David Bowie and Joy Division

25 stycznia 2016, poniedziałek,

A musical influence on UK musicians- Warsaw

During his sojourn[1] in (then) West Berlin the late rock star David Bowie was rumoured to have paused in his rail journey through Poland in order to explore its capital Warsaw. His next album “Low’ (1977) a triumph of electronic experimentation featured a moody instrumental entitled Warszawa. In Manchester a young band in search of a name would decide on ‘Warsaw’ having acknowledged Bowie’s album as a major influence. The name was quite appropriate; dour 1970’s Warsaw with its bleak tower blocks and wide avenues specially designed for the deployment of tanks encapsulated the stark[2] visions the band would later evoke.

Low Album cover featuring Warszawa instrumental; Image credit: rollingstone.com

Low Album cover featuring Warszawa instrumental; Image credit: rollingstone.com

David Bowie  – Station to Station

Bowie’s career didn’t begin with Let’s Dance! Fleeing L.A and a hedonistic lifestyle Bowie in the mid-seventies was at the height of his success, his personal life however was threatening to spin out of control. Relocating to the ‘war-zone’ of West Berlin he rented an apartment above an automobile repair shop and in his words ‘forced himself to buy his own groceries’. Bowie’s last ‘Station to Station’ album (1975) an awesome slab[3] of hard funk over icy vocals and synthesizer effects had been well received but conjured up some unsettling demons for its creator.

Station to Station Album cover; Image credit: thecatclub.co.uk

Station to Station Album cover; Image credit: thecatclub.co.uk

Dangerous visions

Fascinated by Berlin’s culture particularly that of its inter-war Weimar years, it was unsurprising that Bowie felt drawn to the city.

The Thin White Duke incarnation; Image credit: spotlightheroes.com

The Thin White Duke incarnation; Image credit: spotlightheroes.com

In contrast to most rock artists who project the same public persona throughout their careers Bowie ‘the actor’ adopted a range of incarnations all attuned to the music and cultural moment he was aiming to project. The latest of these was ‘The Thin White Duke’ a dandified Weimar aristocrat who combined cocaine with an interest in fascism and the occult. In interviews Bowie maintained that the UK was ripe for dictatorship and that all the (far-right) National Front at the time the fourth biggest political party in Britain needed was a leader (presumably himself). Bowie denied accusations of Nazism claiming that he was merely acting as the conduit for an atmosphere prevalent in the country at the time. His ‘fascism’ had more to do with aesthetics than politics. Nevertheless, the fallout from this episode seriously damaged his credibility and would take numerous heartfelt anti-fascist sentiments expressed in subsequent albums to fully erase.

The Berlin albums

Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), Stage (1978) and Lodger (1979) albums together; Image credit: davidbowie.com

Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), Stage (1978) and Lodger (1979) albums together; Image credit: davidbowie.com

The ‘Berlin” albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger) are among Bowie’s best, inspiring a whole generation of bands and musicians with their seminal ground-breaking electronic music. The emphasis is on austere instrumentals and somber introspection, a far cry from the bellicose[4] swaggering that defines most mainstream ‘rock’.

Joy Division

Joy Division; Image credit: theguardian.com

Joy Division; Image credit: theguardian.com

In Manchester, ‘Warsaw’ now renamed Joy Division were attempting to establish themselves on the city’s club circuit. Onstage Curtis himself resembled not so much the hedonistic[5] rock star but rather a character from a Kafka or Dostoevsky novel. If the music business existed upon a clear understanding of the separation between performer and audience then Curtis moved above such limitations. Off-stage quiet and self-effacing his stage persona appeared obsessed alternating between an eerie[6] vocal style and a manic dance routine. His claustrophobic lyrics thrillingly backed by the band’s dark Wagnerian thunder dealt with disturbing themes of alienation and fear within a crumbling post-apocalyptic setting. Elton John he wasn’t! The release of the debut “Unknown Pleasures” (1979) album saw Joy Division become the darlings of the music press. It became the definite ‘post-punk’ statement.

Curtis a troubled soul

Curtis drew on similar influences to Bowie. He was interested in the Weimar and Nazi periods (his wife claimed that he had been to see the film Cabaret over ten times) as well as ‘dark’ authors such as Burroughs, Celine and Ballard. Nazi kitsch was much in vogue at the time, besides Cabaret films such as The Night porter toyed with images of fascist ‘chic’.

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis; Image credit: mirror.co.uk

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis; Image credit: mirror.co.uk

If Bowie ‘the artist’ would be able to shed[7] ‘The Thin White Duke’ then Curtis was fated to be subsumed by the demons he failed to exorcise in his songs. Afflicted by a worsening epileptic condition and a disintegrating marriage he committed suicide in May 1980, aged 23. Curtis became elevated to the pantheon of rock gods, his lyrics given a final ironic tinge.  Suffice it to say that he was a sensitive young man with an acutely developed flair for words. His passing made him a role model for a generation of gloomy young front men looking to emulate their hero’s dark charisma. None of them succeeded.

UK Music

You can find out more about British music and other features of UK culture on the Britain is GREAT site.

Vocabulary bank

[1] Sojourn (noun) a short period of time you stay in a place.

[2] Stark (adjective) very simple and severe in appearance

[3] Slab (noun) a thick four sided piece of material

[4] Bellicose (adjective) always wanting to fight or argue

[5] Hedonistic (adjective) believe that enjoying oneself is the most important thing.

[6] Eerie (adjective) strange and frightening.

[7] Shed (verb) to allow something to fall.