How David Bowie kicked cocaine, fell under Eno’s spell and reached the heights of Low
In the early summer of 1976, David Bowie was relaxing in his recently-acquired home in Blonay, Switzerland, following a gruelling world tour. Frazzled, and at a creative and personal crossroads, the 29-year-old had recently moved from America to Europe to help him shake a prodigious cocaine habit and find what he described as a “new musical language”, having become sick of his sound – of being a rock star. It was less than a year since he’d enjoyed his first US number one single with Fame, but Bowie craved changes.
The musician was visited on the shores of Lake Geneva by Brian Eno, the former Roxy Music member, who had released a series of experimental albums fusing ambient electronic music with art rock, most notably 1975’s Another Green World. The men were passing acquaintances who found themselves in strikingly similar situations: both were former glam rockers with a thirst for uncharted sonic frontiers. They’d agreed to collaborate, which is why Eno ventured to Blonay.
That June, Bowie phoned Tony Visconti, the producer who’d worked with him on albums including 1975’s Young Americans. With Eno on the line too, Bowie invited Visconti to join the pair in September at Château d’Hérouville near Paris, to record new music. The idea was to meld rock with minimalist soundscapes. It “might be incredible or a complete waste of time,” Bowie told Visconti, according to Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s 2008 book Bowie in Berlin. Bowie wasn’t even sure that the songs would be released. Either way, Visconti said yes.
The resulting album, Low, was released 45 years ago on January 14, 1977. Despite confounding fans and critics at the time, Low would become one of the most influential albums in pop history. It was wildly out of kilter with the two key music trends of the day; 1977 was the year that disco reached its zenith with Saturday Night Fever and punk’s angry snarl caused moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic. But the left-field Low presaged the musical movement that would follow punk: the avant-garde, experimental, synth-heavy genre known as post-punk, which itself paved the way for 1980s electropop. Bowie, who died on January 10 2016, was once again ahead of the game.
Low’s mould-breaking music was only one side of the story. Recording started near Paris but finished in West Berlin, making Low the first of Bowie’s career-high Berlin Trilogy of albums (the others being Heroes and Lodger). “It was the most amazing learning curve I ever had in my whole life. I was forever changed by it,” Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s guitarist and Low’s musical director, tells me.
Musician Catherine Anne Davies, who records as The Anchoress, says she didn’t hear Low until around 2004. But she tells me that along with Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (1985), it’s the album that has influenced her most. “Hounds of Love and Low are like the mummy and daddy of my music family-tree,” Davies says. “I am like the bastard offspring of those two records.” In terms of its sound, its structure and its ambition, she believes Low is unbeatable.
Alomar talks of the “culture shock” of recording Low. He is referring to two things: the unconventional way in which it was made, and also Berlin in the 1970s, from the desolation of no-man’s land to the underground nightlife. First, the music. Bowie’s quest for a “new musical language” involved doing things differently, and techniques got progressively more “out there” as the recording progressed.
Low is essentially two albums. Its first side – recorded largely in France – comprises traditionally structured rock songs with vocals, such as Breaking Glass and Sound and Vision. Alomar oversaw the arrangements (himself, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis were long-time Bowie bedrocks known as the DAM Trio). The writing process involved the trio coming up with multiple arrangements for each track and presenting them to Bowie. He recalls: “I’d say, ‘OK, David, check this out. Which one?’ It’s like a Chinese menu: two from column A, one from column B, and you have the dessert on the side for a bridge.”
Visconti, meanwhile, was experimenting with the latest technology. A new machine called an Eventide Harmoniser let him capture sound samples and repeat them at different pitches throughout a song (the machine “f***s with the fabric of time”, Visconti said at the time). The Harmoniser created Low’s oft-imitated snare-drum sound, which can be best described as a spacey splat. Davies says she used an Eventide “everywhere” on last year’s Anchoress album, The Art of Losing. The Low château sessions were “upbeat and relaxed”, according to Bowie biographer Seabrook, and the musicians would spend the evenings watching tapes of Fawlty Towers.
Low’s second side is an altogether different beast. It’s a series of largely lyric-free, free-form instrumentals. Atmosphere replaces structure, layers replace melody. This is, to simplify, “Eno’s side” of the album. The tracks were recorded as the band were decamping from France to Berlin (Bowie and others believed the château’s master bedroom was haunted by the ghost of Frédéric Chopin).
Eno crafted two ambient tracks, Warszawa and Art Decade, while Bowie was away meeting lawyers due to a legal spat with a former manager. The other two tracks, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans, were Bowie’s babies. The man was still frail – he looked, Bowie himself admitted, like he’d “just stepped out of a grave” on the cover of 1974’s album David Live – and this was reflected in the music: spectral, unsettling and weird.
On top of this, Eno’s approach in the studio confused his fellow musicians. Eno was famously interested in abstract methodologies. He’d record tracks by counting out the required number of bars onto a tape and using this as a “metronomic framework” into which to record, says Seabrook. Alomar describes Eno’s approach as dismantling a song’s structure, forming “a little chaos” and reassembling it. For Alomar, who cut his teeth playing guitar for James Brown at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, this was initially baffling. He recalls Eno “counting to a thousand” and telling him to come in between the numbers 27 and 32. “I’m, like, ‘play what?’ He says, ‘Anything you want.’”
And then there was Eno’s studio game of Oblique Strategies, in which cards printed with seemingly random instructions were shown to musicians (such as “Try faking it”). Alomar didn’t get it. “I found that my methodology and his methodology, in the beginning, clashed,” he says. “Because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the absurdity of randomness. [The cards] are so damn disjointed and they’re so stupid. So we’re like, ‘Dude, man this sucks. It sounds horrible. It’s not even a song.’”
But Alomar came round once he started seeing the tracks as “classical pieces played by electronic instruments”. Alomar says Eno taught him that pop music didn’t simply have to be about groove and repetition; it could be symphonic. It all made sense when the tracks were played back. “You have to rise to the occasion and meet the challenge,” Alomar says, before demonstrating his point by playing a round of Oblique Strategies with me over Zoom. (I approached Eno for this piece, but he didn’t respond.)
Despite all the big characters in the studio – Bowie, Visconti, Eno and Alomar – the guitarist insists that everyone had a defined role. Bowie coordinated and co-produced with Visconti, Alomar arranged, and Eno experimented. Yet this plethora of egos did not stop comedian and Bowie fan Adam Buxton from brilliantly lampooning the Low sessions in a 2013 radio skit (in which Visconti constantly feels the need to remind people that he’s the co-producer).
The strangeness of life in the Berlin studio was mirrored by life outside. Hansa stood next to the city’s dividing Wall, with Soviet-run East Berlin in the distance. It was unsettling. “Out of the studio window,” Alomar says, “was the wall, then sand. Everything had been removed. Then, for about a mile, was rolled-up barbed wire. Then you saw the shadowy silhouette of houses in the background. It was pretty much a battle environment. That is solely depressing.” They’d record with the blinds down to block out the views of gunners and watchtowers. The landscape “got under the skin” of the musicians, Alomar remembers; Low is at times bleak.
Levity was found in West Berlin’s nightlife, which sounds as decadent and furtive as that depicted in Cabaret, set in 1929 Berlin. Bowie’s entourage included Iggy Pop, whose 1977 album The Idiot he had just produced. “David took us to the underground places, the speakeasies,” Alomar says. “It was like the German movies you see on television – we were there. I wasn’t wearing a tuxedo like they do in the movies, but you got the air of the forbidden underground.”
Low was finished in October 1976 and was immediately rejected by Bowie’s label RCA, who pleaded for another commercial album like Young Americans. Bowie refused. Low was released three months later, but with little promotion. The album existed entirely apart from the era’s prevailing trends, as if occupying a musical no-man’s-land itself.
Bowie himself didn’t promote Low either – instead, he joined Pop’s live band as keyboardist – but he was aware that it challenged people. He was also aware that some fans didn’t think his heart was in it (presumably because he only “sang” on five of the 11 tracks). He told Melody Maker in October 1977, however, that he believed in Low and its follow-up, Heroes, more than “anything I’ve done before”.
He also countered criticism that his new music was cold compared to his earlier work. “There’s a lot more heart and emotion in Low, and especially [“Heroes”]. And if I can convince people of that, I’m prepared to be stuck in this room on the end of a conveyor-belt of questions that I’ll do my best to answer,” he told Melody Maker.
Low confounded many critics, some of whom found it banal, uncommercial, pretentious and depressing. But it wasn’t universally panned. NME described it as “the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers”. Low did, as Bowie hoped, forge a new musical language. For a while this language was so fresh it remained uncodified. That didn’t last long. In November 1977, Sounds magazine journalist Jane Suck wrote that Low was the “watershed” of an emerging movement that she dubbed “New Musick”. Addressing Bowie by his real surname, Suck ended her piece: “Check out the charts and you’ll see that something is happening, Mr Jones, even if you don’t know what it is.”
New Musick became known as post-punk, and Low’s influence was soon everywhere. Joy Division were initially called Warsaw, after the album’s song Warszawa. Long soundscapey tracts became acceptable on mainstream albums (see side two of the aforementioned Hounds of Love, or all of Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A).
Meanwhile, that distinctive spacey-splat became the defining drum sound of the 1980s; it was best replicated in Phil Collins’s mega-hit In the Air Tonight, although Collins himself was already part of the New Musick movement, having played drums on Eno’s Another Green World, along with future Bowie collaborator Robert Fripp. Speaking in 1983 and describing the percussion effect with typically idiosyncratic language, Bowie lamented its popularity: “That depressive gorilla effect was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands.”
But imitation is the inventor’s burden. And how typically Bowie that in deliberately removing himself from everything he knew, he ended up setting a trend. Davies says that Low showed Bowie to be music’s great “ringmaster”, marshalling the best talent into his circus ring to produce something extraordinary while simultaneously shunning commercial considerations. “I love Low,” she says. “I endlessly go back to this record, all the time.”
With his back to the wall, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, deploying recording techniques that were decidedly off-the wall, the pioneering Bowie redefined what it was to make a modern album. Low remains arguably his career high.
Carlos Alomar will appear at the David Bowie World Fan Convention, which runs in Liverpool from June 17–19 2022. Tickets: www.bowieconvention.com