OK Computer at 20

<i>OK Computer</i> at 20

‘We hope that you choke.’ On the reverse side of my CD of OK Computer, just below the track listing, you can find these words in small, red type. It summarises the album pretty well. 20 years old this week, Radiohead’s third album is now celebrated by critics as one of the greatest in the history of rock – and it’s worth revisiting why.

Over the course of 53 minutes, OK Computer paints a picture of complete and total alienation – from society, from relationships, from life itself. Yorke’s singing style – often indistinct and mumbling – is dramatically different from Radiohead’s previous effort The Bends, creating a sense that the lead singer himself is being excluded from the album’s texture.

And the album’s texture is often oppressively thick. Although OK Computer was nominally self-produced by Radiohead, this owes a huge debt to recording engineer Nigel Godrich, now one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. Numerous echoes and other effects are layered on top of one another to create a musical soup that at times feels almost impenetrable.

My favourite track has always been ‘Let Down’. The song begins immediately after what it is arguably the most crushing point of the album. The hopes and dreams of the lovers depicted in ‘Exit Music’ have been destroyed in catastrophic fashion, and Yorke closes the track by singing purely, almost psychopathically, those words on the reverse of the album sleeve. Over and over again. ‘We hope that you choke’.

‘Let Down’ begins utterly simply, with a single guitar line: a repeating line that is almost like a lullaby. But more and more lines are progressively added – each line in a different time signature, so that until the drums enter at 00:13 it is almost impossible to feel any kind of a beat. The complexity and intricacy of the arrangement is overwhelming; it is all too easy to become lost in a sea of swirling counterpoint. Yorke, meanwhile, progressively layers more and more vocal harmonies onto the track with each verse, increasing the thickness of the texture but also the vocal pitch at which he is singing. By the time the track reaches four minutes in, the emotional anguish of Yorke has reached breaking point: but here, unlike in ‘Exit Music’, it feels cathartic rather than nihilistic.

Conventional wisdom holds that ‘Fitter Happier’ – perhaps the strangest track on the album, with lyrics read by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application – divides the album in two. I’ve always felt as though OK Computer could equally be heard as existing in a tripartite division: three parts that each carry the listener in a journey from a state of neutrality to an emotional abyss. The abyss is reached three times: at the ends of ‘Exit Music’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’.

‘The Tourist’, a gem of simplicity, acts as the perfect album closer. Working at a tempo far less than any other track on the album, it acts as a semi-ironic comment on all the content so far – testament to Radiohead’s underappreciated sense of humour. ‘Slow down,’ Yorke entreats himself. ‘Idiot, slow down.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 26/05/17 (not online).

High Life

<i>High Life</i>

Originally published on The Poor Print on 05/05/17 as part of a series of music articles released on a daily basis to celebrate Oriel Arts Week 2017


For a man who has a lot to say, Brian Eno doesn’t always say that much. High Life, his 2014 collaborative album with Karl Hyde, is relatively verbose; Eno is nowadays best known for his pioneering albums of ambient music, beginning in the 1970s. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the lyrics to High Life online.

Perhaps the lyrics don’t really matter that much. Eno’s distinctive singing style is vitally important to the album’s aesthetic, almost completely without vibrato, creating a drone-like quality. The singer becomes merely another instrument among many; the sustained melodic lines and mumbled articulation seamlessly blend Eno’s voice into the texture.

The influence of Eno’s experience in ambient music is evident throughout. None of the ‘songs’ utilise structures that can be likened to those of a standard pop song, instead using additive processes that create a static temporal state. ‘Return’ may employ full sentences in the lyrics, but harmonically the song simply oscillates between two chords as the texture continually thickens over a period of nine minutes. ‘Time to Waste It’ is simply built on a one-bar groove, and the lyrics are entirely meaningless (as far as I can tell) – a collage of phrases thrown together by intuition. The method is a speciality of Eno’s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Eno were at the centre of High Life. ‘Cells and Bells’, the perfect closer, is serene enough to have easily come from an Eno solo album and, despite their incessant pulses, neither ‘Return’ nor ‘Lilac’ is exactly a dance track. But High Life as a whole is far more varied – ‘Time to Waste It’, with its heavily processed Soul samples, feels like a ‘70s groove that’s been cut into tiny pieces and reassembled by a 21st-century robot with no clue what to do. ‘DBF’, meanwhile, is furiously aggressive: a frenetic instrumental track that melds West African influences with 21st-Century electronic music. (The album’s name is almost certainly derived from ‘Highlife’, the name given to a genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged in the 20th Century.) Karl Hyde’s guitar signature guitar technique is the glue holding the album together, providing a driving rhythmic force and blending the texture throughout.

The standout track of the album is ‘Lilac’. The texture begins simply – just Karl Hyde’s guitar and electronic percussion – but grows; the soup thickens with each iteration as new lines are added to the mix. Especially noticeable are Eno’s vocal harmonies, which are slowly layered onto the track as it progresses. Absent over the central instrumental section (beginning at 4:35), their return at 8:50 feels colossal: a sea of Brian Enos bearing down upon you.

‘Lilac’ is mostly supported by an oscillation of G major and D major chords. The effect is to lull the listener into expecting nothing more, creating an extraordinary lift in mood when a stray C major chord is struck – the simple made radical. Nine and a half minutes are carried by only two lines of text, an aphorism blissfully repeated over and over ad infinitum. ‘The door between us is lilac. Made of something like light. But not.’

Pop Is Dead – Long Live Pop

Pop Is Dead – Long Live Pop

All hail the Great and Glorious Ed Sheeran! The singer’s latest album, ÷ (pronounced Divide), is continuing to smash chart records across the board since its release on 03/03/17. In its first week of release, Sheeran claimed nine out of the top ten spots in the UK Charts simultaneously. (The previous record had been held by The Beatles, who in 1964 occupied four out of the top ten spots at the same time.) Even more incredibly, all 16 of ÷’s tracks entered the UK Top 20 on the album’s release – and Sheeran’s success has by no means been limited to the UK, as ÷ continues to break records in the US and Australia as well. Who would have guessed that the 21st Century’s King of Pop would turn out to be a scruffy, ginger-haired guy in a hoody? The album is now the third-highest-selling album of all time – only Adele’s 25 and Oasis’s Be Here Now sold more in their first seven days of release.

Sheeran should obviously be congratulated: his success is significant, and down to a winning combination of easy pop melodies; slick production; and (crucially) clever branding. His sweeping domination of the Charts is all the more impressive when you consider that the previous record-holders, The Beatles, dominated the Top 10 in 1964 because their previous singles were still selling as they released new ones. Sheeran, by contrast, dominates the Charts through songs that are all from the same album.

Yet Sheeran would be the first to admit that his record-breaking success is not all that it seems. Since 2014, the Charts have changed to include streaming in their figures – and the result has been a steadily increasing stasis and homogeneity in the top spots. While 2014 had 42 songs reach no. 1, 2015 had only 26, and 2016 only 11. The first six months of 2006 saw 230 new entries to the UK Top 100; the first six months of 2016 saw only 86. “I don’t know if there’s some weird thing that Spotify and Apple Music are going to have to change now, Sheeran told BBC Radio 1 in a recent interview. “I never expected to have nine songs in the Top 10 in my life. I don’t know if something’s gone wrong but I’m definitely very, very happy about it.”

Others are less happy. Justin Hawkins, frontman of rock band The Darkness, was blunt in an interview with News Corps Australia, saying: ‘That just means the system’s broken… Everyone knows Ed Sheeran is great and is selling loads of records, but imagine listening to the Top 40 rundown on the radio on a Sunday like you used to as a kid and you have to listen to the whole Ed Sheeran album. It’s totally ridiculous. The system is broken and they have to mend it’. The problem continues to intensify despite repeated adjustments to the formula used to calculate the Charts – whereas previously 100 streams had counted as a single ‘sale’ for the calculation of the UK Charts, the formula was upped to 150:1 in January 2017 (apparently to little effect). Australia, which has an even higher ratio of 175:1, has also seen records smashed and chart positions hoarded by the Unstoppable Ed.

So – what’s up with streaming? The Official Charts Company (OCC) was clearly right to start including streaming figures in their calculations in 2014. As physical and digital music sales both continue to decline, streaming is now the single source of hope for the music industry. Due to the rise of streaming, the industry has enjoyed two consecutive years of growth since 2015, arresting a long period of declining profits triggered by Napster’s demolition of the existing model in 1999 and the advent of online piracy. As Spotify, Apple Music and others continue to attract new users, the importance of streaming as a means of music consumption will only continue to grow.

The issue is that consumers stream music very differently to the way in which they buy (or in any case, used to buy) music. In the past, a Queen fan (for example) might have bought a single and listened to it several times in the few weeks after buying it. A hardcore fan might have listened to it many more times; but regardless, the two purchases were counted equally from the point of view of the OCC. With streaming, however, the picture changes. Your modern-day Ed Sheeran fanatic might have listened to ÷ non-stop for the past two weeks without making a single purchase, instead listening to his music through Spotify’s free service or through YouTube. Crucially, though, their continued listening means that Sheeran’s album is still making an impact on the Charts weeks after the album’s release, even if no more people are in fact listening to the album. The streaming of music is a far more trivial decision than the purchasing of music – since streaming costs so much less, and can cost nothing at all, a consumer need not be particularly enthusiastic to stream a track. Paradoxically, however, since the inclusion of streaming the Charts have only appeared to indicate new heights of enthusiasm among consumers, since artists remain at no. 1 for much longer than they used to.

In many ways, the new-look Music Charts actually reflect people’s listening habits far better than they used to. Drake’s One Dance spent 15 months at No. 1 in the 2016 Album Charts, despite only ‘outselling’ (physically and digitally) the competition for the first three weeks of that period. Far from being meaningless, that tells us that people were still listening to the album (for some reason) well after it was released.

But the shifting nature of the Charts presents multiple problems for new and up-and-coming artists. The first is that the inclusion of streaming figures in the Charts acts as a ‘multiplier effect’ to the prominence of superstars such as Sheeran in the Charts, meaning they occupy the top spots for weeks on end. The second is that the inclusion of album tracks as well as songs selected as ‘singles’ means that an extremely successful album such as ÷ leaves little space for new artists to enter the Charts. The issue is compounded by the way in which consumers often access music on Spotify and the like – those listening to Spotify’s ‘Top 50’ playlist will only cement the positions current Top 50 even more.

If new artists are crowded out from entering the Charts, they will find it even more difficult to make a name for themselves – and the new dynamics of the music industry have meant life is already much more difficult for new and unfamiliar acts. The advent of streaming has been wonderful for new artists in some ways, as their music can quickly spread to a large audience without that audience paying for it. Yet unless a small artist gets big quick à la Sheeran, the new model can make life very difficult for new performers: the pittance paid per stream adds up to a sizeable amount for artists with a large, secure audience and hefty back catalogue, yet provides insignificant revenue for acts still making a name for themselves. (The formula determining how much an artist is paid per individual stream is hugely complicated, meaning that it can vary wildly from artist to artist and from month to month – but for a ballpark figure, a January 2017 study by rights-awareness group The Trichordist reckoned on an average payment of $0.00437 per Spotify stream. Apple Music and other pay more, but make up far smaller proportions of the market.)

The new-look Charts contain other distortions, as well. Although Spotify have managed to gain access to most back catalogues by now, artists such as Taylor Swift and Radiohead still resist putting their music on streaming services. Taylor Swift has argued that ‘music is art, and art is important and rare,’ that ‘important, rare things are valuable’ and that ‘valuable things should be paid for’, thus concluding that music should never be free; Thom Yorke of Radiohead was characteristically blunter in his description of Spotify as ‘the last desperate fart of a dying corpse’. Yet while both artists may well have sincere objections to the ethics of the new model, the reality is that they also know that they can gain more revenue by withholding (at least initially) their music from streaming services. Both Taylor Swift and Radiohead have fan bases committed enough that fans will buy their music through more lucrative, more traditional channels if they cannot stream. Thus Taylor Swift is nowhere to be found on Spotify; Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Adele’s 25 were both sales-only for a time; and of the streaming platforms, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is exclusively on Tidal. This makes financial sense – yet means that these artists end up underrepresented on the Charts, since the limited streaming of their music over the initial period after release means they cannot enjoy an equivalent to the ‘Sheeran surge’ of 2017.

The Charts, then, are seriously dysfunctional in their current form – and the problem cannot be fixed by simply continuing to adjust arbitrarily the formula by which streams are registered as ‘sales’. Various, more radical, solutions have been proposed – one is a cap on individual users, so that only the first ten streams of a song (for example) by any one user count towards that song’s chart placement. Another – favoured by Justin Hawkins – would be to say that each artist could only feature a certain number of songs from each album in the singles chart (but the disadvantage of this is that it would conceal the extent to which ‘album tracks’ are listened to). Spotify et al. can help, too, by finding ways to improve their financial model for smaller artists, and by actively working to improve the representation of new artists in their increasingly popular curated playlists. (The situation is complicated somewhat by the fact that Spotify, despite rising revenues, has its hands tied to an extent since it has yet to make a profit.)

Yet the fading relevance of the Charts predates streaming – the BBC’s Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006, 42 years after its first showing yet well before Spotify became a major player in the music industry. The cultural importance of the Charts is not what it used to be; in the Internet Era, the Charts are no longer the primary way by which consumers access new music or keep up to date with new music trends. And albums themselves will continue to become scarcer in the future, as artists continue to focus more on live performances as a more effective money-earner in the digital era. It may be that alternative metrics such as ticket sales will become a more effective barometer of an artist’s success in the future.

Streaming may yet save the music industry, but in many ways the advent of streaming creates as many problems as it answers. The ways in which pop music is manufactured and delivered will be forced to change if pop is to survive. The stasis at the top of the Charts is merely symptomatic of the far bigger problem, and of the massive changes that are afoot in the industry. Pop is dead – long live pop.

Originally published on 30/03/17 by Cherwell.

Remembering Bowie: ‘I’m not a pop star… I’m a blackstar’

Remembering Bowie: <i>‘I’m not a pop star… I’m a blackstar’</i>

 

Legacy

Monday morning, 0th week, Hilary Term 2016. A text wakes me at 7:47am. That’s about five hours before I usually get up. Groggily, I spot something from my mum about Bowie flash across the screen, and roll back into bed. I resolve to read it later; presumably she’s just heard his new album.

Three hours later, I’m up, David Bowie is dead, and the world is in shock.

David Bowie. David. Bowie. It still doesn’t quite seem real. It still jars in my mind. Can he really be gone? Surely not. It’s just another ruse – another publicity stunt – Ziggy’s ‘retirement gig’ all over again.

Bowie will rise again from the ashes. Won’t he?

The news of his death shocked the whole world, and with good reason. It soon emerged that no one outside of his close circle had even been aware he was ill, including people such as Brian Eno – Bowie’s close friend and intermittent collaborator for forty years. Even Tony Visconti, his go-to producer, had not been aware the star was on his deathbed.

Bowie was probably trying to protect those close to him from media attention, but I prefer to think of him as playing us to the last. Ever unexpected, irascible, unpredictable, at the end of it all Bowie shocked us in the greatest, most final way possible: by dying far, far too soon.

And it was far too soon, in more ways than one. Sixty-nine now feels like a life cruelly cut short, but that’s less than half the story.

As I moped about in an ineffective, depressed, and ultimately pretty pathetic manner (I mean, c’mon, I’ve never even met the guy) throughout Monday and ragged patches of Tuesday, I reflected on the deaths in the last few years of two of my other musical icons: Lou Reed (1942-2013) and Dave Brubeck (1920-2012).

Both of them were also musical giants who transformed the world and I still revere them both as heroes. Yet their deaths didn’t fill me with the sense of injustice that Bowie’s has – and it’s not just because they lived longer. Although it’s only in retrospect that I feel I can say this (or that I’ve realised it), I didn’t feel at the time as if either of them had – musically speaking – any unfinished business.

They’d said what they had to say: they’d spent a lifetime saying it, they’d said it far better than the vast majority of people ever could have, and they’d transformed the world in the process. I mean no disrespect to either of them, for whom I still have the greatest respect. But their work was done by their time of death. They’d accomplished what they’d set out to do in spectacular fashion.

The injustice I feel over Bowie’s death has many causes, but I will freely admit that a large portion stems from pure selfishness.

Bowie’s work was nowhere near done. After returning from retirement only three years ago, the world suddenly realised how much more brilliance he still had in him. He carried on relentlessly creating until the very end: his last album was released only two days before he died, he demoed five fresh songs in his final weeks, and he was laying plans for his next album.

My anger, at least in part, stems from the sense of how much more he could have accomplished had he lived. Especially when even his final album, Blackstar, was yet another unexpected turn, another leap into the unknown. Who knows where he would have gone next? What he would have done? In the words of Charles Shaar Murray, a rock journalist, ‘I can think of no other rock artist whose next album is always the one I’m most looking forward to hearing.’ That album will now never come.

Other artists – lesser mortals – have vision. They know where they want to take the world of music and they attempt to take it there, with varying degrees of success. If they’re lucky, a fair few people like what they’re trying to do and repeatedly give them money so that they can carry on doing it. Eventually people get bored; the artist tries to change, and usually doesn’t succeed.

The way I see it, Bowie had a very different kind of vision. Bowie’s mission was far more open-ended. Where other artists set out to accomplish something, Bowie was continuously rewriting his goals, continuously repositioning himself in music. His musical journey was driven, as far as I can tell, purely by his incessant urge to uncover new ground and continue innovating. His vision wasn’t about getting somewhere; his vision was the journey, and so by its very nature his mission was unfinishable. His career can be seen as an insatiable quest for knowledge, driven only by curiosity. In his own, oft-quoted words:

Still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
(…)
Turn and face the strange changes
Don’t want to be a richer man
Turn and face the strange changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Bowie, ‘Changes’ (Hunky Dory, 1971)

I’m not trying to imply that other artists never change, that Bowie was somehow unique in that regard, or that no other artist has ever been versatile: that would clearly be ridiculous.

However, I do maintain that most artists change little over their careers, and it is usually only in desperation when they do, although there are clearly artists who buck the trend. Talking Heads, Radiohead, R.E.M., Joni Mitchell and others are just a few shining examples.

Yet few other such artists were as consistently brilliant as Bowie, no other artist carried this process with them to their grave. Moreover, whereas other musicians changed their sound, Bowie periodically reinvented his entire persona. From his visual appearance to his personality, the only thing apparently sacred was his unmistakable, Brixton-accented voice. He took reinvention he took so seriously that he acknowledged the line was often blurred between his real self and the characters he invented, causing at some points severe mental health problems.

And I think there’s another reason there why his death shocked the world so profoundly. After thinking about it for a while, I realised that, deep down, I’d always assumed he was somehow immortal, which is ridiculous, but listening to other people interviewed by the BBC and elsewhere, I found I wasn’t alone.

Bowie’s larger-than-life personas, his sometimes shocking visual appearance, even his name, made him seem somehow otherworldly. It wasn’t just the fact that he had mystique: it was the extent to which he committed himself to that mystique and somehow convinced us to believe in it.

Beneath his reinventions, personas, and guises, you often wondered if there really were a Bowie beneath at all – an idea that was reinforced by his renowned shyness and reluctance to open up in interviews. Could there really be a single person behind all those faces? And so, the problem: how can you come to accept the death of someone you never truly believed existed in the first place?

Anyway, cancer was hardly the way that the ‘space invader’ David Bowie would die. During his tumultuous life, Bowie was constantly battling his demons, yet he always seemed to survive through changing. After surviving a period of complete mental breakdown and dependency on cocaine in the mid-’70s, it hardly seems possible that he could die of something so mundane – so ordinary.

The vast majority of obituaries I’ve read seem to have glossed over that aspect of his life. Perhaps people are uncomfortable that some of Bowie’s most creative work was produced in the middle of a cocaine-fuelled psychosis (Station to Station) or at a point when he was struggling to clean himself up (Low, Heroes).

One – otherwise excellent – article I read by Mark Mardell seemed to suggest that we shouldn’t be talking about his drug addictions and their unfortunate consequences1 at all. I disagree. Not only is it wrong to deny history and put your heroes on a pedestal, it also makes his story all the more powerful.

Recognising his weaknesses ultimately makes him more human and the fact that he fought his demons and overcame them is a testament to his strength of character. Moreover, those incidents are simply too important to his story to ignore.

The album title Low, after all, is famously a pun. The album art, a photo shot in profile (see below) links to Bowie’s ‘low profile’ he was keeping in Berlin as he tried to recover. The title also links to his ‘low’ mood and depression at the time. But ‘low’ is also the antithesis of ‘high’, marking the first album in a while recorded at a time when Bowie was not abusing drugs.

Picture1

Another thing I’ve found lacking from most of the articles and tributes I’ve read has been any kind of in-depth discussion or appreciation of his music itself.

A huge amount of deserved attention has been cast toward his position as an icon: a musical icon in his perpetual quest to incorporate new influences; an icon in changing so radically our expectations of pop musicians; a gay icon, with unashamed bisexuality2 and frequently androgynous appearance.

In the context of the last few years, that last aspect now seems hugely ahead of its time, and listening to songs like ‘John, I’m only Dancing’ and ‘Lady Stardust’ certainly helped me come to terms with being gay in my early- to mid-teens. Yet as a musician, even that’s not the thing that matters most to me, despite affecting my life massively. What matters most to me is that, time and time again, Ziggy really sang: time and time again, Bowie’s songs were simply incredible.

Music

It’s difficult to choose a single song from his catalogue for me to talk about: his style changed so much that no one song could ever be representative. But one of my favourites has always been ‘Sound and Vision’, from the album Low (1977)3.

Low was, oddly, the first album that hooked me on Bowie, and it was certainly the album I bought first, but it’s not the Bowie that Ziggy fans will know. A collaboration between Bowie and Brian Eno, Low incorporates the influence of German ‘Krautrock’4 bands such as Kraftwerk and Neu! to create electronic textures with a greatly expanded use of synths.

Recorded in Berlin as Bowie was recovering from his drug problems, Low has a melancholy mood and pained lyrics. The songs are abrasive and strange. ‘Speed of Life’ is built around a chromatic, tonally ambiguous guitar riff; the fragmented bass and pounding drums in ‘Breaking Glass’ feel like punches; Bowie’s harmonica in ‘A New Career in a New Town’ wails horribly. Meanwhile, throughout the album Carlos Alomar uses a harsh and spiky guitar tone, while Bowie sings in a withdrawn, detached style far removed from his glam rock period.

The second half of Low doesn’t have any songs at all. Instead, it offers largely instrumental compositions that have drawn praise and recognition from leading modern classical composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass5. Tracks like ‘Warszawa’ and especially ‘Subterraneans’ drew on Bowie’s fascination with the orient, Eno’s fascination with ambient music, and their mutual interest in the modern classical minimalist movement to create unique pieces of huge expressive power and intensity. However, I’d have to get out my graphs and start using scary words like ‘monotonality’ to start talking about the second half of Low, however, and normal people seem to get scared when I do that.

So I’m going to talk about ‘Sound and Vision’, from the first half, which stands out in a different way.

From its opening, ‘Sound and Vision’ immediately contrasts with the previous songs on Low. You couldn’t exactly describe the texture as ‘lush’, but gone is the crushing textural density of the previous tracks. Instead, there is a positive mood that’s a far cry from the oppressiveness of tracks 1-3.

The two-guitar riff, supported by ringing piano chords, is pleasant, melodic and kind of catchy in a way. The synth part, in this track creating melody rather than warring against it, is equally pleasant. In the instrumental parts, the only thing held over from tracks 1-3 seems to be that pounding drum sound that is there throughout Low6.

Yet even this is altered through context. Due to a less fragmented bassline and the addition of other hissing snare drum-esque drum sounds, the drum part feels less aggressive, although there is still a weird dialectic with the guitar riff. The drums in this song also create one of the most epic song openings ever with the awesome three-strike crash that announces the start of the track.

The next notable thing about “Sound and Vision” is its pacing. In a 3:03 length track, the lyrics (discounting various ‘ah’s and ‘doo’s in the extended introduction) take their time to appear. Bowie’s words ultimately enter around 1:27-1:28 – nearly halfway through the song! This song, much as with the later instrumentals, is all about atmosphere and mood, which are given musical time and space in which to establish themselves7.

When Bowie’s lyrics finally do make their entry, they are some of the most perfect lyrics in all of pop. ‘Sound and Vision’ has no narrative structure, instead consisting of a series of images. The temporal space between each image is wide, inviting the listener to consider the implications, the metaphors, the words unsaid within each line. And there are plenty of things unsaid. The meaning is never stated, only implied, the lyrics minimal and understated to the extreme.

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision?
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue
I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
And I will sing,
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.
Drifting into my solitude
Over my head
 Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision?
Bowie, ‘Sound and Vision’ (Low, 1977)

For me, this song – more directly than any other on Low – deals with depression. It deals with numbness, emptiness inside; it deals with having no idea what to do or how to make yourself better.

Bowie enters in his lowest register, introducing the central image of the song by softly asking us, Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision? As Bowie sings the first half of this line, the melody slowly rises from the depths before falling back again.

This creates a tentative atmosphere – it is as if Bowie is afraid of emerging into the song structure, of making his crazy feelings known. Moreover, the word ‘sometimes’ is set to eight notes in succession, whereas an orthodox syllable-by-syllable setting would use only two. The resultant elongation of the word ‘sometimes’ subtly implies, for me, that Bowie has been wondering perhaps far more than he would care to admit about ‘sound and vision’.

Most songs would now immediately have an answering melodic phrase: the melodic phrase, Don’t you wonder sometimes ‘bout sound and vision? only takes up three bars in the repeating eight-bar chord progression. Bowie, however, defies expectations by leaving the question hanging in the air musically as well as rhetorically8. The melodic fragment is never answered, just as his question is never answered. Instead, it is left there ambiguously, and we have to wait another five bars for Bowie’s next vocal entry.

When it does come, Bowie employs a shocking two-octave jump to the very top of his register at his next entry with Blue blue, electric blue, echoing for me the apparently random moments of uncontrollable emotional outburst during depression. Immediately, he falls back to his ultra-low range to sing, That’s the colour of my room, where I will live. The moment has passed; the numbness returns.

Meanwhile, aside from the vocal delivery and musical structure, the images themselves also evoke depression and numbness. It seems to have become the standard cliché for literary critics to over-analyse the colour ‘blue’ in literature, but in this song the colour blue is clearly significant. It is first introduced half-screamed at the top of Bowie’s range; and the phrase blue, blue occurs three times in a song where very little at all is said. (The second two times it occurs, it is double-tracked: Bowie layers on top of his vocals another copy of himself singing harmony in a higher octave, emphasising the image yet more.)

The context of this image brings the depressing, melancholic connotations of ‘blue’ to the fore. Bowie immediately returns to his ultra-low register in the next line, That’s the colour of my room, and later, more explicitly melancholic images feature in the song: Pale blinds drawn on day, Nothing to do, nothing to say, and Drifting into my solitude. The context of the album as a whole is also important: every other song deals with negativity in some form, even if ‘Sound and Vision’ is the only one that deals with depression so directly.

Far more elusive is the central image of ‘sound and vision’, which is rich with connotations and could be interpreted in many ways. Every time it appears, it is unexpectedly double-tracked. This again serves to emphasise this image yet more, especially as it is contrasted with his precise, clipped style of singing in his ultra-low octave throughout most of the rest of the song.

The image of ‘sound and vision’ occurs four times in three forms, the first instance bookending the song. The passages where Bowie employs double-tracking are indicated in bold:

‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?

‘I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.

‘I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.

‘Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision?

Bowie’s image of ‘sound and vision’ suggests searching for inspiration: searching for a way out of the numbness that binds him, searching for a means of escape from his depression. Until he finds a way out, he’ll just carry on sitting in his room; until he finds inspiration, he’ll just carry on singing. What else can he do? ‘Sitting’, as well, is an extraordinarily passive word: for me it implies utter helplessness. His emotional stasis is echoed in the guitar riff looping round, and round, and round.

The question that bookends the song, Don’t you wonder sometimes, ’bout sound and vision, feels quite fundamental. He’s questioning everything about the way we experience the world; it is almost as if Bowie is trying to find a spiritual solution to his quest for meaning, for release. It’s open-ended, it’s confused: he is inviting us into his personal troubles. The song’s lyrics end as they begin, with the unanswered musical statement once again echoing his unanswered question perfectly. Even the backing track does not have a musical resolution; instead, the track fades out, ending in uncertainty and stasis as the guitar riff continues to loop.

Bowie’s genius comes through in the way he combines these complex and depressing images into a track that, for the listener, is both kind-of catchy and not depressing. It’s a sad song, and Bowie’s jolting octave jumps clearly convey his pain and anguish – the way his vocal delivery is completely different between his two registers feels almost schizophrenic to me. But in this track, Bowie holds back from forcing this anguish onto us, instead using the song as a cathartic form of release that we share in.

Catharsis is in fact the unifying idea behind ‘Sound and Vision’; the song is arguably only fully comprehensible by considering it through this concept. Seeing the song as cathartic release makes sense of the inherent tension between the unexpectedly melodic, positive guitar part and the pounding, aggressive drums. Catharsis links the disparate images in the second half of the song with the exultant, emotive ‘ah’s and ‘doo’s in the extended introduction: while they stand in utter contrast, they both represent a form of emotive release. Catharsis is even present in the images themselves: while they may be images of depression, they are in fact far more positive than those in some of Low’s other songs. Despite the inherent passivity of Bowie ‘waiting for the gift of sound and vision’, this image contains hope, and is one of the few images on Low where Bowie can conceive of a way out at all.

This cathartic aspect once again links this track, in a central position on the anguish-filled first side, far more to the second side of the album than the other tracks in the first. Whereas the first side (excepting ‘Sound and Vision’) details pain and anguish, the second side and ‘Sound and Vision’ offer catharsis and release. Low as an album has become my go-to album for depression – nothing else comes close.

Response

Prior to his death, it seemed that liking Bowie had become slightly uncool. One friend told me that he felt as if the Bowie fandom had gone ‘mouldy’… and I could see what he meant. My fear is that Bowie will once again disappear from the airwaves, and that except for a small cadre of weirdos people will slowly forget.

Because there really is no replacement. Artists like Radiohead will carry on ceaselessly reinventing their sound. Artists like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus will carry on shocking the world with their outrageous outfits, deeds and personalities. No artist has ever, to my knowledge, combined the two with the success of Bowie. It doesn’t make him the greatest artist there ever was, but it does make him unique.

And so, how do we respond? It sounds trite, but I think the only way for his legacy to continue is for us to attempt to emulate Bowie in our lives.

You don’t have to like his sound, or his image. But his complete lack of fear in expressing himself, in being who he wanted to be, is something we can all aspire to.

Musicians, and indeed artists in general, can look up to his indefatigable curiosity and desire to improve: his pursuit of art for the sake of art, regardless (except perhaps for some of his work in the ’80s) of whether it was likely to be commercially successful.

Musicians and artists can look to his anti-elitism and rejection of a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Albums like Hunky Dory contain complex, sophisticated concepts within a highly accessible pop/rock soundworld9. Meanwhile, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, for all its deliberately trashy glam aesthetic, is at the end of the day a concept album, something usually associated with ‘difficult’ progressive rock music. Even Low, for all its weirdness, has within it “Sound and Vision”, which despite its depth and subtlety was catchy enough to get to #3 on the singles charts.

This time, Bowie will not rise again. He can only live on through us.

***

Originally published on January 22, 2016 by The Poor Print.

Further reading

  • The allmusic biography provides a good overview of his career.
  • There has been a flood of obituaries that have appeared after his death, but in my opinion among the best responses are:
    • The Economist’s obituary.
    • The response from the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz.
    • Mark Mardell’s musings on the power of the obituary:
    • The BBC’s Front Row special.
  • This piece is not primarily about Blackstar, so this shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive bibliography on his last album at all. However, these are the readings on Blackstar that were cited above:
    • Rolling Stone’s interview with Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti is well-worth a read. Visconti talks about the making of Blackstar, Bowie’s plans for his next album and Visconti’s shock at Bowie’s death.
    • However, Bowie’s apparently cryptic lyrics seem here to be a direct reference to a (pretty catchy) never-released “Black star” song by Elvis Presley.
    • This Guardian article explores the various theories surrounding the album and its lyrics in more depth.
  • Reading on Low:
    • This Slate article is pretty good, going into unusual depth on the making of “Sound and Vision”.
    • This site is a goldmine, containing various interviews relating to many Bowie albums.
    • On 12/1/15, modern classical minimalist composer Steve Reich talked about the links between Bowie’s music and his on his Facebook page.

  1. Throughout 1976, Bowie was reported as making a number of far-right statements that he would later regret. In Stockholm, he was quoted as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist government”. He was later arrested for possessing Nazi propaganda on the Polish/Russian border; and he was famously photographed giving the Nazi salute to a crowd at Victoria station. 
  2. Bowie declared himself gay in an interview with Michael Watts in 22 January 1972 issue of Melody Maker. He has since renounced and restated this position several times – but whether it was his intention or not, he remains an icon for being one of the first to make any kind of statement on the matter. 
  3. Also worth listening to is the 2013 remix done for a Nokia advert. The vocals in this sound are far more isolated and the texture is vastly thinner, creating a very different atmosphere. 
  4. Etymology nerds will be interested to know that this term is derived from ‘Kraut’, an old derogatory term for a German. 
  5.  Reich released a statement talking about their mutual respect on his Facebook page after Bowie’s death, where he describes how “Weeping Wall” in Low was influenced by Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Philip Glass, meanwhile, admired Low so much that he wrote the “Low” Symphony, based on the themes from the instrumental 2nd half of Low. (He also later wrote a “Heroes” Symphony, based on themes from Bowie’s next album after Low.) 
  6.  Tony Visconti (Bowie’s producer) used an Eventide Harmonizer to create the ‘revolutionary’ drum sound on Low. He famously refused to tell other producers how he’d created the sound, and when introducing it to Bowie and Eno he told them that it ‘fucks with the fabric of time’. 
  7.  This is partly because of the composition process Bowie and Eno employed on Low. Even the first side began as purely instrumental tracks; only when the backing tracks were fully completed did Bowie write lyrics to fit with the mood of that particular track. However, compared to the other songs on side 1 of Low (excluding the purely instrumental “Speed of Life” and “A New Career in a New Town”), “Sound and Vision” is even more strikingly minimal in its lyrics. Bowie apparently decided to enter halfway through at Eno’s suggestion, having originally written other verses that he ultimately cut. 
  8.  In music-theory terminology, we would say that Bowie gives us an antecedent (the first half of a melody). Conventions dictate that antecedents are followed by consequents; Bowie defies these expectations in order to reflect the lyrics. 
  9.  The song “Oh! You Pretty Things” is an excellent example. It’s got an insanely catchy melody and, if you don’t listen too closely, the lyrics seem fairly standard. Listen closely, however, and certain lines stand out: ‘Look out my window, what do I see / A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’; or, ‘You gotta make way for the homo superior’. The lyrics are in fact referencing a science fiction concept found in the works of Arthur C. Clarke, which itself had its origins in Nietzschean philosophy. Bowie is not only referencing this concept: he’s using it as a metaphor to comment on modern-day media.