“The sound of Sinatra reproduced by Martian computers.” – Ian MacDonald, NME
What’s your favourite Bowie album? I hope that doesn’t sound presumptuous, but mine has just turned 45.
A word of warning though. There are actually people on this planet who aren’t into David Bowie. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but they really do exist.
Whenever I meet someone and they tell me they belong in the (admittedly dwindling since his death) “No thanks, it’s Bowie” camp, I, quite naturally, ask why.
Now and again, an occasional explanation is that it’s because they view him as an artificial construct that has no core, no soul. A walking sponge, absorbing the ideas and work of others, someone who would be a nobody without his collaborators.
The vitriol that emanated from the mouth of Adam Ant the (second) time I interviewed him is a prime example of that school of thought. Bouncing amiably around his Kensington kitchen in 2011, I quizzed the insect warrior on the subject matter of the Antz’ second single, the coruscating tale of a musical plagiarist that is Zerøx; in particular the telling lines “I’m never bored to steal your chords” sharply followed by “I may look happy, healthy and clean/A dark brown voice and suit pristine/But behind the smile there is a Zerox Machine.”
It’s obvious he was singing from the point of view of being Bowie, and the diatribe he let rip with pretty much confirmed it: “Yeah, well, I think David Bowie’s a fucking thief, a vampire and a charlatan. He used Iggy, he used Brian Eno, he used everybody.” Ouch.
Granted, you can say with Low that Bowie was recycling some of his ideas from German ‘krautrock’ bands… or you could say it’s Brian Eno’s influence that makes it so good, particularly on the almost instrumental second side. But that’s far from the whole story – Neu! and Eno are both pioneers in their own way but none of their albums are at the level of Low.
However, the most common complaint about The Dame may surprise you.
“I don’t like his voice.”
You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard that.
Pushed to explain exactly what it is about his voice they object to, most struggle to out it into words, though “mannered” and “theatrical” are ones that usually rear their ugly heads.
Talking of heads.
It happened not so long ago on a road trip through New Zealand, in fact. My companion for the week was an uber-Cure fanatic who didn’t mind Cat People but seemed to prefer looking at his shoes, “So I really wanted to like Bowie because Robert (Smith) likes him,” he admitted sanguinely.
Nowadays I’m armed and ready with my response. Whenever I want to inform and broaden someone’s narrow view of Bowie the singer I ask them to listen to one song. In the NZ case, I simply cued it up from Apple Music on my iPhone and streamed it to the car stereo.
For obvious reasons it wasn’t this.
The track in question? One that never fails to live up to its title, it’s the gift that keeps on giving four decades years later: the glorious technicolor of Sound And Vision.
I could see the revelation register across his face.
“OK, that sounds like none of the stuff I’ve heard so far.”
“And, see, he’s using different voices in the same song.”
“I have to admit, yes, you’re right.”
Bingo. That’s why it’s always my go to song in these situations, and it starts with three brutal blasts of Dennis Davis drum deliciousness.
If push came to shove, Sound And Vision would usually figure somewhere around the upper echelons of my favourite Bowie tracks, possibly at the peak.
Yes, I have a sentimental attachment to Life On Mars? and Ashes To Ashes — the latter being the first record of his I bought — but compared to S&V they’re like your Heroes and your Ziggys and your Jean Genies in that they’re distinctly overplayed and, for me, almost unlistenable.
By contrast, for a vintage four-decades-old recording Sound And Vision still sounds remarkably fresh, though it helps in no small part that for a No.3 single it left a shockingly small footprint, with no promotional video, no contemporaneous telly performances and, other than a singular performance in 1978, passed over on every single Bowie live outing until the greatest hits tour of the same name in 1990.
As the fourth track of Low, the Dame’s 11th studio set, Sound And Vision was first issued on 14 January 1977, the week after he became a thirty-something, with the 45 following a month later. The release also marked Low out as the first Bowie album for five years not to have a single precede it.
The song, if you can call it that, is the perfect example of Low’s revolutionary minimalism, inspired in no small part by the addition of former Roxy Music knob-twiddler Brian Eno to the musical palete. Eno had noted that most songs have the words at the beginning so he suggested to Bowie “why not make a song with all the words at the end?”
The two of them describe the freeform creative process in these 1977 interview extracts with Radio 1’s Stuart Grundy.
Beware, The Dame’s put her posh voice on.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHHBZMgsXDA&t=382s
Producer Tony Visconti and Bowie originally recorded Sound And Vision as an instrumental, bar the backing vocal, performed by Visconti’s then wife, former Beatles protégé Mary Hopkin. David then recorded his vocal after the rest of the band had left the studio, before trimming verses from the lyric and leaving an unconventionally lengthy instrumental intro on the finished track.
In the 2020s, Sound And Vision remains a pertinent reminder of Bowie’s ability to surprise and enlighten. And it was all done at the Honky Chateau d’Herouville near Paris. See how many Pinups you can spot in this video montage of guitarist Ricky Gardiner’s Kodachrome session snaps.
Bowie’s flair for mechanised melodrama worked. That simple descending synthesizer line, a sudden sigh of delight. It’s three minutes of uplifting happy/sad hypno-disco wrapped in Krautrock and evocative electronic textures, Sound And Vision (the clue’s in the title) was used by the BBC in its continuity trailers at the time, providing incalculable exposure and giving the AWOL artist—holed up in Haupstrasse, West Berlin with Iggy Pop—a surprise hit single. The song was also a top ten hit in Germany, Austria and The Netherlands. However, it only managed a lowly 69 in the United States where it signalled a pause in his commercial success until 1983’s chart-slaying Let’s Dance.
If Low is the heart of the celebrated ‘Berlin’ trilogy then Sound And Vision is its soul.
The entire album still sounds hermetically sealed in a universe all its own. Low dives headlong into the avant-garde, not just breaking but shattering for good the glass ceiling of his previous songwriting. It also stands to reason that Bowie, with the help of Visconti, Eno and a huge element of risk, endeavoured to, in his words “develop a new musical language”, seeking out sonics and textures unlike any he’d produced before. And only Bowie can stand in an empty white room with a Fender and flip-flops and be completely captivating.
Low also left America behind, its sketchy synth washes, disinterested vocals and brittle funk owing little to rock and soul and a lot to the future. Right to the fore was Visconti’s new acquisition, the Eventide H910 Harmonizer pitch shifter, which the producer famously sold to Bowie and Eno with the phrase: “It fucks with the fabric of time.”
As a result, a new wave of artists such as Gary Numan, Ultravox and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark were indebted to the terse, synth-based wall of sound BEV (Bowie, Eno and Visconti) had created.
New music, new heights then.
Low changed everything for so many people, me included. Though I was familiar with the skewed rhythmic pop of side one for a number of years, it wasn’t until the latter half of my 20s when it changed from a strange, radically constructed concept to probably my favourite Bowie album of all time. Only then did I realise Low sounds the way it does for a reason.
Its looseness, structurally speaking, is what began to really draws me to it. Most of the tracks have a sense of intended incompleteness that feel more like a moment in time than compositions someone sat down and put together with intention. Rather than just a collection of songs with verses and choruses, intros and outros, they begin and then before you expect them to lead into a buildup or a middle of some sort, before you know it, they’ve ended.
Take the brilliantly brief Breaking Glass for instance, where the stark guitar twang is accentuated by thick ca-chunk-chunks of electro synth all tweaked and turned inside-out while Bowie’s hiccup-y delivery—“such-cha-won-Da-foe-perssunn-but-Cha-Gawt!!—seem to mimic a Hi-Hat before that three-tone keyboard riff takes over. And all this after the opening track, Speed Of Life, the best gateway drug rush this side of the Berlin Wall.
It’s incredibly fun, even though it sounds like having a conversation with someone who leaves the room half way through their sentence. Disconcerting to some, some of the quicker numbers leave you with an impression of an interlude, one that puzzles and intrigues, and which you can’t help but return to… for more of the same short shrift from an oddball who makes zero effort to be agreeable.
It took me a little longer to warm up to the moody ambient soundscapes of the mainly instrumental, impressionistic second side but on repeated listens you start to pick out how amorphous were the song structures, how rife was the experimentation but above it all, Bowie threw caution to the wind, putting everything he had in that material. He had what us Greeks call θάρρος, thárros, courage.
There seemed to be no rulebook and that is what makes Low such a daring, bold album. Duller critics sometimes call it soulless, or empty, as though not actually crying while singing makes music emotionless. Bowie himself said: “There’s oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain.”
There are others who feel Heroes is a more fully realised record, that Low was BEV finding their feet in a new interracial marriage with fuzzed-out guitarist Ricky Gardiner and the celebrated DAM (Davis, Alomar, Murray) black rhythm section, as it were. Whatever your viewpoint it was a glorious start and a stunning freeform achievement, as Gardiner remembers.
“As for the style of music, I think you’ll find that Bowie doesn’t reject any kind of music. He’s not a musical pseudo-intellectual. He likes Mantovani, for example, which may make some people go into double-think. In actual fact it makes complete sense. Mantovani is brilliant, there’s no getting away from that, and Bowie knows it. I think he was very disappointed by the music for The Man Who Fell to Earth. He spent quite some time writing a score for it, and he wasn’t pleased it wasn’t used in the film. He let us hear it and it was excellent, quite unlike anything else he’s done.”
Even the cover art evokes alienation and struggle: Bowie stares ahead in profile (Low, profile, geddit?) with a gaunt, empty expression, on a background of swirling orange clouds. Though based on a still from his starring role in the Nicolas Roeg film, the album artwork could easily be seen as a cloaked, wandering loner gazing out upon scorched earth – and given his marital and managerial problems and addiction issues at the time, that interpretation makes sense. A more apt example of life informing art, imitating other art, imitating life could hardly be found.
Whether he was bottoming out, seeking asylum, or being reborn, Low marked the death of the Thin White Duke and informed Bowie’s work through to the 1980s and beyond.
BONUS BEATS: Initially created for a Sony Xperia™ Z smartphone ad campaign, Sound And Vision 2013 re-worked the track from the original stems by remixer Sonjay Prabhakar to create a beautifully haunting reimagining of the song. It’s weird hearing Berlin-era Bowie get the unplugged treatment, since the prophetic use of studio sound was a huge part of what made those records important. But S&V is a song with a certain uncanny power, and it loses none of it in this context.
Interestingly, by stripping away much of the original instrumentation to just leave Roy Young’s plaintive piano, Mary Hopkins’ backing and the stately lead vocal, some listeners assumed what is essentially another Bowie voice on the track at the 1:22 mark was a new vocal addition.
Actually, the same vocal is present on David Richards’ earlier “Rykodisc” remix of the song from 1991, at the 3:04 point, indicating it’s also on the original session tapes, but takes place after the master fade-out everyone grew up with.