David Bowie: “Low” (1977)
It’s 1976. Having explored America on his immediately previous albums and drained from working on a film that received critically mixed reviews, David Bowie decamps to Hansa Studios in Berlin with Brian Eno to reinvent himself once again, as well as kick his massive cocaine habit. “It was time for me to get more European.”
It’s 1990. Having explored America on their immediately previous albums and drained from working on a film that received critically mixed reviews, U2 decamps to Hansa Studios in Berlin with Brian Eno to reinvent themselves, as well as kick their massive habit of being painfully earnest all the time. “It was time for us to get more European.”
It’s hard for me not to draw parallels between these two artists, not to mention the similar end result of these near-identical circumstances helping to produce some of the best music of their careers. (Let’ leave aside the fact that U2 actually ended up hating Hansa, and returned to Dublin to finish their album.)
But let’s get back to Bowie.
Low is largely an instrumental album. Side one is comprised of what we might call “song fragments”, only one of which — “Sound and Vision” — ended up being a successful single. Side two has virtually no singing from Bowie and is largely moody synth pieces composed, in large part, by Brian Eno. (Though Bowie actually plays all instruments on “Weeping Wall”.)
This is a really impenetrable album, yet I thoroughly enjoy it. It’s very textural, full of synth work and processed drums — including some bloops and bleeps that sound exactly like Pac-Man, which won’t arrive for three more years. Carlos Alomar’s guitar work is also wonderfully minimalist (as is Ricky Gardiner’s, who handles some leads); in some ways, he’s channeling future Bowie collaborator Robert Fripp.
This is definitely a Bowie album, but the Eno signature is pretty unmistakable. I’m not as familiar with his solo work as I’d like to be, but what I’ve heard on Music For Airports, On Land, and the U2 collaboration Passengers sounds a lot like what I was hearing here. Wikipedia claims that some of the instrumental songs were created solely by Eno while Bowie was off in France suing his management. Upon his return, he added vocals.
Overall, though, I think we’re now really seeing Bowie present the sound that will define his work from here on. He’s getting a head start on the ’80s, not to mention inspiring a host of artists from that decade who will point to this album as a pivotal influence (e.g., Gary Numan). Not to mention, this album kicks off the “Berlin Trilogy” (along with Heroes and Lodger) which many consider to be the highpoint in Bowie’s career.
Interesting side fact: the Red Hot Chili Peppers have apparently covered a good swath of this album in concert. Was not expecting that.