I'm pleasantly shocked to discover a fantastic, completist Bowie site. "Pushing Ahead of the Dame" features an intelligent, devoted Bowie scholar ("fan" seems too trivial a word for the effort manifested on his site) writing a critical history of every song Bowie has ever recorded. It's not done yet (he's not reached the nineties) but all the major albums have already been discussed. Highly, highly recommended.
Here, for Dez, is a discussion of Bowie's drum sound during "Low," a subject we debated, a little, a few months ago:
“Breaking Glass,” officially credited to Bowie, Murray and Davis, is the most compelling groove on the album, despite it being left in a something of an embryonic state. Murray holds the track together with his fingers: the thudding echoing of Davis’ drums in the intro/refrain, the rolling bassline under the verses, which becomes the lead instrument in the final, vocal-less verse that gets faded out. Alomar’s lead guitar (he also plays rhythm guitar, a drone that Alomar described as his attempt to sound like a Jew’s harp) gets a battlefield promotion to secondary vocalist. His opening pair of riffs, phrases echoing and answering each other, are a more melodic hook than anything Bowie sings.
And Davis, who Visconti later called ‘the most original drummer I’ve ever worked with,” delivers beats that had never been on a Bowie record before: Low makes Ziggy Stardust sound like it was recorded on paper drums. (It’s as if he’s trying to imitate and yet outplay the synthetic drums on Cluster’s “Caramel”.) The trick was Visconti’s Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti legendarily claimed “fucks with the fabric of time.” For Low, Visconti used the Harmonizer to sample the drum audio and, an instant later, echo the sound, but with the drums’ pitch dropped a semi-tone. Then Visconti, in his words, “added the feedback of this tone to itself.” So when Davis hit his snare drum, he heard in his headphones the “crack” but the following “thud” never stopped, it just deepened and deepened in tone. Visconti described the latter as sounding like a man struck in the stomach (forever).
At first, Bowie was unsure about the distorted drum sound, so Visconti sneakily turned down the effect in the control room but kept it on in Davis’ headphones. So on “Glass” (and other Low tracks) Davis is dueting with his echo, in real time. He’s varying the power and length of his snare hits, especially on the one! one! one-two! one-two! pattern in the intro, and seems to be creating the massive synthesized, gated drum sound of ’80s pop music in the process.This was also, to me, a revelation (I thought Fripp used an Ebow on "Heroes").
While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.
Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”