By Adam Wiener and Paul Witcover
In January of 1977, David Bowie released Low, the first album in what would become known as “The Berlin Trilogy.” Low wasn’t a huge commercial hit, but has gone on to be one of his most celebrated and influential albums.
To mark the anniversary, Adam Wiener—the EVP/GM of CBS Local Digital Media and publisher of Radio.com—and Paul Witcover, a Brooklyn-based novelist whose most recent book is The Watchman of Eternity, got together for a lengthy conversation about the album. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
Paul Witcover: I was a freshman in college when Low came out. I played it non-stop, much to the annoyance of my father, who hated it. He berated Bowie’s voice, comparing it to Anthony Newley’s [an English actor, singer and songwriter], who I didn’t know at the time, but now I realize that Bowie was influenced by him.
Adam Wiener: I was 11 years old in 6th grade and owned both [1974’s] Diamond Dogs and [1974’s] David Live, which I discovered thanks to my older brother. Around March of 1977, I took my allowance to the record store, and there was the display for Low. I was immediately drawn to it because Bowie had the same orange hair as he did on the David Live album and I assumed the music was going to be more of the same. At this point any other person might say “Imagine my disappointment when I heard it… ” but that’s not what happened. It was like nothing I’d ever heard.
AW: To mark the end of grammar school that June, my teacher threw a party and asked people to bring in albums. Other boys brought in KISS, either Destroyer or Rock and Roll Over. When it was my turn I played “Always Crashing In The Same Car.” Well, I tried to, at least. Despite being a very short song, it didn’t make it all the way through before they insisted I take it off so they could again play one of the KISS songs that we’d already heard ten times. The ironic part is none of them really understood that KISS probably wouldn’t have existed without Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character.
PW: Prior to that point in my life I had been listening to prog rock bands, electronic acts like Tangerine Dream, and Brian Eno’s solo albums. My friends and I had talked about how incredible it would be to have Eno and Bowie collaborate. I heard about Low before it came out, and I knew that Eno was involved. But even then, the album was weirder than I had imagined it could be. I was used to weird soundscapes from these other groups. Low had them, too, but the mix is disjointed, fractured. However, the more you listen, you realize there is a pattern.
PW: After Bowie died, Eno was asked to describe something unique about Bowie that he hadn’t yet discussed. He said he never met a singer who would prepare more for a vocal than David, trying countless intonations until he got the exact persona he wanted to convey. “Be My Wife,” complete with an accent on certain words, is a good example of that.
AW: I discovered Eno about a year after Low, when my uncle bought [1978’s] Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It suddenly was very clear to me how many songs on Low came about, especially on side two. Eventually I went back and listened to Eno’s Another Green World, which was released over a year before Low [in 1975]. For whatever reason these two albums are inextricably intertwined for me and I sort of consider them to be one album.
PW: “Speed of Life”: what a song to start the album! Everything Low is going to throw at you is right there at the start of this song. Starting with a weird sound you’ve never heard before, it’s not a traditional pop song and throws you off balance. It has that distinct drum sound, created by producer Tony Visconti’s audio processing. Eno’s synthesizer sounds like something is falling apart, which sets the tone and theme for the entire album: trying to hold things together as they fall apart around you and inside you.
AW: Also, amazing guitar work by Ricky Gardiner, who never worked on another Bowie album before or after this. But also, perhaps even more importantly, there is no vocal. Let’s face it, the reason everyone fell in love with Bowie is because his voice is indescribable and unmistakable. He has a distinct tonal quality, at times breathless but with a range. When you hear him you immediately know it’s him. The fact that he opens an album without his vocal is a ballsy move and, to your point, it’s a signal of what’s to come, especially on side two.
PW: Like almost all the songs on the album, “Speed of Life” is like a little snippet of a song that could have been playing before you started listening to it and could easily continue after when you stopped. “Sound and Vision” is another great example of that.
PW: In 2013, Bowie released a stripped-down version of “Sound and Vision,” with just vocals and piano. It’s completely different from the version on the album. Both tender and beautiful, where his voice sounds vulnerable. It’s almost a love song. Often you hear people describe Bowie as being cold and distant, which I never agreed with. But you can see how, when all the “bells and whistles” were added on the album version, it becomes more remote on the surface—but that emotional base is still there.
AW: Yet, oddly, it’s potentially the most accessible song on the entire album! It is the closest Low gets to ear candy. Perhaps the impeccable production made the “tenderness” less accessible?
PW: A lot of times subliminally you pick up on things that you are not conscious of hearing. It’s true of all music and art. The people who really get Bowie have always understood the music is not cold or distant. It is the music of someone who almost feels too much.
AW: Yes! Who would choose electric blue as a color for a room if for no other reason than to convey an overwhelming emotion?
PW: Would there even be a genre called “emo” if not for Low?
Related: The Making of a David Bowie Fan
AW: “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is like no other song I have ever heard. It’s like an alien spaceship suddenly appears and plays a song. It’s bizarre. As a whole, I imagine this song is what quaaludes are like: even though you know things are moving at normal speed, you’re not seeing it in real time. I hate to say the song “taught me something” — ugh — but it reminds me to slow down my mind to better process things.
PW: I’ve tried to find the persistent narrator of Low, and the person in this song who is driving around the hotel garage for me is the same one in “Breaking Glass” who “drew something awful on it.” In an alternate reality, instead of [1983’s] Let’s Dance, Low is the album that catapulted Bowie to superstardom…and “Breaking Glass” is the hit single!
AW: I have often said that I want “A New Career in a New Town” played at my funeral, and it was one of the first songs I played after David died last year. It’s a hopeful song: the brightness of the tonal quality and, of course, the title. It was my way of saying to him, “Ok, next chapter…go for it, David.”
PW: I would want “Warszawa” played at my funeral. It’s a great dirge. Here’s a good example, too, of the album delivering something unexpected: Bowie’s voice as instrument, like a blaring sax or trumpet, using seemingly made up words.
AW: I guess I gravitate to the less “dirge-y.” The distant percussion which kicks off and stays persistent through “Art Decade” evokes a really pleasing jungle-like ambience for me. Interestingly, I learned later that Bowie initially didn’t really like this song, but Eno layered on some instruments and it was rescued from the out-takes.
PW: Even though some of the songs are dark, side one never leaves me in a negative emotional state. I can listen to it at any time. Side two? I have to be in the right mood. In comparison, “Heroes,” released just ten months later, I can listen to in full at any time.
AW: Hmm. “Heroes.” Should we do this again in October then?
In the fun yet pointless pastime of ranking Bowie’s albums, Paul puts Low a close second behind The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, while Adam has it at the top. Either way, this album solidly makes it on to both their desert island discs’ top ten lists. If you made it this far, it’s probably on your list, too.