“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
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.