I have gone through a large number of different musical phases throughout my life. Starting at the tender age of 14, I became the world’s biggest Prince fan and by proxy, became a huge fan of P-Funk. I was a big Smiths fan at around 18. I was a Thin Lizzy fanboy when I was just 5 years old (I even brought their greatest hits into school much to the bemusement of my comrades). One of my stronger phases was the being a big fan of Brian Eno’s work as it led me to discover some truly fascinating music. In the second edition of this series of 10 albums that have affected my life in some way, I’ll be looking at David Bowie’s 1977 album Low; an album Eno had a hand in moulding.
If you were to ask music fans to name one artist who has adapted their sound to remain consistently relevant, I’m pretty sure David Bowie would be a name you’d hear quite a lot. Bowie could’ve made a career off of rehashing the Ziggy Stardust album or the glam-rock material like “Queen Bitch” and “Changes” and would have still made a huge amount of money doing so. Instead, he opted for pushing boundaries and risking the loss of his die-hard fanbase in the process.
When a musician is incredibly rich and successful, they change like any of us would. From about 1974 to the latter part of the decade, David Bowie began taking huge amount of cocaine. And by huge, I mean, he took so much cocaine that he doesn’t remember recording the album “Station to Station” and believed witches stole his semen. I think we are talking Scarface levels of cocaine usage here.
As a direct result of his spiralling out of control drug addiction and the adverse affect it was having on his career, Bowie moved to West Berlin (TRIVIA FACT: He lived with fellow musician attempting to kick drugs and revitalise his career, Iggy Pop) and started work on a trio of albums known as The Berlin Trilogy; Low, Heroes and Lodger. These albums would have a huge German influence in the sound and would contain some of Bowie’s best and most under appreciated music due to the distinct lack of commercial releases (“Heroes” being the obvious anomaly).
As mentioned in the brief prelude, I was a big Brian Eno fan when I was 17. I would source out some of his ambient works and his production work with U2 or Talking Heads and especially his stuff from his days in Roxy Music. This was the days when I first started using Wikipedia as a point of reference and a starting point for sourcing out what to listen to. I then stumbled on the fact that he had worked with David Bowie (whom I knew for making Life On Mars and Space Oddity) and decided to check out Low as it had a huge degree of acclaim.
I don’t think 17 year old me was really ready for what he listened to that day. It was a vast and fragmented album that really is as depressing as the title would suggest. There’s not a lot of lyrics on the album as a whole (maybe enough to fill half an A4 page) and the music just seemed so repetitive. Whilst I was intrigued, I definitely wasn’t hooked in or really fond of the album.
Then, at around 18/19, probably more 19, I started listening to more and more German music. I became a big fan of Kraftwerk and Neu! as their music was the epitome of what I felt early Electronic music should be; a futuristic interpretation of classical music. This meant 5-20 minute songs of gorgeous synthetic melodies that were surely indecipherable to most when they were released in the 70s. With this appreciation for Krautrock, my understanding of what Bowie was at least attempting to achieve on his Berlin albums began to develop.
Low is truly an album of two sides. One half is a by the numbers Bowie album with some very good pop songs like “Sound and Vision” and “Be My Wife”. The other side is an impressionistic electronic album with chanting and soundscapes.
It’s probably one of David Bowie’s broodiest and downbeat albums. There’s no apparent optimism and the title is incredible apt for the mood of the music. Even it’s more popular songs such as Sound and Vision which sounds upbeat is laden with lyrics about being withdrawn and alone. It’s quite an astonishing listen.
More importantly and more striking to me was the instrumental second half of the album. It Electronic music like I hadn’t heard up until that point as it almost broached the gap between modern Electronic music and Classic orchestrations. “Art Decade” is something that sticks out to me as being inherently a Brian Eno soundscape; it soars and swells around creating more than simply a song, it creates a mood and conjures up images of melancholy.
Words on the second half of the album no longer count for much as the brooding music warrants more of your attention. This is something I wasn’t used to when I first got into this album, you don’t usually hear songs by mainstream artists in which their words are merely there as a musical instrument of sorts. This is particularly evident on “Warsczawa” which is maybe the darkest song on the album where Bowie sings in what I guess is supposed to be Polish (although, by many accounts he isn’t actually singing in Polish or any other Eastern European language) and his vocals are there to provide a further layer to another Eno soundscape.
I’ve always had an admiration of Bowie and his reputation for consistently shifting his sound. I think his work on the Berlin trilogy is probably his finest and shows him shedding his previous glam rock characteristics to create some stark and dark music. It’s an album I love to this day and one that I truly believe deserves more attention and appreciation. The reason it probably doesn’t get remembered as much as it should? It was somewhat overshadowed by one of Bowie’s best albums, Heroes, released in the same year.