Blue, blue, electric blue....
Released on 14 January 1977
Recorded at Chateau D’Herouville, France and Hansa Studios, Berlin
Running time 50:08
Low, released in January 1977, has long divided opinion. At the time, many were perplexed by the original "side two" of dense, metallic, sombre ambient instrumentals conjured up by Bowie and Brian Eno. Also mystifying to many were the six "semi songs" contained on the original "side one", most around two to three minutes in length and having a somewhat "unfinished" feel to them. The semi-instrumental chart hit Sound And Vision with its "blue, blue electric blue" catchline, was the most accessible, along with the slightly poppy Be My Wife. I clearly remember the reaction at the time of a lot of fans was "what the...." and there were lots of moans about "wasted money" etc. Indeed, RCA executives wrote Bowie a letter upon hearing the album, requesting another Young Americans-style album. Bowie is said to have framed the letter and hung it on his wall.
Bowie had visited Berlin in 1976, trying to get off the drugs (possibly unsuccessfully as his companion was Iggy Pop). He also was worried about his sanity due to his unpredictable, odd behaviour during 1975-76. It definitely provided a boost. Bowie's influence from krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk grew even stronger as well as he met various German musicians while there. He had this to say about the city -
"....For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway...."
The picture above shows the apartment in which Bowie stayed in Berlin's Schöneberg district in 1976-77.
As for the music, it was certainly a challenging, esoteric mixture, and it struggled to convince many fans.
1. Speed Of Life
2. Breaking Glass
3. What In The World
4. Sound And Vision
5. Always Crashing In The Same Car
6. Be My Wife
7. A New Career In A New Town
9. Art Decade
10. Weeping Wall
However, despite the contemporary befuddlement, the material on the old "side one" are all excellent songs. They are just short. That said, it sort of suits them. They all have excellent hooks and inventive, often addictive instrumentation. Lots of fuzzy guitar, powerful drums and deceptively strong Bowie vocals abound. All of them are mightily appealing.
The opener, the instrumental Speed Of Life has a huge vitality to it and just feels enormously positive from the off. It has a big rumbling bass sound (particularly on the excellent 2016 remaster) and some most inventive, descending synthesiser runs. While "Heroes" was said to be very dark (and indeed it was in many places), I have always found the old "side one" of Low to be lively, open and vibrant, as befitting its bright orange cover (as opposed to "Heroes"' monochrome one). Incidentally, it "fades in" at the beginning, making it feel as if you have arrived late.
Breaking Glass is accompanied by huge, thumping drums and some solid guitar interspersed with some high-pitched synthesiser breaks of the kind Gary Numan would utilise a lot a couple of years later. Although short it is a good track. I have to say it ends all too soon, though, it is the one that really seems just like a fragment of a song, somewhat unfinished.
What In The World was an attractive, lively art-rocky love song from Bowie to a "little girl with grey eyes". As on all these tracks, the bass, drums and lead guitar are outstanding. The "for your love" refrain could be a reference from Bowie to his sixties favourites, The Yardbirds. Once again, this sounds superb in its latest 2016 remaster.
Sound And Vision was the album's hit single had some absolutely killer synthesiser hooks and almost invented "synth pop". It was a semi-instrumental with just a few lyrics - the "blue, blue electric blue" refrain that really caught on and had people singing along with it. From its opening rat-a-tat drum beat through its addictive bass to its swirling, rising synthesisers, this is a pleasure from beginning to end. "Don't you wonder sometimes - 'bout sound and vision...", sung smokily and sonorously by Bowie was a great line. I have to reiterate about the bass - George Murray's contribution is superb.
An interesting bit of trivia is that the "doo doo doo" backing vocals wer sung by sixties folk singer Mary "Those Were The Days" Hopkin, wife of the album's producer Tony Visconti.
Always Crashing In The Same Car is one of the slightly longer of the short tracks and is enhanced by some excellent lead guitar lines from Ricky Gardiner and a lyric inspired by Bowie actually crashing his own car. It features more great bass from George Murray and drums from fellow Station To Station bandmate Dennis Davis.
The reference to a girl called "Jesamine" could have been inspired by the late sixties hit of the same name by The Casuals.
Be My Wife features some more impressive guitar and some clunky, bar-room piano back this enjoyable track. There is great bass and drum interplay beneath Bowie's vocal on the first "be my wife" chorus. "I've lived all over the world, I've lived in every place..." sings Bowie, always an inveterate traveller. The bass line the guitar interjections on this really make it. It is a bit of an overlooked gem from the period.
A New Career In A New Town is a lively instrumental to end this side, nothing like the sombre, atmospheric material that we would be presented with on the other side, driven along by some catchy synthesiser, thumping regular drums, crashing percussion and some distant harmonica.
The instrumental side is a masterpiece of ambient, sombre instrumentation, full of synthesiser sounds, weird noises, bleak keyboards and an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. This is where the album turned from orange to dark. This is what perplexed fans at the time. In the ensuing years, of course, it has been hailed as work of genius. I'm not sure about that. I think Bowie and Eno just struck on something that they felt was right at the time and perversely stuck with it. Musically, it is not actually that adventurous, but the tracks all flow into each other with one heck of an evocative atmosphere. In that way, it is actually extremely adventurous, however. It is all about the overall effect. The effect of this album is certainly one that sticks with you. It begs repeated listens.
Warszawa is full of deep, sonorous, almost funereal synthesiser lines and is punctuated by occasional incomprehensible lyrics. What language are they in? Who knows. They sound like Gregorian chant or even something made up like Esperanto. "Warszawa" is, of course, the proper Polish spelling of Warsaw. It therefore suits the whole Eastern European vibe of the album. I remember catching a Berlin-Warsaw train one dark November afternoon and feeling I was being really "Bowie".
Art Decade was lighter in feel and melody, only just though. Some vaguely "flushing toilet" sounds accompany the gloomy synthesiser passages. It is very much influenced by krautrock band Neu!, for me, and no doubt for many others too. Was the title a pun on "art decayed"?
Weeping Wall was referring possibly/probably to the Berlin Wall, this track had a fetching xylophone backing, merged with some buzzy electric guitar. It is a slightly brighter track again, but the overall ambience is still one of dull oppression. Some more monk-like chanted vocals appear half way through. It is often wondered how this sort of stuff went down in 1977. I can assure you that it initially went down badly, very badly. As post punk appeared in late 1977 through to the end of the decade, the album gained more kudos by the week, however.
To fit in with its title, Subterraneans reverts to a brooding, overpoweringly dark synthesiser sound. According to Bowie, it was about those who got caught in East Berlin after the forced separation. I can get that, it is a very doom-laden piece, bringing to mind little but despair. Bowie's deep saxophone suits its ambience perfectly. I have never quite known what the few vocals meant or in what language they were sung/chanted.
There were a couple of tracks that possibly dated from the Low sessions and failed to make the final cut:-
Some Are found Bowie's music completely changing. This was an out-take from the Low sessions and is thought to date back as early as 1975 for some. Bowie himself disputed this, claiming it came from a bit later. Anyway, it was part of his collaboration with Brian Eno and is a sonorous keyboard piece with occasional mysterious, haunting vocals about "sleigh bells in snow". It included some wolf noises in the background and is full of atmosphere. It would have been fine on Low's second side.
All Saints has been included on CD as part of the unreleased material from the Low sessions. However, Tony Visconti had no memory of working on the track and is adamant that the tape loop deep synthesiser sounds of the beguiling instrumental were not the sort of thing they used either on Low or "Heroes". He believes it dates from the eighties, therefore. Either way, it is an intriguing and interesting piece. It certainly fits the vibe of those two albums. For that reason, I will probably always feel that is where it dates from, even though I know I am probably wrong.
Sound And Vision is a remix of the hit single from Low and it is notable for its "new" drum sound - a big, warm, pounding affair that adds more rhythm to the track. The saxophone near the end is considerably enhanced and there are less synthesiser breaks. I like it although I prefer the original. I enjoy quite a few re-mixes but invariably they never take the place of the originals.
Below is a clip of Bowie performing Be My Wife:-
Now, regarding the album's sound. In 2018, opinions are still divided, but it is about the quality of the latest Tony Visconti remastering. Many find it "compressed", "too loud", "too bassy" and so on. Personally, I disagree in the strongest possible terms. This is the big, loud, bassy reproduction of Low that I have waited forty years to hear. In my view, and it is only my view, the EMI/RYKO remaster was tinny and muffled and far too low in both volume and clarity and while I like many of the 1999 remasters, I found it didn't quite work so well on Low - again being a bit too trebly for my taste.
I like my music big and bass heavy. I like my walls to shake and this is what this remastering will do. At last. Speed Of Life, many people's bete noire on this remastering is for me, a triumph. Just listen to the big, throbbing bass on it. Thank you Tony Visconti, you would seem to share my taste and I'll take that. If I am out of kilter with several thousand "audiophiles" I'll take that too. Good.