Album of the Week, March 24: Low by David Bowie

BowieLowDavid Robert Jones started as a promising music-hall style singer and transformed (again and again) into one of the most influential and significant figures in 20th Century popular music. After some saxophone and singing work as Davy Jones, he changed his performing name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees star. He recorded a series of diverse albums that all showed promise but failed to catch fire. Along with Marc Bolan of T. Rex he helped usher in Glam Rock and became a superstar. By 1976 he had acted in his first film — The Man Who Fell to Earth — reigned powerful on the British charts, logged a #1 in the U.S., and obtained a serious cocaine habit. After recording the brilliant transitional album Station to Station, he left Los Angeles to kick his habit and embarked on an amazing period of creativity known as the Berlin Trilogy. The first of these, and his finest release, is Low.

Title Low
Act David Bowie
Label RCA Release Date  1/14/1977
Producer David Bowie and Tony Visconti
U.S. Chart  #11 U.K. Chart  #2
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Speed of Life
  2. Breaking Glass
  3. What In the World
  4. Sound and Vision [#69]
  5. Always Crashing In the Same Car
  6. Be My Wife
  7. A New Career In A New Town
  8. Warszawa
  9. Art Decade
  10. Weeping Wall
  11. Subterraneans

Low, “Heroes” and Lodger are the Trilogy and share a strong association with Brian Eno. Only “Heroes” was entirely composed in Berlin and features full-fledged Eno involvement, but Low sets the stage with a creative and experimental leap that was remarkable even in Bowie’s chameleon career.

The album launches with the synth-driven instrumental Speed of Life, a stark pronouncement that this is something new. Longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti and a solid band featuring Eno, Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner, George Murray, Roy Young, and Dennis Davis create the support to make a bold statement. It was Bowie’s first-ever instrumental track and showed the influence of German pioneers Kraftwerk as well as his own expanding musical palette. Dissonant, metronomic, and musical, it is the perfect welcome to a startling journey.

Breaking Glass is a short, disturbing bit of song, a fragment of lyric thrown between songs. It captures the mood of the rehabbing Bowie in a stark, perfect vehicle. What In the World follows suit, featuring more free association and a blip-like synth line that presages the video game era.

Up next is the album’s only U.S. single, the delightful Sound and Vision. Featuring a lengthy guitar and synth instrumental intro with a brief, elliptical lyric, it captures the heart of Low perfectly. Abstract but enticing, the song has been used as the centerpiece of Bowie retrospectives and tours alike. It’s one of his finest moments, embracing what he wants to do musically regardless of what might be expected.

Up next is Always Crashing In the Same Car, a disturbing story of a stuck life based on a real incident in Bowie’s life. It is one of the finest odes to futility and desperation ever recorded. Be My Wife hearkens back to the “plastic soul” of Young Americans and parts of Station to Station. While it could be read ironically (as many have), Bowie wrote it as a real love song and lists it as one of his favorite songs. It is beautifully inverted soul, with an electronic wrapper around a human heart.

Side one of the original vinyl ends with the aptly titled A New Career In A New Town. Another instrumental, it features Bowie’s near mournful harmonica playing. It takes the spirit of the album quite literally, as he moves (from L.A. to London to Berlin) and launches a radically different phase of his career.

Side two is composed of mostly instrumental tracks, some of which feature Bowie vocalizations. They demonstrate the thorough reinvention and experimentation of the album, with each taking on its own distinct, complex flavor. Warszawa is dedicated to Bowie’s visit to Poland and the bleak mood he felt in the city. He based the wordless vocals on the sounds of a Balkan boys’ choir and built the darkly atmospheric song with Eno. Notably, the track lent itself to the first performing name of the band that would go on to be called Joy Division.

Art Decade is another Eno collaboration, a lush, unearthly instrumental. A play on the phrase “art deco,” it captures the divided spirit of the city Bowie would call home for the next two years. The spectre of Berlin looms over Weeping Wall, as well. An ode to the infamous divider, the track is loosely based on the music of Scarborough Fair. The most minimalist of the tracks, it is played entirely by Bowie. Things wrap up with Subterraneans, an homage to the people trapped on either side of the Berlin Wall. It features another wordless vocal chant, providing an eerie end to a powerful, emotive album.

For all its electronics, Low is an album with heart. It reflects the emotional space in which Bowie found himself and the resonance of a city and people shattered by politics and war. While not as instantly listenable as many of his classic discs, it remains his masterpiece, taking his own talent and the many influences he found and creating something that helped build most of the best music of the next decade.

FURTHER LISTENING: With a 45-year career, multiple style changes, and some of the most influential albums ever recorded, figuring out where to go with Bowie depends a great deal on what you like. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve carved up his career into (somewhat arbitrary) periods as a brief guide.

  • Bowie Finds His Feet (1966-71) – From Anthony Newley soundalikes to folk rock to proto-glam, these discs are a mixed bag at best but have a handful of great songs (including Space Oddity and Changes). Hunky Dory is critically lauded and provides a nice transition into Bowie’s most famous period.
  • Ziggy Stardust, the Glam Years (1971-75) – Mixing androgyny, cosmology, apocalyptic visions, and a great rock band, Bowie had his most successful phase in the U.K. during these years. I appreciate many of the songs, but it isn’t my favorite period. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the standout and routinely appears on best-album-ever lists.
  • Bowie Goes Experimental (1975-80) – Ziggy retired in favor of the Thin White Duke and plastic soul, including the U.S. smash Fame. Station to Station forms perhaps the finest transitional album of all time as Bowie moves from plastic soul to the start of the Berlin Trilogy era in six perfect songs. I don’t think you can go wrong with it, Low, or “Heroes” and I enjoy Young Americans and Lodger quite a bit. This period ends with critical favorite Scary Monsters.
  • Superstardom and its Aftermath (1981-91) Let’s Dance launched the most commercially prosperous period of Bowie’s career and confused him mightily. It’s a decent album, but best heard in the three or four tracks that show up on the hits compilations. Avoid all the rest of this period, including his single worst album, Tonight and the ironically titled runner-up, Never Let Me Down.
  • Veteran Superstar (1993-2003) – Recovering from that period, Bowie has released a half-dozen decent albums most remarkable for each being called “the best since Scary Monsters.” He experiments with a number of sounds, usually falling behind the trend rather than leading it but always adding his unique stamp. Heathen is the best of these, ‘hours…’ is the most consistent.
  • The End (2013-2016) – After a decade of rare appearances and no new music, Bowie returned in full force. The Next Day features a more fragile voice but a great set of songs and the most consistent work Bowie had presented in 30 years. Released on his 69th birthday, Blackstar continued the trend. Sadly, it was his final moment recorded while he suffered from liver cancer. Two days after its release, the Thin White Duke slipped away, leaving behind one of the most compelling, frustrating, inspiring, and complex catalogs in rock.

There are, of course, compilations galore. ChangesOneBowie from 1976 is a brilliant overview of his pre-Berlin career selected and sequenced by Bowie himself (but frequently targeted by fans for an omission of a favorite classic). Changesbowie, EMI’s 1990 overview, suffers from a similar title but provides an excellent retrospective of the singles side of Bowie’s career. (Warning, it includes a disastrous remix of Fame.) 2002’s Best of Bowie solves that problem and serves up two discs of truly great music that might well serve the casual fan.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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