10. Low

Low is David Bowie’s 11th studio album, originally released on 14th January 1977.

By mid 1976, David Bowie was in a very dark place. Living in LA and all consumed with drugs and the unexpected pressure of fame, Bowie was struggling just to survive. With a management that Bowie had only recently discovered was ripping him off and with a marriage that was slowly disintegrating, Bowie was feeling lost, isolated, paranoid, depressed and physically unwell. Storing your urine in a fridge in order to stave off demons is not the sign of a healthy person…

In an attempt to clean himself up and to escape what Bowie saw as the high pressure, corrupt and decadent influence of life in LA, he along with fellow rock ‘n’ roll refuge Iggy Pop moved back to Europe and a more normal life in the (then) isolated world of Berlin, Germany. That it was considered one of the most decadent and drug influenced cities in Europe was perhaps a little unfortunate, but with its art and night-life culture, it was perfectly suited to a Bowie in desperate need of a positive change.

After being impressed with the recent works of ex Roxy Music member Brian Eno with albums such as the brilliant “Another Green World” and ambient pieces such as “Discreet Music“, Bowie was keen to team up and move in a new musical direction. Bowie had recently released the superb disco-funk that was the “Station to Station” album, where The Thin White Duke did indeed introduce a few European influenced electronic soundscapes. Bowie saw Eno as the perfect partner to help with making more European influenced electronic music as per German Krautrock bands such as Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk.

After getting Eno’s commitment, Bowie then contacted his previous producer Tony Visconti and asked what he could add to their musical exploration. Visconti mention he had just discovered a machine, the Eventide Harmonizer, that can make the drum sound fuck with the fabric of time. He was in.

Along with the same rhythm section from the “Station to Station” sessions (Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray), Bowie then recruited Ricky Gardiner (from Beggars Opera) on guitar and Roy Young on piano. The band was now complete.

Recorded mostly at the Château d’Hérouville studios near Paris (where he previously recorded “Pin-Ups”), Bowie and co would go on to record one of the most astonishing and influential albums of all time.

Side one would consist of slightly more rock oriented type tracks, but more instrumental in nature with those featuring any lyrics having a sense of being added more as an afterthought. Side two however would consist of purely electronic, instrumental, ambient pieces with Bowie’s vocals but another instrument rather than conveying “words” with any meaning. The overall effect was stunning, other worldly and totally unlike anything previously heard in the Bowie cannon.

The album opens  with “Speed of Life“, an instrumental that seems to start midway through, as if we missed the start and boarded part way through. Featuring the rhythm section and a weird, electronic pulsing melody, we heard the unique drum sound for the first time, with the pitch of the drum dropping sharply each time Dennis Davis hits the skins. It just sounds mesmerising but before we know it, the track fades away, again giving the sense we’ve only been allowed to witness a part of the track.

Breaking Glass” then kicks in, with the wonderful drum sound and treated guitar sound dominating, with electronic swashes of sound moving across the speakers. We hear Bowie for the first time, lamenting some awful things he’s doing to a room in which the owner is ignoring him. We hear Bowie’s anguish at his isolation, a theme he repeatedly comes back to throughout the album. Interestingly, this is the only track on Side one not written just by Bowie, with both Dennis Davis and George Murray listed as co-writers.

But again, before we know it, we’ve moved on to “What in the World“, a more up tempo number, in which the tempo increases as the track progresses. Again, sung in a mournful manner (with Iggy Pop on background vocals), it’s another song on the topic of human rejection.

We then hit the three song cycle which is at the heart of the album and among the best songs Bowie has ever recorded. Beginning with the wonderful “Sound and Vision“, with it’s catchy riff the rhythm section have never sounded quite as good as this. Add in Eno’s synthesizers and it sounds so damn good. Bowie’s deep intro vocals don’t make an appearance until about half-way through the song, the split harmonised vocal detailing the sadness of sitting in a bedroom alone. It’s both sad and beautiful at the same time and a Bowie classic. Released as the lead-off single, Bowie didn’t bother with making a video but this didn’t stop it being a No. 3 hit in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, although it flopped in the US as feared by RCA, reaching only No. 69.

 

 

Always Crashing in the Same Car” comes next with it’s theme of isolation and attempted suicide. The music here is more electronic in nature, with the keyboards and synthesizers dominating more, although the drum work of Dennis Davis is just superb. It’s again eerie, sad but ultimately one of the most beautiful tracks Bowie has ever recorded, The amazing guitar solo at the end (only of two on the album) just gives it that added magic and finish. A Bowie highlight.

Be My Wife” ends Bowie’s conventional vocals on the album, a song of despair and rejection as the plea to be his wife is ignored. Featuring an almost bar-room like piano by Roy Young, again the combination of the fantastic rock rhythm section, the shrieking guitar solo and electronic soundscapes creates a simply gorgeous sound and atmosphere. Released as the second single off the album, Bowie made one of his most bizarre videos ever, with a gaunt, lonely Bowie in a white studio miming (badly) along with the track on a guitar. Bowie’s facial expressions are both hilarious and somewhat frightening at the same time. It’s a must see here. Unsurprisingly, the single was a flop just as RCA had again feared, the first Bowie single not to chart in the UK since “Changes” in 1971.

 

 

Side one ends with “A New Career in a New Town“, another instrumental to bookend side one. It’s possibly the most “up” of all the tracks so far, conveying a feeling that Bowie is indeed looking at a new career in his new town of Berlin. Featuring Bowie’s harmonica and a rather nice keyboard hook, it has a bouncy feel, with the rhythm section making their last appearance on the album. It featured as the opening music on Bowie last “Reality” world tour and has always been a personal favourite of mine.

If Side one was a little “down”, with Bowie’s vocals only infrequently on display, wait until you hit Side two. Starting with the stately “Warszawa” (its title based on Warsaw, Poland), it’s a very slow, atmospheric piece invoking the dreariness and desolation of Warsaw. Only Bowie and Eno play on this piece, with it’s layered synthesizers and keyboard the only instruments. Except that is Bowie’s vocals, that appear near the end. But here, Bowie doesn’t sing “words”, but are purely phonetical and helps create the sense of quiet desperation of the piece. The influence here of Brian Eno is obvious, although it’s worth noting this is Eno’s only co-writing credit and despite popular opinion, Eno didn’t share the producer’s chair, with Bowie/Visconti the only co-producers.

Next comes “Art Decade“, another slow instrumental piece that has a rather lovely, melancholy keyboard melody, but within a backdrop of weird, electronic soundscapes. The attempt here is to convey the feeling of a street Bowie encountered in Berlin and the isolation he felt, the title a play on “Art Deco”.

Weeping Wall” with its obvious reference to the Berlin wall is based in part on the melody of “Scarborough Fair” by Paul Simon. A beautiful atmosphere piece, with all sorts of sounds present, including an upfront xylophone, it’s the only track on the album that is played exclusively by Bowie. The musicianship of Bowie is often understated but he could play numerous instruments and does so very effectively here. Again, Bowie’s vocals are present on this track, but only as another instrument is add another layer to the overall atmosphere.

The album closes with the sublime “Subterraneans“, another beautiful, sad piece that was initially destined to be part of the soundtrack to “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that starred Bowie, before Bowie’s involvement in the soundtrack was abandoned. Featuring lovely synthesizers flourishes, Bowie’s stunning saxophone and most effectively, Bowie’s amazing phonetic vocals, it’s the glorious musical highlight of the album. I LOVE this track.

Listening to “Low” for the first time is an amazing experience and I encourage anyone who hasn’t had the joy of listening to this album to give it a go. Yes, it’s all rather sad and melancholy in character but it really is an amazing musical experience.

That said, Bowie’s record company at the time (RCA) hated it and initially refused to release it. The lack of Bowie vocals and the avant-garde nature of the music had RCA worried that it would be a commercial disaster. Bowie’s management of the time, Mainman who had a big stake in the monies made also hated it and tried to stop the album from being released as well. This delayed the eventual release of the album until January 1977, which ironically hurt sales as it meant missing the Christmas shopping period. It did OK however, reaching No. 2 in the UK and a respectable No. 11 in the US, although this started a decline in the US album market until the commercial monster that was “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

Although there was some confusion and uncertainty over the album at the time, the music press were generally favourable, with critic acclaim over the album only increasing over time.

The iconic album cover was another still shot from the movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that Bowie starred in and which obviously had a big impact on Bowie, with another still from the movie previously used on the cover of “Station to Station”. The album “Low” with a profile shot of Bowie could be interpreted as “Low Profile”, get it !!

As part of the brilliant Ryko 1991 CD re-release, two new tracks from the Berlin period were included as bonus tracks:

Some Are“, a rather quiet piano based track with nice electronic soundscapes (not unlike Warszawa if truth be told), that features actual vocals, albeit obscure ones:

“Sailors in snow
Send a call out raising hands
Some are bound to fail
Some are winter sun, ah”

It’s a nice enough piece that came as a pleasant surprise when released.

All Saints” is an instrumental, that has an industrial edge to it with brooding, pulsing synthesizers and reminds me somewhat of some of the tracks Bowie did with Iggy Pop. Again, a nice new surprise at the time of the re-release but not exactly an essential track to add to the Bowie collection.

Bowie would tour “Low” (and “Heroes” and a good chunk of Ziggy Stardust) the following year as part of the Isolar II world tour, the largest Bowie tour to date that finally included Australia for the first time.

The resultant “Stage” live album was another way to enjoy several of the tracks off “Low”, although the album was criticised (somewhat unfairly) as sounding almost identical to the actual album versions with some background crowd noise due to the superb musicianship on display. The 5.1 remix released on DVD in 2005 is well worth a listen and adds another dimension to the tracks. Imagine starting a concert with “Warszawa”, only Bowie could get away with it.

In 2018, another live album from the Isolar II tour was released, “Welcome to the Blackout“. Recorded in London, it’s another fine album that captures Bowie at his classic best with “Warszawa”, “What In The World”, “Be My Wife”, “Speed Of Life”, “Sound and Vision”, “Breaking Glass” and “Art Decade” all sounding just perfect.

In many ways, “Low” was perhaps the most challenging and risky move of his career. But ultimately, it was also perhaps one of his most important albums as it became the blueprint for the post-punk period and music for the next 10 years and beyond. Bands such as Joy Division, Ultravox, Visage, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, ABC, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, etc. etc. etc. and the whole New Romantics movement and then beyond with NIN, Radiohead, Muse, etc. etc. etc. all owing a huge debt to “Low”.

Bowie would go on to make two more albums with Eno to complete the so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, before working with Eno again in 1995 on the masterpiece that is “1. Outside“. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Sound and Vision”, “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, “Be My Wife”

20. Young Americans

young americans

Young Americans” is David Bowie’s 9th studio album and was originally released on 7 March 1975.

Now we’re reached the Top 20, the quality of album is really starting to crank up.

By mid 1974, Bowie was creeping ever deeper into a rather dark place with massive international fame not being quite what he hoped it to be. With the gruelling “Diamond Dogs” tour and the pressures of outrageously complex theatrical nightly performances, with relationships with both his wife and his manager quickly deteriorating and on a famous diet consisting of just milk, peppers and cocaine, Bowie was both skeletal and barely coping. This was all so well documented in the brilliant “Cracked Actor” BBC documentary (watch it here).

In this environment, it’s extraordinary that Bowie decided to change his musical direction so radically from the “Glam Rock” genre that Bowie had mastered so well to the disco, black influenced “plastic soul” that was the “Young Americans” album. It was the first time while in a position of fame that Bowie decided to take such a dramatic change of musical direction and while this started his unique reputation of being the “Chameleon of Rock”, it’s easy to forgot how much professional courage such an undertaking  would have required. It could so very easily have backfired resulting in critical ridicule and the mass abandonment from his legion of fans. The fact Bowie succeeded in producing such a fine album that was a huge commercial success, especially in the tough American market where the album reached the Top 10 is a testament to the musical genius that is Bowie.

Recorded primarily during a break in the “Diamond Dogs” tour at the famous Sigma Sounds studio in Philadelphia, USA, Bowie himself described his new album somewhat derogatory as “Plastic Soul”. In truth it was anything but “plastic” or “fake” having garnered a group of highly talented (mainly) black musicians that injected a high degree of authenticity into the new album.

The only musician to survive from previous albums was pianist Mike Garson, although this would be his last album with Bowie for nearly 20 years. The album introduced a relatively unknown Puerto-Rico guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would work with Bowie for the majority Bowie’s future albums. On bass and drums were the very well respected session musicians Wellie Weeks and Tony Newmark respectively and on saxophone, the then almost unknown David Sanborn who would bring such a rich sound to the album. The impressive cast doesn’t end there. Backing vocalists included Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and a then almost unknown Luther Vandross.

Bowie would record two tracks later on in New York at the Electric Lady Studios when he got together with the one and only John Lennon, where two more highly important Bowie musicians were first introduced, Earl Slick on guitar and Dennis Davis on drums.

One other key ingredient to add into the mix was Tony Visconti, who after helping to mix the previous “Diamond Dogs” album, was reunited with Bowie for his second spell as album producer and in this case also studio engineer during the Stigma Sounds sessions.

With such an amazing cast of musicians and with the unique writing ability of David Bowie, a great album was almost guaranteed. Bowie loved “black” music that was dominating much of the US music scene at the time and wanted to create his own version of the Philly Sound, Motown, Soul Train, black styled music. He succeeded wonderfully and created one of the first white “disco” albums, before the likes of The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band,etc. made it hugely mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong, “Young Americans” is a wonderful album, but for a couple of key reasons I rate this as my least favourite album of Bowie’s unbelievable 70’s output. Music is a funny thing and much comes down to personal preferences and it’s just that disco/soul however you want to label it, is just not my favourite style of music, especially when it comes to Bowie. As much as I enjoy this album, I simply enjoy all the other Bowie albums to come in my rankings just that bit more. Additionally, there are a couple of tracks that brings down the album overall from what it could have been and that’s all it takes to be rated lower than the awesome competition.

The album kicks off with one of Bowie best known songs, the title track “Young Americans“. Describing the struggles of a young couple in post-Nixon USA, the joyous musical arrangement belies the hard hitting lyrics. Like much of the album, the track is basically recorded live in the studio and gives the song a wonderful vibe and feel that is perfectly captured by Visconti. The funky groove is fabulous as is Sanborn’s sax and with Bowie fast-flowing lyrics, this really is a classic track. The highlights for me though are the re-use of Lennon’s famous line “I heard the news today, oh boy” and the wonderful climax “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?“. This was released as the lead off single and became Bowie’s first top 20 US hit. No wonder really. There was no official video for this, although Bowie’s performance on the “Dick Cavett Show” is a good substitute. See it here.

young americans single cover

The next track “Win” is my favourite offering here. It’s a truly wonderful song, with Sanborn’s sax a particular highlight. It’s slower, more mellow and less wordy than much of the album and has a feel that reminds me somewhat of the “Station To Station” album to come. Bowie’s vocals move from tender to downright ominous as he sings “Someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires“.  This track along with the next (“Fascination”) were both recorded later in the year at the Record Plant studios in New York to in theory complete the album and so has a slightly different feel. I’ve always loved this track and as they say is worth price of admission alone.

Fascination” comes next with that funky groove in full swing and with Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar dominating throughout. Co-written with Luther Vandross and recorded in New York, the vocal arrangements with Bowie following the backup vocals during the chorus is particularly catchy.  “I know people think I’m a little crazy” does rather sum up Bowie’s experiences in the US. It’s a solid all-round track that is typical of the sound that Bowie was after with this album.

Right” is a mellow track with Bowie in fine form vocally but the unfortunate backing vocalists really struggled with the odd-ball time signatures and in-out timings (as documented on both the “Cracked Actor” and “Five Years” BBC documentaries). It’s one of my less preferred tracks although when it swings through the motions during the second half of the song, it does have a hypnotic feel. Perhaps because it was so difficult to record, this is one of those rare Bowie originals that has never been performed live.

Somebody Up There Likes Me” which opens side two in many ways is the centre-piece of the album and perfectly encapsulates the album, with it’s smooth yet funky guitar driven arrangements, catchy backing vocals, Bowie’s cool delivery and with Sanborn’s sax floating over everything. The blue-eyed soul boy at his best.

Across The Universe” is where things go very wrong. In early 1975, Bowie teamed up with John Lennon and decided to record a few tracks together at the Electric Lady studios in New York. This track is one of the results of their collaboration, a cover of Lennon’s/The Beatles classic and it just doesn’t work and it just doesn’t fit within the theme of the album. It’s bland and boring with the real tragedy being that much much better tracks were dropped to make room for this. I can only imagine Tony Visconti’s shock at hearing that this song (which would have made a perfect B-side to “Fame”) meant “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” had to be dropped from the album. If not for this track, this album would likely have been rated a few notches higher, it’s that close.

Can You Hear Me” is one of the weaker tracks on the album, a ballad with a much more simplistic arrangement and featuring Bowie’s least impressive vocal performance. It’s just one of those tracks that I’ve never got into and adds weight for this to be Bowie’s least impressive 70’s era album.

Fame” is the second track to be included from the Lennon sessions and is altogether a different story. Here, Visconti can’t argue that this fully deserves it’s place on the album. Featuring a killer guitar line by Alomar (based in turn on “Foot Stompin” which Bowie had been unsuccessfully working on) and Lennon’s high pitched “Fame” backing vocal, this has become one of Bowie most loved treasures. Detailing Bowie’s disappointment having finally achieved fame, the use of multi-speed vocals is brilliant and classic Bowie. Released as the second single off the album, it achieved No 1 status in the US (Bowie’s first), one of the very few singles to chart higher in the US than in the UK where it only reached a relatively disappointing 17. Bowie no doubt thrilled to work with his hero Lennon would rank this as one of his favourite songs, with it being the song he would perform live the most throughout his career. Bowie also re-mixed “Fame” in 1990 for the movie “Pretty Woman” which had a rather excellent video. Again, there was no official video for the original “Fame”, although Bowie’s humorous, poorly lip-synced performance on Soul Train (the first white performer to feature) has become the unofficial video. Fame 90 Video.

fame

So an overall fine album, especially if you’re a fan of disco or black soul based music, but with one particular weaker moment.  And a brave album, when you consider the glam rock genre that had been Bowie’s ticket to stardom and success up to that point. But Bowie hadn’t really cracked the US as he had the UK, with glam rock just not something that appealed to enough of the market there. So a brave but also an astute move of Bowie’s by predicting the success of disco and creating an album that would ultimately appeal to a much wider audience in the market he most craved to break.

The album has been re-released a number of times, with some worth a mention.

In 1991, it was re-released and remastered on CD as part of the superb Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision series where most of the reissued albums featured bonus tracks. With the “Young Americans”, these were:

Who Can I Be Now” the first of the two tracks dropped from the original album listing to make room for the Lennon tracks. A rather nice ballad, featuring Mike Garson’s piano more predominately than elsewhere, Sanborn’s ever present sax and some wonderful backing vocal melodies, this is soooo much better than “Across The Universe”.

It’s Gonna Be Me” is another ballad with an upfront piano based arrangement, it features Bowie’s crooning, coke-cracked vocals at its best, but overall it doesn’t quite do it for me. The whole thing comes across as a little flat and is the most “plastic” of Bowie’s tracks recorded for “Young Americans”.

John, I’m Only Dancing Again” was recorded during these sessions and was originally planned to open the album before finally being dropped. A totally reworked version of Bowie’s glam classic “John, I’m Only Dancing”, only the chorus lyrics remain while the rest is transformed into a hip, disco driven funky jive 7 minute marathon. In the context of the album, it works rather well, but give me the original Ziggy versions anytime. This new version had previously seen the light of day when released as a single in 1979, the full version on 12” inch.

john-im-only-dancing-again

In 2007, a Special Release version of the album was re-issued again, this time including a DVD with a wonderful new 5.1 surround sound remix which gives the album a new lease of life.

In 2016, the album featured in the box set “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)“, which also included a version of “The Gouster“, the original name for the “Young Americans” album, with the original track listing from just the first Sigma Sound sessions. It’s a nice to have although there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been previously released.

who can i be now boxset

Bowie wouldn’t officially tour the album, although when he resumed the US only “Diamond Dogs” tour, it was totally revamped with all the complex sets discarded for a more intimate live experience re-badged as “The Soul/Philly Dogs” tour which did feature some of the new material. The LA performances from this part of the tour was released for the 2017 Record Store Day on the excellent triple LP “Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)”  which included both “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “John, I’m Only Dancing Again”. It has since been released on CD.

cracked actor lp

As I mentioned earlier, two fantastic BBC documentaries capture Bowie superbly during this important period. The first “Cracked Actor“, filmed in 1974 during the recording of the album in-between the Diamond Dogs tour is a simply stunning insight into Bowie at the time, struggling to cope with fame, LA and drugs. Cracked Actor Link. The second one is “Five Years“, in which five formative years are discussed in detail, including the 1974-75 period and the recording process for “Young Americans”. “Five Years Link“.

Many regard this as one of Bowie’s very best albums but for me, there are many more albums that I prefer. While enduring a coked-out hellish existence in LA, Bowie would refine the “soul boy” sound on his next album but add a layer of European influenced electronica to create a truly special masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame