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.
Since my audience is largely American, relatively few people will be reading The Alt Rock Chick over Thanksgiving weekend. My former compatriots will be heavily involved in the two great American sports of eating and shopping, so I thought I’d slip this one in while no one was looking to fix a hole in my Beatles catalog. You know, where the rain gets in . . . my mind has been wandering lately . . . I need to stop that.
While I’ve retained my American citizenship, I can no longer ethically claim a membership in American society. However, I have compensated for that loss by earning membership in a more exclusive group. I’m now one of the few people outside of George Martin’s immediate family who has listened to Yellow Submarine in its entirety three times.
Not counting musicals (most of which I loathe anyway), there aren’t too many movie soundtracks that make for great listening experiences when separated from the film. The two I like most are Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Mishima and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Milk. Yellow Submarine doesn’t even accurately reflect the music in the film. Why include “All You Need Is Love” and not “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?” The best song on the album was cut from most versions of the initial release of the film, the clip restored thirty years later in the flood of re-released Beatles material. Even the George Martin orchestral contributions are not technically accurate reproductions of what you hear in the film, since the versions on the album weren’t recorded until after the film was released. Only two of The Beatle songs you hear were written specifically for the film; two others were retreads and the last two had been gathering dust in the Abbey Road vaults.
The movie isn’t bad, but I’m sure it meant more to the people who grew up in that era than it does to a millenial looking backwards. It presents highly sanitized versions of the lovable moptops as they embark on a quest to free an undersea paradise called Pepperland from the anti-music, anti-happiness, anti-beauty Blue Meanies. The Beatles save the day by playing music and the Blue Meanies are defeated. I suppose the Blue Meanies represented the straights, The Establishment and/or the pigs and The Beatles everything that is right with the world. The animation is clever and quite advanced for the time. It’s really a film for children and for the inner child lurking about in the psychological clutter of the adult population, a psychedelic version of The Wizard of Oz. If I had a kid, I would allow it, and I’d give a very honest reply when he or she asked, “Mommy, what do they mean when they sing, ‘Can I take my friend to bed?’ Is their friend sick?”
The album is conveniently divided into two distinct sides, one with Beatle performances and the other with George Martin’s contributions. The Beatle side is bookended with the title track and “All You Need Is Love.” Of the other four songs, two are less-than-stellar efforts. “All Together Now” sounds like something McCartney knocked off in thirty seconds; it’s a simple singalong song that’s neither offensive nor stimulating. “Only a Northern Song” is George Harrison whining about not getting the attention nor the royalties earned by his more talented mates for his relatively weak songwriting efforts, with a few stray metaphysical phrases and weird sounds thrown in for good measure. Originally intended for Sgt. Pepper, George Martin put his foot down, told Harrison it wasn’t good enough and dropped it from the album, a wise decision that left Harrison childishly miffed. The song sucks lyrically, melodically and instrumentally, and George should be grateful that they apparently couldn’t come up with anything else to cover the “Sea of Science” segment in the movie.
The two songs that are worth the price of admission are “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”
Geoff Emerick describes the experience of “Hey Bulldog” as the last time he had any fun working with The Beatles. A few weeks after the recording (made during the filming of the promo video for “Lady Madonna”) they would wander off to India and come back a fragmented, grumpy bunch. While they still made a few good records, they lost their playfulness and began to take themselves too seriously. In spirit, The Beatles on “Hey Bulldog” are The Beatles goofing off on the playing fields in A Hard Day’s Night, but by this time their awareness of musical possibilities had expanded exponentially.
The musical structure of “Hey Bulldog” is fascinating on many levels. Much is made about this being one of the few piano riff songs in The Beatles’ catalog, but I think the more important consideration is that they use the seventh chord (B7) as the root and never resolve it to the tonic chord (B major). Seventh chords are primarily used in blues and rock to create tension that leads to resolution—the listener feels a sense of satisfaction when that last line of a blues song hangs on a seventh chord for a moment before coming back to the tonic, where the song began (B7-E, for example). By maintaining the 7th chord as the baseline, The Beatles gave “Hey Bulldog” an edginess that lasts throughout. The upward chord sequence you hear on the bridge to the chorus (the “You can talk to me” lines) is a simple trick, but a very effective one: all they do is take the Bm chord and move the perfect fifth (the F#) up two half-steps per measure (Bm, Bm5, Bm6, Bm7) then do the same when they shift to the complementary Em (Em, Em5, Em6, Em7). This sequence amplifies the dramatic tension already inherent in the root 7th chord. Another way of explaining the tension is that the song is written in the key of B major but we never hear the B major chord we expect to hear—we only hear its neighbors, B7 and Bm (and variations of Bm).
John’s vocal, especially on the bridge, reminds us that he was one of the great rock ‘n’ roll vocalists of them all, and his energetic piano is an absolute gas. George steps up and nails the solo (Emerick mentioned it’s one of the few times he got it right from the start), and Ringo adds his usual punch and flair. But the centerpiece here is clearly Paul McCartney’s awe-inspiring work on the bass guitar. Some time during The Beatles’ peak creative period beginning in late 1965, McCartney started a practice of remaining in the studio after the others had gone to work out bass parts and experiment with the potential of the instrument. The hard work paid off on many songs during this period, and “Hey Bulldog” is clearly a tour-de-force performance. “Paul’s bass line was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well-played,” wrote Emerick. Here’s a version with the other instruments dampened so you can hear how nimble, inventive and still intensely rhythmic Paul could be:
George was apparently in a much better mood when he wrote “It’s All Too Much.” It’s not as complex as “Hey Bulldog” but is nonetheless an exciting piece with a celebratory feel (according to The Beatles Bible it was written under the influence of acid). It’s basically a drone song that sticks pretty much to the tonic G with added fourths and ninths, permitting the melody to float easily over the music. The instrumentation is not as extensive as it sounds; other than the usual Beatle instruments, we hear trumpets, a bass clarinet and a few stray small percussion pieces. The fullness of the arrangement is extensively aided by feedback, from the opening slash of guitar to the sustained high-pitched moan that runs through the “silver sun” verse. One other feature in this song is prominent, a classic Beatles technique, but a very engaging one nonetheless: hand-clapping. “It’s All Too Much” is one of the best feel-good songs in the Beatles catalog, and a perfect ending to a film with such an upbeat message.
George Martin’s contributions have been ignored by the listening public and deserve a better fate. This is not the crap that United Artists stuffed into the U. S. version of Help! “Pepperland” is the most tame of the seven pieces, a lush and rather formal piece that could have fit easily into the soundtrack of an Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy set in an Americanized version of Europe. “Sea of Time” opens with Indian instrumentation and flashes of “Within You, Without You” before shifting to a waltz with interesting syncopation. The piece takes several turns from dreamy and childlike to curious and mysterious before fading on lush strings. “Sea of Holes” is my favorite piece because it implies such striking imagery. Here Martin supplements strings and oboe with the backwards effects common in Beatle music of the period and foreshadows some of the work of Philip Glass with sudden increases in dynamics.
In “Sea of Monsters,” Martin uses the backwards recording technique on instruments like trombone and cymbals to create the sucking effect of the vacuum monster, but the piece loses its feel when he changes the mood by reverting to full strings and inserts a fragment from Bach’s “Air on the G String.” “March of the Meanies” contrasts the sweet tone of marimba with insistent rhythms from strings and brass to create the necessary ominous introduction, then takes a sizable leap in dynamics to intensify the semi-martial air. “Pepperland Lays Waste” effectively recreates the eerie, colorless visuals through slightly dissonant combinations of strings, flute trills and subdued repetitions of “Pepperland” themes. “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” is a rather anti-climactic end to the orchestral diversions.
All in all, I found it quite interesting to listen to the orchestral side while commuting on the Paris Metro. There was one point where the ominous tones of “March of the Meanies” began as we approached a popular stop and people began subtly jostling for position while pretending not to jostle, then BLAM! the door opens and it’s every Meanie for him or herself.
Yellow Submarine will never make any Best of the Beatles lists, but with two of their most exuberant songs and a pleasant diversion in the form of George Martin’s contributions, it’s a long way from being a ripoff.
Happy Black Friday to my American friends, and please try not to get injured in the madness of the season.