One of the most ludicrous claims in the history of popular music criticism has to be Pitchfork’s assertion that David Bowie’s Low album was the best album of the ’70s.
I don’t know what the best album of the ’70s was because I think all “best of all time” arguments are pointless exercises designed to stir up controversy, lure readers and increase ad revenue while giving people who have no lives a way to fill the empty spaces by arguing about nothing of consequence. I may think Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all-time; you might argue for Babe Ruth. Who gives a shit? What does it prove? Who decides who’s right?
One thing I do know is that Low was certainly not the best album of the ’70s. I can’t prove my assertion scientifically, but Low certainly doesn’t consistently engage me like London Calling, Who’s Next, Aqualung, Wish You Were Here . . . or Hunky Dory . . . or side two of Ziggy Stardust . . . or Heroes. I could fill this post with oodles of ’70’s albums that are far more compelling than this first leg of the so-called Berlin Trilogy (mostly recorded in France).
So if Low isn’t the greatest invention since the hand-held vibrator, what is it?
Low is an album that chronicles a very low period (hence the title) in David Bowie’s life when he was trying to recover from La-La-Land and a nasty cocaine habit. The most engaging aspect of the album is the presence of David Bowie stripped of the various persona he had adopted over the preceding years. Though the lyrics are sparse in the extreme, Bowie comes across as more human than at any time since Hunky Dory, displaying a healthy humility that he had lost during his theatrical period. Low feels like a healing experience, a necessary break from the past that gave him permission to seek a way out of the artistic cul-de-sac of the alt-persona era. He immersed himself in the German electronic-progressive scene by reaching out to bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, then formed a collaborative partnership with Brian Eno, who had already invented the term “ambient music” to describe his experimental work with electronica. The result of the internal and external influences is an introverted album dominated by song fragments and instrumental musings that range from yawners to keepers.
Some find the dominance of instrumental music on Low frustrating, while millennials who approach Low often feel puzzled and somewhat dismayed by what seems to be incredibly poor production. That impression comes from the fact that the electronic instruments of the ’70s and the techniques used to record them were primitive in comparison to today’s more advanced and sophisticated ways and means. If you approach the instrumentals expecting to hear the recording quality and instrumental clarity of works by Radiohead or Imogen Heap, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The experience of listening to Low is somewhat like the results that come from tinkering around with the various “voices” on an early 21st Century Yamaha keyboard—the oboe kinda sorta sounds like an oboe, the flute has the breathiness but lacks the overtones and the entire string section sounds like shit. I would suggest ignoring the instrumentation (when you can), adopting a forgiving attitude towards the production and focusing your attention on the compositional structure, for there are indeed a couple of pieces worth the effort. Another way to evaluate the quality of the compositions is to find a copy of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, “Low,” where the master of film music takes the instrumentals “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa” from the original album and the vocal mood piece “Some Are” (not included in the original Low release) to create a stunningly beautiful, cinematic music experience. The cinematic aspect of the music should not be overlooked, as Bowie had written several of the pieces for the film The Man Who Fell to Earth only to have the producer reject his work. While this brings up another obstacle to appreciating Low, (cinematic music is nearly always better in the context of a film), Glass has consistently and successfully overcome that obstacle, and I encourage listeners to find a copy of the symphony to better appreciate the fundamentally solid foundations of those two instrumental pieces.
Low opens with an instrumental, one for which Bowie originally intended to write lyrics but he was hampered by a still-recovering brain and couldn’t find the right words. Too bad, because “Speed of Life” really doesn’t work all that well as an instrumental, and the overlay of synthesizer and Chamberlin over traditional instruments makes for a very messy sound. The natural instruments generally outshine the electronics, with Carlos Alomar and George Murray making tasty contributions . . . but the drums . . . well, that’s a story in itself. Producer Tony Visconti applied a harmonizer to Dennis Davis’ drums, creating a cavernous sound that became all the rage with producers, much in the same way the gated drum sound created by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel caused similar excitement. To my ears, they sound terribly sloppy, bleeding all over the track . . . but I’m a dinosaur when it comes to drums, strongly preferring the natural sounds of unfiltered skins to electronically-enhanced percussion. The song isn’t half bad and has a solid, sexy, boozy feel to it, but I find the drums and electronics annoying and the lack of lyrics a missed opportunity.
There are many missed lyrical opportunities on Low, as Bowie was going through a phase where he was “intolerably bored with conventional narrative rock and roll lyrics.” In fact, the strongest set of lyrics consist of the nine truncated lines and forty-five words of “Breaking Glass”:
Baby, I’ve been
Breaking glass in your room again
Don’t look at the carpet
I drew something awful on it
You’re such a wonderful person
But you got problems
I’ll never touch you
These cocaine memories are delivered in a naughty boy tone that hints at the first signs of healing: a healthy sense of humor. The minimalism works well here, capturing the anti-social behavior of the addict who redefines the problem as the uptight attitude of the straight embracing a bourgeois orientation towards material possessions. I rather like the song and David’s playful vocal; its one-minute-and fifty-three seconds of recording time classifies it as a fragment along the lines of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (without an elaborate supporting suite). I’m okay with that—though I’m not a fan of Abbey Road, those two moments raise my spirits, as does this tiny flash of wit.
“What in the World” features a noisy, sloppy arrangement that I find quite irritating, but I find some solace in the lyrics and the theme of the real person emerging from a socially-induced façade. The parallels between the storyline and Bowie’s experience in the glamorous, drug-filled façade of Los Angeles are obvious, especially in the denouement:
To be real me, to the real me
Under the cool, under the cool and under having a ball
What you gonna say to the real me, to the real me
From all I’ve read on the subject, this could be Bowie talking to himself, wondering if he still had the capability of connecting with his “real me.”
I find no such solace in “Sound and Vision,” a song that sounds like an electronically-enhanced throwback to Young Americans with lyrics lame enough to suit a disco crowd. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is far superior, a healthy dose of self-reflection concerning the dead-end of his L. A. experience. The mood established by David’s introverted, I-can’t-believe-this-was-me vocal, the repeated figures of electronica and the swerving tones of Ricky Gardiner’s guitar capture both the maddening uncertainty associated with a loss of personal control and a sense of hope that one can change the drug-driven script. Based on a real-life event where David crashed his Mercedes into the car of a dealer who had allegedly ripped him off and then spent the rest of the evening driving around in circles in an underground garage, “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is a tale of that rock-bottom place the addict has to find before recovery is possible.
And when you hit rock-bottom, the loneliness is often the most unbearable part of the experience. David’s wish for a steady companion is simply and beautifully expressed in “Be My Wife,” a song that starts out as a freewheeling bash with its ragtime piano but turns into something richer and deeper once he enters with his slightly forlorn vocal. The tension between music and vocal tone is resolved as the song progresses, settling into a minor key pattern that emphasizes the sad state of affairs. This is the least-electronic song on the album, but I disagree with the critics who describe it as the most conventional—the tension between instrumentation and vocal lifts “Be My Wife” above the run-of-the mill.
We now move forward into instrumental-only territory (not counting the scraps of nonsense lyrics on two tracks) with “A New Career in a New Town,” a piece that works on a structural basis with the introductory mood of anxious uncertainty captured in a soundscape mingling a melancholy flute-like sound with synthesized counterpoint, followed by music that attempts to reflect the exciting possibilities of newness. The problem is in the execution of the second section, where the instruments sound harsh and buzzy and the enhanced drums are placed too far forward in the mix. “Warszawa” is more successful in capturing the cold, gray mood of communist Poland in the early ’70s with its ominous bass tone foundation eventually supporting a synthesized harmonic counterpoint expressing the sad dreariness of it all. A key change accompanies a textural shift at about the four-minute mark, where we hear the sound of the human voice enmeshed in deep bass tones, cueing Bowie’s “lyrics.” Those lyrics are not in Polish, but pseudo-Eastern-European-sounding syllables—more like a chant from the era in Polish history when the West Slavic peoples migrated into the era, around 500 A.D. The melody was influenced by a Polish song performed by the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble that Bowie picked up during a visit to Warsaw in 1973, and though the lyrics to “Warszawa” may not be authentic, Bowie certainly captured the evocative essentials. The piece ends with a reprise of the second section, giving this mood piece holistic credibility.
“Art Decade” attempts to capture the mood of another place, in this case a street in West Berlin. The piece was originally slotted for the shit pile because the simple piano arrangement wasn’t working, but Brian Eno came in and added some layers, then Bowie added some more and voilà, “Art Decade” made the cut. Personally, I think they should have left this rather tedious reflection in the shit pile. “Weeping Wall” gives Berlin another go, a piece oddly based on “Scarborough Fair” that introduces the basic melody of that tiresome old chestnut on what sounds like an electronic kazoo. Absolutely dreadful.
Bowie and Eno saved the best for last with “Subterraneans,” a third piece on the Berlin experience, this time attempting to evoke the feelings of those who found themselves stuck in East Berlin after the erection of the Berlin Wall. The base composition was designed during the Station to Station period, but Bowie and Eno added numerous overlays and edits during the Low sessions. Though “Subterraneans” serves as the closer on Low, Philip Glass used it for the first movement of the Low Symphony (with Warszawa as the third and final movement). Though I strongly prefer the authentic sounds of flutes and strings courtesy of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, the Low version is easily the best-engineered instrumental of the bunch, strengthened immeasurably by the finest saxophone solo of Bowie’s career. The heavy bass tones and background synth “orchestra” successfully project the emotional power in the piece, and though I do prefer the Glass version, I can certainly appreciate what Bowie and Eno created.
Low may not be the greatest album of the decade or even the best in Bowie’s catalog, but it does have value as a story of artistic entrenchment. David Bowie chose to leave the hellscape of his life in L.A. and his shifting identities, leaving commercial considerations for another day to explore different ways of expressing himself through music. This act of reinvention would inform all of his later work, all the way through the life-closing experience of Blackstar. It’s too bad that Bowie fanatics have made such a big deal about Low, distracting listeners from the more authentic narrative of an artist in search of self and new pathways to creation.
After changing persona from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack to plastic soul guy, David Bowie decided to step into the phone booth one more time and emerge as The Thin White Duke, “A very Aryan fascist type” (as described in Peter Doggett’s book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970s).
The real David Bowie had developed an enormous cocaine habit, lived on a diet of peppers and milk, and experienced life through a lens of psychic paranoia. According to Nicholas Pegg (another biographer), David remembered nothing about the recording sessions for Station to Station, noting that “I know it was in L. A. because I’ve read it was.” Guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick were also up to their noses in cocaine and recall very little about the recording experience.
Station to Station has been labeled a transitional album, as was Young Americans. The label “transitional album” is generally applied to situations where the album itself sucks but allegedly reveals a new and promising artistic direction. Bowie critics tend to be forgiving types, and very rarely dish out anything in the way of deserved, adverse criticism, so the “transitional” label gave them an out as well as an opportunity to concoct a variety of explanations for substandard performance without calling it substandard performance. One must always remember that David Bowie was a master at manipulating journalists, who generally adored him because he always gave them good copy.
Well, I certainly admire David Bowie and his many contributions to the arts, but he was as human as you or me, and in the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker, he had moments when he was “a fuck-up just like the rest of us.” My views are as follows: Young Americans just plain sucks, while Station to Station is . . . occasionally interesting but I don’t see much of a transitional connection between Station to Station and Low, and by this time the alternative persona act was getting tedious, a way for him to put off having to deal with his real-life problems.
And the various consequences of being a fuck-up.
David would eventually pull himself out of the muck and move on to record the so-called Berlin trilogy (so-called because only Heroes was entirely recorded in that city), exploring new sounds and lyrical modes thanks to the influences of Brian Eno, William Burroughs and Kraftwerk. I’ll cover the beginning of that transition in my review of Low, but first we’ll explore Station to Station, focusing on the quality of the listening experience and how it fits into Bowie’s artistic trajectory.
I will say upfront that Station to Station is a more exciting record than Young Americans. They may have been high on coke most of the time, but Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar kick fucking ass on this record, ripping out the power every chance they get. One could make the argument that the backing band pretty much carried Bowie on this album, as his lyrical contributions are generally sub-par, his vocals occasionally unfocused and his choice of material in one specific instance highly questionable.
The title track opens this 6-song album (some have classified Station to Station as an EP, but at thirty-nine minutes, it’s longer than both Rubber Soul and Revolver). It’s a very revealing track that highlights both the talent of the musicians and the lack of compositional discipline. A good chunk of the 10-plus minutes is filled with wasted space and excessive repetition: the synthetic train engine sounds at the beginning of the track eat up over a minute, followed by forty-five seconds of band warm-up set to two lousy chords on an electric piano and a long sustained note on electric guitar. Once the band finally engages with a coherent beat, a simple Am-F-G chord pattern with a clever organ figure on the F-G is repeated ten fucking times, killing the cleverness of the figure and leading the listener to start humming the tune to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” It takes three minutes and nineteen seconds for the Duke to make his entrance, so goddamnit, he better blow us the fuck away!
Nah. He sounds more than a little tipsy to me . . . and what the fuck is he talking about?
The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes
Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff
From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circles
Here am I, flashing no color
Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
O . . . kay! “Get dat bum off da stage!” I hear someone yell in my imagination, but I’m more annoyed by the reappearance of that damned Am-F-G chord pattern and the now completely irritating organ figure. David’s voice becomes more and more campy as the verse proceeds, but great camp works in sync with campy lyrics, not with pure gibberish. I’m beginning to question the veracity of his claim that he couldn’t remember recording Station to Station, sensing that it was more a matter of not wanting to remember ludicrous performances like this one.
The music does a 180 tempo-wise, turning into sort of an odd march, then flips again to something close to driving rock ‘n’ roll. The Duke continues to babble on and about fortune, the virtues of being grateful and European cannons, but once he passes out we FINALLY get some great music courtesy of Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, who pair up on the instrumental passage with plenty of drive from the rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray. “Go! Go! Go!” I yell, but fuck me if the Duke doesn’t get his ass off the floor and try to join in the fun. At first I’m pissed, but after a few deep breaths, I realize that it took David Bowie eight minutes and thirty seconds to come up with a decent vocal—he sounds much better once Earl and Carlos lit the fire under him.
Bowie gave some explanations for the song’s lyrics that would strain the credulity of even the dumbest Trump voter. “First, there’s the content, which nobody’s actually been terribly clear about. The ‘Station to Station’ track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross.” I defy anyone to find references to a death sentence, Jesus stumbling while carrying the cross, having the sweat wiped off his face, getting nailed to a cross . . . and if this song was about the stations of the cross, why does the song open with the sounds of trains? Bowie further explained that all the references in the song were to the Kabbalah, a conveniently esoteric offshoot of Judaism with a definition that “varies according to the tradition and aims of those following it.” Even the most generous interpretation of Bowie’s spin can only result in only one verdict: while the religious stuff may have been on his mind when he wrote it, he failed to communicate anything meaningful in any meaningful way. Perhaps his self-image as an artist wouldn’t allow him to admit the song was as shallow as a puddle. This is Bowie trying to make something out of a whole lotta nothin’.
The most coherent set of lyrics comes in the form of “Golden Years,” the album’s biggest hit. It’s not “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but has some catchy lines, and except for an insert concerning Bowie’s wavering desire to embrace Christianity, generally tracks the erotic glamour echoed in the music. That music is sort of a beefed-up version of the plastic soul of Young Americans, strengthened by the tight guitars of Slick and Alomar and the dry-virgin-level tightness of the band. David sheds the stupefaction that marked his stylistic approach on the opening track and delivers a passionate vocal that extends over most of his range, reminding us that when he’s on his game, he is a top-tier lead singer.
Regarding “Word on a Wing,” let’s hear what David had to say about the song in an interview with NME:
There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing. It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and ‘Word on a Wing’ was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine . . . something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations I felt were happening on the film set.”
The shorter and more to-the-point explanation is Bowie’s admission that during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth he “was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.” The result is a truly dreadful song where the Duke goes full drama queen while failing to sort out the many knots that formed within his head as he engaged in a Hamlet-like struggle style whether or not to believe or not believe in a higher power. According to an unattributed quote on the song’s Wikipedia page, Bowie dismissed these Christian yearnings, explaining “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking . . . finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around the Roeg period.” To which I say, “Okay, but couldn’t you have written a more thoughtful, reflective piece about your crucible experience instead of whining aimlessly and unintelligibly for six fucking minutes?” “Word on a Wing” is not a total loss, however—I love the piano tone on this track.
“TVC 15” offers us the unusual premise of Iggy Pop hallucinating on who-knows-what and swearing to high heaven that the television was swallowing up his girlfriend. Now there’s an experience everyone can relate to! I can hear Graham Chapman now: “I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another we haven’t attended a drug-fueled soirée and watched in horror as the television set swallowed his date? I know I have!” Inspired by his buddy’s psychotropic vision, Bowie came up with a more believable story (at least to TNG fans) about the trials and tribulations of owning a holographic television. In his version, Iggy’s girlfriend enters the holodeck in the second verse, never to be seen again.
As silly as it sounds, silly can work when you fully embrace the silliness, and Bowie does exactly that in “TVC 15.” Playing the role of holographic American TV addict complete with a slurred vocal delivered in a country accent somewhere between Elvis and Carl Perkins, Bowie integrates his personal experience in the drug scene with a self-deprecating perspective on the absurdity of drug culture norms:
Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading
“Send back my dream test baby, she’s my main feature”
My TVC one five, he, he just stares back unblinking
So hologramic, oh my TVC one five
He stares unblinking at the TVC 15, and the TVC 15 returns the favor, both trapped an eternal loop of shared mindlessness: a sci-fi translation of Cheech and Chong’s “Dave’s Not Here” skit. The rollicking blues piano helps set a tongue-in-cheek tone, and David lives up to the demands of comedy by achieving a near-perfect balance between discipline and playfulness in his narrative. It’s a fun song, free of pretension and the slightest trace of the Thin White Duke.
As far as “Stay” is concerned . . . give me an instrumental version and it might be my favorite track on the album. The band really shines here, with Earl and Carlos in full command of phrasing and rhythm. The supporting music is as sexy as fuck, a perfect background for erotic posing and rough but loving foreplay.
If only I could blot out Bowie’s vocal. He’s just fine in the verses, delivering his lines in his natural voice with a touch of shakiness reflecting the fear of vulnerability described in the lyrics. I loathe it when he shifts to what I’ll call his Judy Garland voice in the chorus, as he sounds like a drag queen making fun of drag queens and I LOVE A GREAT DRAG QUEEN.
I also take great exception to the muddled view of romance in the lyrics, especially the chorus wrap-up line: “‘Cause you can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too.”
Oh, bullshit. I suppose that’s true if you have your head up your ass and lack the courtesy and the courage to give the object of your desires the honest truth about who you are and what you want. “Oh, but people don’t do that!” you reply. “They should!” I scream back. I hate to be religious on any subject, but when it comes to the necessity of clear, open, honest communication regarding sex, I’m Joan of Fucking Arc.
Ahem. I will return to my role as critic and give Bowie and the Boys a slightly tilted thumbs up for their performance on “Stay.”
The thumb flips in the other direction for the closing track, a cover of “Wild Is the Wind.” Bowie was (as am I) a great admirer of Nina Simone, and after meeting her in L. A. was “inspired” to record the Tiomkin-Washington classic that Simone covered in both live and studio recordings. It’s one thing to admire a great singer and a great song, but I’ve never understood the motivation to express one’s admiration by attempting your own cover version. That’s how we wound up with hundreds of shitty versions of “Yesterday!” Compared to either of Simone’s versions, Bowie’s rendition is pretty thin soup, all gloss and no substance.
David Bowie thought Station to Station (and Low) were “great, damned good albums.” As artists have a poor track record of objectivity when it comes to their own work, we can safely ignore his opinion. Brian Eno had a similar view, calling it “one of the great records of all time.” Well, of course he would say that—Station to Station has many of the qualities of a Roxy Music album and he’s certainly not going to knock an album that he claimed led to directly to Low, an album where he was a featured contributor. And as for the generally adoring summaries from mainstream critics . . . let’s just say I’m not impressed and highly skeptical about the motivation behind those reviews.
Station to Station is the work of a guy who was pretty fucked up at the time. The mixture of drugs and music is one of those wildly unpredictable variables that can result in a great album or a total disaster. Station to Station is somewhere in the middle—the band performed exceptionally well, and when Bowie showed up, he reminded listeners just how good he could be. Balance that with muddled lyrics, sloppy vocals and the unnecessary distraction of the Thin White Duke and it’s hard to view Station to Station as anywhere close to great or deny that his immersion in the L. A. drug scene compromised his better judgment.
The connections to Low are tenuous at best, and as a listening experience, Station to Station simply doesn’t measure up to Bowie’s best work.