When the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago announced that as part of their hosting Bowie Is, the David Bowie retrospective, they’d be offering area music acts to perform Bowie music (in this case, an entire album) in their Edlis Neeson Theater, November 11’s presentation of Low by Chicago post-punk noise quartet Disappears was, on paper, a perfect synthesis. Bowie’s Low is equal parts atmospheric and straight ahead Krautrock-influenced rock music, highly original for its time and in the subsequent years, incredibly influential. Disappears have much of its modern inventiveness born into their sound, and where differences existed, interesting solutions poised seemingly at the ready. I’d never heard Disappears tackle keyboard parts this much, or covers at all really for that matter, and now they’d have to do both, but you could just feel that the high profile nature of the gig that they’d offer an explosive original presentation.
The show was, in a word, fantastic. When, at the end of the show in the theater lobby, the band announced that if a gig poster was purchased and an email address given they’d offer a sound board bootleg of the performance, this idea grew in earnest. I’d want something to house the performance I’d be eventually given, and thought that it’d be an enjoyable personal project to create something to put it on the shelf in.
The Design (click all images to enlarge)
It seemed obvious to me that a formal nod had to be made to the original iconic Bowie cover; unlike the two other Berlin releases it’s strikingly vibrant in its color intensity and that was the easiest way to get into the design. “Heroes” is consciously arty, cold and angular, while Lodger’s cover seeks to be something of a humorous punchline set against the other two. Low has always looked like a burning ember still smoldering in the cold alleys of Berlin, even if much of what was contained inside was icy, and starkly modernist leaning. So from point one I wanted to play up the color vibrancy, while making it a more digital looking affair. The idea that its an obscuring, a taking from what’s there and changing it, pointed me towards a distorting of the actual real pictorial cover. Originally I envisioned a whitening out of Bowie’s visage (while keeping the orange haze surrounding him) with either a paint or scratching technique, but that would imply destruction or anger distortion, when after taking in the Disappears interpretation on that chilly November night, I thought a more homage based approach—steeped in respect and faithfulness—would fit better.
I thought the block pixilation a nice solution, it fits the graphic urban stylings of Bauhaus/Futurist movement loving Disappears coupled with an approximation of technology distortion. It says, here is David Bowie’s Low, but filtered through our technology, not unlike when faces are blurred on the evening news when the owners consent isn’t given (my apologies for the crude analogy; their isn’t any thievery at play here). Plus, the square grid afforded me graphic possibilities to carry throughout the package (a carrying through that I don’t think the original design possesses; the back of Bowie’s design—on all releases: vinyl, compact disc, and cassette tape—seems, at best, an afterthought*). It also completely wiped out the top original ‘Bowie Low’ typography, which, if I can be completely frank, I’ve always thought ill conceived, dated, and just plain ugly. I, almost as a way to call this out as obvious, envisioned the typography within a modern, clean aesthetic, but without the usual ‘san-serif only’ ethos of so much contemporary design after similar ends. Some decisions are borne from practical necessity; the audio concert file was delivered as one continuous track in an attempt to replicate being there live, so I envisioned no track numbers and almost a bar chart mapping out where each song would begin and end. Luckily this handling also seemed to match the chic graphic elements happening elsewhere in the package (I also like the strange visual symmetry that happened accidentally: the original cover features David Bowie in profile facing right, and the tracklist, when right justified and aligned with the middle of the panel, the type rag creates a human face profile with ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ being something of a protruding nose. So it’s a visual pun; you expect a face on the cover, are denied it, then given one inside in the abstract).
Disappears’ execution was a nice feat unto itself, before going we’d wondered if they’d have a special guest on keyboards (something they sort of did when they had fellow Kranky label artist Lichens sit in for a song during their Kranky 20th Anniversary Show) but, perfectly stubborn, they conjured ways to implement keyboard and synth parts from only their guitars and their plethora of effect pedals. Side two, where Bowie and company really experimented in 1976 (yeah, the album was released in January of 1977), is seen in the hands of Disappears, especially lead guitarist Jonathan Van Herik, as warmed over, hopeful orchestral pieces. Van Herik, takes the icy drone contemplation of ‘Warszawa’ to an altogether different place; his guitar saws like a church chamber orchestra, equal parts full pipe-organ to wailing, drawn out accordion. For us it was a definite highlight, a very personal, touching moment not always offered to bands like Disappears who so often have to toil (thankfully) in alcohol soaked clubs. They’re noisy enough to succeed in such places (we try to never miss them around town), but, as shown here more than competent enough for a new, elevated environment. This presentation here is me saying, ‘thanks’.
(For additional detail, plus a video of them doing ‘Always Crashing the the Same Car’ from the performance, see here)