This is a difficult one, how does an, admittedly genius, blogger approach one of the best and most written about LPs of the 1970’s? Fucked if I know, but here’s my take anyway.
I bought my copy of David Bowie Low on 1 December 1993, three months after I had first moved into a flat in Oakwood, Leeds with Mrs 1537. Money was tight but there was plenty enough love to go around though; that’s the way it is when you’re 21. I found my copy along with several other very cheap LPs in Leeds market, for about £2 each*, bliss, although I probably couldn’t afford it a the time. I bought Low because it was such a highly regarded album, I’m no Bowie obsessive, my own Bowie interest otherwise starts at Hunky Dory and ends with Aladdin Sane. I can’t quite remember what I made of it at the time, but I’ve come to really rate it now.
So much has been made of and mythologized around this period of Bowie’s career, the powdery white hazy burn out of Station to Station** that preceded his move to Berlin with Iggy Pop to make Low and Lust For Life. I’m not even totally sure I’ve got that right, or whether it’s just an amalgam of various half-remembered magazine articles and watching Velvet Goldmine one too many times. Maybe the myth is the point.
You pays your money and takes your choices with Low. You want strange, compressed pop fragmentation? take Side A. You want strangeoid Eno-esque bleakness? take Side B, we won’t judge you. Much. Me? I’m more of a Side B strangeoid, rather than a Side A stranger.
Opener ‘Speed of Life’ is a really interesting instrumental, a bit of a conventional rocker loaded up on Eno’s synths and redolent of the whole sideways step Bowie was taking at this time. I’ll just state for the record that I’ve always thought Carlos Alomar was an incredibly good guitarist, capable of playing in a wonderful lyrical fashion as well as going for the crunch occasionally, a truly talented bunny. ‘Breaking Glass’ is also great, it’s Burroughs-style cut-up lyrics reflecting the jagged, fractured music perfectly; it also contains the sterling advice,
Don’t look at the carpet,
I drew something awful on it
There are some great keyboard bloops and bleeps, but the real meat of the song is carried by Mr Alomar again, the section which cuts away to just guitar and drums is fabulous. It is difficult to believe that something so modern sounding was banged out 36 years ago. Skipping the overly chaotic ‘What in the World’, the real treat here is ‘Sound and Vision’ which is just one of those straight-up instantly classic pop singles that Bowie was able to crank out almost effortlessly way back when. If anything it’s far too short at 3:04, I could have taken double that – the rhythm and melody is perfect but Bowie’s vocals are just sublime, even though/because the lyrics are so very slight.
I’m also a sucker for ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, which sounds the way I’d imagine the Berlin Wall to have looked in winter and the barrelhouse piano on the stately but urgent ‘Be My Wife’, the most conventional song on the LP and, probably not coincidentally, the only track on the side that Brian Eno didn’t play on (it also invents Franz Ferdinand (the band, not the arch-duke) during its’ first two minutes). Chuck in the 30 years ahead of its time, synth and harmonica intro to ‘A New Career in a New Town’ and that’s the side I’m least fond of done.
Four lengthy filmic pieces make up Side B. There are vocals here but they add texture and noise rather than lyrics throughout, the best example being ‘Warszawa’ (which also invents Joy Division during its’ first two minutes – it’s where they took their original name from), where Bowie’s wailing cranks up the atmosphere of angular gloom. ‘Weeping Wall’, which invents, 1537 favourites, Tortoise in its’ first two minutes, sets off like a brisk-paced synth cover of ‘Scarborough Fair’ – no really, listen to it there are snatches of it throughout. I think I deserve an award for spotting this, a knighthood maybe? book token?
Best of all though is the closer, ‘Subterraneans’ which is an astonishingly prescient track. Surely this was created in 2010 and beamed back to 1977 by a time travelling Tony Visconti? it’s the only feasible explanation for a track so far ahead of its time. It’s magnificent and moody and the sax break halfway through invents the Blade Runner soundtrack. The music perfectly evokes all the strangeness and faded grandeur you could possibly want in a single shot.
Low always seems to be one of those LPs which have a spot nailed-down in all the Best-of’s and Most Influential lists, but I’m not convinced that enough people actually sit and spent the time to listen to it, because as well as inventing skip loads of cool stuff it is a damn good listen.
*Associates Sulk and Chic C’est Chic, since you ask. The same day I also bought The Wildhearts Earth Vs. The Wildhearts brand-new, it was clearly pay-day !
**am I the only one who really doesn’t rate that LP? I seem to be.