About the Album:
After living in Los Angeles and dealing with drug addiction, Bowie and his friend Iggy Pop moved to France in 1976 to sober up. The pair of them recorded The Idiot, Pop’s debut solo album. They traveled to Hansa Studios in West Berlin to mix the album and Bowie became fascinated with the city. In September 1976, Bowie began work on his own album, Low, the first of three albums which became known as the Berlin Trilogy.
Brian Eno, who’d explored ambient music in his work, heavily influenced Bowie during this period. He has been mistakenly attributed as the producer of the Berlin Trilogy albums, but they were actually produced by Tony Visconti, who’d worked with Bowie on previous albums. Eno, however, “functioned as a conduit for Bowie’s ideas, and in turn Bowie made the experimentalism of not only Eno but of the German synth group Kraftwerk and the post-punk group Wire respectable, if not quite mainstream.” AMG “The record is defiantly experimental and dense with detail, providing a new direction for the avant-garde in rock & roll,” AMG including experimental rock such as post-punk, electronic, and ambient music.
Side one consisted of “short, direct avant-pop song fragments.” WK “The guitars are jagged and the synthesizers drone with a menacing robotic pulse, while Bowie’s vocals are unnaturally layered and overdubbed.” AMG
“Sound and Vision has a shimmering guitar hook” AMG and doesn’t feature Bowie’s vocals until the 1:45 mark. Eno said it was done to “confound listener expectations.” WK The lyrics reflected Bowie’s mental state after his drug addiction. He called it his “ultimate retreat song.” WK
Always Crashing in the Same Car referenced an incident during Bowie’s time in Los Angeles when he kept ramming his car into that of a drug dealer’s who was ripping him off. Lyrically, it was a metaphor for repeating mistakes and Bowie’s obsession with travel and constant lifestyle change. WK
On Be My Wife, Bowie was lyrically reflecting on his “feelings of loneliness, inability to settle, and plea for human connections.” WK Musically, it “subverts soul structure in a surprisingly catchy fashion.” AMG
The second side consists of longer, mostly “atmospheric instrumentals.” AMG “The electronics turn cool, which is a relief after the intensity of the preceding avant pop.” AMG
Warszawa was named after the Polish city of Warsaw. Bowie visited it in April 1976 and wanted to capture the desolate landscape in music. The haunting song was mostly composed by Eno. Biographer David Buckley called it the album’s “most startling” piece. WK
Art Decade, about West Berlin, was a pun on “art decayed.” It was Bowie’s reflection on “a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution.” WK Weeping Wall was “meant to evoke the pain and misery of the Berlin Wall.” WK It featured Bowie playing all the instruments himself. It was influenced by composer Steve Reich.
Bowie described Subterraneans as a portrait of “the people who got caught in East Berlin after the separation.” WK it was originally recorded for the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, which starred Bowie. The director, Nicolas Roeg, decided against the music, wanting a folksier sound. WK
The album was originally rejected by RCA, who wanted something in a more commercial vein like preceding albums Young Americans and Station to Station. Bowie refused and RCA delayed the album from its intended November 1976 release because they considered it “distinctinly unpalatable” for the Christmas market. WK It was eventually released in January 1977 and received little promotion.
Sounds magazine’s Tim Lott called Low “the most difficult piece of music Bowie has ever put his name to.” WK Phonograph Record’s Bud Scoppa said it was “the most intimate and free recording this extraordinary artist has yet made.” WK NME’s Ian MacDonald described the album as “stunningly beautiful…the sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers.” WK The New York Times’ John Rockwell said “the instrumentals are strange and spacey. Nevertheless, the whole thing strikes this listener as remarkably, alluringly beautiful.” WK The Observer’s Ron Hart said “Low is an album that will make you dance, think and weep all in the span of 38 minutes.” WK
Notes: The 1991 Rykodisc reissue adds a remixed version of “Sound and Vision” as well as previously unreleased songs “Some Are” and “All Saints.”