Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: DAVID BOWIE
Album: LOW and “HEROES”
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Between November 2011 and February 2012 I immersed myself in the music of David Bowie, of whom I was only a casual fan despite owning the majority of his albums, for a 9-part series on his discography. Of all the artist catalogs I’ve written about, Bowie’s was the most enlightening & enjoyable, offering something new, interesting & often unexpected on every album…even the lesser ones. From 1977 to 1979 he released three of his most challenging, un-commercial albums which were beloved by Bowie devotees but head-scratchers for the rest of us. In the process of re-evaluating them, not only did I finally fall in love with these records, but my write-up about this so-called “Berlin Trilogy” became the most visited post in the 6-years-and-counting history of KamerTunesBlog. Along with the album that preceded this trilogy, Station To Station, this is now my favorite era of Bowie’s career. Two of the records from this creative winning streak, Low and “Heroes,” were released in 1977. Even though I’ve already discussed them in great detail, they deserve their own Forty Year Friday feature, so I’m re-posting what I wrote about them more than five years ago. I hadn’t noticed until recently that I concluded each album appraisal with the suggestion that they will likely grow on me over the years. I may have been unknowingly repetitive but also accurate. I played these albums a few times this past week, for the first time since I wrote this series, and I love them even more now. They may not be the best entry point for Bowie newbies, but if you already enjoy his more popular material and want to dig deeper, they’re a great place to start.
Beginning Low with the instrumental track “Speed Of Life” was a bold statement. At a time when most artists still opened their albums with the most chart-friendly song, Bowie was clearly interested in artistic expression over commercial success. This is a great tune that stomps & swings, with lots of (Brian) Eno’s synth treatments and a couple of catchy guitar hooks. It’s followed by “Breaking Glass,” a brief song featuring abstract lyrics, a great beat with synth washes and a fantastic guitar hook. It was co-written with drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray, which explains the cool rhythm throughout. Later that year, singer Nick Lowe (still a relative unknown) recorded an EP called Bowi, with tongue in cheek, as a response to this Bowie album title. I wonder if he was inspired by this track when he recorded his now-classic early single, “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass,” the following year. “What In The World,” a driving rocker with squealing guitar, has an early Roxy Music feel, which isn’t surprising considering Eno’s contributions.
The first truly breathtaking song here is “Sound And Vision,” with an amazingly funky rhythm (thanks to a killer bass line) and great percussion and synth effects. I love how his voice alternates between low & high, and the way he harmonizes with his own voice, as well as the vocal hook at “blue, blue, electric blue.” In an earlier post I mentioned Bowie acolyte Edwyn Collins (who had a mid-90s hit with “A Girl Like You”). I’m also a fan of his pre-solo work with the band Orange Juice, and now it’s clear to me that much of their recorded output can be traced to this particular Bowie song. I love making these kinds of musical connections. The most straightforward song here is the piano-driven “Be My Wife,” which sounds like his earlier glam-rock records. It’s very sparse, with just one verse & chorus repeated once, and has some of his most simple and heartfelt lyrics (“Please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife”). Two songs with steady beats and cool sonic effects that didn’t make huge impressions on me are “Always Crashing The Same Car” and “A New Career In A New Town.” The former is good but not as essential as the first four songs, and the latter just didn’t stick with me after numerous listens (although I do love the pulsing electronic rhythm).
The album closes with four songs that are essentially instrumentals. My favorite of these is “Warszawa” (it does have some chanted vocals, but they don’t come in until about 4 minutes into the song). It’s moody and eerie, with a haunting synth melody that sounds like a flute. It’s obvious that this was the blueprint for Gary Numan on his slower, more atmospheric songs. Also, one of my musical heroes, Joe Jackson, used this sound to great effect on songs from his 1994 album, Night Music. I think Joe was listening to the next song, “Art Decade,” at that time as well. It continues the eerie feel of the previous track with another haunting tune. Apparently the title was a play on the term “art deco,” but I think it’s also a pun for “art decayed.” It didn’t seem like he had a sense of humor during this era, but apparently he did. “Weeping Wall” is lighter and airier than the two previous songs, with lots of percussion flourishes and a pulsing, motorik rhythm. “Subterraneans” closes the album with a spacey, Pink Floyd vibe (circa The Dark Side Of The Moon), especially with that saxophone melody. There are a few abstract lyrics, but it’s more about creating a mood than telling a story. This is an album that rewards listeners with each listen. As much as I’ve come to love it the last two weeks, I expect it will continue to grow on me in the coming years.
The only album recorded completely in Berlin, “Heroes” follows the template set by Low, but smoothes out some of the rough edges, and even includes one of his most beloved songs. Also, King Crimson leader Robert Fripp adds his inimitable lead guitar sound throughout the album. Before discussing the music, I’ve always been curious about why the album title has those quotation marks. Is he saying that the heroes in question are not really heroes in his eyes? And who are these people? Let’s jump to the title track, “Heroes,” which is the third song on the album. It seems to be about two lovers who are constantly torn apart no matter how much they want to be together. The final verse implies that they’re from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, which might explain the obstacles in their relationship. Regardless of the meaning behind the song, the music is amazing. The tune is super-catchy, the synth heavy production is stellar, and Bowie’s vocal performance is among his best. It’s rightly considered a classic.
Now back to the start of the album, and opening track “Beauty And The Beast.” This song takes the fun, funky groove of “TVC15” to a new level, adding in slightly distorted vocals and a cool vocal hook (“You can’t say no to the beauty and the beast”). Talking Heads would soon be incorporating this funky sound into their music. “Joe The Lion” is another excellent song. His voice has a manic, crazed and yet controlled sound. One of the highlights of this album for me was “Sons Of The Silent Age.” It starts off like one of Roxy Music’s dramatic tunes with blasting sax, but the rest of the tune is midtempo with swirling synth sounds and dramatic rhythms. I love the watery vocal sound when he sings the title, and there’s a great hook in the chorus (“Sons of sound and sons of sound”). I don’t really know what this one’s about (I guess that could apply to most of this trilogy), but this song made a lasting impression. Eno is all over the fast rockin’ “Blackout,” but other than the “kiss you in the rain” refrain, there’s nothing terribly catchy here.
The second side of the original LP consisted of four instrumentals before ending with a vocal track. The saxophone melody on “V-2 Schneider” sets it apart from the obvious influence of Kraftwerk, but even the title references their founding member, Florian Schneider. This one is all about mood. “Sense Of Doubt” is actually scary (but in a good way), especially that descending 4-note melody. The synth part reminds me of Genesis’ “Watcher Of The Skies,” but like the previous track, it’s more “sound effect” than song. “Moss Garden” is given a Japanese feel with Bowie playing koto. It’s a peaceful tune with slow whooshing synths and chirpy sound effects. There are more creepy sound effects on “Neuköln,” with synth and sax intertwining. At times the keyboard tone, as well as the whale sounds at the end, recalls Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” The album closes with the funky and mildly hypnotic “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” a vocal tune with a chugging groove and a great Bernard Edwards-esque bass line. Like its predecessor, this is not an easy album to digest, but its beauty is revealed a little more with each listen. I love it now, and I expect that to grow over the years.