I wasn’t going to write about this album yet. I was putting it off, because it’s one of those albums that had such a huge impact on my life, and I was going to wait until I felt like I could do it justice. But after a long two weeks, it’s time.
In 1976 David Bowie moved to Berlin, strung out on coke and fame and trying desperately to recover his own mind from the twisted, fantastic, increasingly paranoid worlds it had been occupying. The year before he’d released a brilliant short-form album, Station To Station, and starred in the Nicolas Roeg-directed The Man Who Fell To Earth, a cautionary tale about an alien corrupted by the lures of human society: drink, drugs and greed. Bowie, of course, played the alien. Emaciated, dressed in his German Romantic tuxedos and dinner jackets, his hair growing in blond under his old Ziggy Stardust fire-red mullet: Bowie resembled nothing so much as Max Schreck’s younger, more glamourous brother, as photos from the 1975 Grammy Awards famously captured.
So, leaving both America and Britain behind, Bowie fled to Germany. In 1978, he released Heroes, an album which showed a return to popular form for him, although it was totally different from anything he’d put out before. Between Heroes and Station To Station, however, there was 1977, the year of Low – the year music changed forever.
Structurally the album is remarkably short and remarkably divided: the A-side of the record has six vocal tracks (excepting the opener, which is instrumental), while the B-side has no words at all – at least not in English. Among its many firsts, Low is reportedly the first popular music album to contain lyrics in an invented language. The personnel recruited to record and produce the album reads like a Who’s Who of music in the ’70s – Brian Eno famously collaborated with Bowie on Low, adding his electro-ambient touches before such a thing really even existed in pop music. On a few tracks, the voice of protopunk godfather Iggy Pop, Bowie’s flatmate at the time, are clearly distinguishable. Lead guitar was provided by the incredible Carlos Alomar, a longtime Bowie contributor and one of the best session guitarists in the world. The album was produced by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer from his Ziggy Stardust days. Essentially, the level of innovation present in the studio for the recording of Low was about as high as it could get, in 1977.
Musically, the tracks on Low originated as a soundtrack that Bowie had begun to write for The Man Who Fell To Earth, before realizing that he hadn’t actually been contracted for that part of the film’s production. (Reports from the time indicate that Bowie’s reaction to being told so was extreme embarrassment and humility; he’s been many things in his life, but a diva apparently isn’t one of them.) He saved the scraps of music and brought them with him to Berlin, where they provided the seeds for Low.
Side A, excepting the opener “Speed of Life,” consists of five songs that may or may not link together into a single narrative. The one you’re probably most familiar with is the arresting “Sound and Vision”:
Those space-age cymbals are one of the most enduring sounds from the album; the secret of their production was closely guarded by Visconti for years. Lyrically, the song tells the story of a man in a room: “nothing to read, nothing to say.” He’s a prisoner of his own circumstances; we’re not given a reason or rhyme as to why he’s trapped, only that it extends forever. In “Always Crashing In The Same Car,” a song with tremendous personal significance for me, that man’s now trapped in his car, driving round and round a parking garage, unable to leave, unable to hold still. “What In The World” is full of contradictions, particularly the admonishment “Never mind. Say something!” during which Iggy Pop’s backing vocals really stand out. His Michigan voice feels out of place; its Midwestern consonants stand out sharply, flatly, against the British softness of Bowie himself, and gives the impression that the narrator has multiple personalities. “Be My Wife” features a crashing, out-of-control cabaret piano and angry electric guitar set against some of the saddest and most lovelorn lyrics Bowie’s ever written.
The whole side is a mental breakdown set to music. My favourite song on the album, “Breaking Glass,” contains the blunt gorgeousness of the epitaph “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems,” which I’ve always though was the perfect love lyric for our time:
Side B is like being set adrift. The music is cloudy, muddled, with occasional flashes of stark synthesized noise. Somehow, it works, I don’t understand how, but by god is it unlike anything else that ever made it onto a pre-1980s pop album. The track “Art Decade” is meant to evoke the lost glamour of 1930s Berlin, the city of Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret: strange saxophones wail out of the night and the volume rises and falls, as if passing the open doorways of clubs. “Warszawa” is paced in such a way that you can almost feel the track breathing in and out, and it’s grindingly sad, a sound entrenched in poverty and bleak winters. There’s always the feel of a slight minor key on the B side, and it keeps the listener on edge, until “Subterraneans,” the last song, the lyrics of which have never been published or deciphered.
It’s important to remember that although Bowie had left his fast-paced life in LA and traded it for a small, anonymous flat in Berlin, he was still heavily addicted to cocaine when he wrote Low. A year later, when he released Heroes, his sound was tremendously polished compared to the disjointed music of Low, and while they’re both masterpieces Heroes is far more accessible. The albums are sisters, but one of them has severe problems, and that’s why it’s become so tremendously important to millions of people. Electronic and ambient music started with Low. Joy Division were originally named Warszawa. Philip Glass wrote a symphony based around the musical structures of the album. The tendrils put out by Low stretch through popular music for decades afterwards.
I’ve read a review by Mark Edwards in the Sunday Times that compares the lyrics on Low to the playwriting of Samuel Beckett: both have their bleakness, their hopelessness, but at the same time a strange inner strength that drives their protagonists onward. The sound of Low is the sound of isolation, of a mind folding in on itself; coupled with the existentialism of the stories Bowie is telling, it can be frighteningly depressive. Alternately, it can provide incredible solace. Without going into too much detail, as a person with a history of depression and with multiple suicide attempts under her belt, Low is the album that showed me how beautiful that sort of existential sadness can be: how it can be bent into art and beauty, how the torturousness of life can be tempered into something that makes it all worthwhile. On a few occasions, Low has kept me alive.
Bowie got clean, and by 1980 had left Berlin for the grand Reaganesque posturings of the Let’s Dance era. Some people say he sold out. I say, once you’ve made an album like Low, you can do whatever you want. You’ve made an indelible mark on your time and place. Low was voted the #1 album of the 1970s by Pitchfork Magazine; I might go even further and call it the best album of the last forty years.
Right, so. The results of the first Commenter Playlist Challenge are in, and here they are – all your favourite dance tracks!
Tegan and Sara ““ Hop A Plane (Opifex)
Bag Raiders ““ Shooting Stars (milly parkhurst)
DJ Schmolli”“ Justice for Billie Jean (tehwritergrl)
Billy Idol ““ Dancing With Myself (muscato)
Megadeth – anything (Maus)
Janelle Monae ““ Tightrope (Rocky)
Raphael Saadiq ““ Let’s Take A Walk (dellbot)
Los Campesinos ““ You!Me!Dancing! (Tirannie)
A-Ha ““ Take On Me (Susan)
The Proclaimers ““ 500 Miles (Skimbleshanx), happily augmented by this video, the Best Video Ever:
and lastly, David Bowie – Modern Love (Dr. Song)
Thanks so much to everyone who contributed. This week, in the spirit of this post, I’d like to ask for your down songs – the songs you listen to when you’re sad that help to pull you out of that sadness. They can be slow songs, bouncy songs, death metal songs – whatever works for you. So get commenting!