KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – DAVID BOWIE “LOW” AND “HEROES”

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.

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40 comments on “Forty Year Friday – DAVID BOWIE “LOW” AND “HEROES”

  1. mikeladano
    April 14, 2017

    I really can’t comment too much, interesting read nonetheless. I only just won my first Bowie CD. Never really listened to him at work.

    Like

    • I saw that you recently won Blackstar and that it’s your first Bowie album. It’s a great record but not an ideal “first,” so I’ll be curious to see how you much you like it. There are so many key albums in his discography, and if you ever decide to dive in I know at least one blog series you might want to use as reference. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. keepsmealive
    April 14, 2017

    Fantastic write-ups, Rich!

    Nailed it: “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.”

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    • Thanks, Aaron. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to say about Bowie to introduce this post since I already wrote so much about him 5 years ago, but I’m glad you think I captured what’s great about his music in that quote.

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      • keepsmealive
        April 15, 2017

        You sure did, Rich. It’s easy to write reams and reams about the man and his creativity and his influence. But to grab the essence succinctly like that takes true skill. Well done!

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      • Thanks, Aaron. So many long-time Bowie fans have an easier time expressing why his music is so powerful, since it’s been part of their lives for so long. I still feel like a relatively new fan even though I started listening to him (via the ChangesOneBowie compilation) in high school. I don’t think it’s possible to be a well-rounded Bowie fan until you explore some of the individual albums, which didn’t happen for me until 5 years ago.

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      • keepsmealive
        April 17, 2017

        You’re way ahead of me on this one, Rich. I’m a filthy casual in comparison to just about everybody. But everything I hear makes me like him more. Enjoy!

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      • “Filthy casual.” Haha…I love that. Well done, Aaron.

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  3. Jeff Kempin
    April 14, 2017

    Big fan of Bowie and this era is my favorite as well. His death last year really affected me, more than any other celebrity death has, in many many years. I was genuinely sadabout losing Bowie. But we’ll always have his music and I think his reputation is only going to grow in these post-Bowie years.

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    • Sorry to hear how much of an impact his death had on you, but I’m sure you take comfort in the knowledge that so many others felt exactly the same. As you said, the saving grace is that his music will be appreciated even more now, and that will carry on for generations.

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  4. Alyson
    April 14, 2017

    Well, he was really prolific in 1977 wasn’t he. Here’s the freaky coincidence this week – I recorded The Man Who Fell To Earth a couple of months ago and finally got round to watching it (in a game of two halves) this week. The Low cover is of course Bowie in his Thomas Newton guise and having just watched the film, that particular hairstyle and duffle coat is just so familiar to me. I didn’t actually have these albums at the time (as we have ascertained my pocket money didn’t stretch that far) but have them now in my digital library. Yet another new direction for him but again (against all the odds considering his lifestyle at the time) he came up with something remarkable that has stood the test of time.

    The song Heroes appears in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and is very apt for the particular scene where the two lovers are torn apart by circumstance. As for the tracks Low and Sound and Vision, I am forever reminded of a music quiz I took part in when at school – I had a female friend who was also keen on such things but always seemed to pip me at the post so to speak. On this occasion there was a buzzer round and the piece of music played was Sound and Vision – In my haste to win the point I buzzed and gave the answer as Low – stupid mistake but of course it meant she won and received a whole load of records as a prize (perhaps even including the ones above!).

    Sorry, rambled on a bit again but enjoy these Friday forays into the past. Great to revisit all this music now that it’s possible to have so much of the back story available. Just wasn’t possible back in the day with only a few weekly or monthly publications at best. As for the film, don’t know how well you know it but was strange watching it again after a very long gap. I don’t know if this is my older self just being too closed-minded and practical but I kept picking holes in the plot and questioned the logic of it all – Certainly didn’t do that first time around so either my young self was just too bowled over by Bowie to question it or we are far more open-minded in our youth. He did look amazing in some of the scenes however, made even more amazing as most of the film was set in Texas/New Mexico – Such a contrast in his look compared to all that was around him. Perfect person to have played the man who fell to earth.

    Great post/review as ever. It’s a double thumbs up from me this week.

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing these stories, Alyson. Sorry your friend ended up with those records since you clearly deserved them. 😀 I’m glad (but not surprised) that we have these albums in common. As for The Man Who Fell To Earth, I’ve never seen it but hope to some day. My movie-viewing time has been limited for a while but I’m planning on catching up once the house renovations are done later this year. Have a great weekend.

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      • Alyson
        April 15, 2017

        I felt sure you would have seen it – shouldn’t have rambled on so much unless I knew for sure but one day maybe. Good luck with the renovations!

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      • No, I’m glad you “rambled” on about the movie. It makes me want to see it more.

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      • Alyson
        April 17, 2017

        The two kind of go together – at that time he gave us the gift of sound AND vision.

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      • “Sound and vision.” I see what you did there…and I like it.

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  5. Vinyl Connection
    April 14, 2017

    Marvellous stuff. Keep spreading the word, Rich!

    (I think Bowie and Floyd are the artists who have received both the most words and the most visits at Vinyl Connection. Certainly the reaction piece after his death was the biggest draw of 2016. An artist who touched many).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Bruce. Strange to discover the artists who generate the most feedback at our blogs. I don’t really care about clicks but I still find it interesting. I’m perplexed at the fact that my Berlin Trilogy post has amassed nearly three times the activity as the next most visited post. The internet is a complete mystery, but I enjoy seeing (and sharing in) the love for Bowie’s music, which has only grown since his death.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Aphoristical
    April 14, 2017

    I’ve always liked Low a lot more than Heroes, which is weird as they’re pretty similar. Maybe it just keeps my attention better as the songs are a bit shorter, or maybe it feels fresher because it was first.

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    • I see them as two sides of the same coin even though they have their own personalities. He was certainly on a roll at the time, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Murphy's Law
        April 15, 2017

        I was just the opposite – I really liked Heroes from the first time I heard it (the 1991 Ryko re-releases) but I just couldn’t get into Low – too many ambient instrumentals – at that age I had no patience with songs that didn’t seem to go anywhere. I revisited Low last year and I like it a lot better now.

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      • I can see Heroes making a much more immediate impact than Low, but over time they both age extremely well and it’s hard to figure out if I prefer one over the other.

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  7. Bill Van Orden
    April 14, 2017

    David Bowie is a rock legend to me….never pigeonholed, I’m only echoing what most people think of him….I have my favorite albums of his, and they are mostly what an album is SUPPOSED to convey…. a journey and a bit of a time capsule of the attitude, style, and angst of the age it was recorded in…. He, is an artist I truly miss.

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    • Bill, you have exceptional taste in music, and I’m always pleased when I discover another artist we have in common. Are you willing to share some of your Bowie favorites?

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  8. DanicaPiche
    April 15, 2017

    Great feature, Rich! Bowie is one of my favorites, yet there is much I haven’t heard. ‘Low’ is on my list.

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  9. J.
    April 15, 2017

    Great post, Rich. I recently got into both of these albums in a big way (previous foray into Bowie’s more recent stuff at the time (around 2005) didn’t do much for me, but I started exploring again ten years later (eventually buying Diamond Dogs in September 2015).

    Like

    • Thanks, J. Isn’t it fun when you finally “get” albums that didn’t immediately make an impact? That’s what happened to me as well with both of these albums and now they’re essentials.

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  10. Bill Van Orden
    April 15, 2017

    There are many songs of Bowie’s that I consider favorites…. Honestly, first song I heard of his was GOLDEN YEARS, then FAME, YOUNG AMERICANS and CHANGES …. I sought out others, because this guy was a JUKEBOX HERO to me — the Nineties brought him into a COOL WORLD (Ralph Bakshi is a cornerstone cartoonist for me) AND there was a powerful song that was so SO Bowie soon after “I’M AFRAID OF AMERICANS’ —-too many twists, turns, INNOVATIONS and personalities to cram into one paragraph….. I just LOVE the fact that his music had as many layers as the man himself.

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  11. alehouseaggie
    April 21, 2017

    Still reeling over Bowie’s death. There will never be another like him. And I can’t pick a favorite song because they all were so good.

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    • I know what you mean about not being able to choose a favorite Bowie song. It’s hard to pick favorite albums or even eras of his career since each section of his discography has something interesting (and often incredible) to offer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • alehouseaggie
        April 21, 2017

        Yes, indeed!!! And I haven’t even discovered all of his music yet. Although I do have Blackstar, the Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, and a three disc set of his greatest hits.

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      • That is a fine Bowie collection you have there, and once you dive in further you’ll likely become an even bigger fan. Enjoy all the discovery.

        Liked by 1 person

      • alehouseaggie
        April 21, 2017

        Thank you, I will! He and Prince were part of my MTV generation. So it definitely hurts.

        Like

      • I never really enjoyed Prince’s music, and I heard a lot of it working in three different record stores between 1983 & 1988. I recognized the immense talent but it simply didn’t do anything for me. Recently I played his first 8 or 9 albums in succession on Spotify and really enjoyed most of it. I don’t think I’ll ever be a huge fan but I always keep an open mind (and open ears) and it’s fun to reappraise certain artists years later.

        Liked by 1 person

      • alehouseaggie
        April 21, 2017

        That’s interesting! I always preferred him to Michael Jackson. Although I will never be a big Prince fan either.

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      • I never really compared Michael Jackson with Prince but I can see where anyone who discovered them during the ’80s might do that. Between his work with The Jackson 5 and solo albums like Off The Wall and Thriller, MJ had a pretty impressive track record, but of course he also needed great collaborators whereas Prince could do it all by himself.

        Liked by 1 person

      • alehouseaggie
        April 24, 2017

        Prince was way more talented

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      • I can’t argue with you re: Michael Jackson vs. Prince, but I’ve enjoyed more MJ music in my life (so far).

        Like

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