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David Bowie (Part 1) Key Facts Released: 14th January 1977 Recorded: 1976 Château d'Hérouville, Hérouville, France/ Hansa Studios, West Berlin, Germany Length: 38.48 Label: RCA Producer: Tony Visconti, David Bowie A shaft of light penetrates your window, otherwise shrouded in velvet curtains. This is the only signifier that another day has passed. Not that it matters, nothing changes in this world. There are four walls and darkness. No one enters and you never leave. Milk and red peppers are your only subsidence. You have no one. There is nothing beyond your four walls. Instead of looking outwards, you begin looking inwards, it's a more interesting place, things happen there. Your best friend becomes introversion. Your thoughts begin to entertain you, take on a life of their own. You are spectator to the theatre of your own mind. All this almost amuses you. Almost. You are intensely lonely. Low is the beginning of Bowie's experimental period. It is the starting point of the 'Berlin trilogy', a series of works conducted in collaboration with Brian Eno, that would end with 1979's Lodger. A trilogy which would be heralded as Bowie's finest work, his largest contribution to the progression of music. The album has been credited for influencing artists such as Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, The Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division, New Order, Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Smashing Pumpkins, Paul Weller and more recently Ladytron, Robots in Disguise, White Rose Movement, Adult., Brandon Flowers and Mark Ronson. The two no doubt saw each other as perfect partners in crime. Eno, at the time, was working with Krautrock bands Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia (a collaborative of the two). While Bowie was a great admired of the Krautrock scene, in particular Kraftwerk, So much so, Bowie had initially approached both Neu! and Kraftwerk respectively regarding perspective collaborative work. However in the case of Kraftwerk, they declined, not wanting to be presented as a 'backing band' and Neu! apparently accepted only to be told there services wouldn't be required by Bowie's management. (It later transpired that Bowie's management at the time told Bowie that Neu! Had respectfully declined his offer to work with them, seemingly in an offer to protect their cash cow. RCA were very nervous about the direction of this album, going so far as to offer Bowie extra money to live in LA again and produce 'Young Americans II'.) So, Eno was a logical choice given his involvement in the Krautrock scene. With Eno came the motorik rhythms, the pulsing synthesisers and alien soundscapes. A direct progression of the work Kraftwerk and Neu! Amongst other Krautrock acts were producing. While Low is often cited as the start of the Berlin trilogy, the experimental nature of the work has
it's roots in Station to Station, as we addressed in my Station to Station piece. Like Station to Station, Low's creation is rooted in Bowie's unreleased soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth. A Nicolas Roeg film in which Bowie played an extremely intelligent, aloof alien by the name of Thomas Newton. Indeed both 'Weeping Wall' and 'Subterraneans' have both been attributed to the aborted project. It is likely only parts of the said tracks are actually found on the final cut. Though, to what extent it's hard to say, the bass-line for Subterraneans in particular is often rumoured to be from the aborted soundtrack. While the soundtrack to the film remains unreleased it is hard to really say how much of it made it's way on to Low. However, what it does tell us, is that the album was not solely a Brian Eno influenced creation. Bowie was beginning to write music, in this vein, 12 months earlier. Low like Station to Station, uses a still from Roeg's film as the album cover, which is rumoured to be a visual expansion on the albums title. On the cover Bowie, as Thomas Newton or The Thin White Duke persona, is shown in profile. Low+Profile=Low Profile. Cutting analysis this is! But seriously, this in some ways, is exactly what Bowie was trying to achieve. A Low profile. It's 1977, punk has happened, the established order is being torn apart by the sneering, young and relevant Johnny Rotten (all the things he isn't now), The Clash, The Damned and The Buzzcocks. Music has a new swagger, a new dance and a new beat. A new look. What Bowie had achieved earlier in the decade with Ziggy Stardust had been wiped away. Punk wiped everything away, it changed the way people think. Everything since punk has been influenced by punk. EVERYTHING. Punk. Changed. The. World. So, given the power of such a movement, Bowie chose to keep a low profile and do his own thing. This was a master stroke, alongside Roxy Music, the New York Dolls and reggae acts like Steel Pulse, he was embraced and championed by punks, not ridiculed, classed as dinosaurs, in the same way The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were. It is always important to never understate just how experimental and brave Low was as an album. Bowie at the time was an internationally famous artist. A rock star. A popstar. A trend setter, who had just a few years earlier enjoyed an American number one with Lennon collaboration 'Fame'. And here he is, releasing an album, to almost no promotion and no supporting tour, which is mostly instrumental and almost entirely lacking a song written in a conventional structure. Never mind a pop song. Musicians on the whole just don't do that, especially in recent years. That's why music today is crap and why Bowie is a legend. Brian Eno, the former Roxy Music 'bleeps and bloops' man, had carved a name for himself as being part of music's avant garde at the time and to this day. His work with Roxy Music and his first solo album Here Come the Warm Jets, marked the beginning of his experiments with music from the position of the non-musician. However, it is on his fantastic Another Green World we see a hybrid of a rock and roll album, combined with musical experimentation. Which came in the form of instrumentals and the construction of suggestive sonic soundscapes. These soundscapes teleport the listener in to different environments, through sound they suggest geography, mood and sensation. Low, being half instrumental uses the same techniques, the idea of three minute pictures through sound. A postcard from space. It is said that David Bowie and Brian Eno's relationship dates as far back as 1970, the two meeting at a Philip Glass concert. Their relationship was to be re-established six years later when Eno was in attendance for Bowie's Station to Station tour at Wembley Stadium, meeting back stage. Eno was to be in attendance on the tour again during a date in Paris on the same tour, the two again were to meet back stage.
The two no doubt saw each other as perfect partners in crime. Eno at the time was working with Krautrock bands Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia (a collaborative of the two) while Bowie at the time was a great admired of those acts, alongside Kraftwerk, So much that he approached both Neu! and Kraftwerk respectively regarding perspective collaborative work. However in the case of Kraftwerk, they declined, not wanting to be presented as a 'backing band' and Neu! apparently accepted only to be told there services wouldn't be required by Bowie's management. It later transpired that Bowie's management at the time told Bowie that Neu! had respectfully declined his offer to work with them, seemingly in an offer to protect their cash cow. It is important to remember RCA were very nervous about the direction of this album, going so far as to offer Bowie extra money to live in LA again and produce 'Young Americans II'. While Kraftwerk and Neu! did not appear on the album their influence over it and the trilogy as a whole cannot be denied. The motorik rhythms, the pulsing synthesisers and alien soundscapes are a direct progression of the work Kraftwork and Neu! Amongst other Krautrock acts were producing. So, one day in 1976 David Bowie was to give Brian Eno a call and put to him a very interesting project. Eno recalls Bowie no longer wanted to write music like his previous albums. He felt like he wanted to go against the tide of his own success and start an experimental project with him, entitled 'New Musick: Night and Day'. The two were to usher in the 'new age of pretence'. While Bowie wasn't even sure the project would work, the two were to work together very well. Eno's minimalist, neoclassical and unconventional hybrid approach to music contrasted to Bowie's interest in the dynamics of music as it is traditionally preformed and the creation of characters and persona to preform it. The result was the two influences, combined with the unsung influence of the albums producer Tony Visconti would be a stimulating environment of productivity. Bowie was right to have reservations about the project. Due to RCA's lack of confidence the album, while finished by Christmas 1976, saw its release date set back to the end of January 1977. In effect releasing it at a time no one bought records. Reviews at the time panned the album, misunderstanding the experimental nature, criticising the lack of lyrics and dubbing it inaccessible. Which was the WHOLE POINT. I always find it funny how now the same critics will tell us what a good album it is. Please the next time the NME tells you how good Adele is (who's music is as bloated as her), how bad Placebo is (who for a few years were one of the only exciting things coming out of the British music scene) and how Florence and the Machine are going to lead us to musical salvation (seemingly oblivious to the reality that even though I have seen what she looks like 1000 times I can never remember her face and her cookie cutter vocals grate with every listen) remember: critics are a fickle bunch that jump on to the nearest bandwagon and hold on as tight as they possibly can in order to sell copy. Not exactly a mind blowing revelation but something that I wanted to say!
Speed of Life
The instrumental upbeat, but cold opener is a signal of Bowie's intent. The album as a whole, is an exploration in to moods and emotional states. A series of decadent mini-essays exploring a variety of themes: isolation, emotional coldness and extreme solitude, to name a few. With the instrumental pieces on the album in particular Bowie selects a mood and then attempts to give it a sonic geography. A picture painted in sound. The evoking of an emotion by sonically crafting a space for it to exist in. Speed of Life is a less ambiguous piece than say Warzsawa which with it's title suggests the geography and then through the music conveys the emotion. Speed of life however, suggests the emotion first and then leaves the geography of the piece more ambiguous. As a listener you are introduced to Low and the track itself by the rapid fade-in of a distorting synth
line, a steely guitar hook and heavy echoing drums. It's had already started without you. You have stumbled in to an event already in progress. This in effect, immediately distances the listener from the album. For Low to explore emotions as effectively as it does, the listener needs to be on one level an outsider looking in and on another level engaged personally, relating the themes of the album to themselves. Low is not a singer-song writer album, nor a concept piece about a character. It is the aforementioned decadent series of sonic essays, in a manner similar to J.K. Huysmans ARebours. As such listener is thrown in to the album, not welcomed with a conventional introduction, in order to position the listener in the correct place to receive the album. The punchy, harmonised, drums give the piece a pulse and were to go on to be 'one of rocks all-time most imitated drum sounds'. For me they signify the relentless march of time. The flow birth to death, at the speed of life. Bowie here is returning to existential themes which he explored on station to station. We are all beings heading towards death, with no predetermined purpose in life. The main commonality we all share is we live and then we die. The call and response synthesisers bleed in to a break and onwards into a Kraftwerk inspired 'chorus'. The sound pallet is cold and heavily electronic, serving to give the track an alien feel, closing with a fade-out. Serving to give the track a fragmented feel, as if it was an eternally reoccurring cycle. Indeed the track must have sounded totally alien to a listener expecting Young Americans and instead receiving a Martian instrumental. Infact Bowie's first ever released instrumental, and what a strong one it was. The fact its not the strongest track on the album is testament to the quality of the album as a whole. As openers go it's one of the most memorable and brave tracks created by Bowie, or anyone else for that matter.
The second track of the album is another fragmented one. While the song does conform to a traditional structure in the form of verse-chorus-verse, it suddenly fades out, giving it an open ended feel. A track which finished too soon, offering only one verse and one chorus. One which feels like its still going on, you just can't hear it. The door has been suddenly shut. What Bowie does in effect is takes the audiences expectations of a pop song and subverts them. In doing so he experiments with not only music but the expectations of the audience. The track then, can be taken as an exploration in to the structure of pop music. The stories of writers block and Eno's roll in cutting the track short aside, what Bowie does by cutting the track short is a fine example of the experimental nature of Low. This track tells you what the albums all about! Thematically Breaking Glass is a track which is tough to pin down. The story of the song is of a stood a doorway. He stands, nervously blocking the view of a visitors view of the room while he warns her about what she is going to see inside. The broken glass, the occult symbols drawn on the floor. He doesn't want her to get involved. She's a wonderful person, but she has problems. He finally reassures her that he will 'never touch her'. She will never be the subject of his magickal experiments. This is another track which can comparable to the decadent writers, in particular Huysmans again. But this time his decadent novel La-Bas and it's depiction of the occult, going so far as to fully describe a satanic black mass, it all its perverse, gory detail. This brilliantly conceived and effective experimental track, can then be seen to be an exploration in to extreme emotional states. Mysticism. The evocation of the supernatural. As well as a musical experiment which toys with the expectations of the listener and the foundations which lie at the
heart of pop music.
What in the World
Continuing from Breaking Glass we begin to look at solitude, loneliness and introversion. Themes that run throughout the album. One of the weaker songs on the album, 'What in the World' musically is an experiment in to complicated and irregular rhythm. This done within the confines of a traditional pop song. Sonically the track is a stream of bleeps and bloops, a fizzy torrent of synthetic noise. A glitchy musical backing to off set the cold vocal and distract the listener from easy listening. The song lyrically is a depiction of two lovers. The protagonist of the track is appealing to his agoraphobic lover to come out of the gloom of her room. Rise from her nihilistic slump, as he is yearning for her love. Or so you think. I am of the opinion Bowie here is talking to his anima, his inner self depicted as a grey eyed girl. A technique he uses in serval songs: 'the girl with the mousey hair' in 'Life on Mars', the 'little girl' of 1.Outside's 'Wishful beginnings' are also times he uses this technique. The personification of his unconscious, inner self as a young, conflicted girl. While the track is strong, it's never going to be anyone's favourite Bowie track. It is probably one of the most replaceable tracks on the album, which could have been easily substituted for the much more interesting out-take, 'Some Are'. Which was to later resurface on Bowie's Christmas present to a lucky few, All Saints.
Sound and Vision
On an album which was so experimental, which received no promotion, written in Germany with no supporting tour, you wouldn't think you would find one of Bowie's biggest commercial successes. Sound and Vision was to be the lead single from Low and Bowie's biggest hit since 1973. Aided by the BBC's use of the song as backing for program trailers, it charted at number three. If we are to ignore reissues, this was his best chart performance since 'Sorrow' from the mediocre (but has really nice album art) cover album 'Pin Up's. While it was popular, it is not a conventional pop song. Bowie again experiments with song structure, creating a track who's introduction is longer than the body of the song. Giving the track a two part feel, firstly that of an airey instrumental, and secondly a nihilistic song about inspiration though extreme solitude. The tracks arrangement is some what upbeat, accented by the melodic 'aha'ing of Mary Hopkins. Bright washes of synthesiser, punches of harmonised snares and an instantly memorable guitar hook give the track a feel which is somewhat alien to the album. An optimistic vibe. The lyric however reveals, that the track is a celebration of solitude. The creativity that can be the. product of loneliness. How being totally alone can bring about the gift of “sound and vision”. An existential message of freedom. A decadent pursuit of inspiration.
Always Crashing in the Same Car
This shape shifting, mercurial track never sounds the same twice. You can always hear something new in the music, it's almost like it rewrites itself when you are not listening to it. The albums last track with lyrics, is the albums strongest track with lyrics. 'Always Crashing In The Same Car' kicks off with precisely one second of a very feint snare hit, so
to generate tension and suspense for the track. The listener is then greeted with layers of phased guitar and synths. Washing over you. Engulfing you. The track oozes and throbs. Taking the listener on a ethereal sonic journey. The lyric, a lament of making the same mistake over and over again. Referencing an accident Bowie had, while speeding quickly round a hotel parking lot. For me, this is another discussion with his inner self, namely Jasmin, who is mentioned “peeping” in the song. While speeding yet again round a hotel garage, his inner self tried to convince him to stop. However he just puts his foot down to the floor. Continuing to always crash the same car.
A New Career in a New Town
The A-Side's closer and the closer of part one of the review. A uniquely brilliant instrumental which clearly influenced New Order's 'Blue Monday'. In my opinion, this is one of Bowie's best instrumentals, which tries to encapsulate, the enthusiasm and trepidation of moving somewhere new. Burning down the established pillars of your life and replacing them with new ones. A perfect end to the album's A-Side, which still embodies conventional song structure while at the same time hinting towards what was to come. The songs call and response style synths and harmonica give the feel of an alien crooner. Sinatra on Mars. A song without words, in replacement competing technologies. The song like the album is expressed in dualities, the synthesised verses the analogue. The old verses new. This is a brilliant instrumental, offering a bright wall of sound. A closing to side A and a closing, as far as this album is concerned to traditional pop music structure. In the next half the album and this review, Bowie is going to let rip. He is going to get really experimental and things are gonna get instrumental. I'm talking 'Warzsawa', I'm talking 'Art Decade'! It's gonna be good, so come back for part two of my anlysis of Low!
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