Album Listening Club – Low discussion post

I just realized that I don’t actually own any David Bowie records.

David Bowie – Low

Like, none. Never bought Let’s Dance, and really, that’s the only one by him that I would have bought for a long time. I knew and liked “Space Oddity” and “Changes” from the 70’s, but I wasn’t seeking out albums, those were just songs I heard on the radio. When Let’s Dance came along, this David Bowie wrote pop songs that weren’t as abstract as the previously mentioned songs. Verse/chorus/verse/bridge etc. He was dressed in a nice suit, no face paint. It was a David Bowie that a teenager in a small mountain town could get behind. (Me – I was that teenager.)

I never did buy that album, though, because my friend had it, so I could hear it whenever I wanted. (And now that I listen to it, I prefer the version of “Cat People” on Let’s Dance to the soundtrack version. But I’m digressing, HARD.)

So, Low. Bowie’s eleventh album, released in 1977, produced by Tony Visconti and featuring Brian Eno on side two, with a full writing credit on “Warszawa.” Mixed critical acclaim upon release, the album seems to be widely lauded now. Low was the first album in what’s now called the “Berlin trilogy”, along with Heroes and Lodger.

The songs on side one all had vocals, whereas all of the songs on side two were instrumentals. It was nice to be able to divide a musical artistic work in such a way with LPs and cassettes.

Best bit of trivia I read about the album – Nick Lowe released an EP in 1977 that he titled “Bowi,” in “retaliation.” Now THAT’S funny!

Let’s club this album!


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Tony C.reply
November 3, 2014 at 9:05 pm

My own thoughts coming soon, but I'll start with a bit of a cheat. A couple years ago I listened to Henry Rollin's radio show when he did 5 weeks of Bowie. He covered one album each week, and one of those weeks was Low. I can't un-hear his thought on the album, so they definitely can't help but color mine, one way or the other (agree or disagree). You can download the podcast from a link here (it's episode #49: December 08, 2012 – Bowie Part II…I really wish this was a syndicated podcast!):

But here are his written thoughts on the album (broken up since it exceeds the max characters for a comment…)

"It’s week number two of our five weeks of Bowie for this month, December 2012. Not to get into an argument with any of you Fanatics, but my favorite period of David Bowie would be the last five albums that preceded Let’s Dance. Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters, are to me, perfection. Besides Ziggy and Man Who Sold the World, these were the Bowie albums that grabbed me initially.

Arguably, the Bowie catalog is pretty damn amazing overall but after Let’s Dance, when Bowie “came to America” if you will, that’s when he kind of lost me. But until then, it’s almost frightening how consistently good those records are, one right after another.

For an extremely well written and hard to put down bit of musing on Bowie and the Low album, I would recommend you head straight for Hugo Wilken’s 33 1/3 series book called Low. There’s a lot of great information in this slim tome.

If you spend a lot of time with the Bowie catalog, some of the things mentioned in the book have either occurred to you while listening or make a great deal of sense after you read it. The “Berlin Trilogy” as Low, Heroes and Lodger were referred to were not all made in Berlin. Perhaps the Berlin part was more an inspirational, mindset and awareness.

As I learned more about music, heard more, read more, it seemed to me that the Berlin/Kosmische/Motorik direction that Bowie went in started with Station to Station.
Wilken’s research reveals that Bowie was quite into Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and others well before making Low."

Tony C.reply
November 3, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Henry Rollins on Low, part 2:

"Also, another thing to keep in mind when considering the Low album is that it is closely tied in many ways to The Idiot by Iggy Pop. They were made close together, work on the Idiot starting first and gave Bowie ideas for Low. It was very tempting to put The Idiot in hour one of our show tonight but I thought it best if we had some diversity before we get album specific. Perhaps another time.

Another thing that really knocks me out about Low is how relatively untogether Bowie was when he went into the sessions. Apparently, he had bits of music on tapes, a few ideas, not much at all. He went into Château d’Hérouville studio with Carlos Alomar and the rest and had them just start jamming and it went from there. For having not much walking in, the basic tracks were cut very quickly. From there, in comes Eno and Visconti to add to the stew. When you hear Low, there’s a lot to take in. You hear what Visconti and Eno are bringing to the table, the drum sounds, the synthesizers, the idea of using the studio as an instrument and creative tool all come into play here. As well, and don’t take this the wrong way, but there seems to be a rushed or not all that well thought out quality to some of the songs compositionally. The A-side songs end almost abruptly, like they were only showing you the trailer. Perhaps that was the intent, to rush you through these ideas without staying for too long. Always Crashing in the Same Car clocks in around three and a half minutes, longer than any other track on this side. Sound And Vision seems like it’s only getting started and all of a sudden, it’s over. The b-side takes on a far more expansive and exploratory posture, almost entirely instrumental and innovative as hell. This was perhaps some of Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack ideas further realized. One of Bowie’s greatest strengths was to know who to bring in and by allowing them to stretch, he got amazing results. Between Alomar, Eno and Visconti, you’re in very, very capable hands but nonetheless, at the end of the day, it’s a David Bowie experience. The Visconti and Eno factor cannot be under mentioned. Visconti, a multi-instrumentalist engineer and Eno, the very definition of visionary. Talk about a single person leaving a mark on music!

Low was one those albums; an incredible yield of one person’s accumulation of experience, music, culture, time, place, etc. that became one of those go-to albums for countless others. If one wants to discuss Post Punk, Low is certainly one of the records that is in that conversation.

Like many of you fanatics, I have listened to this album many times. I have been comparing and contrasting the three different masterings I have of Low and like many others, I prefer the RCA Germany mastering over the Ryko and Virgin versions. After playing all three in one day, the Virgin mastering stands out as the hardest to take. It is loud, compressed and has too much uniform presence for my ears. The Ryko version is far more palatable but has low end and midrange issues that are annoying. The RCA mastering is the most like the vinyl, which of course, is the best medium by which to check out this album.

As lauded as Low is, and you can count me as a fan, Fanatic, I much prefer Heroes, which will be featured next week. Until then, wait for the gift of sound and vision and STAY FANATIC!!! ––Henry"

Tony C.reply
November 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Ok, now for MY thoughts on the album.

I think the first half of the album is near perfection. Speed of Life, Breaking Glass, Sound and Vision…all so good. Sound and Vision is a masterpiece, IMO. Guaranteed to put me in a good mood. Breaking Glass reminds me a bit of Gary Newman. The only slightly weak spot of the first half is What in the World. It's not a bad song, just not as good as the others.

The second half of the album requires a very specific mood. It's pretty ambient and synth-y. Some of those tracks can get repetitive. If I'm not in the right frame of mind for those tracks, chances are I'll skip them.

Still, the strength of the first half of this album makes it a winner in my book.

s rreply
November 4, 2014 at 1:14 am

I'm going to share my thoughts on Low a bit later, but until then I thought I might share this little animation. Hope this link works, since this page won" allow an embed.

Richard DeWaldreply
November 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm

I liked "Let's Dance" because SRV did the guitar.

Richard DeWaldreply
November 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Let me give you some context. I was 17 in 1977, I was in a garage band, I learned to play guitar by slowing Led Zepellin records down to 16 on the turntable and playing an octave above. There were several genre battles going on at the time. Van Halen and Jeff Beck were taking guitar rock in one direction, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Ska were clearly going in another direction, along with Yes, and some could argue Pink Floyd. Remember, we didn't know then where this was all going to end up.

Bowie was a bit of an anticulture hero because he discarded the conventions of the hair band for androgenizing his look. He didn't have to stuff a cucumber in his pants, it didn't seem that he cared if he appealed to women at all. He wanted to push the boundaries visually, and he did that musically as well. This made his a hero, but his music, because of my steep-time in the bluesy influences found in arena-rock, was a bit distant to me, it seemed a bit showy, a bit contrived.

But, he would write a good pop tune, and there was humor in his approach, so there was always a Bowie 8-track on the floorboard somewhere in the car, usually in the backseat.

Low was particularly interesting for me because I was a Brian Eno fan as well, foreshadowing my current fandom of GrooveStep, and it was really cool to see this get major exposure, plus it was the soundtrack to passing out blissfully in the backseat of my car from time to time, ifyanowhadimean.

s rreply
November 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Always Crashing in the Same Car as long been one of my favorite songs. Very similar to Heroes, but IMHO a better song, with more intriguing lyrics (yes, I’m a lyrics person). A few years ago I read the 331/3 book about the making of Low and found out that ACINTSC is about about an actual incident in which Bowie, high out his mind, drove around a parking structure at a hotel in Los Angeles crashing into cars. So that mystery was solved. A lot of the book talked about Bowie’s frame of mind when he was making the record. He had been doing a lot of drugs with Iggy in L.A. As the recording precedes moving from L.A. to France he gets progressively less druggy.

The other song on this record that stands out is of course Warszawa, co-written by Brian Eno. Eno’s approach to music and producing are legendary, as the animation I posted references his oblique strategy cards. It’s a beautiful song. The whole record is considered to have influenced a whole bunch of music that came out in the next few years. It’s hard for me to see it it that way because I heard the record quite a bit later and totally out of the context of the time.

Bowie is one of those musicians I have a lot of appreciation and respect for, but I’ve always felt emotionally distant from his music. He’s like that cool neighbor, who lives in that cool house on your block. You wish some day he’d be standing on his front porch, shout “Howdy neighbor” and invite you over for a beer, but he never does. His melodies are very relatable but the lyrics keep me at a distance. In the 331/3 book the author used the words solipsistic and autistic a lot in describing Bowie and his work during this time. So I’m guessing I’m not the only one who experiences him this way.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 8, 2014 at 10:08 pm

David Bowie – Low

Bowie has always been one of those artists that I've discovered at my own pace. I've never felt rushed to devour everything by him. I think such a plan would lead to indigestion, feeding from the psychedelics of "Space Oddity" to the crooning-lounge-cum-stomping-blue-eyed-soul of "Changes" to the gritty glam blues of "The Jean Genie" through the sax-soaked smooth warble of "Young Americans" and the straight funk of "Fame" – Bowie's 70's output challenges any music fan to like it all.

So discovering at my own pace is how it's gone. For every easy-entry "Modern Love" there's been a "Golden Years" for me to crinkle my nose at and think "Eh". Lots to love, and lots to ponder as he stretches my boundaries. Low is one of those boundary-stretchers.

The thing for me about Low is that there are lots of future-referential points that I pick up on. So, things that remind me of other songs or bands that I'm more familiar with, but they all came after Low, so I have to reverse-engineer my thinking to realize that some of the sounds and references I'm making are now Bowie-first.

Here's my breakdown:

Speed of Life – I feel like I've heard this before, not sure if I'm confusing the melody with that of "DJ" from Lodger.

Breaking Glass – Funky buzzy guitar, synth bleeps. (Supposed to be the glass breaking?)

What in the World – Video game sounds!

Sound and Vision – repeats and repeats. (Remaster of the song is very worth a listen)

Always Crashing in the Same Car – guitar tone reminds me of Ween. Also very repetitious

Be My Wife – kind of reminds me of Suede. or the other way round, I suppose. Grand singing during lyrics cadence.

A New Career In A New Town – Synth lements of OMD, but the guitar and harmonica take it to a different place entirely. Harmonica – Pete Wylie (Train to Pirhanaville) but also "Nowhere" by Ride.

(Definitely noticing themes of musical repetition, at least on "side one".)

The movements of Warszawa remind me of "November Rain".

Weeping Wall – playful

Subterraneans – sax reminds of subway players, subterranean

So, this is my take on the record, pretty much completely out of time. I don't have the other records in "the Berlin trilogy" in my head to compare it to. I was only really familiar with "Sound And Vision" before I heard the rest of this record.

Considering that I'm an OMD fan, and that the other bands & sounds I compare it to are favorable in my memories, I guess you could say that I like it. Not sure if I'll come back to it all the time – "Warszawa" is the track I can see me listening to the most – but I do like it. I like listening to albums like Low that change the lens with which I view bands I like and appreciate. I like the sense of historical musical context that it gives me.

November 9, 2014 at 9:07 am

I recall my introduction to Bowie was 'Space Oddity'. I liked it when I'd hear it on the radio back in the day but it didn't resonate with me. It wasn't till 'Fame' on his Young Americans album in '75 that Bowie's pop genius struck me. I remember taking the album over to my cousin's house for him to listen to and him not being impressed with it. In fact, when he saw Bowie's pic on the cover, he asked me if he was a fag. I told him I had no idea but it didn't matter since I liked the music. That didn't set well w/him as then he asked me if I was a fag to which I quickly denied it. But really, Bowie was a role model for my budding sexual identity, showing me that someone could totally be themself and still be popular. (For those who don't know me, I came out many decades later, so yes I was a fag in the making haha)

So I say all that to make a point. You'd think that loving that album as I did would set me up for Bowie's next album which would be Station To Station which Low would then follow. But being a fickle music fan I was into the latest I heard on the radio. And in bumfuck Portland, OR unless it was a big 'hit' a song didn't get any airplay from what I remember. So it wasn't till 'Let's Dance' that I revisited Bowie. And it's really unfortunate.

Fast forward to the late '00s. On a music blog site (Mog) I belonged to someone wrote a blog about the album 'Low' which got me to go back and listen to this lost gem. I was amazed at how much the songs informed the music I was presently listening to at the time, mainly indie alternative music. So it's fun to re-listen to this album again w/the memories it holds for me. The two 'personalities' of this album I really dig but I think it might be better if it'd been sequenced with one upbeat song, then one of the more ambient pieces then back to an upbeat one and so on. I'll have to try that out. I just know that the album starts out so strong with it's big brash rock and just gradually meanders off into ambientland and it might be a stronger album if it didn't meander at the end.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Interesting that we both picked up on the theme of repetition, although I heard it more on side 1. 🙂

And Eno tracks being ambient and synth-y? You don't say. 😉

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm

OH MY GOD. The David Bowie voice is so dead on perfect!! Loved that vid, very funny. 🙂 Thanks!

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 9, 2014 at 10:00 pm

The album does seem rather suited toward, erm, altered states. The album format makes for a quick up/down trip but it seems rather essential to have the two sides divided somehow. The 2-sided album/cassette format was really good for this sort of artistic division, if the artist were so inclined.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 9, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I like the idea of "strategy cards" when making music. I'd not really heard of it before, but I know I've used similar techniques when making music before. Sometimes it's as simple as playing along with a song and then coming up with an offshoot and going from there. I wonder if Cocteau Twins did any of that with their music?

I feel much the same about Bowie, the cool factor, but as I came to him in the Let's Dance era, it's more that cool uncle vibe, that guy who dresses sharp but has that relaxed feel.

Second person to mention that 33 1/3 book, I'll have to check that out now, too. 🙂

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
November 9, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Excellent story – well, except the part about your cousin asking you if you were a fag, but, those were different times, I guess. 🙂

I like the idea of resequencing it, even though as previously stated, I do like the "fast, snippet" side and "slow, ambient" side division. If you do resequence it, make it a Spotify playlist so we can listen! 🙂

November 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

Thanks & yes, quite different times back then. And I will let you know if I resequence the album on Spotify w/a playlist.

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