Behind the Song: David Bowie – ‘Subterraneans’

‘Subterraneans’ is the closing song on what has become perhaps David Bowie’s most critically acclaimed album: Pitchfork placed Low at number 1 on their ‘Top 100 Albums of the 1970s’, on Q’s list of the ‘100 Greatest British Albums Ever’ Low was Bowie’s highest entry at number 14, and while elsewhere it vies with Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, and occasionally Station to Station and “Heroes”Low is the constant, a work of abstract art whose crashing three-minute fragments of soul, funk, and rock on side one, and whose blurred electronic soundscapes on side two, seem equally to point the way for so much of modern music. Philip Glass wrote a 1992 symphony based on the work, but when Low was released in 1977 its reception was more mixed, marking yet another change in direction for the artist following the ‘plastic soul’ period of Young Americans and Station to Station.

While they alienated some of his British fanbase, critically and commercially both albums were a success. After moving from London first to New York, before settling in Los Angeles, Young Americans was Bowie’s most thorough engagement yet with distinctly American forms: recorded in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1974 during a break in the Diamond Dogs tour, its sound – described by Bowie as ‘the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey’ – drew upon the local dance halls, soul, and R&B, with Andy Newmark, previously a member of Sly and the Family Stone, on drums and a young Luther Vandross providing backing vocals. Issued in March 1975, the album went to number 9 on the Billboard 200, while the single ‘Fame’, featuring vocals from John Lennon, became Bowie’s first US number 1.

Recorded in Los Angeles towards the end of 1975 before its release in January 1976, Station to Station took the soul and R&B of Young Americans into dark obscurity, containing several of Bowie’s longest compositions, its lyrics rooted in occultism and the mysticism of Christianity and the Kabbalah, while displaying the artist’s first musical engagement with avant-garde electronics and krautrock. Robert Christgau in The Village Voice gave the record an A rating, writing that Bowie ‘can merge Lou Reed, disco, and Huey Smith’ and ‘Miraculously, Bowie’s attraction to black music has matured; even more miraculously, the new relationship seems to have left his hard-and-heavy side untouched’.

In Creem Lester Bangs – the champion of Bowie’s early idols and later collaborative partners Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – regarded Station to Station as the star’s best record yet. Readily admitting to his previous dismissal of the artist – his sense that ‘all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Adelbaran business was a crock of shit’, that Bowie ‘wrote the absolute worst lyrics’ and musically was no more than an ‘accomplished eclectician (a.k.a. thief)’ – he nevertheless described Young Americans as a breakthrough, and Station to Station as:

‘an honest attempt by a talented artist to take elements of rock, soul music, and his own idiosyncratic and occasionally pompous showtune/camp predilections and rework this seemingly contradictory melange of styles into something new and powerful that doesn’t have to cop either futuristic attitudes or licks from Anthony Newley and the Velvet Underground because he’s found his own voice at last.’

Station to Station reached number 3 on the Billboard 200, becoming Bowie’s highest charting album in the US until The Next Day signalled an all-too-brief return in 2013. But at the time, with its roots extending back to the Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie was in the throes of a serious addiction to cocaine. Some of his regular musicians of the period, including the guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, would describe the sessions for Station to Station as among his most experimental, but Bowie later confessed to remembering nothing of the album’s production, stating  ‘I know it was in LA because I’ve read it was’.

Tony Visconti suggested that by the recording of Young Americans, Bowie was ‘taking so much cocaine it would have killed a horse’. In the guise of his character The Thin White Duke, in Stockholm a ‘totally crazed’ Bowie told a reporter that ‘Britain could benefit from a fascist leader’, while in London, waving at crowds from an open-top Mercedes, he made what was construed as a Nazi salute. He later recalled:

‘I blew my nose one day in California and half my brains came out. I was in a serious decline, emotionally and socially I think I was very much on course to be just another rock casualty – in fact, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have survived the Seventies if I’d carried on doing what I was doing. But I was lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I really was killing myself, and I had to do something drastic to pull myself out of that. I had to stop, which I did.’

Bowie departed Los Angeles, afterwards remarking ‘The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and go and live in Los Angeles is, I think, just heading for disaster’. His destination was continental Europe, where he stayed initially around Paris, before purchasing a seven-bedroom villa at Clos des Mésanges near Vevey in the hills north of Lake Geneva. He began a self-improvement course in painting, classical music, and literature, and became an avid collector of expressionist art, until in late 1976 he moved to West Berlin, where he shared an apartment on the Hauptstrasse with Iggy Pop.

In fact while Bowie’s next three albums would become known as the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, work had begun near Paris at the Château d’Hérouville. The château, once painted by Vincent van Gogh, had been converted in 1969 into a deluxe residential studio by the French film composer Michel Magne. There in the summer of 1976, an early surge of creative energy went towards Iggy Pop’s debut solo album The Idiot. The recording of Low commenced in September, and Bowie, the album’s producer Tony Visconti, and chief collaborator Brian Eno all reported strange experiences with the supernatural, with the rumour that the château was haunted by the ghosts of Chopin and George Sand. Visconti said:

‘There was certainly some strange energy in that chateau. On the first day David took one look at the master bedroom and said, “I’m not sleeping in there!” He took the room next door. The master bedroom had a very dark corner, right next to the window, ironically, that seem to just suck light into it. It was colder in that corner too. I took the bedroom because I wanted to test my meditation abilities. I never admitted this before. I had read that Buddhists in Tibet meditated all night in a graveyard to test their level of fear/no fear. Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, sat on his dead mother’s body all night and meditated. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck, but what could Frederic and George really do to me, scare me in French? I loved the look of the room so I decided to spend one night there. If something happened I planned to shout so loud I’d wake up the village. Eno claims he was awakened early every morning with someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes no one was there.’

The sessions continued in October at the Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, often referred to by anglophone acts of the time as ‘Hansa by the Wall’. Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner on rhythm guitar, Dennis Davis on percussion, George Murray on bass, and Roy Young on piano and organ, all contributed to the record’s first side; Iggy Pop provided backing vocals on ‘What in the World’ and Mary Visconti on ‘Sound and Vision’; the cello of Eduard Meyer enhanced ‘Art Decade’; and Brian Eno played synthesizers throughout.

Eno was largely responsible for the composition of the record’s second side. He had written the theme and instrumentation for ‘Warszawa’ at the Château d’Hérouville while Bowie was away in Paris attending court hearings against his former manager Michael Lippman, making good use of Visconti’s four-year-old son for the song, who sat beside him playing A, B, C in a loop on the studio piano. The phrase became the basis for the ‘Warszawa’ theme, and on his return a suitably impressed Bowie – whose agitation over the court case had already determined his imminent move to Berlin – wrote the song’s lyrics in a matter of minutes. Their oblique yet euphonic patterns of sound echo the ‘Helokanie’ of Polish composer Stanislaw Hadyna and his folk band Slask, whose records Bowie had bought during a stopover in Warsaw in April:

‘Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho

Cheli venco deho
Helibo seyoman
Cheli venco raero


Beyond Eno’s influence, the structure and composition of Low had several precedents. The record’s working title was New Music Night and Day, and its two discrete sides bear similarities to Neu! 75, the third album by the krautrock band Neu!, whose hybrid form – with minimal pieces in the original Neu! style on side one and more unconventional works, recorded with an expanded four-piece ensemble, on side two – was the result of a compromise between Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother. Neu! ’75 contains a song called ‘Hero’, which is considered one of the inspirations for Bowie’s ‘”Heroes”‘, the title song of Low‘s successor.

Otherwise some of the ideas on Low had their genesis in the intended soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 science fiction film starring Bowie, whose score was ultimately rejected by director Nicolas Roeg. But ‘Subterraneans’ contains the only physical remnant from the otherwise scrapped recording sessions, which comes in the guise of George Murray’s dolorous reversed bassline. Allied to the swells and bleeps of pianos and multilayered synthesizers, played by Bowie and Eno, and to the visceral groans of a submerged chorus, ‘Subterraneans’ became the most edited song on Low. At 0.47, the descending synthesizer melody introduces a motif from Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’. At 3.11 Bowie’s saxophone splutters into view, weaving and whinnying and trailing off into the distance. And at 3.53, in the final third of the song, the chorus briefly finds its tongue, singing a series of short phrases that turn some of the sounds of ‘Warszawa’ into enigmatic images:

‘Share bride failing star
Care-line riding me
Shirley, Shirley, Shirley, own
Share bride failing star’

Bowie meant ‘Subterraneans’ to evoke those who ‘got caught in East Berlin after the separation – hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was’. The lyrics, which have been linked to William Burroughs’ use of the cut-up technique, were again impelled by Eno’s working methods, with Bowie affirming, ‘What he’s injected into it is a totally new way of looking at it, or another reason for writing: he got me off narration which I was so intolerably bored with’. Performed live alongside co-headliners Nine Inch Nails during the 1995 Outside tour, ‘Subterraneans’ instead incorporated the lyrics from the song ‘Scary Monsters’, which followed ‘Subterraneans’ on the setlist.

Among critics upon the release of Low in January 1977, Robert Christgau praised the ‘fragments’ of side one as ‘almost as powerful as the “overlong” tracks on Station to Station‘, however he was less enamoured with side two, calling its ‘movie’ music ‘far from hypnotic’, before wondering ‘is Eno really completely fascinated by banality?’. In a similar vein, John Milward of Rolling Stone averred that ‘Bowie lacks the self-assured humour to pull off his avant-garde aspirations’, and Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times argued that too much of the record was ‘beyond mass pop sensibilities for it to build much enthusiasm’. On the other hand, hearing beyond the distant ‘doggerel’ of the lyrics and the ‘strange and spacey’ instrumentals, John Rockwell at The New York Times wrote ‘the whole thing strikes this listener as remarkably, alluringly beautiful’.

Eno viewed the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger as a time of artistic sympathy and shared exploration, noting ‘We’d both, quite separately, started to imagine this fusion of European electronica and funk, with a mood overlay, if you like. We were both thinking very cinematically’. Bowie said of Low:

‘There’s oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke centre of the world into the smack centre of the world. Thankfully, I didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat.’

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