“Berlin is the center of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years.”
–David Bowie in Vogue September 1, 1978
Building up to Low – The “move” to Switzerland
At the end of 1976, Bowie relocated his family to Clos des Mésanges in Blonay, Switzerland (his wife wish) (Seabrook 74). But, due to his deteriorating relationship with his wife, he never really lived there. Instead, he spent the summer in the French town of Pontoise at the Château d’Hérouville recording studio, where he would record his friend’s, Iggy Pop’s, album The Idiot (Seabrook 74).
Building up to Low – The Idiot
“China Girl” from The Idiot
Iggy Pop made the move to Europe with Bowie as an effort to resurrect his career after the breakup of his band, The Stooges, and his battle with heroin addiction (Seabrook 74-79). Bowie and Pop started recording Pop’s solo album, The Idiot, at the Château d’Hérouville in the summer of 1976 (Seabrook 76). Arguably, this album could be considered a Bowie album, just as much as a Iggy Pop album. Why? Bowie wrote and composed most of the album himself and assembled a group of musicians to record the album (Seabrook 79-81). Once the Music was complete, Pop wrote (as noted by Seabrook: “improvised at the mic”) the lyrics. This album is also important because it leads Bowie and Pop into Berlin to Hansa Studios to mix the album when it was finished – Which would become their new creative home (Seabrook 82). The recording of this album is also important because it improved Bowie’s idea of “the three-stage pattern of recording” (Seabrook 102). Three stages: Bowie and three or four musicians would record the rhythm tracks, then Bowie and the music director (for Low, it was Carlos Alomar) and another guest musician would work on overdubs, and then Bowie would record his vocals with just the producer present (Seabrook 102).
“Sound and Vision” from Low (1977).
“[Low] was a portal into German experimental music” – Mark Predergast, Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution
“Life in L.A. had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times, and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.”
Perhaps one of Bowie’s most captivating talents was his ability to completely transform his image and sound. After moving to Berlin to shed his “dark phase”, Bowie reinvented himself once again and shifted his style to more ambient music. Low “was a relatively straight album. It didn’t come from a drug place. And I realized at the time that it was important music. It was one of the better things I’d ever written – Low, specifically. That was the start, probably for me, of a new way of looking at life” (Mastropolo).
Recorded in West Berlin’s Hansa Studios, Low was a new concept for Bowie, and the album was often criticized. Known as the first album in the “Berlin Trilogy”, Low shows an avant-garde approach to music with more focus on the instrumentals, rather than the vocals. Bowie’s move to Berlin can be credited for the new style on the album. Inspired by West Berlin’s burgeoning music scene, Low features certain rock and electronic elements that make it comparable to Krautrock, a genre of music originated in Germany.
The majority of Low was recorded in France at Château d’Hérouville, but the final instrumental parts and vocal parts were finished at Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin, in one of the smaller studios – not the main studio where “Heroes” would be recorded (Seabrook 111). It is along this fact and the fact that he was thinking about his experience in Berlin which places this album into the “Berlin Triptych” (Seabrook 56).
German Influence’s on Low
Although Kraftwerk (as we mentioned on our Station to Station page) influenced Bowie during this period, Bowie “seemed to take more from Kraftwerk’s less mechanical contemporaries,” which would have included Can, Faust, Tangerine Dream and Neu! (Seabrook 85). Thomas Jerome Seabrook, in his book Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town, he states, “Of all these groups, Neu! were the most influential on Bowie’s new musical direction,” because, “their Neu! 75 is like Bowie’s Low and Heroes” (85). The reason he makes this connection is because, it is “very much an album of two sides, the first gentle, ambient, and largely instrumental, the second more visceral, vocal, and song-based” (Seabrook 85).
Other influence’s on Low
Experimental musician, Brian Eno, besides being a musician on the album, played huge influence on the writing of the album as a whole (Lyrics and music). Bowie, when asked about Eno stated, “He got me off narration, which I was so intolerably bored with…Brian really opened my eyes to the idea of processing, to the abstract of communication” (Seabrook 112). Iggy Pop was also an influence. Pop gave Bowie the idea to come up with more “improvised” or “on the spot” lyrics, and ideas about new ways to deliver his vocal performance (Seabrook 80/112).