INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Special Limited Edition JANUARY 2005 - by Charles Shaar Murray
DAVID BOWIE: LOW
In 1977 there may not have been guns in W11 - at least, not quite in the sense that The Clash intended - but there was certainly a funeral in Berlin. Theatrical space-age superstar David Bowie, AKA Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, was ceremoniously laid to rest, and in his place appeared a quiet, inconspicuous English traveller living in a small apartment in the former German capital's Turkish district. It was an extreme reaction to extreme circumstances.
I'd been exposed to a general LA-ism which, frankly, I can't cope with, he explained to this writer at the time of Low's follow-up, "Heroes". It's the most vile piss-pot in the world - like being trapped on the set of a movie you didn't want to see in the first place. It's worse than that! It transcends that! It's a movie that is so corrupt, with a script that is so devious and insidious, it's the scariest movie ever written.
As in Len Deighton's novel, the Funeral in berlin was not quite what it appeared to be, and the person/character/entity named on the headstone subsequently proved to be alive and well. Ziggy, if you like, had faked his death as a means of escape. Bowie, for his part, had performed a classic Houdini-esque stunt: just when he seemed so burdened with artistic, conceptual and media baggage that he could no longer move, he had somehow palmed a key to these massed padlocks, and with one bound he was free.
The key in question was Brian Eno. Five years earlier he had been at the forefront of Roxy Music, Bowie's principal rival in the Glam Rock For Smart People stakes; now he was the collaborator who spring-boarded Bowie into an entirely new phase of his music, a new career in a new town. The first fruit of their labours was Low. The album's sole conceptual link with its immediate predecessor was that its cover was also graced with a still from The Man Who Fell To Earth, the Nicolas Roeg movie in which Bowie had portrayed Thomas Jerome Newton, as alien as Ziggy and as thoroughly stranded as Major Tom.
With punk to his left and disco to his right, Bowie had resisted the temptation to jump on either bandwagon or identify with either faction. Instead, he and Eno ploughed a furrow of their own, taking off into comparatively uncharted territory, trashing every listener's expectations of what a David Bowie album was supposed to be. Sonically, Low bristled with formal innovations, while lyrically, the album saw Bowie ditching his familiar mannerisms, methods, techniques and preoccupations. Indeed, much of the album dispensed with lyrics altogether. No wonder, its progenitor confessed, I don't understand it.
Low, claimed Bowie, was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar dull greeny-grey limelight of American rock and roll and its representations - pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God's sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place - what you need is to look at yourself more accurately.
The first side of Low was all about me: Always Crashing In The Same Car and all that self-pitying crap, but Side Two was more an observation in musical terms: my reaction to seeing the East bloc, how West Berlin survives in the midst of it all, which was something I couldn't express in words. Rather it required textures.
Textures was an important indicator of just where Eno came in, and of just what was so strange and new about it. synthesizers have been part of the sonic furniture for so long now that it requires something of a wrench to remember that in 1977 they were still more or less the exclusive provenance of a few privileged souls: prog-rockers of the Keith Emerson/Rick Wakeman school, Kraftwerk and Stevie Wonder. Even more so than his work with Roxy Music, Eno's contributions to Low brought synth textures to the pop epicentre where, seasonal variations notwithstanding, they've remained ever since.
Then there were those drums. Bowie, Eno and producer Tony Visconti's inventive use of a noise gate (which automatically cuts off sounds registering below a pre-set volume level) to do something it wasn't originally intended to do gave Low the first use of what was to become an ubiquitously irritating '80s noise in the hands of the likes of Phil Collins and others less distinguished. If sounded like the future in 1977, that's because it was: a real future which, as real futures do, actually came to pass.
Low met with a mixed reception, not least from this writer, then at the NME, I admired the album, and was also frightened and repelled by it for entirely personal reasons: I had just emerged from a lengthy, gruelling period of amphetamine addiction - just as a whole new bunch of punk-rock kiddies were about to embark on the same path - and had observed the psychotic withdrawal that comes with quitting fast drugs at rather closer hand than I ever wanted to I felt that Low was glamourising this state to a dangerous extent.
Bowie himself had just emerged from similar circumstances, as he confirmed to me - only with better drugs - and he managed to transform the experience into dense, durable art. Next album, "Heroes", transcends the spiritual slough in which Low seems to wallow, but Low is where the saga begins. It remains a pivotal album from a pivotal year, and a pivotal moment in a pivotal career. Like its creator, it was much emulated and never equalled.