Looking back on his discography, it's nearly unbelievable to comprehend the body of work he released in a single decade. Bowie's '70s was an avalanche of masterpieces: The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, PLUS two live albums and one of the finest cover/tribute albums ever recorded (Pin Ups). The pace and intensity of that sort of creativity was only magnified by Bowie's own dedication to the characters he created; he was to rock theatre what Brando was to film. He didn't sing about Ziggy and Aladdin; he became them, mind, heart, body and soul. It's no wonder, then, as the decade rolled into it's last trimester that Bowie was exhausted, physically and artistically. When he moved to Los Angeles to record 1976's Station To Station, cocaine addiction also entered the picture. It was clear he needed a radical change in his approach to living, so he chose to move to Berlin; he was quoted as saying, "There's oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke center of the world into the smack center of the world. Thankfully, I didn't have a feeling for smack, so it wasn't a threat."
Berlin was perfect on several levels. Many of Bowie's artistic/cultural interests have deep roots in Berlin, and the city had the added benefit of virtual anonymity for the rapidly-burning-out star. Bowie again: "For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway." A longstanding interest in German electronic music (he often cited Neu! and Kraftwerk as strong music preferences just before his move to Berlin) had to make the decision to live there even easier. All the elements were in place; his own natural brilliance, the desire to continue exploring new musical avenues, being surrounded with a cultural heritage that appealed deeply to him, the ability to be relatively anonymous... and so work on Low began.
It's impossible to put the brilliance of Low and "Heroes" into perspective without considering the 1977 music world for a moment. Electronic music was still essentially either a novelty or a genre reserved for odd folks, geeks and avant-guardians. Taking a peek at the top selling albums of the year shows the scene dominated by either "mainstream" classic rock acts like Fleetwood Mac, Boston, Bob Seger, and Steve Miller or the near peak of the disco and pop soul trends (remember, Saturday Night Fever was a 1977 release!). The closest synthesizers got to any mainstream acceptance was as flourishes in ELP or Pink Floyd albums or the already mentioned near-novelty status of something like "Autobahn." Artists who were using synths to make serious artistic music were few and far between, and those who did were not generally well-known. Bowie called on Brian Eno to work with him for the sessions (pretty much going with one of the best there's ever been in the field of electronics) and hired Tony Visconti to engineer and co-produce the album (regardless of how often it is incorrectly reported, Eno did NOT produce either Low or "Heroes").
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I've long been one of the odd folks and geeks enthralled by electronic music, and even being very aware of the influences that led to this album (maybe even moreso because of just that), Low hit me right between the eyes on first listen... and some thirty six years later has never let up. What still astonishes me about both Low and "Heroes" is that both can be listened to and enjoyed to this very day and still sound incredibly contemporary. That's no mean feat, especially in the world of electronic music where falling prey to fads and gimmicks makes it easy for older recordings to sound... well, old. Not so with these releases; not only have they stood the test of time, but a critical listen now shows that a lot of foundations for a lot of music to come was laid in these recordings.
According to both Bowie and Visconti, Low was indeed reflective of a very low period in Bowie's life, and the overall mood of the album reflects just that without becoming drowned in moribund self-pity - an artistic achievement indeed! It's a near perfect example of what a collaboration between the right artist and technical person can produce; as much credit goes to Visconti for the stunning sonic achievement of these two albums as to Bowie himself. This is evident from Low's opening moments; the instrumental "Speed Of Life" assaults the listener with an explosive drum sound that honestly just hadn't been heard prior to the release of this album. Those huge, aggressive drums are augmented here (and for the remainder of the first side of the album) by a virtual jangle of guitars and keyboards; for me, one of the greatest strengths and fascinations of this album is the idea that these songs always sound like they're on the verge of just falling apart at the seams, yet they never do. The tension and passion are merged with rare mastery.
"Breaking Glass" continues the assault, this time with vocals. Even on my first listen, I strongly suspected that many (most? All?) of the lyrics to the album were spontaneous poetry, and researching the recording reveals that a lot of the album was an in-studio creation. That makes sense philosophically; it seemed that a lot of Bowie's artistic frustration may have come from being too thought-out, too precise, and so going into a studio with an idea of a feel that he wanted to convey without a specific means by which to do so would be both creative and therapeutic. Certainly, reading the lyrics to Low shows them to be essentially simple... yet somehow, they convey strong and lasting images, amplified by Bowie's performances. Knowing he was going through a very troubled period, lines like "Don't look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it" leave a lot of room for the listener's imagination to fill; likewise, there's plenty of a sort of vague-yet-specific distance to lyrics like "You're just a little girl with grey eyes/Never mind, say something/Wait until the crowd cries." Even "Sound And Vision," at least the best-known title from this album (Bowie reprised it for his box set release) seems to find him curious and confused about his own immediate future as he sings, "I will sit right down/Waiting for the gift of sound and vision/And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision..." The first side ends with another aggressive instrumental, "A New Career In A New Town," and perhaps the song's title is as telling as any lyrics could ever be. It's a wonderful bookend to the opening track, once again chunky and complex, everything held together with smoke and mirrors but remaining concrete through to the end.
Side two is a completely different album. Where the first side is seven quick-hit tracks with uptempo leanings, side two is four brooding instrumentals that obviously draw heavily on Eno's experience with dark electronic music. While "Warszawa" and "Subterraneans" both have vocals, they're non-lyrics that use Bowie's voice as another instrument to complement the tone and sombre feel of this music. Again, even on first listen, this was a sonic wallop that I couldn't get out of my psyche for months at the time... and have never, ever completely lost. As a rule, when reviewing music of this nature, it's easy to fall back on the "you'll either love it or hate it" decree, but to my experience, these pieces are a rare exception. Many is the time I've played this side to an initial negative response, only to be told that the moods and melodies have found a way to haunt themselves into memory, and could we give it another listen, please... It's as though the influence of the decadence and inherent sadness that permeates so much of German art found its way into Bowie's head and heart through these pieces. Still, for all the obvious melancholy, repeated listenings reveal rays of hope that shine through the gloom; if ever there was a blueprint for fighting to find the goodness in despair, side two of Low is the absolute prototype.
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It's interesting to note that "Heroes" was released nine months to the day after Low, as if one was the child of the other. While I wasn't necessarily surprised that Low received generally good reviews, I was surprised that it found commercial success, and I've long wondered if Bowie was equally surprised. Regardless, he kept pretty much the same core crew together for the recording of "Heroes," and while Low was mainly recorded in France with only a little of the work done in Berlin, "Heroes" was start-to-finish completed in the latter city (in fact, the only one of the Berlin Trilogy to be completely recorded there).
Where Low was an incredible insight into the mind of an artist tired and confused, "Heroes" is a more aggressive approach to Bowie's creative doldrums. It sounds to me like Low was the therapy and "Heroes" was the beginning of fighting against the depression in order to defeat it. While the album is again a combination of uptempo lyrical songs and more introspective instrumentals, the songs seems better developed and more intentional. The ratio is also a little different; there are only three of the more brooding pieces here, all on side two, and even those are framed by two pieces way too structured to be included on side two of Low. Also, Bowie brought in genius guitarist Robert Fripp for the sessions. It was an interesting choice at the time; Fripp reportedly considered himself retired from music at the time the album was being made, and it was actually Eno who called him and invited him to play. Reportedly, Fripp's reply was, "Well, I don’t know because I haven’t played for three years, but if you’re prepared to take a risk, then so am I." Risk well taken and well rewarded; the aggressive guitar work adds a lot to the upbeat optimism of "Heroes" (and thankfully, Fripp did NOT retire from music).
This one gets in your face right away with "Beauty And The Beast." I highly doubt these pieces are spontaneous, lyrically; the ironic imagery throughout is simply too strong, too well thought out. Here, Bowie seems to be almost chiding the clash between his own creativity and depression as he declares, "Something in the night/Something in the day/Nothing is wrong but darling something's in the way... My-my, someone fetch a priest/You can't say no to the beauty and the beast." The attitude of challenging his sensitivity versus his stagnation is a constant theme throughout the album, but in a very healthy "time to beat this" sort of way. "Joe The Lion" has some wonderful vaguely surreal images that still seem to speak to Bowie's impatience with his own psyche, and the side-closing "Blackout" merges some of Fripp's most melodic work on the album with more of Bowie's superb lyrical explorations; "To the cage, to the cage, she was a beauty in a cage" leads to "If you don't stay tonight, I will take that plane tonight/ I've nothing to lose, nothing to gain... I'll kiss you in the rain." Is Bowie using images of forbidden romance as an allegory to his own conflicted feelings about his future? Perhaps the only real nod to utter hopelessness comes from "Sons Of The Silent Age." Philosophically, this track belongs more on Low than "Heroes," but sonically, it simply works better here. "Sons of the silent age pace their rooms like a cell's dimensions/Rise for a year or two, then make war... Sons of the silent age make love only once but dream and dream/They don't walk, they just glide in and out of life." It's the only real blow to the general optimism of the album, yet somehow Bowie makes it work and makes it fit, even considering the confrontational nature of the rest of the album.
All this, of course, is sandwiched around the album's iconic title track. "Heroes" is a performance that is even unique to Bowie's own storied and chameleonic legacy. Besides the power of the images (lovers in the shadow of the oppression of a wall, THE wall) his vocal work conveys everything from storytelling to hope to desperation. Contrast the optimism of the opening verse, where Bowie the Storyteller shares with near serenity that "We can be heroes, just for one day" with the climax of the song, where's he's pleading with himself and his lover, now nearly shrieking, "And the shame was on the other side/Oh, we can beat them, for ever and ever/Then we could be heroes, just for one day." It's almost the same lyric, but the meaning is so very different; it goes from a coo into a lover's ear to becoming an anthematic slogan for lovers who must fight for that love against all odds. Calling it Bowie's most powerful performance is probably an injustice, as he's had so many, but you'll be hard pressed to find this much emotion wrung out of words presented anywhere by anyone.
As with Low, side two is a different sort of album, though not as radically different as the first time around. "V-2 Schneider" is an instrumental, but sounds almost playful by comparison to Low (and, come to find out, is a bit of a tribute to Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider). The next three pieces ("Sense Of Doubt,:" "Moss Garden" and "Neukoln") are soundtrack-style instrumental pieces. Still, of the three, only "Doubt" hints at the overwhelming sadness of Low's second side; "Garden" has some Asian overtones sprinkled in that give it quite a bright, hopeful feeling and "Neukoln" has more of a sense of mystery to it than pure sadness. The side and album close with "The Secret Life Of Arabia," and it's an almost cheerful close to a couple of albums so deeply invested in emotional intensity. The tune is catchy, the lyrics don't really mean a whole lot and the production borders on pop-happy. It leaves the listener feeling hopeful and upbeat, and I truly think that's exactly what Bowie wanted here.
Now as then, Low and "Heroes" are an intensely emotional journey through one of the great artistic minds in the history of modern music, and are among the most telling and compelling looks into the agonies and triumphs of artistic creation you'll ever have the pleasure of hearing.
Bowie toured extensively to support these two albums (Lodger wasn't released until 1979, the first time in a decade he hadn't released studio albums in consecutive years), and I worked every contact I had to try and land an interview with him. I was told he was supposed to play Atlanta on the tour and that I should be able to interview him at that show... but the Atlanta date was cancelled, and with it went my chance at an interview (Bowie played Memphis on the tour; I guess I moved here too late). He remains one of the top three on my list of those I've never interviewed but would most like to (stated with the knowledge that my top three list has about ten names on it)...
The imagery in the song "Heroes" is so intense! It was gratifying in my research to find that the story of the song had some basis in real life. Quoted from an interview conducted by NME in 1977: "There's a wall by the studio - the album having been recorded at Hansa by the Wall in West Berlin - about there. It's about twenty or thirty meters away from the studio and the control room looks out onto it. There's a turret on top of the wall where the guards sit and during the course of lunch break every day, a boy and girl would meet out there and carry on. They were obviously having an affair. And I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the wall? They'd come from different directions and always meet there… Oh, they were both from the west, but they had always met right there. And I - using license - presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act. I used this as a basis…"
I found it surprising, especially considering the seemingly eternal popularity of the song "Heroes," that Low actually did better on the charts than "Heroes" did. Low hit #11 on the U.S. Billboard album chart and #2 on the UK chart; "Heroes" got to #3 in the UK, but only #35 in the U.S... Funny funny - Nick Lowe released an EP in 1977, which he released under the title, "Bowi."