’s next album, the music itself still reeks of the decay and death they hoped to leave behind.

The Carlos Alomar-based riff that is the urban club funk “Sister Midnight” provides a window into a sound that Bowie will bring back on Scary Monsters as well as on industrial experiments like the Outside album and his work with Tin Machine. “Funtime” also has a real L.A. rock sound. But”Nightclubbing” has come to be associated with Iggy and Bowie’s Berlin period just as much as Bowie’s epic “Heroes.

Iggy performing “Funtime” with David Bowie on keyboard, Hunt and Tony Sales (drums & bass), and Ricky Gardiner (guitar) on the Dinah Shore Show, March 1977.

That’s certainly down to the use of a drum machine that Bowie always intended to replace with actual drums. Iggy told him to forget it, that the drum machine was better than any drummer could be. The track is like a 1970s gay discotheque version of Cabaret with Iggy as the club’s master of ceremonies.

We learn dances brand new dances

Like the nuclear bomb

When we’re nightclubbing

Bright white clubbing

Oh isn’t it wild…

Iggy’s delivery is both deadpan and dripping with sarcasm, an approach mastered by Lou Reed on his Bowie-produced album Transformer. It’s been suggested that Iggy’s lyrics were influenced by his observations while clubbing around L.A. with Bowie. It’s there in “Funtime” too, when Iggy tells a hot number in a bar “We like your pants/we like your hips.” It’s an entourage, a posse. And that makes it feel real because clubbing isn’t a solitary activity.

Tony Visconti did do a lot of mixing in Berlin as well as in Munich, as the tapes were reportedly rough, both in terms of the recordings themselves as well as the challenging sounds. The album’s final track, “Mass Production” fades in on an ominous industrial electronic drone that sounds precisely like the kind of thing that Throbbing Gristle, who released The Second Annual Report in the same year, was doing.

Bowie and Iggy went beyond the motorik music of bands like Kraftwerk or Neu! by helping define the nascent industrial rock and noise genres. There’s plenty of guitar on The Idiot, much of it harsh and spikey. With three guitarists thought to have participated in the sessions–studio guitarist Phil Palmer, Carlos Alomar, and Bowie–there is a great deal of texture to the use of guitars, and on ‘Mass Production’ it’s not that different a feel from The Stooges, but Bowie offers up some detuned guitars and industrial noise to careen over the plodding electric dirge underlying the entire eight minute-plus track.

Bowie also recorded most of Low at the Chateau though towards the end conditions deteriorated when staff failed to properly stock provisions and Bowie, Iggy, Visconti, and Coco Schwab all decamped for Berlin, setting up shop in the Hansa Studio by the Wall. Low was finished here and Lust For Life got underway as well.

Low was influenced not merely by Berlin and Germany but by Europe and some countries such as Turkey that had become a significant part of German culture through immigration. ‘Warszawa,’ named after the Polish city, features a theme that was developed by Eno and multi-layered vocal choirs whose syllables are based on creating an atmosphere (exotic and vaguely Eastern European) and have no specific meaning. Other tracks were meant to provide a sonic portrait of specific areas, such as West Berlin, East Berlin, and life under the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

But it’s possible that Berlin is much more a state of mind than a real destination, valued for its rich symbolism and its connection in the public’s mind with decadence and decay. This is suggested in part by Lou Reed’s famous song cycle Berlin, which is not about the historic city of Berlin any more than a song like “Lady Day” is about the historic figure of Billie Holiday. Reed had never been to Berlin when he wrote the album, a fact of which you can be sure he was inordinately proud.

Christiane F movie trailer

Berlin was represented to many in the British and American counterculture by the book Christiane F., an account of the life of one of Berlin’s Children of the Zoo Station, the Banhoff train station behind the Berlin Zoo, where hundreds of street children led lives of theft, drug addiction, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Covering the period from 1975 to 1978, when Christiane was 12 to 15 years of age, the book tells about the life and deaths of some of Christiane’s friends and how they managed to survive the lives they led. Christiane is a big fan of Bowie’s, and some of his music was used in the 1981 film version of the book.

U2 also made Berlin the touchstone for a new direction in their music, but they were very disappointed, finding the newly reunified city to be gloomy and depressing. Yet they managed to come up with an improvised groove that set them in a unified direction (“One”) before returning home to finish the album that became Achtung Baby. Yet it’s impossible not to associate the record with the unified Berlin, the country that was already becoming the de facto leader of the European Union. From the album title to the opening track, “Zoo Station” the record, along with the multimedia Zoo TV Tour and the followup, Zooropa, all centered themselves around the idea of Berlin, if not the reality.

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