Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Lloyd on Low

s I struggle with my 10 year olds discovery of Kiss FM, this really struck a chord. I picked up the link on the slicing the eyeball blog which took to the Salon website (thus the American spelling)

It is a Father's day letter from Lloyd Cole to his sons and like all great music writing makes you want to go out and play the lp straight away

Boys, it’s reverse Father’s Day. One of you is 13, the other 19. I’m 51. What on earth can I offer the both of you?
Well … I turned 16 in 1977. That was the year of The Clash and The Sex Pistols; Television and Talking Heads ’77. It was the best of times, and my love for these bands and their recordings is tied inevitably to my having been there. I was there. You were not there. You can’t have what I get from “Marquee Moon” or “Complete Control.” I’m sorry. But it’s OK. I’ll never fully get The Strokes or Arcade Fire. But I do enjoy them, and consequently I’m going to suggest that maybe, just maybe … Even if I can’t expect you to react as I did upon its release in early ’77, nevertheless, I present to you now The Rock Album That You Must Give a Chance: “Low” by David Bowie.
Back then, there was no YouTube sidebar to lead you to related works. We read the music press and we listened — to illegal cassette recordings and to John Peel on late-night BBC radio. Music nerds like me had our ears to the ground. When something big was coming, we knew it. “Low” snuck up on us. There was no fanfare, probably because RCA expected so little from it commercially.

I admit I was initially disappointed. But as a Bowie devotee, I necessarily listened to the album, nonstop, for several weeks. This was maybe my first attempt at digesting a really challenging work of art. Great art improves with repeated consideration. Mediocre art reveals itself. Pity the critic on a deadline, then. The reviews were inevitably mixed, which was unusual for Bowie — the darling of the ’70’s music press — but there had never been an album like “Low” before. The New Musical Express best-of-the-year list had Bowie’s next album, “Heroes,” at No. 1 with “Low” down at No. 27. Today, pretty much all of us would flip them.
I care little for back stories, but “Low’s” is colorful, and I’ll admit it has colored my reception of the album over the years. In 1977, West Berlin was maybe the ultimate bohemian destination. The Wall was right there, and there were no signs of it coming down. Besieged by grey totalitarianism, alive with every imaginable hedonistic abandon, this is where Bowie went to try to kick his cocaine habit. Making an album there — basically decamping, as Bowie did, with his pal Iggy Pop — was a statement. Pretty much every Bowie wannabe since then has made a Berlin album hoping to look cool and interesting.

Rock music, almost all of it, is rooted in the blues — sex and/or violence and/or alienation. If you can tick all the boxes, you can really do well: See Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Eminem. “Low” ticks almost none of them. The lyrics are cool, dry, almost sexless, and six of the eleven tracks are instrumental. OK, there is alienation, but it’s not your typical rock n’ roll alienation; there is no whining, “You don’t understand me.” Bowie adopts a distanced, contemplative attitude. He studies his own depression. Typically, rock music is presented by the frontman — virile, confident, strident, desirable — as Bowie himself was in 1973. In 1977, we find him frail, reticent and seemingly doubting his very self. Not nightclubbing. He is the anti-rockstar, alone in his room, thinking.
Blue, blue, electric blue.
That’s the color of my room, where I will live.
Blue, blue.
Plain blinds drawn all day.
Nothing to do and nothing to say.
Blue, blue.
(From “Sound and Vision”)
How the does this creature make a rock record then? Because he has Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in his blood. Bowie can’t help it. His genius lies in the interaction between his gut (primal) and his brain (esoteric). Neither one ever completely dominates, and his rock n’ roll instinct is always present, at least when there is a drummer in the room. On this record Bowie gets very close to some kind of Krautrock, but he can’t quite get there. If he is aiming at minimalism, he fails. There is too much melody, too much structure. And maybe he was frustrated, but he has too much of the music he grew up with in him to be able to completely discard it. He straddles borders between genres, and in doing so, makes something arguably more beautiful, more interesting and more rewarding than that which the purist would produce.
Listen to “Low” from start to finish and you’re in for a musical awakening. From the relentless opening guitar riff of “Speed of Life” through the exquisite “Sound and Vision” and the hypnotic “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” side one may just about prepare you for side two, but probably not. Four instrumental pieces (there is singing, but no words) of rarified beauty that defy categorization. Is this modern classical music? I don’t care. It’s beauty I want, and the meeting here of arguably the three greatest rock music minds of their time — Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti — delivers a beauty I had never heard before. I’m still in awe of it.
“Low” led me to Eno’s ambient works, to NEU!, to Cluster, to Kraftwerk, to Steve Reich, to Miles Davis, to Erik Satie, and these led me further still, to Ravel, Terry Riley, John Cage — so much music that I love, all thanks to one album from 1977.
 Humor your father. Listen

It has got me thinking about my own son. I'm not quite sure of the how yet but as i get close to the 1000 posts mark I'm going to do something on my favourite 125 lps. Why 125 , well 50 is way too few and 100 well seems okay but I think I'll need the safety net of an extra 25. There will be some rules (I just ahvent thought of them yet. When I do it I hope you play along!


  1. I loved reading this. My daughter is 18 months old and I'm trying to subtly imply all the music I love but I know one day she'll have opinions and tastes of her own. I hope that she tales my recommendations under consideration and I hope that same hope for yours!

    I can't wait to explore some favorite albums with you! Perhaps I'll play along over at my blog!

  2. Looking forward to your Top 125!

  3. I am thinking something along the lines of
    no compilations
    no greatest hits
    only one per band but a solo lp counts separately

    I do suspect it is goin gto expose me as stuck in a time warp and quite conservative in what has stood the test of time!

    Be warned James - my 10 year old was exposed and loved lots of great stuff in his early years but at the age of 10 he has dicovered awful generic dance music. If i had my time again i would have exposed him to awful music so he rebelled to the good stuff!

  4. Great piece by Lloyd Cole; didn't think he'd have such a generous spirit for some reason; still expect a self centred malcontent; rather than a loving, slightly apologetic pater; keen eyed and still in love with his past. Agreed that it makes me want to dust off 'Low' and give it another go. I get most of my Bowie from generous greatest hits compilations and recently fell for 'Hunky Dory' again. It's the songs there; I'm sure that it's more about ambience with 'Low'...
    Nice idea of writing for your own son David.
    Hours in the day?

  5. Hi Tev

    for the past week I've had my mp3 player on perm Bowie shuffle and found it impossible to read as i keep just stopping to listen , really listen... it has been a magical reconnect with music I became obsessed with at the age of 15.

    I thikn when I do teh 125 the number of weekly posts will go down as I kind of want to lsiten to each lp properly rather than write about what I think I remember

    see the jukebox clip for mr malcontent lloyd


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