Besides the looming shadow of Berlin and the aftershocks of cocaine psychosis, Bowie brought a more immediate set of troubles to the Low sessions. Bitter divorce proceedings with Angie, a looming custody battle over their son Joe, and ongoing wrangles with ex-manager Michael Lippman kept dragging him away to legal hearings in Paris. Angie even dropped by the studio with her new boyfriend, sparking a huge row with David. “They had a punch-up and started throwing bottles around,” Visconti later revealed. “David was going through a difficult period professionally and personally. To his credit, he didn’t put on a brave face.”
Brian Eno recently told Uncut that, while making Low, Bowie “was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system… he was very, very upset. I felt desperately sorry for him going through that and trying to make a record. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work.”
Bowie now admits that “it was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether, physically and emotionally, and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself struggling to get well.” Low is awash with anguish and despair, but catharsis, too. Some of its robotic, jerky vocal tracks contain the most emotionally naked lyrics of Bowie’s career, while the opiated disco-pop diamond “Sound And Vision” offers a sublime hymn to numb withdrawal: David later called it “an ultimate retreat song… I was going through dreadful times, wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.” Meanwhile, the traumatised funk of “Breaking Glass” contains a blood-chilling flashback to Bowie’s spirit-conjuring rituals in Hollywood: “Don’t look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it…”
Speaking of spirits, the Low sessions also suffered from supernatural visitations. Château d’Herouville contains two studios linked by a covered arcade, each named after former residents Frederic Chopin and George Sand. The ghosts of these doomed lovers are rumoured to patrol its rambling corridors. In fact, Bowie declined to sleep in the master bedroom because it seemed to be haunted. “It was a spooky place,” Bowie told us. “I did refuse one bedroom, as it felt impossibly cold in certain areas.”
Tony Visconti agrees. “There was certainly some strange energy in that château,” he explains. “The master bedroom had a very dark corner, next to the window ironically, that seemed to just suck light into it. It felt like it was haunted as all fuck. Eno claimed he was awakened every morning with someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, no-one was there.”
Most of the band went home after completing their parts in just five days. Bowie, Eno, Visconti and Gardiner stayed on at the Château to add vocals, textures and overdubs. Rumours that alternative lyrics were recorded on some songs are denied by Bowie. But Visconti remembers, “David wrote a third verse to ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ and sang it in the style of Bob Dylan. It was done half in jest, but we were a little freaked as Dylan had been in that motorcycle accident and this seemed like bad taste, I guess. David asked me to erase it and I did.”
Eno’s contribution to Low is sometimes overstated. After all, instrumental tracks such as “Speed Of Life” and “A New Career In A New Town” use a muscular R’n’B backing, light years removed from Eno’s ambient blueprint for discreet, abstract background sound. A late arrival to the sessions, he shares the writing credits and, contrary to folklore, was not a producer. “My name is printed in the credits as co-producer with David on all the sleeves,” says an exasperated Visconti. “I don’t recall Brian ever setting the record straight.”
However, Eno’s streak of avant-garde anarchy was undeniably crucial to Bowie’s creative breakthrough on Low. It was Eno who suggested keeping demo versions rather than re-recording them: “Why fix it? It isn’t broken.” Pushing for a more “nervy and electronic” mood, he introduced radical new methods – including the notorious Oblique Strategies cards he devised with artist Peter Schmidt which contained such random instructions as “Honour your error as a hidden intention”, “Use unqualified people”, and so on.
Eno programmed the vintage machines on Low with quaintly Victorian names: Chamberlin, Rimmer, Tape Horn. He also worked up rough versions of “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa” without Bowie, the latter melody inspired by Visconti’s four-year-old son Morgan plonking three notes on the studio piano. The ambient Zen master reasoned that he could always pay for the studio time and use the tape elsewhere if David disliked the results.