Moby Reflects on David Bowie’s ‘Low’ as it Turns 40
Forty years ago today, Jan. 14, 1977, David Bowie released Low, one of his several masterpieces and the first album of his “Berlin trilogy.” The heavily electronic, Krautrock-indebted art rock album signaled a new creative period for Bowie. It peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 (a bit of a miracle given how experimental it is), but its impact on the next wave of synth-based and electronic musicians far outstretches its commercial performance.
To help contextualize and honor the album’s massive impact, techno legend Moby shared with Billboard his memories of discovering Low, the lesson it taught him, and a few stories about his friendship with the late icon. As told to Joe Lynch.
Moby on His First Brushes With Low
The first job I ever had was as a caddie at Wee Burn golf course [in Connecticut]. The only reason I had this job was so I could buy records. I remember when I made my first $10 caddying I went to my local record store to buy Low, but Low was too expensive so I bought Heroes. He had a cut-out [discounted] cassette of Heroes for 2.99 and Low was 5.99. This was pre-pre-Internet. As a 13 year old in the suburbs, you heard a song on college radio, it was scratchy in the background, and the only way you could find out who did the song was to hang out in a record store. It was my intention to buy Low because I had heard “Sound and Vision” on some college radio station but I ended up buying Heroes, and I probably didn’t hear Low in its entirety until 1979 or 1980. I think of Low and Heroes as brother-sister records. What was so remarkable about them, and what impacted me and a lot of other electronic musicians, was how wonderful the A-sides were, but also that this super successful, established artist would give an entire side of his record over to experimental, instrumental electronic music.
What that said to me as a 14-year-old aspiring musician was, ‘Oh, I guess part of what musicians are supposed to do is try new things and be experimental and not bow to commercial pressures.’ The ’60s and ’70s were obviously filled with a lot of people trying new things and not bowing to commercial pressure, but there was something so unique about David Bowie giving up an entire side of a record to egregiously uncommercial but beautiful music.
At first it confused me, though, because most of the records I’d heard up until that point were made up of songs. Young musicians, working primarily in the rock genre, released an album of songs with vocals and drums. The first time I heard it, it was a little disconcerting, but my musical DNA had been informed by watching a lot of science-fiction growing up. So when I first started hearing instrumental electronic music, it very quickly reminded me of a lot of the music I’d heard in science-fiction films and TV shows. There was that basis of comparison, and that precedent had already been set.
Low As a Romantic, Revolutionary Album
I remember when I first heard the stories of how Bowie and Eno were working together in Berlin. So I’m sitting in suburban Connecticut, imagining these two alien-human hybrid demigods in Berlin making this weird, mutant pop that was challenging, but also really emotionally rewarding when you dedicated enough time to it. “Sound and Vision” is just flawless, one of the most perfect pop songs ever. The world he creates in it — every compositional element in it is such a perfect choice. I like “Warszawa” on the B-side but “Always Crashing In the Same Car” is probably my favorite. It starts off as a synth driven ballad and it has this dissipated romantic quality to it I love.
The revolutionary thing about the A-side is there’s so many weird choices they made. First off, having these songs have a verse, then the chorus, and then just end. It’s very odd. “Always Crashing In the Same Car” — it starts off with a conventional structure and conventional songwriting, but it has really odd sounds and subject matter. The album has this odd artistic confidence of introducing conventional structure and then disregarding it or turning it on its head.
When I was growing up as a musician, I never knew it was possible to even try to make records approaching one tenth of the quality made by my heroes. I wasn’t so aspirational as to say ‘I want to compete with Bowie,’ but by the late ’70s, I started noticing the most interesting records were being made by guys with short hair playing around with synthesizers. So you’d hear the new Kinks record and think ‘oh, that’s okay,’ or hear Presence or In Through the Out Door by Led Zeppelin and think ‘yeah, that’s okay’ — and then you heard Heroes or Low and it would wake you up.
You realize he’s doing something different. He’s not just feeding his career. He’s making odd, uncommercial, strange choices that aren’t arbitrary. If I took anything from it, I hope that was my takeaway: Pursuing art and beauty in idiosyncratic ways is far more worthy than pursuing a career.
Being A Closeted Bowie Fan
When I was 9 or 10 my mom and I joined the Columbia Record Club — you’d send in a penny and they’d send you a record. And one of the records we got was Changesonebowie. He’d had hit records like “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and “Jean Genie,” which were songs I’d heard on the radio, so I thought it was cool and OK to like David Bowie. So I was 9 or 10 and I went to school and told someone I got this David Bowie record. And they had this look of distaste and said, “You know he’s gay, right?” I didn’t know what gay was, but I knew that meant I was supposed to keep my love for David Bowie closeted. Only really in ’79, ’80 when I dyed my hair blue and shaved my head and admitted I liked weird music was when I came out of the closet as someone who loved David Bowie.
On His Friendship With Bowie
We were neighbors in New York; we spent Christmases together; he gave me a bunch of used clothes. After he died I went into my storage and got the best gift he ever gave me — he gave me the hat he wore in Man Who Fell to Earth. And it’s inscribed in silver pen on the inside, it says, ‘To Moby, Love David, Christmas 2002.’ That same year we went on tour together and oddly enough he was my opening act. The reason being — and he got paid more than me, he was the headliner — but he went on first so he could leave first and not deal with traffic. I almost want to write a David Bowie memoir because we spent so much time together and did so many weird things together.
[My love for his music] was never mentioned. I’ve learned when I meet my heroes not to talk about their work and how much I love it. Unless it was new. He would play me new things he was working on and I would say I liked those things, but I always kept under wraps that he was my favorite musician of the 20th century.
Low‘s Impact on Electronic Music
To me it is a central part of my transitional electronic music canon. But I work under the assumption that the vast majority of people under 30 have probably never listened to. For me it’s iconic and inspiring but that’s because I’m 51. I have a feeling if you played it to a 21-year-old dubstep producer they wouldn’t even recognize it as electronic music — they’d see it as a rock record. It was so weirdly unprecedented. Well, unprecedented in mainstream rock — certainly not when you look at Can and Neu! and Krautrock bands. If you compare it to Holger Czukay and Can, it makes sense; If you compare it to REO Speedwagon, it’s a baffling oddity.
Bowie was the patron saint of every new wave artist. Every person who bought a synthesizer was obsessed with David Bowie — Depeche Mode, New Order. The bands who helped birth electronic music, deep down, wanted to be David Bowie.