Sound and Vision

Sound and Vision.
Sound and Vision (live, 1978).
Sound and Vision (live, 1990).
Sound and Vision (remix, 1991).
Sound and Vision (live, 2002).
Sound and Vision (live, 2004).

“Low” was 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.

David Bowie, to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

Some years ago, in the depth of the winter, my marriage fell apart. My wife left the day after New Year’s Day, and I was alone in the house with the dog. A day or so later, squirrels got into the walls through a plank of rotted wood on the roof. You could hear them thumping around, scratching; at times it sounded like a dwarf was carving with a penknife into the wall. I lay on my bed, watching an endless procession of brightly waning winter afternoons pass by, listening to the squirrels. It was too much. I carried the dog up into the attic to let her run around and bark, skills at which she excels. It worked—you could hear the squirrels scrambling out—but they came back at night with renewed intentions. Finally I hired a pair of men to get rid of them.

A salve for personal catastrophe is routine. Life is reduced to a series of minor actions. Today I will arrange the bookcase. Today I will go to the store. Tonight I’ll listen to this record. But what to listen to? Dylan’s divorce album Blood on the Tracks seemed an obvious choice, but it sounded grandiose, a war correspondence, as did Shoot Out the Lights. Maybe those records were just too suffused with pain, and I’d had enough already. No, what I played, over and over again, was Low, and what I played on Low, most of all, was “Sound and Vision,” and what resonated most on “Sound and Vision” was:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the color of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue.
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to read, nothing to say…

Purgatory is a safe place, even hells have their consolations (“Here at least we shall be free”: Milton’s Satan, always the booster). One small pleasure of an unexpected solitude is the prospect of order. Life takes on an exacting quality. Colors, sounds have a greater purchase on the mind. Bowie called “Sound and Vision” his 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.” And “Sound and Vision,” as it opens, seems like a locked room—a minimal set of players, everything in its place, a clockwork song. Eight bars, repeated exactly. Two guitars, panned to either channel; bass; Harmonized drums; whooshing percussion (likely a processed snare) that sounds like a radiator coming to life. Then a simple descending synthesizer line, a sudden sigh of delight.

“Sound and Vision” may be a depressive’s song, the few lucid thoughts of a man going cold turkey, but it’s also shot through with little moments of joy: Mary Hopkin’s charming cameo appearance; Bowie’s saxophone, which sounds like an old friend showing up unexpectedly; Dennis Davis’ exuberant drum fills. It’s the happiest song on Low. When Bowie’s vocal finally appears, in a long, slow movement that spans over an octave (“don’t you wonder sometiii-mes”), it’s as though he’s been listening along and just started singing, carried away by what he set in motion.

It’s also the breaking of a dry spell (unlike other Low tracks where Bowie had struggled to come up with lyrics, he wrote a long set for “Sound and Vision,” then pared the lines down). Invoking a muse is as old as poetry, and “Sound and Vision” offers a simple, muted hope for inspiration. I will sit right down, waiting for the gift. No grand gestures, no sacrifices, just a man sitting at a piano and hoping that the notes come, that a few words appear. It’s Bowie wondering out loud if he could ever write a song like “Life on Mars?” again, yet he doesn’t seem troubled if he can’t. He’s content to have gotten this far, grateful for what’s been left to him.

So “Sound and Vision” is a song about writing a song, and it assembles itself as it moves in time—first the rhythm section and the guitarists, then “strings” (the synth), then backing vocals, then horns, until finally even its author appears—and it seems to question why it works. Don’t you wonder sometimes? Why does music play on us? Why does A minor fit so well with G major, why is their marriage so happy? Why does Bowie singing in his lowest register work so well? What makes Hopkin’s throwaway “doo-doo-doo-doo” line, which she thought would be distorted in echo and parked low in the mix*, the linchpin of the song? (The latter fits with the meta-commentary of the whole track—there’s a woman singing backup because, after all, that’s what pop songs have).

Brian Eno mainly played walk-on roles on Low‘s first side, but Bowie wrote “Sound and Vision” with him in mind, and so it’s the first track in our survey to show Eno’s direct influence. For instance, Eno suggested that Bowie not sing until the track was well underway (1:30, almost exactly the song’s halfway mark), so as to build anticipation and confound listener expectations. Low is sequenced to start with one instrumental and close with another, so “Sound and Vision,” parked in the middle of the side, seems at first to be another instrumental, a midway mark. Yet delaying Bowie’s arrival also revived the past—it’s playing on the expectations of a ’20s-’30s pop music listener, who would have assumed that the singer wouldn’t appear until the band had played a chorus or two (for example, in George Olsen’s “Who” , from 1925, the singers don’t arrive until almost the two-minute mark).

If the musicians carry the first half, Bowie carries the rest, and there’s a wonderful precision to Bowie’s vocal here, a sense that he’s been allotted a short span of time and so has to plot his course exactly (the humbled way he offers “and I will sing,” keeping to a short span of low notes, or the sudden dawn of “over my HEAD!”) And then “Sound and Vision” suddenly fades out, long before one wishes it gone, and suggesting that what you’ve heard is just a small enclosure of some grander commons. It’s a sweet, generous piece of music, one of Bowie’s finest, most welcoming songs.

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville, September 1976, overdubs at Hansa, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1976. Released as a single (RCA PB 0905, #3 UK (the highest-charting Bowie UK single of the late ’70s, its performance aided by the BBC using parts of “S&V” in trailers), #69 US). Played once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court (an off performance—Bowie’s not in the voice for it; compiled on the near-bootleg RarestOneBowie). Dormant in the ’80s, “Sound and Vision” had a sudden revival at decade’s end, titling Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour of 1990; Bowie had 808 State and others remix it. Played in the Heathen and Reality tours.

* Eno is credited on the LP as “Peter and Paul,” so completing the set with Mary Hopkin. Low is goofier than some give it credit for: the cover is a visual pun, for example.

Top: Esther Friedmann, “Iggy Pop,” Berlin, ca. 1977.

12 Responses to Sound and Vision

  1. Em² says:

    In retrospect it’s curious to see that Sound & vision is released after the actual release of Low itself rather than slightly in advance as usually happens. Perhaps shows how puzzled and caught off guard RCA were by Low.
    You’re right that the track resonates as a depressive’s song but maybe with the saving grace of enduring an almost cathartic melancholia.
    Enjoying the write-ups by the way.Good stuff.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      On the other hand, RCA could have been quite clever over the release of Sound and Vision. Releasing the single before the album would have risked it getting lost in the Christmas market. Sound and Vision is many things, but it is certainly not a Christmas song.

  2. spanghew says:

    Okay, I must be dim today: How is the cover a visual pun?

  3. Jeremy Earl says:

    Hey nice personal touch there in this synopsis. The thing about depressing times is that things can resonate with you more, have more meaning and import – art, music being prime examples. It’s as if LOW is built from this phenomenon, such is its resonance. I’m not suprised that Sound and vision was a top five hit in the UK – it’s such an ear worm.

    Love the photo of Iggy by the way.

  4. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Probably my favourite of all the singles. Has there ever been a better intro to any song?

    It’s difficult to appreciate how fresh and different this song sounded at the time. Nobody had heard anything like it. Yet, as the entry points out, it is an almost ultra-conventional pop song.

    I actually bought this single without having a record player. I used to carry it around with me and just look at it. Does anyone out there remember if the middle (UK) was actually blue or is my memory playing tricks?

  5. mike says:

    My all-time favorite Bowie tune — but I never realised what it was about! Songwriting, of course! Sweet.

  6. diamond dog says:

    Its a superb tune and its a pity its not longer. Its another of his lyric not matching the joyful tone of the tune. From a fella searching for inspiration he found some perfect pop catchy and in hindsight one of his best singles RCA must have been rubbing their hands with relief after being disappointed with Bowie’s new work. Great read and a superb pic of Iggy.

  7. lonepilgrim says:

    I remember when this was played on Top of the Pops (the UK Singles TV chart show for those outside of the UK) wondering if Bowie had wandered off at the start – worth the wait though/
    Meanwhile, Eno approved new songstress Anna Calvi has posted a cover of the song on Youtube which can be found here:

  8. Rebel Yell says:

    Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?
    BY TRACY K. SMITH
    1.

    After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
    Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
    Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
    Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
    And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

    That someone was there squinting through the dust,
    Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
    To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
    Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
    And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

    Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
    Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
    Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
    Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
    Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

    And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
    That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
    In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
    Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
    Even if it burns.

    2.

    He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie
    For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
    Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours

    Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
    Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
    But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.

    Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
    Before take-off, before we find ourselves
    Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?

    The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
    For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
    Like migratory souls.

    3.

    Bowie is among us. Right here
    In New York City. In a baseball cap
    And expensive jeans. Ducking into
    A deli. Flashing all those teeth
    At the doorman on his way back up.
    Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette
    As the sky clouds over at dusk.
    He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel
    The way you’d think he feels.
    Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.

    I’ve lived here all these years
    And never seen him. Like not knowing
    A comet from a shooting star.
    But I’ll bet he burns bright,
    Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
    The way some of us track tissue
    Back from the toilet stall. He’s got
    The whole world under his foot,
    And we are small alongside,
    Though there are occasions

    When a man his size can meet
    Your eyes for just a blip of time
    And send a thought like SHINE
    SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
    Straight to your mind. Bowie,
    I want to believe you. Want to feel
    Your will like the wind before rain.
    The kind everything simply obeys,
    Swept up in that hypnotic dance
    As if something with the power to do so
    Had looked its way and said:
    Go ahead.
    Tracy K. Smith, “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. http://www.graywolfpress.org

  9. The 2002 performance (at the A&E Live By Request show) is, for me, the definitive performance of the song. The version I have on CD, Garson is too far back in the mix, but in the youtube video that you’ve linked to, you can finally hear him.

    Love his last line: “Sound + Vision: I’m gettin’ it now.”

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