On this day 45 years ago, David Bowie’s Low album was released. Recorded in France and West Germany in the fall of 1976, the album would form the first portion of what became known as Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

The album cover of “Low”, featuring a still from the movie “The Man who Fell to Earth”

The album marked a new sound for Bowie. Incorporating elements of electronic music (a la Kraftwerk) and ambient stylings courtesy of collaborator Brian Eno. Long-time producer Tony Visconti was also back on board for the project, using the Eventide H910 Harmonizer to create the distinctive drum sound heard on the record.

The catalyst for Low was Bowie’s return to Europe after years of living in LA and developing a crippling cocaine addiction. He lived with Iggy Pop to sober up, and the songs took on a fragmented, dissonant style. The lyrical songs (which primarily make up side 1 of the LP) explored Bowie’s state of mind at the time. Songs such as “Always Crashing in the Same Car” looked at the concept of continually making the same mistakes over and over (apparently, the song was inspired by a time where Bowie saw his drug dealer driving and continually smashed into the dealer’s car with his own) and “Sound and Vision” is a great example of lyrical dissonanc; an upbeat, cheery sounding song about crippling depression and never leaving your room again.

The second side of Low consists of mostly instrumental numbers, though “Warszawa” (a collobration with Eno) and “Subterraneans” feature oblique and mysterious lyrics towards the end of the pieces. These pieces are evocative of the dark and gloomy feelings present in Berlin during the Cold War.

Upon completion, RCA Records (proving to be trash even back then), refused to release the album for three months. They felt it would be a commercial failure, and insisted Bowie record another album in the style of Young Americans (which had been his most successful album to date). Eventually RCA conceded and released the album. While Low divided critical opinion at the time, it did well on the charts, peaking at #2 in the UK and #11 in the US. “Sound and Vision”, despite the vocals not appearing until midway through the song, was a #3 hit in the UK when released as a single. The success of Low prompted RCA to release Iggy Pop’s The Idiot in March of 1977 (which Bowie produced and co-wrote most of the songs on. “China Girl” originally appeared here).

In the decades since it’s release, Low has come to be regarded as one of Bowie’s best and most influential albums, as well as one of the greatest albums of all time. The album influenced the likes of Joy Division (who originally named themselves “Warsaw” after “Waszawa”) and a number of post-punk and post-rock bands. Even Phillip Glass, the great American composer, produced a classical suite based on the album in 1992.

Disccusion

  1. What is your favorite vocal song on Low? What is your favorite instrumental song on Low?
  2. How would you rate Low in the Berlin Trilogy? How would you rate Low in Bowie’s discography as a whole?
  3. What other musicians or songs/albums take influence from Low?

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