Breaking Glass: looking back at David Bowie's 'Low'

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 6:48 PM

Many music enthusiasts would argue that David Bowie was one of the very few artists the world has ever seen. He was immensely renowned for his ability to blur the lines between genre, thus appealing to almost every kind of music fan. In his decades-long career, there is not one popular form of music that Bowie has not made use of in his albums, from hip-hop all the way to avant-garde and industrial noise.

The late artist’s 11th record, “Low” was released 43 years ago this month, and this album is the perfect example of the previous statement. The record, in terms of genre, is virtually unable to be categorized.

The album is widely considered to be one of the greatest records to have ever been put to tape, and by extension regarded as one of Bowie’s finest moments. Combining strange instrumental tracks such as “Warszawa,” “Art Decade” and “Weeping Wall,” with signature songs like “Sound and Vision” and “Be My Wife,” “Low” is a gateway to many different kinds of experimental sounds. It’s also one of the biggest influences in art-rock, new wave, industrial, and various other genres.

“Low” features some of Bowie’s most experimental work, including spoken (nonsensical) word over a droning synthesizer sound one would think came from an alien race in an apocalyptic state. The album features the use of the Eventide H910 Harmonizer, which produced the drum sounds on the record. When Bowie asked producer Tony Visconti what the device was meant to do, Visconti’s response says a lot about the album: “it f---- with the fabric of time.”

Originally meant to be a series of instrumentals for the score of Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 science-fiction film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (starring Bowie himself), it was rejected, but he made the decision to continue with the record. The last track on the second side, “Subterraneans,” was written and recorded specifically for the film.

The album cover itself is a still taken from the movie, just like the cover of his previous record, “Station to Station.” The film is one that should be viewed both before and after listening to “Low”; the two pieces fit together beautifully to paint a surreal, dream-like experience.

The album was partially recorded in West Berlin, where Bowie and friend and collaborator Iggy Pop were living at the time to clean up from their heroin addictions (an interesting move as Berlin was the heroin capital of the world at that time). “Low” was also the first of a triad of albums Bowie had made with the help of producer Visconti and fellow experimental musician Brian Eno, dubbed the “Berlin trilogy” soon after.

These albums are usually grouped with Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life,” as they were recorded in conjunction with each other. These five albums, as a unit, show listeners just how innovative Bowie was, and how much he impacted Pop’s career greatly in the way of production and songwriting. They would take turns providing backing vocals for each other’s albums, with Iggy Pop’s contribution heard most prominently on “What In The World.”

Preceding equally influential records, “Heroes” and “Lodger,” this album provides a spotlight into the genius that was David Bowie, and that’s a vast understatement.

My father once told me a story about his experience going to purchase the record on its day of release in 1977. He said that the old record shop that used to stand in what is now the FYE store in the Millcreek Mall in Erie was so blown away by this record, and were so confused as to what to file the record under, that it was sold in its own section, complete with its own display. 

This record was so before its time, and it still sounds that way today. It’s futuristic surrealism at its finest, and the world could have only ever been given that from David Bowie.

Tags: david bowie

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