David Bowie’s Low Turns 39 Today

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My Low EP and CD copies

Today it’s another important day in music history.

39 years ago, David Bowie‘s Low was released, six days after his 30th birthday.

There’s a lot to say about this album considered one of the greatest albums of music history now but when it was released RCA was driving crazy because it wasn’t the usual commercial album to promote.

But go in order…

In the second half of 70s Bowie was living his darkest period of his life, he was another celebrity victim of cocaine and Los Angeles was destroying him. He was researching a new music language and decided to move from USA coming back in Europe: Berlin was his goal city, fascinated by Expressionism current and the power of a city divided by a Wall but especially by the fact it was the opposition of LA, “nobody cared of your problems in Berlin because it already had its ones” told Bowie.

Before to move in Berlin, Bowie with his friend and colleague Iggy Pop with which shared the drug addiction, left US ground and rented Chateau d’Herouville studios in Pontoise, outside Paris, for few weeks. It was Summer 1976.

The genesis of Low dates back to the period in which Bowie played the role of Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell On Earth. He was working on the soundtrack of the movie but unfortunately his idea was refused by Nicolas Roeg, the movie director. The reasons are various like the director wish to want a soundtrack with different composers, the lack of funds for paying Bowie also for this role and last (and maybe the more likely) Bowie’s health conditions due to cocaine. Legend has it when Low was released, Bowie sent a copy of his new album to Nicolas Roeg with the note: “this is what I wanted to do with The Man Who Fell On Earth soundtrack” but the only track originally planned to be in the movie soundtrack included in Low is Subterraneans.

During the time spent in the Chateau d’Herouville, Bowie worked also to the first Iggy Pop album as solist, The Idiot. Released in March 1977, two months after Low, maybe because Bowie wanted to be described like the one who parrots Iggy, Bowie himself confessed to have used Iggy and his album like a guinea-pig for experimenting the new sound he was searching for.

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Chateau d’Herouville, Pontoise (France). Previously used by Bowie for Pin Ups sessions.

For Low, (originally called New Music, Night And Day) Bowie asked to his friend and producer Tony Visconti to join in the studio so he brought in the studio a new equipment called Eventide Harmonizer that fucked the structure of the time. Harmonizer is the first equipment able to modify the pitch keeping intact the time, before the advent of the autotune. It was this device that originated the peak swinings in the buzzing sound of the drum that became one of the revolutionary features of Low. Visconti produced also the album, it was an important figure during this album and the next one (“HEROES“) but sometimes people seems to forgot.

eventide harmonizer 1975

Another important and interesting contribution came from Brian Eno, the father of ambient music, but when he arrived at Chateau, the rest of the group already started to work on the album. The avant-garde techniques of Eno included the use of the Oblique Strategies, a card deck he developed in 1975 with Peter Schmidt. The cards were turned out when the musicians could have the typical block of inspiration and what the cards said it could help in the writing process. For Bowie was an amazing way to create something new, especially in the music.

oblique_box

The most part of the group worked for the first five days (the session started on September 1, 1976) then they left and Eno, Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar) and Ricky Gardiner (guitar) to play the over dubs. When Bowie wrote and recorded the lyrics, he was alone with Visconti. Bowie suggested the first 15 days of recordings could be kept as demo but then Visconti told him to have more than simple demos and it wasn’t necessary to record again something of so good.

For this album Bowie used a three-phasis method that then used for several of his next albums, working first of all on the basis, followed up by musicians solo parts and all the other partecipations and in the end the lyrics compositions and the vocals recordings.

In the end of September, the most part of the disc was ready, so Bowie and Visconti left the Chateau and moved at the Hansa Studios, in West Berlin (not in the Hansa By The Wall where later was mixed Low and recorded “Heroes“).

Low can be divided in two parts for two reasons: first of all for the alternation of tracks with lyrics (even though there aren’t long) and instrumental tracks, and then for the meaning of the two sides of the disc, the A-side represents Bowie and his attitude in that period, with songs like Breaking Glass, Always Crashing In The Same Car and Be My Wife, the B-side was Bowie’s reaction in music to see Berlin and his division, something he couldn’t express with words (Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans).

A New Career In A New Town is a sort of bridge between the two sides, the title talks for itself. Bowie and his wish to find a new music language and for doing this he moved in Berlin.

What’s interesting in this album, especially in the instrumental tracks, is the cyclic, inconclusive and fragmentary nature of the melody but in a completely different style between the two sides.

With an album like Low, Bowie’s record label RCA winded up to don’t know what to do in terms of promotion. Initially the album had to be released in Christmas time but due to the nature of the project, RCA postponed the release a week after Bowie’s 30th birthday.

Despite the division of the critics and the fans judgment, who said the album was a crap, who it has a good dose of research, Low reached the second position in UK charts and the 11th in US ones. RCA hoped in a promotion by Bowie but he didn’t care about it and only later he revealed the album had to talk for itself.

Decades later the album was considered one of the greatest albums of music history.

The singles extracted are Sound And Vision and Be My Wife, this second one has also a music video.


Enjoy the full album on Spotify HERE or below:

What’s your favorite Low track?

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