Androids Playing the Blues: ‘Low’ at 40

 An appreciation of the timeless, cathartic qualities of Bowie’s masterwork, released on this day in 1977.

For an album recorded in a healing environment, as a form of creative therapy, ‘Low’ should, by title and definition, be depressing.  But you should own it, and listen to it and play it over and over as you move into the future, because its total effect is catharsis, and one day it will heal you.

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‘Low’ profile: The austere front cover, adapted from ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ film poster.

‘Sometimes you get so lonely.  Sometimes you get nowhere.’

I first heard ‘Low’ in 1986, ten years after it had been recorded.  I was 15.  I’d ‘discovered’ Bowie via his excellent ‘Hunky Dory’ album, and had a good idea of who he was and what he’d been doing, but ‘Low’ was something of an unknown quantity; one of those (then) seldom seen albums from what was erroneously known as ‘the Berlin trilogy’ (alongside “Heroes” and ‘Lodger’).  With a head full of Ziggy Stardust and The Jean Genie, ‘Low’ – when I finally tracked it down – was as disorientating to me as it must have been for Bowie fans a decade earlier.  You see, in 1986 I wasn’t lonely, and I was yet to feel I was getting nowhere.  Unlike Bowie in 1976…

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Crowley meets ‘Cabaret’: Bowie in 1976 (Photo: ‘The Archer’, John Robert Rowlands)

In ‘76, Bowie had finally made it big.  Eight albums in, he’d ditched his admittedly sophisticated take on glam rock and re-invented himself as a white soul rebel.  Annexing the States with Young Americans, his wildest dream came true: he found fame.  Genuine, bona fide, trans-Atlantic fame.  And then as now, fame’s best friend was cocaine.

Snowed under by his new American lifestyle, Bowie quickly lost his grip on reality.  He is on record as having no memory of recording of ‘Station to Station’ or filming ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’.  Fortunately, some part of him knew this wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  With both his critical faculties and his marriage crumbling, he decided to take control and left for Europe, taking fellow coke addict Iggy Pop with him.  They moved to Paris and vowed to get well together.

It is from this period of illness, depression and existential despair that ‘Low’ was born.  Hence the title.  Calling on musical conspirators old and new (Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar) and locked in a French chateau, Bowie vowed to make an album of music that flew in the face of his American success and, in the light of his recent wake-up call, attempted to convey something more meaningful with the tools of what we then knew as rock ‘n’ roll.  And he did.

Above: Excerpts from ‘David Bowie: Five Years’, produced and directed by Francis Whately. Interviewees: David Bowie, Brian Eno, Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar, John Harris and Charles Shaar Murray.

Side One fades in quickly with electronic fuzz.  But no Ziggy!  No voice, just a beautiful dance between synthetic noises and almost alien-sounding but somehow traditional pianos and guitars: Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart well before its time.  And it’s called Speed of Life, which makes more and more sense the older you get…

Above: A blistering live version of ‘Speed of Life’ filmed for cable TV at Dallas, Texas, in 1978.

Next up is Breaking Glass, one of two tracks you’ve probably heard of.  Ricky Gardner and Carlos Alomar on Jeff Beck-like guitars.  Dennis Davis on industrial percussion.  Bowie singing in the mature Scott Walker style he developed on ‘Diamond Dogs’.  Androids playing the blues.

Above: A rare ‘extended version’ of Breaking Glass, taken from an Australian promo single.

Somewhere beneath the bleeping barrage of What in the World, an edgy love song tries to break free.  It’s so edgy that Iggy provides the backing vocals.

Above: Bowie’s 1978 touring band perform ‘What In The World’ on German TV.

Then comes the other song you’ve heard of, with a title that would come to encapsulate the great man’s career.  Sound and Vision is the futurist sci-fi soundscape that Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane could only dream about, but it’s gloriously and ironically put in its place by the folk vocals of Mary Hopkin.

Above: ‘Sound And Vision’s only performance during the 1978 tour, from the semi-official ‘RarestOneBowie’ compilation.

Always Crashing in the Same Car (another title that gains in relevance the older one gets) offers an instrumental flirtation between Eno’s synthetic backgrounds and Alomar’s foregrounded guitar, inventing Duran Duran, Gary Numan, OMD, Visage, Ultravox!, Human League, The Cure, U2, Bloc Party, Arcade Fire and Hot Chip along the way.

Above: A sublime live version of ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ from the 1999 ‘hours’ tour.

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German picture sleeve of ‘Be My Wife’, 1977.

Be My Wife ups the game with Roy Young’s slammed piano offering up more ivory than a pre-historic mammoth.  Here, Bowie’s vocal sounds like Adam Ant would for the bulk of his career.

Above: The official promo video for ‘Be My Wife’, filmed in Paris.

A New Career in a New Town is a work of genius.  Bowie’s absent vocal spaces are amply filled by his incredible harmonica.  Eno’s synthesisers astonish, and the drum break predicts the coming age of New Order’s Blue Monday.  For just under three minutes a sense of yearning is created, a sense of reflection that finally gives way to a joyous optimism when the longing mouth organ defers to the jollity of the synths.

Above: ‘A New Career In A New Town’ live at Montreux Jazz Festival, 2002.

Side Two opens with Warszawa.  Eno creates a magnificent backdrop to Bowie’s vocal lamentations; this wailing for an old soul, a past life, a former self, must surely rank among his best vocal performances.

Above: ‘Warszawa’ performed on the last night of the Isolar II Tour, Tokyo, December 1978.

Art Decade feels organic, fluid.  Like Kraftwerk if they’d been cultured in a laboratory.  It’s amniotic, like the music of the womb, but at the same time airy, transcendental; the sound it makes is astounding.

Above: Audience recording of ‘Art Decade’, live in Cologne on the Isolar II tour, 1978.

Weeping Wall is Bowie all by himself, pushing this new sound even further, but presenting the listener with doubt, like something’s missing.  It conjures that feeling of falling asleep, but suddenly realising something crucial and important, only to lose it again just as quickly.  And – things I thought I’d never hear myself say – it’s got the best xylophone playing ever committed to record.

Above: A live arrangement of ‘Weeping Wall’ from ‘Subterranean – New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin’ by Dylan Howe.

Above: ‘Subterraneans’ from the 1.Outside Tour, 1995.

Subterraneans closes the album with Bowie proving his skill on the sax – an instrument that had and would continue to provide the motif for a number of his albums; pre-figuring X-Ray Spex style punk on ‘Pin-Ups’, recalling urban city sounds on ‘Black Tie White Noise’, and heralding his ascension to Starman heaven on the blissful, elegiac ‘Blackstar’.  But we’re not talking jazz on ‘Low’.  The playing here is something stranger, and yet it leaves us with a sense of having come in from the cold.  It allows us the realisation that no matter how much we think we might have failed in life, we have actually achieved so much.  It touches our humanity without being pious or pretentious.  Okay, maybe just a little bit.  But then we all recognised that bit of ourselves in Bowie, didn’t we?

Above: The first movement of ‘Subterraneans’, from Philip Glass’ ‘Low Symphony’ (1993).

For an album recorded in a healing environment, as a form of creative therapy, ‘Low’ should, by title and definition, be depressing.  On first listen you might be mistaken for thinking it’s having a bloody good go.  But you should own it, and listen to it and play it over and over as you move into the future, because its total effect is catharsis, and one day it will heal you.

Above: The ‘Blackstar’ band perform ‘Warszawa’ in tribute to David Bowie.

Tony Visconti’s textured production builds a cocoon where your heart can hide from chaos (in 1977 it was the perfect antidote/accompaniment to punk) and it’s great for being alone with when you’re going through ch-ch-ch-changes.  Listening to ‘Low’ again, I realise that in the 20-odd years since I was first thrilled and alienated by its unpredictability, it’s become an old and familiar friend.  A friend that makes me smile.  There’s never been a time when I couldn’t listen to it, be uplifted by it, be amazed at it.  It’s like it’s always been there, like I was never without it.  And it will grow ever more timeless and ever more amazing the further from 1976 it gets.  And it will live forever, because it’s an album you can – and will – grow to.

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❉ Elton Townend-Jones is a journalist, playwright, actor, theatre producer and philosopher. Visit http://www.dyadproductions.com/ and www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com

❉ This article was first published in Music-Zine Issue 9, September/October 2007. Updated and amended by the author, January 2017. With kind thanks to Simon Eddie Baker and Music-Zine.

❉ ‘Low’ was first released on 14 January, 1977, RCA PL 12030. Reissued on LP by RCA International (NL 13856/INTS 5065). In 1991 it was digitally remastered for CD with three bonus tracks (US: RCD 80142/UK: CDEMD 1027). A 1999 remaster was released by Virgin/EMI as part of The David Bowie Series (7243 521907 0 6). This version is currently available from Parlophone/Warner Music Group, 521 9070.

❉ Recommended reading: ’33 1/3: Low’ by Hugo Wilcken (Bloomsbury, ISBN 9780826416841); ‘Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town’ by Thomas Jerome Seabrook (Jawbone Press, ISBN 9781906002084).

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