A New Career In A New Town

An Oblique Strategies Card

An Oblique Strategies Card

As I wrap up the ’70’s and prepare to move into the ’80’s it would be a grave error not to talk about the collaborative work (77-79) of Brian Eno and David Bowie. Wikipedia has this short entry.

Wikipedia (pt 1) “The Berlin Trilogy is a series of David Bowie albums recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno in the 1970s. The three albums are Low, “Heroes” and Lodger.

They became known as the Berlin Trilogy because Bowie was living in West Berlin at the time of their inception, at least part of them was recorded there, and they were influenced by the new Krautrock music from Germany that was popular at that time; most notably, the sound of electronic pop pioneers Kraftwerk (who, in the song “Trans-Europe Express”, mention the lyrics “From station to station / back to Düsseldorf City / Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie” as a nod to the two artists’ work in Berlin). The albums are experimental and rank among the most highly-regarded in the Bowie catalogue. Among the later styles influenced by the albums were New Wave, post-punk and industrial.”

It seems prudent to interject David’s own recollection of the reasons for his progression from soul to synthesizer as told to uncut magazine.

“UNCUT (pt 1): Many reasons have been suggested for moving to Berlin: Can you remember why the city appealed?

db: Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.

As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track ‘Station’. It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album. Btw, the title drives from the Stations of the Cross and not the railway system.

Much has been made of Kraftwerks influence on our Berlin albums. Most of it lazy analyses I believe. What I WAS passionate about in relation to K. was their singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music. This was their very important influence on me. Kraftwerks approach to music had in itself little place in my scheme. Theirs was a controlled, robotic, extremely measured series of compositions, almost a parody of minimalism. One had the feeling that Florian and Ralph were completely in charge of their environment, and that their compositions were well prepared and honed before entering the studio. My work tended to expressionist mood pieces, the protagonist (myself) abandoning himself to the ‘zeitgeist’ (a popular word at the time), with little or no control over his life. The music was spontaneous for the most part and created in the studio.

In substance too, we were poles apart. K.’s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only ‘moved’ but also was expressed in more than ‘human’ fashion. K. supported that unyielding machinelike beat with all synthetic sound generating sources. We used an R&B band. Since ‘Station To Station’ the hybridization of R&B and electronics had been a goal of mine. Indeed according to a 70’s interview with Brian Eno, this is what had drawn him to working with me.”

Ex-Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno is known as the “Father of Ambient Music” a genre he invented after attempting to listen to music in his hospital bed that was playing at such a low volume that it became indistinguishable from the natural noises occurring in his environment.

He popularized a series of tape delayed recorders (developed in the electronic music studios of the early 1960s) first used by composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros that would allow a musician to play live over music recorded just moments before, and did memorable work in this field with guitarist Robert Fripp (founder of King Crimson).

But what really made the “Berlin” experiments exciting was the use of several unorthodox techniques alluded to in my previous post.

Foremost among these is an idea known as oblique strategies. The following is an Eno quote taken from productionadvice.co.uk/oblique-strategies/ showing current studio producers the lasting value of this technique.

“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”

Oblique Strategies for your phone.

Click Pic to get Oblique Strategies for your mobile phone.

The following short excerpt is taken from Golden Years.

“ENO: We used oblique strategies a lot. Sense of Doubt was done almost entirely using the cards, and we did talk about work methods. But no, I don’t think we have that much in common. But that’s fine, so long as there’s give and take.’

“Oblique Strategies subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas is a deck of oracle cards which Eno developed and published with his painter friend Peter Schmidt. It is modeled philosophically on the ancient Chinese I Ching or Book of Changes. Eno had taken to formulating aphorisms as aids to the creative process.

Each terse proverb was designed to frame a work-in-progress in a fresh perspective when the artist got bogged down in details, unable to maintain a sense of creative options.

The short messages on the cards are varied, evocative and often intentionally cryptic. Some examples, randomly chosen from the deck: ‘Would anybody want it?’ ‘Go slowly all the way round the outside.’ ‘Don’t be afraid of things because they’re easy to do.’ ‘Only a part, not the whole.’ ‘Retrace your steps.’ ‘Disconnect from desire.’ ‘You are an engineer.’ ‘Turn it upside down.’ ‘Do we need holes?’ ‘Is it finished?’ ‘Don’t break the silence.’ ‘What are you really thinking about just now?’

Eno wrote down his aphorisms on cards and placed them in various locations around the recording studio. Random selection of a card and reflection on its message often provided fresh and unexpected resolution of a musical quandary.

Working on Sense Of Doubt, Bowie and Eno each pulled out an Oblique Strategy card and kept it a secret from the other. As Eno described it:

It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next. The idea was that each was to observe his Oblique Strategy as closely as he could. And as it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively mine said, ‘Try to make everything as similar as possible.’ … and his said, ‘Emphasize differences.'”

Wikipedia (pt 2) “Credit for producing the albums is occasionally mistakenly given to Brian Eno because of his extensive involvement with the trilogy and his well-known production work with other artists. Though Eno performed on all three records and co-wrote a few of the songs, all three albums were in fact produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti. Lead guitar on the “Heroes” album was handled by Robert Fripp, and lead guitar on the Lodger album was handled by Adrian Belew; these two guitarists later formed a partnership in a reincarnated King Crimson that has lasted nearly three decades. Their shared experience with Bowie later led to King Crimson regularly performing “‘Heroes'” on their 2000 tour.”

It is interesting to read Visconti’s recollection of the “Heroes” song sessions in particular.

The above article makes Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s book “A New Career In A New Town” a must read for those who want to get a feel for what actually took place. Here is a quote on the book from a blog entitled Plutonium Shores.

“The core of the book is devoted to Low and “Heroes”, which Seabrook discusses in great detail – the writing and recording, and the involvement of Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. Refreshingly, Seabrook refuses to indulge in the usual myths that accompany Bowie during this period and makes a strong case for the authorship of Low and “Heroes”, which are often lazily written off as being heavily affected by Brian Eno’s presence at the recordings. In fact, Eno’s contribution to Low is not as significant as most would believe, and Bowie was already modulating his interest in German electronic music through his music, as evident by Bowie’s influence over the avant-rock of The Idiot, recorded long before Eno showed up for the final sessions of Low.”

“UNCUT (pt 2): The Berlin albums are now widely seen as foundation stones of post-punk/ambient/electronica/world music. Does this surprise you?

db: No. For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done. Nothing else sounded like those albums. Nothing else came close. If I never made another album it really wouldn’t matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”

Bowie,Eno and Fripp - Berlin sessions

Bowie,Eno and Fripp - Berlin sessions

No matter who deserves the lion’s share of the credit, this was one of the momentous events in art history that succeeded in elevating Rock ‘N’ Roll to the status of “High Art”.


2 thoughts on “A New Career In A New Town

  1. Pingback: Video Killed the Radio Star | About Sound and Vision

  2. Pingback: Peace On Earth(ling) | About Sound and Vision

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