- by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1976-01-23 Label: RCA
If David Bowie is my favorite recording artist of all time, then Station To Station might just be my favorite album of his. Wait, scratch that. When it comes to his classic 70’s work, I don’t have any favorites. I love them all. Let’s just keep it simple and say, Station To Station is one of my favorite albums of all time. Period. I first heard it at 17 and I keep coming back to it and each time it leaves me breathless. It's the kind of album I can't listen to just once. And frankly, I have to work to keep myself from playing it too much.
If Bowie is to be believed, he doesn’t even recall recording it. To get some idea as to his state of mind, here’s a little excerpt from a piece by Cameron Crowe. It's 1975 and they’re at Cherokee studios. Recording was well under way and Bowie was listening to an instrumental playback of ‘Wild Is The Wind’:
“ ‘What month is it?’ Bowie asks a few minutes later.
‘September’ offers his assistant, Corinne Schwab.
‘A good day for ideas,’ says Bowie.”
L.A. Big fat bowls of cocaine. Black candles. Jimmy Page/Aleister Crowley phobias. Semen stealing witches. Bodies falling past the window. Hobbies in spare time, include exorcising swimming pools. Despite being at the peak of his career, David Bowie was not a well man when he recorded this opus. Looking at photos of him at the time, he looks a bit frightening. His once lithe frame is alarmingly skeletal. His high-cheekbones sunken. His odd-eyed stare haunted and spaced out over a row of vampiric choppers. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Bowie was a walking candidate for the same club that had Janis, Jimi and Jim Morrison as VIP members. Fortunately, for Bowie and the rest of us, he cut a masterpiece instead.
“Cold” and “Germanic” are some of the words used to describe Station To Station. I beg to differ. More than anything, it’s the sound of Bowie’s heart sliding off his sleeve. Despite the icy persona created for the album, Station To Station is the wailing cry in the dark of a soul in need. The Thin White Duke may have been detached and decadently elegant, but he was also a very desperate and lonely man. Yet, never has such doom and gloom sounded so irresistibly danceable.
Station To Station is often cited as a transition album from Bowie’s Plastic Soul period to his Berlin Trilogy. And that’s certainly true in many respects but it also sells the album short, if you ask me. On the contrary, I’d say it’s one of his most dazzlingly eclectic and original albums. In the past, Bowie adopted a particular musical style for a particular album. Neo Rock & Roll for Ziggy Stardust and “Plastic Soul” for Young Americans. Here Bowie took a whole smorgasbord of styles and brought them all together under the same roof. Styles critics didn’t even have a name for back in 1976. We now call it Kraut Rock or Electronic or Space Rock. Back then, such journalistic phrases hadn’t yet been coined. But the buffet of influences didn’t stop there. There was R & B. Funk. Blues. Soul. Folk. Glam. Gospel. Ragtime. Cabaret. Torch Song. And some things that simply defy categorization. On Station To Station Bowie mixed all these influences together like never before and came up with a unique sound. One that has influenced many but has never been quite replicated. And that includes Bowie himself. And all in a mere six tracks. Stunning, really. If Station To Station was Bowie’s most musically schizophrenic album it was also inexplicably and miraculously, one of his most cohesive.
Lyrically, Bowie’s nearly as arcane and obtuse as he was on Hunky Dory’s epic of weirdness, ‘Bewley Brothers’. References to Nietzsche, Kabbalah mysticism and Aleister Crowley abound. Heady stuff. Elsewhere, TV’s ingest girlfriends, angels fall from grace and the Thin White Duke reigns over it all. Standing tall in his room overlooking the ocean.
Another significant difference in Station is Bowie casting his gaze back to Europe. In the past, Bowie’s work looked toward an idealized America. Here, the ominous title track longs for a return to an idealized Europe. But an eerie, old, haunted Europe. Full of majestic decay, mystery and dread. That all said, Los Angeles is all over this album. Its glitter, gutters and cinematic romanticism. In fact, the album could have easily been called, Escape from L.A.
The first sound that greets you is of a menacing train either pulling away or into some nameless station. Yet, the stations Bowie’s playfully alluding to aren’t railways, so much as stations of the cross. The piercing wails of Earl Slick’s guitar act as searchlights in the gloom. Then dark, foreboding notes roll on the piano and a doomy bass kicks in. When we finally hear the maestro’s voice, it’s a million miles away from the ragged tenor of Ziggy Stardust. What we hear is a ghostly, rich baritone. The lines he utters bafflingly obtuse, “The Return of the Thin White Duke throwing darts in lover’s eyes”. “It must be the side effects of the cocaine,” Bowie later confesses in this 10-minute epic. Whatever is going on musically in this fractured suite of a song, it ain’t your daddy’s Rock & Roll. Nor is it your brother’s Beatles and the Stones. Call it Occult Rock. When Bowie raises his glass imploring us to, “drink to the men who protect you and I” it sounds more like we’ve been suddenly transported into some Teutonic knight’s feasting hall. Inevitably, Bowie shuffles off the dark atmospherics to reveal a longing song pining for more innocent days. Of a saner, more arcadian time. “Once there were sun birds to soar with and once I could never be down,” he croons. If it weren’t apparent enough before, Ziggy is dead. All hail the Thin White Duke.
The opening track’s witching hour soon vanishes like smoke when ‘Golden Years’ sashays in with its slick, infectiously danceable grooves. Despite its finger snaps and funky guitar, deep down it’s a desperate plea to a dying, lost love. The sound of being six feet under in the high life. Of holding on to your soul while crashing Satan’s ball. Despite Bowie’s whimsical Gene Kelly whistle, this is the sequel to ‘Fame’. Where ‘Fame’ “puts you there where things are hollow”, ‘Golden Years’ is the sound of being the hollow man. A funeral lily gilded for the paparazzi. “Run for the shadows,” Bowie advises. Both Angela Bowie and Ava Cherry have gone on record claiming to be the inspiration for ‘Golden Years’. But its more than likely they both were. As well as Bowie. He could have easily been singing about himself. If ‘Station To Station’ is Occult Rock, then ‘Golden Years’ is more tongue in cheek Art Soul or Death Disco.
With ‘Word on Wing’ Bowie gets down on bended knee. Not to ask for someone’s hand so much as to plea for a helping one. Years on, Bowie simply referred to this song as “a cry for help”. Lyrically, it’s a gnostic tug of war between religion and occultism. It could be a prayer. It could be a promise. It could be sung with crossed fingers behind the back or open arms raised to the heavens. Perhaps, a little of both at times. Yet, for all its ambiguity and grandiosity, this is the sound of a man humbled. Lines like, “In this age of grand illusion” speak volumes about Bowie’s state of mind at the time. Ultimately, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s pouring his guts out about. The loss of a loved one or the loss of the soul. But this is Bowie completely unadorned. Shorn of all gimmickry and artifice. The actor behind the mask. Bowie at his most devasted and emotional. The heartfelt sound of being lost and crying out for some salvation or at least some glimpse of spiritual redemption. Stripped to its essence ‘Word On A Wing’ is a torch song. For the damned.
Next up is ‘TVC 15’, a jolly little ditty about a TV set eating your girlfriend. A perfect mix of absurdist comedy and B-Movie horror. With a riff stolen from the Yardbirds Bowie tosses in some off the wall Ragtime for good measure. There's almost a boaters and flappers feel to this one. Putting some real nostalgia into this bizarre little drama. Without a doubt its Station To Station’s lightest moment. But also its most surreal. Call it Sci-Fi Jive.
By stark contrast, the coke-fueled frenzy of ‘Stay’ is a howl of desperation. Here the kid gloves come off. This is Station’s toughest, most hard-hitting number. Not to mention, its’ loneliest. Earl Slick’s ferocious guitar truly takes center stage here. While Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums) drive it home like no tomorrow. It just makes you realize what a killer band Bowie managed to assemble. Despite being coked out of his gourd. A killer R & B band that he would later put through its paces on Low and ‘Heroes’. Alomar, Murray and Davis would be integral to the now fabled Berlin Trilogy as well as the milestone of Scary Monsters. Part of Bowie’s genius was having his team play completely out of their element. Some of which happens here. For all its Funk grooves, the intensity and slashing guitar on ‘Stay’ is more akin to Punk than Soul Train. Some of the melodies touching more on Cabaret. Listen to ‘Stay’ and things like Low’s ‘Breaking Glass’ don’t seem so far off.
Then without warning, we’re whisked off our feet with, ‘Wild Is The Wind’. Originally recorded by Johnny Mathis for a film of the same name, it was Nina Simone’s version that provided Bowie with the inspiration. Yet, where Simone’s version is earthy and mournful, Bowie’s maudlin rendition is positively haunting and otherworldly. If loneliness and ennui are means to transcendence, Bowie’s stumbled upon it here. Aladdin Sane’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ nods in this direction but here Bowie completely gives himself over to the song with breathtaking abandon and vulnerability. Pure windswept cinematic magic. A sweeping and majestic farewell to a positively dark and mystifying album.
Bowie made no bones about disclosing the fact that Station To Station was recorded during the absolute worst time of his life. The darkest hour it may have been, but this is also the sound of being a survivor. Against insurmountable odds. And survive Bowie did. Perhaps deep down that’s what makes this record so remarkable. It’s a masterpiece of survival.