Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Bowie's Low Thirty Years On

Thirty years ago if you would have walked into any record store you might have seen a certain album called LOW gathering dust on the new release racks. You might have been struck by the striking cover photo and taken an open copy into a listening booth. Dropping the needle on random spots you would have heard something remarkably different and daring; from the deliberately chopping short splintered songs on the first side to the long instrumentals on side two. It would have been unlike anything else you had ever heard and thirty years after its release LOW remains a unique and audacious creation.
David Bowie released LOW just after his birthday in January of 1977. Initial reactions to the album were lukewarm to say the least. Critics were pretty condemning and fans were perplexed. After initial solid sales it quickly fell off the charts and became one of Bowie's poorest selling albums.
It soon became apparent that LOW was something remarkable and within just a few years its effects began to be felt in a wide variety of artistic fields. Bands like Joy Division among a slew of others would take it's chilly sound to more extreme levels. Pretty much the entire post punk movement was built on LOW.
The creation of LOW remains a misunderstood one. Often credited as being recorded completely in Berlin with Brian Eno in the producer's chair, LOW was actually recorded in France with Tony Visconti producing. Visconti remains one of the seventies most unheralded visionaries and he is deserving of major credit for LOW'S revolutionary sound. More mysterious is the album's connection to Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.
Much of LOW'S side two was originally written for THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH's soundtrack but Roeg had never intended to use Bowie as composer. What exactly was recorded for the soundtrack and just how it sounded is debatable. A mysterious bootleg appeared in the seventies called THE VISITOR which purportedly claimed to be the original recordings but it is now said to be locked in the private vault of a certain Thomas Jerome Newton.
While Brian Eno did not produce LOW his contributions are immeasurable. He shared Bowie's love for the music of bands ranging from NEU!, CAN, POPOL VUH and KRAFTWERK and LOW helped turn an entire generation on to these remarkable German groups.
It remains an album that has spiritually affected many people, including myself and as Brian Eno said an album, 'that many people built an entire career from'.

The thing that we know of as 'the album' is slipping away from us, it is becoming something unrecognizable. LOW is a perfect reminder of just how powerful two sides and less than forty minutes of music can be. I have many albums I love but LOW is the one I would reach for to put on the turntable if I knew the world was coming to an end. Our downloaded culture needs reminding of its spiritually charged grooves more than ever and throughout this year I will be paying tribute to it.


cinebeats said...

Great tribute to a great album! Low is one of my favorite Bowie records too, even though I didn't pick it up until I was a teenager in the early 80s, it made a huge impact on me.

It's funny, but I bought the record after seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth at a midnight movie assuming it was the soundtrack because of the cover.

All of your (and Tim Lucas) recent music posts have reminded me that I should chat about music in my own blog more.

Tim Lucas said...

The day LOW hit the stores, I took the bus downtown and went to my favorite record store. The guy behind the counter, my friend Joel, called out "The new Bowie's great!" as I came through the door. I took it home and played it to death. In retrospect, there are other Bowie albums I like better, but none was more original and audacious. There's a very good book on the album in the 33 1/3 paperback series from Continuum Books. It wasn't until I read this book that I realized what a small minority I was part of, in pouncing on that record and perceiving it right away as important and excellent.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for both your comments.
I love hearing both your first hand stories about when you got the album. I remember clearly the first time I heard it. My first copy was bought at an Evansville Indiana record store in the 80's when I was 17 or so and I'll never forget the first time SPEED OF LIFE started and I was totally transfixed right through to the last moments of SUBTERRANEANS.

I have read that book you mentioned. I think that's one of the best of that series but I haven't read all of them.

One thing that always blows me away is that he released HEROES in October of 77, just about nine months after LOW. It's hard to comprehend most artists releasing two albums this good in a lifetime and he did it in less than a year.

Anyway, thanks again for your comments.

Jeni Q said...

The Visitor is the album that Thomas Jerome Newton recorded in the film, in case any of you missed that reference. :)
Wouldn't you love to have a copy of that?

David was surprised when he realized that Roeg had no intention of him doing the soundtrack, and thus Low was born.

For me, "Be My Wife" is the most poignant TMWFTE influenced track on the album, but they are all clearly tied to the movie.

Love it!

Jeremy Richey said...

Yea, that was me making a slight joke concerning the title The Visitor album title. There was actually a bootleg released in the late seventies under that title proporting to be Bowie's original tracks but I haven't heard it.
I also love in MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH when Rip Torn is in the record store buying The Visitor and you can clearly see copies of Bowie's YOUNG AMERICANS album. Great sly moment by Roeg.
Thanks for your comments....BE MY WIFE is probably my favorite on the album but it's hard to choose just one.