Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Low" Turns 35

Living as a Bowie fan wasn't easy in the seventies and it isn't easy now. The man's ever-changing styles and sounds often left me in the dust. Though the jumps from "Ziggy Stardust" to "Aladdin Sane" and "Pinups" to "Diamond Dogs" weren't so difficult, it was the jump from "Diamond Dogs" to  1974's "David Live" that shred my first nerve.

 Years later, what left me cold and heartbroken--plastic soul live versions replete with studio overdubs and gloss--goes down without incident. "David Live" isn't for everyone. It's barely for Bowie fans, especially coming off of a largely underrated gem like "Diamond Dogs," a record most don't realize, finds Bowie playing all the guitar parts. But I've grown to appreciate "David Live," certainly more than I did back then.

 Then came "Young Americans," and more faux soul. I didn't like it then. I don't like it much now. Ironically, it gave Bowie his first U.S. #1 with "Fame."

What followed in 1976, was then and is now, what I feel is Bowie's finest hour. "Station To Station" not only took Bowie's entire career so far--the pop crooner, the glam star, the rocker, and the slick soul man--and shaped it into one perfect union, it also planted the seeds for what is arguably, Bowie's most revered set of music, the Berlin Trilogy beginning with 1977's "Low," and continuing with 1978's "Heroes" and 1979's "Lodger," 3 LPs featuring sounds and treatment by Brian Eno.

Hugo Wilcken's account of Bowie during these times, specifically the recording of "Low," is brilliant. If you have any interest in Bowie or this period of his career, I strongly suggest reading "33 1/3."  Low." There's nothing I can say here that will be better.

I will offer this. Hearing "Low" for the first time, just a year after hearing what is not only my favorite Bowie album, but one of my favorites of all time, was the hardest leap of all. My initial thoughts, as much as I can recall, were shock and confusion. Songs barely two minutes long, one whole side of instrumental ambient sounds, and some flat and fuzzy production, "Low" was the opposite of "Station To Station," a record containing only 6 songs, most of which were 5 and 6 minutes, and featuring a big, bold sound. At least I thought "Low" was the opposite.

35 years later and many articles, including one in this month's issue of Mojo, as well as Hugo Wilcken's book, all shed some light on what I think I probably already knew. "Low" is a masterwork, best taken whole. Reading and listening all these years, I now hear "Low" as the natural follow-up to "Station To Station."

Looks like David Bowie might be retired for good. No more comebacks or "greatest hits" tours for him. As a longtime fan, it's easier for me to say, he went out on a high note. The recent trilogy, "Hours," "Heathen," and "Reality" stand up for me even more than the Berlin Trilogy. This is mostly because I never latched on to "Lodger." For casual Bowie fans, both trilogies will never be as easy to swallow as "Changes" or "Let's Dance," but I do think "Low" is worth everyone's time.


Jaggerfan1 said...

I have to agree with you. The Station to Station album is probably one of the better albums I've heard from him. Hearing that album is what introduced me to David Bowie's music. David Live is not so great. My stepdad has it and we were listening to it one night while shooting pool. It was not that good. I personally like his Station to Station album. Although I've not listened to his music long enough to know what album of his is good and what is not, but I've heard that the Station to Station album is awesome!!!!!!!

big bad wolf said...

i always liked side four of david live, most of all width of a circle, which struck me as much better than the one on man who sold the world.

station to station remains my favorite. my transition was fine untilt he second side of low. i liked the first side a lot. the second side took me years, but the second side of heroes helped me along. it was just a bit more accessible to my rock ears

soundsource said...

not a huge bowie fan although i do like some of his tuneage but nice column and very interesting.

today's word verification is claquet....the sound made by wooden shoes on a tile floor.

Jeff Matthews said...

I still can't think of Bowie and the "Low" album without smiling about the brilliantly titled riposte "Bowi" EP by Nick Lowe.

Agree re Station to Station- its complexity and depth have grown with passing years. Am also a fan of David Live - Earl Slick really shines on both of them - I've grown more tolerant of YA though I really used to dislike it.

Sal Nunziato said...

Side 2 of "Low" barely existed to me for years. It crept up on me. Then, after reading Wilcken's book, I began to appreciate it more. I also found new appreciation for Iggy's "The Idiot" and Kraftwerk, thanks to that book.

Big Jim Slade said...

Lodger ain't my favorite either, but at least it has "Fantastic Voyage" and Bowie's what-the-hell-was-that?!?!? operatic climax in 2 spots.

Scott said...

I remember listening to this album excitedly with my buddies. When 'Breaking Glass' came on, we just looked at each other and grinned and began to rock out. Then, a minute and a half later, it was over! We couldn't believe that he would start such a helluva groove, and then just let it wither on the vine like that. It was, and is, a great album, but I wish the songs had been longer.

Anything Should Happen said...

Great article Sal.

As you know I can talk Bowie forever.

Low is up there, but take away the hype and the popularity of Ziggy and it remains a fantastic album, Ronson's playing is just superb.

David Live is ok, agree Side Four is ace.

On Stage wasn't that great a live album.

Keep trying kids with Lodger, it has a real hidden depth that you don't always notice.

It's not just about Fantastic Voyage.

It also doesn't end with Let's Dance.

The post Tin Machine stuff has plenty of gems.

I'm going to have a stern word with soundsource.

How can you not be a huge Bowie fan?

Something for everyone and a great journey from start to what appears to be end.

BTW Jeff, I think of exactly the same with Low and Bowi and Sal, Side 2 is still amazing.

Sal Nunziato said...

Thanks ASH,
AS for Side 2, I KNOW it's amazing. I didn't say it wasn't. It just took me longer to appreciate it.

Yeah, please give soundsource a hard time. I could use a break.

Anonymous said...

Sal, great post. Low took not just a few listens for me to appreciate fully. Check out the acoustic Always Crashing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1l7fea1miE

Albert said...

Agreed...Station to Station is not only his shining moment but a shining moment in pop history...Disagreed(a mild one)...I'm pretty sure I was there the first time you heard David Live....and I remember us both loving it, primarily for Slick's pyrotechnics....you accept the album now...that's good...I love Low, but FYI...Heroes is the classic....great from beginning to end.....and Toy trumps everything he's done in the last 20 years, IMHO.....

Sal Nunziato said...


How about a compromise? I don't doubt we listened to "David Live" together. And yes, we always love Earl Slick. But I have a memory of real disappointment in hearing, what was a first at the time, Bowie's version of "Dudes," as well as groaning over the way-too-high-in-the-mix backing vocals.

Albert said...

Re: Toy...one more thing...much of the album has appeared as bonus cuts or b-sides granted...but taken as a unified musical statement, it is stunning...and his "modern trilogy" does contain some great work....but those Berlin albums are what the late 1970's were all about...absolute risk...even by Bowie standards....and re: David Live...you're probably right...complaints were there...I'm pretty sure you dug it, though...as did I....

Sal Nunziato said...

re: Toy--the appearance, piecemeal as bonus cuts, were after the fact, no? So, it is a whole. And it is fantastic. Maybe he really is behind the leak. What a way to go.

soundsource said...

to all my various detractors (Mr's Wood and ASH) it's not that I don't like Bowie it's just that I've never been an avid / rabid fan like I am for let's say Procol Harum or Gram Parsons.
I really like a lot of his stuff (particularly Zggy / Hunky Dory and most of the next few lp's) but he's not an addiction like others are where I need to have every outtake and iteration of all his songs (like that 10 disc Satanic Majesties outtakes set, you know with the 30 second organ intro to In Another Land 12 times.)
But please feel free to take a few shots for the hell of it I still love both you guys and all the good stuff you post and have exposed me to.

today's word verification the very appropriate Italian for salute (which I do your blog) sulatio (or is that the Italian version of a Todd Rundgren song)

buzzbabyjesus said...

The stink of "Young Americans" was so strong some of it stuck to "Station To Station", and I didn't get into it until after he'd redeemed himself with "Low" and "Heroes".

David Handelman said...

Station to Station and Ziggy are the only albums of his I listen to start to finish. Otherwise I listen to his singles collection. Does that make me shallow?