Speed of Life

Speed of Life.
Speed of Life (live, 1978).
Speed of Life (live, 2002).

Low begins mid-sentence, its opening track suddenly fading up, and soon enough “Speed of Life” establishes its strict parameters—it’s a grid whose sections are composed in turn of shorter repeated pieces. There’s a 16-bar “chorus” section built of 4-bar repeats, which in turn are sets of 2 bars of lead guitar riffs and 2 bars dominated by a descending synthesizer line. Then there’s a 5-bar “bridge,” where the song briefly moves to the relative minor (“Life” is in E-flat, and moves here to G minor), and an 8-bar “verse,” the loveliest section of the track, where two synthesizers duet, a soprano Chamberlin and a tenor ARP 2600 (it’s the most Kraftwerk-esque moment on Low—a sound straight off Radio-Activity).

Like its bookend “A New Career In a New Town,” “Speed of Life” was meant to have lyrics, but Bowie may have realized a vocal would only dilute the track’s strong melodic flavor. Instead “Life” serves as an overture to the record, the cast of characters tumbling out on stage at once—Dennis Davis’ thudding Harmonized drums, George Murray’s typically crafty bass playing (where the rest of the instruments are descending in the “chorus,” Murray moves up in the last bar of each repeat), more stock from Carlos Alomar’s endless supply of guitar riffs and Brian Eno’s precise chaos. Bowie, however, was likely responsible for the descending synth line, a sound seemingly generated by a piston steam engine, as it’s the reincarnated “Laughing Gnome” bassoon riff (also heard as a synthesized vocal line at the end of “Fame”).

As structured as “Life” is, there’s still a sense of flow and improvisation under it all, from the various ways Davis plays his brief fills to how the synthesizer line begins to break out of its established patterns in the final chorus repeat. The title, a play on “speed of light,” could also be a twist on “tree of Life,” the Kabbalistic image that Bowie had been obsessed with during Station to Station. It’s another hint that Low is in part Bowie’s send-up of his earlier occult ramblings, and that as depressive and stark as the record can be, there’s also a real sense of play in it.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville; overdubs September-October, Hansa, Berlin. Issued as the B-side of “Be My Wife,” April 1977. Performed live in 1978 (on Stage) and in the Heathen tour of 2002.

Top: Romy Schneider, Berlin, 1976.

13 Responses to Speed of Life

  1. diamond dog says:

    I love speed of life as an opener but what would it have been like with a vocal? We can only wonder its such a strong piece would a lyric and vocal have made it even better we can only dream. Would be interesting to hear outtakes non have surfaced at all except the ryko tracks but are they from the sessions for Low?

  2. giospurs says:

    I love this song.
    “Precise chaos” is exactly right. It sounds like it was made in a ramshackle way, but the sense of melody is so perfect.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Low was my third Bowie album. Aladdin Sane was a birthday present when I was too young to do anything but listen to ‘Jean Genie’ and giggle at the word ‘wanking’. ChangesOne was a Christmas present a few years later. Then there was Low. For an impressionable 13/14 year old waiting for life to begin, by the time the drums on Speed of Life had kicked in properly things could never be the same again.

    Not sure if it’s common knowledge but here in Japan, Speed of Life is played on a national tv channel ‘every evening about half eight or nine’. It features as continuity music between programmes. It has now become such a part of the channel’s identity that there are two ‘cover’ versions. One is a ‘hotel lounge piano’ version and the other an ‘muzak jazzy guitar’ version. Harder to think of anything more removed from the original but always brings a smile to my face.

    • sekaer says:

      thanks! i love that, want to find it on youtube

      • Waffitti says:

        A cursory glance on Japanese Wikipedia says that Speed of Life is used as the intro song for the TV program 衛星映画劇場 (official website URLs call it “BS Cinema”), first broadcast on NHK 2 in 1 October 1989. (wonder if Chris reads comments on older entries to scrounge up on stuff for the book revisions)

  4. spoonfed says:

    Interesting about SOL being used as TV station continuity music as it always reminded me of something off one of the better KPM library records from the 1970s.

  5. Em² says:

    Speed of Life was the second track I ever heard from Low and I still feel it’s one of the best openers ever for an album. There’s a very powerful bass line throughout the track which I particularly get a kick out of.

  6. Nervous Ned says:

    My first exposure to Low was from London’s Capitol Radio where Nicky Horne played the whole album from start to finish. I think it might have been over one night, but could have been spread over two.
    I remember being captivated by it and bought a copy almost immediately. (The first DB album bought on release since Diamond Dogs).
    The funny thing is, I distinctly remember hearing Speed of Life fade in, thinking to myself ‘Wow … another long instrumental intro like the last album, this one’s going to be another epic!’ Only for the track to fade out again a mere 3 minutes later, without a peep from David!
    Great times.

  7. jbacardi says:

    I always thought I heard the Fortunes’ “Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again” in the middle section…

  8. Ashley Pomeroy says:

    I wonder if this song sparked off a vogue for instrumental synth opening tracks – Ultravox’s Vienna and Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle both start off with lengthy instrumentals. Bowie was there first.

  9. Jasmine says:

    RIP Dennis Davis – you were the Best.
    My favourite Bowie ‘song’ which is why I post here, you were seminal on so many of Bowie’s finest and I could have posted on any from from the 7 albums you were with him for.

  10. todd says:

    Really lovely tune, love low, make ur mind up what it means to you, being lost in nightime, rolling around in didsbury stoned, Iggy and bowie made life bearable for me, inspired poetry, cool night crawling, I’m jacketless in a daze, upside down and loving it, spaced and freaked out, those were the times I remember well, todd

  11. Dbfanbutcynic says:

    I love everything on Low, several more than this one, but have two relevant comments.

    It sounded to me like a futuristic Pepsi commercial (not a drinker of sugary cola drinks, I suppose the ‘pep’ in Pepsi fit the sound).

    The ‘chorus’ section is based on the melody accompanying the title phrase in ‘Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again’, by whom I cannot recall, boring song, but the phrase is very nicely recycled in Speed of Life.

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