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LOW

released January 14, 1977

RCA PL 12030 (UK) Chart peak UK 2 US 11

Side one
Speed of Life 2:46
Breaking Glass (Bowie-Davis-Murray) 1:52
What In The World 2:23
Sound And Vision 3:05
Always Crashing in the Same Car 3:33
Be My Wife 2:58
A New Career In A New Town 2:53

Side two
Warszawa (Bowie-Eno) 6:17
Art Decade 3:43
Weeping Wall 3:25
Subterraneans 5:37

David Bowie vocals, ARP, tape horn, brass, synthetic strings, saxophones, tape cellos, guitar, pump bass, harmonica, piano, pre-arranged percussion, Chamberlin
Brian Eno vocals, splinter Mini-Moog, report ARP, guitar treatments, piano, keyboards, synthetics, Chamberlin, other synthesisers
Carlos Alomar rhythm guitar
Dennis Davis percussion
George Murray bass
Ricky Gardiner guitar
Roy Young piano, Farfisa organ
J Peter Robinson and Paul Buckmaster (credited as 'Peter and Paul')
piano, ARP synthesiser on Subterraneans
Mary Visconti backing vocals on Sound And Vision
Iggy Pop backing vocals on What In The World
Eduard Meyer cellos

Produced by David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Recorded at the Château and Hansa By The Wall
Mixed at Hansa By The Wall

Cover design by David Bowie
Photography by Steve Schapiro

Selected reissues

1985 RCA CD

September 1991 Rykodisc/EMI CD (remastered with bonus tracks)
Some Are 3:24
All Saints 3:25
Sound And Vision 1991 remix 4:43

1999 EMI CD (remastered)

2007 Toshiba EMI mini LP replica CD

Production

Low sessions

Low recording sessions

Château d’Hérouville, Pontoise, France
Hansa Tonstudio 2, West Berlin

Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

September 1976

Tony Visconti arrived at the Château with his secret weapon. When Bowie and Eno were planning the album, they had called him and asked, “What are you going to bring to the table?” He thought quickly. “An Eventide Harmonizer. It fucks with the fabric of time.” In fact, Harry Maslin had used the same device on Station To Station, but Visconti’s experiments had resulted in an innovative effect that was widely copied afterwards.

Tony Visconti (2001): It was a radical sound, especially on the drums. I had the second Harmonizer in Europe and I guessed it would be a matter of time before other producers figured out what I was doing. But when the album came out the Harmonizer still wasn’t widely available. [105]

Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis arrived from America and began to develop Bowie’s song ideas and record some backing tracks. Alomar had known back in May that an album was being planned but was not privy to its exact nature.

Carlos Alomar (2012): The situation with me, George and Dennis is that we get a call, telling us to show up. Then we have to start from scratch; we have to pluck it from the air. [296]

Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis at the Château photos by Ricky Gardiner

Ricky Gardiner got the call asking he could come and "perform miracles" on the new album. He arrived a few days later with Roy Young, whom Bowie had tracked down at the Speakeasy. The renowned boogie-woogie pianist was invited to play on Station To Station but was unable to make the sessions. On the flight over from Britain to Paris, he and Gardiner agreed they had no idea how they would fit in with Bowie’s plans.

As it happened, Bowie had no definite plan other than to record two sides of sharply contrasting style under the Eno-esque title New Music: Night and Day. Since May he had been in discussions with Eno about the nature of their collaboration.

Tony Visconti (1977): David described the album to me as far back as July, because he asked me if I could produce Iggy’s album first and then his own, which he said was going to be very revolutionary. [306]

Bowie had determined a prudent course of action – six or seven songs that were conventional enough to keep RCA happy and a side of experimental instrumental pieces to keep him and the public ‘interested and excited’ as he had put it in 1974.

Bowie (2002): I had brought the idea of having fundamentally an R&B rhythm section working against this new zeitgeist of electronic ambience that was happening in Germany. It was terribly exciting to know that one had stumbled across something that was truly innovative. At that time I was vacillating badly between euphoria and incredible depression. My subtext to the whole thing is that I’m so desperately unhappy, but I’ve got to pull through because I can’t keep living like this. There’s actually a real optimism about the music. In its poignancy there is, shining through under there somewhere that it will be all right. [239]

For the first side they recorded more than enough for Bowie to consider abandoning the first concept – until it came to writing lyrics.

Tony Visconti (1977): Ever since The Man Who Sold The World he has written the lyrics after the music, but in this case he couldn’t come up with more than one verse for some things, which is why a lot of the tracks fade out. [306]

Eventually Bowie adopted Iggy’s ‘write what you know’ approach and drew vignettes of his isolation and disenchantment in California, meltdowns in Berlin and, in at least one case, immediate problems. One night Angela turned up with her boyfriend Roy Martin, resulting in a spectacular fight and a new lyric – Breaking Glass – was born.

Bowie’s dented Mercedes provided another. Months before, Bowie was convinced that a coke dealer had ripped him off and set off in hot pursuit, repeatedly ramming the car from behind. Bowie eventually gave up the chase and returned to the hotel where he reached, in his words, “some kind of spiritual impasse” and proceeded to race round and round the hotel garage. As he contemplated letting go of the wheel, the Merc sputtered to a standstill.

Tony Visconti (2001): I remember David wrote a third verse to Always Crashing In The Same Car and sang it in the style of Bob Dylan. It was done half in jest, but we were a little freaked because Dylan had just been in that motorcycle accident and this seemed like bad taste, I guess. David asked me to erase it and I did. I can’t recall there being any alternative lyrics to any other songs. [105]

The basic backing tracks completed, George Murray and Dennis Davis had gone home, leaving Gardiner and Young to work on overdubs and solos.

Eno arrived and the next recording phase began with a reviewing of the soundtrack tapes, which Bowie played to the remaining musicians as a possible starting point, although little of the film music made it onto Low in the end. They would basically start from scratch. He explained, “We don’t know if this will ever be released, but I have to do this.”

Visconti (2009): We had defined it as an experiment. Before we went in, we said this might be a waste of a month of our lives. And it was three weeks before we knew it was working. [045]

Bowie (1978): We didn’t expect anything. We were really excited when we had some very good material and we sort of, just lumped it together and I called it Low. I’d been interested in how remote you can get with traditional methods of writing, but it hadn’t occurred to me to take the plunge and try to evolve myself. I was very cautious about getting into deep water in areas that I didn’t feel that I was competent, but I was given a shoulder to lean on with Brian. [338]

Eno (1980): He’d go out into the studio to do something, and he’d just come back hopping up and down with joy. And whenever I see someone doing that, I just trust that reaction. It means that they really are surprising themselves. [006]

Bowie had to leave the sessions for four days to negotiate a settlement with Michael Lippman’s legal representatives at the Hotel Raphael in Paris and deal with a custody dispute with Angela.

Eno was only at the Château for a week, so he used the downtime to start work on an instrumental on the understanding that if they didn’t develop it for the album, Eno would use it for himself and pay for the studio time. Inspired by a three-note figure he heard Visconti’s son Morgan picking out on the living room piano, Eno laid the groundwork for Warszawa, as it became when Bowie returned and commented that it reminded him of a Polish choir he had once heard. Accordingly he added some phonetic speech, which they slowed down and pitch-shifted.

Bowie (1977): It was a phonetic language, it doesn’t exist – just sounds. But it seemed to capture the feeling between East and West, West Germany and Poland. The different kinds of tension. [186]

Aside from the dire state of Bowie’s finances (his first cheque to the Château bounced), his management and his marriage, there were reports of ghosts and food poisoning.

Tony Visconti (2001): We would get ravenous at night so we’d eat this cheese that they left out uncovered since dinner. David and I got food poisoning as a result. Even the French doctor couldn’t be bothered to look at me because I got out of bed to request that he see me after David. He said, "He’s okay, he can walk!" David shared his medicine with me.There was certainly some strange energy in that Château. On the first day David took one look at the master bedroom and said, "I’m not sleeping in there!" He took the room next door.

Bowie (2001): It was a spooky place. I did refuse one bedroom, as it felt impossibly cold in certain areas of it. To my knowledge though, the place itself had no bearing on the form or tonality of the work. The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot. [105]

On top of this, Visconti had issues with Thibault, who had also had fallen out of favour with Bowie, who accused him of leaking session information to Rock et Folk.

Bowie decided to complete the album in Berlin.

Hansa Tonstudio 2 with Tony Visconti and Edu Meyer Photo by Barbara Meyer

With house engineer Edu Meyer, Bowie and Visconti continued recording for a week and a half, completing Weeping Wall, Subterraneans and Art Decade, for which Bowie coaxed a cello part from classically trained Meyer.

Bowie (1977): On Low, the subject I was dealing with was so intangible to actually talk about, it was preferable to try and put it into music rather than words. I’m not well-equipped enough or articulate enough to put the experience into lyrics really. It’s really about that whole area of Poland/Germany/Austria where the album was recorded. It was a very new feeling experience being there… because I hadn’t been there very much before. Really it was a first experience with that part of the world and that is what came out. [234]

Bowie (1977): Warszawa is about Warsaw and the very bleak atmosphere I got from the city. Art Decade is West Berlin – a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution. Weeping Wall is about the Berlin Wall - the misery of it. And Subterraneans is about the people who got caught in East Berlin after the separation – hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was. [186]

December 1976

Bowie sent the masters of the new album (still carrying its working title New Music: Night and Day) to RCA in time for its January release. The company told him the album contained nothing resembling a hit and was not marketable in its present state and asked how it might be fixed. Bowie maintained there was nothing to fix and the fact that it had no commercial potential did not concern him. In that case, RCA said, they would not be releasing the album. Bowie correctly pointed out that they were contractually obliged to do so.

At the last minute Bowie changed the title to Low – too late for the cassette labels

January 1977
RECEPTION

Bowie (1977): It was received with caution when it came out. I didn’t expect otherwise. I certainly didn’t expect people to embrace it with open arms as the long lost ‘new language of music’. And I realise I might be alienating a lot of people that had maybe only recently got into the idea that I change from record to record. I’d gathered a whole lot of new people listening to me at the Young Americans stage which I was worried about because I hoped that they didn’t expect that, that was it – that I was going to continue from there and that’s what I was, so I knew I’d lose a few of them on the way. [338][An Evening With David Bowie (Sonny Fox, December 1977, released RCA, 1978)

Although several critics found it incomprehensible, RCA was able to include on the advertising a review from New York Times's John Rockwell:

Remarkably, alluringly beautiful... one of the finest discs of his career.

Record Mirror’s Tim Lott concluded his review:

This album might be Bowie’s best ever. Eno’s best ever. A mechanical classic.

Bowie refused all interview requests, saying “It doesn't need to be discussed. It speaks for itself.”

Bowie (1989): The music was literally expressing my physical and emotional state... and that was my worry. So the music was almost therapeutic. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, we've made an album and it sounds like this’. But it was a by-product of my life. It just sort of came out. I never spoke to the record company about it. I never talked to anybody about it. I just made this album... in a rehab state. A dreadful state really. [110][Deevoy, Adrian. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ (Q 33, June 1989)]

RCA’s initial response to Low had been “What are we going to do with this?” Conversely, Circus writer Wesley Strick asked RCA the same question prior to its release and was told, “Bowie albums sell themselves.” Low charted for 18 weeks, peaking at number 2.

Bowie sent a copy of Low to Nic Roeg with a note saying it was what he’d had in mind for the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell To Earth. The cover reflected this, using the same treated still that appeared on the US ‘teaser’ poster for the film.

Ricky Gardiner: I think [David] was very disappointed by the music for The Man Who Fell To Earth. He spent quite some time writing a score for it, and he wasn't pleased it wasn't used in the film. He let us hear it and it was excellent, quite unlike anything else he's done.

Tony Visconti interview

UNCUT magazine, 1999

UNCUT: Low is generally perceived as David at his most emotionally honest, but most unhappy. Looking back, is this interpretation accurate?

VISCONTI: I wasn't a difficult album to make, we were freewheeling, making our own rules. But David was going through a difficult period professionally and personally. To his credit, he didn't put on a brave face. His music said that he was 'low'.

UNCUT: Is it true that Château d'Herouville was haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand. Any good ghostly happenings you recall?

VISCONTI: I keep reviewing my feelings about the supernatural. There was certainly some strange energy in that chateau. On the first day David took one look at the master bedroom and said, "I'm not sleeping in there!" He took the room next door. The master bedroom had a very dark corner, right next to the window, ironically, that seem to just suck light into it. It was colder in that corner too. I took the bedroom because I wanted to test my meditation abilities. I never admitted this before. I had read that Buddhists in Tibet meditated all night in a graveyard to test their level of fear/no fear. Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, sat on his dead mother's body all night and meditated. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck, but what could Frederic and George really do to me, scare me in French? I loved the look of the room so I decided to spend one night there. If something happened I planned to shout so loud I'd wake up the village.

UNCUT: There are rumours that Robert Fripp was involved on Low, but uncredited. Was he?

VISCONTI: He wasn't there, ever. Only Ricky Gardiner, David and Carlos Alomar played guitar on Low.

UNCUT: Rumour also has it that an alternative version exists with different lyrics - is this true, and if so, why?

VISCONTI: I remember David wrote a third verse to Always Crashing In The Same Car and sang it in the style of Bob Dylan. It was done half in jest, but we were a little freaked because Dylan had just been in that motorcycle accident and this seemed like bad taste, I guess. David asked me to erase it and I did. I can't recall there being any alternative lyrics to any other songs.

UNCUT: There's a story about Dennis Davis recounting a tale (during Low sessions) of being thrown out of the army after seeing a UFO crash. What do you remember of this, if at all?

VISCONTI: Dennis was the life of the party. He could do a mime act on the closed circuit TV camera and have us in stitches. He claimed he took a short cut through a highly classified hanger and saw a crashed UFO from the catwalk he was on. He stared at it for ages until a guard told him to leave because he wasn't classified to be there. He was warned not to ever mention what he saw. I don't know if this is true, but it was highly entertaining. French TV sucks, Dennis is the best we had.

UNCUT: There's a credit on Low for Peter and Paul. Is this to do with Mary being there? And who were they really?

Note: Peter and Paul were J Peter Robinson and Paul Buckmaster

VISCONTI: Brian and Mary sang the "doo-doos" in the beginning of Sound And Vision. Mary and our kids were there for a couple of weeks.

UNCUT: Does it still annoy you that some people still think Eno produced the 'Berlin' albums?

VISCONTI: Yes. David's set the record straight many times since, and of course my name is in the credits as co-producer with David. How rock journalists continue to make that mistake is beyond me. Come to think of it, I don't recall Brian ever setting the record straight. I know that David and Brian spent some time together before going in the studio with me, but they were writing. Brian spent an average of three weeks on each of the triptych albums recording his bits. He wasn't present for the vocals, lots of other overdubs and the mix.

UNCUT: I've always thought that there's a prevailing mood of hope throughout Low (certainly not a pessimistic album). Do you think that comes through?

VISCONTI: I find Warszawa very uplifting. Despite a few really bad days we had quite a lot of fun making Low, especially when all the radical ideas were making sense and things were starting to click. I remember after a couple of weeks of recording I made a rough mix of the entire album so far and handed a cassette of it to David. He left the control room waving the cassette over his head and grinned ecstatically saying, "We've got an album, we've got an album." I have to qualify that statement by saying that at the beginning, the three of us agreed to record with no promise that Low would ever be released. David had asked me if I didn't mind wasting a month of my life on this experiment if it didn't go well. Hey, we were in a French chateau for the month of August and the weather was great!

UNCUT: Is it true that, when David asked what your Eventide Harmonizer did, you blurted "It messes with the fabric of time!"? How revolutionary do you think that sound was you created? And its influence in later years?

VISCONTI: I must've been quoted in a family magazine. I actually said, "It fucks with the fabric of time," much to the delight of David and Brian, who were on a conference call with me at the time. It was a radical sound, especially on the drums. I had the second Harmonizer in Europe and I guessed it would be a matter of time before other producers figured out what I was doing. But when the album came out the Harmonizer still wasn't widely available. I had loads of producers phoning me and asking what I had done, but I wouldn't tell them. I asked, instead, how they thought I did it and I got some great answers that I found inspirational. One producer insisted I compressed the drum tracks three separate times and slowed the tape down every time, or something like that. I also used the Harmonizer to great effect on some vocals, but especially on side two. I've heard hundreds of Low sounds on other records since.

UNCUT: You've described recording Low as pretty horrible. Do you remember much of the various incidents (food poisoning, French press infiltration, etc.)?

VISCONTI: In August most of Europe goes on holiday. This studio was no exception. The service was terrible. After three days I noticed that the sound got duller and duller and I asked my assistant, a lovely English chap, when was the last time the multitrack recorder was lined up? He said about a week before we arrived then the technician went on holiday. My assistant was brand new, hired just for us because he could speak English and French. He didn't know how to maintain the machines. So every morning I'd go into the control room with him and we'd line up the machine together, with the manual open, hoping for the best.

The food was appalling. For the first three days they served nothing but rabbit and no vegetables. I was starving. When I asked for a little salad or something, they plopped six heads of lettuce on the table with a bottle each of vinegar and oil, plus more rabbit.

We would get ravenous at night so we'd eat this cheese that they left out uncovered since dinner. David and I got food poisoning as a result. Even the French doctor couldn't be bothered to look at me because I got out of bed to request that he see me after David. He said, "He's okay, he can walk!" David shared his medicine with me.

A French woman was hired to be our assistant. She was supposed to provide us with anything we might need to make the recording go smoothly, but even she couldn't be bothered to bring some bread, cheese and wine up to the studio when we called down for some at 1am (a normal working hour for a rock studio). I remember David getting the owner out of bed at that hour and saying in precise, measured out words, "We want some bread, some cheese and some wine in the studio – now! What, you're asleep? Excuse me, but I thought you were running a studio."

UNCUT: What impressed you initially with Ricky Gardiner?

VISCONTI: He was totally left-field and completely savvy with special effects. I was in awe of him.

David Bowie interview

UNCUT magazine, 1999

UNCUT: Low is generally perceived as you at your most emotionally honest, but most unhappy. Looking back, is this interpretation accurate?

BOWIE: Yes, it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.

Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It's a city eight times bigger than Paris remember and so easy to 'get lost' in and to 'find' oneself too..

UNCUT: Is it true that Chateau d'Herouville was haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand, and you refused to sleep in the master bedroom because it was spooked? Did this affect the record's mood?

BOWIE: It was a spooky place. I did refuse one bedroom, as it felt impossibly cold in certain areas of it. To my knowledge though, the place itself had no bearing on the form or tonality of the work. The studio itself was a joy, ramshackle and comfy feeling. I liked the room a lot.

UNCUT: There are rumours that Robert Fripp was involved, but uncredited. Was he?

BOWIE: No.

UNCUT: Rumour also has it that an alternative version exists with different lyrics - is this true, and if so, why?

BOWIE: If there had been different lyrics to anything, then I'm sure they would have been working lyrics or 'placement' words to identify a melody that I wanted to use. I do remember singing joke words to some of the melodies but I frequently do that when I'm getting a feel for where I want it to go. Tony would have wiped or recorded over them when I put down final vocals. I'm not aware of any existing alternative versions.

UNCUT: The couplet in Breaking Glass which begins, "don't look at the carpet" – is this a reference to drawing cabbalistic symbols on the floor in L.A.?

BOWIE: Well, it is a contrived image, yes. It refers to both the cabbalistic drawings of the Tree of Life and the conjuring of spirits.

UNCUT: Is it true that Weeping Wall, Subterraneans and Some Are were left over from the proposed soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth?

BOWIE: The only holdover from the proposed soundtrack that I actually used was the reverse bass part in Subterraneans. Everything else was written for Low.

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Bowie Golden Years v1.0 created and designed by Roger Griffin 2000
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this page updated October 20, 2020