On January 14, 1977, David Bowie released Low. A wildly important album in the David Bowie canon, Low marked new territory for Bowie who had been struggling with fame and near psychosis. Today it represents a major turning point in one of the most chameleonic careers of all time.
To understand the circumstances preceding Low you really have to go back to 1976 when Bowie drops Station to Station. Bowie had been living in L.A. for a while by then and at that time by literal means the city was a cocaine paradise. Bowie had uninhibited access to the drug and developed a serious habit. It’s around this time he dropped classic songs like “Fame” and “Golden Years” and admitted to eating nothing but red peppers and milk.
“…it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity…I can hear myself really struggling to get well.” Bowie told Uncut in 2001. The album’s title was partly a reference to Bowie’s low moods during the album’s writing and recording. He was exhausted. The Diamond Dogs tour was a massive production including moving catwalk and cherry picker and he was in the middle of suing his former management.
He was erratic and unstable and saying some explosive stuff. Telling NME that “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader” and Playboy that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” The tabloids ran wild with fascist comparisons catching Bowie with his arm raised. Bowie backtracked and responded to what he referred to as “two or three glib theatrical observations on English society” declaring “I am NOT a fascist.”
It was time to leave America. Rock folklore pegs the wakeup call to running his Mercedes into the vehicle of a drug dealer he believed had ripped him off, but Bowie’s self awareness is likely what got him to Berlin. That and the art and music scene that interested Bowie. He picked up Iggy Pop and they left to Europe to get (Bowie) clean. Bowie explained his motive to move to Berlin years later, “This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk's Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.”
When they get there Bowie gets into the scene that included outside the box krautrock bands like Neu! and Cluster just close by in Dusseldorf. Iggy and Bowie stayed at a member of Tangerine Dream’s house who introduced Bowie to the local bands who informed Low’s song writing, a far cry from the American funk Bowie had just mastered.
Bowie calls down Brian Eno to introduce him to the Dusseldorf sound and to Devo, who in turn had been introduced to Bowie by Iggy Pop and whose record Eno subsequently produced there. Bowie had been very deep into Eno’s Discreet Music during his recovery and Eno’s minimalist approach left a big impression. Low was ambitiously produced by Bowie and American producer Tony Visconti with contributions from Eno who is often also mistakenly credited by fans. Still, Eno guided the second half of the album and influenced its compositions greatly.
Low boldly brought a new musical language to the table that was sonically adventurous and experimental in nature. Thematically divided, Side A’s uplifting fragmented avant pop songs and Side B’s almost entirely instrumental ambient movements seem evenly stacked with adventurous ideas that were way ahead of their time. it has a similar approach to melody and structure as Kraftwerk but in place of Florian and Ralf’s pre-calculated percussion movements, Bowie was essentially using an r&b band behind Eno’s and Visconti’s wall of sound.
Eno wrote “Warszawa” while Bowie was in Paris attending court hearings against his former manager. Visconti’s four year old son, who was playing around with a studio piano in Eno’s vicinity technically wrote the theme for “Warszawa”. Bowie returned, was impressed and recorded the vocals influenced by Balkan boys choirs. To the sessions, Visconti brought an Eventide Harmonizer. When asked what it did it he famously responded, “It fucks with the fabric of time.” More accurately it’s a pitch shifting effects unit that modulates sounds and combines them with the original signal, thus a harmony; it’s what make the snare drums on “Sound and Vision” and “Breaking Glass” sound like massive hits to the gut. “Weeping Wall” is about the hardship surrounding the Berlin wall and “Subterraneans” is about the people that got caught in East Berlin after it was instilled.
When Low came out, 44 years ago today, the response was divisive. In preparation, RCA had refused to release the album for three months and even Bowie’s manager who at the time had significant financial investment tried to prevent it. RCA wrote Bowie a letter suggesting he shelve it in favour of something more like Young Americans. Bowie framed the rejection letter on the wall of his house. Many critics didn’t understand it. Robert Christgeau called side 2 banal, while The New York Times called it alluringly beautiful.
Today it’s considered a classic with many calling it one of the best albums of the 70s, Low is a symbol of subversion and not just because people told Bowie not to do it. Its jarring experimental approach opened doors as he was one of the world’s most popular artists at the time and now immortalized as a trailblazer who never did the same thing twice.