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33 at 45: David Bowie’s Station To Station

Transmission, concision… 

Universally regarded as David Bowie’s transitional 1970s album, the epic elegance of Station To Station inhabits a curious but unique place in his arsenal. The artist was at a creative, spiritual and emotional crossroads, and the psychological fall-out from the period would, ultimately, lead Bowie into entirely new phases, both personally and professionally. It’s 45 years old too.

If you had to pick one other Bowie LP that bears any similarity at all to this stylish six-tracker just what would it be?

Surely 2016’s Blackstar – the acclaimed artist’s epitaph released almost exactly forty years later – would be the most obvious comparison. A collection of too few songs shrouded in mystery – the lack of original material being the result of health issues – but nonetheless, a seminal set that kicks off with a ten-minute meisterwerk that just happens to be one of the best things Bowie ever committed to tape.

Sporting his Sears Roebuck blazer at Cherokee. George Lazenby had worn an identical one in his only Bond film

Released by RCA on 23 January 1976, at its heart Station to Station is an erratic avant-garde art-rock record, with David finding the mid-point between whatever was passing for disco at the time and some of the more Eurocentric experiments coming from the continent.

It’s not an easy album to warm to, but its grandiose structure, robotic rhythms and clinical sound were an impressive, individualistic achievement. The result is something that’s unfathomably strange for mainstream music but somehow creates its own driving and distinctive style that would prove enormously influential on post-punk.

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth with Nicolas Roeg, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his first No.1 single, Fame. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behaviour, RCA sent executives to his rented house in Stone Canyon to check on him. He told them to pack off. As Fame, a funky, cynical collaboration with John Lennon, had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

Station To Station was recorded at Cherokee Studios in West Hollywood in the fall of that year, and captures David Bowie in six magical movements. The 38 minutes of music on this record is remarkable, light on the reverb and chilling to a fault. The synthetic soul of Young Americans has all but gone, but the detached Teutonic iciness of Low and Heroes has yet to fully crystallise. So we’re left with a somewhat schizophrenic work that seems entirely appropriate given the industrial quantities of cocaine the Thin White Dame was hoovering up at the time.

“It’s a positive album, certainly,” Bowie told Circus magazine at the time: [In German accent:]

“Zere are two kinds of emotion. Zere is warm emotion unt cold emotion. Hello Kraftwerk. Yeah, I think the previous albums were of a colder emotion, and that this is one of a warmer emotion. It’s got some kind of Godhead recognition, a feeling of empathy about it, yeah…”

During 1975’s STS sessions in West Hollywood. Photo by Geoff McCormack

It’s interesting that the two sides of the LP follow the same order, roughly: the rocking epic, the disco/r&b number, the big ballad. Whether that was intentional is a matter for debate, though having a glance Paul Kinder’s always excellent website he puts forward a very interesting but less musical theory for the song sequencing:

The shape of the sextet’s track listing in that brilliantly bold unspaced red lettering (Helvetica Neue 95 font, fact fans) on the back cover actually resembles a chalice. Again, coincidence or not?

It could just be a typesetter centralising the text for a certain divine symmetry, but then again the young Davy Jones had trained in graphics in an advertising agency in 1960s London, and later spoke of how he saw words as shapes and hearing sound as colour. Remember, this was also a period where he became fascinated by the Kabbalah and the myth of King Arthur, so perhaps The Holy Grail is there after all, but Bowie being Bowie, he was happy not to let on.

When putting together the BowieStyle book, Mark Paytress and I used the phrase that Bowie was “never one to let the truth get in the way of a good quote”, and that certainly was the case with the much-speculated recording of Station To Station.

In November 1999, as we were midway through the authoring of the book, Bowie telephoned an erstwhile colleague of mine, Mark Adams, at his home in Harrow to personally offer him the part-time job of BowieNet News Editor. In the strictly private call, which Mark couldn’t help but relay to me just hours later, David told him he could remember everything about the sessions, from the studio to the musicians and even the particular instruments used. A somewhat contradictory account from the various interviews where the Thin Lying Duke claimed not to recall anything at all.

That’s not to downplay his well-documented substance addiction of the time, though. With persistent and very telling references to demons, spiritualism and the occult (Aleister Crowley’s reviled White Stains a telling inspiration), the record almost took Bowie out of music and into another realm entirely.

“It had a certain magnestism that one associates with spells,” Bowie later declared. He described it as “an extremely dark” record that was “the nearest album to a magick treatise that I’ve written. I’ve never read a review that fully sussed it.” Pushing both his sound and psyche to their extremes had resulted in a creative breakthrough, albeit to the detriment of his mental health. Moreover, the persistent paranoia is where Station To Station derives its knuckle-gnawing tension from, especially the sprawling Krautrock-motoriking mini-suite that gives the album its name.

The first minute is just a sound effect – a train travelling counter-intuitively from the right speaker to the left. There are screams of feedback, and then the band kick in with a kind of art-rock death march before Bowie finally announces his presence, operatically declaiming one of the great first lines: “The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.”

That incendiary line introduces the latest creation in David Bowie’s cast of characters, which resulted in one of this most mercurial of performers’ most enduring nicknames. It’s also very probably the most monumental track of his career, from an album he considered to be his finest, at least according to a conversation Duran Duran’s John Taylor recently recounted.

Across that illustrious 50-year career almost every Bowie album generated a number of leftover demos, alternate versions and outtakes, though nothing unreleased has ever surfaced from Station To Station sessions. The closest thus far is a fascinating version of Bruce Springsteen’s It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, which, according to producer Tony Visconti, actually appears to be a recording first attempted at the Diamond Dogs or Young Americans sessions of 1974 and merely overdubbed in Hollywood the following year.

Despite the shortness of songs, there’s plenty more to like. The deceptive and doo-woppish lead single, Golden Years, provides a slinky way into an often austere album, aided by a groovy riff inspired by Cream’s Outside Woman Blues and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.

Mind you, as the one-time Manish Boy Bob Solly revealed in BowieStyle (Omnibus, 2000), the song’s vibe and vocal stylings were lifted wholesale from The Diamonds’ 1958 Presley pastiche, Happy Years, so it’s hardly surprising claims persist that the song was offered to Elvis to record, who unceremoniously declined. Always with one good eye on a headline, David was often guilty of fuelling the rumours himself.

Despite its references to quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, the holophrastic honky-tonk of TVC 15 continues the rock ‘n’ roll revivalist theme. Coming across like a hallucinogenic comedown in a New Orleans drug den, the narrative of this sleep-deprived slice of boogie-woogie future-funk was inspired by a nocturnal coke binge at Bowie’s Beverly Hills home, where Iggy Pop believed the telly was consuming his girlfriend.

Station To Station is also noteworthy for being the first of five classic Bowie albums (plus the 1978 live set, Stage) to feature the celebrated D.A.M. trio – Davis, Alomar, Murray – Bowie’s black, organic rhythm section that helped him produce the pioneering “Berlin” trilogy with Brian Eno through to 1980’s era-defining Scary Monsters.

Head honcho Alomar said of the sax-fueled TVC 15 that David wanted it to sound “fucked up like when we did (Lodger’s) Boys Keep Swinging, kind of loose and stupid.” Marking the first of two guest appearances on a Bowie album, TVC 15 also features the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan tinkling the ivories, and has the distinction of being Bowie’s first single to miss the Top 30 in Britain since Changes four and half years previously.

Better still, the longing romanticism of Stay can trace its wishful beginnings back to 1974’s Philly funk version of John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), which was unissued at the time. Probably the most trad track on the album, Stay may be savage ‘rock’, but it’s also insanely danceable, boasting a coruscating guitar rave-up from consigliere Earl Slick that’s something of a showpiece:

“It started with a groove, and when I came up with the guitar bit at the front I could tell it would be a monster song. The funny thing about it is, I came up with that lick because we were messing around with an older song called John, I’m Only Dancing. This is kind of foggy, but I think we were working on a new arrangement of it, and David wanted me to come up with a lick, and so I came up with the lick that starts off Stay. So instead of using it on John, I’m Only Dancing, David just wrote something around that lick and groove. So, if you listen to John, I’m Only Dancing and Stay, you’ll hear some very familiar chord changes.”

More recently, Slick said of Station To Station, “It was a very important record artistically because it was the first time somebody took pop songs and twisted the hell out of them but didn’t lose the essence of the song. The only person who was really doing ‘out there’ shit at the time was Zappa, and that was wonderful but it was Zappa. This wasn’t avant-garde, this was pop stuff and nobody had approached a record like that.”

Bowie’s vocals on the two handsome weepies, Wing and Wind show that his eccentric untrained voice can convey sincere passion. He may be over-emoting, but stripped of all his poseur’s penchant for characterisations, he’s clearly not play acting. And frankly, it seems less of a put-on than Young Americans, where he often seemed to be copping someone else’s style.

A thing of glacial beauty, the hymn-like Word On A Wing is pretty and swoonsome. Then there’s the hysterically mannered crooning on Wild Is The Wind, in which Bowie turns a polite 1950s standard originally performed by Johnny Mathis (and later Nina Simone, the inspiration for this version) into a twisted, flaming torch song, forcing himself to over-sing as he strives for normal patterns of meaning.

1981’s Wild Is The Wind video featured Bowie portraying a singer backed by a jazz club quartet: Mel Gaynor, Tony Visconti, Andy Hamilton and Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab, despite none of them appearing on the song’s actual recording

‘Wind’ was belatedly related as single in November 1981 to promote David’s oddly-compiled second official compilation, Changestwobowie.

The following month – December 27th to be exact – my family and I were listening to Tony Blackburn’s counting down of the Christmas chart on Radio 1. By this time tuning into the Top 40 rundown on a Sunday afternoon was as much of a British national event as watching Top Of The Pops, which was effectively the BBC’s visual representation of the same chart the preceding Thursday.

Aided by Paul Buckmaster from the Space Oddity days, Bowie was working on a soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth concurrently with Station To Station. In the end nothing from the film score was deemed releasable*, though the character of Thomas Jerome Newton did make an appearance on the cover of Station To Station and the follow-up, Low

Unusually, Wild Is The Wind was midway through a seven-week stretch hovering around the fair to middling echelons of the Forty – the mid to late twenties to be precise. Famously, there’s that marmite moment at 5:15 into the track when Bowie’s histrionics go into overdrive, and the word ‘wild’ is stretched out for six whole seconds. My father heard it and said, with more than a faint whiff of displeasure, “He’s weird is Bowie, isn’t he?”

My ears pricked up. I’d only really known this Bowie person for two things: as the bloke in that clown suit in the Ashes To Ashes video, and as the named singer on that Queen record, Under Pressure, which had been No.1 just a month before. But I figured if my dad showed distaste about something it was probably worth exploring. I eventually got around to that in 1984, having been slightly waylaid by a man called Adam, who just happened to be sitting at No.4 the very same week.

Fans across the world were distraught when they realised Bowie had vetoed the album’s original colour cover at the last minute

Wild Is The Wind peaked at 24 on that Christmas chart, the same position Changestwobowie managed in January 1982. This would be the year George Michael made his first appearance on the charts, and the first time he bumped into Bowie – literally – at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London’s Soho. The Wham! mainman covered the song himself on his penultimate solo album, 1999’s Songs From The Last Century, though the version George grew up with wasn’t Nina Simone’s, as some may imagine. It was the Dame’s. This is Yog talking in 2014:

“One of my favourite albums of all time is Station To Station by David Bowie. I’m so much more drawn to things which have more R’n’B in them, so I love Bowie. I love every period in the 70s, really. But of course, the period in the middle, before it got electronic, was Philadelphia and very much more soul based. The musicians he got together for that album… oh, my god! Dennis Davis, one of the most amazing drummers.”

Bowie was obliquely referencing the Kabbalah again in the months before he died in the video for Lazarus

With Station To Station, for the first time ever, a David Bowie album was a bigger commercial success Stateside than in Britain. It reached third place on the Billboard 200 and No.5 on the official UK album chart. It would take until 2013’s The Next Day for Bowie to better that chart position in America, with Blackstar being his sole chart-topper, albeit not quite in his lifetime.

David Bowie would go on to release three or four albums better than Station to Station but never one that was this celestial, this demonic, this empyrean.

The European canon was near.

Steve Pafford, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney

*Yes, OK, Subterraneans, the closing track on 1977’s Low, does feature a segment of the Man Who Fell To Earth score, albeit played backwards

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