Roy Young, Bowie’s pianist, reflects on 40 years of Low
Today (14 January) marks the 40th anniversary since the release of David Bowie’s Low.
Heralded as a revolutionary step forward, what is less known is that he tapped a childhood hero – rock’n’roll singer and pianist Roy Young, to play on it. We tracked him down to find out what it was like to help reset the sound of contemporary music – again.
What can you remember about getting asked to work on Low?
It’s quite a way back! David called me to come out and do the recording which was originally going to be done in Berlin, we ended up in Paris and a lot of my friends were out there with David to do the record. It was a really good gathering!
Bowie was a fan of your music growing up, is that right?
If you go back in time David’s music was very similar to mine. I’m a rock’n’roll-er, an out-and-out Little Richard bloke. David was a Little Richard fan for a long time and he always followed my music which was a bit surprising. I knew what he was intending to do with Low but I had my own style so I’d wham my piano and let them figure it out!
What was the atmosphere in the studio like?
It was great, we all knew each other. And a lot of drink was going around which helped! I was a gin and tonic drinker back then, David is sitting looking at me across the dining table – watching me drink these gin and tonics. I told him there were no hangovers or anything like that, I said it’s just like drinking lemonade! I didn’t think any more about it until he was in the booth and he tapped the mic and signalled that he wanted a drink.
We ran through a couple of songs once and Tony [Visconti] looked over at me and asked me what I thought. I said ‘Yeah, not bad!’. There was silence and Tony said, ‘Now, Dave, what do you think?’ and he was just snoring away!
It was a definite time of experimentation for Bowie, how much direction did he and Tony give you on the direction of the album?
I’d known David for quite a few years and I knew his music so they gave me the freedom to whatever I wanted to do. Tony was encouraging us to let loose.
How do you think Low will be remembered in the context of Bowie’s catalogue?
I think there was a lot of confusion at that time with David, within himself. The guy is a genius, there is no doubt about it. He had such a way of putting music down and bringing styles together. I think he was at a crossroads and it was confusing to him. You can tell there’s a little bit of unsureness of where he wanted to go.
What do you think makes Low still sound current?
We were all good. We were all good players! It’s what happens you bring players in who are natural rather than a guy who just came out of school learning music. Those kind of players wouldn’t suit working with a guy like David. He’s a natural, the reason he was such a success is that he played everything in his head. It was all such a natural style.
Do you think Bowie and Visconti intentionally let the band lead the sound?
There was a style coming out as we were playing and it was all coming from the top of our heads. They definitely let us lead. I don’t think David really knew at first what he wanted to do at first. Tony clearly encouraged David to let us come into the sound and to see what we bring in. David knew that if he dominated the project he might miss out on some good stuff.
Looking back on your time on the record, how will you remember David Bowie?
I think we had a connection being London boys. We would often meet up on our tours which was nice. That friendship that we created is what made him call me in for Low. He also was instrumental in getting me into Canada! He wrote a lovely letter to the immigration office. He was always very supportive of my life and my work.
Find out more about Roy Young here