#179 David Bowie – In Bertolt Brecht’s Baal

Despite being a Bowie devotee since my school days, first discovering Hunkydory and The Man Who Sold The World via Norwich City Record Library and playing to death the cassettes I lovingly (and illegally) recorded them onto before I had saved up enough pennies of my own to purchase copies, this was an album of his I’d only vaguely heard of, and never actually heard. I bought this at a Utrecht Record Fair, for around 10 euros, and it’s an interesting addition to my now bloated Bowie collection.

This record is really an EP, the whole thing clocking in at just over 10 mins, and consists of the songs recorded and performed by Bowie in the 1982 BBC TV Alan Clarke adaption of Brecht’s first play, Baal. Originally written in 1918, the play itself is a familiar Brechtian tale of an antihero, a socially isolated lowlife of a poet who drinks, shags and murders his way to a debauched death, with no one quite understanding his genius. You can see why Bowie would be attracted to the part. The songs are Brecht’s originals (translated from the German) with modern yet musically appropriate settings, other than The Drowned Girl which uses Kurt Weill’s original.

Music-wise it’s unlike any of Bowie’s other albums (and quite unlike that of any other ‘pop’ star – though Nick Cave and Tom Waits are also fond of the Brecht/Weill oeuvre) although its close in spirit to Bowie’s early day forays into the world of Jacques Brel. He’d already recorded and released Alabama Song a Brecht/Weill masterpiece of lowlife drinking culture before this, so there’s form. Wikipedia tells me this reached no 29 in the UK chart on release, which is commendable given it’s entirely un-poplike nature. I wonder what the British record-buying public made of it at the time.

It was released between Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance, the same year as his soundtrack to (and appearance in) Christiane F; and a period where Bowie took a step back from music to explore his dramatic interests. He also appeared in The Hunger the same year, with his critically praised Broadway success in The Elephant Man being two years earlier.

It was recorded at Hansa studios in Berlin, site of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ by Tony Visconti, but bears nothing else in common with those exceptional albums. It’s a bit of a curiosity, interestingly primarily for Brecht’s lyrics rather than the music, and for Bowie’s unique cockney Weimar cabaret vocal. Plus the fact that on the cover he looks uncannily like his son, Duncan Jones.

For anyone interested (other than me) he even released a single/video from it, and there’s a trailer for the BBC play here.

Best Bits: The lyrics to The Dirty Song. Which are, indeed, very dirty. I can only imagine the Mary Whitehouse complaints to the Beeb over this.
Genre: Weimar Cabaret
Like This, Try This: Any Jacques Brel, Scott Walker, Tom Waits or Ute Lemper, and Marianne Faithfull singing the Threepenny Opera


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