Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of an album now regarded as being seminal in the popular music cannon, but which was divided opinion on its release. I thought it deserved a reflection.
I remember well purchasing it in release. It had received indifferent, and sometimes hostile, reviews from the music press, not least from Charles Chaar Murray at NME.
You have to remember that this period was one of very rapid change for Bowie, with each release attracting, and losing, fans. Pin Ups, which I loved, was widely reviled. Diamond Dogs, the bastard child of the 1984 project swung between the conventional rock of the title track and Rebel Rebel and music theatre, Young Americans was his soul album, Station to Station veered back towards conventional rock and then there was Low….
I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It didn’t sound like anything else that he, or anyone else, had ever done. Sound and Vision was the only coherent commercial hook, but Warzawa did have a instant grandeur.
I liked it, but I was unsure. Contemporaneously it was also amongst a tide of incredibly innovative punk and new wave releases which were equally as different, but three minutes long. There wasn’t time to assimilate it. It was also self- consciously serious, in a way that the new wave wasn’t, Nick Lowe’s “I love the Sound of Breaking Glass” was such a joyful antidote to Bowie’s Breaking Glass”. However it was clear that there was Something Important going on. Marlene Dietrich liked it too.
A measure of how low profile he became at the time was that he was able to tour on keyboards for Iggy Pop on the “Idiot” tour playing the likes of the Rainbow in London to little fuss.
The success of the album, and crucially title track, Heroes undoubtedly helped with some retrospective reassessment at the time, but by then there were so many great innovative new wave albums being released that it did become a little lost.
Ironically Lets Dance, the greatest commercial success for Bowie, was also the point at which many of his die hard fans, myself included, parked our fandom, and started to look backwards. It was at that point that Low started to grow in stature and its influence on the new wave, from Gary Numan’s “Cars” to magazines “Real Life” ,and the rest, become apparent.
Its place as an “album” began to harden. In the same way that Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular bells”, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side” , Beatles “ Sgt Pepper” and Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” were about the whole, not individual tracks, so “Low” started to make sense. And it works on vinyl in a way that it does not on CD or download. Having to get up and flip over the vinyl from side one to side two is as important as any track.
Side two is a mini symphony, side one seems like a soundtrack, with an instrumental intro in “Speed of Life” and outro in “New Career”. In between we have cinematic snapshots. “Breaking Glass” evokes Cavani’s “Night Porter”, “Sound and Vision” is a moment in a room, “Always Crashing in the same Car” a nightmarish vision, and the one line romanticism of “Be My Wife” and “What in the World”.
“Low” is not an album of great songs. It is an album of fragments, which when assembled as an entity, assume greatness.