Subterraneans (played backwards).
Subterraneans (Philip Glass, “Low Symphony,” 1993).
Subterraneans (Bowie, live, with Nine Inch Nails, 1995).
Subterraneans (live, 2002).

When Low was released in January 1977, the journalist Wesley Strick asked an RCA “operative” what he thought of its second side. “It’s avant garde. It’s ambitious. Frankly, I think it needs more work,” he said. How about the LP closer, “Subterraneans”? “Religious,” he sighed.

Low‘s working title was New Music: Night and Day, and its sequencing is similar to Neu! 75, which also had two distinct sides—the A side by the “classic” minimalist two-man Neu!, the other recorded with a larger ensemble and its tracks unconventional even by Neu! standards.* As Brian Eno described it, Low‘s “day” side was “seven quite manic disco numbers, like Station to Station carried with gritted teeth…they’re all really short and they’ve got interesting shapes.” And the “night” side, Eno said, was like “soundtrack music.”

In some cases, the four near-instrumentals on Low‘s B side literally were soundtrack music—“Subterraneans” has its origins in the score Bowie had composed in 1975 for The Man Who Fell to Earth (though Bowie later said that the “reverse bass part” is the only piece of the track directly taken from the scrapped soundtrack)—and Bowie cast the four pieces as incidental music for a tour of an imaginary Eastern Europe. Bowie had only seen Poland and East Germany through the windows of a train (or in short day trips, see “Warszawa“). He used Communist Europe as a screen on which he projected the isolate’s visions and paranoiac observations of Low‘s “manic” side; it was a map of deliberate misreading, whole countries colonized by the imagination.

So “Subterraneans,” according to Bowie’s schema, was about the people remaining in East Berlin after the Wall was built, “the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was.” From 1949 through August 1961, some three million Germans went into the West via Berlin: as Tony Judt noted, it wasn’t just the intelligentsia or the professionals who left, but farmers (fleeing collectivization) and laborers. Nearly 16% of the entire population of East Germany had escaped before the Wall was built. Those who were left behind, who were trapped behind the Wall, were something of a Preterite—souls who didn’t make the cut, people consigned to a ghost life behind the curtain.

This, of course, was the Cold War West’s official view of those living in the Eastern bloc. I am of the last generation to remember the Wall and East Germany, so I can offer the cultural stereotype of the East common in Reagan’s America: a perpetual winter; everyone confined to shabby apartments, where your neighbors are spying on you, and your phone is likely tapped; empty streets; bread queues; classical music on the radio; a grey world of chess masters, secret poets and gymnasts. Eastern Europe was Narnia under the White Witch, or, officially, it was the Second World: a place similar enough to the West (industrialized, anomic) to be recognizable but a world seemingly reduced in scope, life in half measures. “East Berlin, can’t buy a thing—there’s nothing they can sell me,” the Mekons’ Jon Langford sang in “Memphis, Egypt,” the year the Wall was torn down. He had already gone through the wall before then, Langford sings, in commercial rock music, traveling like an airborne plague. (It’s helpful to remember that this was the Mekons’ sole, very brief period on a major label).

The Sex Pistols single “Holidays in the Sun,” recorded a few months after Bowie finished Low, finds Johnny Rotten standing at the foot of the Wall, a tourist despising his tour package, feverish with the West’s toxins (the “sensurround sound” and “two-inch wall” of television), hearing the stamp of marching feet in his head. Berlin was the grotesque capitalist carnival of the West, running all night, its blare met by the silence of its Eastern half (the Pistols had fled London for Berlin in the summer of ’77). The song reaches a peak of horror—Rotten stands on top of the Wall, looks across and down, and finds “them” staring back at him. He shrieks. The empty half, the sons of the silent age. The realization that West Berlin is the elect as judged, and condemned, by the damned. The song careers to an end. Did Rotten jump, did he go back home? The story’s never finished. The Wall remains, until it, too, is swept away, eventually broken to pieces live on television. East Berlin made safe for chain stores and rock & roll at last.

Bowie’s song offers a romance instead. “Subterraneans” is somber, delusive, beautiful; it’s a love song for the abandoned. Its title comes from Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novella The Subterraneans, whose title phrase, Kerouac’s narrator (the ludicrously-named “Leo Percepeid”) says, was coined by Adam Moorad (Allen Ginsberg): “They are hip without being slick, they are intellectual as hell…they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” Something like Bowie’s old Tibetans, his wild-eyed boys and supermen. Bowie ends his most depressive record with an attempted, broken reconciliation with the figures of his imagination. The track ends with the creak of a chair in the studio, breaking the spell. Bowie is still trapped in his head, East Berlin goes on without him.

Failing stars

“Subterraneans” sometimes is described as being free-form, a random collection of sounds, but it has a discernible structure: it consists of seven repetitions of a 16-bar “chorus”. The chorus has what initially seems like a baffling set of changing time signatures, but the constantly-changing times of “Subterraneans” eventually make up a broader A-B-A-B pattern. As in:

1 “chorus”:
Bars 1-4: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”)
Bars 5-8: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”)
Bars 9-12: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”)
Bars 13-16: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”)

The five-note bassline helps keeps the ear grounded. It appears twice in each 16-bar section, at the start and at the midpoint (bars 8-9). Whenever you find yourself lost, wait for the next bassline and it will put you back on the map. Once the underlying structure is visible, “Subterraneans” seems far more orderly: the vocal chants begin at the start of the third chorus, Bowie’s saxophone kicks off the fifth repeat, and the vocal “chorus” is most of the sixth.

Share bride fail-/ ling so / Care-/line Careline (A)
Careline/ Careline driving me / Shirley Shirley Shirley oh–/–wn (B)
Share /bride failing /sta–/–arrr (A)

Words…reconfigured into a completely private language, as the ultimate act of autism,” Hugo Wilcken wrote. The lyric of “Warszawa,” as we’ll see, seems to be an attempt at making a universal language, a common collection of vowels and phrasings. By contrast, the baffling lines of “Subterraneans,” a distress letter written in code, seem far stranger, as though sung by someone whose grasp of language had slipped away upon waking one morning.**

The alienated words are matched by the sounds of “Subterraneans,” which are either synthetic (the various ARPs serve as a replacement for a solo violin line, among other things) or recycled, with much its backdrop consisting of waves of backwards tapes (Carlos Alomar’s guitar, Bowie’s Rhodes Electric piano). The exception is Bowie’s saxophone, which plays two elegiac solos. It’s religious, as the baffled RCA operative once said.

Recorded at (possibly) Cherokee Studios, December 1975, Château d’Hérouville, September 1976, and Hansa, Berlin, Sept.-October 1976. Used by Philip Glass as the basis for the first movement of his Low Symphony, 1993. Performed in 1995, with Nine Inch Nails, and in 2002 (the concert recording linked above is spoiled by some asshole in the crowd giving his friend directions, but it’s the best I could find).

* LPs sequenced with a “fast” and “slow” side (or “a side for dancin’, a side for romancin'”) are pretty common: Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (one side electric, one side acoustic), Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (Side A Ferry, Side B Eno), the Stones’ Tattoo You, etc.

** It’s reminiscent of an episode of the revived Twilight Zone of the mid-’80s. Robert Klein is a middle-aged man who slowly realizes that everyone around him has begun speaking a new English, where all words have exchanged meanings. The episode ends with Klein, alone and scared, trying to teach himself the new language by reading a child’s book. He stares at a picture of a dog and repeats, “Wednesday. Wednesday.”

Top: Barbara Klemm, “Blick über die Mauer, West-Berlin, 1977.”

27 Responses to Subterraneans

  1. giospurs says:

    Has anyone noticed a distinct similarity between this track and parts of Toto’s soundtrack for David Lynch’s Dune film? In particular there is a track called ‘Secrets of the Fremen’ that has a melody very similar to that five-note bassline from ‘Subterraneans’. Unfortunately, I can’t find any online uploads of the song. Of course the similarity is not altogether surprising as Brian Eno was involved in both projects.

    • col1234 says:

      if you do find it, let me know. The idea of Toto nicking a piece of “Subterraneans” (in fact, the piece of “Subterraneans” meant for Man Who Fell to Earth) for the ill-fated Lynch Dune adaptation is pretty wonderful (esp. if Eno was the intermediary in some way).

  2. Cindyincidentally says:

    ‘Secrets of the Fremen’ has some similarities but sadly doesn’t sound like a direct lift – shame as the elusive Bowie soundtrack to the MWFTE and for that matter the Visitor LP one sees a mock up of in the final shots of the film are amongst the great unheard/mythical LPs

  3. spanghew says:

    I always heard the first line as “share bright failing star” – which at least makes something like sense. I’m not altogether sure that in this case that’s a good thing.

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    Isn’t this the track that Eno started by himself whilst Bowie was away for some court appointment ( to help rid himself of his last manager or related to the grass bust in the states earlier in the year?)? Bowie said to Eno to keep going and if it didn’t fit then Eno could use it himself. Bowie came back, was impressed and helped finish the track, mainly laying down the phonetic words that sound so other worldly. Correct me if I’m wrong….

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I thought that was Warszawa. But I’m not that sure either.

      • col1234 says:

        It is “Warszawa,” but Eno also worked on most of the other instrumental Low songs while DB was away in Paris (I think it was manager-related court stuff, though poss. also child custody battles? need to check up on it).

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    Ah, Warszawa – of course. I going to have to listen to LOW soon, it’s been a while…

  6. Em² says:

    I wasn’t originally keen on the later Bowie/Nine Inch Nails Subterraneans/Scary Monsters hybrid arrangement as I loved the invented language so much but over time I’ve warmed to it.As stated the original has a curiously enigmatic ending.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    After reading this article, I decided to listen to Subterraneans for the first time for probably more than 25 years. (Don’t ask why.) Just a quick question: is there some kind of voice/conversation thing going on in the left channel towards the end? Or do I need a new iPod?

    • col1234 says:

      no, something’s definitely there–as I wrote, it sounds like a chair’s squeaking just at fadeout, and I agree there are voices faintly audible towards the end, too: probably studio chatter.

  8. Brendan O'Lear says:

    It was your creaky chair comment that intrigued me so much that I had to go back and listen again. The voices I can hear sound slowed down at times.
    By the way, I thought the beginning of Some Are contains some of Bowie’s finest squeaky chair playing.

  9. Very interesting article – as always; thank you … but where, when, how is it ‘religious’ as the RCA operative said?

  10. Q says:

    Only track i skipped at intro over 10 years too as same as Station to Station track. A train scared me a lot, airy massive depressed of Berlin instantly popped on my head. God. So cold never finished that.

    Plus Ashes to Ashes, which used to be my most favourite were playing over and over and over. But after read Ashes article here and do big mistake to watch the official MV. Oh my.. no child would never want to hear this song. Major Tom himself and his voice,
    Nuns, Funeral Oh my..

  11. Samizdat says:

    One of the synth lines somewhere near the beginning of Subterraneans is lifted from Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. Well worth listening out for, another layer of brilliance in a superb track.

  12. jafremen says:

    What an enjoyable blog. Thank you. As long as we are talking quotes…the “She’s Got Medals” melody refrain seems to make a much more dignified return many times in this track. Maybe my favorite Bowie track.

  13. A truly beautiful track, possibly my favourite Bowie tune, and a stellar example of 70’s studio ambient – unmatched perhaps.

  14. Karin definis says:

    Loved it so interesting thank you!!!

  15. particledots says:

    I just rewatched the criterion collection version of the man who fell to earth and noticed a little section at the 54/55 minute mark…rip torn’s character is in a helicopter with a cine camera, about to start his new job with mr newton…the background music sounds very much like a prototype version of side 2 of low, is it possible that this could be from the lost soundtrack? If not, does anyone know what this small snippet of music is and who recorded it?

    • col1234 says:

      I’m pretty sure there is zero Bowie music on that soundtrack. John Phillips (mamas & papas guy) did some scoring, but Duncan Lamont was likely the creator of that piece of music you’re talking about (which does sound a bit “Low” yeah)

  16. Matthew says:

    I read somewhere that Roeg used some of Desmond Briscoe (BBC Radiophonic Workshop), sound effects and moods combined with whale song to on the soundtrack.
    Duncan Lamont seems hard to find and what’s on youtube seems much more upbeat or funky.
    Stomu Yamashta also contributed to the soundtrack as well and some of his work is very atmospheric ( try Space Theme/Requiem/Song from the album Go (released 1976))

    • col1234 says:

      that would make sense (Briscoe or Yamashta). I mentioned Lamont because he was apparently charged with doing the soundtrack cues (which originally was Bowie’s job) so maybe he found the radiophonic bit particledots is remembering

  17. TisAPity says:

    As a relatively new Bowie follower, this song stands as my favorite. I myself have a bit of a special sentiment for the Sax as an instrument as it takes me back to my childhood, as such, this is unbelievable for me, as are tracks like Neukoln, and albums like Blackstar.

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