The Release Of Low By David Bowie
The release of Low by David Bowie was a very important event in popular music history because it was entirely ahead of its time. To start, the A side of the album begins with Speed of Life, the first instrumental that Bowie ever released. It prepares the listeners for what isn’t just another Bowie album. The immediate use of layered synthesisers portrays the beginning of a new sound.
The use of synths is prominent throughout the rest of the A side as they complement what are effectively normally structured rock songs. The last track on Side A, A New Career In A New Town brings the listener closer into the soundscape the Bowie is trying to create. In the track, there is reminiscence of side A songs, with the upbeat sound and the drums sounds from all of the previous songs, and also incorporating a harmonica solo.
Low demonstrated new recording techniques, like Tony Visconti’s use of the Eventide Harmonizer, which he used to treat the sounds in Low, most notably the heavily gated snare sounds used throughout the album and the first sound heard on the album, in Speed of Life.
Brian Eno used his new technique, ‘oblique strategies’, a pack of cards with somewhat cryptic solutions and alternatives to dilemmas both production based and music based, for example, Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s guitarist who he had worked with since 1974, couldn’t decide what to play in a particular track, so he took an oblique strategies card and it said ‘Do we need holes?’ so he played the whole section through without stopping. The production techniques created a fragmented sound that suited the album.
Although the Instrumental tracks of the B side tend to get more attention, the A side has plenty of reason to be considered equally as groundbreaking, owing to the production techniques and other aspects to the songs such as the semi improvised, fragmented nature of them.
That said, side B is where the real magic of this album lies. Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno comes into its own here to create an awesome collection of staggeringly beautiful soundscapes, laced with pain and suffering that reflect Bowie’s life at the time. The album was recorded in Berlin, where Bowie and Iggy Pop had moved to at the end of 1976 after living in Los Angeles where Bowie recorded the 1976 album Station to Station amid a period of an intense cocaine addiction which brought along immense personal instability which ultimately led to the demise of his relationship with his then wife, Angie Bowie. Eventually Bowie moved to Switzerland, from where he moved to Berlin after discovering Kraftwerk and Neu! and other Berlin synth bands, and deciding to kick his drug habit. When he was there, he recorded two albums, Low, Heroes. He recorded Lodger in Switzerland. The trio of albums are now known as The Berlin Trilogy. Kraftwerk and Neu! clearly influenced Bowie in the writing of the Berlin Trilogy, especially on Low.
The B side of Low saw the album transition from ‘synthy’ popular music into an abstract concept, helped by Brian Eno. Brian Eno was at the forefront of synthesiser experimentation in the 1970s. He had worked with Roxy Music and Robert Fripp from King Crimson. These Progressive rock influences were instrumental in his exploration of the possibilities of synthesisers.
Another big influence on the B side of the album is minimalism and post minimalism, especially on the track ‘Weeping Wall’ which is almost a minimalist track, verging on post-minimalism.
It starts off with a fast piano loop which is replayed almost throughout the song. On top of this piano, there are other instruments like vibraphone and xylophone. This creates a hypnotic base for the synthesisers, guitars and vocals to play over. The Rhythm and hypnotic effect is typical of post-minimalism. Crucially, what differentiates Weeping Wall from a minimalist piece is the established harmonic structure and the lack of stasis, or gradual change, as is would be typical if it was minimalist.
The difference between minimalism and post minimalism is that post minimalism has greater harmonic and dynamic variety. Towards the end of the 1970s, minimalism, having begun in the early 50s, had run its course and had led on to post minimalism.
Arguably, the real significance of the B side here is that Bowie was using structural ideas from a completely different artistic world that the various influences on pop at the time. More significant than any of the cross-genre dabbling that he was famous for. He was doing something that was explicitly ‘art’ music.
The track after, Subterraneans is cited as one of the main influences for the minimalist composer Philip Glass’ 1992 Low Symphony, a three movement piece based on three tracks from the album, Subterraneans, Warszawa, and Some Are (initially omitted from the 1977 release, but eventually put out in a 1992 release of Low.) The Low Symphony was also incredibly important, because, to my knowledge, for the first time, a mainstream popular artist was not only being influenced by trends in contemporary classical music, but was influencing it as well. This might seem unremarkable now, but it was virtually unheard of in the 1970s. Overlooking his foray into commercial pop music in the 80s, Low influenced Bowie for the rest of his career for example, the other two albums in the Berlin Trilogy and then his later work with Brian Eno in the 90s, right up until his last album, Blackstar, when the harmonica solo in A New Career In A New Town was used in the last track on Blackstar, I Can’t Give Everything Away.
It also influenced many different new wave and synthpop bands in the 80s.
In conclusion, Low is not only an important event in Bowie’s career, but a landmark in the history of synthesisers, production and the influence was widespread and varied, making it an important event in the history of popular music.