Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition FEBRUARY 2007 - by Martin Aston


The bleak, haunted Low album - the first of his collaborations with Brian Eno - sounds like personal therapy for the bleak, haunted David Bowie.

As the Station To Station Tour chugged from city to city, David Bowie was on a roll. "As I see it," he told a Swedish reporter, "I am the only alternative for the premier in England. I believe Britain would benefit from a fascist leader."

Months after the 'Nazi salute' incident, Bowie described Hitler to Playboy magazine as "one of the first rock stars" and confessed he'd been high for eleven years.

When the dust (but not yet the cocaine) had settled, even Bowie recognised that change was imperative. "I was out of my mind... totally crazed," he later confessed. Spurious ideologies apart, he was "absolutely infuriated that I was still in rock'n'roll... and there I was in Los Angeles, right in the middle of it." Drastic situations required drastic solutions: "Find yourself some people you don't understand, and some some place you don't want to be, and just put yourself into it," he told himself. Hence Berlin. Not the ideal place to move should you wish to distance yourself from fascist connotations, but still - think of the expressionist art, the friction and the isolation. Berlin felt real; how could it not be after the plasticity of LA?

Then there was the music. Bowie was a fan of what journalists had dubbed 'Krautrock', particularly Neu!. The experience of producing and co-writing Iggy Pop's first solo album, The Idiot, in France and then Germany led Bowie to rent a flat in Berlin's impoverished Turkish quarter. Instantly stunned into a new kind of response, lyrics became secondary - "My interior was a bottleneck. It wasn't something I wanted to express" - while the site of West Berlin surrounded by the Eastern Bloc was "something I couldn't express in words. Rather, it required textures, and of all the people that I've heard write textures, Brian Eno's textures always appealed to me the most."

Bowie originally met Eno in August 1972 when Roxy music supported Ziggy Stardust's first London extravaganza at The Rainbow, and then again while recording Diamond Dogs at Olympic Studios, where Eno was also mixing his solo debut Here Come The Warm Jets. But it was Eno's third, partly ambient album Another Green World that particularly enthralled Bowie (and Iggy; both could hum the album from memory). After meeting backstage at one of Bowie's Wembley shows in May 1976, Eno agreed to join Bowie's next session, drawn by Bowie's initial forays into fusing R&B and electronics.

Even so, Bowie spent only a short period co-writing with Eno. Then he, producer Tony Visconti and the selected musicians (essentially the Station To Station crew plus Ricky Gardiner in for Earl Slick on guitar) began without Eno, recording through September at Chateau d'Hérouville in France, where Pin Ups had been made.

The original first side of New Music Night And Day (the working title until Low was chosen), with its brilliantly stripped yet dense energy, is relatively Eno-free, including the instrumental book-ends Speed Of Life and A New Career In A New Town. According to Bowie, "The actual sound and texture, the feel of everything from the drums [a uniquely sharp, cavernous thud created by an Eventide Harmonizer that cut out noise below a pre-set volume] to the way that my voice is recorded, is Tony." Neither was Eno present for the vocals, many overdubs and the final mix. But he was the necessary 'X' factor, the person who introduced notions of texture over narration, spontaneity (via his Oblique Strategies box of instructions) over execution - perfect for the kind of catatonic shutdown Bowie was experiencing from cocaine detox. "Isn't it great to be on your own? Let's just pull the blinds down and fuck 'em all," as Bowie saw it.

Well, not totally alone. Bowie found Eno the ideal sparring partner. They not only bonded over painting, but the idea of music as painting. "I want the music to be as much as possible a continuous condition of the environment," said Eno, "in the same way as a painting is."

Side Two's four electronic collaborations were rooted in art academia as well as emotion; the overriding influence was Berlin's early 20th century expressionist art school Die Brücke (The Bridge) with its "rough, tough strokes - and they all have a mood of melancholy about them or nostalgia, as if they were painting something that was just disappearing," Eno ventured. Warszawa was inspired by the Polish capital's "very bleak atmosphere", but Art Decade, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans were pure Berlin, "a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution", Bowie lamented.

Intensity merged with release. "We spent most of our time laughing and falling on the floor," Bowie recalled, but still work got done, Eno patiently shaping strategy and Bowie depending more on speed and intuition.

They'd write separately and then pool their findings, or overdub each other, as happened on Art Decade, which Eno rescued from the outtakes pile by adding more instruments, egging Bowie on to do the same. Yet Eno's only song-writing credit on Low was Warszawa, written while Bowie was briefly away on business, having left instructions to create "a really slow piece of music... a very emotive, almost religious feel". To give an idea of their interaction, Eno subsequently laid down a track of 430 finger clicks, translated into dots on paper which were numbered in sections, and when certain numbers came up they'd implement a chord change. Eno called the result, "a new direction for him. And me. It's a very slow, melancholy piece that's rather like a kind of folk orchestra. An Eastern European folk orchestra.

Bowie had written abstractly with lyrics - using William Burroughs' cut-up technique - but never with music. The recording experience, and the city itself, was genuinely liberating. "Each track is a whole different system of methods," he said. "It keeps me interested. It's incredible and I'm still learning. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well."

For Bowie, the album represented no less than "a new way of looking at life". On January 8, 1977 he turned 30. Low was released a week later. New music, a new career, a new town, a new life - against the odds, he'd escaped the past.