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Enter to win a copy of all three formats of NOW – Yearbook 1983

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Now Yearbook 1983 presents a stellar selection of the years’ biggest and best hits… 80 huge chart hits from the year, alongside enduring and well-loved classics on 4 CDs, a limited edition deluxe ‘hardback book-style’ CD and a 43-track limited edition LP pressed on translucent red vinyl.

This musical time capsule is a celebration of the first year of NOW That’s What I Call Music with huge hits, alongside well-loved classics.

All you need to do to be in with a chance is click the button below and answer the easy question on the form. Good luck!

Competition open to UK residents only. Competition closes July 16th 2021.

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Interview: Stephen Duffy talks Duran Duran, Lilac Time, Robbie Williams

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Stephen Duffy Duran DuranStephen Duffy zoomed into the orbit of Duran Duran in their formative years and again in 2002 as the Devils with Nick Rhodes – the resurrection of the Duran album that never was. Plot the track of The Hawks, Tin Tin, The Lilac Time and his collaboration with Robbie Williams and you can discern the trajectory of a songwriter who has always stuck with what feels right…  By Ian Peel

Nearly four decades ago – on 23 June 1983, to be precise – Smash Hits ran its first-ever mention of Stephen Duffy. It was nothing more than a tiny news piece but it said a lot in just a few words and set the tone, and set the ball rolling, for a life in pop that has never stopped evolving.

“Tin Tin, the duo which includes former Duran Duran member Stephen Duffy,” it read, “release a new single this week entitled Hold It. They’ve also formed a production company called Dugro Ents for young people who ‘despise traditional music biz values’. Sounds like a long way from Duran Duran…”

Duran Duran, Tin Tin, The Lilac Time, Me Me Me, The Devils, Dr Calculus… Stephen Duffy’s career in forming groups is almost as illustrious as his solo work, and yet he’s been off the grid since writing and touring Robbie William’s Intensive Care album and 2009’s extensive compilation, Memory & Desire – 30 Years In The Wilderness.

“I now live in Cornwall with my family,” Duffy told Classic Pop in 2014. “We didn’t mean to… it was a spur of the moment thing. Or it could be a witness protection programme I’ve forgotten about.”

Stephen Duffy was born in 1960, making him the same age as John Taylor. He collided with John – then, of course, Nigel – during their first year at Birmingham Art College, and Duran Duran Mk1 was promptly formed with the addition of John’s old friend Nick Rhodes (two years younger than either of them) plus another friend, Simon Colley.

The quartet’s anti-rock-establishment ethos was obvious from their chosen instrumentation: though Taylor played guitar, Colley supplied the left-field choice of woodwind, Rhodes twiddled the knobs on a small yellow-and-black monophonic Wasp synthesiser, and Duffy, resplendent in tight leather trousers, reluctantly took over the singer’s microphone while brandishing an unnecessarily difficult-to-play fretless bass, purchased – he later admitted – because he didn’t know what basses were supposed to look like. 

One thing Stephen Duffy did know was that his new friends seemed absolutely driven to succeed.

“I had never met people with such ambition before,” he informed VH1 many years later. “They wanted to be famous – I was the lead singer, shrieking in a sort of effeminate manner…” 

Stephen Duffy Duran DuranWhen you were at Birmingham Art College with Nick and John, had you already decided on a career in music? What else was going on at the time?

I went to the same careers office as Jeff Lynne, but about a dozen or so years later. My uncle’s band Bobby Valentine And The Valets became Carl Wayne And The Vikings. Before that, my grandfather played drums in big bands in Birmingham. We all played the same venues: the Crown, the Golden Eagle. I had to leave, to go further. Sign to Sire, play at Danceteria instead.

I saw Dexys Midnight Runners before they’d decided on the donkey jacket and woolly hat look. Only one looked like that – there was also a fisherman complete with nets, a pirate, and a 19th century watercolorist. I made up the last one as I can’t bring the picture into focus… it was very good, though. Kevin [Rowland] had Tannoy announcements from a railway station played between the songs. Everyone was out and about – The Beat, The Coventry Automatics who became The Specials, the UB’s – but the best two who no one ever mentions were The Au Pairs and The Nightingales.

With the Dark Circles album in 2002 it was fascinating to hear how Duran Duran might have sounded, had history been just a little different…

All of the music we did as The Devils was the stuff that John, Nick and I got together for the first Duran shows, those three or four gigs. The newer numbers were taken from material that I made at the time that I kept editing. I’d carried this desk around for years – it had gone in and out of storage – and every time I got it out of storage I’d open the drawer and there would be this cassette: on one side there was a Duran rehearsal and on the other side there was the first Duran gig at Birmingham Art College. And then I just happened to be at a Vivienne Westwood event and I saw Nick for the first time in 20 or so years. I went up to him and said “Nick…” and just he looked up at me and said “Why did you leave?”

Unfortunately at that point John was sort of divorced from the group. That would have been great, if it had been the three of us who started the band. But there’s still time. The 40th anniversary is coming up in 2018, so I’m keeping the year free, because obviously it’s what everyone’s waiting for! 

The Devils was very strange because obviously we’d led such different lives, but we just slotted back – it’s as if we were brothers or something. You could never imagine Nick with a pedal steel guitar, but we had such a load of fun getting that old gear together. We pretended that the last record that had come out was Remain In Light by Talking Heads, we pretended it was 1979. We didn’t use any kind of equipment that wasn’t around then.

Let’s talk a little about The Lilac Time. Though it started as a DIY project, the band soon got picked up by a major label…

The strange thing with The Lilac Time was we kept on being sent to America, which was lovely, but I don’t think the Americans really wanted us. Now when you look back at amazing tours in little vans with no spare guitars, no roadies, just with a driver… we went all through California, absolutely wonderful life experiences. I just wanted to carry on making records like the first one but we were encouraged to Americanise the sound towards drive-time FM radio. But we weren’t really thinking about making records for commuters in cars. More like commuters on penny-farthings.

You can hear all this play out on the third Lilac Time album – 1990’s All For Love & Love For All – with Andy Partridge producing.

At that point, XTC were very big in the States. Their Skylarking album was the beginning of that college rock thing. It was a bright idea, and Andy was brought in to toughen it up, but the great gift he gave us was [engineer] John Leckie, and we got on so well that he finished up the album. If only we could have carried that into the next album… only John understood what we were up to. He also had an amazing wealth of stories about Paul McCartney, The Plastic Ono Band, Simple Minds and The Fall.

Read more: Stephem Duffy talks Dr Calculus

Read more: Top 40 Duran Duran songs

Stephen Duffy
Stephen Duffy, 1980s

How did it feel to re-enter modern pop with Robbie Williams… and how did it feel to leave again?

Going into it was easy because I’d just done The Devils, so I was using a lot of those techniques with Rob: the idea that there’s no point on working on something that you then have to fix; capturing moments of exuberance when you’re writing a song and you don’t know where it’s going. It was amazing to get back into these big old studios, like A&M, and to see the end of that era. 

They phoned up when the record came out and said it had sold a million copies in a day, and I thought “My God, obviously I’m never going to experience this again”. 

Then later I thought, well, I don’t think anybody will experience that again… sadly, not people like me who’ve come through the singer-songwriter path. 

It eventually sold eight million copies or something. But when I left I went right back to being the Kiss Me bloke who left Duran Duran – as they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It didn’t fit my story, or Rob’s either. It was as if it never happened. 

But being part of that big machinery made me realise I had made the right decision by not being in the Durans. I was happier in a little van going around the US with no roadies in The Lilac Time. Obviously, I was a hopeless pop star – it only lasted about 15 seconds for me. I enjoyed my first seven albums – The Ups And Downs to Astronauts – but it’s the eight after that which I feel closest to and the happiest with. 

But I know, to most people, I made one single. And however thankful I am to that record, I’m glad I don’t have to sing it every night to make a living. So that period did answer a lot of questions. I realised I had made all the right decisions: swimming against the tide was easier than going with the flow. 

Read more: Stephen Duffy 2019 interview

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Depeche Mode: Spirit interview – Classic Pop Magazine

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Back in 2017 Classic Pop packed its dictaphone and headed off to enjoy extended chats with Martin Gore and Dave Gahan on the occasion of the launch of the then-latest album by Depeche Mode, Spirit – conversations that would take in subjects such as songwriting, stagecraft, conflict, politics, the revolution, and hope… By Rudy Bolly

Depeche Mode certainly have staying power. Despite those rare but crucial line-up changes, countless hairy escapes and being taken off mainstream radio playlists, they still remain one of the universe’s biggest acts.

Four decades in, the trio are enjoying some of the best reviews of their career with Spirit, while its accompanying stadium tour is cementing their status as a major box office draw. “People never took us seriously,” says Martin Gore. “But eventually they have come to accept us.” 

“I’ve never felt we were like any other bands,” Dave Gahan adds. “Especially with those we first appeared on the scene with in the 1980s, like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet or those others who had success at the time. We never felt we were anything like them.” 

Basildon’s finest are back in the UK on a fleeting visit, conducting interviews – individually – in a very upmarket Mayfair hotel. Outside, a clutch of patient teenagers dressed from head-to-toe in black and parading a range of piercings fry gently in the sunshine.

It’s an impressively young crowd for an act 37 years into their career, but the frontman is right – Depeche Mode are no ordinary band. They seem to have more in common with heavy metal or alternative rock acts, those timeless names who consistently attract new generations of admirers, almost like a rite of passage.

“We probably had more in common with Fad Gadget, The Normal or Kraftwerk,“ Gahan continues, listing a number of other cult acts that used to grace the back pages of the now defunct Melody Maker. “We definitely have survived and been through a lot together. Ups and downs, marriages, divorces.”

Unlike most of those aforementioned chart rivals from yesteryear, Depeche Mode command stadium-sized audiences in 2017, yet they kicked off their latest Global Spirit Tour with an unusually intimate date at Glasgow Barrowland as part of the BBC Radio 6 Music festival.

Gahan considers small shows “more terrifying”, but Gore – who once required verbal assurance he wouldn’t pop his clogs on stage – is over any superstitions. “It was fun because even though it was smaller than people are used to us playing, it was the biggest gig we”d played in three years,” reflects the songwriter. “It felt like a real show.”

It’s currently feeling a lot more ‘real’ now the band are in the throes of European stadium dates, playing to more than 1.5 million fans in 32 cities. With further gigs in the UK, US and across the rest of the world still to come, it must be a daunting undertaking… 

“We look forward to it, really,” says Gore without flinching, “because we’ve been on this four-year schedule thing now for a while, which we fell into more than anything else. It’s quite good because when we finish an album it’s usually been a long time since we’d played live, so you’re itching to do that bit again. And then when you finish the tour you take a break and you haven’t been writing songs for a long time, so you’re feeling more creative.”

The band have been on that remarkably consistent ‘four-year cycle’ ever since 2001’s Exciter LP. Subsequent studio albums were solid fan-pleasers, but some accusations of treading water were beginning to be thrown their way. After more than a decade recording with Ben Hillier, the trio decided to shake things up a little and enlist producer du jour James Ford, one half of Simian Mobile Disco. 

Depeche Mode“It was time to make a change, to challenge ourselves,” Gore articulates carefully. “Maybe freshen things up, even though we loved doing those albums with Ben. It was actually Daniel Miller – who has been with us since day one – who recommended James. He knew him, so felt we would get on quite well personality-wise. And Daniel also knew everything that James had been working on.

“We were aware of the obvious stuff, but we got sent some of the other albums we didn’t know about and the thing that impressed us most was that he had worked with a lot of different bands in different genres; but they all just sounded great.”

Read more: Making Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell

Read more: Top 40 Depeche Mode songs

Ford might be synonymous with Arctic Monkeys, but his impressive CV also includes records by Florence + The Machine, Little Dragon, Foals and Mumford & Sons. It’s 22 years since the departure of Alan Wilder, but Depeche Mode have always sought a fourth member to record with. Besides founder Vince Clarke, they have worked with Mark Bell and Tim Simenon along the way; so is making an album solely as a three-piece an impossibility?

“James did so much on the record, sound-wise. He’s very talented,” says Gore, swerving the question expertly. “We definitely do need that ‘referee’, for want of a better word.”

Ford did more than simply produce Spirit; according to Dave, he practically became a group therapist. Gore remains more coy: “As a band, we need to give authority to somebody to oversee us because we can all have differing opinions and it’s very hard to come to a joint decision. So sometimes it’s easier to give someone like James the deciding card. Once that happened, everything fell into place.” Dave agrees: “He was able to guide us and take our demos to another level.”

Devoted followers of Depeche Mode have long hypothesised over band dynamics, sensing or, more likely, imagining tensions at various points in their career. Gahan believes collaboration helps them exist. “Sometimes our albums have reflected internal conflict,” he says. “Something that’s more personal and then sometimes our music reflects what is going on around us. I believe music does bring people together… it brings Martin and me together. Sometimes in very mysterious ways, I don’t know why.”

Spirit is arguably their most fluid work in many years. There are great moments on every Depeche Mode album, but this one feels like a complete piece of work, and the world’s media seem in agreement. Gahan smiles: “We’ve always remained sort of a cult thing, although that’s changed a bit with this new record.”

Read our article on the cover art of Depeche Mode

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Reluctant to analyse his work too much, Gore concedes they may have inadvertently captured the zeitgeist: “I suppose the first decision that I made when I came to songwriting was to go down the social commentary slope stroke political route, which I felt was a dangerous route to go down. But there was so much going on in the world, to just put blinkers on it felt a little bit criminal.”

Call it luck, or bad luck depending on your political allegiance, but Spirit’s songs feel incredibly pertinent today. Agreeing, Gore says: “It feels so relevant now. Maybe that was fortunate, but when I was writing the songs in 2015 I felt the world was in a bad place, in a bit of mess.

“That’s how I started off, I couldn’t have predicted that Trump would become President, but the whole electoral process goes on for ages in the US and there were warning signs. Watching the whole debacle from the early days to the end is very disheartening. Humanity… you wonder where we are going sometimes.”

Opening track Going Backwards with its haunting “we feel nothing inside” refrain sets the despondent mood of Spirit. “For me, the overwhelming message is we have lost our way a bit and lost our spirit if you want – that’s why we called it Spirit,” explains the Gore. “We need to find our way back to the path.”

Depeche Mode SpiritGahan hopes it will encourage listeners to think differently, too. “Spirit is something that’s within all of us, it’s a feeling that you have to listen to. You find all the answers you really need there.”

The new album’s lead single, Where’s The Revolution, is a particularly rousing call to arms in an anaesthetised world. Gahan continues: “I don’t know where the revolution is today, but I know it’s got to come from within. You won’t find it in someone else. When you really get in touch with yourself, the revolution begins from within.

“You start to question, how do I treat people? How am I treating my family, my friends? Am I really being kind? Am I being tolerant of their differences, and am I trying to understand? That’s the revolution in our thinking. We are kind of brainwashed to feel this a certain way and quite often we act out of fear.”

Read more: Depeche Mode – the complete guide

Read more: Making Songs Of Faith & Devotion

Many have accused today’s youth of giving up caring, but surely it’s always been that way. Were DM any more militant as kids growing up in Essex? 

“When I was 18 in 1979 I was young and probably not into politics back then,” acknowledges Gore. 

“We grew up when we first started making music,” adds Gahan. “It was hard for young people to find new jobs, Britain was a tough place to live in the years of Thatcher. When I was a teenager I grabbed music by The Clash – it became my soundtrack. I’m very lucky, trust me… it could have been very different when I left school at 15 years old. We grew up on these council estates in the poorer part of town – where if you’re told enough times: ‘you will amount to nothing’, you react. We found a way out by making music.”

Social commentary isn’t new for a Depeche Mode album. Gore points out: “I suppose the only other time when we have dealt with it over a whole album was in 1983 with Construction Time Again, and I think that was because we had got out of our shells and become more worldly because we had travelled extensively.”

Spirit doesn’t just point a finger at others, it takes responsibility for mankind’s actions on a wider scale. At first, The Worst Crime’s ominous lyrics appear to refer to a specific event in past history: “There’s a lynching in the square/ You will have to join us”. However, as the song unfurls the listener becomes engulfed in a much bigger current issue.

“Usually I don’t talk about the songs too much but I will about this one a little bit,” says Gore. “It’s metaphorical and about climate change and us destroying the world, and how we are all guilty… so the lynching is us, we are all being lynched.” 

Read more: Depeche Mode’s must-have albums

Read more: The story of 1982

Spirit paints a damning vision of the future, and Depeche Mode revel in it right up to the bleak finale, Fail where Gore concludes, ‘Oh, we’re f***ed’. “It sums up the album in a way,” he chuckles. “The good thing about it is the lyrics might be depressing but the music is so pretty. Once the lyrics stop it ends on this nice lilting gentle piece of music. That’s the bit of hope.”

The uninitiated have always accused DM of being miserable, and it’s something Gore attempted to address with So Much Love. “I felt the other songs were so damning about humanity and it was maybe too bleak. I came up with So Much Love because I wanted to write something that said: ‘it doesn’t matter what’s going on, there is still a lot of love inside me and you can’t take that away’.”

In reality, DM’s music has always offered more than a modicum of hope. Gahan agrees: “I try to look for hopefulness in things as much as possible but lately that seems to be hard.”

Since 2005’s Playing The Angel, Gahan has picked up songwriting credits on every Depeche album, contributing fan favourites like Suffer Well and Should Be Higher. He modestly describes it as “nudging my way in” and, using a basketball analogy, scoring the “occasional three pointer”. However, it’s a development that was tricky for Gore – chief songwriter since Vince Clarke left in 1982 – to adapt to. “It was hard,” he admits. “I’ve got used to it more and more.”

Depeche Mode Spirit

The songwriting democracy went a stage further on Spirit where Gahan has a hand in four tracks and, more tellingly, a co-write with Gore titled, You Move.

“It’s not the first one – we co-wrote one on Sounds Of The Universe and Delta Machine, but they were on the deluxe editions,” explains Martin. “When I write with Dave it’s usually an idea that’s very basic that I send to him. Then in his studio in New York he will come up with some words and a vocal melody, send it back to me and then I’ll do some more work on it and so on. This time that was it, he sent it back and it was finished. It was a similar process with Vince on VCMG.”

Gahan had a collection of his own songs prepared for Spirit, but when he heard the quality of Martin’s demos he knew many wouldn’t make the cut: “I wanted to sing these songs as well.”

Ultimately, it’s collaboration that Gahan enjoys most of all: “I came to songwriting late and for me I do like to be part of some sort of creative process. You can have great ideas but the interesting part is when other people get involved with that idea. That’s the exchange of two human beings actually communicating with music. It makes me feel human and part of something.”

The Global Spirit Tour’s only UK visit was at the London Stadium, home to West Ham football club. As Gore and Andy Fletcher are rival Arsenal and Chelsea fans respectively, did the former Olympic stadium seem a safer bet? “When we first started talking about it, it was going to be the Emirates and nobody had a problem with that,” Gore grins. “Then for some reason it fell through. So in a way it’s good that it ended up at the Olympic stadium as it’s closer to home for us.”

Read more: The story of 1981 in music

Read more: 10 best Human League songs

It was Depeche Mode’s first stadium show in the capital since they played Crystal Palace Sports Ground on 1993’s Devotional Tour… a period when drug addiction was taking hold of Gahan’s life. “There was a point where I didn’t think I would reach 35, I thought if I’m going to go out, I’m going out with a bang,” he says.

“It’s important to be honest about who you are, who you were and coming out the other side. There’s plenty of pivotal moments in the life of Depeche Mode… we’ve all been through stuff. Somehow the music has always managed to pull us together.”

On stage, Gahan is a master at pulling fans together. “I go to see Iggy Pop and I’m not there yet,” he says, insisting it took 20 years to learn his craft. “When I go on stage and I get into the guy I like to be, all bets are off. I don’t know where it’s going to go. But sometimes you hit this extra spot and you don’t know why. There’s something in the spirit world that is way beyond you. I watch a lot of basketball and when those guys come out they are in the zone. I identify with that, for two hours that’s their thing.”

The fans play their part, too. “I think we’re spoilt by our fanbase, you watch them and they sing along and sometimes they won’t shut up unless Dave cuts them short,” Martin says. “It’s always a joy, no matter the size of the venue. I don’t have a favourite place to play, I just look forward to getting in front of our audience.”

Now with 14 albums of material to choose from, the setlist is getting harder to decide, but Depeche have done well to avoid just churning out the same greatest hits. “It’s always difficult to choose the setlist and we all have different favourites as well,” says Gore.

“We play a good cross-section. The only time I listen back to old stuff is if I have to do acoustic versions in the middle of a set, so it’s interesting to go back to listen to albums that I haven’t heard in years and see if there’s a gem that could be revisited acoustically.” 

Gahan adds: “But there are certain songs I can’t imagine not singing, like Personal Jesus, I Feel You, Walking In My Shoes, Never Let Me Down… these, to me, have to be part of when we perform.”

Gore concludes: “On the first leg we’re mainly playing big outdoor places and stadiums, so in a way we feel more constricted because there’s a lot of real die-hard fans there, but some of the audience will be more lukewarm fans so you have to take them into consideration, too.” 

Depeche Mode’s enduring success means they need not write that West End musical so many of their peers seem intent on peddling, yet. If the theatre doesn’t interest them, how about a Bowie Is-style museum event, touring their old leather jackets and synths?

Gore, who has a warehouse lock-up packed full of musical equipment, guffaws: “There’s probably enough stuff, but for us it would be really boring. Jonathan our manager just threw away a tonne of stuff recently because it was taking up so much room.”

They certainly aren’t nostalgic, and with things going so well it seems a little churlish to bring up the subject of retirement, but inevitably people wonder how long they can keep this going. Gahan isn’t fazed: “I’d like to think I’ll know when it’s time. I always want to be able to do it the way I want to.” 

Gore is equally adamant: “We are enjoying ourselves and just as passionate about music as when we first started. We never talk about this being the last album or the last tour, but I will always say you can never guarantee there being another album because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not being negative when I say that, because I’ve been saying it since 1986!”

It’s reassuring for Depeche Mode fans to know the band’s career, and personal relationships, are probably in the rudest health they have been for 25 years. Gahan agrees: “There never has been or is any real leader in Depeche Mode, it’s a family. At times, we are completely at odds in different corners of the room and not understanding each other at all. But everybody has their place, you have to be part of something. It’s a group of people and not just the band. It’s a bigger picture.” 

Depeche Mode: Spirit review

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Making David Bowie: Low – Classic Pop Magazine

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David Bowie Low cover
David Bowie Low cover

In 1976 David Bowie fled his demons, seeking seclusion, healing and creative freedom. he landed in Germany and set about creating the first album of his celebrated ‘Berlin trilogy’, the mighty Low

Though Bowie had finally achieved his long-sought goal of gaining chart success in America, it had come at a cost. The laid-back sophistication of Young Americans had morphed into the destabilised desperation of the still utterly marvellous Station To Station.

The latter album was a sonically and lyrically textured masterpiece, but psychologically Bowie was somewhere else entirely – indeed, he would later claim to not remember recording it at all. 

A now-crippling dependence on cocaine had addled Bowie’s mind, and his stylistic adoption of the consciously dark Thin White Duke persona had now swamped his being more thoroughly and totally than even his earlier situation with the Ziggy Stardust character had.

Bowie fled to Switzerland in an effort to be free of this evil twin, his dependence on drugs and the vacuity of his former Los Angeles home.

His first project was to work with his good friend Iggy Pop, who had a range of predicaments to work through himself, and Bowie’s behind-the-scenes puppet mastery on the iconic The Idiot opened many musical doors that led Bowie directly onto his work on Low – which was initially titled New Music: Night And Day.

Low’s dynamic and sonic adventurousness can be partly attributed to Bowie’s tight relationship with his latest creative muse Brian Eno, who would inspire Bowie and his band to explore a range of new approaches to songwriting, performing and mixing that would shape the Berlin Trilogy’s creative process.

Though Bowie and Eno’s relationship was a major piece of the creative jigsaw, another important element was Tony Visconti’s production, utilising such innovative sonic tools as the Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti radically applied to many of the drum tracks on the record.

Aside from the addition of versatile lead guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the core band remained pretty much unchanged from Station To Station. It included rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who remembered: “All cards were off the table for this album. We knew that Brian was running the show.

“Visconti and I had brought all our effects. I had footswitches, bypass phasers and Tony had his toys. Brian had a synth that had a magnetic ribbon hanging from it. I later found that he could connect with it, somehow, through this ribbon and have it sequence. Pure genius.” 

Read more: Making “Heroes”

Read more: Making David Bowie’s Let’s Dance

The record is divided into two distinct halves. The more conventional songs fill up most of Side One’s running time, while the second side is wholly instrumental in nature, with these nuanced arrangements dominated by textured EMS synth. 

On the few songs that Bowie does lend his vocals to on the record, we tend to get lyrics that are fragmentary and which thematically offer shattered pictures of a life in turmoil.

Opening instrumental Speed Of Life is a brief sonic preview of all that’s to follow, including a fade in/fade out that’s used on many of the tracks on Low, giving the listener the impression that doors are being opened and closed, and that somewhere, this unresolved music is still playing.

Breaking Glass follows, a painfully resurrected memory of a relationship, and a mind, in strife, while the poppier learnings of What In The World offer up a depressing, agoraphobic lyric that speaks of yearning for love, though seen through the eyes of a dark lyrical protagonist “talking through the gloom” and waiting “until the crowd goes”. 

Similar subject matter is dealt with in one of Bowie’s finest songs, Sound And Vision. The song’s scant lyrics serve as a paean to inspiration, and thus represent the sonic distillation of everything he sought to achieve with Low.

However, the themes of the song also highlight the utter blank misery of depression, with the “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say” in Bowie’s isolated room. These lyrics, and Bowie’s irregular delivery, are contrasted by the track’s upbeat arrangement, the “doo-doo-doo” backing vocals, and the nursery-rhyme-like descending melody.

Elsewhere on Side One, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a weary and resigned piece that references the relentless cycle of Bowie’s dismal mental state as well as an unfortunate incident with his Mercedes, where the singer rammed a car that belonged to a coke dealer who had ripped him off. Be My Wife is an anguished plea for companionship, complicated by Bowie’s inability to stay in one place too long, both geographically and musically. 

Read more: The alternative David Bowie Top 20 – 1975-’80

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While two of the songs proper sit among the finest of Bowie’s entire career, it’s the instrumental side where Low comes into its own, particularly when viewed as a unique listening experience. The instrumentals, which really begin with Side One’s poignant closer A New Career In A New Town, offer a broad collage of both sonic succour and despair, in a less internalised form. 

On Side Two, Bowie turns his attentions beyond himself and instead paints a picture of the various cultures, communities and cities that surrounded him, from the solemn Warszawa’s bleak evocation of the Warsaw that Bowie encountered while travelling through the city the preceding year to the punsomely-titled Art Decade (perhaps the first Berlin-oriented piece of the trilogy), which illustrates the disengagement of West Berlin society at that time, when it was by-and-large a hedonistic, culturally malnourished environment.

The other side of the city’s wall is invoked by the album closer Subterraneans, a harrowing sonic eulogy to those who were caught in East Berlin after the separation.

These two pieces are deliberately divided by the spine-tingling Weeping Wall, serving as the aural equivalent of that imposing dividing line, with a multi-instrumental arrangement that contains guitar, vibraphone and piano.

Initial reaction to the record was somewhat baffled. This was the year of the Sex PistolsNever Mind The Bollocks in the UK, and the US market expected the further funky exploits of the chat show-friendly Bowie of 1976.

But Low has since come to be regarded as one of Bowie’s central works: it’s honest, raw and anguished, but Bowie’s mission here is to move beyond this state of mind, attempting an exorcism of his demons via music. In this sense, Low is a positive record.

The rich instrumental work on the album shows Bowie’s desire to explore music in an advanced and original way, particularly for a major pop star. He’d continue this approach on Heroes later the same year, demonstrating he’d indeed found the sound and vision he evangelised on the eponymous lead single.

Low is an important record in a broader context, too, impacting on the mindsets of many young Bowie-heads who would take on the spirit of musical (and conceptual) audacity and push those ideas into the mainstream, as well as throwing a spotlight on many of the electronic inspirations Bowie and Eno revered.

No doubt, it helped mould the synthesiser into an object of ‘cool’. 

Is Low David Bowie’s best album? Well, that’s one of those perpetual debates that shifts and alters as trends and perspectives change – but it’s a fascinating collection and undeniably one of his most transcendent, superlative listening experiences. 

David Bowie: Low – the songs

Speed Of Life


Propelled out of the ether by a whirling buzz of Eno’s quickly faded-up synthesiser, bold instrumental opener Speed Of Life exhibits many of Low’s sonic facets. There’s the impactful rhythm section – Dennis Davis’ processed drum sound, the inconspicuous but effortless bass playing of George Murray, the fizzing synth that increasingly dominates and a cyclic, tightly structured arrangement. Before we can get too comfortable, the track moves into a fade out, making for a tantalisingly unresolved listening experience.


Breaking Glass

“David and Angie had been arguing and it was easy to hear what was going on, so the music of the song needed to represent the way people argue,” Carlos Alomar remembers about this Low highlight. “I really thought out the arrangement. The drums and bass start out like somebody knocking on the door, hard.” 

While Breaking Glass is the shortest song on Low, it’s one of the record’s most memorable moments. From the infectious lead riff to the tight (yet unsure) funk arrangement that bounces to life during the verses, to Bowie’s lyrical shards and yelps of histrionic self-reflection, Breaking Glass finds Bowie laying bare his pained mindset. Though the lyrics are few, they work incredibly effectively, including the provocative: “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems…”

What In The World

Originating as a track earmarked for inclusion on The Idiot, Iggy Pop appropriately lends vocals to this relatively upbeat track that is among the more commercially flavoured compositions on Low. Despite this, the arrangement and mix are occasionally challenging, from the chirruping synthesiser, providing a futuristic veneer, to the unsettling, isolated lyrics that imply a yearning to escape and find love. Once again, the lyrics and allusions are fragmentary.

 Sound And Vision

The album’s lead single is also among its high water marks – some would argue it’s one of the highlights of the entire Berlin creative endeavour. Sound And Vision is, on the surface, an incongruously breezy and buoyant pop song, with an upbeat but reflective feel. This relatively straightforward arrangement is impaled by shards of descending synthesiser, which stream into the song like the sonic equivalent of sunlight beaming into a dimly-lit room – the same kind of room, perhaps, as the one that’s evoked by a sublime but brief lyric which, though gloomy, is ultimately a positive manifesto that distils Bowie’s creative approach to his album entirely into one song. 

Bowie searches for a creative muse, going cold turkey on distractions and vices and focusing on achieving “the gift of sound and vision”. Though the song was inspired by this sense of inner turmoil, it’s nonetheless extremely infectious, making it one of the most accessible pieces of music recorded during the Berlin period. This was reflected by its No.3 chart placing in the UK singles chart. 

Always Crashing In The Same Car

A haunting, shimmering song that (unusually for Low) starts and ends with no fades, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a beautifully elaborate piece of music that highlights both Ricky Gardiner’s sublime lead guitar skills as well as Eno’s multi-layered synthesis. Bowie once again sings with sad uncertainty, though the despondency evoked in the resigned lyric is in the past tense, perhaps implying that this state of mind is consigned to memory. However you read it, Always Crashing… is one of the most glorious compositions on the record.

Be My Wife

With an over-the-top piano dominating proceedings, Be My Wife finds Bowie romantically yearning for love with a lyric that also heavily references his wanderlust (this would be a more pronounced concern on 1979’s Lodger). Be My Wife is perhaps the oddest song on Low, even though it’s one of the more accessible and conventionally structured songs. An interesting choice for a single, then – which perhaps explains why, when it was released shortly after Sound And Vision, it failed to chart in the US. The garage-band style and vaguely intoxicated air that pervades Be My Wife would be resurrected again during the Berlin Trilogy, and is also an interesting sonic precursor to the kind of sound that Blur adopted in the late 90s. 

A New Career In A New Town

This ghostly, evocative instrumental segues Side One neatly into the (relatively) vocal-free Side Two. It’s a moving, transitional piece, as the title reflects. The wonderful harmonica work serves as a despairing human wail in the dark, counterpointed with the sluggish mechanisation of the repetitive rhythm section. This harmonica line would be reused later in Bowie’s recording career, on the title track of 1987’s Never Let Me Down and on the heartbreaking, triumphant closer of 2016’s Blackstar: I Can’t Give Everything Away.

Warszawa


And so to Side Two – the experimental milestone that astounded and dumbfounded in equal measure. Warszawa begins what is, in essence, a travelogue. Here, we’re taking a look at the Warsaw of the mid-70s. Bowie would say that the second half of Low contained tracks that concerned things he couldn’t put into words and “required textures” – and here, in a mournful and solemn-feeling track, Bowie and Eno do just that. Through the synth, we zone into the mood of a particular place and a time. Bowie would add the bizarre, lyric-free vocal after the composition, with Visconti speeding up the tape to raise his register.

Art Decade

This eerie, nostalgic piece evokes better days – as the obvious pun in the title implies. Art (ie, culture, society) had decayed on the western side of the Berlin Wall, the former glory of the city now a fading memory of yesterday. Though Eno composed much of the initial arrangement in solitude, Bowie contributed to establishing the tension of the track, and the addition of real instruments – included a gorgeous cello – contributed to the impression of former glory.

Weeping Wall

Eno might have played a big hand in the shaping of the previous two tracks, but Weeping Wall was a solo exercise for Bowie who, entirely alone, created this sonic reaction to the ever-imposing presence of the Berlin Wall, and its divisive effect on the city’s inhabitants. It was also the only track on Low to be recorded entirely at Hansa Studios in Berlin, with a view that directly faced the wall. It’s a distorted jumble of melodic ideas and occasional vocal snapshots – evoking, perhaps, the graffiti and snippets of human communication that covered the wall itself.

Subterraneans

Originating as a piece of music intended to soundtrack The Man Who Fell To Earth, Subterraneans was worked on further and grew into this fitting closer for the record. Conceptually, it’s a reference – and a salutation – to the forgotten families and lives that resided on the other side of the wall, in Communist East Berlin. The backwards music and the faint-jazz effect of the distant saxophones are unsettling as well as being sonically fascinating, as are moody chant-like vocals that are conjured from the ether. It’s a tense piece that closes without resolution, ending Low on a stunningly moving note.

Read more: Top 40 New Romantic songs

David Bowie’s official website

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