Written by: David Bowie, George Murray, Dennis Davis
Recorded: September-November 1976
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: 14 January 1977
Live In Berlin (1978)
Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78)
Serious Moonlight (Live ’83)
Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95)
No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95)
A Reality Tour
David Bowie: vocals
Brian Eno: splinter Minimoog synthesizer
Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
At 1:53 the shortest song on David Bowie’s Low album, ‘Breaking Glass’ captured in song a moment caught on camera in 1975.
When Station To Station was reissued on compact disc by Rykodisc in 1991, the back cover featured a photograph of Bowie taken by Steve Schapiro. In the image, Bowie was sketching Kaballah’s ten Sephirot, also known as the Tree of Life, on the floor and walls of the photographic studio. That incident was also immortalised in the lyrics of ‘Breaking Glass’: “Don’t look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it/See”.
The couplet in ‘Breaking Glass which begins “don’t look at the carpet” – is this a reference to drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the floor in LA?
Well, it is a contrived image, yes. It refers to both the Kabbalistic drawings of the tree of life and the conjuring of spirits.
Bowie was asked again about the image by a reader of Q magazine in 2000, but gave a somewhat opaque answer.
The worst thing you can do in a horror movie is to show the thing that is terrifying the victim character. It’s never as bad as one’s own imagination. Well, mine anyway. So I’ll leave you, dear listener, to conjure up that which makes your buttocks clench and your mouth go all frothy, be it a Technicolor picture of EastEnders’ Dot in a nightdress or that old stand-by, ‘Redrum’.
Q magazine, July 2000
The commands to “listen” and “see” referred not just to Schapiro’s image and Bowie’s rendering in song, but also the gift of sound and vision, about which he sang elsewhere on Low.
Another source of troubled inspiration was a visit to the studio by Bowie’s wife Angela and her new boyfriend Roy Martin, during the Low sessions. The resulting argument with Bowie fed into the lyrics of both ‘Breaking Glass’ and ‘Be My Wife’.
My concern with Low was not about the music. The music was literally expressing my physical and emotional state… and that was my worry. So the music was almost therapeutic. It was like, Oh yeah, we’ve made an album and it sounds like this. But it was a by-product of my life. It just sort of came out. I never spoke to the record company about it. I never talked to anybody about it. I just made this album… in a rehab state. A dreadful state really.
Q magazine, June 1989
Co-written with bass guitarist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, ‘Breaking Glass’ was one of two songs on Low on which Bowie shared songwriting credits. The other was ‘Warszawa’, which Bowie composed with Brian Eno.
Dennis Davis had a lot to do with that. I wanted to ape a Jew’s harp, just a drone. We were having fun! If you listen to all the quirks in the music – the call and response stuff between bass, guitar and drums – that was just done with three members of the band.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
Eno played a key role in reining in Bowie’s instinct to keep adding to the track.
The feeling around was that we’d edit together… and turn it into a more normal structure. And I said, ‘No, don’t, leave it abnormal, leave it strange, don’t normalise it… If it’s like that, and you like it, keep it. Why fix it? It’s not broken.’
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
‘Sound And Vision’ was the first single released from Low, and was followed by ‘Be My Wife’.
‘Breaking Glass’ was issued as the third single in November 1978 in Australia, with ‘Art Decade’ on the b-side.
The single was an extended edit lasting 2:52, which looped back to the first verse after the “I’ll never touch you” line. The edit was included on Re:Call in the 2017 box set A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982).
The Stage version of ‘Breaking Glass’ was released as a single in November 1978 in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. The b-sides were live versions of ‘Art Decade’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’.
David Bowie performed ‘Breaking Glass’ throughout the Isolar II, Serious Moonlight, Outside, Heathen, and A Reality tours.
During the Isolar II Tour in 1978, ‘Breaking Glass’ had an extended outro with just vocals and drums, with Bowie and his backing singers repeating the line “I’ll never touch you”. Performances are available on Stage, Live In Berlin (1978), and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).
The “I’ll never touch you” arrangement was retained for the Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983, and can be heard on the album Serious Moonlight (Live ’83).
Bowie next played ‘Breaking Glass’ in 1995 during the Outside Tour. Bowie and his band performed the ‘Australian’ arrangement of the song, with the vocal parts repeated.
Performances from the tour can be heard on the 2020 albums Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95) and No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95).
‘Breaking Glass’ was a bonus track on the CD edition of A Reality Tour, recorded in Dublin in November 2003, but was left off the DVD of the same name.
Bowie’s final performance of ‘Breaking Glass’ was on 10 May 2004 at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.