Tony Visconti on Berlin
The Real "Uncut" Version
UNCUT: Some biographers speculate that David's Berlin era was an instinctive reaction to the mid-Seventies ethos of punk rock - dressed down, blunt, serious, doom-laden, emotionally raw. Do you agree?
tv: I think David just liked living in Berlin. There was so much of it, in those days, that was fantastic, fantasy-like, that didn't exist anywhere else in the world. The impending danger of the divided military zones, the bizarre night-life, the extremely traditional restaurants with aproned servers, reminders of Hitler's not too distant presence, a recording studio 500 yds. From the Wall - you could've been on the set of The Prisoner.
UNCUT: LOW is Generally perceived as David at his most emotionally honest, but most unhappy. Looking back, is this interpretation accurate?
tv: I wasn't a difficult album to make, we were freewheeling, making our own rules. But David was going through a difficult period professionally and personally. To his credit, he didn't put on a brave face. His music said that he was "low."
UNCUT: Is it true that Chateau d'Herouville was haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand (David refused to sleep in master bedroom 'cos it was spooked? Eno woken by taps on the shoulder in the middle of the night?). Any good ghostly happenings you recall?
tv: I keep reviewing my feelings about the supernatural. There was certainly some strange energy in that chateau. On the first day David took one look at the master bedroom and said, "I'm not sleeping in there!" He took the room next door. The master bedroom had a very dark corner, right next to the window, ironically, that seem to just suck light into it. It was colder in that corner too. I took the bedroom because I wanted to test my meditation abilities. I never admitted this before. I had read that Buddhists in Tibet meditated all night in a graveyard to test their level of fear/no fear. Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, sat on his dead mother's body all night and meditated. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck, but what could Frederic and George really do to me, scare me in French? I loved the look of the room so I decided to spend one night there. If something happened I planned to shout so loud I'd wake up the village.
Eno claims he was awakened early every morning with someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes no one was there.
UNCUT: There are rumours that Robert Fripp was involved on 'Low', but uncredited. Was he?
tv: He wasn't there, ever. Only Ricky Gardiner, David and Carlos Alomar played guitar on Low.
UNCUT: Rumour also has it that an alternative version exists with different lyrics - is this true, and if so, why?
tv: I remember David wrote a third verse to "Always Crashing In The Same Car" and sang it in the style of Bob Dylan. It was done half in jest, but we were a little freaked because Dylan had just been in that motorcycle accident and this seemed like bad taste, I guess. David asked me to erase it and I did. I can't recall there being any alternative lyrics to any other songs.
UNCUT: There's a story about Dennis Davis recounting a tale (during 'Low' sessions) of being thrown out of the army after seeing a UFO crash. What do you remember of this, if at all?
tv: Dennis was the life of the party. He could do a mime act on the closed-circuit-tv camera and have us in stitches. He claimed he took a short cut through a highly classified hanger and saw a crashed UFO from the catwalk he was on. He stared at it for ages until a guard told him to leave because he wasn't classified to be there. He was warned not to ever mention what he saw. I don't know if this is true, but it was highly entertaining. French tv sucks, Dennis is the best we had.
UNCUT: There's a credit on 'Low' for Peter and Paul. Is this to do with Mary being there? And who were they really?
tv: Brian and Mary sang the "doo-doos" in the beginning of "Sound and Vision." Mary and our kids were there for a couple of weeks.
UNCUT: Does it still annoy you that some people still think Eno produced the 'Berlin' albums?
tv: Yes. David's set the record straight many times since, and of course my name is in the credits as co-producer with David. How rock journalists continue to make that mistake is beyond me. Come to think of it, I don't recall Brian ever setting the record straight. I know that David and Brian spent some time together before going in the studio with me, but they were writing. Brian spent an average of three weeks on each the Triptych albums recording his bits. He wasn't present for the vocals, lots of other overdubs and the mix.
UNCUT: I've always thought that there's a prevailing mood of hope throughout 'Low' (certainly not a pessimistic album). Do you think that comes through?
tv: I find "Warzawa" very uplifting. Despite a few really bad days we had quite a lot of fun making Low, especially when all the radical ideas were making sense and things were starting to click. I remember after a couple of weeks of recording I made a rough mix of the entire album so far and handed a cassette of it to David. He left the control room waving the cassette over his head and grinned ecstatically saying, "We've got an album, we've got an album." I have to qualify that statement by saying that at the beginning, the three of us agreed to record with no promise that Low would ever be released. David had asked me if I didn't mind wasting a month of my life on this experiment if it didn't go well. Hey, we were in a French chateau for the month of August and the weather was great!
UNCUT: Is it true that, when David asked what your Eventide Harmonizer did, you blurted "It messes with the fabric of time!"? How revolutionary do you think that sound was you created? And its influence in later years?
tv: I actually said, "It fucks with the fabric of time," much to the delight of David and Brian, who were on a conference call with me at the time. I must've been quoted in a family magazine.
It was a radical sound, especially on the drums. I had the second Harmonizer in Europe and I guessed it would be a matter of time before other producers figured out what I was doing. But when the album came out the Harmonizer still wasn't widely available. I had loads of producers phoning me and asking what I had done, but I wouldn't tell them. I asked, instead, how they thought I did it and I got some great answers that I found inspirational. One producer insisted I compressed the drum tracks three separate times and slowed the tape down every time, or something like that. I also used the Harmonizer to great effect on some vocals, but especially on side two.
I've heard hundreds of "Low sounds" on other records since.
UNCUT: You've described recording 'Low' as pretty horrible. Do you remember much of the various incidents (food poisoning, French press infiltration, etc.)?
tv: In August most of Europe goes on holiday. This studio was no exception. The service was terrible. After three days I noticed that the sound got duller and duller and I asked my assistant, a lovely English chap, when was the last time the multitrack recorder was lined up? He said about a week before we arrived then the technician went on holiday. My assistant was brand new, hired just for us because he could speak English and French. He didn't know how to maintain the machines. So every morning I'd go into the control room with him and we'd line up the machine together, with the manual open, hoping for the best.
The food was appalling. For the first three days they served nothing but rabbit and no vegetables. I was starving. When I asked for a little salad or something, they plopped six heads of lettuce on the table with a bottle each of vinegar and oil, plus more rabbit.
We would get ravenous at night so we'd eat this cheese that they left out uncovered since dinner. David and I got food poisoning as a result. Even the French doctor couldn't be bothered to look at me because I got out of bed to request that he see me after David. He said, "He's okay, he can walk!" David shared his medicine with me.
A French woman was hired to be our assistant. She was supposed to provide us with anything we might need to make the recording go smoothly, but even she couldn't be bothered to bring some bread, cheese and wine up to the studio when we called down for some at 1 a.m. (a normal working hour for a rock studio). I remember David getting the owner out of bed at that hour and saying in precise, measured out words, "We want some bread, some cheese and some wine in the studio ? now! What, you're asleep? Excuse me, but I thought you were running a studio.
UNCUT: What impressed you initially with Ricky Gardiner?
tv: He was totally left-field and completely savvy with special effects. I was in awe of him.
UNCUT: HEROES is widely seen as a more upbeat and positive album than Low. Is this accurate?
tv: Yeah. They were happier times and the Germans run a studio a hell of a lot better than the French - then anyway.
UNCUT: The album was largely written in the studio and completed in mostly first takes. Correct? Was there an intent behind this method?
tv: We always started these albums as making demos, that went right on until Scary Monsters. Then we'd realize that the "demos" needed just a little editing without re-recording. Sometimes I would take a great section and copy it and edit it into the song later on, cutting right across the 24-track tape. I wouldn't say they were first takes, we worked hard and long on each track. We didn't go into say 25 takes, but I'd say that most tracks were done in about 5 takes.
UNCUT: You've been quoted as saying you loved the Hansa Studio 2 and it was one of your "last great adventures in making albums". Please explain? Was the implied danger of being by the guarded Wall a factor? Gave you creative energy?
tv: It's acoustically a beautiful room. You can hear the ambience on Dennis' drums and David's vocals. Being so close to the wall made it a pretty exotic place to make a record. The equipment was vintage and well maintained. After work there were things to do, places to go and people to see. Plus, I had the good fortune to have a room full of very talented and creative musicians. It was a moment in time. I heard that U2 went to Hansa looking for what we created there and it didn't pan out for them. I heard that they hated the place.
UNCUT: Is it true that Robert Fripp came and went in a day and played over tracks 'blind'? Just how good was he?
tv: Two days - and I missed one of them because my missus (Mary Hopkin) had a television show that I had to conduct for. Fripp is AMAZING! He did his Frippatronics thing and plugged into Eno's EMS briefcase synth. The combination was terrific. His playing on "Heroes" didn't take long. He just played one pass and asked for three more tracks to embellish the first take. Before we knew it we had a sound no one had ever heard before. The guitars on that track are breathtaking. Besides being a great musician he is also a very funny man. He wondered if he was going to get laid in Berlin that night, but used the euphemism, "I hope I'll wave the sword of union tonight." He'd lay on his Somerset accent extra thick for that. We couldn't stop laughing.
UNCUT: Conflicting stories: "Heroes" was inspired by (a) two lovers David observed standing by the Berlin Wall, (b) Tony Visconti and Antonia Maass kissing by the Wall, (c) Otto Mueller's painting " Lovers Between Garden Walls" (d) all of the above?
tv: Because I was married at the time David protected me all these years by not saying that he saw Antonia and me kiss by the wall. He asked to be left alone to write the lyrics and we took a walk by the wall. Antonia was a beautiful woman and a great singer. We both met her singing in a jazz band in a Berlin club.
UNCUT: LODGER is an album which really divides Bowie fans - I.e. either devout love or total indifference. With hindsight, does it deserve? both these extremes?
tv: I wished it was sonically better, the studios we used were poor choices, but the content of that album is wonderful. I play it a lot despite how bad it sounds to me.
UNCUT: Moving away from pure electronic sounds - was this a deliberate strategy to stay ahead of the synthesizer copycat bands who were busy aping Low and "Heroes"?
tv: I guess so. We didn't do an ambient side on this one either.
UNCUT: What about the "Planned Accidents" strategy (for e.g., Adrian Belew being put in the studio and told to play whatever came into his head over unknown tracks)?
tv: A lot more chaos was intended. Brian was doing some strange experiments like writing his eight favorite chords on a black board and asking the rhythm section to "play something funky." Then he would randomly point at a chord and the band had to follow. This didn't go down too well, but we were trying all sorts of different things. "Yassisin" was a deliberate attempt to make a hybrid form of music - Reggae/Turkish. "Fantastic Voyage" and "Boys Keep Swinging" are the same song harmonically and structurally, as well as a third track that was never used. Adrian Belew was a champion because he'd do whatever strange thing that was requested of him.
UNCUT: Eno's credited as adding 'cricket menace'. Please explain?
tv: That's the chattering sound on "African Nightflight," a sound and rhythm pattern on David's Roland beatbox, played very, very fast. On the track sheet it said, "Enraged crickets."
UNCUT: Was the recording of 'Boys Keep Swinging' based on Oblique Strategy cards ('Change instruments' and / or 'Use unqualified people')?
tv: Probably. Fortunately Carlos could play good drums.
UNCUT: The final refrain in Red Money, - "project cancelled". Is this significant? A curtain being drawn on the Eno triptych?
tv: I have no idea. Ask David.
UNCUT: Why do you think the Bowie / Eno / Visconti axis worked so well (no modesty, please!)? What was special?
tv: I think it's because the three of us are used to working unfettered by commercial dictates. We didn't give a rat's arse about A&R people, critics, or anybody. It's hard to get people in the studio to unwind and be radically creative. We were the opposite. We also, the three of us, have good chops. We didn't struggle to get things done. Therefore, things got done! I think I was a good barometer for David and Brian to see if something was working or not. My cultural background is completely different from theirs (I'm a Brooklyn, New Yawk boy), but artistically and creatively I was up to par with them. Strange bedfellows, indeed!
UNCUT: The Berlin albums are now seen as foundation stones of postpunk/ambient/electronica/world music. Does this surprise you? Were you aware of their importance when you were making them?
tv: I think I realized that after Low was released and accepted as a milestone album. Heroes was just a better Low. Lodger was a creative reaction, I guess, to Low and Heroes. All three are quite amazing. I could sit down right now and listen to all three in a row and I know I'll hear a few more things I've missed before, or remember some great moment in the studio when something happened that boggled the brain, like "Joe The Lion," all the playing and singing on that one! Feeling the power of the ambient music slowly building up - the tape was the score paper itself!
Scary Monsters is never mentioned as being part of the three albums, but I think it is the crowning glory of what we had learned from making the Triptych. Even though Brian wasn't with us on that one you can feel his influence.
UNCUT: Which is your favourite album of the three?
tv: It depends on how I feel. Probably Heroes.