When Bowie Broke Barriers in Berlin

David Bowie's 'Low'
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Parlophone Records

"I don't know where I'm going from here," an oft-famous quote attributed to David Bowie reads, "but I promise it won't be boring." He sure proved when, after a belated wave of unlikely success in America, he found himself making an entirely different type of music from elsewhere in Europe - a phase that began with the release of Low on Jan. 14, 1977.

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Bowie's last few years had been punctuated by some of his most successful singles in America after taking England by storm in the early '70s. "Fame," a stomping "plastic soul" collaboration with John Lennon off 1975's Young Americans, was a No. 1 hit, and the strutting "Golden Years," from follow-up Station to Station, was a Top 10 hit as well. But the period was not a good one for the recently-christened Thin White Duke: he'd come under fire for flirting with fascist images in public, and later admitted he remembered none of the making of Station because of his excessive cocaine use.

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Looking for a way to recharge, Bowie reconnected with old friend Iggy Pop, lead singer of The Stooges and also trying to kick some drug habits. Working in France's Château d'Hérouville (and later Hansa Studios in Berlin, from which this period draws its shorthand name), Bowie found himself rejuvenated by working with Pop on his debut record, The Idiot, and would adapt their style of composition - basic tracks and overdubs first, then lyrics and vocals - for much of the rest of his career.

The sessions for Bowie's own next project began shortly after, with longtime producer Tony Visconti, much of Bowie's backing band at the time (including "Fame" co-writer and guitarist Carlos Alomar) and - most notably - ambient pioneer Brian Eno, whose sonic canvases proved influential to this new phase of Bowie's work. The music of Low was much more abstract than previous efforts: lyrics were minimal, and tracks featured colder synth and guitar tones than usual. (Drummer Dennis Davis' harmonizer-assisted drum sound came to influence dozens of records.)

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RCA Records wasn't sure what to make of Low when they finally agreed to release it - only "Sound and Vision" was the clearest single choice - and Bowie wasn't interested in touring in support of it anyway, choosing to play keyboards in Pop's live act. But Low kickstarted an experimental phase that continued with "Heroes" and Lodger - colloquially known as the "Berlin" trilogy - and would come to influence scores of Western rock acts, from Joy Division to Nine Inch Nails. Bowie never had to wait for the gift of sound and vision - it was never too far from his command.

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(United Artists)
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