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.