Tag Archive: Iggy Pop

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

David Bowie – “Low” (RCA Records, 1977)

This month’s choice for Classics Critiqued is David Bowie’s “Low”, an album that reinvented both Bowie and, on its first side, ideas about rock music whilst showcasing Bowie’s own take on ambient music on its second side. “Low” created a cross roads in Bowie’s career, it marked the beginning of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ (also featuring “Heroes” and “Lodger”) and a period of intense experimentation. It also divided his fans; some abandoning him as he challenged them with even more challenging music and others embracing this new seam of creativity. In this piece I will discuss many ideas about how the album was created, its place in the wider context of ’70s music, its inspirations and its legacy.

When David Bowie started work on “Low” he had hit rock bottom. A cocaine addict with a collapsing marriage and media accusations of Nazi sympathies, he fled to Switzerland to regroup. Bowie wanted to escape America, its culture and LA drug dealers. “Low” (and Bowie-produced Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot”, which was recorded before but released after “Low” ) allowed him an output for his emotional despair and his new musical vision. This vision applied “European sensibilities to American pop, brilliantly combining R&B rhythms, electronics, minimalism and process driven techniques with an atmosphere of modernist alienation and a suspicion of narrative.” On Side One Bowie pushed his classically trained musicians into unfamiliar territory, pushing rock music to its most arty and abstract limit, abandoning typical structures and sounds to create a new future. Bowie described having “a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.” during the making of “Low”.

At this stage of the process Bowie and producer Tony Visconti would also process the musicians’ instruments as they played and afterwards used effects such as the Eventide Harmonizer (a pitch shifter), various tone filters, reverbs and every studio trick Visconti knew. Along the way Visconti even created a new technique that would define Side One of “Low”: he would send the snare to the Harmonizer, which dropped the pitch, then fed it straight back to the drummer. It was processed live, so drummer Dennis Davis heard the shift in pitch as he played and responded accordingly. Visconti added the two into the mix to get “Low”’s signature sound:  a snare thump with a descending echo.

One of key players in creating “Low” was Bowie’s newest collaborator, experimental solo artist and creator of ambient music Brian Eno. Though he is not the ‘producer’ of the record as he is often quoted (these duties fell to long time Bowie producer Tony Visconti and Bowie himself), his advice was hugely important in shaping the album’s sound. Historically Eno is always associated with Side Two of “Low”, which consists of four extended ambient pieces, however his ideas and influence apply equally to the seven tracks on the first side as well. For instance, Bowie turned up to the sessions with many half-finished and under developed ideas sourced from his aborted ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ soundtrack, leftovers from “The Idiot” and various experiments he had created in his home studio in Switzerland. Eno recalls, “He arrived with all these strange pieces, long and short, which already had their own form and structure. The idea was to work together to give the songs a more normal structure. I told him not to change them, to leave them in their bizarre, abnormal state.”

Eno also used his Oblique Strategies card set to direct the musicians in the studio and remove inspirational blocks. However, not all the musicians took to Eno’s methodology as keenly as Bowie had. The classically trained Carlos Alomar thought the cards were ‘stupid’ and felt that Eno’s and Bowie’s intellectualising of the music wouldn’t ‘give you a hook for a song’. Side Two of the album has more direct links to Eno’s own music, though the fact it’s more compositional demonstrates that is Bowie who is in ultimate control and Eno is an advisor to aid to his overall vision, and not a guru who dominated the decisions Bowie made.

Bowie was a keen art collector and during visits to West Berlin (despite the ‘Berlin trilogy’ tag “Low” was actually recorded in Paris then finished in West Berlin’s Hansa studios later) he would visit Die Brücke museum and buy pieces of art for little money in the city’s art gallerys. Bowie felt there was a direct link between the emotionally evocative landscapes painted by Die Brücke artists and what he was attempting on the album’s second half. In a 2001 interview he said, “It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood and this was where I felt my work was going.” “Like Die Brücke landscapes each of Side Two’s pieces described a place (Warsaw on ‘Warszawa’ and Berlin on the other three) but that place is just a prompt, just a vehicle for a mood. If these are portraits of cities, they are painted with the broadest of brushstrokes”.

 “Low” is an album that in many ways is defined by its lack of lyrics yet when Bowie chose to express himself lyrically it complimented perfectly the instrumentation and the mood of the music. At the time Bowie was suffering from depression and the disconnected way he delivers lines such as: “Deep in your room you never leave your room. Something deep inside of me – yearning deep inside of me” adds an extra tension to the songs and demonstrates just how depressed Bowie was. His words were further enriched by the use of his voice. Often on Bowie lowers his voice, something that he hadn’t done on previous records, making the album a real yardstick for his career afterwards. During the final part of recording Bowie would stand in front of the microphone listening to the backing tracks trying out different voices until he found the right one for that song. In his 2005 book on “Low” Hugo Wilcken observed that “After the razzle of glam rock, after the constant reinventions, the gaudy theatre of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, it was something of a shock that Bowie could turn around and make an album that was so empty and private, with lyrics so sparse and simple, with “nothing to do, nothing to say.”

“Low” had an immediate and long-lasting influence on alternative rock music and the directions it moved in after the 1977 release. One of the more subtle influences was on the post-punk music scene. Bowie’s combination of black music rhythms and European sensibilities is traceable in the likes of Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and Talking Heads’ classic albums (produced by Eno) “Fear of Music” and “Remain In Light” and ’80s pop queen Grace Jones and his foregrounding of bass was omnipresent in a huge majority of post-punk bands. Another observation by Wilcken talks of Scott Walker as being influenced by “Low” as the piano featured on “The Electrician” (from “Nite Flights by The Walker Brothers, 1978) resembles that of “Warszawa”. Walker even sent Bowie a copy of “Nite Flights” despite the pair having never met. Tony Visconti’s use of the Eventide Harmonizer had him fielding calls from hundreds of engineers but he refused to tell them how he had utilised it, instead asking them how they thought it was done. Its use went on to influence Prince in creating his trademark sound. More recently post-punk revivalists like Franz Ferndinand and LCD Soundsystem have openly confessed a love of Bowie’s Berlin masterpieces. The album has arguably influenced the adventures of post-rock bands such as Disco Inferno, Insides, Seefeel and Techno Animal who  rose to “Low”‘s challenge to push rock music to its limits.

David Bowie – Low

Classics Critiqued

This is a new monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

The Stooges – ‘Funhouse’ (Elektra, 1970)

Earlier this month Iggy and The Stooges ‘Raw Power’ was reissued in Legacy and Deluxe Editions to largely unanimous acclaim and like all Stooges albums it has been critically reappraised and influential on subsequent generations. I have never heard ‘Raw Power’ properly, but it’s a record whose influence on punk and heavy metal is clear, so I decided to cover The Stooges second album ‘Funhouse’ recorded by the original line-up of Iggy Pop (vocals), Ron Asheton (guitar), Dave Alexander (bass) and Scott Asheton (drums).

Between their self titled debut album and ‘Funhouse’ The Stooges toured nonstop becoming simultaneously a tighter and looser outfit and writing all the material that ended up on ‘Funhouse’. When they entered Elecktra Sound Recorder Studio in L.A. on May 10th with producer Don Galucci (formerly organ player with The Kingsmen) they recorded one song a day in the order they were to appear on the album with few or no overdubs. This is a factor that marks ‘Funhouse’ out from their other releases; this is their live shows on disk but with the benefit of studio recording techniques. It is the band at their most in-your-face.

From the outset Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander lock into a heavy groove, allowing Ron Asheton to smother the songs in fluid lava fuzz wah guitar and Iggy to have free reign that finds him veering from anguish to anger and regularly unleashing primal screams. The Stooges were always wild and bearly controlled but few bands could and have matched ‘Funhouse’s malevolence without descending into tunelessness.

The Stooges were joined by fifth member Steve Mackay who lent fiery tenor sax lines to the second half of record. Mackay not only added texture to mix but pushed the sound further out; making songs such as ‘Dirt’ and ‘Funhouse’ feel as if on edge of collapse before the band pulls it back from the brink just in time.

When Ron Asheton passed away on 6th January 2009 he left behind a great legacy in ‘Funhouse’ and the other Stooges records he’d played on. It was a legacy that had been largely ignored and not acknowledged before his untimely death. His guitar slithers across the whole of ‘Funhouse’ adding to the groove and swagger and complimenting Iggy’s James Brown style grunting and sexual groaning. Asheton is at his most free and the album is the greatest testament to his playing ability. After ‘Funhouse’ Asheton switched to bass guitar with the departure of Dave Alexander and arrival of Texan guitarist James Williamson, which is a shame as Asheton seemed to truly be tapping into his full potential.

‘Funhouse’s influence is harder to detect than that of their other albums but it’s felt in subtler way and inspires bands that are under the radar and it has been the more interesting rock acts who’ve heaped praise upon this neglected album. The likes of J.Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore have confessed to spending many an hour trying to decode what can seem to be simplistic sonic formula yet the devil is the detail and delivery. At first Iggy’s lyrics can seem innocuous and on the surface Ron Asheton’s guitar riffs are no different to any other garage rock guitarists but the demented screaming vocals, the implied menace and the controlled drone underpinning everything Asheton touches means The Stooges can never be classified in the same way as their contemporaries. Recently their influence can be heard with acts such as Add N to (X) and Acoustic Ladyland and with a hint in Sleigh Bells but the influence manifests differently. Add N to (X) subtly subsume the aesthetics of ‘Funhouse’ into an electronic sound, Acoustic Ladyland take their cues from Steve Mackay’s input and create a brilliant jazz-punk fusion on albums ‘Last Chance Disco’ (2005) and ‘Living with A Tiger’ (2009) and Sleigh Bells draw on the aesthetic and in-your-face sonics.

‘Funhouse’ went in at  No.16 in Mojo’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time but a better recommendation is a personal one from Henry Rollins who wrote in his 1994 book Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag: “Everybody should own a copy of that album.”

Spotify Playlist:

The Stooges – Funhouse [Deluxe Edition]

The Stooges – Funhouse [Deluxe Edition]

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