Behind every great album there is a story, the process of artistic endeavour is one that is undeniably littered with both the success stories and the wreckage of its various heroes and heroines, many who have fallen prey to the pressures of “that difficult third album” (or fourth, fifth six…et al). The 33 1/3 series of books aim to look in detail at a select number of albums and pull apart the creative process that spawned them.
The first book in the series I encountered covered David Bowie’s Low album. Recorded in 1976 as a collaborative effort between Bowie, Tony Visconti and Brian Eno it marked a period of Bowie’s life when he was at a make or break impasse. Suffering the consequences of a hedonistic lifestyle in Los Angeles. Bowie decamped to Germany in a bid to record new material rid himself of a spiralling cocaine addiction which had left him with crippling paranoia and an increasingly bizarre lifestyle.
The book doesn’t just focus on the album itself but also looks at what was happening in the musical world at the time. It was a fertile period for the likes of bands like Kraftwerk and shows the process of musical cross-pollination at work and just how readily this circle of musicians influenced each other.
The book goes into some level of detail when it looks at the actual composition of the album. Often the tracks are picked apart in a very theoretical manner, but don’t let this dissuade you, despite the critical approach the language is perfectly accessible. There are interesting references from people who were involved in the creative process and although they sometimes conflict with one another between them you can usually pick up the threads of what was going on at the time.
It’s quite impressive what Hugo Wilcken has managed to squeeze into 136 pages. A by product of such an in depth study of a piece of work gives the reader an sometimes involuntary glance into the world of its creator which if truth be told at times comes across as nothing short of hellish.
In this instance you don’t have to be a Bowie fan to appreciate this book because Low has become such an influential work there are quotes from the people it would influence in the years to come (Joy Division/New Order etc). Its also interesting to note how the studio environment has changed since the late seventies. Some of the process involved in the making of the album were nothing short of agonising, and ironically could now be achieved with the simplest computer.
As a whole Low represents more than just a study of Bowie’s album. It takes in a broader worldview, looking at elements of popular music at the time and the people who were responsible for its creation. An intriguing snapshot of the late seventies and one of music’s evergreen icons.