The European canon is here....
Released on 23 January 1976
Recorded in Los Angeles
Running time 38:21
By 1976, the cocaine-addled David Bowie had start to leave behind his supposed "white soul" experiment that resulted in 1975's Young Americans album and, ditching the powder blue suits, reinvented himself as "The Thin White Duke" complete with accusations of giving Nazi salutes at London's Victoria Station and giving out various pretentious pronouncements about the state of global politics and so on. Bowie's persona was not a particularly pleasant one at this time, however, indulged by an adoring media (despite the goldmine that punk was about the give them) and still extremely drug-ravaged he managed to come up with this work of genius. Ever the enigma inside a riddle or whatever the saying is. The great chameleon changeling had done it again.
It was, though, a somewhat difficult album to analyse. It is simultaneously accessible yet darkly impenetrable, a merging of "krautrock", white funk, white soul and a bit of pop sensibility. Influences are clear, from Neu! and Kraftwerk especially, that chugging, electronic "motorik" metronomic beat that those groups utilised. In my view, and indeed that of many others, the supposed "Berlin Trilogy" began here, for sure. Station To Station really should be included alongside Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Then again, however, those European influences are only really obvious on the title track. The other songs still carry quite a bit of the funk, rhythmic and soulful feel of the previous album. It is, despite its obviously dark, dense and intense opener, not quite as oppressive and sparse an album as popular opinion would have it. It is certainly no "Heroes". What it does provide, I guess, is the bridging point between the funk/soul of Young Americans and the sparse soundscapes of Low. It was recorded in sunny Los Angeles too, not dreary Berlin.
Lyrically, it is extremely sombre, with Bowie being influenced by occultism, philosophy and dark mythology, the works of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley. Bowie said of the album, some twenty years later -
"....First, there's the content, which nobody's actually been terribly clear about. The "Station to Station" track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross. All the references within the piece are to do with the Kabbalah. It's the nearest album to a magick treatise that I've written. I've never read a review that really sussed it. It's an extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say...."
Maybe Bowie was still on the drugs when he said that....
I guess Bowie was right, none of us will ever really get it, possibly not being in tune with whatever "magick treatises" are. I almost feel that the lyrics could be anything on these songs, it is the overall ambience that takes over. The lyrics are unfathomable at times, but therein lies their intriguing appeal. Since when have Bowie's lyrics ever been straightforward, anyway?
1. Station To Station
2. Golden Years
3. Word On A Wing
6. Wild Is The Wind
Station To Station - here we went then, getting on the trans-Europe train with the monochrome “Thin White Duke”. It all began with this, Bowie’s longest-ever track.
It is overflowing with Krautrock Kraftwerk influences, particularly in its slow building first half, where chugging train noises give way to industrial piano, drums and rhythm guitar. This is all very dense, sparse and stark. The second half of the song finds it going far more upbeat after five minutes with the “once there were mountains” part that eventually morphs into the concluding “the European canon is here” refrain. All the parts of the track are really atmospheric and, although minimalist in essence, it seems as if it is full of activity. From its initial throbbing bass, two note piano and then thumping drums it is a vibrant delight of inventive ingenuity.
Bowie also addresses his drug habit head-on with the “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine” line.
Quite what the song was all about is unclear and, for me, no amount of analysis, and I have read lots, will change that. It remains a mystery. What is probably not in doubt is that Bowie wanted to escape his drug-addled US hell and start again in the fresh, rarified European air. It would be something that would serve him well over the next few years.
Golden Years was the album’s hit single and it was a soulful throwback to the Young Americans album with its infectious vocals and polished, light funky backing. Bowie famously sung (mimed) this on the famed US soul TV show Soul Train (see the clip below).
It is a great song that you can’t help singing along to and one that sticks in the brain. It is chock full of hooks and is so nostalgic for me of the autumn of 1975.
It remains a bit at odds with the album’s other material, however. It sort of acts as Bowie’s goodbye to his short-lived soul era, to an extent. It pre-dates the album’s other songs by several months.
Word On A Wing was apparently born out of Bowie’s cocaine-addled despair as he tried to make sense of the “scheme of things”. Pianist Roy (E St. Band) Bittan contributes a most attractive and melodic backing to the song, sounding quite different to his E St. work. A lovely deep bass underpins the song and Bowie’s vocal is deeply moving, far lower in tone than it often is, at times, in the song.
It is a beautiful, soulful song that actually has some of the soul feel of Young Americans about it. It certainly is no bleak, industrial soundscape, far from it.
Bowie is at his most expressively pious too as he sings “Lord, Lord..” as if he is asking for help. Not thus far a man for traditional religion, this was unusual. He basically wanted a way out from his Hollywood excesses.
TVC15 is a very odd, vaguely funky song about people being consumed and eaten by their televisions. It has some irresistible hooks and, for me, is very Bowie, lyrically. That whole repeated, addictive "transmission/transition" thing. Check out that bass line for a lovely warm depth. The saxophone backing too, is sublime, from Bowie himself. It was one of the songs performed by Bowie at Live Aid in 1985.
For a song on a supposedly dark and bleak album , it is a remarkably jaunty, upbeat number, driven along by honky-tonk piano and doo-wop backing vocals.
In its latest (2016) remaster, the song sounds beautifully big, booming and bassy for maybe the first time.
Stay - maybe Young Americans hadn’t been left behind after all, because this is an incredibly funky track, with a marvellous wah-wah riff, rumbling bass and funky congas/drums backing a Bowie vocal that is sort of similar to the one that he used on John I’m Only Dancing (Again). Bassist George Murray is outstanding on this, as is drummer Dennis Davis. Earl Slick contributes some searing hard rock guitar too, making it a track that crossed over many styles.
The track's opening guitar riff and the way it interacts with the bass, the congas and the drums is scintillating, one of the best passages on the album. Listening to this again, this track is funky as hell.
Wild Is The Wind was a cover of a Johnny Mathis easy listening song from 1956. Bowie does it absolutely beautifully, singing incredibly well over a sumptuous bass, acoustic guitar and gently shuffling drum backing. It sort of sits alone from the rest of the album in a Lady Grinning Soul kind of way. It is lovely, truly lovely.
When Bowie hits that high note on “I hear the sound of mandolins” it is spine-tingling.
I cannot state it enough, for all its perplexing undertones, this album really is a remarkable piece of work. Despite all my nostalgia for Ziggy from my early teenage years, this puts Ziggy to the sword, quickly and efficiently, creatively. This was a far more diverse, challenging and innovative piece of work. It was also supremely influential, having an effect on the post punk genre in particular.
An interesting comment on the recording comes from pianist Roy (E St. Band) Bittan, talking to "Rolling Stone":-
"....I was staying at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles when we were on the Born To Run tour in 1975. David’s guitar player, Earl Slick, was a friend of mine. I bumped into him at the hotel and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. We were just talking about you.’ David knew we were coming to town and he wanted a keyboard player.
When I arrived the next day at the studio David said to me, ‘Do you know who Professor Longhair is?’ I said, ‘Know him? I saw him play at a little roadhouse in Houston about three weeks ago!’ I wound up doing an imitation of Professor Longhair interpreting a David Bowie song. We began with ‘TVC 15’ and I wound up playing on every song besides “Wild Is The Wind”. It must have only been about three days. It’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on....."
Regarding the many remasterings of it, it is all a matter of personal taste. I am a bass-appreciating man. I love the 2016 remaster and the 1999 one. I have less time for the tinny/muffled EMI/RYKO one, although I am softening to it and, while I own the "original analog one" I find it comparatively a bit dull, flat and lifeless. That is just me, though. I know many people love it for the reasons I am not so keen on it. To be fair, I have to admit that it does have a nice strong bass that comes over a bit like the bass on a classic mono recording - straight out of the centre of your speakers. So, maybe I am softening to that remaster too.
The Harry Maslin Remix available via the Who Can I Be Now? box set or via individual track download is a work of beauty. It adds an amazing new feel to the album and is definitely worth a listen. TVC15, particularly, comes to a new life in this mix. It has more strident drums and piano and enhanced new backing vocals. Of course, it messes around with the original mix that we are used to and that can be irritating, but I prefer to just listen to these recordings with an open mind, treating it almost as a slightly different album to the original.
Whatever format, this is a highly recommended album. Incidentally, I will always prefer the "white cover" of the original release, feeling it it suits the monochrome, minimalist ambience of the music far better than the colour one that has appeared on later releases of it. Ironically, the latter was the original choice for the album, until Bowie changed it to black and white at the last minute.
Photo by Bob Gruen.