In discussion with Rusty Egan on “Low” and “Heroes” by David Bowie (1977).
I assume you got into the albums “Low” and “Heroes” at the time they were released, but were you already a fan of his before that?
Yes, since Ziggy Stardust.
David Bowie was always famous for continuously reinventing his career, but did this phase particularly appeal to you?
Bowie’s Berlin Years I believe were the foundation of The Blitz Club playlist. Via Bowie I found Kraftwerk, and that lead to Neu!, Can, Cluster and Krautrock as it was called, Bryan Ferry then led to the work of Brian Eno, and his Ambient series …all this music lead to the basis of my collection. If you join the dots Bowie, Eno, Iggy, Kraftwerk, Mick Ronson, Lou Reed.
Do you think the album “Station To Station” already foreshadowed what he would do with these albums or did it come as a surprise?
Bowie’s role in the movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and his Thin White Duke period of half soul singer half cokehead took him to a dark place and he fled to Berlin to clean up. Iggy’s two albums “The Idiot” and “Lust For Life” took him back to the bare bones of rock, plus the blues. I believe that the UK was ready for my playlist and punk half delivered the sentiment, but it fell into place with the thousands of Boy Georges who needed this music , it’s the predecessor to what Americans now call emo. Sad to title emotional music with a tag, has not ALL music touched some emotions?
It is obvious that Bowie was heavily influenced by German experimental groups like Kraftwerk or Neu! at that time. Do you think that he managed to succeed in transferring these sounds in his own music? How much of these influences can be found in “Low” and “Heroes”?
Massive Influences. Bowie is a SONGWRITER. Without songs you have music. The Germans made amazing music without lyrics. It was experimental because of the instruments used and the long long tracks. Bowie took the basis of this experimental music and the growing feelings evoked by Möbius, Cluster, Can, Neu! and went into Hansa studios by the Wall and with Brian Eno created the Berlin sound. “Heroes” sung in German as “Helden” is a perfect example. Six minutes long , but what were the instruments used? Can you hear guitar, bass and drums? Nothing but a long long tone changing and changing.
In 1977, when “Low” was released, you were in the punk band The Rich Kids, alongside former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock and Midge Ure, and in The Skids. As punk is often seen as a reaction against rock tradition, was David Bowie the rock star it was still okay to follow in the punk scene, or is this a misconception anyway?
No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977….I quote The Clash. In 1976 for six months I played drums with Mick Jones and Joe Strummer and I loved US Punk. I was going to the right clubs, wearing the right clothes and I liked the right music. The Clash hated everything except reggae, that meant Bowie went with all the rock dinosaurs, but to me he was stronger because of Iggy and Lou Reed. They were both accepted so when Bowie did the Iggy tour and showed up at a Human League gig, he was loving punk, and that made him cool. Phil Lynott, Pete Townsend, they hung out with the punks, they loved it. The rest hated it, they stayed in their mansions in Surrey.
Was his friendship with punk pioneer Iggy Pop a part of his appeal for that, or was it more his ability to adapt current influneces and make them his own in a credible way, or both?
Kraftwerk wrote on “Trans Europe Express” meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie. He was cool. He hung with the right people when punk broke and he showed up and watched it for himself. He liked Devo and hung out in NY at CBGB’s. No, Bowie was and still is my Main Man!
“Low” and “Heroes” are considered to be part one and two of his Berlin trilogy, the third one being “Lodger”. This period also created Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”, who resided in Berlin too. There are whole books about the time they spent in Berlin, and why that proved to be so productive and creatively successful, but why do you think it was that way? Was it coincidence, or did Berlin at that time offered a unique cultural and political climate that helped to shape the sound of the albums?
I believe this was also his less successful hit record period! And RCA were not happy, hence his move to EMI. That to me is an example of the record biz. Yes, this was a brilliantly creative period in Bowie’s life and I think the “Lodger” album was also expressive of a man finding himself again after the Main Man period cleaned him out and he cleaned up his act. Berlin made Bowie anonymous, he needed to just be David Jones renting a room, and going to work, Hansa. I am sure David loved being just a songwriter and with Eno doing the band so to speak and his best mate James (Iggy), he just had fun and expressed his fears and dark side. And I know that dark side opened up so many people to his music.
Speaking of the Berlin trilogy, what do you think of “Lodger”? Is it on par with its predecessors or was it not as important to you as “Low” and “Heroes”?
“Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” were both big Blitz Club tracks. I also played it to Yassasin John McGeogh of Magazine, my friend and fellow Visage Member. He would talk about Adrian Belew as would many punks as the sound of an angry guitar! That sound was to continue into “Scary Monsters”. That was an amazing album and “Fashion” put him back on top, then “Ashes to Ashes” brought the whole New Romantic scene to the public with Bowie coming to The Blitz as he had done with seeing The Human League, he had been informed by Michael White, the impresario who often came to The Blitz.
Brian Eno played a major role for the sound of “Low” and “Heroes” by introducing Bowie to his synthesizer sounds. Judging from Eno’s career before the production, what do you think was his contribution to the albums? Was his work with Roxy Music and his solo albums something that influenced you too?
Eno went on to become a rock producer! I loved the sound created by The Edge, recorded by Steve Lillywhite, who had also done an amazing job on Siouxsie And The Banshees. Eno brings his sound to each band or artist he works with, he produced Ultravox’s debut and took U2 from garage band to stadium band. Eno has his box of toys provided at one time by Daniel Lanois. They had the sound and it was for hire, Tom Tom Club, David Byrne, Talking Heads, he was the best. I believe his Berlin years along with Bowie shaped the 80’s producing music you could not define. It was not club, ambient, dance or rock, but you could do everything to it.
In 1978 you founded Visage with Midge Ure and Steve Strange, and the seminal London club Blitz, where you also worked as a DJ. Were there any bands or clubs at that time that took up the same musical aspects that interested you, or were these activities born out of the situation that nobody really did?
Duran Duran had the Rum Runner or Only After Dark, a night named after the Mick Ronson song, Depeche Mode had Crocks in Essex , Sheffield had The Human League and Heaven 17 and ABC to name the big ones, but each town had a small Blitz Type night or club, and on tour with the bands I toured with in the late 70’s, I found the people who I would stay in touch with in each town. Richard Jobson and I went clubbing when on tour, we found girls and we found the right place in each town, with Steve New or Midge I would find the girls then the bar or club after a Rich Kids gig. I stayed in touch with many people who loved the Rich Kids on the first tour. They came to London, they came to the Blitz and loved it and went home and started their own club night. On tours I would go to their club, I joined them all up for The Peoples Palace at The Rainbow when Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Ronny, Metro and me, Dick from Rum Runner and The DJ from Crocks all were on the bill. We showed Kraftwerk videos and Bowie, Iggy etc. It was the start of something massive. Electronic dance music.
Judging from the Blitz playlist you posted on your website David Bowie and Iggy Pop featured heavily, as do Visage and Ultravox. Is it true that one reason to pursue Visage at first was to provide the club with new music, because there was not enough around that interested you and Steve Strange, or were there already other bands that were sufficiently likeminded?
Simple Minds, Ultravox, Japan, and Magazine were providing some, Psychedelic Furs, Debut, Yello, YMO. I was finding it but as a musician I just knew that I had to record music to dance to with this sound. Midge was available, as were the others, as, believe it or not, they were all completely broke having toured for years and not having hit records. They were all into my playlist and the Blitz and it was fun.
What got you into DJIng in the first place? Were there other DJs that made you decide to go for it?
The Speakeasy club on Margret St. was open then till 4 am, full of rock stars, but by 2 am the DJ was totally fucked, I would show up after a gig or playing or even just going out, I was out every night, Georgio would grab me as I came in and say, listen can you put a few songs on as the DJ is tired. Bottom line the DJ has passed out, so I would play from his records, my fave tracks, Television’s “Marquee Moon” or “Little Johnny Jewel”, Bowie, Lou Reed. It was a punk club but the DJ had his albums there so I would select album tracks. The club was half empty or everyone was half cut, so I just loved playing my fave tracks, no one danced. It was a bit like after the party. And I loved that period, when everyone is alone or going home alone, or wants to be with someone. I was real happy playing music and falling asleep totally exhausted from a full on day. DJing was a great way to stay into MY music. I loved to turn people on to tracks.
How would you describe at typical night out at Blitz? How was the location your crowd, and how would you construct your set?
The club was a city wine bar themed The Blitz, as in the war. So to get rid of the office types who had missed “Hill Street Blues” on telly I would play what they called awful music, “Viva”, Roxy Music live, ambient music by Eno, Möbius, Cluster, Can. And if they tried to dance, Frank Zappa’s “Dancing fool”, with the lyrics:
Don’t know much about dancin’
That’s why I got this song
One of my legs is shorter than the other
And both my feets too long
Course now right along with ‘em
I got no natural rhythm
But I go dancin’ every night
Hopin’ one day I might get it right
I’m a dancin’ fool,
I’m a dancin’ fool
I hear that beat, I jump outta my seat,
But I can’t compete, cause
I’m a dancin’ fool,
I’m a dancin’ fool
Then play slow tracks like “Motorcade” by Magazine, “Five Years” by Bowie, just build it until the club filled, but never never allow anyone to make me play anything. The idea was that the Blitz Club played this music, if you did not like it, go away, you are in the wrong place.
As you are regarded as one of the pioneering DJs for electronic music, how did you develop a style of your own while playing there?
I have always used the punk idiom, keep it simple, it works or is does not, always look at the dance floor and if they are not dancing, stop trying to make ‘em dance. Play a decent record, no matter what style, a brilliant song always wins. You could say at 2:30 am no one is dancing, so great, play “Walk On The Wild Side” then, “and the coloured girls say…..doop” Ah yes, who cares if no one is dancing, this is great!
Steve Strange and other club regulars featured in the video clip of Bowie‘s “Ashes To Ashes”, so he obviously was aware what was going at Blitz. Do you know if he felt rewarded by being an inspiration? Was it like things were falling into place, for you too?
I met David in Soho, he was having his hair cut by a girl I met via The Blitz in a flat and we spoke for an hour, just a little chat so to speak, but I was aware that he was totally aware of everything Steve and I had done and that he was also still a very cool guy to the next generation. I believe that Bowie knew he was a songwriter and performer, but his songs, like with Madonna, can always be interpreted by the next cool producer, or DJ, they are all for hire as was anyone Bowie wanted, from hair, to video directors, or photographers, or musicians. Bowie knew he could buy anyone he wanted to work with and that his music needed the best and now his Visconti years and his manager years were over, he was now living in Lausanne and next came “Let’s Dance”, Nile Rodgers was for hire, and Chic had the dance floor and Bowie was ready to make you dance.
The Blitz is the birthplace of New Romanticism. As much as Bowie was a musical forefather for that, was his styling a visual template for the according way of dressing up?
Bowie had it, never ever lost it. You can’t find a pic where he looks like an idiot. Yes, style was important and Bowie has it.
In 1980, Visage’s “Fade To Grey” was released, and all of a sudden New Romantics became pop stars. Were you surprised that the scene could cross over into the cultural mainstream?
No. Glam rock of the early 70’s was crazy cross dressing , make up etc. No, I was surprised that people did not know if you were a boy or a girl.
As much as the music sounded different to the early 70s Glam Rock of Bowie and Roxy Music, was New Romanticism mainly taking its clues from there and modernizing it, whilst also including more electronic elements from Krautrock, post punk and disco?
We came to dance. Clubs were playing so called soul music, it was not great, ask the DJ for Bowie, Roxy, Kraftwerk, Grace Jones, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, he would look at you like you were an idiot. Hang the DJ, he is an asshole. It was the start of getting rid of all the crap DJs who played dance records sent to them by record pools, and time for the real music to be played in clubs. That time is coming again. Clubs today have lost the plot. It’s all boom boom boom, and no artists or songs.
Then again, the Blitz scene and Visage also had a major impact on 80’s pop culture. Were you satisfied with what could be achieved from there, or did you lose interest because the original intentions for what you were doing were slowly watered down by commercial necessities and expectations?
No, we went on to open the Camden Palace. And I relented under pressure to keep Camden in that name. I have hated all my life agreeing to other people, and I always believe I AM right. I was right, I knew what I wanted and when I told people to shut up, it worked well, when I said ok, what do you think, it was rubbish, arrogance or confidence. It has always been a problem. I played the music, I selected the tracks, I found the new bands, I hired then paid then promoted them. Why did I have to listen to some 40year olds telling me how the music biz worked, who fucking cares what you think, it’s about change! We changed how it works, that’s what they did not understand. It took years and years to happen, and when it did arrive, yes, I was bored, listen to beatport. Now if can say you love house music, listen. One track per three hours is good, six hours to find a brilliant track. Now this music is supposed to be cool, played in Ibiza etc. It’s minimal they say. Yes, minimal talent. You need an artist, a song and a voice, hence UK urban, that’s all we got. We need new music that covers the dark side again.
True to his nature, Bowie soon moved on from what he did with “Low” and “Heroes” and changed his agenda repeatedly over the years. Could he reach the level of “Low” and “Heroes” again at some point, or was that the artistic peak of his career?
He is married, and happy, “Low” and “Heroes” were the songs of a messed up, confused and broken man. And to that many many young people relate to, “blue, blue, electric blue is the colour of my room where I will live….”
How much of what you experienced in those years between “Low” and “Heroes” and the time Visage fell apart and you carried on as a club owner, producer and DJ is still in what you do now? Does it feel just like a phase, as the time in Berlin probably feels for Bowie, or was it even a beginning for something else?
It was my 20’s, I am in my 50’s now and I still go out DJing, clubbing, dating single girls twenty years younger, I still love the idea of putting the records on at a party rather than talking, drinking, drugs, etc. I am a clean living guy now, my highs are the smiles on the faces. Music is an amazing tool to touch the hearts and souls. I have that power in my laptop.
What lesson is there to be learned for the artists, DJs and clubbers of today from these years, and do you feel that the development of electronic music could live up to the expectations you had when you started out?
It’s not rocket science and it is music. Love it, respect it, share it, spread it, don’t touch it. Leave the record play and try to do something in your home before you do it live, because you are messing with technology, and using it to desecrate the work of artists. Respect the people who listen to you, because some of you DJs should be hung for the crap you make people listen to! I don’t care you can mix two tracks together and speed then up, and slow down and loop, and edit, it still sounds crap. Hey DJ, put a record on I want to dance to with my baby! Did you hear that, just play a decent song, so I can hold my baby and drift away…lost in music.