In the studio

On 1 September 1976 the recording sessions began at the Château d’Hérouville near Paris, where Bowie had previously recorded Pin Ups and Visconti had produced T Rex’s The Slider.

As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track ‘Station To Station’. It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album.
David Bowie
Uncut, January 2001

Although Bowie and Eno had discussed working with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on guitar, he was not involved in the Low sessions. Bowie claimed that his first choice, Krautrock pioneer Michael Rother, was unavailable – although in his recollection he conflated Neu! members Rother and Klaus Dinger.

My original top of my wish list for guitar player on Low was Michael Dinger [sic], from Neu! – Neu! being passionate, even diametrically opposite to Kraftwerk.

I phoned Dinger from France in the first few days of recording but in the most polite and diplomatic fashion he said ‘No’.

David Bowie
Uncut, January 2001

Rother later gave a conflicting account, saying that a representative of Bowie had contacted him saying not to come to the sessions. He also suggested that the album in question was “Heroes” rather than Low.

Well, there’s some mystery about what happened in ’77. For many years I believed that David Bowie had changed his mind. Which was what someone from his team told me. David and I had discussed details about the music, etc., instruments I should bring along. We were both very excited about that. But then someone else called me and said ‘I have to tell you that David changed his mind, you don’t have to come to Berlin after all.’ So that’s what I believed. I was busy with my solo career at that time, my first solo album was suddenly taking off, and I started recording my second solo album the same year. So I didn’t cry for a long time. I was just puzzled because I thought that didn’t sound like what we’d been talking about, but who knows? It took about 20 something years until I stumbled upon interviews David Bowie gave where he said ‘I invited Michael to record with me but unfortunately he turned me down.’ My guess at what happened is that people in his team where a bit anxious – sales were going down because his experimental approach to music wasn’t commercial enough, his fans wanted a continuation of the Ziggy Stardust era. It’s so strange to me that 20 or 30 years later his three Berlin albums are considered to be his best by many fans and critics. But at the time it was different. The sales were dropping considerably and maybe it was decided that David Bowie would make better pop music without another German guy as inspiration on his team. It was strange 20 something years later to hear him tell a very different story. But it’s no use now crying about the fact that Heroes was made without my guitar and without my input. But who knows, maybe I would’ve destroyed the album.
Michael Rother, 2009
The Quietus

Bowie brought back Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis, his core band from the Station To Station album and tour. Joining them was Ricky Gardiner, a Scots guitarist recommended by Visconti, and Roy Young, an English pianist who had played with the Beatles in Hamburg in the early 1960s.

The tracking (initial recording) went down so fast it was over in six days! As an experiment the rudimentary concept materialized within the first few hours. Elements of the Velvet Underground and The Stooges crept in very quickly. We recorded all the backing tracks in three days. The Harmonizer snare effect was hooked up the first day and recorded its effect on track 24. Only Dennis could hear the effect in his headphones and he loved it. Because of the Harmonizer’s slight quirkiness he noticed that hitting the snare harder or softer would create a different feedback effect. David and Brian were wary at first and asked for it to be muted for playbacks in the control room.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

The backing tracks were completed in less than a week. These were the songs that made up the first half of Low, although Bowie was yet to write lyrics. Still unsure whether they would result in an album, he referred to them as demos, but Visconti recorded them carefully to ensure they were worthy of release.

We didn’t expect anything. We were really excited when we had some very good material and we sort of, just lumped it together and I called it Low. I’d been interested in how remote you can get with traditional methods of writing, but it hadn’t occurred to me to take the plunge and try to evolve myself. I was very cautious about getting into deep water in areas that I didn’t feel that I was competent, but I was given a shoulder to lean on with Brian.
David Bowie, December 1977
An Evening With David Bowie, RCA promotional album

With their parts complete, Murray and Davis left France, and Alomar, Gardiner and Young continued overdubbing instruments. They were joined by Eno, who was in the studio for just one week, yet managed to have a profound impact on the recordings.

After we were finished with the drums, bass and piano, we retained Carlos and Ricky to overdub more guitars. This was fun because they all had their own lush guitar pedals and great ideas. We didn’t hold them back. The concept of Low was cemented by the end of week one, the instrumental part at least. True to form David had not written one word of lyrics yet. All the tracks had working titles, no vocal melodies.

Week two started with just David, Brian and myself adding a few overdubs to side one. Brian created musical noises to tracks like ‘Sound And Vision’ and ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, but all the songs got the special Eno EMS Synthi briefcase fizzles, wobbles, shhzzzs. The Synthi doesn’t have a proper keyboard; Brian made these sounds with live manipulation of knobs and two joysticks! My then wife, Mary Hopkin, and Brian recorded the ‘doo, doo, doos’ on ‘Sound And Vision’. Mary and our children Morgan and Jessica were at the Château for the entire month.

Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

As well as Visconti’s family, Iggy Pop was present throughout the month-long sessions in France.

He sat in on most recordings and he also sang on ‘What In The World’. David and Iggy were by now good friends since working on Iggy’s album The Idiot. All of us had our meals together in the communal dining room. Conversation flowed like wine. Iggy had great stories, Brian had great stories. Iggy’s stories were so astounding and hilarious that David and I used some studio time in the third or fourth week to interview Iggy. David, Iggy and I sat facing each other in the darkened studio and we let the tape roll. Iggy spoke lucidly for hours. I never knew what became of that tape.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Once the backing tracks were complete, Bowie played the aborted soundtrack recordings for The Man Who Fell To Earth to the studio musicians.

When we’d completed the A-side of the album, just before we were about to record the B-side, David took all the musicians into the booth to play the music that he wanted to put on the B-side. It was so far away from the music we had just finished recording, we all looked at each other in surprise that he wanted to pursue it. I think we all felt the same about it: it really wasn’t a style that was going to work with us; hence he brought in Eno, which worked out better for that material.
Roy Young
Record Collector, January 2017
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