Low album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: September-November 1976
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 14 January 1977

Available on:
Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78)


David Bowie: ARP synthesizer, tape horn and brass, synthetic strings
Carlos Alomar: guitar
Roy Young: piano
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion

The opener track on Low, ‘Speed Of Life’ signalled David Bowie’s new direction: an instrumental piece laden with synths and manipulated drum sounds.

‘Speed Of Life’ was originally intended to have lyrics, but Bowie felt it complete enough without. The absence of his vocals throughout much of Low caused consternation with his record label RCA, who were hoping for another Young Americans-style soul record.

Recording during week three and week four was at a much slower pace. Melodies, lyrics and vocals were needed. ‘Speed Of Life’ and ‘A New Career In A New Town’ were originally intended to have a vocal on them, but David decided to keep them as instrumental bookends to side one. Low became more radical as David sang just five songs. This later infuriated RCA record executives who tried to block the album’s release and one suggested he should go back to Philadelphia and make Young Americans II.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Ahead of the Low sessions, producer Tony Visconti had been experimenting with an innovative audio device made by the company Eventide.

David was calling from his home in Switzerland and Brian Eno was on an extension. They told me they’d been writing songs for a couple of weeks and had ideas, one side being conventional songs and the other an instrumental side based on Brian’s ambient music compositions. I was asked, ‘What can you bring to the table?’ (This is the first time I heard this phrase not referring to bottles of red and white wine.) I said I have a new thing called the Harmonizer, the second sold in the UK. ‘What does it do?’ they asked. Hmmm. This thing was so original and difficult to explain in simple terms, so I spontaneously came up with what most people have heard of by now, ‘It fucks with the fabric of time.’ Then I heard big ‘whoops’ from both of them.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Eventide Harmonizer

Unbeknown to Bowie, the Eventide Harmonizer had actually been used by Harry Maslin on Station To Station, but Visconti’s experimentations had yielded greater results. It was used to great effect on Dennis Davis’s drum sound throughout Low, with ‘Speed Of Life’ being most listeners’ first experience of the sonic innovation.

Low was released with both the disapproval of David’s label and the enthusiastic approval of most of his fans (but some felt like RCA, they wanted ‘more Bowie’). It startled and impressed! My phone was ringing with fellow producers on the other end asking many questions but the big one was ‘How did you get that drum sound?’ and I’d respond with, ‘How do you think I did it?’ Some answers were amusing and insightful, but no one could bust the secret, the Harmonizer. I felt that the magic of this rebellious album would be reduced to a technical trick if I had explained.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

The descending melody on ‘Speed Of Life’ had an unlikely antecedent. ‘The Laughing Gnome’, Bowie’s 1967 novelty song, had an instrumental introduction which contained a similar run of notes. Curiously, they appear to recur at ten-year intervals in Bowie’s songs, making a reappearance in 1987’s ‘Beat Of Your Drum’ and 1997’s ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’.

The synth line on ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ comes from ‘The Laughing Gnome’, via ‘Speed Of Life’ and ‘Beat Of Your Drum.’ Bowie appears to be in a state of on-going dialogue with his past… I had expected that working with David would mean no revisiting the oldies, a cue I got from the Sound + Vision tour, which was supposed to be the last time a lot of old tunes would see the light of day. From my perspective he seems rather comfortable with his past.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

The phrase “speed Of life” also recurred on ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ on “Heroes”, on which Bowie sang “I was running at the speed of life”.

The release

‘Speed Of Life’ was the first song on Low, released on 14 January 1977.

The second single from the album, the follow-up to ‘Sound And Vision’, was ‘Be My Wife’. Released in June 1977 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the USA, it had ‘Speed Of Life’ on the b-side.

Live performances

‘Speed Of Life’ was performed throughout the Isolar II Tour in 1978, with recordings available on the live albums Stage and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).

It made a return in 2002, performed during eleven dates of the Heathen Tour. The first was 11 June 2002 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, where Bowie performed Low in its entirety.

Previous album: Station To Station
Next song: ‘Breaking Glass’
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