Mojo Special Limited Edition NOVEMBER 2003 - by Danny Eccleston


Drugs, divorce, dislocation... Bowie was in a bad way when he recorded Low. But that didn't stop him making a radical masterpiece.

Low is remarkable for several things. Structurally unique, sonically so radical that you wonder how its creators avoided conceptual vertigo, it is also the record that saved David Bowie's life. That sense is there, perhaps more than anywhere, in track six, Be My Wife. Sometimes you get so lonely / Sometimes you get nowhere, Bowie half-sings, half-chunters against an aggressive saloon-bar piano. I've lived all over the world / I've left every place. No surreal cut-ups, no obfuscatory images. A brief, clear statement made in a voice Bowie fans hadn't heard for years: humble, subdued, with an unapologetic London twang. Please be mine / Share my life / Stay with me / Be my wife.

A simple, poignant verse and chorus, repeated just once. Farewell Thin White Duke, it seems to say. Hello again, The Inner 'Dave', It was as if some core of normality had been located amid the madness.

It had looked like a bad year for the Dame in 1976. Dislocation, alienation - enough ations to compose a bad punk lyric - had visited him all at once in his LA hideaway, while sustained drug use had resulted in something tantamount to a nasal prolapse. It's not the side effects of the cocaine / I'm thinking that it must be love, he sang on Station To Station, a great, febrile album full of transit, technology, fame, delusion, self-pity, appeals to God and operatic wailing. The record seemed to come from nowhere, existing only in static, or at thirty-six thousand feet, or drifting silently across the ultra-bright nowhere of La-La-Land. Transition. Transmission.

In the summer, with a mighty effort of will, Bowie shook himself awake. First, he quit LA. Then, as the deterioration of his relationships with Angie and (post-DeFries) manager Michael Lippman moved closer to their legal conclusions, he phoned Brian Eno. Having established the kind of record they both wanted to make, the duo arranged a conference call with Tony Visconti.

David and Brian had already formulated the rock side one and the ambient side two, says the producer today. They asked me what, sonically, I could bring to the table and I told them about a new gadget I had just bought, the Eventide Harmonizer. They asked what it did and I said it fucks with the fabric of time. They were totally seduced with that description. David pointed out that this was to be an experiment that might not come off. He asked if I was willing to sacrifice a month of my time and not have the record come out.

In August, the team assembled at Chåteau d'Hérouville, twelve miles north of Paris. The venue for the recording of Pin Ups and T.Rex's Tanx - both produced by Visconti - promised seclusion, poor catering (Visconti remembers dining only on rabbit; Bowie contracted cheese-poisoning) and the ghosts of Frederic Chopin and George Sand, one of whom would shake Eno awake every morning.

Drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murray and guitarist carlos Alomar - the Station To Station rhythm unit - flew in from Los Angles, to be joined by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, once of Scots proggers Beggars Opera.

They understood completely that we were going for something different, recalls Visconti. Dennis is a strange drummer, very unconventional. Carlos can go anywhere musically and George is solid as a rock. I think an overall strangeness was achieved by making such diverse musicians band together. The rhythm section was from NY and LA, Roy Young on piano was from England via Hamburg and Brian Eno from some strange galaxy. I come from brooklyn and David from Brixton. This wasn't your average garage band of neighbourhood kids.

The unaverage troupe made an unaverage noise, building an argumentative band sound where every instrument seemed to jut out simultaneously - whether Davis's enormous snare blat (lent a tingling weirdness by Visconti's Harmonizer), Murray's lucid basslines (especially garrulous on Breaking Glass, where he gets a writing credit) or Gardiner's needling, strident riffs.

The instrumental tracks for side one were completed in the first seven days of recording - originally intended as demos, they all made the final cut. Alomar and Gardiner remained a further three days for overdubs and the end of week two was largely devoted to Eno's keyboard lines. These were remarkable concoctions. Sometimes muted and sickly like fairground organs in space, there are moments (the dying robot noise of Speed Of Life, the deafening wocka-wocka-wocka-wocka that sits above What In The World) when they commit a kind of knowing GBH to the songs.

Within this jabber of musical voices - a perfect sonic metaphor for his disjointed life - sits Bowie himself, a little sad, a little amused and a little lost. Breaking Glass is a black comic vignette, with its curious warning: Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it. Then there's Sound And Vision - a song so perfect it deserves its own essay. Tight, light, skippy even, it's full of conflict. Two Davids - one conversational, another operatic - interact. Murray's bass playing is genius, tackling tart melodies to every beat, while Bowie's briefly gate-crashing baritone saxophone provides bathos. Clearly influenced by the television-obsessed alien he'd recently finished playing in The Man Who Fell To Earth (a still of the ginger alien adorned the sleeve), its meaning is obscure but its mood - defined by the wistful, introductory Don't you wonder sometimes... - is wonderfully original.

Low described the inspiration of the songs, but not the ambience at Chåteau d'Hérouville. If Bowie was in any kind of pain, recalls Visconti, he threw himself completely into this album to avoid it. I knew he had a few legal meetings that darkened his spirits momentarily. But he was very happy working on the music, very upbeat. Heavy times for him, confirms guitarist Ricky Gardiner, but his ambition ensured that he kept working.

Iggy Pop's presence, in a largely cheerleading capacity, raised spirits, while Visconti acted as studio barber, delivering crops to Bowie and Iggy. Indeed, if Bowie had deliberately tailored himself and his music to be simpatico with the burgeoning punk movement, he couldn't have done a better job.

But where does that leave side two of Low, the product of the third week of the Hérouville residency? An ocean of melancholy, residing outside the rock continuum, it's the controversial bit. Pre-CD, when you had to flip it at the end of side one, even fans rarely listened to it. Critics, who adored side one, were sniffy about the pretensions of the four brooding instrumentals. Bowie lacks the self-assured humour to pull off his avant-garde aspirations, wrote one.

Certainly, side two's influences were eclectic. Bowie's first meeting with Eno, in August 1972, left him struck by the egghead's commitment to breaking down the barriers between high and low art. Four years later, here they were smuggling Javanese gamelan (Weeping Wall), Bulgarian diaphonic chant (Warszawa) and German proto-electronica into the mainstream. In truth, side two's charms are blatantly melodic (Visconti's son, Morgan, contributed the introductory piano notes of Warszawa) and there's nothing crass, arcane, or - more importantly - boring about any of it. Perhaps the treated guitars on Weeping Wall are slightly rank, but we are assuredly not in Earthling territory here.

In this way, Low broke the mould, and it remains the Bowie album to say you like the best if you don't want to appear too obvious. These feelings were not shared by RCA (one executive offered to buy Bowie a house in Philadelphia so that he could write and record Young Americans II), but it so clearly signalled an artistic way forward for Bowie that, when they finished mixing the LP - at Berlin's Hansa in September - he didn't want to leave. And so Bowie's Berlin period began... in France.