David Bowie
Low
RCA

There was something distinctly unsettling about Low the first time I listened to it. It was one of a trove of records – including the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello, and The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees – that I had bought with my Bar Mitzvah money at Dutchy’s Record Cave in Montreal. It was a seminal moment in my musical education, as I swept through Dutchy’s bins, self-conscious in my boot-cut Lees, plaid shirt, and shaggy hair among the crowd of peglegged black jeans, skinny leather ties, and spiked coifs. This was the day that I joined the punk new wave.[*]

I picked Low for its cover. David Bowie stands in pale profile with the kind of edgy haircut that I desperately wanted, but could never pull off with my ridiculously tangled curls, against a background of billowing orange smoke, and under text in one of those 1970s fonts that, like the color orange, evoked the shiny, space-age future that we knew lay around the corner.[†] I knew Bowie, of course; I must have listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and Diamond Dogs a hundred times in the half-light of Fred and Alex Vega’s basement. I knew what I was getting myself into.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As soon as I got home, I tore off the shrink wrap, and put the record on the turntable of my dad’s SONY. I cranked the volume and then… “what?” What the hell was that? Something just wasn’t right.

Looking back today, I see deep irony in the fact that, on that afternoon more than forty years ago, the edgiest new music by the edgiest bands of the moment seemed so much more comfortably familiar than what David Bowie – then an established 30-something artist with a decade-long career behind him – served up on Low. But I wasn’t alone; the critical reception of Low was decidedly mixed. Some critics, like John Milward in Rolling Stone, scratched their heads, and wondered what it was all about. Larry Rohler, in the Washington Post called it “cold and alien,” and more than a little incomprehensible.

It wasn’t that Low was such a departure from Bowie’s oeuvre at the time. He had just passed through his post-glam “Thin White Duke” phase with Young Americans and Station to Station in the previous few years, consolidating the ironic, existentially-detached tone that would be his signature until Let’s Dance. The numbed-anguish of the junkie flaneur that suffused the grooves on Low was familiar enough; that Bowie sounded out of the world and in the moment at the same time was just Bowie being Bowie.

The disorienting thing about Low is that it was a departure from popular music, while simultaneously being, quite clearly and explicitly, a popular music record. It had the kind of feeling of an episode of The Twilight Zone, where the protagonist wakes up in a familiar world where something just isn’t right, and old rules don’t seem to apply and the laws of physics seem out of whack.

On Low, Bowie stepped up to sing some pop songs, opened his mouth and out came the color blue… and orange… In its moment, it was articulation of a kind of artistic and cultural synesthesia and aphasia that the generation 1977, in all their anger, passion, and energy were still only reaching for. The Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was still recognizable as a rock anthem; the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” was still about something; Tom Verlaine “falling into the arms of Venus… de Milo” evoked a concrete image, referencing known culture. But Bowie’s “Warszawa?” What, exactly was that?

As epochal as it would turn out to be, Low should not have been that much of a surprise. Bowie’s principal collaborator, apart from co-producer Tony Visconti, was Brian Eno, whose restless experimentalism had led to a break with Roxy Music, and into a series of increasingly abstract projects with Robert Fripp, John Cale, and Phil Manzanera. Two years before Low,  Eno released Another Green World and Discreet Music, two albums that crystalized what would soon be known as ambient electronica – electronic music for the background that you aren’t supposed to actually listen to, but invariably do. Even if Eno is not credited as a co-producer on Low, this kind of contradiction, this aporia of what-cannot-be-yet-is, pervades every minute of music on the album.

The legend says that Bowie, coming down from the potent speedball of LA nightlife, pop stardom, and the last excesses of glam, fell to earth in 1976 and stumbled into Iggy Pop’s West Berlin apartment to dry out and be reborn. As the instrumental that closes out side one of Low evokes so well, he was looking for “A New Career in a New Town.” But it isn’t just a legend; Low is the evidence of a dramatic rupture, both in Bowie’s personal, pharmacological, and creative existence, and in the Western popular culture. The artist broke and refashioned himself anew at the exact moment of a great cultural-historical divide.

Not only the content and style, but the very organization of Low is an eloquent signpost of an abrupt change; its two sides are a portal between the cultural universe that was and can never be again, and the cultural universe that supplanted and evacuated it. That is why even the most complimentary reviewers were so perplexed on the album’s release in 1977 and when I, after my Bar Mitzvah and on the cusp of a life change myself, found it so deeply unsettling.

Side one is a collection of song fragments that suggest, rather than deploy, the rock and roll tropes that Bowie had mined since The Man Who Sold the World seven years before. They are not so much rock songs like “Rebel Rebel” (from Diamond Dogs) and “Panic in Detroit” (from Aladdin Sane) as they are evocations, dim Proustian recollections of rock songs. The side opens with “Speed of Life,” a chugging midtempo rock rhythm with an overlay of synthesized effects provided by Eno that would become a trademark of Bowie’s Berlin period. Carlos Alomar’s lead guitar seems to be leading inevitably to a vocal but then… Nothing. It is a container for a song, but without a song; form without content.

The story goes that, after recording “Speed of Life,” Bowie tried, but failed to come up with lyrics, and so left the song as a curiously evocative instrumental. Yet, he documents his struggle with inspiration in “Sound and Vision,” Low’s first single (which, ironically, was meant to be an instrumental):

I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude, over my head

Yet even here, Bowie pays only diffident respect to rock music convention. “Sound and Vision” settles into a comfortable groove with a descending synthetic string motif over Alomar’s rhythm guitar, and just kind of stays there until halfway through the song when Bowie comments distractedly on his isolation and lack of inspiration. It is another aporia, in which the artist bemoans the absence of his muse in the most vividly inspired terms – “Blue, blue, electric blue, that’s the color of my room, where I will live, blue… blue…”[‡]

There are somewhat more conventional rock songs on the first side of Low. “Be My Wife” documents Bowie’s sense of isolation and despair following his crash out of the LA pop scene – “sometimes you get so lonely” – and articulates his visceral longing in the terms of a three-minute pop song – “please be mine” – but in the detached tone of the rest of the album, while the song seems to fade off inconclusively in a guitar solo. The official promotional video for the “Be My Wife” is even more enigmatic, as Bowie, alone against a white backdrop, sings the lyrics while scrupulously avoiding making eye contact with the camera, only to sling his guitar over his shoulder and turn his back during the fade-out. He has more to say, but he doesn’t feel like saying it.

 

At a time when other established artists like the Eagles were promoting the questionable profundities of Hotel California, and rockers like Aerosmith promised the straight-ahead authenticity of Rocks, the first side of Low did seem puzzling. “What happened to Ziggy Stardust?” one Montreal DJ complained after spinning “Sound and Vision” on CHOM-FM at the time.[§] What happened was that, as he recovered from his crash in Iggy’s electric blue Berlin apartment, Bowie embraced what he had suspected all along; namely that all of our master narratives, of identity and social persona, of cultural style and genre, were empty shams. Six years before Fredric Jameson theorized it Bowie, like other artists who strained at the restrictions of pop culture and rock music convention, anticipated “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in his art. The artists made postmodernism, the philosophers tried to make sense of it.

Low’s first side speaks to the end of something – the death of the subject, and the limits of the three-minute pop song. It is what Jameson called “pastiche,” a parody of rock music – indeed, of Bowie’s whole career up to that point – emptied of comedy. The album’s first nineteen minutes, as Jameson might have it, “speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” And if that had been all, then Low would still have been a epochal artistic statement. Then came side two.

If most critics found the first side of Low puzzling (though, often enough, enjoyable), they found side two incomprehensible. Opening with “Warszawa,” it is not merely the other side of the record, but a complete departure to a new universe. These four tracks bear the imprimatur of Eno, who had been listening closely to the experimental electronic sounds emanating from Berlin’s Zodiac Club since his departure from Roxy Music. The influence of Berlin avant-gardists like Edgar Froese and Dieter Moebius, who had, in turn, been inspired by the pioneering work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Werner Meyer-Eppler at the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk electronic music studio in Cologne, was palpable on Another Green World, and would be even more so on 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Aiports. Indeed, the hazy, hanging textures of “Subterraneans,” the last track on Low, clearly look forward to ambient electronica.

Yet, these are even more clearly works of Bowie’s genius, drawing in sinewy saxophone lines evoking free jazz (and anticipating acid jazz), and the “process music” minimalism of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, while plumbing the depth of incoherent – perhaps unconscious – emotion. If the music on side one was container without content, then the music of side two is very much content uncontained. The influences are clearly evident – much of Eno’s Moog and EMS modular synthesizer programming echoes the sounds that Tangerine Dream devised for its Stratosfear album, released in 1976 – but the final product is unique.

Low appeared just at the moment when the punk new wave announced the death of rock and roll as a viable medium of artistic resistance and innovation, or as a unifying cultural force. Elvis Presley died on his bathroom floor almost exactly seven months after its release. The great exponents of rock and roll – the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Beach Boys, and all the rest – would carry-on into their dotage, elevated to the status of prestige entertainment, or degraded to Time-Life nostalgia compilation albums. What was new and vibrant would not be called “rock and roll” at all, but punk rock, new wave, alternative or indie rock, EDM, industrial, hip hop, or RnB.

Although Low was not its sole catalyst, it marks the rupture more effectively and eloquently than almost any other album of the moment. And its influence can be heard in much of the popular music of the decade that followed, from the Human League’s Reproduction, to Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark’s Architecture & Morality, to New Order’s Brotherhood, and beyond. It is even clearly evident in Kala, by MIA, and in the electronic textures of Kendrick Lamarr’s epochal To Pimp a Butterfly.

And the generation of 1979 were, more often than not, willing to acknowledge their debt as they took the new wave pioneered by their forbears of 1977 in directions suggested by Low, evacuating the conventions and expectations of rock and roll, leaving the album, the single, indeed, the three-minute pop song as empty vessels, the masks of an imaginary museum through which they speak. Inspired to form a band after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976, four young Mancunians hit upon the perfect name inspired by the David Bowie album that had frankly rocked their world and showed the path forward. Joy Division took the stage at the first gig at Manchester’s Electric Circus on this day, 43 years ago, as Warsaw, after the song “Warszawa.”

I put Low aside after my first listen, and did not play it again for a couple of years, until something that I heard in “New Stone Age,” on OMD’s Architecture & Morality sparked a memory. Then, four years later, it all made sense. What Bowie had done on Low no longer sounded incomprehensible; it sounded like prophecy.

[*] Despite the contention of some revisionists today, the terms “punk” and “new wave” were essentially interchangeable in the late-70.

[†] The cover photo was, in fact, taken from the Nicholas Roeg science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

[‡] In a sense, Bowie is referencing, and channeling the paradox of “Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet whose work he has praised: “My genial spirits fail;/And what can these avail/To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?/It were a vain endeavour,/Though I should gaze for ever/On that green light that lingers in the west:/I may not hope from outward forms to win/The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.”

[§] I want to say that it was “Too-Tall” Wagenaar, but my memory is a bit dim.