40 Years Ago: David Bowie Kicks Off a Fertile Era in Berlin With the Darkly Alluring ‘Low’
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David Bowie‘s Berlin Trilogy began with a burst of ambient alienation, as Low produced a sharp turn away from his rapid descent into drug-fueled haze – and a sound like none other in his hit-filled career thus far.
He’d left the coke-addled din of mid-’70s Los Angeles looking for rebirth, and he found it – oddly enough – in a walled city. “For many years, Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation,” Bowie once told Uncut in 2001. “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.”
For a while, Bowie had simply disappeared into Schoneberg, a neighborhood largely populated by immigrants where he could be found composing in an anonymous apartment above an auto-parts store – or else furtively eating at a local working-class cafe. (The album cover art itself serves as a visual pun on “low profile.”) Joined by Iggy Pop – Bowie would produce both of Pop’s 1977 solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life – Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, Bowie absorbed every element of the thrillingly alien German culture, including the work of electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and kraut-rockers Neu. The former Thin White Duke also got himself cleaned up.
In that context, it’s perhaps no surprise that when Low arrived on Jan. 14, 1977, this dark yet seductively gorgeous song cycle couldn’t have sounded less like “Fame” and “Golden Years” – a pair of mainstream Top 10 hits from 1975. There were hints at this looming shift in 1976’s Station to Station, and certainly throughout his discarded soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, but something larger had clearly crystallized for Bowie.
Low, as he told NYRock in 1997, “was a relatively straight album. It didn’t come from a drug place. And I realized at the time that it was important music. It was one of the better things I’d ever written – Low, specifically. That was the start, probably for me, of a new way of looking at life.”
Listen to David Bowie Perform ‘Warszawa’
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Free of constraints, or even expectation, Bowie led the group through deeply experimental sessions that found Eno creating other-worldly effects with an EMS Synthi A keyboard, while Ricky Gardiner – really, this project’s unsung hero – unleashed these brittle little outbursts of jittery guitar and Visconti ran the drums through an Eventide Harmonizer. As Low unfolded, Bowie moved from sharply conceived avant-pop songs like the endlessly riffy “Sound and Vision” to more open-ended, instrumental explorations highlighted by “Warszawa.”
“It wasn’t a difficult album to make; we were freewheeling – making our own rules. But David was going through a difficult period, professionally and personally. To his credit, he didn’t put on a brave face. His music said that he was ‘low,'” Visconti later told Uncut. “Despite a few really bad days, we had quite a lot of fun making Low – especially when all the radical ideas were making sense and things were starting to click. I remember after a couple of weeks of recording, I made a rough mix of the entire album so far and handed a cassette of it to David. He left the control room waving the cassette over his head and grinned ecstatically saying, ‘We’ve got an album; we’ve got an album.'”
In shifting from revelry to reverie (and presupposing millennial dread long before the concept came into vogue), Bowie finally found career clarity. Low, and its follow-ups in 1977’s “Heroes” and 1979’s Lodger, didn’t match the sales figures RCA was hoping for from such a big star, but Bowie had discovered a path – by taking himself out of context – into his next musical phase.
He brought others along. Bowie’s emotionally vacant vocals, for instance, laid the groundwork for Gary Numan and Joy Division, among others. Elsewhere, Gardiner’s work on tracks like “Always Crashing In the Same Car” opened the door for a host of New Wave guitar nerds. Without this album’s empty-echo drum sound, it’s hard to imagine the existence of Depeche Mode at all.
Even years later, Bowie remained intensely proud of this era – even as Low continued to gather critical acclaim.
“For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds,” Bowie told Uncut. “In some ways, sadly, they really captured – unlike anything else in that time – a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done. Nothing else sounded like those albums; nothing else came close. If I never made another album, it really wouldn’t matter now. My complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”
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