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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Low

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Behold, Low. Perhaps Bowie's most influential album, at least music-wise, and certainly one of the most revered pop albums of all time. Today it is part of pop's DNA, ingrained so deep that it is hard to appreciate how alien and futuristic it sounded back in the beginning of 1977 (much less so by the end of that seminal year – its effect was immediate). But what we can do is go back to see how it was created and analyze what it is trying to say.

The origins of Low are in 1975, the year that became known as Bowie's "lost year". It was the year that Bowie spent syphoned in his Los Angeles apartment, hardly eating, constantly high on drugs, living in a nightmarish world of dark powers and black magic, and giving interviews in which he prophesized that fascism is about to take over the West. He was fed up with rock'n'roll, seeing it as a cultural force that has become completely degenerated, and he felt that the soul-rock fusion he attempted in Young Americans was a failure that produced a fake "plastic soul". He felt that all the spirit was drained out from his soul and from Western culture at large, and in a couple of interviews he went as far as to muse that maybe we can benefit from a fascist period that will give us the jolt needed to bring the Western spirit back to life. Musically, he was at a dead end.

What could he do now, then? One idea was to go into cinema, and fate had it that he was approached by film director Nicholas Roeg to play an alien in his new movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie agreed to play the part and create the soundtrack, and he brought all his feeling of alienation into the roll, resulting in a very convincing alien. For the soundtrack, he wanted to create music that was equally alien to anything heard on Earth, and imagined slow electronic instrumentals with weird sound effects and unintelligible singing. Alas, he couldn't quite produce the music he heard in his head, and Roeg eventually decided he couldn't wait any longer and hired John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas fame) to do the soundtrack instead. It wasn't a waste of time, though.  Working on the soundtrack gave Bowie a new musical direction, a new sensibility he wanted to express. All he needed was someone to show him the way to turn what he envisioned in his mind into actual music.

The first help came from Europe, mainly from the motorik sounds created by German bands Neu! and Kraftwerk. These musicians used synthesizers in a different way from English progressive rock bands, which tended to use them to imitate other instruments and according to rock's musical logic. The Germans used the synthesizers to create a new musical logic which ignored the chord sequences of blues, jazz and rock (the chord sequences that by now were perceived as representing the human soul), and sounded like it was coming straight out of the mind of the machine world. It drew from European avant-garde but was still distinctly pop music, and Bowie saw it as a whole new beginning. By the end of 75 he was already back in the studio recording his next album Station to Station, an album that set the stage for what was to follow. On the cover we see a still photo from The Man Who Fell to Earth, the moment that the alien (who took on the Earth name Thomas Jerome Newton) steps into his soundproof spacecraft that is supposed to take him back to his homeland. So symbolically, we are seeing Bowie still being part of the world, but wishing to shut it out and ultimately escape it. The music is still the funk-soul-rock fusion he created in the previous album, but with a touch of European sophistication and cool. The lyrics express a crisis in his lifestyle of constant ch-ch-ch-changes, and a wish to have another human to hold on to and find some stability.

The character that emerged from the album, and went on a world tour, became known as the Thin White Duke. Dressed in 1930s European style, radiating aristocratic sophistication, he was very different from the Bowie of old who sought to engage with his fans. Cool to verge of antipathy, the Thin White Duke expressed Bowie's wish to stand apart from society, to be in his own world. The shows where no longer an attempt to bring the audience into his theater, but were stripped down of all scenery and used blinding white light and booming sound to create alienation. As always, there was also an attempt to present a mirror-image to society, to indicate that this psychopathic image on the stage is the state of contemporary society, but the message went horribly wrong. When Bowie reached Europe in the beginning of 1976, the media blamed him that he was promoting fascism. His 1930s style (aimed to indicate that we are in Weimar Germany, about to be taken over by the Nazis) was seen as hailing the Nazis, his quotes about fascism were taken out of context and magnified, and his powerful performance was seen as a display of fascist aesthetics. So rather than solving his alienation problem, the Thin White Duke only made Bowie more out there, and left him with the wish to disconnect even further. When the tour was over he made Switzerland his new residence, hoping to find haven not just from taxes but also from the media hounds. He started to record his new album in a studio in France, but then he discovered Berlin, a city where he could both disappear and find the European spirit he was looking for. By the end of 76 he relocated to Berlin, and the album was completed there.

So Bowie found the place where he could hide from the world and rejuvenate, but he still needed a sound that would fully express the alienation he felt. Once again, then, he was looking for an alien, and this time the alien that came out of the Sun Machine was Brian Eno. A founding member of glam/prog band Roxy Music, Eno was a weird, androgynous and intellectual musician who used synthesizers to create sounds that were out of this world, and after he left the band in 1973 he started a solo career that threw both glam and progressive rock into a loop. Stripping the grandiose prog sound to its bare essence he looked for ways to subvert the logic of rock and come up with a new logic, and to that end he used what he called "oblique strategies": a set of instructions on how to proceed with the musical piece that were selected in a random fashion (such as picking a card with the instructions on it) and thus taking the musicians out of their comfort zone. He stood apart from everything that was going on, and the media wrote about him as if he was an alien from another world. His first two albums still sounded like glam, albeit weirder, but his third album presented something new. Another Green World, which came out in 1975, brought his style to perfection with a new musical texture full of peculiar and intriguing sounds. The first side of the album throws us into what sounds like a weird alien forest, and we run around trying to absorb its wonders. The closing track of side A is the title track which slows down the pace, preparing us for side B where the atmosphere is more serene and pastoral. It feels as though we have now become part of nature, part of this alien world. This is exactly what Bowie was looking for, and it seems it was this album structure that provided the blueprint for Low. Eno was brought onboard to work his magic, and the collaboration between the two produced something that was very different from anything any of them did before.

It wasn't just Bowie and Eno, though. Side A of Low is constructed around the rhythm section of Davis-Murray-Alomar, the three funksters responsible for the heavy funk of Station to Station and the tour that followed. On top of that we are introduced to the talents of Ricky Gardiner, a guitarist who specialized in producing original futuristic sound from the electric guitar, and wrapping it all up is the masterful production of Tony Visconti. Visconti, Eno and Bowie experimented in new ways to produce sound, bringing the rhythm section into the space age and blending it with the guitars and synths to create the new urban soundscape that many new wave bands would henceforth adopt. But in that sense, side A is only the preface to side B, where the rhythm section is dropped and the synthesizers are left to roam freely in this new world that was opened for them. The music created on this side is still unmatched.

After Another Green World, Eno started to develop what he called "ambient music". Until then, he claimed, pop music always operated in the foreground, demanding the attention of the listener. The background was left for what was called muzak, music that is intentionally bland and simple designed to sooth the listener's subconscious. Eno wanted to do different things to the subconscious, to use electronic devices to make background noise that would not be familiar to the ear and would work on our mind in unnoticed ways. He spoke in terms of "colors of sound", with the synthesizers providing a palette of many colors to choose from. Ambient music is not expressionistic, but it isn't bland either - it is designed to be part of the decoration, part of the ambience of the place, and create the effect the place wants to create. It can be said that its beginning is in side B of Another Green World, where it creates the ambience of that other world we are taken to. Low is very much the same, but here the other world is not an enchanted forest but an enchanted city. Just like on Eno's album, side A of Low ends with a transitional number that takes us to another world, except this other world is the decaying urban landscape of Eastern Europe. And the ambience of this place isn't serene and pastoral, but dark, desolate and soulful. The spirit of Eno permeates this side, but Bowie and Visconti are equally involved, and the result is music that isn't exactly ambient and sounds like nothing else either. Bowie finally managed to make the music he wanted to make for the movie, and take us to an alien world.

There is no identity attached to this album. For the first time in his career, the album cover does not present a new image of Bowie, but we are once again seeing the alien Thomas Jerome Newton like in the previous album. It's as though we are taken even further down the path we began in Station to Station, going deeper into Newton's world. It is not a transformation, but a continuation. Bowie is shown in profile, and the word "Low" printed above it creates the visual pun "low profile". This is what the album is about: keeping a low profile, disappearing from the world's attention, drawing into the inner world. Therefore, no new dazzling image is presented.

The working concept which Bowie started out with is that the album is divided into two parts: side A is "day music" and side B is "night music". This is the concept by which most critics regarded this album, and this was how I saw it when I commenced with my analysis. But as I analyzed, another pattern began to emerge, and I realized that there's a progression from track to track. It starts with 'Speed of Life', a frenzied instrumental which reflects his sense of his LA life spiraling out of control, as well as presenting the musical building blocks which the album will work with. Then comes 'Breaking Glass' which continues in a similar musical vein, with lyrics that show his soul being shattered as the result of his engaging with the outside world and confess that he has made a mess of his life. 'What in the World' carries on the musical chaos and confusion, and shows Bowie attempting to break out of his inner world and create a new identity, but failing and recoiling back inside. This leads strait to 'Sound and Vision', in which Bowie accepts this solitude and embraces it, saying that he will remain alienated from the outside world until a new insight shows him the way to return to it. The pace is slowed down, and the mood becomes reflective. It is even more slow and reflective in the next track, 'Always Crashing in the Same Car', in which Bowie takes a look at his fast lifestyle of constant changes and sees it as nothing but a series of disasters. 'Be My Wife' speeds the tempo again and takes us back to the turmoil of the first three tracks, but here he is less confused, as he has an answer: he needs a wife, someone he can share his life with. It is a sentiment we've already heard in the previous album but not in such an explicit way, but there is one problem: as the other tracks show, he cannot form any meaningful relationship with a woman, not until he sorts out the chaos in his own soul. He cannot really find words to express himself either, sounding throughout side A as if his poetic muse had abandoned him and left him stumped, and so he gives up: from here to the end of the album, he will not say one intelligible word. The next track, 'A New Career in a New Town', is an instrumental which slows the pace down once again and prepares us for what's on the other side. But it does more than that. It introduces a lighter mood which takes us away from the bile and pain we just experienced to a new place where things will be different, a new town where only the music speaks.

Side B begins with 'Warszawa', taking us beyond the iron curtain into Eastern Europe. It also introduces the slow tempo which will dominate this entire side, creating a haunting atmosphere. It is the song of the city itself, seeping out of the cracks in the walls and the sidewalks, carried in the factory smog, crawling through the gutters, reflected in the sad eyes of its silent residents. The depressing mood continues as we are being taken to that ghetto inside Eastern Europe: West Berlin, the Western city encircled by a wall and surrounded with the communist enemy, the perfect metaphor for his wish to build a wall around himself. 'Art Decade' manifests the decaying of this once great and thriving place, which now sounds like it can barely go on living. 'Weeping Wall' takes us straight to the source of the pain, the wall that cuts the city's heart like a knife, and 'Subterraneans' expresses the silent cry that Bowie hears from the other side of the wall. That is the atmosphere that is most pervasive in this place that Bowie has taken us to: desolation, misery, futility and despair. But there's more.

In 'Sound and Vision' Bowie tells us that "I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision", adopting a passive stance. But then he adds: "and I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision". This passivity makes him reconnect with his soul, start a healing process and find a new vision and a new song. He does not have words for the song yet, but he expresses himself by humming and by playing his sax and the result is quite giddy. This ray of sunshine continues in 'A New Career in a New Town', a breezy number in which he plays another brass instrument – the harmonica – once again sounding very soulful against the synthesized background. In 'Warszawa' we are reintroduced to the humming, but here it is magnified and sounds like the chanting of Gregorian monks. It also sounds more like human language, although not quite. And when we get to the West Berlin ghetto, it does what every ghetto does: brings the soul back to life. As sound and vision blend in Bowie's inner world he dreams colorful musical dreams which he conveys through the ambientic "color of sound", and within these dreams he finds a new humanity. 'Art Decade' is devoid of vocals, but beneath the trudging main melody we hear the lively swarming of many noises, those enchanting electronic sounds that Eno was so good at. It's a new artistic language, a language that belongs to the future. 'Weeping Wall' sounds like Bowie putting his ear to the Berlin Wall and hearing a combination of those electronic sounds with a human voice, a combination that sounds very emotional. And with his ear against the wall he also hears the call from the other side, the "Subterranean" dreams of freedom of the oppressed East Berliners. The chanting returns and this time it sounds almost like actual words, and the saxophone blows once again, bringing the humanity back. This combination of soul, dreams and avant-garde art works its way against the depressive atmosphere, turning the mood from sad passivity into careful optimism.

So there are two threads of progression which go through the album: one is Bowie turning his back on the world, running away from the speed of life in America and from his failed relationships and hiding inside the walls of Berlin; and the other is Bowie's spirit being gradually revived, expressing itself in ways that are beyond words, but slowly finding its way back. By the end of the album, it sounds like Bowie is on the cusp of finding his poetic muse again.

Which compels us to take another look at the album cover. Yes, it is Thomas Jerome Newton again, the same figure we saw on the cover of the previous album. But while there it was Newton entering his spacecraft to get away from the human world, here we see him at the moment of landing on Earth, the moment when he is about to explore this vast land and meet its people. Low is not only an album of detachment from the world. It is also an album of wishing to find your way back.

In Bowie's early seventies albums, he was the individual attempting to live a heroic lifestyle. Young Americans marked a change: he was still looking for a heroic way of life, but believed heroism should be collective, relying on "we" and not "I". Station to Station marked a crisis, casting doubt on whether "we" can actually come together and thus doubting whether heroic life is possible. Low increases those doubts, showing Bowie cowering away from the "we". But he does not go back to individualism. His solitude is not described as heroic or as something to be desired, but as a phase he must go through before he can reconnect with other people. In side B we are sensing a healing process, and 'Subterraneans' leaves us with the feeling that he has reached the point where he is ready to reconnect with the people on the other side of the wall. So he still believes in the "we", still believes in humanity. But the question he still needs to answer is: can "we" be heroes?

Speed of Life
Breaking Glass
What is the World
Sound and Vision
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Be My Wife
A New Career in a New Town
Warszawa
Art Decade
Weeping Wall
Subterraneans

When Low came out in January 1977, the initial reviews were not very favorable to this weird ambient-rock piece. But within a few months the new wave revolution took over, and Low was one of its main reference points. The field changed dramatically, and Low swiftly became Bowie's most critically acclaimed album and remains so to this day. As far as popularity, it isn't as popular among the wide public as Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust or Let's Dance, but for Bowie fans it is tops.

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