IT IS often the case that a personal life in crisis can result in some of a musician’s finest work; Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue being two cases in point. A third example is David Bowie’s eleventh studio album, Low. Although critical response was divided on its release in early 1977, this strange mixture of pop hooks and ambient drones has since been acknowledged as a rock milestone and one of the most influential LPs ever.
Back in the mid Seventies, Bowie was a mess. Approaching 30, he had developed a catastrophic cocaine habit which led to erratic behaviour including pro-Fascist interviews and a Nazi salute in public. He had to get out of the Los Angeles drug scene before it killed him.
After a spell in Switzerland he arrived in West Berlin, where he shared an apartment with his friend and fellow musician Iggy Pop and was able to move around in virtual anonymity. The pair had previously stayed at the home in Schoeneburg of Edgar Froese, an ambient music composer and member of the group Tangerine Dream. Bowie became fascinated by the German music scene. He was obsessed by Froese’s solo album Epsilon in Malaysian Pale, which he played all the time and described as the soundtrack to his time in Berlin.
The ambient sounds of former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno also caught his imagination.
Bowie had some material which he had intended for the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell To Earth, the Nic Roeg movie in which he played the leading role. Roeg rejected it, so Bowie decided it would form the basis of his next album and called in Eno and producer Tony Visconti to help. The result was Low, which describes the artist’s mental state at the time and is also a pun, as the title is printed above a sideways-on picture of Bowie from the film. Low profile, geddit?
Recording took place at the Chateau d’Herouville in France (Elton John’s Honky Chateau) and the Hansa Studio a few yards from the Berlin Wall. There is a fascinating documentary about the forbidding Hansa building available on Sky Arts. From the window East German troops could be seen on patrol.
For those expecting a repeat of the white soul vocals of Young Americans, or the bombastic funk of Station to Station, Low must have been quite a shock. For starters, it kicks off with an instrumental, Speed of Life. The first thing that hits you is the heavy, sloshing drum beat which sounds like underwater explosions. This is courtesy of the Eventide Harmonizer, an American ‘magic box’ which was one of Visconti’s recent investments. Then comes the brass motif, swiftly followed by Eno’s characteristic electronic beeps and burps. In little more than two and a half minutes it starts to fade away – the first of seven tantalising fragments on what was Side One of the LP.
Breaking Glass is even briefer, clocking in at one minute 51 seconds.
Here, Eno’s influence comes to the fore. Would this track be anywhere near as good without the three mini-Moog notes zooming in after Bowie sings the word ‘Listen’?
Track four, Sound and Vision, benefits similarly from the Brian factor and, released as a single, reached number 3 in the UK charts.
Backing vocals are provided by Eno and the producer’s wife Mary Visconti, better known as Mary Hopkin, who had a number one hit with Those Were The Days in 1968 after winning the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks.
Next is Always Crashing in the Same Car – not the best song to play when you’re stuck in a jam on the M25 – followed by the plaintive Be My Wife, which reveals the sad place Bowie was in at the time.
Sometimes you get so lonely
Sometimes you get nowhere
I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place
Please be mine
Share my life
Stay with me
Be my wife.
At the time he was still married to but estranged from Angie Bowie – they divorced in 1980 – so this could be taken either as a plea to get back together or an advert for a replacement missus.
The side is bookended by another instrumental, A New Career in a New Town – a reference to Bowie’s move from the US back to Europe. Seven songs and a grand total of 19 minutes 18 seconds.
Side Two was of a similar length, but otherwise utterly different. Four slow pieces heavily influenced by Eno and what was then affectionately known as Krautrock. If you haven’t persevered with them, take it from me, they reward repeated playing. Probably the pick is track one, Warszawa.
A 1991 reissue contained two unreleased tracks, Some Are and All Saints.
One amusing result of the album’s release was that British pop prankster Nick Lowe decided to take its title as a tribute to himself, despite its missing the final e of his surname. In return he made an EP called Bowi. And on his subsequent album Jesus of Cool the second track was I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.
The Low album did not go down well with the suits at Bowie’s record company RCA. He kept a framed copy of a letter rejecting it and advising him to make an LP a bit more like Young Americans. Despite their misgivings, however, it was reluctantly released and shot to No 2 in the UK album charts, showing how much they knew.
Britain’s then music bible, the New Musical Express, described Low as ‘stunningly beautiful – the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers’. The New York Times’s pompous rock critic John Rockwell opined: ‘There are hardly any vocals, and what there are, are mostly mindless doggerel heard from afar. And the instrumentals are strange and spacey. Nevertheless, the whole thing strikes this listener as remarkably, alluringly beautiful.’ Rockwell described its sound as ‘a strange crossbreed of Roxy Music, Eno’s own solo albums and Talking Heads’, adding: ‘Yet it still is recognisably a David Bowie album.’ He declared: ‘Once Mr Bowie’s fans overcome their initial shock at his latest change in direction, they may realise that he’s made one of the finest discs of his career.’
Thirty years later, a BBC reviewer wrote: ‘Without Low we’d have no Joy Division, no Human League, no Cabaret Voltaire and, I bet, no Arcade Fire. The legacy of Low lives on.’
Low was the first instalment in what became known as Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. Next came Heroes; another remarkable album and likewise probably worth a blog on its own. Let me know what you think.