I’ve always thought of David Bowie and Damon Albarn as kindred spirits. They are both highly explorative, gifted, and progressive artists who understand the power of a hit song — and they’ve both written a fair few in their time.
With 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie took his first steps into a career that would see him morph from otherworldly glam-star to sleek disco-freak to goatee-flaunting grungester (an incarnation we’d all like to forget if we had the chance). Albarn’s career has been no less varied, seeing him define an era of British music with Blur, embark on a solo project, and pioneer the virtual-band format with his collaborative audio-vidual project Gorillaz.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, Albarn continued Bowie’s chameleon-esque legacy, embracing the late rock icon’s pursuit of fresh sounds. It’s no wonder, then, that when Albarn was asked to name some of his favourite albums, a David Bowie LP was among them. When describing Bowie’s eleventh studio album Low, Albarn said: “The sound of David and Brian absorbing punk then taking it to Berlin to produce a futuristic record, right on the frontline of the Cold War.”
Released in 1977, Low is undoubtedly one of Bowie’s most unique and stimulating albums. The production of the record was, for Bowie, almost a form of rehab. After years of drug abuse, he ventured to France with Iggy Pop in an attempt to sober up. Following his work on Pop’s debut album, The Idiot at the Château d’Hérouville, Bowie began work on Low with producer Tony Visconti and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno. The record was grounded in Bowie’s interest in all things Germanic, which included a love of krautrock bands like Tangerine Dream, the minimalist synth explorations of Kraftwerk, and the philosophy of german thinkers. It is a highly collaborative album that sees Bowie stitch together disparate song fragments with confessional lyrics and otherworldly textures.
At the time of its release, it sounded like nothing else. With Low, Bowie somehow managed to create a record that sounded utterly alien and, at the same time, tied to the urban landscape from which it was born. In taking inspiration from the various artists emerging from Berlin in the 1970s, Bowie came out with something that honoured the german leftfield without ripping it off. For Albarn, this was the key to Bowie’s genius. Indeed, the one-time Blur frontman once said that he aimed to “do that thing Bowie does – ripping off someone until it sounds like himself” in his own work.
And perhaps this is where the real similarity between Bowie and Albarn lies. They both achieved that same ambition. Bowie curated multiple personas, but at his core, he was a rough-shod combination of Anthony Newley and Andy Warhol. Likewise, throughout his career, Damon Albarn has combined ’60s trendsetters like The Kinks, The Beatles, and Syd Barrett with a range of ambient, Afrobeat, and hip-hop artists. In doing so, both artists developed something new, something that hadn’t existed before. At the end of the day, isn’t that the essential function of all art-making?