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.