Saturday, March 09, 2013

Bowie week - Low (1977)

The trilogy starts here

The first of the so-called Berlin 'trilogy', Low was the eleventh studio album and was released on 14 January 1977 - the second of the trilogy "Heroes" would follow on 14 October 1977 with "Lodger" completing the set on 18th May 1979. The album wasn't actually recorded in Berlin, it was mixed there, but it is the starting point for a part of Bowie's career that would be one of the most influential on other artists.

Just as the move from "The Man Who Sold The World" into "Hunky Dory" had been at seemingly right angles so the change from "Young Americans" to "Low" via "Station to Station" was quick a shock. Low saw Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti, Brian Eno's influence is channelled through his role as musician.

The cover itself is something of an icon, as indeed are many of Bowie's album covers, the orange background, swept back orange hair and the hood spawned a thousand High Street imitations. I actually waited until "Heroes" came out later on in the year before copying a Bowie hairstyle.

The album kicks off with an instrumental, "Speed of Life," a good indication of where Bowie was going musically. Instrumentals weren't unusual in themselves, managers would often ask artists to use them as fillers or, in the days when artists were paid by the track, as a way of securing additional income, but what is different with Bowie is that they are an integral part of the album and the whole 'trilogy'.  

Second up is "Breaking Glass" a track Bowie co-wrote with Dennis Davis and George Murray - the percussionist and bassist on the album and it comes in at under two minutes, one of his shortest pieces it is a hangover (no pun intended) from the drug fuelled excess of "Station to Station."

After "What in The World," which is a straight up and down Bowie rocker, "Sound and Vision" comes crashing through filled with melancholy,  the synth and guitar introduction interspersed with Bowie's sighful "Ah Ahs."  The opening line "Don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?" probably summed up exactly what his fans felt at the time, it was after all only four years and four albums since Aladdin Sane which was as glam as you could get and yet he had pushed that aside, exorcised and exiled Ziggy Stardust, moved through soul and funk, worked with a rejuvenated John Lennon, taken huge amounts of cocaine whilst recording "Station to Station" and was now moving closer to the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!

Bowie live in 1990 - still sounding good

"Always Crashing The Same Car", "Be My Wife" and "A New Career In A New Town" are the sound of a band playing just about as tight as you can get, Davis and Murray proving to be just as reliable as Bolder and Woodmansey had been in the Ziggy era in keeping everything together, the drumming of Dennis Davis is, for my money, as good as there has ever been on any Bowie album.

Side Two of "Low" caused critics all sorts of heated debates on release and you can't help thinking of the Frank Sinatra comment about critics being the sort of people who would go onto a battlefield at the end of a battle and shoot the wounded. "Warszawa", "Art Decade," "Weeping Wall" and "Subterraneans" didn't fit the perception people had of Bowie, these are four tracks which, with their lack of vocals, caused real division among critics but not fans who bought the album and sent it to number two in the U.K. Time has been kind to the album and its critics with opinions being revised, some online magazines having seen fit to promote it into Top Tens and Best ofs. 

Personally speaking I think the album is worth the money simply to hear "Warszawa" (Polish/German for Warsaw) a six minute Brian Eno inspired track that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express, it's simply stunning.  Inspired by a trip Bowie made to Poland in 1973 it is his modern take on folk music and it doesn't take much imagination to make the link between this track, Kraftwerk and the haunting melodies of traditional east European choral music.

"Art Decade, " is very much in the mould of Eno's solo work in fact one reviewer suggested that the track was based around the sonic landscapes that Eno was creating at the time for his "ambient" series of albums some three years earlier. I can guarantee that if you played this at a 'blind listening' nobody without prior knowledge of the artist would guess Bowie.

The album closes with another instrumental, "Weeping Wall", which is based around the old English folk song "Scarborough Fair",  and "Subterraneans" a track that is almost instrumental save for some barely decipherable lyrics towards the end.

"Low" is definitely the point at which the second part of Bowie's career ends (side one is still nodding towards the familiar pop past) and the third begins, a new style that would last until the world was confronted in 1980 with the declaration that "we know Major Tom's a junkie."


Span Ows said...

This is probably my favourite 'era', not because it was the best of his music but it was the one I remember the most and enjoyed the most (14 through 17 year old)

Paul said...

I think that is often what defines your favourites, where you were and who you were at the time.

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