Sounds and Visions in Transition: David Bowie’s Low

The year was 1976, and David Bowie was fed up with his life.

It wasn’t that his career as a art rock star was unsuccessful: that year saw the release of his album Station to Station, which peaked at third on the US charts (the highest a Bowie album had ever charted in the US). Instead, it was the side-effects of that high-octane, Los Angeles rock-n-roller life that he wanted to get away from: for the past two years, Bowie had fallen into a crippling cocaine addiction that figured into his career. Cocaine was a constant presence during the recording of Station to Station, as well as the album before it, 1975’s Young Americans (years later, he would claim that he had no recollection of recording Station to Station because of all the white powder he’d snorted). Even Bowie’s lean, bony appearance was a side-effect of the cocaine.

David Bowie in 1976, while in his Thin White Duke persona from the Station to Station era. (Wikimedia Commons/Flickr user Jean-Luc)

And so, seeking an escape from the drug-fueled decadence of Los Angeles, Bowie fell to Earth (Europe, specifically) in the summer of 1976 and took refuge in Switzerland. He then met up with his buddy Iggy Pop—who also wanted to get away from LA and cocaine—and they moved to the Château d’Hérouville in France, where Bowie had previously recorded 1973’s Pin Ups and where they now worked on Iggy’s album The Idiot. Before long, they were off again, this time to Berlin: the city divided, the frontline of the Cold War, and where an English rock star could thrive without passers-by stopping and screaming, “Hey, it’s David Bowie!”

It was during this late-1970s sojourn in Berlin that Bowie released some of his most innovative and influential work: the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes” (both 1977), and Lodger (1979). The first of these, Low, was largely not even recorded in Berlin itself—much of it was recorded at Hérouville as a collaboration with co-producer Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, the latter of whom would inform much of the ambient music present on Side 2 of the album. Visconti brought along a new toy to the Low recordings: the new Eventide Harmonizer, which, in Visconti’s words, “[fucked] with the fabric of time.” Much of Low‘s signature sound, which would be emulated by bands for decades to come, was put together thanks to this machine, especially on the drums and on the vocals on Side 2.

The Eventide Harmonizer, which contributed to Low’s influential sound. (Wikimedia Commons/Nalzatron)

Low was released on January 14, 1977, by RCA Records, which had held off the release for three months for fear of poor commercial performance. RCA’s worries were not to be, however: Low peaked at No. 2 in the UK and No. 11 in the US. Critical success, on the other hand, was harder to achieve: although some praised the album’s novelty, innovation, and resulting beauty, others criticized the seemingly boring and weak musical material on Side 2.

Regardless of how much of it was actually produced in Berlin, Low represents in multiple ways the artistic transformation that Bowie sought to achieve in moving to Berlin. This is most evident in the differences between the album’s two sides: the catchy art-rock style and lyrical emphasis on Bowie’s private life in Side 1 versus Side 2’s depictions of atmospheres, locations, and other people’s lives through the use of ambient music. Low’s two sides encapsulate a “before” and an “after”—a world Bowie wishes to abandon, and a world he decisively embraces. Put together, they serve as a testament to the power of creative reinvention that continues to stun listeners and musicians to this day.

The first side of Low is, in effect, a seven-part suite on the hedonistic, drug-filled life of a rock star in mid-1970s Los Angeles and its effects on one’s mental health. Each song in that suite discusses some problem that David Bowie faces due to his cocaine addiction, and which seems to have stayed with him even after he had cut himself off from the drug. The overture of that suite, then, is the opening track, “Speed of Life”—a vibrant, catchy, action-packed instrumental that can almost serve as background music to scenes of parties lasting through the night and rock stars doing innumerable amounts of cocaine. But amid this indulgence is a sign of the detriment that is to come: the song seems to be looping over and over again, perhaps representing an inability to move forward and come up with new musical ideas because of cocaine withdrawal (a dilemma which would be further explored later in the album).

Bowie’s first lyrics appear in the second song, “Breaking Glass,” in which he asks his lover to pay attention to his madness—the “breaking [of] glass,” the “[drawing of] something awful.” He tells her contradictorily that she’s “such a wonderful person,” but that she’s “got problems.” In these lyrics, Bowie expresses a repulsion between his manic side and his reasonable side: the rational Bowie is happy with the success he’s gained, but also wishes to distance himself from all the disgusting things that the glamorous decadence and cocaine have sparked in his mania. The concept of Bowie’s rational, “real self” as opposed to Bowie as one sees him is touched upon even more in “What in the World,” where he desperately yearns for “something deep inside of him” to give him hope and stability. He’s also afraid that, when “the crowd goes” and he’s left to himself, that he would no longer feel love, leading him to fall into depression. Bowie needs that stability to rescue his soul from the empty state brought about by cocaine, in which he fails to feel even basic human emotions like love.

Immediately following “What in the World” is “Sound and Vision,” a catchy three-minute track discussing the writer’s block that Bowie developed as he distanced himself from his cocaine addiction. The first minute of the song is purely instrumental, save for a single sigh and some scat singing; it isn’t until around one and a half minutes in the song that the lyrics come into being. Bowie is trying to come up with lyrics, but he’s consistently failing, resorting to repeated descriptions of the area around him (“blue, blue, electric blue”); throughout the writing process, he’s constantly hoping for the “gift of sound and vision” to come to him and give him inspiration. Although Bowie’s now let go of his cocaine addiction, the empty mind that it caused has remained and stripped him of his imagination, leaving him in desperate need of a powerful creative spark.

In “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” Bowie confesses to all the mistakes that he keeps committing, even as he tries his best to avoid making them. He goes through all the safety checks, “always looking left and right,” but he inevitably crashes his car—he inevitably makes the same mistake again. Bowie is getting sick of this habit, and he pines for a new lifestyle free of regular, repeated blunders—and, in a way, he’s achieved this by moving to Europe and starting over. One specific aspect of his life for which he seeks a new beginning is his relationship with his wife Angie, which he croons about in “Be My Wife.” At first glance, a song about “being [one’s] wife” because “sometimes you get so lonely” sounds like a proposal in song form, where the singer wants his lover to live with him forever till death do them part. Yet at the time, Bowie’s relationship with his wife was deteriorating, and Angie kept her distance from him, living with their son Zowie in London and Switzerland. With this in mind, the song shifts perspective from the beginning of a marriage to almost the end: a husband pleading his wife not to divorce him. Even the coarse, almost-tired nature of Bowie’s voice and instrumental seem to reflect his desire not to let his marriage fall apart.

“A New Career in a New Town,” the ending of the Side 1 suite, seamlessly bridges the album’s contrasting compositional styles. The synthesizer effects at its beginning anticipate the ambience of Side 2, while the vibrant, catchy art rock melody juxtaposes with “Speed of Life,” thus bookending Side 1. Bowie is leaving the world of LA indulgence and all the problems that it’s led to, and heading to Europe, where he hopes he will find inspiration, calm, and most of all, a new stage in his career. It’s the perfect transition piece for an album that’s all about transitions.

Largely shaped by the work of Brian Eno, who had experimented with ambient music in his 1975 albums Another Green World and Discreet Music, Side 2 contains no lyrics, instead using a mix of synthesizer, choir, and other instruments to create detailed atmospheres. This focus on landscapes is especially striking considering Side 1’s emphasis on Bowie’s lifestyle and predicaments. Bowie is no longer an autobiographer, ranting about his own problems; instead, he’s a maker of audio documentaries, dedicating himself to capturing the world around him.

The first track on Side 2 is “Warszawa,” the native Polish name for Warsaw. As Bowie’s very first foray into ambient music, this piece is the beginning of his new career—even the title refers to an urban settlement (although not so much a town). Bowie had been to Warsaw twice, first in 1973 and then in 1976 with Iggy Pop, during which they spent a few hours wandering the city and capturing the environment around them. The product of these explorations, “Warszawa,” depicts its namesake city—deep behind the Iron Curtain, just three decades after it had been razed to the ground during World War II—through the eyes of David Bowie, recovering from cocaine-induced mania and in a new creative state of mind. Driving a slow, solemn melody, synthesizer and choir come together to create a landscape of bleak desolation, of concrete residential blocks and a synthetic Old Town, inhabited by minds stifled by authoritarianism. Human sounds are present, but they cannot form any words, symbolizing the inability of the people of Warsaw to fully express themselves without fear of consequence.

In “Art Decade,” perhaps a pun on “art decayed,” Bowie observes West Berlin, his home for the next few years. Synthesizers are very prominent in this piece, perhaps an homage to Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and others involved in the German electronic music scene that greatly influenced Low. Bowie saw West Berlin as “a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution,” a situation reproduced in the song’s slow pace and melancholic atmosphere. It almost feels like an ode to a withering culture, mere years from a whimpering extinction. Bowie then shifts focus to the imposing, ever-present Berlin Wall, which had separated East and West Berlin (and Eastern and Western Europe in the public consciousness) for the past decade and a half, in “Weeping Wall.” The atmosphere in this track, put together by synthesizers and choir, reflects the Wall’s restrictive nature; xylophone and vibraphone overlap to produce a forceful, regular beat, emulating the sound of soldiers’ footsteps as they guard the Wall, watching for anyone who tries to cross it.

“Subterraneans,” the final track, is an ode to the tragedy of the East Berliners. The heavy atmosphere created by synthesizer, choir, and saxophone is reminiscent of “Warszawa,” giving it a sentiment of desperation amid monotonous concrete blocks. Bowie makes a sorrowful plea on behalf of the East Berliners, who (like the inhabitants of Warsaw) are controlled by authoritarianism; they try to speak, but no words can be materialized. The saxophone expresses a desire of holding onto memories of a happier, less restrictive past, when people could speak their minds and let their creativity run wild. What makes “Subterraneans” even more tragic is that the East Berliners are so close to freedom in West Berlin, but the Wall separates them, stopping them from getting a single taste of the free world across the border. It’s a true lament for a “so close, yet so far” situation, and a perfect ending to a series of heartfelt atmospheric observations.

Low‘s greatest merit as an album is the spirit of transition that it embodies. It was meant to be a statement of Bowie’s artistic transformation as he abandoned the life of a rock star in mid-1970s Los Angeles for an undisturbed life in Berlin, and the changes in musical style and topics of interest lend powerful credence to that statement. On Side 1, Bowie contrasts spirited art rock melodies with lyrics expressing the many ways life in LA has damaged his mental state. He narrates the harm caused by the very indulgence that he appears to enjoy—making him maniacal, lonely, uninspired, and error-prone, and destroying his marriage to boot. It’s an autobiography and cautionary tale wrapped into one. Side 2, on the other hand, employs ambient musical techniques, including a novel emphasis on instrumentation over lyrics, to paint atmospheres and locations from a visitor’s point of view. Far from complaining about himself, Bowie observes and interprets the lives of strangers living in an unfamiliar land. Bowie begs for an escape on Side 1; on Side 2, he gets that escape, and he uses it to his fullest creative potential. Juxtaposing both sides reveals Low as a compelling chronicle of Bowie’s personal change—a metamorphosis that would rejuvenate his mental state and bring him to new imaginative heights.

Yet amid this change, one thing is constant: the state of feeling “low,” as indicated in the album’s title. Side 1 depicts David Bowie at his most desperate, during and immediately following his cocaine addiction: psychotic, uninspired, prone to making the same mistakes. At multiple stages, he’s desperately making pleas for a new environment replete with inspiration, good decisions, and love. Side 2 depicts the people of Eastern Europe at their most desperate: desolate, speechless, their creativity forced underground. Once again, Bowie makes a plea out of desperation—but this time on behalf of the Eastern Europeans, for a new life of freedom and creative prosperity. Despair pervades throughout the album, making its mark in multiple forms; perhaps it’s apt that Bowie, longing for inspiration, is able to use the anguish felt by others to tell new stories and pave new musical paths.

Emerging from David Bowie’s yearning for mental stability, Low went further, propelling his spirit to achieve a creative zenith. He found a new musical niche: the art rock/ambient combination that he would perfect in his next album, “Heroes”. In the following years, bands would look to Low‘s forceful, dynamic side as inspiration, and the album would come to shape entire genres, including post-punk and post-rock. Rolling Stone ranked it at 206th on its latest list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; in 2006, NME called it the 14th greatest album of all time. Decades later, Low‘s creative prowess remains undeniable: it’s a product of an adventurous spirit, a willingness to tread new musical ground—as backlash to a mindless, decadent past—that few possess even to this day. Although the musical styles on the record will seem commonplace to many of us in the 21st century, there’s still much to awe about Low‘s transformative nature—and it will remain all the more stunning with the passage of time.


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