The Berlin Three: Bowie, Iggy and Lou Reed

Strung out and shattered, David Bowie arrived in Berlin in 1976 to kickstart the wildest and most sophisticated part of his recording career. His flatmate was Iggy Pop, who had recently voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital to help deal with his own escalating drug use. One of their longer-term visitors was Lou Reed, who dropped into the severed Cold War city many years after recording his own Berlin album.

Somehow, the three artists all seem to belong to that decadent, seedy, Cold War world. Bowie had already helped Reed to revolutionise his career and he was about to do the same for the erstwhile James Osterberg. Back in 1972, Bowie had hooked up with his guitarist in the Spiders from Mars, Mick Ronson, to produced Lou Reed’s masterpiece Transformer.

It’s indisputably a classic album, even if it did take decades to become a part of people’s lives. The hit single, Walk on the Wild Side itself only reached number 16 in the US Billboard chart. The serene coming-down song, Perfect Day would need to wait a quarter of a century until a celeb medley allowed it to hit number one in the UK. Satellite of Love, another perfect pop song from the album, barely troubled the scorers. A travesty.

Jump forward four years, and Bowie was working with Iggy to produce Mr Pop’s finest album Lust for Life. It contains his most famous song The Passenger,  and the amazing flowering of their relationship must come from the fact that Bowie believed he saw a talent in Iggy that it’s possible not even the former Stooges frontman himself was aware of.

Bowie certainly didn’t see it at their first meeting, which he described like this:

“Do you know how I met Iggy – and Lou Reed? I was at an RCA party at Max’s Kansas City in New York and was introduced to Lou. He immediately starting telling me some story about a guy who injected smack through his forehead – that’s typical Lou. Anyway, up comes this funny ragged, ragged little guy with broken teeth and Lou says: ‘Don’t talk to him, he’s a junkie’ – that was Iggy. You can’t help loving him, he’s so vulnerable.”

And here’s the fun part of today’s post: I’ve seen all three live.

Lou Reed was the first in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Despite falling over in an off-licence shortly beforehand, I made it to the gig to see a punchy, rocking set. He was promoting ‘Set the Twilight Reeling’, an album which didn’t set anything reeling because he was in one of his periodic bouts of being ignored by the public at large.

It was a tight set with several classics, ending with an extended encore of Sweet Jane. We were up in the gods and also got told off by an usher for misbehaving, which seemed a bit much considering what kind of things he was singing about, but it was 1995 and things were different then.

Bowie I saw at the end of his last UK tour, in the Birmingham NEC (that’s the damp, grey English midlands, not the sultry Alabama metropolis, I’m afraid). Bowie lit up that night. It was impossible to know that he was on the verge of a heart attack that would bring his touring career to a premature end. His performance was immaculate.

Iggy Pop was on at London’s Brixton Academy, so we rocked down to Electric Avenue to see the great survivor. The venue is tiny, almost like a pub gig but the raw power of Iggy Pop has to be seen to be believed. At one point, he leapt onto the giant speakers, hugging them to his chest (they were already making my teeth vibrate). Later, he invited a woman to come on stage with him, who proceeded to tear off all her clothes before scampering off into the wings. Then, finally, he demanded that they turn the lights on the audience, howling:

“I want to feed off of them!”

Though known for only a couple of songs, inventing punk, his debauched lifestyle, and flogging tonic water, one thing that Iggy Pop does really well is re-interpret classics from the early days of rock. He often plays Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 Aussie rocker Wild One in his concerts (he had a 1980s hit with his cover version, incidentally).  If you want to get a taste of this part of his repertoire, check out his axe-swinging rendition of the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates classic Shakin’ All Over on his album Avenue B.

Incidentally, Iggy didn’t remove his trousers when I saw him, but as I say, someone in the audience had done that for him.

There’s only one of the Berlin Three left but if you get a chance, don’t miss Iggy Pop when he’s in town. He may have hit 70 last April, but he’ll still guarantee you one hell of a night. As did all three for lucky old me. (Thanks, Mike!)