Uncut Ultimate Music Guide SEPTEMBER 2011 - by Damien Love


Bowie escapes from LA, disappears into Europe, and invents the future.

David Bowie always took uncommon interest in his album covers - and, indeed, other people's; during his paranoid occult trip in LA, he grew convinced The Rolling Stones were sending messages through theirs. For his eleventh album, he chose to present the record as a science fiction movie. As with Station To Station, Low's sleeve image comes from The Man Who Fell To Earth, but here the association is far more explicit: this same heavily treated still had heen the film's teaser poster in 1976.

The sci-fi movie of Low could trave heen titled Escape From L.A. Bowie has cited it as a continuation of Station To Station, and echoes do persist. But Low is far more of a reaction to the magnificent neuroses of Station To Station. It is Bowie's flight from rock to art, from Hollywood canyons to the European canon.

If Low is a sci-fi movie, it is Chris Marker's La Jetée. It comes in odd fragments, stunned and frozen moments, loaded with sadness for the future, anxious nostalgia for the present, reluctant mistrust of the past. At first, it seems chill, stark, remote. Eventually, it is revealed as enormously emotional.

And then you notice its weird, buried humour. After all, as well as mystery, the cover presents that amazingly corny "low profile" pun on Bowie's retreat. The gag came late: the album's name was changed so close to the last minute that initial cassettes went out still labelled with the original title, New Music Night And Day. RCA's advertising slogan is another hangover: "Two sides of Bowie you've never heard before."

The strapline reflected the label's perplexity at the album, but it's a perfect fit. Speed Of Life fades in alarmingly, and is over almost before you realise it is unprecedented for Bowie: an instrumental. When words do come, hot on the filthy heels of Carlos Alomar's poisonous riff in Breaking Glass, they are blunter, stranger, more cut-up than anything before.

A funk fuzz arrangement, Breaking Glass opens Low's strange series of rooms. Here, a chamber where occult rituals are practised and neurotic jokes cracked. In the panicking, broken disco of What In The World, it's the room where the little girl with grey eyes cowers from the gloom and Iggy Pop's backing growls (reminding you that it was The Idiot, the downer masterpiece Bowie made for Iggy before Low, that laid Low's groundwork).

With Sound And Vision, we enter a therapeutic cocoon where the singer wants to drift into solitude. Released as lead single, Sound And Vision is Low's ideal summary: a perfect pop song that sounds like it was made by people trying to forget, or struggling to remember, what pop songs are. It leads to another internal space: the dim hotel garage of Always Crashing In The Same Car, where Bowie rolls in suicidal circles, predicting post-punk's Ballardian strain in a hesitant, pulsing instant.

The distraught, blank epic Be My Wife gazes out on a world full only of places Bowie has left. He leaves again for a New Career In A New Town. Thanks to Low's influence, the seductive myth of the "Berlin trilogy" (launched by this album created mostly in the French countryside), the impact on Low of the German kosmische wave is better understood today than in 1977. The town in question is not Berlin so much as Düsseldorf - specifically, Neu! man Klaus Dinger's other band, La Düsseldorf's 1976 single, Silver Cloud, a likely blueprint.

But just as they never had Be My Wife's barrelhouse piano, or the indestructible R&B chassis of Alomar-Davis-Murray, the German motoriks never pulled out wailing western harmonica like Bowie plays here. It's not the electronic music's spacey optimism that lingers, but that human yearning for what's being left behind.

Tony Visconti has recalled Bowie was having difficulty writing - like Speed Of Life, New Career In A New Town was originally intended to have words - but what happens on Low goes beyond writer's block. Low finds Bowie profoundly suspicious of songwriting methods he'd built his career on. Fear Of Narrative is another plausible alternative title.

On Side Two - the famous "instrumental side" that isn't instrumental at all - Bowie leaves his rooms and goes out into new towns. Marked by Eno's ambience and minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the songs are textural sketches of Iron Curtain cities rusting after the rain, as refracted through Bowie's troubled interior landscape.

Warszawa calls up the mood Bowie felt in the Polish capital during a brief train stop in 1976. Art Decade presents another Low pun, suggesting deco splendours rotting into weedy, pastoral decay. The chiming Weeping Wall, with Bowie wailing after Scarborough Fair, conjures both with Jerusalem's ancient western wall and the new wall scarring the city that forced Jews out. Finally, the record's most moving moment, Subterraneans, is Bowie's imaginary, ruminative portrait of East Berlin, the hipsters lost behind the wall remembering what used to be, represented by his gorgeous, half-caught jazz saxophone.

Fittingly, for the record that launched Bowie's collaboration with Eno, who brought his interest in process art along with his briefcase synthesizer, the key players have discussed the album's making in detail. We know, for example, Tony Visconti created side one's extraordinary whomping drum sound via his Eventide Harmonizer, the pitch-shifting device he pitched to Bowie this way: "It fucks with the fabric of time." And that Eno arrived at Warszawa by copying random notes Visconti's four-year-old son Delaney plucked at the studio piano.

Yet mystique is preserved. It's hazy, for example, to what extent Bowie's unused The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack was recycled. Bowie has said only Subterraneans is a hangover, yet Eno has suggested Weeping Wall also drew from the film music. When Low was reissued in 1991, two supposed outtakes were included: the proto-industrial throb All Saints and the exquisite, elusive and wintry Some Are. Visconti, however, says he can't recall those songs at all. On the other hand, he has claimed there are "dozens" of unheard Low songs.

No matter how much comes to light, Low remains more than the sum of its parts. It leads to "Heroes", yet if stands apart. As Subterraneans fades to orange, the only place you want to go is looping back to the fade-in of Speed Of Life. That's Low: thirty-eight minutes that last forever

Tracks: Speed Of Life / Breaking Glass / What In The World / Sound And Vision / Always Crashing In The Same Car / Be My Wife / A New Career In A New Town / Warszawa / Art Decade / Weeping Wall / Subterraneans
Released: January 14, 1977
Produced by: David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Recorded at: Château d'Herouville, France, and Hansa By The Wall, West Berlin
Personnel: David Bowie (vocals, ARP, tape horn, brass, harmonica, piano, prearranged percussion, Chamberlain); Brian Eno (vocals, mini-Moog, splinter mini-Moog, Report ARP, Rimmer EMI, guitar treatments, piano, Chamberlain); Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitars, guitar); Dennis Davis (percussion); Ricky Gardiner (guitars); George Murray (bass); Roy Young (pianos, Farfisa organ); Peter and Paul (cellos); Eduard Meyer (cellos); Mary Visconti, Iggy Pop (backing vocals)
Highest Chart Position: UK: 2 US: 11