Weeping Wall

March 22, 2011

Weeping Wall.
Weeping Wall (live, 2002).

The last song recorded for Low, “Weeping Wall” was made entirely by Bowie at Hansa Studios, Berlin, and the track suffers from the loss of Brian Eno’s sense of texture and melody (Bowie basically just repeats the first few notes of “Scarborough Fair” here). “Wall” seems like laboratory work by a gifted student; it’s a rhythmic-pulse-centered piece greatly in debt to Steve Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” (1973) and “Music for 18 Musicians,” whose European premiere (at the Metamusik Festival in Berlin, in early October 1976) Bowie attended.

Reich described “Music for Mallet Instruments” as being centered on “the building up, beat by beat, of a preexisting marimba or glockenspiel pattern, with the duplicate being one or more beats out of phase with the original…[this creates] more fast-moving activity, which then triggers the organ and voices into doubling, quadrupling and further elongating the duration of the notes they sing and play.”

Bowie obviously aimed for a similar structure, creating a rhythmic base of overlapping xylophone and vibraphone* patterns set against a sequenced synthesizer pulse, but Bowie’s composition remains rather inert—the xylophone/vibes line mutates but doesn’t range too far out of phase and it eventually gets diminished in the mix. In “Mallet Instruments” Reich intended for voices and electric organ to fuse into a single sound, producing “a new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal at the same time,” and Bowie attempts something similar here, often locking a wordless vocal track with a filtered synthesizer. Yet the latter simply appears at a designated metronome mark and fades away again at another cue; it’s detached from developing out of the rhythmic base. A stretch of distorted guitar (I believe) occupies the middle of the track, followed by the return of the voice/synth line, now accompanied by a Bowie vocal bassline and with a low-frequency oscillator used on the synth, creating a theremin-like sound (esp. around 2:30).

“Weeping Wall” was assembled, as were most of the Low instrumentals, by using a series of metronome clicks (160 this time): translated to common musical language in the sheet music, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars in 3/4 time, followed by a repeated 8-bar outro. The bassline initially consists of four measures of a single quarter note, repeated six times per bar—so it starts with D, A, F, B, G, B, G, E and G#, and so on, with patterns emerging as the piece goes on (G major often gets flatted, then returns to the natural, for example).

Of the four Low instrumentals, “Weeping Wall” seems the most derivative and tentative, its influences obvious and perhaps too overpowering. It likely was a necessary step in Bowie’s development, as he would be far more assured when he returned to Hansa in July 1977 for the freer-ranging “Heroes.”

Before then, however, there was another Iggy record to make.

* According to Hugo Wilcken, the vibraphone was a relic abandoned long ago at the Hansa studio, and it was an early edition of the instrument (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato) as built by the creator of the vibraphone, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916. Hugo’s book on Low, which has been invaluable for these past entries, is greatly recommended.

Recorded October 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in New York on 11 June 2002 (as part of a live performance of the entire Low album), and used as opening music for later shows that year.

Top: Peter van Nugteren, “West Berlin, 1976.”

Always Crashing In the Same Car

March 17, 2011

Always Crashing In the Same Car.
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (acoustic w/Reeves Gabrels, broadcast, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1999).
Always Crashing in the Same Car (Musique Plus, 1999).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 2004).

From Warsaw back to Los Angeles: “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” one of the last songs completed on Low, is a final meditation on Bowie’s LA period. The lyric was allegedly inspired by a) Bowie, spying a drug dealer who had ripped him off, ramming his car into the dealer’s, or b) Bowie speeding around an underground parking garage like a lunatic, half-trying to kill himself (the latter occurring either in LA or Berlin, depending on who you read). Both stories seem a bit suspect, especially the idea of Bowie as an avenging Sonny Corleone type. “Crashing” seems to be atoning for something, though; it’s a purgatorial island in the middle of Low‘s manic side.

Its two 16-bar verses offer mildly different scenarios—the first has Bowie speeding on the street (“kilometers from the red light”), the second has him driving around a parking garage “touching close to 94”—but the chorus is the same, an endlessly reoccurring car crash. The sense of life as an auto accident puts Bowie back in alignment with JG Ballard: if Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” seems to predict Ballard’s High Rise, so “Crashing” reflects Ballard’s “motorway” novels Crash and Concrete Island (particularly Crash, one of the most gruesome novels in the English language, with its array of lurid car-crash deaths and copulations).

Bowie’s old Buddhism crops up as well, with the idea of Bowie’s LA life as having been a time of samsara, a cyclic period of endless suffering and no advancement; a pointless life, one equivalent to getting into a different auto accident every day (but in the same car, of course, so even that variety is lessened).

Yet the music undermines the lyric’s sense of cyclical decay, its lack of escape clauses. The first verse is somber enough, with Dennis Davis’ drums for once being muted and buried in the mix (the 16ths he plays on his hi-hat are processed to sound like another synth line). Bowie’s Chamberlin provides the main hook, a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2 pattern that later becomes an abbreviated two-note motif; Eno’s synth contributions shimmer in the mix, with one line sounding much like a Theremin.

Then things begin to shake up. There’s already been a taste of this in the first verse, with the traditional G major to E minor progression upended by an odd move to F major (it’s out of the home key—it should be an F#). In the second verse, Bowie extends his vocal line, moving into bars left vacant in the first verse. So “as I put my foot down to the floor” is four notes more than the first verse’s “take it on the road“; as the verse ends, Bowie lengthens the ends of phrases (compare “must have been touching close to nine-ty-four,” which fits in the space Bowie had sung “working left and right” in the first verse).

The players come alive as well. Davis’ loud Harmonized drums appear in the second verse and he throws in some fills (fittingly, under “round and round” in the second verse). Ricky Gardiner, who already offered a four-bar guitar solo at the end of the first chorus, essentially takes over the song, getting the entire third verse to deliver a masterful solo (Gardiner’s tone and the sharp melodic sense of his lines is similar to Tom Verlaine’s work on Marquee Moon). Bowie hummed the first three notes of the solo to him, Gardiner took off from there.* And where most of Low‘s “rock” tracks are faded out, “Crashing” slowly comes to a complete stop, ending on a resounding E minor chord. The past, rather than endlessly repeating, gets resolved with a show of force.

While the rhythm tracks were cut during the early Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville, Bowie was stuck for a time coming up with lyrics and a vocal melody (running through ideas, he even sang a verse in a parody of Bob Dylan’s voice, though tragically the vocal track was wiped—Tony Visconti later described it as being “spooky, not funny”). Hugo Wilcken makes a good case that Bowie rifled through Syd Barrett solo tracks for lyrical cues (e.g., “No Good Trying”: “you’re spinning around and around in a car with electric lights flashing very fast.“)

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, and Sept.-Oct. 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in 1997 (Bowie and Reeves Gabrels did an acoustic version for the radio station WRXT on 16 October 1997) and also for the BBC on 27 June 2000. Its last performance to date was an encore in Brisbane, Australia, on 17 February 2004.

* Gardiner would soon co-write Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” a track that, as Bowie didn’t write it and never performed it, won’t be featured in our survey. So enjoy this fantastic live performance of it, from ’77.

Top: Joel-Peter Witkin, “Los Angeles Death,” 1976.


March 15, 2011

Warszawa (live, 1978).
Warszawa (Philip Glass, “Low Symphony,” 1993).
Warszawa (live, 2002).

I’d like to thank Warsaw’s Agata Pyzik for her generous help on this entry.

Your lightdarkblue morning light, O city.
…You run through the streets all night,
sensational hi-fi is still blasting through the housing blocks,
and the city cowers, it pastes its glass buildings
onto the future, but it’s getting bogged down, sinking, vanishing
into the mud…

Andrzej Sosnowski, “Warszawa” (collected in Lodgings, 1997).

Before he recorded “Warszawa,” Bowie had been in the city once in his life, for a few hours. He had gone through Poland in May 1973, traveling from Moscow to West Berlin, but he hadn’t left the train (with good reason: at some point in Poland an overzealous train official, demanding his papers, had tried to push into Bowie’s compartment). In April 1976, Bowie and Iggy Pop took a train from Zurich to Moscow, again via Poland. As per Paul Trynka’s bio of Iggy Pop: They saw towns still pockmarked with bullet holes and a landscape scarred by unrepaired bomb craters; drawing alongside a goods train in Warsaw, they witnessed a worker unloading coal piece by piece in the gray, freezing sleet.

In Warsaw, the train was kept for a few hours at Dworzec Gdański (Gdansk Railway Station), so Bowie went for a walk in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, in what was then called Plac Komuny Paryskiej (Paris Commune Square) (it’s since been rechristened its original name, Plac Wilsona). Years later, Bowie’s Polish fans would recount his walk, almost step by step. Bowie stopped at a record shop and bought a few LPs by the folk song and dance ensemble Śląsk, one of which featured Stanisław Hadyna’s composition “Helokanie.”

Of these scant impressions Bowie made a world, or at least a city. He named the six-minute-plus brooding hymn that opens Low‘s “night” side not after Moscow, a city of which he’d had some experience, nor Berlin, his future home, but Warsaw, a city that he had only glimpsed. Maybe Warsaw was just an emptier canvas, or perhaps something about the city resonated Bowie during his brief walk. He had just left Los Angeles, a city of professional dreams; he had grown up in a London experiencing a brief second childhood; he had made his art out of fabrications—imaginary rock singers, gleefully violent comic book dystopias. Warsaw had little of this. What Warsaw had was the iron residue of history: it was nearly leveled during the war, a great part of its population murdered—in death camps, in failed uprisings, in reprisals. For Bowie, it was a fallen city, a conquered city, a city left to the spies and the winter.

One of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities is Eusapia, “whose inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground,” where they bring all their corpses “to continue their former activities.” Slowly, imperceptibly, the dead begin to alter their surroundings, thus forcing the living to continually change their own city so as to retain the mirror image. They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

The song that Bowie named after Warsaw begins with a slow tolling, the sound of a funeral bell as played by a child at a piano.

Brian Eno often was working alone in the last weeks of the Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville. Bowie had gone to Paris for a court case (he was breaking with his manager). Before he left, he asked Eno to write a slow piece, something with a “very emotive, almost religious feel to it.”

Eno heard Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son on the studio piano, pressing three consecutive white keys: A, B and C. He came in the room, sat down next to the boy at the piano, and played along with him, finishing the melody. This would become the main “Warszawa” theme, and Eno entwined it into a larger structure, one (again) formed through deliberate randomness.

As with “Art Decade,” Eno structured the piece to a series of metronomic clicks (in this case 430), each click numbered on another track, so that a chord change or a new bassline would be pegged to a random number. This was meant to free Eno from compositional crutches, from the routine of bar strictures and beats. And as with “Art Decade,” despite this deliberate randomness, “Warszawa”‘s layout is easily discernible and even rather traditional. It’s in four distinct sections (in generally 4/4 time): an opening 24-bar “overture” (0:00 to 1:17), a 48-bar “theme” (1:17 to 3:46), a 32-bar “chorus” (Bowie’s vocal, 3:47 to 5:25) and finally a 16-bar repeat of the theme.

The opening, in A major, begins with 8 bars of tolling piano (four consecutive A notes on the keyboard played together), then moves to D minor upon the appearance of the first fragmented melody, a progression that stalls on an E chord. After another round of A octaves, the melody started by Visconti’s son appears—A, B, C# (each played in four octaves). Again, there’s no progression after a certain point: the music freezes, staying on a C chord until the theme section begins.

The piece changes key to F-sharp major, and the three-note pattern returns; four bars in, with a move to D# minor, a second, even more gorgeous melody appears, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, a stepwise upward movement that begins on B. The simplicity, the cleanness of the three melodic lines is reminiscent of Satie’s first Gymnopédie; the slow coagulation of sound echoes the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh.

The instruments were primarily the small group of synthesizers that Bowie and Eno had brought to the sessions—Eno’s EMS and Minimoog, Bowie’s Chamberlin—along with the studio’s small collection of ARPs (and possibly some treated guitar). Both synthesizers and piano play the continually-tolling A or C octaves underneath much of the piece; the Chamberlin doubles for a wind section.

The theme section ends, the key returns to A major, there’s four bars of musings by a synthetic cello, and then the voices appear.

Bowie returned to the studio from Paris drained and irritable and decided to move operations to Berlin. Yet when he heard Eno’s music, he came up with a lyric in about ten minutes, and recorded it almost as quickly. He played Visconti what the latter recalled as a “Balkan boys choir record” (very likely the Śląsk records Bowie that had picked up in Warsaw). Bowie said he wanted to achieve a similar sound for his vocals, some of which echo the “helo helo” chorus of “Helokanie.”

Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho (x2)
Helibo seyoman
Cheli venco raero
Malio, malio

It seems like a newly-crafted dialect of Esperanto. Bowie’s lines aren’t nonsense words he dashed out: they’re a series of phonetics, with a rich internal rhyme scheme and a common rhythmic base (six syllables for each phrase except “malio,” which gets three, though Bowie varies the phrasing of his vocal—he sings the first “deho” in two notes, the second with a downward run of four notes). The lines are easy to sing, as the language seems to be a fusion of the most melodious Romance tongues—Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese—with a flavor of Slavic in it. (And the “East” appears as well, with the chanted “om” in the bass section).

And it’s not the hermetic, broken language of “Subterraneans.” There’s a richness, a warmth to the words: the long vowels, the easy lift of the mild consonants. It’s as though it was the lost language of a common Europe, some alternate blessed continent that escaped the wars. A tone poem from the world that wasn’t. (It’s fitting that “Warszawa”‘s partial inspiration was a choir named after a country that no longer exists: Silesia, first absorbed by Prussia in the 18th Century, then severed and distributed to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WWII.)

As the music of “Warszawa” is the work of a synthetic orchestra, a handful of machines standing in for what would have been dozens of instruments, its vocals are a choir of one man’s manipulated voice. Bowie sings the first lines in his regular baritone. Then, beginning with “cheli venco” Bowie sang onto a tape that Visconti had slowed down two semitones: played back at normal speed, Bowie’s voice had become a child’s. The final lines seem sung by a dervish.

Bowie named “Warszawa” well after he and Eno had made it: he hadn’t set out to capture the city in a song. If Low‘s A side was a series of brief communiques from a shattered man, its second side was a set of quiet interior landscapes, a psychic desolation embodied in an imaginary Eastern Europe. Berlin was the setpiece, but Warsaw, the gloomy city Bowie had walked through one lost afternoon, was its heart. The song is a broken, brooding man reincarnated in a city.

The creative peak of Low, “Warszawa” is one of Bowie’s most sublime works, and its influence would echo for years to come. Ian Curtis was so obsessed with the song that he named his punk group after it. Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” seems inspired by “Warszawa”‘s tolling opening (most of Walker’s contributions to Nite Flights, a 1978 Walker Brothers record, are reactions to Low and “Heroes”).

And how was it heard in Warsaw itself? The Polish punk rock groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s tended to draw on other influences than Bowie. Yet it was a touchstone for the poet Andrzej Sosnowski, who would use “Warszawa” as a hidden reference in his work. Sosnowski’s Warszawa “is always filtered through Bowie’s Warszawa, meaning there’s a mythical, concrete, bleak Warszawa that Bowie had in mind, that only partially is the real Warsaw,” the writer Agata Pyzik told me. “The image that has been prolonged in Western minds is very much like this, but you may also say that Bowie immortalized a certain image of the city, his inner Warsaw. I thought it always one of the most solemn, uncanny Bowie songs, and a proper homage to my city, which is until this day quite sinister.”

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville in September 1976 and Hansa, Berlin, September-October 1976. It was the standard opener of the 1978 tour (a version from Philadelphia is on Stage, while the clip linked above is from a Tokyo concert on 12 December 1978, filmed for the “Young Music Show”) and for some of the Heathen tour, 2002. Used by Philip Glass for the “Low” Symphony, 1992-93.

From top: unknown photog., “Construction of the Palace of Culture and Science,” Warsaw, ca. 1955; Nancy JM Blake, “Warsaw, 1976”;  “Anty Rama,” “Metro Plac Wilsona, Zoliborz, Warszawa,” 2009; Edek Giejgo, “Warszawa- Ulica Swietojanska 1976.”

Art Decade

March 9, 2011

Art Decade.
Art Decade (live, 1978).
Art Decade (live, 1978).
Art Decade (live, 2002).

“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.


March 2, 2011

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.”

Sound and Vision

February 25, 2011

Sound and Vision.
Sound and Vision (live, 1978).
Sound and Vision (live, 1990).
Sound and Vision (remix, 1991).
Sound and Vision (live, 2002).
Sound and Vision (live, 2004).

“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
Blue, blue.
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.

A New Career In a New Town

February 22, 2011

A New Career In a New Town.
A New Career In a New Town (live, 2002).
A New Career in a New Town (live, 2004).

The harmonica, in Sixties British pop music, usually signified something: the North, earthiness, a connection (imaginary, anticipated) with America, an allegiance with folk music (or at least Dylan). The sound of the early Beatles was partly that of John Lennon’s harmonica* and Mick Jagger and Keith Relf’s harp thickened Stones and Yardbirds tracks. On “A New Career In a New Town,” the footbridge between the “rock” and “ambient” sides of Low, Bowie played harmonica for the first time since “Jean Genie”; keeping to custom, he used the harmonica as a symbol as much as sound.

“New Town” is both arrival and departure gate; it’s a merger of two fragmented songs, of two musics. The track opens with 20 bars of an electronic-centered piece—call it “Section A”—reminiscent again of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity. The thudding, metronomic drumbeat seems an offshoot of “Geiger Counter,” while the harmonized layers of synthesizers suggest the title track (there’s also the influence of the Neu! spin-off band La Düsseldorf (see “Silver Cloud”): “New Town” is Bowie pitting Kraftwerk against Neu!). The 4/4 ur-house beat (with a brief “fill” on the sixth bar) is likely from a real kick drum, as sampled and distorted by Eno’s “synthetics,” and four distinct synthesizers are panned across the mix. In the right channel, one serves as the track’s exosphere, providing a high, hardly varying tone, similar to the “choir” setting of Kraftwerk’s Orchestron. The two synthesizers in the left channel offer riffs and counter-rhythms, while the one mixed in the center slowly plays a lovely descending melody.

Then, about thirty-five seconds in, we shift to “Section B”: it’s the sudden return of Dennis Davis’ processed drums, George Murray’s walking bass (the low end supplemented by Roy Young’s piano chording), the dueling, crackling Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner guitars, and Bowie’s harmonica, substituting for the intended vocal that Bowie never recorded. This section is far more conventional—a progression from C major to F and G over three 8-bar movements, the first two identical, the last a variation.

It’s easy to consider “New Town” a study in contrasts, whether it’s the “America” of Section B versus the “Europe” of Section A, or the past (harmonica, piano) set against the future (synthesized drums, repeated loops rather than tonal progressions). Yet the two sections also seem to influence and bleed into each other—the yearning synthesizers seem more human, at times, than the players on their processed instruments (Bowie’s harmonica stands out in part because it’s the least-treated, and so the most “organic,” instrument in the mix). The second appearance of Section A offers new variations—a different lead melody and an even more fragmentary structure (only 8 bars now)—while Section B, upon its return, descends into a loop in the coda, with three bars repeated again and again, only a Davis drum fill breaking the pattern just at the fade-out.

Bowie named the track a while after he recorded it, likely when finishing Low in Berlin, and “A New Career In a New Town” is a self-conscious title, of course—it’s as if Bowie was offering his biographers a ready-made chapter heading. As Hugo Wilcken wrote, “Bowie in Berlin” is as much a fictional construct as The Thin White Duke or Ziggy, and it’s arguably Bowie’s most enduring role. In “New Career” Bowie is in character despite not singing a note: he invokes a past he never quite accepted and marries it to a future he helped create.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville. B-side of “Sound and Vision,” February 1977. Performed on the Heathen and Reality tours, 2002-2004.

* Lennon’s loud, blunt harmonica playing (while Lennon played a chromatic harmonica, he generally treated it as a one-key blues harp) is central to the early Beatles records, from their first singles—“Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You” (the latter at the insistence of George Martin, who by then considered the harmonica central to the Beatles’ sound)—to album cuts like “Chains,” “Little Child” and “I Should Have Known Better.” There’s a sudden drop-off in 1964, with Lennon’s Dylan-tinged “I’m a Loser” marking the end of the line. The harmonica only returned once more, as pastiche: Lennon added it to McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon.”

Top: Fritz Getlinger, “Joseph Beuys, 1976.”

Be My Wife

February 17, 2011

Be My Wife.
Be My Wife (live, 1978).
Be My Wife (live, 1990).
Be My Wife (live, 2002).
Be My Wife (live, 2004).

RCA, Bowie’s bewildered label, considered “Be My Wife” the closest thing on Low to a conventional pop song, and issued it as a single six months after the LP’s release. It flopped, the first Bowie single since 1971 not to chart in the UK. Its failure isn’t that surprising, as “Be My Wife” is far odder than it first appears; it’s as radical in its glum way as a track like “Subterraneans.”

Its promo film, directed by Stanley Dorfman, offers one way to consider it—a pop song by a sad Pierrot (see “the Mime Songs”). Momus, as always one of Bowie’s most perceptive critics, described the film as “a mime sketch of a rock star making a rock video, yet too comically glum and sulky to go through the required hoops, and lacking the necessary gung-ho conviction…the character (because it isn’t really Bowie, it’s a fellow, a sad sack, a thin-lipped melancholic) makes to play his guitar and gives up halfway through the phrase. He just can’t be bothered.” (as quoted by Hugo Wilcken).

(The “Be My Wife” promo also parodies and draws on earlier Bowie videos—Bowie/Pierrot’s flailing, awkward body movements are a sad diminution of the Jagger-esque camping of “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” while the film’s white-room setting and washed-out lighting are nearly identical to the promo for “Life on Mars.”)

When Bowie/Pierrot sings the chorus for the first time, after he sings “share my life,” he cocks his head and stares directly into the camera, as if noticing the viewer at last. There’s no readable expression on his face—he could be suppressing a smile, he could be about to scream—and just before the image fades, the life drains from his face. It’s unnerving to watch, as though a marionette is suddenly professing love to you, and worse, that the marionette may not really mean it.

It’s a visual analogue to how Bowie sings “Be My Wife.” His vocal is trapped in a five-note range, and Bowie sings his brief lyric (four verse lines, four chorus lines) in the East End accent of his mid-’60s records, a move particularly jarring when heard in sequence, as “Wife” directly follows “Sound and Vision” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” both of which Bowie sang in his then-standard croon.

If Low is something of Bowie’s rebellion (or act of petulance, RCA would have said) against being an American-approved rock star, then “Be My Wife” is a love song that questions the act of singing a love song. Its lyric is simple; its arrangement, with its crashing piano (a set of pounding G6 and F chords serve as a hook in every other bar of the verse, each time bolstered by Dennis Davis’ drum fills) and guitar solos, is in the common language of ’70s pop. Yet you can never determine where Bowie stands; it’s unclear whether he knows.

“I’ve lived all over the world,” Bowie sings, rising a note on the last word. It’s a standard rock star line, reminiscent of everything from Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” to Deep Purple’s “Woman From Tokyo”: the singer’s validating himself, talking up the weary business of life on the road. It’s a set-up line, and you might think it’s leading to a typical follow-up: but I’ve never met someone like you or but I’m with you tonight or I’m still lonely or something. Instead Bowie follows that line with the meek, barren “I’ve left every place.”* And that’s the end of it: the verse is over, another begins, only it’s an instrumental. Later in the song, Bowie just sings the first line of the verse (“sometimes you get so lonely”) and then stops, as if the effort isn’t worth it.

The backing track for “Be My Wife” was cut before Bowie had decided on a lyric or a vocal, so it’s a rambunctious performance that seems at odds with Bowie’s muted vocal—the players are trying to force a resolution, inspire some sort of emotion, while Bowie simply stands still. When he moves, it’s grudgingly. The song, in A minor, builds to a climax in its chorus—as Bowie sings the last line, “be my wife,” the players are moving from C up to G, with everyone pushing: George Murray’s bass, Davis’ drum fills, Roy Young’s washes of Farfisa organ. Yet Bowie only moves up a tone, then immediately slides downward on “my wife,” defusing the excitement. A bar later, he’s back singing “sometimes you get so lonely.”

Of course “Wife” just as easily could be read as a straight, unironic plea (Bowie in 1978 said the lyric was “genuinely anguished”). It’s a marriage proposal scraped free of affection, an offer to be alone together (and of course, Bowie was writing the song at the same time his marriage was in its last, bitter months). And the song does have a union. The first 8-bar verse is Bowie singing, the second is an instrumental centered on Ricky Gardiner’s guitar, and the third 16-bar verse is their marriage—Bowie gets two bars, then Gardiner gets two, and so on. Yet Bowie doesn’t change a word of what he sang before and Gardiner plays the same riff, so there’s no true collaboration: each remains in his own world, and Gardiner is just delaying Bowie’s cold repetitions. A fine, strange song: Bowie at his most brilliantly unreadable.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, with overdubs in September-October 1976 at Hansa, Berlin. Issued as a single (RCA PB 1017) in June 1977. Performed in 1978 (a recording is on the reissued Stage) and on the Heathen and Reality tours, 2002-2004.

* For a long time, I thought this line was “I’ve lived every place,” which works just as well: you can find emptiness anywhere in the world you go.

Top: Mummenschanz on “The Muppet Show,” November 1976.

Speed of Life

February 14, 2011

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.

Breaking Glass

February 10, 2011

Breaking Glass.
Breaking Glass (extended single, 1978).
Breaking Glass (live, 1978).
Breaking Glass (live, 1983).
Breaking Glass (live, 1995).
Breaking Glass (live, 1996).
Breaking Glass (live, 2002).
Breaking Glass (live, 2004).

Interviewed a quarter-century after he made Low, David Bowie griped about its alleged influences. Not just Low being called Bowie’s reaction to punk (which it predated—it was mastered before the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the U.K.”) but also what he said was critics’ over-emphasis of the likes of Kraftwerk at the expense of the American musicians—Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray—who were the backbone of the record.

“Kraftwerk’s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only ‘moved’ but also was expressed in more than ‘human’ fashion. Kraftwerk supported that unyielding machinelike beat with all synthetic sound-generating sources. We used an R&B band,” Bowie said in 1999.

The mangled treatment of a brilliant R&B band is the story of Low‘s first side—Alomar, Davis and Murray (plus the English keyboardist Roy Young, and, about a week into the session, the Scotsman Ricky Gardiner) were the first crew of the record’s builders, jamming in the studio all night for two weeks, with little direct guidance by Bowie, who’d written no lyrics and scarcely any vocal melodies. At this point, he only offered some chord progressions and tempo directions. Then the musicians shipped off, leaving Brian Eno to provide variables (Eno’s contribution to “Glass” is a scribbling on the carpet—a three-note descending bleat, panned across the stereo mix, on a Minimoog; it sounds like a child fiddling with a keyboard knob) and Bowie and Tony Visconti to turn the sessions into a record.

“Breaking Glass,” officially credited to Bowie, Murray and Davis, is the most compelling groove on the album, despite it being left in a something of an embryonic state. Murray holds the track together with his fingers: the thudding echoing of Davis’ drums in the intro/refrain, the rolling bassline under the verses, which becomes the lead instrument in the final, vocal-less verse that gets faded out. Alomar’s lead guitar (he also plays rhythm guitar, a drone that Alomar described as his attempt to sound like a Jew’s harp) gets a battlefield promotion to secondary vocalist. His opening pair of riffs, phrases echoing and answering each other, are a more melodic hook than anything Bowie sings.

And Davis, who Visconti later called ‘the most original drummer I’ve ever worked with,” delivers beats that had never been on a Bowie record before: Low makes Ziggy Stardust sound like it was recorded on paper drums. (It’s as if he’s trying to imitate and yet outplay the synthetic drums on Cluster’s “Caramel”.) The trick was Visconti’s Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti legendarily claimed “fucks with the fabric of time.” For Low, Visconti used the Harmonizer to sample the drum audio and, an instant later, echo the sound, but with the drums’ pitch dropped a semi-tone. Then Visconti, in his words, “added the feedback of this tone to itself.” So when Davis hit his snare drum, he heard in his headphones the “crack” but the following “thud” never stopped, it just deepened and deepened in tone. Visconti described the latter as sounding like a man struck in the stomach (forever).

At first, Bowie was unsure about the distorted drum sound, so Visconti sneakily turned down the effect in the control room but kept it on in Davis’ headphones. So on “Glass” (and other Low tracks) Davis is dueting with his echo, in real time. He’s varying the power and length of his snare hits, especially on the one! one! one-two! one-two! pattern in the intro, and seems to be creating the massive synthesized, gated drum sound of ’80s pop music in the process.

With “Breaking Glass,” Bowie took what could have been a soul groove piece like “Golden Years” and whittled it to a fragment, an open suggestion of a song, and gave it a brief, deranged-sounding vocal. Hugo Wilcken: “The lyric is like a conversational fragment in which a psychotic who has just trashed his girlfriend’s room is telling her that she’s the mad one.” As with “What in the World,” Bowie’s phrasing is seemingly random: “Late-ly…I’ve…BEEN…break-ing…glass in your ROOM again….LISTEN.” It’s a vocal reduced to basic rhythms: the two-beat “lately,” stuck on one note, then the stepwise “I’ve been,” and so on, a pattern repeated in the second verse: “Don’t-look…at the CARpet….I-drew-some-thing…AWFULONIT….See?” And what passes for a chorus: a line that doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, which is shaken by Bowie’s sudden octave jump on “Oh-oh-OH-Oh!”

In part “Glass” is a tiny exorcism of Bowie’s Los Angeles period, a repudiation of his recent excesses. The florid language of “Station to Station” is reduced to 35 common words, while “Station”‘s extravagant harmonic structure is replaced by just two chords, the tonic (A) and the dominant (E). It’s also a sign of Bowie’s inability to expand upon basic ideas in the Low sessions—you get the sense he’s exhausted with conventional songwriting, unable or unwilling to come up with further lines, or a bridge, or even an ending. The sudden fadeout doesn’t suggest that the song’s been interrupted, but it’s more a mercy: a minute into the song, there’s already a sense it’s going nowhere.

In concerts, compelled to make “Glass” more substantial, Bowie repeated verses and made a dramatic close-out, with everyone chanting “I’ll never touch you” over drum fills. A piece of chamber music, it sometimes struggled on stage, notably when Bowie opened a victory-lap Milton Keynes Bowl concert in 1983 with it. Here the performance seems to be a desperate attempt to prevent the song from dissipating in the summer air. A horn section and ceaseless guitar wailing do what they can to distract, Bowie sings his lines with cool assurance, but something’s off-putting about the performance: it’s like a homicidal diary entry being read on a Jumbotron screen.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, with overdubs in October-November 1976 at Hansa Studios, Berlin. A live recording from spring 1978, included on Stage, was issued as the single from that record (RCA BOW 1).

An inadvertent parody is Nick Lowe’s “(I Love The Sound of) Breaking Glass,” with its Murray-esque bassline and Eno-like interruptions on piano. Though Lowe had a history of mocking Bowie, having called his 1977 EP Bowi (in retaliation for Bowie chopping the “e” off Low), Lowe allegedly had never heard “Breaking Glass” until Elvis Costello, listening to playback of Lowe’s track, said: “haven’t you lifted a Bowie title?”

Top: Martin Pulaski, “Laura in Brussels,” 1976.