Low album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: December 1975; September-November 1976
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 14 January 1977

Available on:
Low

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, piano, guitar, saxophone
Carlos Alomar: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
J Peter Robinson, Paul Buckmaster: pianos, ARP synthesizer

The final track on David Bowie’s Low album, ‘Subterraneans’ was originally written for the soundtrack of Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The initial recording was made at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles in December 1975, following the completion of ‘Station To Station’.

In the studio

Bowie had begun writing music for the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell To Earth while starring in the film in 1975.

That’ll be the next album, the soundtrack. I’m working on it now, doing some writing. But we won’t record until all the shooting’s finished. I expect the film should be released around March, and we want the album out ahead of that, so I should say maybe January or February.
David Bowie
CREEM, December 1975

Bowie and arranger and cellist Paul Buckmaster, who had worked on the 1969 album David Bowie (Space Oddity), began working on the tracks at Bowie’s Bel Air home during the Station To Station sessions, recording demos on a TEAC four-track tape machine, and prior to entering the studio had around half a dozen pieces of music.

There were a couple of medium tempo rock instrumental pieces, with simple motifs and riffy kind of grooves, with a line-up of David’s rhythm section (Carlos Alomar et al.) plus J Peter Robinson on Rhodes-Fender piano and me on cello and some synth overdubs, using ARP Odyssey and Solina. There were some more slow and spacey cues with synth, Rhodes and cello, and a couple of weirder, atonal cues using synths and percussion. There was a ballad instrumental by David that appears on Low (‘Subterraneans’). It was performed by David, me and J Peter Robinson on various keyboards. There was also a piece I wrote and performed using some beautifully made mbiras (African thumb pianos) I had purchased earlier that year, plus cello, all done by multiple overdubbing. And a song David wrote, played and sang, called ‘Wheels’, which had a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it. The title referred to the alien train from his character Newton’s home world.
Paul Buckmaster
Mojo Classic: 60 Years Of Bowie, 2007

Although no formal agreement had been made with director Nicolas Roeg for Bowie to record the soundtrack, the studio sessions continued regardless. It was just one of several major projects of Bowie’s that came to nothing in the mid-Seventies.

I presumed – I don’t know why but probably because I was arrogant enough to think it so therefore I acted upon it – that I had been asked to write the music for this film. And I spent two or three months putting bits and pieces of material together. I had no idea that nobody had asked me to write the music for this film; that, in fact, it had been an idea that was bandied about.
David Bowie, 1993
The Man Who Fell To Earth, Criterion edition commentary

Bowie’s soundtrack went unused due to various reasons. According to Buckmaster, the recordings were simply not finished well enough to be used in the film. There were also reported contractual disputes between Bowie and the film’s producer Michael Deeley.

I really can’t remember the details, but there was a great row – not between Nic and I because we kept apart from those areas; I didn’t want to row with Nic – a couple of er, unusual people who were putting the thing together.

I was under the impression that I was going to be writing the music for the film but, when I’d finished five or six pieces. I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people’s… and I just said ‘Shit, you’re not getting any of it.’ I was so furious, I’d put so much work into it.

It turned out for the better and of course it did prompt me in another area – to consider my own instrumental capabilities, which I hadn’t really done very seriously before. The area was one that was suddenly exciting me, one that I never really considered would. And that’s when I got the first inklings of trying to work with Eno at some point.

David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980

‘Subterraneans’ was the only recording from the soundtrack sessions to be used on the Low album, on which J Peter Robinson and Paul Buckmaster were credited as “Peter and Paul”. Yet Bowie remained frustrated that his original vision had fallen through.

I got angry about it, with no real rational reason. I thought I should be contracted, a stupid, juvenile reason but I kind of walked away from it. But bits of it, things like ‘Subterraneans’ on the Low album, were actually started for the film. So, musically there was some kind of continuum going on there.
David Bowie
Mojo, July 2002

Bowie later said that ‘Subterraneans’ was inspired by the divided Berlin, specifically about the families who were separated when the Wall went up.

‘Warszawa’ is about Warsaw and the very bleak atmosphere I got from that city. ‘Art Decade’ is West Berlin – a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution. ‘Weeping Wall’ is about the Berlin Wall – the misery of it. And ‘Subterraneans’ is about the people that got caught in East Berlin after the separation – hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was.
David Bowie
Record Mirror, 24 September 1977

This may not have been a case of retconning, however, since ‘Subterraneans’ was considerably reworked in Berlin during the final recording sessions for Low.

‘Subterraneans’ was an experimental afterthought for its inclusion on side two. It was recorded and produced by David for the film The Man Who Fell To Earth. None of his music was used for the final cut, but this track seemed to have been created especially for Low. It was originally recorded five semitones higher and quite a bit faster. I put the tape machine into vari-pitch mode and kept slowing it down until it sounded like it does now, dreamy and psychedelic. David sang over the track in his lower register making the music even more haunting. David added a gorgeous string synth part, a lovely counter melody theme. On his alto sax he played a lovely improvised solo just before the multi-track vocal parts with their surreal lyrics (no, I don’t know what they mean).
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Bowie later used ‘Subterraneans’ in the soundtrack of some private 8mm footage that he filmed in Russia in 1976.

When I was in Russia, when I took the Trans-Siberian Express, I took a lot of footage there and I started putting those particular pieces – ‘Subterraneans’ and ‘Warszawa’ – against what I’d taken, just 8mm. It is very effective.
David Bowie
Capital Radio, 13 February 1979

Lyrics

According to the liner notes of the 1999 reissue of Low by Virgin Records, the lyrics of ‘Subterraneans’ are:

Share bride failing star
care-line
care-line
care-line
care-line riding me
Shirley, Shirley, Shirley, own
Share bride failing star

Live performances

‘Subterraneans’ was the opening song of Bowie’s set during his 1995 dates with Nine Inch Nails, on the US leg of the Outside Tour.

During the shows, Bowie sang lines from the verses of ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ over ‘Subterraneans’, before beginning ‘Scary Monsters’ properly.

‘Subterraneans’ was revived once again in 2002, during the Heathen Tour. The first performance was on 11 June at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, when Bowie performed Low in its entirety.

The song was next played on 29 June at the Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Bowie again performed all of Low, but not in sequence, and ‘Subterraneans’ closed the Low part of the set.

Further performances followed at the Horsens Open Air festival in Denmark on 5 July; at E-Work in Cologne, Germany, on 12 July; and at the Montreux Jazz Festival on 18 July.

On 22 September 2002, at the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin, Bowie performed ten of Low’s songs, out of sequence, ending with ‘Subterraneans’. This was his final performance of the song. The only Low track left out of the set was ‘Weeping Wall’.

Previous song: ‘Weeping Wall’
Next album: “Heroes”