“Art Decade” is the most Eno-esque track on Low, as Eno assembled much of the piece while Bowie was away from the studio on legal business (though Bowie has sole songwriting credit*). It’s reminiscent at times of Eno’s then-recent Another Green World—the percussion calls back to “The Big Ship,” while the “elephant trumpeting” sound (first heard at 0:39) is a cousin of Robert Fripp’s synth-processed guitar riff on “Sky Saw.”
It began as a piano composition for four hands; Bowie thought it didn’t work and put it in the discard pile. When Bowie went off to Paris, however, Eno, left on his own at Château d’Hérouville, revived “Art Decade” and added layers of synthesizers to it (primarily ARPs, a Minimoog and his “suitcase” EMS Synthi). Upon his return, Bowie took Eno’s tapes and added further layers to them—the percussion, for example, was done on Bowie’s Chamberlin. The cello that underscores the bassline (particularly from 1:05 to 1:25) was played by Hansa Studios engineer Eduard Meyer.
Eno suggested that rather than getting Dennis Davis back for a drum track, they should record a metronome clicking a specified number of times while Tony Visconti, recorded on another track, called out each click number in sequence. Bowie and Eno thus had a readymade compositional map (so, to pick a random example, Visconti’s “33” would be the cue for a cello entrance, or a fresh synthesizer line). The intention was to free Bowie and Eno from strictures of popular music: no time signatures, no chord progressions, no bar structures. (Bowie and Eno used a similar method on “Warszawa” and “Weeping Wall.”)
That said, “Art Decade” isn’t that radical. After its brief (12-second) percussive opening, it consists of two distinct, alternating sections (much like “A New Career In a New Town”). There’s a nine-bar (or if you’d like, 36-metronome-click) main theme, a slow traversing from E flat to D major and back to Eb and E major. The main melody is a descending four-note line (sometimes with all notes flatted) that’s eventually severed: it’s reduced to a two-note phrase, then just a single whole note. Repetitions of this decayed melody (Bowie’s title possibly puns on this) make up the piece’s other main section—alternating patterns of two stepwise descending notes and two notes rising a half-step.
Eno had spent late summer 1976 at Harmonia’s studio in Forst, Germany (Harmonia was a super-group of sorts, a collaboration of Michael Rother (Neu!) and Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Cluster)). They had jammed, experimented, run through a few songs, and Eno had left saying he would return soon to make a proper record. Instead Eno went to France to work with Bowie on Low. The tapes from the Eno/Harmonia sessions, which didn’t surface until 1997, show some similarities to Eno’s subsequent work with Bowie: the interlocking, repeating patterns of “By the Riverside,” for example. Yet many of the Harmonia/Eno tracks like “Aubade,” “Welcome” and “Sometimes In Autumn” have a much freer sense of tempo and construction—the pieces progress, sometimes rhythmically, sometimes melodically, in a logical but unpredictable design; they have the lightness of indulged thoughts. “Art Decade,” by contrast, feels confined, even claustrophobic; its beauties are funereal, a brief procession through ruins.
Bowie called “Art Decade” a thematic counterpart to “Subterraneans,” with the former an alleged musical portrait of West Berlin in the shadow of the Wall. And in turn “Art Decade”‘s two sections could stand for the severed halves of Berlin: the melancholy West set against the stasis of the East, the decay of Romanticism met by the austere promise of Minimalism (Eno and Bowie were familiar with the Minimalists, having both attended a performance of Philip Glass’ Music With Changing Parts in London in 1971).
Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, overdubs at Hansa, Berlin. Played on the 1978 tour, generally as a palate cleanser before the closer “Station to Station” (a version from Philadelphia is on Stage) and in 2002. A likely influence on Eric Serra’s soundtrack work, particularly 1989’s Le Grand Bleu.
*Eno is credited as co-composer of “Art Decade” on the 1978 live record Stage, while Bowie is sole composer on the BMI copyright.
Top: Anselm Kiefer, Varus, 1976.