Dave Daley from Salon asked me for 800-1000 words for their Father’s Day series. Here’s his spec “I’m asking people to distill all this great cultural wisdom down to one thing — the one band or album or book or movie or other item of culture, that you really hope your child will appreciate and treasure the same way you do. It’s about an 800-1200 word piece, really written as a first-person letter, “here’s why this matters to me and why I hope it matters to you.”
This is what I wrote –
Boys, its reverse Fathers Day. One of you is 13, the other 19. Im 51. What on earth can I offer the both of you?
Well I turned 16 in 1977. That was the year of The Clash and The Sex Pistols; Television and Talking Heads 77. It was the best of times, and my love for these bands and their recordings is tied inevitably to my having been there. I was there. You were not there. You cant have what I get from Marquee Moon or Complete Control. Im sorry. But its OK. Ill never fully get The Strokes or Arcade Fire. But I do enjoy them, and consequently Im going to suggest that maybe, just maybe Even if I cant expect you to react as I did upon its release in early 77, nevertheless, I present to you now The Rock Album That You Must Give a Chance: Low by David Bowie.
Back then, there was no YouTube sidebar to lead you to related works. We read the music press and we listened to illegal cassette recordings and to John Peel on late-night BBC radio. Music nerds like me had our ears to the ground. When something big was coming, we knew it. Low snuck up on us. There was no fanfare, probably because RCA expected so little from it commercially.
I admit I was initially disappointed. But as a Bowie devotee, I necessarily listened to the album, nonstop, for several weeks. This was maybe my first attempt at digesting a really challenging work of art. Great art improves with repeated consideration. Mediocre art reveals itself. Pity the critic on a deadline, then. The reviews were inevitably mixed, which was unusual for Bowie the darling of the 70s music press but there had never been an album like Low before. The New Musical Express best-of-the-year list had Bowies next album, Heroes, at No. 1 with Low down at No. 27. Today, pretty much all of us would flip them.
I care little for back stories, but Lows is colorful, and Ill admit it has colored my reception of the album over the years. In 1977, West Berlin was maybe the ultimate bohemian destination. The Wall was right there, and there were no signs of it coming down. Besieged by grey totalitarianism, alive with every imaginable hedonistic abandon, this is where Bowie went to try to kick his cocaine habit. Making an album there basically decamping, as Bowie did, with his pal Iggy Pop was a statement. Pretty much every Bowie wannabe since then has made a Berlin album hoping to look cool and interesting.
Rock music, almost all of it, is rooted in the blues sex and/or violence and/or alienation. If you can tick all the boxes, you can really do well: See Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Eminem. Low ticks almost none of them. The lyrics are cool, dry, almost sexless, and six of the eleven tracks are instrumental. OK, there is alienation, but its not your typical rock n roll alienation; there is no whining, You dont understand me. Bowie adopts a distanced, contemplative attitude. He studies his own depression. Typically, rock music is presented by the frontman virile, confident, strident, desirable as Bowie himself was in 1973. In 1977, we find him frail, reticent and seemingly doubting his very self. Not nightclubbing. He is the anti-rockstar, alone in his room, thinking.
Blue, blue, electric blue.
Thats the color of my room, where I will live.
Plain blinds drawn all day.
Nothing to do and nothing to say.
(From Sound and Vision)
How the does this creature make a rock record then? Because he has Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in his blood. Bowie cant help it. His genius lies in the interaction between his gut (primal) and his brain (esoteric). Neither one ever completely dominates, and his rock n roll instinct is always present, at least when there is a drummer in the room. On this record Bowie gets very close to some kind of Krautrock, but he cant quite get there. If he is aiming at minimalism, he fails. There is too much melody, too much structure. And maybe he was frustrated, but he has too much of the music he grew up with in him to be able to completely discard it. He straddles borders between genres, and in doing so, makes something arguably more beautiful, more interesting and more rewarding than that which the purist would produce.
Listen to Low from start to finish and youre in for a musical awakening. From the relentless opening guitar riff of Speed of Life through the exquisite Sound and Vision and the hypnotic Always Crashing in the Same Car, side one may just about prepare you for side two, but probably not. Four instrumental pieces (there is singing, but no words) of rarified beauty that defy categorization. Is this modern classical music? I dont care. Its beauty I want, and the meeting here of arguably the three greatest rock music minds of their time Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti delivers a beauty I had never heard before. Im still in awe of it.
Low led me to Enos ambient works, to NEU!, to Cluster, to Kraftwerk, to Steve Reich, to Miles Davis, to Erik Satie, and these led me further still, to Ravel, Terry Riley, John Cage so much music that I love, all thanks to one album from 1977. Humor your father. Listen.
Publication date: 16/6/2012