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45 years on from David Bowie's 'Low' an experimental masterclass


David Bowie’s legacy is untouchable. The icon transcended the world of pop music as he did any art he put his hand to. Bowie wasn’t just an incredible songwriter but an unbelievable actor, painter and poet. However, there can be no doubt that his most creatively lucrative period came in Berlin. In order to escape the cocaine grip of gaudy Los Angeles, David Bowie and his old pal Iggy Pop moved to the then-Heroin capital of the world, Berlin. It was a move that proved to be both creatively and, in some ways, spiritually, an effervescent boon for the duo.

When Bowie first set his sights on being “an influential person”, he attempted to catapult his singular creative splatter onto the mainstream via a strange mime-based multimedia project. That says a hell of a lot about the man we’re dealing with. In retrospect, it can be easy to think that after his fallow feet-finding period, his career began in earnest with Hunky Dory and after that, he became a megastar. However, the truth of it is that he couldn’t buy a hit.

In the 1970s, his albums charted in the commercially hollowed-ground of the US as follows: The Man Who Sold The World – 105, Hunky Dory – failed to chart, Ziggy Stardust – 75, Aladdin Sane – 17, Pin Ups – 23, Diamond Dogs – five, Young Americans – nine, Station to Station – three. Most people would continue such a pop ascent. However, in the most Bowie move ever, just as his star was gathering pace, he came out with a record so unusual that it saw him invent his own language — Low.

Despite being made mainly in France, this instalment of the Berlin trilogy is widely thought of as the most aligned with the era’s pursuit of experimentation. With Bowie kicking his cocaine habit into touch and the star trying to reinstall a sense of creative curiosity, Low is a joy to behold as he traverses the pitfalls of modern life.

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As Bowie began to employ the William S. Burroughs cut-up technique for writing lyrics, the music and the output became more and more opaque. More dense and textured. Bowie had been experimental before, but now it was a deliberate pursuit, and on Low, he delivers experimentation with a cheeky wink and a glint in his eye that confirmed he was one of the greats before anybody had asserted him as so.

Tony Visconti captains the ship on production, and the album moves like a well-oiled machine because of it. Of course, Brian Eno is also on hand to lend his help where needed. It’s a dream combination that ends up in an ethereal album that seemingly creates its own world for you. However, despite being one of Bowie’s more obscure records, it contains one of his most potent pop songs, ‘Sound and Vision’.

‘Sound and Vision’ remains one of Bowie’s most notable songs. A permanent fixture in some people’s top ten lists, the song is an archetypal piece from the Thin White Duke as he uses abstract lyrical constructs shaped by incessantly groove-filled instrumentals to bamboozle and entrance.

The song had originally been composed as an instrumental track, something Visconti and Bowie had agreed upon when creating the Berlin trilogy LP but was soon flourished by some of the singer’s more abstract lyrics. It’s a song that showed Bowie was always an artist before he was a pop star and, when it could’ve been so easy to conform and write pop ballads forevermore, he showed that artistic evolution was always paramount.

Across the rest of the album, there are joyous moments, ‘Subterraneans’ is still a vital piece of Bowie’s iconography, as is ‘New Carrer in a New Town’ and ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’. However, to focus too heavily on individual songs is to undercut the point of the album. Bowie was sick of writing rock and pop songs for the charts. He no longer wanted to behave in the ways the audience wanted him to. In truth, Low was Bowie’s refusal to play to the gallery, even if it did begin to put the spotlight on him in a brand new way.

Low won’t be for everyone, but if you can make an album like this, under the pressures Bowie was facing, and have it still sound as potent and perfect 45 years on from its release, then you’ve surely achieved something. For the man who achieved pretty much everything that he set out to do in his career, no album speaks as loudly of Bowie’s credentials as Low.