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How Bowie's 'Low' Freed a Generation

01/08/2016 04:57 pm 16:57:53
Gus Stewart via Getty Images

Low was released on 14 January 1977, a few days after David Bowie's 30th birthday.

The motto of our generation - Bowie's and mine - was "Never trust anyone over 30" and The Thin White Duke lived up to that motto in his own unique way. We were ready to party again with his next album.

But you couldn't actually dance to Low.

Except if you were doing the junkie walk, stop and sway that heroin addicts did on the streets in the neighbourhoods we students could afford to live in then. It was the austere mid-70s where if you were lucky to get a good job to help pay for your studies, you also learned how to run around your desk to get away from your boss's hands.

The B-Side of Low put the American rock cognoscenti in a tailspin.

"All mood!" they yelled.

Yes. It was our mood.

We were the Baby Boomers, the Great Hope after the cataclysm of World War Two. Our parents adored us; wanted to be us. We were the first Kids. Disney re-vamped itself to appeal to us. The NHS's "cradle to grave" care had OUR cradles and OUR graves in mind. Compared to our parents and those who came before us, we were well-fed; coddled; bred to expect more.

In the States where I grew up, all hell broke loose with the assassinations of JFK; Malcolm X; Martin Luther King: Bobby Kennedy. We had Vietnam - a war you could watch on TV in nightly instalments complete with commercials. And there was Europe: France where my generation took over the universities, linked up with the unions and forced the great war time hero, Charles DeGaulle, to back down. And there was Berlin.

Especially Berlin.

There was a wall there -the Berlin Wall-symbol of a divided Germany. You were shot if you tried to climb it. In Italy, young people put into literal practice their credo: "Death to capitalism!" by kidnapping bankers.

The '70s: the times were fast and angry. Government-politics-looked like utter corruption. Rock stars went to live abroad to escape the tax system in the UK, but you bought their records anyway.

In the midst of this: Bowie, along with his producer Tony Visconti and his collaborator, Brian Eno, captured-on the B-Side of Low that rare thing: The Era.

Low nailed the inner turmoil; the angst, confusion and rage that many of us felt but had no words for. Like all great art, it did it while we didn't even know we felt these things. But when we heard it: we knew.

We knew that despair was a guest at our Baby Boomer party, too, in that winter of '77. Bowie had 'outted' us. He had freed us, too. We didn't have to pretend that-because WE were involved- everything bad would sort it itself out in the end.

Gone for good was the jolly 'head music' of the late '60's that celebrated marijuana; joy; sunniness and communal nakedness. Low was about the dole and tuition fees and food and shelter and smack and covering yourself up. In a strange way, too, Low prefaced the AIDS epidemic when back in those days you died and died slow next to a table full of drugs that didn't manage to keep you alive.

I have often wondered what the young find in Jeremy Corbyn here and Bernie Sanders in the States. My answer: I think part of it has to do - in Corbyn's case - with a kind of knowing. Just like the '70s, when Corbyn was young, these are truly austere times for many, under a government which doesn't seem to care much for youth. This government hopes, I suppose, that the status quo will be something that young people will accept in time. As most accept things as we grow older. Maybe they're right. Most of my generation did. Maybe Bowie has, too.

But he made Low.

His achievement, especially the B-side, transcended the mass-pop of the time; gave a voice to my generation for which we had no words, no music.

For this, I wish Bowie a happy 69th birthday.

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