David Bowie - Low
By the mid-1970's, David Bowie was enjoying a strict cocaine-and-milk diet and, by his own admission, feeling chipper. He felt that he'd never looked better, had never sounded better and, following his starring role in Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, had never seen his star shine so brightly in so many art forms. Yet the 1974 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor, in which Alan Yentob followed Bowie around Philadelphia and Hollywood, had shown Bowie lucid but dazzled by all that surrounded him and there was little surprise that, before it claimed him entirely, Bowie pronounced himself bored of Los Angeles and left.
On his way through the US and into Europe, Bowie arrived in London and talked of fascism, declaring that he would have made a great fascist leader and how such a thing would right the country he had left years before. Whilst it's easy to put this down as Bowie seeing the sickness in Europe as a result in being in America - see also the eurosceptic Paul Dacre - Bowie seemed to enjoy the thought of the revolutions of old Europe rather than the free markets of the US. Famously, his arrival in London saw him greeting his fans by giving a Nazi salute from the back of an open-topped Mercedes. Whilst there was outrage in the media, Bowie left quietly for Berlin in the company of Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and his producer Tony Visconte as he claimed that it was time to get clear of drugs and lose the white soul sound of Young Americans in order to soak up the sound and culture of central Europe as the previous years had seem in do in Los Angeles.
By any standard and from any artist, 1977 was a remarkably creative year for David Bowie. As well as painting, Bowie also acted alongside Marlene Dietrich in Just A Gigolo but it is the music that captures the attention. Not only did he record and release Low and "Heroes" but he also wrote Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life as well as playing piano on the subsequent tour. With punk happening in London, Bowie was one on the few artists left over from the sixties to have been accepted by the new generation alongside Lou Reed and Iggy Pop but the music he was writing and recording in Berlin had little resemblance to the basic guitar/bass/drums of punk. Instead, Low, the first album from that year, was gracefully adventurous rock backed by Eno on keyboards, sounds and, if not actually credited as such, philosophy/vibes, as he employed a series of arbitrary rules to keep the recording sessions moving.
Whilst Visconti's presence was nothing new - bar the odd album, he'd been there from the beginning of Bowie's career - Eno's influence is carried throughout Low, brought home most purposefully by the clunking synths that crunch over the album's opening song, Speed Of Life. At heart, a simple rock instrumental, Speed Of Life breaks away from the plastic soul of Young Americans so completely that were one presented with these two records on otherwise blank discs, it would be impossible to find anything to connect them. Little wonder, therefore, that the faces of RCA executives blanched on hearing the master tapes of Low. Yet, despite the obvious dating of Low's sound through the aging of the synthesisers, the songwriting is strong throughout. Speed Of Life's melody is almost beautiful but is interrupted by the crack of Dennis Davis' snare drum and Brian Eno's attempts to mess it up/make it new. But it all works, much as the fluttering of Eno's instruments made Roxy Music's charge through Virginia Plain all the better.
Similarly, the album's most famous song, Sound And Vision, is a wonderful, shimmering pop record fused to Eno and Bowie's sense of drama, with a longer instrumental opening than the sung verses and choruses that follow. Mary Hopkin, then involved in a relationship with Tony Visconte, does backing vocals on the track, including sweet, "doo-doodle-oohs" alongside Bowie that have ensured the message of isolation and despondency has been lost. Despite being lyrically as bleak a recording as Suede's Dog Man Star, Sound And Vision is a song that revels in its own happiness, away from the cryptic nastiness of Breaking Glass - "Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it." Similarly, the contented and optimistic Be My Wife is boxed in by Always Crashing In The Same Car, which soundtracks the glum emptiness of communist-era central Europe, and A New Career In A New Town.
Of course, what remains intriguing about Low is the way in which the album is split between the downbeat pop/rock of side one and the instrumentals of side two. The four instrumentals on Low - Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans - are dense and challenging, explaining why, for years after the release of this album, there was such a clear break between the two sides of the album, one of which was listened to often, the other not. Despite the reputation of these four songs, they are quite wonderful and have aged so much better than the whacka-whacka synths of What In The World, retaining a cool sophistication that sounds as though the listener is hearing something shockingly new, regardless of how familiar they are.
Of course, what Low is ultimately about is Berlin, the city in which it was recorded. Where albums are typically recorded in anonymous studios, resulting in a sound that is untouched by the environment in which they were birthed, Berlin has long been a favoured location for bands looking for reinvention - think also of U2's Achtung Baby! - and such a reputation began here. Rarely did any album capture the feeling of the city in which it was recorded as did Low, as able to find the heart, or lack of it, in Cold War-era Berlin as Joyce's Ulysses did of Dublin. As that writer said, even if they destroyed Dublin, it could be rebuilt brick-by-brick from the words of the novel, so, despite the passing of the Cold War, the Berlin that existed before the fall of the wall that separated east and west is here in the rhythms, melodies and words of Low - menacing, cool, atmospheric and gloomy. 1989 may have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall but so long as Bowie keeps Low on the racks of record shops, it will be forever within the bumps and grooves of this album and for that, the startling music it contains and it being the only David Bowie album to justify his reputation, Low is recommended without question.