The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie’s escapist glory, ‘Sound & Vision’
When David Bowie presented Low as a finished product to his record label, RCA, they were less than pleased. However, the accidental single taken from the album, one which Bowie himself did very little to help promote, would prove to be his most successful hit, reaching number three in the charts. David Bowie and Iggy Pop ended up in Berlin as a last-ditch attempt to get clean from their respective drug uses, and the song’s conception began there.
Bowie was infamously hooked on copious amounts of cocaine at the time and, allegedly, did not remember making his 1976 album Station to Station. Meanwhile Iggy Pop was consuming anything he could get his hands on, with an added regular usage of heroin, it was a desperate time that saw the singer living in an abandoned garage. The two bumped into each other in the plastic streets of LA, and it would be Bowie who would ultimately ask Iggy if he wanted to come with him to Berlin. Bowie said of the German capital, “Berlin appealed to me because of German expressionism.”
The Starman added, “It was the artistic and cultural gateway of Europe in the twenties and virtually anything important that happened in the arts happened there. And I wanted to plug into that instead of LA and their seedy magic shops.” Bowie enticed Iggy with a new kind of clean living and a new direction in his music career. After all, nobody else wanted to work with Iggy at the time because of his dependency. They had it in their mind that they would head to Berlin, get clean and feed off each other’s creativity.
Iggy Pop albums The Idiot and Lust for Life could and should be considered a part of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy as they greatly informed his work, specifically on the album Low, with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti adding their respective magic. The process behind the recording of Low and, ultimately, lead single ‘Sound and Vision,’ marked a new direction for Bowie. Not only was he trying to get clean, but he started to utilise new techniques within the studio. Brian Eno would comment on this, “David knew that putting certain players together would create an overall context automatically.”
Speaking about Low, Bowie described the record as, “A reaction to having gone through that peculiar…that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, ‘For God’s sake. re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately. Find some people you don’t understand and a place you don’t want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries.'”
During this time — with Eno alongside in the studio — Bowie would employ techniques picked up from Eno; Bowie would push his assembled diverse players out of their comfort zones. Specifically, as a self-identified non-musician, for his own albums, Eno would prompt the gathered players not with specific musical notes or theory, but rather by sparking their imaginations, by using keywords such as, “landscapes, animals, weather patterns or surreal scenarios.” While not used on Low; this directing and composing would find a more tangible form within Eno’s Oblique Strategies — a deck of cards containing outside-the-box directives (‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention’), which can be drawn at random, not unlike the cut-up technique — producing results from spontaneity and the subconscious.
Within the greater context of this period of time, ‘Sound and Vision’ really embodied the ethos of this process. Bowie described the story behind the song, “a very sad song for me … I was trying very hard to drag myself out of an awful period of my life. I was locked in a room in Berlin telling myself I was going to straighten up and not do drugs anymore. I was never going to drink again. Only some of it proved to be the case. It was the first time I knew I was killing myself and time to do something about my physical condition.” A typical day of recording any one song off Low, including ‘Sound and Vision’, saw Bowie’s ensemble of musicians record the instrumentals. The rest of the band would then leave the studio, and Bowie would record his vocals, at times improvising the words and then shaving some off wherever needed.
In truth, as reflected in the process, the song provided Bowie with a place of reflection and solace. About ‘Sound and Vision’, Bowie said: “Ultimate retreat song…it was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.”
Mary Visconti, Tony Visconti’s wife provided vocals for the track, which you can hear on ‘Sound and Vision’ as backing tracks but were put more into the foreground of the song, more so as originally intended. Mary described the process later on, “One evening, Brian called me into the studio to sing a quick backing vocal with him on ‘Sound And Vision’. We sang his cute little ‘doo doo’ riff in unison. It was meant to be a distant echo but, when David heard it, he pushed up the fader until it became a prominent vocal – much to my embarrassment, as I thought it very twee. I love the song and I’m a great admirer of David’s work.”
Whereas on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, which contained about 2,000 words of lyrics, there was a tinge of minimalism running throughout Low; the album only had around 450 words in the entire album. ‘Sound and Vision’ was intended to be an instrumental at first, which is why Bowie’s vocals only kicks until halfway through the track but when it does, it lands with aplomb and reminds us just how potent a singer Bowie was.
‘Sound and Vision’ was released in February of 1977, the lengthy intro was also used on BBC television programme trailers. This would prove the only necessary promotion for the song; Bowie never promoted it, there was never a music video, and there was no Top of the Pops performance either. Despite all this, it would be his biggest hit until 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’.
Listen to Bowie’s timeless hit, ‘Sound and Vision’, below.