In the early summer of 1976, David Bowie was relaxing in his recently-acquired home in Blonay, Switzerland, following a gruelling world tour. Frazzled, and at a creative and personal crossroads, the 29-year-old had recently moved from America to Europe to help him shake a prodigious cocaine habit and find what he described as a “new musical language”, having become sick of his sound – of being a rock star. It was less than a year since he’d enjoyed his first US number one single with Fame, but Bowie craved changes.
The musician was visited on the shores of Lake Geneva by Brian Eno, the former Roxy Music member, who had released a series of experimental albums fusing ambient electronic music with art rock, most notably 1975’s Another Green World. The men were passing acquaintances who found themselves in strikingly similar situations: both were former glam rockers with a thirst for uncharted sonic frontiers. They’d agreed to collaborate, which is why Eno ventured to Blonay.
That June, Bowie phoned Tony Visconti, the producer who’d worked with him on albums including 1975’s Young Americans. With Eno on the line too, Bowie invited Visconti to join the pair in September at Château d’Hérouville near Paris, to record new music. The idea was to meld rock with minimalist soundscapes. It “might be incredible or a complete waste of time,” Bowie told Visconti, according to Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s 2008 book Bowie in Berlin. Bowie wasn’t even sure that the songs would be released. Either way, Visconti said yes.
The resulting album, Low, was released 45 years ago on January 14, 1977. Despite confounding fans and critics at the time, Low would become one of the most influential albums in pop history. It was wildly out of kilter with the two key music trends of the day; 1977 was the year that disco reached its zenith with Saturday Night Fever and punk’s angry snarl caused moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic. But the left-field Low presaged the musical movement that would follow punk: the avant-garde, experimental, synth-heavy genre known as post-punk, which itself paved the way for 1980s electropop. Bowie, who died on January 10 2016, was once again ahead of the game.
Low’s mould-breaking music was only one side of the story. Recording started near Paris but finished in West Berlin, making Low the first of Bowie’s career-high Berlin Trilogy of albums (the others being Heroes and Lodger). “It was the most amazing learning curve I ever had in my whole life. I was forever changed by it,” Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s guitarist and Low’s musical director, tells me.