Counterbalance No. 89: David Bowie’s ‘Low’

David Bowie

Klinger: We all have blind spots in our musical education. No matter how we try, we’re just not going to be able to listen in on every genre and subgenre that’s made its way into the rich tapestry of pop music. I’ll confess to a few (all in good time), but one of my main blind spots has always been the experimental, ambient, two-more-steps-from-the-blues form known as Krautrock. Because of this, I suspect that there have always been certain nuances associated with David Bowie’s LP Low that have sailed past my head. Low has always sounded a little baffling to me, like it wasn’t quite ready to be released. So many songs are either instrumentals that sound like they’re waiting for lyrics (“Speed of Life”) or solid pop songs that Bowie seems to give up on just as they’re getting going (“Breaking Glass”). Then there are all those tone poems on side two that drift from one into the next.

So at any rate, I’ve dug into a little bit of Bowie’s Teutonic influences in preparation for this Counterbalance. And after hearing a bit of Neu! and a few other groups, I think I have more of a handle on Low. Still, I can only imagine what average Bowie fans must have felt when they cracked the shrink wrap on this back in 1977. You’ve presented yourself as more of a Bowie acolyte than I am, Mendelsohn (although you have been stripped of your superfan status), so I’m interested in hearing your take.

Mendelsohn: I’m glad my Bowie superfan status has already been revoked—I won’t feel so bad about the things that are to follow. When I got to this point in the Bowie catalog, he kind of lost me. There are select tracks from the Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) that I enjoy immensely, but I was never able to take them as a whole and really appreciate them as stand alone records mostly for the reasons you cited above. Also, not a huge fan of Krautrock and I can’t really articulate why. It seems so humorless.

Obviously, Low represents yet another shift along the musical path that was Bowie’s career and whenever the man makes this type of move, the critics sit up and take notice, but I always wondered, “Why?” Was it because he made Krautrock seem sort of likable? Was it the foray into the ambient soundscapes? What was it?

Klinger: OK, first of all I can assure you, if there’s one thing the Germans are known for, it’s their zany sense of humor. But maybe we shouldn’t get too hung up on this whole Krautrock notion anyway, although Bowie did draw from influences such as Neu! and Kraftwerk (who pop up on the Great List in just a few weeks—and who reference Bowie and Iggy Pop by name in “Trans-Europe Express”). Of course, even if he were trying to make an even further leap away from the rootsier elements of rock, he still hadn’t shaken off the vestiges of his most recent incarnation—the super-swanky soul crooner of 1975 and ’76. You certainly hear that in a song like “Sound and Vision”, in which guitarist Carlos Alomar skates a slick little guitar figure over a nice little R&B groove from bassist Dennis Davis and drummer George Murray.

But to answer your question, I think that Low‘s critical cachet lies in part in Bowie’s willingness to part company with the mainstream just as he was becoming ensconced. To release an album that features an entire side of moody soundscapes was certainly bound to get the critics’ attention, and it’s easy to see why they’d applaud such a move. Of course, it’s also easy to see why RCA didn’t even want to release it.

Mendelsohn: I’d be happier thinking that it was Bowie’s willingness to buck the trend and dig up something new on the a-side that propelled this album onto the list because the ambient noodling on the b-side sounds like the soundtrack to a bad science fiction movie—a very, very, very, very bad one—the kind that only 12-year-old boys will bother watching because toward the end they get to see some alien boobs. The thing is, I should love this album because I love both David Bowie and weirdo electronic music, but the only track on side two that I really, truly love is “Subterraneans”. That song sounds like it could have come off the Blade Runner soundtrack, which is a great science fiction movie and also contains android boobs.

I just have to keep reminding myself that at the time, this album was really cutting edge, so very cutting edge, blade of the knife sharp . . .

Klinger: . . . You OK there, buddy? You seemed to kind of trail off there. I can only assume that it’s because all those side two pieces have sent you into some kind of torpor. (I hope it’s not because you lacerated yourself on the album’s cutting edge.) Personally, I find them to be highly evocative and ambient. They make regular activities (driving to work, cranking out another Counterbalance) into sweeping, poignant moments that are almost cinematic, making me feel like I’m in an early Wim Wenders film. Which I like.

A lot of the credit for all these atmospherics goes to Brian Eno, whose collaboration with Bowie obviously informs the proceedings and extends beyond co-writing “Warszawa”. It’s also tempting to hear Low as Bowie’s break-up album, not only in the longing sound of the instrumentals but even on the tracks where he gets in front of the mic. As I understand it, Bowie and his wife Angela had been living essentially separate lives since about 1974, and her occasional visits to the recording sessions in France were fraught with tension. Hence, “Breaking Glass” is allegedly about Bowie smashing drinkware in her room, while “Be My Wife” isn’t an engagement proposition—it’s a plea to Angela to start acting the part of a spouse. I know break-up albums aren’t necessarily your favorite, Mendelsohn, so maybe that’s your issue with Low?

Mendelsohn: I hadn’t thought about it that way, it has been such a long time since we’ve dealt with a break-up album that I almost forgot what that vibe felt like. Now that you’ve said it out loud, Low certainly does have that whiny, desperate sound creeping out of the corners. Very moody, sort of clingy, doesn’t want to be left alone but isn’t a whole lot of fun to be around. That sort of sums up the way I feel about this album.

And again, I’m confused as to why. Because you essentially have Eno, the godfather of ambient electronic music, working with arguably the best rock ‘n’ roll front man/songwriter of the time in Bowie. Toss in production work by the under-appreciated but indispensable Tony Visconti and you have the trifecta of musicians that pretty much shaped the face of music for the last four decades all playing on one album. It should be mind-blowing! And yet, my mind remains unblown. Despite my issues with this record, do you think it holds up? With this album still be in the Top 100 for the foreseeable future? Or might it have slipped in on the coat tails of Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory?

Klinger: Well, that seems to be a big difference between us, Mendelsohn. I think hearing Bowie’s vulnerability in Low humanizes the album, while apparently that makes the whole thing even creepier for you. Hmm.

But to answer your question, we’re hovering around the lower end the top 100, and anything can happen, especially if ’90s nostalgia fully takes hold and people finally recognize the brilliance of the Spin Doctors. And yes, I think on balance Low definitely holds up. I think it was a very canny move on Bowie’s part to break the album up the way he did. The instrumental side serves a very different purpose, and setting those songs apart allows the listener to use them as needed. That’s something that has gotten lost in the post-vinyl era, where we think of albums (when we think of them at all anymore) as beginning-to-end pieces.

If anything I’m more surprised that Low hasn’t managed to beat out Hunky Dory in terms of critical acclaim. After all, as I listen to Low, I hear a lot of sounds that ended up being synonymous with the 1980s. Now I know you can’t lay all of that at Bowie’s feet, since there were other artists toiling in these same fields, but Bowie was clearly the name brand here. By the ’80s, they figured out how to take the massive range of instruments he incorporated here and synthesize them, literally and figuratively. Low established David Bowie as a primary architect for the decade to come. A decade he largely sat out, but still.