David Bowie found himself in a quandary in 1976. Four years earlier, the chameleonic star had zapped the charts in a laser-beam of white-hot rock theatre with Ziggy Stardust. He had re-imagined George Orwell's dystopian view of the future as a rock album with 1974's Diamond Dogs. He then switched gears again to record two albums of so-called plastic soul, Young Americans and Station to Station.
Now Bowie was at an artistic crossroads and looking for another new direction. Physically and mentally at a dead-end, exhausted from constant touring, and emotionally drained from cocaine abuse, he had fled to Berlin to escape the glare of the world. There, he searched for inspiration while living in Weimar-like bohemia with his proto-punk hero Iggy Pop.
It's unsurprising that his next project would be a schizophrenic, cold and angular piece of work. Although its merits were not immediately recognised, the record went on to become one of the most influential albums ever.
Low, the first of Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy of albums that also comprised Heroes and Lodger, is as gaunt, conflicted and shattered as the mental state of the artist at the time of its recording. Side one is composed of splintered, jagged songs which seem unfinished. The flip side consists of broody and atmospheric synthesiser-led instrumentals. The album captured the tension of Bowie's drug-frenzied mood as well as the knife-edge atmosphere of Cold War Berlin.
Produced by Bowie's long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, it opens where the title track of Station to Station left off: Speed of Life's driving, crunching guitar riff works its way into the album like an approaching train. That is followed by the equally unnerving Breaking Glass, a song which captures Bowie's cocaine psychosis by means of disjointed lyrical themes about unhinged behaviour. The album continues through a bewildering and disorientating array of styles with lyrics touching on paranoia (Sound and Vision), Ballardian psycho-sexuality (Always Crashing in the Same Car), and loneliness (Be My Wife).
For side two, Bowie drafted in former Roxy Music synthesiser player Brian Eno. His mastery of musical gadgetry allowed Bowie to put the cold steely nature of his emotions into music. Tracks like Warszawa and Subterraneans are distant and mechanical. There is very little warmth in the 11 tracks.
It's impossible to quantify the influence Low has exerted on rock and pop since its release in 1977. The industrial rock bands of the late-1970s, the synth-pop bands of the early 1980s, the Brit-poppers of the 1990s and the current slew of indie bands have all cited the stark tones of this schizophrenic album as a blueprint for their sound. Joy Division even took their original name, Warsaw, from Warszawa.
Likewise, Bowie drew on his own musical fascinations to create Low. The motorik beat of side two owes much to Kraftwerk and Neu! In terms of atmosphere, it fits perfectly into the Krautrock movement's mission of creating a white European blues absent of any American or African influences.