Low (David Bowie album)

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Low
Low (album).jpg
Studio album by
Released14 January 1977 (1977-01-14)
RecordedSeptember–November 1976[a]
StudioChâteau d'Hérouville (Hérouville, France); Hansa (West Berlin)
Genre
Length38:26
LabelRCA
Producer
David Bowie chronology
Changesonebowie
(1976)
Low
(1977)
"Heroes"
(1977)
Singles from Low
  1. "Sound and Vision" / "A New Career in a New Town"
    Released: 11 February 1977
  2. "Be My Wife" / "Speed of Life"
    Released: 17 June 1977
  3. "Breaking Glass" / "Art Decade"
    Released: November 1978 (Australia and New Zealand only)

Low is the 11th studio album by English musician David Bowie, released on 14 January 1977 by RCA Records. After years of drug addiction and personal instability living in Los Angeles, Bowie moved to France in 1976 with his friend Iggy Pop to sober up. After meeting Brian Eno the same year, Bowie began recording the first of three collaborations with Eno and producer Tony Visconti that became known as the Berlin Trilogy. Low was mostly recorded from September to November 1976, sessions beginning at the Château d'Hérouville in Hérouville, France, and ending at the Hansa Tonstudios in West Berlin, following Bowie and Pop's move there.

The music on Low is grounded in art rock and experimental rock, and features Bowie's first explorations in electronic and ambient styles. It is influenced by the German music scene, particularly bands such as Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Harmonia and Kraftwerk. Side one consists primarily of short, direct avant-pop song-fragments while side two consists of longer, mainly instrumental tracks. The album features a distinctive drum sound, created by Visconti through the use of the Eventide H910 Harmonizer. The cover artwork, a profile of Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), was intended as a visual pun meaning 'low profile'.

RCA refused to release the album for three months, fearing poor commercial performance. Upon its release, Low divided critics and received little promotion from RCA or Bowie himself. It nonetheless peaked at number 2 on the UK Albums Chart and number 11 on the US Billboard 200. It was supported by the singles "Sound and Vision" and "Be My Wife"; the former peaked at number 3 on the UK Singles Chart. The album's musical approach would be further explored on subsequent albums "Heroes" (1977) and Lodger (1979).

In subsequent decades, Low has been considered ahead of its time and widely acclaimed as one of Bowie's best works. It has also been identified as heavily influential on the post-punk and post-rock genres, and has appeared on several lists of the greatest albums of all time. The album has been reissued several times and was remastered in 2017 as part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) box set.

Background and inspiration[edit]

I was in serious public decline, emotionally and socially. I think I was very much on course to be another rock casualty. In fact, I’m quite certain I wouldn't have survived the '70s if I'd carried on doing what I was doing. But I was lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I was really killing myself, and I had to do something drastic to pull myself out of that.[2]

– David Bowie discussing his mental state at the time, 1996

In the summer of 1974, David Bowie developed a cocaine addiction.[3] Over the next two years, his addiction increasingly worsened, affecting both his physical and mental state. He recorded both Young Americans and Station to Station, as well as filmed The Man Who Fell to Earth, while under the influence of the drug.[4] His intake escalated to the point where decades later, he recalled almost nothing of the recording of Station to Station,[5] saying "I know it was in L.A. because I've read it was."[6] Bowie also became a controversial figure at the time, primarily due to comments he made while in his persona the Thin White Duke, in which he made statements about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany that some interpreted as expressing sympathy for or even promoting fascism.[7] He blamed his erratic behaviour during this period on his addictions and precarious mental state.[8] He later explained: "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."[9]

While living in Los Angeles, Bowie became interested in the German music scene, including the acts Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Neu!, whose Krautrock influence was present on Station to Station, particularly the title track.[10][11] During the months of his recovery, he also became interested in ex-Roxy Music keyboardist and conceptualist Brian Eno, who, in 1975, released two albums in the ambient genre: Another Green World and Discreet Music. Another Green World in particular would become a huge influence on the sound Bowie aimed to create for what would become known as the Berlin Trilogy.[12] Bowie met with Eno in 1976[13][14] and soon after beginning collaborations with Eno, producer Tony Visconti, and Pop.[15]

Development[edit]

After completing Station to Station in December 1975, Bowie started work on a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth with Paul Buckmaster as his collaborator.[16] Bowie expected to be wholly responsible for the film's music but found that "when I'd finished five or six pieces, I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with some other people's ... and I just said "Shit, you're not getting any of it". I was so furious, I'd put so much work into it."[17] Notwithstanding, Harry Maslin argued that Bowie was "burned out" and could not complete the work in any case. The singer eventually collapsed, admitting later, "There were pieces of me laying all over the floor".[16] In the event, only one instrumental composed for the soundtrack saw the light of day, evolving into "Subterraneans".[17][18] Bowie later stated that the only portion of the soundtrack used for Low was a reverse bass part on "Subterraneans",[19] which was recorded in December 1975 at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles,[20][21] where Station to Station was recorded.[22] When Bowie presented his material for the film to Nicolas Roeg, the director decided that it would not be suitable. Roeg preferred a more folksy sound, although John Phillips (the chosen composer for the soundtrack) described Bowie's contributions as "haunting and beautiful".[23] Six months after Bowie's proposal was rejected, he sent Roeg a copy of Low with a note stating "This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack. It would have been a wonderful score."[24][25]

Although Bowie had garnered commercial success between 1975 and 1976 with the singles "Fame" and "Golden Years", he was eager to escape the drug culture of Los Angeles.[26][27] At the end of his 1976 Isolar tour on 18 May 1976, Bowie and his wife Angela moved to Switzerland, although the two would rarely spend time there. At the same time, Bowie booked studio time later in the summer at the Château d'Hérouville in Hérouville, France, where he made plans to write and produce an album for his old friend, singer Iggy Pop.[28] Although the two had been friends for many years, the last time they worked together was in 1973, when Bowie was hired to mix the Stooges' 1973 album Raw Power. After the demise of the Stooges, Pop descended into drug addiction. By 1976, he was ready to get sober and agreed to move to Europe with his old friend.[29] The two relocated to the Château,[30] the same place Bowie recorded his 1973 album Pin Ups.[24][31] Afterwards, Bowie travelled back to Switzerland, where he spent the next few months writing and devising plans for his own next album.[32] The two regrouped at the Château in June and through August,[33] the two recorded what would become Pop's debut solo album The Idiot.[30][34] Bowie composed the majority of the music for The Idiot, while Pop wrote most of the lyrics,[35] often in response to the music Bowie was composing.[36] During its recording, Bowie developed a new process, in which the backing tracks were recorded first, followed by overdubs, with lyrics and vocals written and recorded last.[37] He heavily favoured this "three-phase" process, which he would use for the rest of his career.[38] Because The Idiot was recorded before Low, The Idiot has been referred to as the unofficial beginning of Bowie's Berlin period,[39] as its music featured a sound reminiscent of what Bowie would explore in the Berlin Trilogy.[40][41]

After completing The Idiot, the two travelled to Hansa Studios in West Berlin to mix the album. Because Visconti was already in line to co-produce Bowie's next album, Bowie called upon him to help mix the record, so as to familiarize himself with Bowie's new way of working.[42] In Berlin, Bowie became fascinated with the city, finding it a place of great escape. In love with the city, the two decided to move there in a further attempt to kick their drug habits and escape the spotlight.[24][26][43] At this point, Bowie was ready to fully move to Berlin but had already booked another month of studio time at the Château after The Idiot, so recording commenced there.[44]

Recording[edit]

An older bald man with glasses
Low marked the first of three collaborations with musician Brian Eno (pictured in 2015).

Under the working title New Music: Night and Day,[13] the sessions for Low officially began on 1 September 1976.[45] Although Low is considered the first of Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, the majority of it was recorded at the Château in France.[24] Returning from the Station to Station sessions was guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and percussionist Dennis Davis. Along with Eno, new members included Roy Young, the former keyboardist for the Rebel Rousers and Ricky Gardiner, former guitarist of Beggars Opera.[24] A guest during the Château sessions was Visconti's then-wife Mary Hopkin, who was asked to contribute backing vocals to "Sound and Vision";[46] she was credited as Mary Visconti.[24]

The album was co-produced by Bowie and Visconti, with contributions from Eno.[47] Visconti, who was absent for the recording of Station to Station due to conflicting schedules,[48] was brought back to co-produce after mixing The Idiot.[49] Bowie would stress Visconti's importance as co-producer in 2000: "Over the years not enough credit has gone to Tony Visconti on those particular albums. The actual sound and texture, the feel of everything from the drums to the way that my voice is recorded, is Tony Visconti." Despite being widely perceived as a co-producer, Eno was not. Visconti commented: "Brian is a great musician, and was very integral to the making of those three albums [Low, "Heroes" and Lodger]. But he was not the producer."[49]

Like The Idiot, the start of the sessions consisted of Bowie and the rhythm players running through the backing tracks quickly, beginning in the evening and continuing into the night, which Seabrook believes fit the mood of the music perfectly. As he had done on Station to Station, Bowie left Alomar in charge of the arrangements for himself, Murray and Davis, with instruction from Bowie on how they should sound. Bowie brought many song ideas he made in Switzerland to the sessions, while some, including "What in the World", were brought back from The Idiot.[50]

According to biographer Paul Trynka, Eno arrived late in the sessions, after all of the backing tracks for side one were "essentially" finished.[51] Shortly before arriving, Eno had recorded with the German band Harmonia, who would serve as a major influence in the recording of Low.[52] Upon his arrival, he and Bowie sat down with the musicians and informed them of the next stage in the recording process.[51] According to Young, they played them tapes of The Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack and said they planned something similar. Young further stated that some of the musicians, including him, were not fond of the idea as it was out of their experiences. Bowie was adamant that RCA would feel the same way, stating: "We don't know if this will ever be released, but I have to do this."[51] It was only after Visconti compiled a tape two weeks into the project and played it to Bowie, who was surprised and enthusiastic that they had an album.[53][54]

With no deadline from the label nor planned musical structure, the moods during the sessions were described by Seabrook as "upbeat and relaxed". The studio was also located in the middle of the French countryside, so the musicians bonded well and experimented on a regular basis.[55] Alomar, who was the most reluctant to Eno's "avant-garde bullshit",[56] eventually warmed up to the experimentation and accepted it. Seabrook writes that everyone ate together, watched the British television programme Fawlty Towers in their off-time, and would entertain each other with stories. Gardiner later said, "We had some good conversations about music, astrology – the world."[55] Davis further stated that he was the comedian during the sessions, performing entertainment acts and telling stories. Along with performing backing vocals on "What in the World", Iggy Pop was present throughout the sessions. Gardiner recalled him being "fit, healthy and positive." Like Davis, he would encourage a positive atmosphere by telling stories of his former time with the Stooges.[55] According to Trynka, Eno was responsible for Bowie's motivation throughout the sessions.[57]

Nevertheless, the sessions at the Château weren't without their problems. Unlike the sessions for The Idiot, the majority of the studio's staff were on holiday, leaving an inexperienced engineer and a kitchen staff who didn't serve a variety of meals. Months after the sessions ended, Visconti recalled: "We found the studio totally useless. The people who own to now don't seem to care. We all came down with dysentery;" Bowie and Visconti both contracted food poisoning at one point. According to Seabrook, the studio was also apparently haunted. Formerly owned by renowned composer Frédéric Chopin, both Bowie and Eno recalled the ghostly encounters with the spirits of Chopin and his lover George Sand at the Château.[58] Bowie himself was in a fragile state of mind throughout the sessions, as his days of cocaine addiction were not far behind him. "I was at the end of my tether, physically and emotionally...and had serious doubts about my sanity," he later recalled. Furthermore, he encountered personal conflicts with his wife Angela and faced legal issues after firing his manager Michael Lippman; he had to depart the sessions in mid-September to work on resolving the case.[58] Despite problems encountered during recording, Visconti recalled that he, Bowie and Eno were working "at their peak" during the sessions.[38]

Towards the end of September,[59] Bowie and Visconti had grown tired of being at the Château. Bowie found himself mentally drained and Visconti was frustrated at the lack of outside assistance. After recording the wordless vocals for "Warszawa", Bowie, Visconti, Iggy Pop and Bowie's assistant Coco Schwab departed France to West Berlin.[60] The sessions continued at Hansa Studios; according to Pegg and Seabrook, it was not the same "by the Wall" location where Low would be mixed and "Heroes" would be subsequently recorded.[59][60] At Hansa, the final tracks, "Weeping Wall" and "Art Decade", were completed, as well as vocal overdubs to the Château recordings.[61] The sessions lasted until 18 November.[62]

Songs[edit]

At the forefront of Low's sound was Visconti's recent acquisition: an Eventide H910 Harmonizer. When Bowie asked what it did, Visconti replied, "it fucks with the fabric of time."[63]

Low features Bowie's first explorations of electronic[64][65] and ambient music.[27] It was retrospectively categorised as art rock and experimental rock by Ultimate Classic Rock and Consequence of Sound, respectively.[65][66] Along with its successor "Heroes", the songs on Low emphasise tone and atmosphere rather than guitar-based rock.[27] The music itself is influenced by German bands such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Neu!,[67][13][24] which Bowie had previously showcased an influence of on Station to Station, particularly its title track.[68] Seabrook considers Neu! the biggest influence on Bowie's new musical direction; their album Neu! '75 is, like Low and "Heroes", characterised by a song/instrumental split – on top of containing a song titled "Hero".[69] In 2004, Bjorn Randolph of Stylus Magazine said that "had the album been released twenty years later, it would have been called 'post-rock'".[70]

Side one primarily consists of short, direct avant-pop song-fragments;[71] side two comprises longer, mostly instrumental tracks.[65] In 1977, Bowie stated that side one was about himself and his "prevailing moods" at the time while side two was about his musical observations living in Berlin.[59] Musically, one reviewer characterised side one as a direct extension of Young Americans and Station to Station.[72] Regarding the mostly song/instrumental split, Visconti stated: We felt that getting six or seven songs with Bowie singing, with choruses and verses, still make for a good album...then making the second side instrumental gave a perfect yin-yang balance."[57] Chris O'Leary writes that the instrumental pieces all share a theme: "a tour of an imaginary Eastern Europe by the isolate, paranoiac character of Low's manic side."[73] Some of the songs, including "Speed of Life" and "A New Career in a New Town", were originally going to have lyrics, but Bowie could not come up with suitable words and left them as instrumentals.[74][75] The instrumentals feature contributions from Eno, who used his portable EMS AKS synthesiser.[76] Visconti recalled, "It had no keyboard, just a joystick, and he came up with wonderful sounds you can hear all over the album that weren't produced by conventional instruments."[77]

Low is noted for its unique drum sound, described by biographer David Buckley as "brutal" and "mechanistic". Played by Davis,[78] it was created by Visconti using an Eventide H910 Harmonizer.[77] When asked by Bowie about what it did, Visconti replied, "it fucks with the fabric of time."[63] Visconti rigged the machine to Davis's snare drum and fed the results through his headphones so he could hear the final sound.[78] Speaking to Buckley, Visconti further said: "I heard that it could change the pitch of a sound without changing the speed. My brain nearly exploded when I found what I could do with drums. By lowering the pitch of a live drum, then feeding it back, I got a sort of infinite dropping of [the] pitch, ever renewing itself." The sound, particularly evident on "Speed of Life", "Breaking Glass" and "Sound and Vision", is described by Buckley as "revolutionary" and "stunning".[77] Davis himself described it as sounding "as big as a house".[79] Bud Scoppa of Phonograph Record compares the sound to "cherry bombs exploding under tin cans".[80] Trynka writes that Davis's "spirit and energy" propel the album's first side "ever onward."[78] On release, Kris Needs of ZigZag magazine called it one of the best sounds he's ever heard, while Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone later on called it "one of rock's all-time most imitated drum sounds."[81]

Side one[edit]

"Speed of Life", is described by author Peter Doggett as a perfect opener, in the sense that it brings the audience into "a subject too profound for words".[82] It features a rapid fade-in that Pegg believes makes for a "bizarre" opener, writing, "[it's as if] the listener has just arrived within earshot of something that's already started."[83] "Breaking Glass" is a song-fragment,[84] featuring six lines of lyrics, two of them commanding the listener to "listen" and "see".[85] Eno said of the song, "the feeling around was that we'd edit together...and turn it into a more normal structure" before Alomar vetoed the idea and recommended to leave it as is. Credited to Bowie, Murray and Davis, Alomar recalled that this was because the song was mainly composed by the trio.[77] O'Leary writes that "What in the World" was created towards the beginning of the sessions and was possibly slated for inclusion on Pop's The Idiot, likewise featuring backing vocals from Pop.[86][87] The song is one of the only tracks on the album to combine art rock with more straightforward pop. According to Pegg, it features a "wall of synthesiser bleeps against a barrage of guitar sound [and] distorted percussion effects."[88] In the lyrics, the narrator describes a little girl that's stuck in her room.[89]

A black and white photo of a young blonde-haired woman holding a microphone and singing
"Sound and Vision" contains backing vocals from Visconti's then-wife Mary Hopkin (pictured in 1970).

"Sound and Vision" contains wordless backing vocals from Visconti's then-wife Mary Hopkin, which she recorded before there were lyrics, a title or melody. Bowie's vocals take a full 1 minute and 45 seconds to appear,[90] which was done at Eno's insistence to "confound listener expectations".[91] Described by Bowie as his "ultimate retreat song",[91] the lyrics reflect his mental state following his long period of drug addiction.[92] They provide a stark contrast to the music itself, which is more joyous and upbeat.[91] Buckley writes that out of every song, it is the closest to a conventional pop song.[90] The lyrics of "Always Crashing in the Same Car" reference an incident in which, while living in Los Angeles, Bowie kept ramming his car into that of a drug dealer's who was ripping him off.[93] On a broader context, the lyrics are a metaphor for making the same mistake over and over again, as well as Bowie's obsessive need to travel and change his lifestyle.[94] O'Leary calls it "the depression in the middle of the "manic" side.[95] Seabrook writes that it is the only song on side one that has a definitive start and end.[96]

Bowie said of the lyrics to "Be My Wife": "It was genuinely anguished, I think".[97] They reflect Bowie's feelings of loneliness, inability to settle, and plea for human connections.[98][99] Multiple biographers have alluded them to be about Bowie's failing marriage at the time.[100] Musically, the track is led by a "barrelling bar-room piano", played by Roy Young.[99] "A New Career in a New Town" is, similar to what its title suggests, an instrumental that acts as a musical transition. It begins as an electronic piece, before moving into a more rock-style tune enhanced by a harmonica solo from Bowie. The solo is described by Doggett and O'Leary as reminiscient of blues music.[101][102] Its title also reflected Bowie's upcoming move to Berlin.[103][102]

Side two[edit]

The opening of what O'Leary calls Low's "night" side, "Warszawa" was named after the Polish city of Warsaw, which Bowie visited in April 1976.[104] While visiting, he found the landscape to be desolate and wanted to capture it through music. The song was mostly composed by Eno, who heard Visconti's four-year-old son playing A, B, C in a constant loop at the studio piano. Eno then used this phrase to create the main theme.[105] The piece itself is haunting in nature, featuring wordless vocals from Bowie that are described by Doggett as reminiscent of a "monkish vocal chorale".[106] Buckley calls it the "most startling" piece on the album.[107] Bowie stated in 1977 that "Art Decade", a pun on "art decayed," is about West Berlin, "a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution."[108] Greatly influenced by Eno's ambient work,[109] the piece gives visual impressions and evokes feelings of melancholy and beauty.[110][111] O'Leary writes that for a time the piece was co-credited to Eno.[109] A cello on the track was played by Hansa engineer Eduard Meyer.[108]

Bowie played every instrument himself on the third instrumental, "Weeping Wall".[112] Influenced by minimalist composer Steve Reich,[113] the main melody is an adaptation of the tune "Scarborough Fair".[114] In the piece, Bowie uses synthesisers, vibraphone, xylophone and wordless vocals to create a sense of frustration and imprisonment.[115] The piece is reportedly meant to evoke the pain and misery of the Berlin Wall.[115] Bowie described "Subterraneans" as a portrait of "the people who got caught in East Berlin after the separation, hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was."[18] Originally recorded for the aborted The Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack,[116] the piece contains wordless vocals that are similar to "Warszawa". Its saxophone solo from Bowie is described by Doggett as "remarkable".[117]

Artwork and release[edit]

The cover artwork features a still shot from Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie is seen in profile as his character from the film, Thomas Jerome Newton, wearing a duffel coat set against an orange background. Buckley writes that it was meant to be a visual pun meaning 'low profile'; many people did not understand the joke until Bowie pointed it out in a later interview.[118] Visconti contended that the title was partly a reference to Bowie's "low" moods during the album's writing and recording.[119]

Bowie's previous two albums, Young Americans and Station to Station, were massive commercial successes.[120] As a result, RCA Records were eager to earn another best-seller from the artist. However, upon hearing Low, the label were shocked at what they were presented.[121] Fearing poor commercial performance, RCA wrote Bowie a letter rejecting the album and urging him to make an album more like Young Americans. Bowie kept the rejection letter on his wall at home.[122] After Bowie refused to make any changes, RCA delayed the album from its original planned release date in November 1976. According to Seabrook, the label's executives considered the record to be "distinctly unpalatable" for the Christmas market.[123] RCA eventually released Low on 14 January 1977, with the catalogue number PL 12030.[24][118] The album received little to no promotion from both RCA and Bowie himself, who felt it was his "least commercial" record up to that point and instead opted to tour as Iggy Pop's keyboardist.[118][61] Despite having no promotion, Low was a commercial success, peaking at number 2 on the UK Albums Chart and number 11 on the US Billboard 200 chart.[118]

"Sound and Vision" was released as a single on 14 February 1977, with the catalogue number PB 0905 and the instrumental "A New Career in a New Town" as the B-side.[124] It reached number 3 on the UK Singles Chart,[125] his highest charting new single in the UK since "Sorrow" in 1973.[118][126] It did not fare so well in the US, peaking only at number 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 and signalled Bowie's commercial downturn in the US until 1983.[127] Although Bowie did not promote it himself, Pegg writes that the single was an "instant turntable favourite" and was bolstered by its use by the BBC for television commercials.[127] The single's UK success confused RCA executives. The label were intimidated by Bowie, who persuaded the label to release Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which saw release in March 1977.[128]

"Be My Wife" was released as the second single on 17 June 1977, with the catalogue number PB 1017 and the instrumental "Speed of Life" as the B-side.[124] It became Bowie's first single to fail to chart since his pre-Ziggy days. Despite this, it was promoted with a music video – his first since 1973.[99] An extended version of "Breaking Glass" was released as a single in Australia and New Zealand in 1978. The single edit was created by splicing in a repeated verse of the original album recording. This rare version was made available in digital and CD formats for the first time in 2017, on Re:Call 3, part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) compilation.[84]

Critical reception[edit]

Critical reaction to Low at the time of its release was divided.[61] Rolling Stone's John Milward stated that "Bowie lacks the self-assured humour to pull off his avant-garde aspirations" and found the album's second side weaker than its first, stating: "Side one, where Bowie works within more conventional rock trappings, is superior to side two's experiments simply because a band forces discipline into Bowie's writing and performance."[129] Meanwhile, NME's Charles Shaar Murray gave the album an extremely negative assessment, writing: "Low is: less an album than state of mind, a state of mind beyond desperation, a state where you're so far down that you have to reach up to touch bottom except that you can't even be bothered to reach up." He felt that overall, the record encourages the listener to feel down and provides no help in getting back up, stating, "It's an act of purest hatred and destructiveness. It comes to us in a bad time and it doesn't help at all." Murray ultimately asked "Who needs this shit?"[130]

In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau found side one's seven "fragments" to be "almost as powerful as the 'overlong' tracks on Station to Station", but described "the movie music on side two" as banal[131] (though he later revised his opinion on the second side after the release of "Heroes", writing that Low "now seems quite pop, slick and to the point even when the point is background noise").[132] Christgau included it at number 26 on his "dean's list" of the year's best albums for the 1977 Pazz & Jop critics poll.[133] Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn shared a similar sentiment and stated: "For 12 minutes, this is Bowie's most striking and satisfying album since Ziggy. But the remaining 26 minutes, including all of side two, deal with a spacy art rock style that is simply beyond mass pop sensibilities for it to build much enthusiasm."[134]

Other reviewers gave unanimous praise to the record. NME's Ian MacDonald found Low "stunningly beautiful [...] the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers".[135] Billboard called the album's second side "the most adventurous and a stark contrast to the few distorted hard rock cuts on side one" and wrote that Low "emphasizes Bowie's serious writing efforts which only time can tell will appeal to the people who have watched him go through various musical phases".[136] John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote that "There are hardly any vocals, and what there are mostly mindless doggerel heard from afar. And the instrumentals are strange and spacey. Nevertheless, the whole thing strikes this listener as remarkably, alluringly beautiful."[137] Rockwell described its sound as "a strange crossbreed of Roxy Music, Eno's own solo albums, Talking Heads and an Indonesian gamelan. Yet it still is recognizably a David Bowie album".[137] Writing for Sounds magazine, Tim Lott gave unanimous praise to the record, calling it "the most difficult piece of music Bowie has ever put his name to". He concluded his review by stating it might be both Bowie and Eno's best work and "a mechanical classic."[138]

Some reviewers were perplexed at the new direction Bowie was taking. Rockwell concluded that "once Mr. Bowie's fans overcome their initial shock at his latest change in direction, they may realise that he's made one of the finest disks of his career."[137] In National RockStar, David Hancock was surprised to see the record's sound coming from Bowie, writing, "This is David Bowie. And it's different. And it's excellent," further calling it "by far his most bizarre and adventurous LP [to date]."[72] Kris Needs in ZigZag called it the "strangest thing Bowie has ever recorded", stating "First listen was a real shock...and I've come to expect surprises from this bloke." Admiring the artist's ability to move on to the next thing so quickly, praising the record's effective use of synthesisers. Overall, Needs believed it to be one of Bowie's greatest achievements.[139] In Phonograph Record, Bud Scoppa felt that the record "doesn't make much sense." However, at the same time, Scoppa was confounded by it, writing: "Low is the most intimate and free recording this extraordinary artist has yet made. This haunting, oddly beautiful music, strewn with recesses to be delved into gradually and a few at a time, is affecting in a strikingly subtle and powerful way." He ultimately concludes "There's no telling what the album will do to you, or when it will do it. Bowie offers a simple but challenging choice: either be baffled or give in."[80]

Reappraisal[edit]

Retrospective professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic5/5 stars[71]
Blender5/5 stars[140]
Christgau's Record GuideB+[141]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music4/5 stars[142]
NME9/10[143]
Pitchfork10/10[144]
Q5/5 stars[145]
Rolling Stone5/5 stars[81]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide5/5 stars[146]
Spin4/5 stars[147]

Retrospectively, Low has received critical acclaim and is regarded as one of Bowie's best works. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic writes that with the album, Bowie "confirmed his place at rock's cutting edge". Considering it "dense [and] challenging", Erlewine concludes "the record is defiantly experimental and dense with detail, providing a new direction for the avant-garde in rock & roll."[71] Dele Fadele of NME concurred, writing that the record was a "futuristic touchstone that still stands."[143] In 2001, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone wrote that he felt Low contained some of the artist's best work. He writes, "[The album] flows together into a lyrical, hallucinatory, miraculously beautiful whole, the music of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body, as rock's prettiest sex vampire sashays through some serious emotional wreckage."[81] Sheffield concluded by noting the timelessness of the record and called it one of his "most intense and influential" records.[81] In The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Sheffield describes it as "the music of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body", showcasing Bowie as he "sashays through some serious emotional wreckage".[148] Susie Goldring of BBC Music praised the album, calling it "ambitious" and complimenting Bowie's artistic growth, the singer having turned 30 on its release.[149]

Following Bowie's death, Bryan Wawzenek of Ultimate Classic Rock listed Low as Bowie's greatest album, writing: "'Low' is more than songs and sounds. The creative partnership behind the record forged a feeling, a mood, a place. Like very few of the best albums ever recorded, 'Low' contains a universe you can inhabit, for 40 minutes at a time. It's Bowie's masterpiece."[150] Laura Snapes of Pitchfork gave the album a perfect ten-out-of-ten rating, citing the record as Bowie succeeding at setting a new path for himself following a period of drug addiction. Snapes summarises side one as feeling like "having the carpet ripped out from under you by three wizards who have plans to fly it elsewhere." Although she felt that side two's instrumentals feel "a little ponderous by today's standards", their ability to provoke imagery of different worlds is "something to behold".[144] Reviewing in 2017 for the album's 40th anniversary, Ron Hart of The Observer writes: "Forty years later, Low continues to [formulate] something both distinctively in time with the bleeding edge of 1977 yet layered with such forward-thinking artfulness it still cannot be properly matched in 2017. Low is an album that will make you dance, think and weep all in the span of 38 minutes...as Bowie seeks salvation in a form of music too futuristic for even Thomas Jerome Newton himself despite the character’s appearance on its cover art."[151]

Influence and legacy[edit]

Low has been acclaimed for its originality and is considered ahead of its time.[152] It has been cited as influential on the post-punk genre.[153] Goldring writes: "Without Low, we'd have no Joy Division, no Human League, no Cabaret Voltaire, and I bet, no Arcade Fire. The legacy of Low lives on."[149] Spitz also acknowledges the influence of the album on post-punk, naming Joy Division, Magazine, Gang of Four and Wire, as bands that were influenced by Low's "odd anti-aggression and unapologetic, almost metaphorical use of synthesised music."[154] Music journalist Simon Reynolds similarly stated: "I think it's Low's inhibition and repression that Joy Division and others responded to. The fact that the music, while guitar-based and harsh and aggressive, never rocks out. It's imploded aggression."[155] Writer Colin Larkin further recognised Gary Numan, Ultravox and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as artists that were influenced by Low.[156] It has also been regarded by music analysts as being a crucial influence on the post-rock genre, which would come to prominence among underground musicians nearly two decades after the album's release.[70] Doggett writes that like Station to Station before it, Low established Bowie as an artist who was "impossible to second-guess". He found Bowie's five-year progression from Hunky Dory to Low daring and courageous.[157]

Bowie's biographers have highlighted the influence the album had on Joy Division, as have the band themselves; their original name was "Warsaw", a reference to "Warszawa".[158] The band's drummer, Stephen Morris, told Uncut magazine in 2001 that when making their 1978 An Ideal for Living EP, the band requested the engineer make the drums sound like "Speed of Life"; "Strangely enough he couldn't."[159] Like Morris, many musicians, producers and engineers tried to imitate Low's drum sound. Visconti, refused to explain how he did it, instead asking them how they thought it had been done.[152] Approximations began appearing throughout the rest of the 1970s and, by the 1980s, were found on almost every record on the charts. Seabrook credits Bowie as being indirectly responsible for the "thumping backbeat" heard on tracks from Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf".[159] In an interview with Musician magazine in 1983, Bowie expressed his dismay, stating, "That depressive gorilla effect was something I wish we'd never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands."[160]

Numerous musicians have discussed the album's influence. Upon learning that the title of the album was Low, English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe "retaliated" by naming his 1977 EP Bowi. Lowe decided that as Bowie had made an album with his name, but without the final e, he would reciprocate by making a record with Bowie's name, also lacking the final e.[161] Robert Smith of the Cure listened to the record frequently when making the Cure's 1980 album Seventeen Seconds.[162] In 1994, musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails cited Low as a key inspiration for The Downward Spiral (1994), naming Low's "songwriting, mood and structures" as influences.[163] Dave Sitek of the American rock band TV on the Radio stated: "That particular album, that song 'Warszawa', that's when I knew music was the ultimate force, at least in my own life." Bowie would later work with TV on the Radio in 2003.[164]

In 1992, American composer and pianist Philip Glass composed a classical suite based on the album, titled "Low" Symphony. It was Glass's first symphony and consisted of three movements each based on Low tracks: "Subterraneans", "Some Are" and "Warszawa". It was recorded by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at Glass's Looking Glass Studios in New York and released in 1993 through his Point Music label.[165] Speaking about the album, Glass stated: "They were doing what few other people were trying to do – which was to create an art within the realm of popular music. I listened to it constantly."[154] On his decision to create a symphony based on the record, Glass stated: "In the question of Bowie and Eno's original Low LP, to me there was no doubt that both talent and quality were evident there...My generation was sick to death of academics telling us what was good and what wasn't."[165] For the symphony, Glass used both original themes and themes from three of the record's instrumentals. The "Low" Symphony acknowledges Eno's contributions on the original record, and as such, portraits of Bowie, Eno and Glass appear on the album cover. Bowie was flattered by the symphony and gave unanimous praise to it, as does Pegg.[165] Glass would later follow-up the "Low" Symphony with classical adaptations of the subsequent "Berlin" records: "Heroes" in 1997 and Lodger in 2019.[166][167]

Rankings[edit]

Low has frequently appeared on several lists of the greatest albums of all time by multiple publications. In 2004, Pitchfork named it the greatest album of the 1970s. Writing for the publication, Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes it as "a record that hurtles toward an undefined future while embracing ambiguity", as well as "an album about rebirth, which is why it still possesses the power to startle."[168] In 2000, Q placed Low at number 14 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.[169] In 2013, NME listed the album as the 14th greatest of all time.[170] Colin Larkin ranked it number 120 and 47 in the second and third editions of his book All Time Top 1000 Albums, respectively.[171] In 2003, the album was ranked number 249 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[172] It was subsequently ranked 251 in a 2012 revised list and number 206 in a 2020 revised list.[173][174] Based on Low's appearances in professional rankings and listings, the aggregate website Acclaimed Music lists it as 6th most acclaimed album of 1977, the 39th most acclaimed album of the 1970s and the 122nd most acclaimed album in history.[175]

Track listing[edit]

All lyrics are written by David Bowie; all music is composed by Bowie, except where noted.

Side one
No.TitleMusicLength
1."Speed of Life" 2:46
2."Breaking Glass"Bowie, Dennis Davis, George Murray1:51
3."What in the World" 2:23
4."Sound and Vision" 3:03
5."Always Crashing in the Same Car" 3:29
6."Be My Wife" 2:55
7."A New Career in a New Town" 2:51
Total length:19:18
Side two
No.TitleMusicLength
1."Warszawa"Bowie, Brian Eno6:20
2."Art Decade" 3:43
3."Weeping Wall" 3:26
4."Subterraneans" 5:39
Total length:19:08

Reissues[edit]

The album was first released on CD by RCA in the mid-1980s. A 1991 CD release by Rykodisc contained three bonus tracks,[24] including the outtakes "Some Are" and "All Saints".[176][177] The 1991 edition was released in the UK on CD, Cassette and LP by EMI, and was subsequently rereleased on AU20 Gold CD.[178] A 1999 CD release by EMI, without bonus tracks, featured 24-bit digitally remastered sound.[179]

In 2017, the album was remastered for Parlophone's A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) box set.[180] It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, as part of this compilation and then separately the following year.[181]

Rykodisc/EMI 1991 remaster bonus tracks[24]
No.TitleMusicLength
12."Some Are" (previously unreleased track, recorded 1976–79)Bowie, Eno3:24
13."All Saints" (previously unreleased track, recorded 1976–79)Bowie, Eno3:35
14."Sound and Vision" (remixed version, 1991) 4:43
Total length:50:08

Personnel[edit]

Personnel per the album's liner notes and biographer Nicholas Pegg.[24][182] Track numbers noted in parenthesis below are based on the CD track numbering of the 1991 reissue.

  • David Bowie – vocals (2–6, 8, 10–12, 14), saxophones (4, 11), guitar (6, 9–11), pump bass (6), harmonica (7), vibraphone (9–10), xylophone (10), pre-arranged percussion (10), keyboards: ARP synthesiser (1, 10–11), Chamberlin: Credited on the album sleeve notes as "tape horn and brass" (1), "synthetic strings" (1, 4, 9–10), "tape cellos" (5) and "tape sax section" (7), piano (7, 9–11), "instruments" (13)
  • Brian Eno – keyboards: Minimoog (2, 8–9), ARP (3, 11), EMS Synthi AKS (listed as "E.M.I.") (3, 5), piano (7–9, 11), Chamberlin (8–9), other synthesisers, vocals (4, 14), guitar treatments (5), synthetics (7), "instruments" (12–13)
  • Carlos Alomar – rhythm guitars (1, 3–7, 14), lead guitar (1, 2)
  • Dennis Davis – percussion (1–7, 14)
  • George Murray – bass (1–7, 11, 14)
  • Ricky Gardiner – rhythm guitar (2), lead guitar (3–7, 14)
  • Roy Young – pianos (1, 3–7, 14), Farfisa organ (3, 5)

Additional musicians

Charts and certifications[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ A small portion of the track "Subterraneans" was recorded in December 1975 at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles.[1]

References[edit]

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