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Charles Shaar Murray on THAT Low review

 
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MessagePosté le: Ven 1 Sep - 21:18 (2017)    Sujet du message: Charles Shaar Murray on THAT Low review Répondre en citant





1 SEPTEMBER 2017

Charles Shaar Murray on THAT Low review

“It’s about to be writ again”

As we mentioned in our focus on Low last week, it seems everybody was caught on the hop by the release of the album, not least of all RCA. All of the advertising and reviews appeared AFTER Low had been released. There wasn’t even a lead single preceding its release, which was practically unheard of. (Hunky Dory was the only other RCA Bowie album that didn’t have one.)

Going by the lateness of the published reviews for Low, it almost seems that preview copies weren’t sent out. In fact, for many (in the UK at least), the first time they would have heard the recording was when John Peel played it in its entirety upon release, on his Radio 1 show.

Once reviews started appearing, it was clear that this was an album that was going to spilt people.

Among the great reviews there were some equally negative ones, not least of all, Charles Shaar Murray’s (CSM) in the NME. The magazine considered the release important enough to reserve a page and a half for two reviews, the other being by Ian MacDonald.

CSM was well known to Bowie fans for always getting the scoop and authoring several fascinating and beautifully written Bowie features within the pages of NME. That’s Charles pictured with DB in happier times in Paris in 1973.

It was possibly because Murray’s writing always seemed to be in praise of Bowie, that this particular review for Low was singled out. Indeed, he’s never been allowed to forget it, getting a national nose-rubbing for Francis Whately’s Five Years screening on the BBC, when he was asked to read out an excerpt.

But rather than dwell upon that, forty years later (while not expecting a U-turn), we thought we’d give CSM the chance to at least explain what his mind-set was back then. Over to you Charles...


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    Homage To Catatonia - Charles Shaar Murray

    Last night I dreamed about Bowie. He had his late-‘70s look (as per “Heroes”), and we were in a bar with a bunch of other people. During a gap in his conversation with someone else, I asked him a question. He laughed and teased me for a while, and then he answered it.

    Unfortunately, when I awoke I couldn’t remember his answer. Or even my question.

    *************************************

    Every working critic makes mistakes, which is one of the reasons I called my ‘collected works’ anthology Shots From The Hip: you have to make your mind up fast, and then articulate your perception crisply, clearly and hopefully logically. Two of my three worst ‘70s mistakes were to be inappropriately harsh assessments of both Blondie and The Clash at very early gigs, and not realising how rapidly they’d go from faltering to wonderful and how fast their baby steps would become giant strides.

    The third was my reaction to Low. That review became mildly notorious: in fact, I was asked to read extracts from it aloud when appearing on the recent Bowiedoc Five Years. Worse! My proposed headline – Homage To Catatonia – was ‘corrected’ by an over-enthusiastic proofreader to Homage To Catalonia (the title of George Orwell’s scarifying memoir of the Spanish Civil War), and therefore made no fucking sense whatsoever.

    So: there were two major ingredients to my misreading of Low, one cultural, once personal. In order, then: we had become accustomed to the notion of Bowie as singer/songwriter/performer: someone whose voice, words and sensibility (not to mention visual persona) were always centre-stage. Now here was an album where Bowie – as we understood him – had virtually disappeared into the musical backdrop. Those tracks which were not instrumentals offered telegrammatic lyrics bereft of the artful allusions and decodable references which had adorned even his most challenging previous album, Station To Station.

    Low was therefore as much of a shock to many Bowie geeks as Nashville Skyline had been a few years earlier to Dylanoids (the term ‘Bobcats’ had not yet been invented), even those who had previously had no trouble negotiating the transition from denim-clad protesty folk troubadour to sharp-suited, slickly beshaded deafeningly-amplified rock and roll mystic. The notion that Dylan might wish to express himself through lyrically simple country songs was a little too much for many fans and critics to wrap their heads around. I was one of them.

    Similarly – if you’ll pardon another seriously Olde Skoole rock reference – John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band solo album was another, similar mind-fuck. No hallucinatory sound-collages, no allusive Lewis Carrollesque lyrics, no Walrus or Day In The Life: just crunchy punk-blues guitar over bedrock rhythms and barely-processed howls of pain. POB was Lennon’s blues album and, in its way, Low was Bowie’s.

    Of course, a Bowie blues album was unlike anyone else’s, just as Lennon’s was. Certainly, it didn’t sound like John Lee Hooker or BB King. And, thanks to the team-up between Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, it didn’t sound quite like anything anybody else had ever done: the gap between ‘real’ instruments (guitar, bass, drums, horns, piano) and ‘imaginary’ ones (various synths) was artfully blurred by Visconti and Eno’s use of sound-processing gadgets (Eventide Harmoniser, EMS and Chamberlain synths et al) into a new kind of soundscape against which Bowie stated in the simplest and most direct language what was going on with him. And ain’t that the blues?

    Low was hugely influential. The drum sound Visconti created with the Harmoniser from Dennis Davis’s original performance became well-nigh ubiquitous throughout the 1980s; without Low, Gary Numan would never have had a career. The album – and the rest of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ (“Heroes” and Lodger) – has been adapted into other forms by some serious peeps: check Philip Glass’s Low and “Heroes” Symphonies and Dylan Howe’s jazz odyssey Subterrananean: New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin.

    Low is unquestionably one of Bowie’s most influential albums in terms of changing the world around it. It’s also the one of Bowie’s major masterpieces (by contrast with minor masterpieces like The Buddha Of Suburbia, Outside and the first Tin Machine album) which I like the least.

    Which is where the ‘personal’ element comes in. Around the time the album arrived, I had just about managed to haul myself and my then-wife out of the pit of severe amphetamine addiction. We did indeed have ‘pale blinds drawn all day; she was the ‘little girl with grey eyes [who would] never leave her room’ … the album seemed to glamourise everything we’d just fought against, and remember: at that time Bowie’s intergalactic charisma was capable of glamourizing everything short of hemorrhoids and hairy shoulders, let alone a state of post-speed (or post-coke) psychotic withdrawal. At a time when speed abuse was reaching epidemic proportions on what was about to become the punk scene, I felt that this album was seriously not helping. And, despite – or perhaps BECAUSE of – its brilliance, I hated it.

    Later on, I loved “Heroes” because it seemed to be z triumph over the mindset in which Low was wallowing. And, checking in with DB via a “Heroes”-era interview, I realized that I’d (sort-of) got it right: except that DB had gone through much of the same stuff that I had, only in more luxurious surroundings and with far better drugs.

    Now? Low is an album I can admire, for any number of reasons, and freely and happily acknowledge for its innovation and influence. Unfortunately, it’s one which I can never enjoy.

    © Charles Shaar Murray, 2017

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Thanks Charles, much appreciated. If you’ve not checked out Charles’ collected works, Shots From the Hip: Notes from the counterculture, you really should. It’s a joy to read.

We’ll leave you with evidence of some of those more appreciative reviews of Low...

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Remarkably, alluringly beautiful...one of the finest discs of his career.

John Rockwell - The New York Times (US), January 1977

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So. This album is not...
Ordinary.
Immediate.
Commercial.
Or compromising.
(A lot of Bowie fans are going to hate 'Low')
So. This album is...
Remarkable.
Unique.
Odd.
Arguably triumphant.
And inarguably innovatory.
So. This album might be...
Bowie's best ever.
Eno's best ever.
A mechanical classic.
So. Whatever. Prepare for shock treatment.

Tim Lott - Sounds (UK), January 1977

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It is by far his most bizarre and adventurous LP and although at times synthesised to death, it is firmly Bowie's album, with side one being a direct musical extension of "Young Americans" and "Station To Station".

But apart from some African awareness, side two is a new area of exploration. Have a lot of fun checking it out.

David Hancock - National RockStar (UK), January 1977

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It's good to see Bowie aimed at the future and not recycling past glories. Low is a gamble which succeeds. Dunno what his fans will think but, whatever, Bowie has once again shaken up the scene in his own inimitable way – and more power to him.

Kris Needs - ZigZag (UK), February 1977

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Low seems to be the inner document of someone either on the edge of psychosis or obsessed right down to the bone. Nothing fits or holds firm, nothing makes rational sense, nothing follows the formal or practical rules of the game. But for Bowie, who never follows the rules, none of this disorientation is negative; on the contrary, Low is the most intimate and free recording this extraordinary artist has yet made. This haunting, oddly beautiful music, strewn with recesses to be delved into gradually and a few at a time, is affecting in a strikingly subtle and powerful way.

Bowie’s instincts are uncanny: he seems to stay on course by continually veering off-course and he has a knack for making music that (as a friend says) “feels exactly the way I feel right now.” There’s something about Low’s textures, moods, and energies that gets under the skin and keeps working deeper, but I couldn’t begin to explain how or why it works. I don’t want to try – there are times when it’s better to acknowledge than attempt to analyze, and this music is governed by a mystery that exists not to be penetrated but to be accepted as mystery.

Bud Scoppa - Phonograph Record (US), February 1977

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Bowie is a superior creative force. Here he takes his eclectic disco music to the brink of the avant-garde. His particular magic is that his audience will follow him to a place they would never get to without him. Ingenious.

Walrus Special Mention Album

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You can read the majority of these reviews in their entirety over at Rock’s Back Pages.


#ANCIANTbox #ANewCareerInANewTownBox #BowieLow

davidbowie.com


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