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.
“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:
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.”