Breaking Glass

Breaking Glass.
Breaking Glass (live, 1978).
Breaking Glass (live, 1983).
Breaking Glass (live, 1995).
Breaking Glass (live, 1996).
Breaking Glass (live, 2002).

Interviewed a quarter-century after he made Low, David Bowie griped about its alleged influences. Not just Low being called Bowie’s reaction to punk (which it predated—it was mastered before the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the U.K.”) but also what he said was critics’ over-emphasis of the likes of Kraftwerk at the expense of the American musicians—Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray—who were the backbone of the record.

“Kraftwerk’s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only ‘moved’ but also was expressed in more than ‘human’ fashion. Kraftwerk supported that unyielding machinelike beat with all synthetic sound-generating sources. We used an R&B band,” Bowie said in 1999.

The mangled treatment of a brilliant R&B band is the story of Low‘s first side—Alomar, Davis and Murray (plus the English keyboardist Roy Young, and, about a week into the session, the Scotsman Ricky Gardiner) were the first crew of the record’s builders, jamming in the studio all night for two weeks, with little direct guidance by Bowie, who’d written no lyrics and scarcely any vocal melodies. At this point, he only offered some chord progressions and tempo directions. Then the musicians shipped off, leaving Brian Eno to provide variables (Eno’s contribution to “Glass” is a scribbling on the carpet—a three-note descending bleat, panned across the stereo mix, on a Minimoog; it sounds like a child fiddling with a keyboard knob) and Bowie and Tony Visconti to turn the sessions into a record.

“Breaking Glass,” officially credited to Bowie, Murray and Davis, is the most compelling groove on the album, despite it being left in a something of an embryonic state. Murray holds the track together with his fingers: the thudding echoing of Davis’ drums in the intro/refrain, the rolling bassline under the verses, which becomes the lead instrument in the final, vocal-less verse that gets faded out. Alomar’s lead guitar (he also plays rhythm guitar, a drone that Alomar described as his attempt to sound like a Jew’s harp) gets a battlefield promotion to secondary vocalist. His opening pair of riffs, phrases echoing and answering each other, are a more melodic hook than anything Bowie sings.

And Davis, who Visconti later called ‘the most original drummer I’ve ever worked with,” delivers beats that had never been on a Bowie record before: Low makes Ziggy Stardust sound like it was recorded on paper drums. (It’s as if he’s trying to imitate and yet outplay the synthetic drums on Cluster’s “Caramel”.) The trick was Visconti’s Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti legendarily claimed “fucks with the fabric of time.” For Low, Visconti used the Harmonizer to sample the drum audio and, an instant later, echo the sound, but with the drums’ pitch dropped a semi-tone. Then Visconti, in his words, “added the feedback of this tone to itself.” So when Davis hit his snare drum, he heard in his headphones the “crack” but the following “thud” never stopped, it just deepened and deepened in tone. Visconti described the latter as sounding like a man struck in the stomach (forever).

At first, Bowie was unsure about the distorted drum sound, so Visconti sneakily turned down the effect in the control room but kept it on in Davis’ headphones. So on “Glass” (and other Low tracks) Davis is dueting with his echo, in real time. He’s varying the power and length of his snare hits, especially on the one! one! one-two! one-two! pattern in the intro, and seems to be creating the massive synthesized, gated drum sound of ’80s pop music in the process.

With “Breaking Glass,” Bowie took what could have been a soul groove piece like “Golden Years” and whittled it to a fragment, an open suggestion of a song, and gave it a brief, deranged-sounding vocal. Hugo Wilcken: “The lyric is like a conversational fragment in which a psychotic who has just trashed his girlfriend’s room is telling her that she’s the mad one.” As with “What in the World,” Bowie’s phrasing is seemingly random: “Late-ly…I’ve…BEEN…break-ing…glass in your ROOM again….LISTEN.” It’s a vocal reduced to basic rhythms: the two-beat “lately,” stuck on one note, then the stepwise “I’ve been,” and so on, a pattern repeated in the second verse: “Don’t-look…at the CARpet….I-drew-some-thing…AWFULONIT….See?” And what passes for a chorus: a line that doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, which is shaken by Bowie’s sudden octave jump on “Oh-oh-OH-Oh!”

In part “Glass” is a tiny exorcism of Bowie’s Los Angeles period, a repudiation of his recent excesses. The florid language of “Station to Station” is reduced to 35 common words, while “Station”‘s extravagant harmonic structure is replaced by just two chords, the tonic (A) and the dominant (E). It’s also a sign of Bowie’s inability to expand upon basic ideas in the Low sessions—you get the sense he’s exhausted with conventional songwriting, unable or unwilling to come up with further lines, or a bridge, or even an ending. The sudden fadeout doesn’t suggest that the song’s been interrupted, but it’s more a mercy: a minute into the song, there’s already a sense it’s going nowhere.

In concerts, compelled to make “Glass” more substantial, Bowie repeated verses and made a dramatic close-out, with everyone chanting “I’ll never touch you” over drum fills. A piece of chamber music, it sometimes struggled on stage, notably when Bowie opened a victory-lap Milton Keynes Bowl stadium concert in 1983 with it. Here the performance seems to be a desperate attempt to prevent the song from dissipating in the summer air. A horn section and ceaseless guitar wailing do what they can to distract, Bowie sings his lines with cool assurance, but something’s off-putting about the performance: it’s like a homicidal diary entry being read on a Jumbotron screen.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, with overdubs in October-November 1976 at Hansa Studios, Berlin. A live recording from spring 1978, included on Stage, was issued as the single from that record (RCA BOW 1).

An inadvertent parody is Nick Lowe’s “(I Love The Sound of) Breaking Glass,” with its Murray-esque bassline and Eno-like interruptions on piano. Though Lowe had a history of mocking Bowie, having called his 1977 EP Bowi (in retaliation for Bowie chopping the “e” off Low), Lowe allegedly had never heard “Breaking Glass” until Elvis Costello, listening to playback of Lowe’s track, said: “haven’t you lifted a Bowie title?”

Top: Martin Pulaski, “Laura in Brussels,” 1976.

17 Responses to Breaking Glass

  1. col1234 says:

    Unfortunately the “Stage” performance of “Glass” isn’t available on Youtube—it’s much better than the muddy recording I found to represent ’78.

  2. Look back in anger says:

    Interesting how the Breaking Glass drum sound prefigures all the crashing snares that would like blunt instruments hammer their way through the 80s – you could say the same about the rest of side one of Low which became a nightmare blueprint for so much bad music four or five years later – you wonder what would have happened had Bowie not released it

  3. diamond dog says:

    I get the feeling there is little love for the songs reviewed so far on low ? Quite negative feel and implying Bowie was almost burned out and suffering writers block. Myself I feel the amount of restraint these songs show and technical skill are inspired. Pairing lines down is hardly lazy but shows simple phrases suit the mood of estrangement. They conjure much more imagary than more traditional songs. I think traditional rock and its usual methods had lost its lustre , this remember was an incredible sound at the time and brave beyond for a star of his stature. It did inspire a whole decade of inferior imitation and some fabulous inspired material it was indeed new music night and day. I feel its one of the best works of the 70,s ir repays with every listen and I love breaking glass in very few words it menaces the listener with it snatched phrases and the rythm section are cooking with gas

  4. col1234 says:

    quite the opposite: “Low” is probably my favorite Bowie album!

  5. sekaer says:

    I agree, your Low reviews do feel rather skimpy on the love! I kid, but I did notice that too…keep up the great work!!

  6. diamond dog says:

    I’m not being picky still an excellent read just the tone is rather ‘down’ on the tracks so far…though it is a very down lp (side 2 anyway).
    I doubt the writers block (is this fact or a conjecture) due to the amount of product and its quality idiot /low/heroes released very close together ?

  7. andy says:

    How about “What in the World”? It’s not there in the summary, or am I mistaken?

  8. andy says:

    I’m sorry, I’m probably too ignorant on the net in general, but the first entry I see under the Low category is Weeping Wall?

    • col1234 says:

      andy, sorry for the confusing navigation. Go down to the very bottom of the Low category page. You’ll see, in very small letters, “previous entries.” click on that & you’ll get to “What in the world.”

  9. Harry says:

    Just listened to that Nick Lowe song: the title could be coincidence, but why then does the song itself remind me so much of “Sound and Vision”…?

  10. I have to take issue with your definition and historical dating of punk- while the Sex Pistols certainly defined the movement when they debuted in Britain, punk as a genre has already been well underway in the States as early as ’74, when acts like Patti Smith, Television, and The Ramones got started. The expresion “punk rock” had been coined even earlier by music journalists, though to be fair they applied it to acts we would not today consider punk. It’s very hard to believe that Bowie and Pop would have been unaware of the rising sound, whether the Pistols has recorded or not.

  11. Also, a much more minor quibble- I don’t think “Bowi” was “in retaliation” for “Low”- it’s hard to believe he thought Bowie has genuinely been referring to him, any more than “Max” was “retaliation” for “Rumours.”

  12. brendan says:

    I think the line “Don’t look at your carpet, I drew something awful on it” has been misinterpreted in the past. During a filmed performance at the MK Bowl, DB mimes the cutting of his wrist as if to suggest he’s drawing blood. An interesting take on his own lyric, which is usually interpreted as meaning he’s been crayoning on it like a drug addled fool.

  13. Greg says:

    Hasn’t bowie confirmed that the carpet drawing was Kabbalah-influenced, ie, a curse? Written in blood perhaps.

  14. sclr says:

    Yes. There’s even pics of him drawing the tree of life on a carpet in crayon? Lipstick? I think the ‘awful’ part might be some of the other imagery or possibly the formation of the tree. There are many aspects or versions the tree can be drawn as to represent different levels of reality.

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