In the studio

The Low sessions were experimental from the outset, with David Bowie telling producer Tony Visconti that they may not result in any releasable music.

Much of the music on Low was recorded at a time when Bowie was struggling to complete songs. According to Visconti, “he couldn’t come up with more than one verse for some things, which is why a lot of the tracks fade out.” Indeed, ‘Sound And Vision’ was initially recorded as an instrumental piece, with the exception of Mary Hopkin’s wordless vocals.

According to Tony Visconti, Hopkin’s vocals were “recorded before there was a lyric, title or melody.”

One evening, Brian called me into the studio to sing a quick backing vocal with him on ‘Sound And Vision’. We sang his cute little ‘doo doo’ riff in unison. It was meant to be a distant echo but, when David heard it, he pushed up the fader until it became a prominent vocal – much to my embarrassment, as I thought it very twee. I love the song and I’m a great admirer of David’s work.
Mary Hopkin, 2011
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

The core backing trio of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray, and Dennis Davis were augmented by additional guitarist Ricky Gardiner and pianist Roy Young. The musicians worked up Bowie’s song sketches into workable backing tracks during the first three weeks, after which the sessions were devoted to overdubbing and the more experimental, mostly instrumental pieces.

Murray and Davis left the sessions in the third week, their parts complete, and Alomar, Gardiner, Young and Brian Eno added solos and other overdubs.

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

The release

The album Low was released on 14 January 1977.

RCA initially refused to release Low, until David Bowie took legal advice and was able to confirm that, under the terms of his contract, RCA were obliged to issue the album. The label chose not to schedule it in the run-up to Christmas 1976, opting instead to issue it with little fanfare in January – traditionally a quiet time for new music.

Bowie undertook almost no promotion for the album. Despite this, it sold well, peaking at number two in the UK albums chart, and number six on the Dutch Mega Albums chart. It reached number 10 in Australia and Norway, although it was lodged just outside the top ten in the USA, New Zealand and Sweden.

It was received with caution when it came out. I didn’t expect otherwise. I certainly didn’t expect people to embrace it with open arms as the long lost ‘new language of music’. And I realise I might be alienating a lot of people that had maybe only recently got into the idea that I change from record to record. I’d gathered a whole lot of new people listening to me at the Young Americans stage which I was worried about because I hoped that they didn’t expect that, that was it – that I was going to continue from there and that’s what I was, so I knew I’d lose a few of them on the way.
David Bowie, December 1977
An Evening With David Bowie, RCA promotional album

‘Sound And Vision’/’A New Career In A New Town’ was the first single released from Low, on 11 February 1977. It peaked at number three in the UK and Belgium, two in the Netherlands, six in Germany, and seven in New Zealand.

The single fared less well in North America. It went no higher than number 69 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and 87 on the Canadian singles chart.

The success of ‘Sound And Vision’ was bolstered by the BBC’s decision to use it in programme trailers, its title – if not the lyrical themes – being well suited to the broadcast medium.

Later in 1977, RCA issued a 12″ promotional single featuring a remixed ‘Sound And Vision’ which segued into Iggy Pop’s ‘Sister Midnight’.