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Released in January 1977, Low was the most potent and encompassing hybridization of pop music’s many modes to that point, an album that continues to resonate as a syncretic masterpiece three decades later.

Still fascinated with the urban funk rhythms he’d employed less subtly for Young Americans and Station to Station, Bowie was increasingly drawn to the synthetic novelties Can, Neu!, and Eno were positing, particularly Eno’s Discreet Music, which informs most of Low’s second side. This gorgeous quartet of dramatic instrumental pieces started out as the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, an 1975 film by Nicholas Roeg starring Bowie, at the apex of his cocaine addiction, as an extraterrestrial Übermensch. Unbelievably, Bowie’s compositions were rejected; brought through to Low, they provide a grave emotional counterpoint to the record’s self-exploratory A-side, proof positive that Bowie really was out to wipe the mirror clean in Berlin.

The kaleidoscopic opening salvo “Speed of Life” tests our willingness to come along, staring out like Johnny Rotten, but– crucially– not caring if anyone follows. “Sound + Vision” and “Breaking Glass” are our most immediate rewards, more familiar in their funk stutter-steps and sultry crooning. The latter owes everything to guitarist Carlos Alomar in the left channel, who delivers the lead with a swagger to rival Mick Ronson and T.Rex. Obstinate, rueful and reckless, the album’s first side is a collection of seven short “fragments,” whose brevity is at once a knee-jerk reaction to the meandering Station to Station and the end result of a bad case of writer’s block.

To correct an injurious and carelessly repeated claim, Brian Eno did not produce Low (or “Heroes” or Lodger). While his presence and influence are uncontestable– especially in the aching instrumental “A New Career in a New Town”– producer Tony Visconti and Bowie shaped the analog onslaught heard here. For their fine ears, there’s also a principal debt to the Eventide H910 Harmonizer, the first commercially available pitch-shifter, which through doubling lends Low its signature distorted snare drum, one of the most ingenious production advances you can point to in the 1970s, and a sound producers still reach for today.

Brian Eno, Robert Fripp & David Bowie

Politically, Low is a singular and brutal indictment of the only thing Bowie’s native England cared about in January 1977: punk rock. To a man who lived through Iggy and– let’s be honest– designed Johnny Rotten, punk’s brief lifespan and predominantly societal (rather than musical) impact were foregone conclusions. That Bowie could see past the flames to paint this horizon is irrefutable evidence of his solipsistic genius. Balancing process art, experimentalism and rock ‘n’ roll tradition, Low is Bowie unrefined, the most captivating effort from the 1970’s most-watched man.

-Chris Ott,


David Bowie-LOW (1977)
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