In the aftermath of Station To Station, the Thin White Duke, his musings on fascism in the summer of 1976, and the Victoria Station incident, it became clear that L.A. – and cocaine – was proving to be far too toxic for David Bowie’s own good. His solution was to decamp to Berlin, a city with a drug problem in the form of a drug Bowie didn’t much care for (heroin). Two other things Berlin had in 1977 were Krautrock and the beginning vestiges of ambient electronic music, and it’s no coincidence that the two forms show up on Bowie’s first record of the year, Low. The album – originally born out of an aborted attempt to make the soundtrack for his film vehicle, The Man Who Fell To Earth – is rather disjointed. The first half is comprised of song-sketches built around prog riffs, borrowing in tone and vibe from Faust, Can, and Tangerine Dream. The second half is a collaboration with ambient wizard Brian Eno, and is largely synth-driven exercises in electronic music (a theme Bowie would return to a few times throughout the remainder of his career).
The two halves can be seen as a divide that would have been glaringly obvious for the artist during his stay in West Berlin: the divide between Western Europe and the Eastern Soviet Bloc. The first half, the West half, is stylish on the surface but fascinatingly broken when it’s delved into. “Speed Of Life” rides a futuristic riff but remains defiantly voiceless; “Breaking Glass” addresses the excesses of his Hollywood year but doesn’t stick around to dwell on the details, assuring it’s writer of his inherent goodness before moving on. “Sound And Vision” finds a poppy jaunt that would show up in many of the songs on 1979’s Lodger; “Be My Wife” was sourly romantic at a time that his first marriage was crumbling; “A New Career In A New Town” addressed “starting over”, which Bowie was no stranger to, being first an English, then an American, and by 1977 a German artist. All of it is crisp and cutting-edge by the standards of the day, but there are real problems lurking between the notes. The songs speak to a certain disorientation: fracturing relationships, rapid progressions, confusion, regret, and fundamental change are all apparent in them. The West was no different. A generation after the end of the war, Western Europe still bore the scars and shadows of the biggest armed conflict in human history, Germany most of all. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, the future was uncertain and the end was always near. Labouring under the rocky aftermath of the supply shocks of 1973, stagflation had become the economic order of the day and the resulting recessions were brutal. The reason punk broke in 1977 is because the cracks in the veneer of the economic system had become glaringly apparent by then; the youth responded to Johnny Rotten’s snarl of “No Future!” because it didn’t look like there would be one. Caught in a world where youth unemployment was desperately high (especially in Bowie’s native Britain) with the only way out seemingly a devastating and impersonal nuclear war between the superpowers, confusion, fracture, and fundamental change where what everyone was talking about. Even though old-order artists like David Bowie were looked down on for being dinosaurs (witness Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt), the first half of Low is saying the exact same thing that all the first-wave punk artists were saying – “Everything is fucked and it’s not getting unfucked soon” – only in a much more subtle manner than, say, “Bodies”.
The second half, then, would be the Eastern half, and there’s something in this notion. The second side is taken up by ambient electronic compositions that were both completely alien to Bowie’s music and to mainstream American audiences at the time. While Europe was (and continues to be) no stranger to synthesizers – disco never gained it’s unsavoury reputation there, after all – your average American rock ‘n’ roll fan thought synths were unmanly, as though only guitars could be fashionable and manly. It was an attitude that persisted for a long time, even though New Wave (and, again, David Bowie) kicked the door in on that in the early 1980s. In 1977, though, when Kraftwerk was still underground and white-hot, the sort of music on side two of Low would have been as utterly foreign as, well, Communism. The names also suggest something from the other side of the Iron Curtain: “Warszawa”, “Weeping Wall”, “Subterraneans” – Warsaw, walls, tunnels. Barricades and escapes. The wall that divided West from East in Berlin, and the desperate souls who tried to make it across. On a less theme-focused note, the influence of this album on ambient music to follow may be hard to see now, since it’s pretty routine by ambient standards, but Low represented Brian Eno making great strides in the form at the time, and if it sounds generic now it’s because it set the standard for the genre in 1977.