On January 23, 1976 David Bowie‘s tenth album Station To Station was released.
40 years later is still one of the best albums of history and relevant. Personally it’s one of my favorite David albums and when the special deluxe edition was released in 2010, in Italy there were only copies available in stores and mine arrived directly from Naples.
The genesis of Station To Station starts on October 1975 after a period in which Bowie wasn’t working on something for a while, recording nor promoting music.
On June 1975 Bowie’s role in The Man Who Fell On Earth was officially revealed and he reached Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the movie was going to be shoot, travelling with Super Chief train, called the stars train (he never liked to flight). Playing in that movie meant stay focus on a new project but also a moment of rest for Bowie’s health appearing more relaxed according to the production team.
Bowie described his character Thomas Jerome Newton – an alien with a human aspect who arrived on Earth for searching a way to save his planet and his family that are going to die – as “the man in his most pure form… destroyed by surrounding corruption”.
The Man Who Fell On Earth is not the typicial sci-fi movie, there are references to Christ’s life (when Newton is betrayed by Nathan Bryce) or Howard Hughes’ one, version in the flesh of the character: isolated, obsessed, brilliant and avant-guarde; there are Bowie’s hints too: the alien who takes advantage of America feeling himself like an outsider, and also a little sample of Wild Is The Wind, track included in Station To Station, in the famous scene of the TVs, even references about Icarus’ flight like metaphor of society’s breakdown. It floats also a sense of dizziness and relocation of time, of relocation in a foreign country.
In all that Bowie barely acted and when the shoots were over, in the late September, Thomas Jerome Newton stayed into Bowie becoming a source of inspiration for his next and last character: the Thin White Duke, a creation that embraces the Kalte Pracht, the cold splendor, like German used to call it, with Surrealistic silent movie echoes of 20s like Buster Keaton’s ones. Bowie also revealed in the end of 70s there’s a lot of Buster Keaton in anything he does.
Once come back in LA, Bowie started to work on his new album, thanks to few ideas appeared during the shootings of the movie. In the late of September 1975 put together a band with four musicians that worked with him for Young Americans (1975): Carlos Alomar, ryhthmic guitarist and leader of the band, Earl Slick on guitar, Dennis Davis on drums and Warren Peace on chorus. To complete the squad: George Murray on bass and Roy Bittan on piano, Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band member.
Beside Bowie, as co-producer, Harry Maslin who placed Tony Visconti.
After few weeks spent in rehearsals and ideas for the songs, Bowie and the band came into Cherokee Studios at Fairfax Avenue, in North Hollywood and started to work, until the first days of Decemeber, on the album will be called Station To Station.
In the sessions scheme Bowie worked for three, four days in a row for then have a little break for resting and then starting a new sprint, this according to Maslin, interviewed by Jerry Hopkins. But these sprints weren’t pushed only by creativity but also and above all by cocaine, Bowie was always more thin and his weight arrived at 40kg, eating only green and red peppers and milk.
The working method of Station To Station would have been used also in the next three albums of the Berlin trilogy and other following albums. Bowie gave Alomar few glimpses of a song and the guitarist created several arrangements of each track with Davis and Murray, later Bowie selected them based on his preferences: the rhythmic parts were recorded quickly first than Bowie supervised the most difficult part of over-dub.
Station To Station is the first Bowie’s album to be recorded on a 24-tracks, one a side there’s the chance to have several recorded multi-track instrumental parts, put them apart and re-touched later (when first they had to be immediately finished and then mixed); Bowie and Maslin could re-touched many layers of special effects like the roaring train sound that opens the album. On the other side, this new method tend to dedicate too much attention to the songs: “The obsession for the details seized me” recalled Bowie in 1993.
The making of the album, originally named The Return Of The Thin White Duke, was stopped for a while on November when Bowie appeared on tv in three occasions, confirming the fall in the hell, with a confused performance of Golden Years, the only one track finished of the album, and disconnected answers to interviewers questions. The song was immediately released as single reaching the 10th place in US charts and the 8th in UK.
Bowie come back in studio for the last revision and six songs came out for a 38 minutes length, making Station To Station one of his most fascinating albums, halfay between Young American (previous project) and Low (the next one). If with the first one there was the attempt to produce a conventional American soul album, in Station To Station those influences make them its own: rythm’n’blues are present but more hard and the rock’n’roll theatricality is made by guitar riffs and extravagant piano parts.
The title track is the longest and most complicated of Bowie career and in its ten minutes reveals who the songwriter is in 1975. It opens with a sound of a locomotive that is getting closer, emitting hisses: Bowie found this recording on an old disc of special effects and then exposed at a treatment with equalizer and phaser and a quadrophonic mix, decided by Bowie himself as commercial move. The mournful feedback of Earl Slick comes into the take, gradually increased with a stretched rhythmic section but full of pathos. Roy Bittan plays in a piano bar style from major to minor tone and then grounds on Murray’s bass, Alomar’s funky phrasing and Davis’ drums full of sensitivity. All that makes a ciclic groove that seems an eternity before Bowie voice arrives after three minutes.
Station To Station has a more human atmosphere compared to the order and the precision of Kraftwerk, so it’s closer to other German groups like Neu! or Can.
The title is related to the stations of the Cross in the New Testament and not to Trans-Europa Express of Kraftwerk as it’s usually said, since this track was released only a year later. The central body of the lyrics is a rudimental and poetic guide to Cabala and it focused on the Tree of Life that describes God nature, the creation of the world and the agnostic myth of the Fall.
Here are we
one magical movement
from Kether to Malkuth
Kether is the crown of the creation while Malkuth is the physical reign or world, Jewish words that are part of the ten creative emanations or stations of God and represent the opposed extremities of the Tree of Life, the tarot basis. According to the writer Peter R. Koenig, in his essay The Laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult the “magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” means to descend from God to the physical level making humans an only one with the God. An obsession with the dark magic that we can find also in the verses:
The return of the Thin White Duke
making sure white stains
The white stains have three meanings. The first, a merely sexual association. The second, underlines the racial pureness of the character. The third, hints at a porn poems collection of Aleister Crowley.
There’s also a revisited quote of Prospero in The Tempest of Shakespeare, from “we are such stuff as dream are made on” to “such is the stuff from where the dreams are woven“.
After five minutes the melody changes becoming another song, more free and funky, with resonant piano chords that arrives in advance to the beat. The crucial verse is this one:
It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,
I’m thinking that it must be love
showing once again in which situation was Bowie and in the final four minutes he builds a shrill scream on the words:
It’s too late
too be hateful,
the European cannon is here
proving how much European music was powerful for Bowie and a proof of his wish to come back in the old continent.
The second track, Golden Years, has mystical shades too and maybe is the umpteenth attempt of Bowie to save his marriage with his “angel”, Angie, with witch didn’t live together anymore, if not for few days per year. From a slow, almost whispered vibrato, Bowie goes on with a falsetto for then coming back to the vibrato. The lyrics of this song talks about the life of a superstar, of US glamour from the eyes of the nostalgia. The opening riff catches the listener before the entrance of the vocals. Also the whistle part in the end is pleasant. Alomar recalled the genesis of the track: Bowie was seat at the piano going crazy around few chords searching for a Broadway atmosphere so Alomar proposed his riss, Bowie liked it and the rest of the band followed them.
Word On A Wing is a sweet ballad on brilliant piano chords and guitar melody in which Bowie seems to have found a God:
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing,
and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
feelings pretty in contrast with the one of Cabala in the title track, but maybe it was only another character to play. It starts with a simple piano line against a synth fall, an ascendant guitar riff brings the track to the entrance of Bowie, in a sort of conversation, for then exploding along the half of the song when he offers himself and kneel in front of God, meanwhile a chorus and a pipe organ close the song. “I wrote this song like a hymn. I feel I’m starting a new life” revealed Bowie in February 1976.
The second part of the album contains three songs pretty in contrast with eachother: TVC15 is the most extemporaneous with a confused singing, probably inspired by his character on The Man Who Fell On Earth that was able to watch and follow several TVs in the same moment. It was picked as second single but it wasn’t a success like Golden Years, placing at 33rd in UK charts.
Stay has a guitar interplay between Alomar and Slick; a jerky joyful support, between Davis and Murray and a pretty ghastly singing. Definitely, this song is first of all a riff and a guitar solo and then a song, created in a basic way with the rhythmic section. Bowie’s emotions are claustrophobically penitent and alienated, probably linked to the uncertainty back the sexual contest:
‘Cause you can never really tell,
when somebody wants something you want too
Wild Is The Wind closes the album, it’s a cover of Dimitri Tionkin and Sved Washington, but Bowie wanted to pay homage Nina Simone version and it’s one of the most intense performances of Bowie, with a deep vibrato, showing he’s not only a great songwriter but also a great performer.
The album was released with a little bit of late because of Bowie’s wish to use the black and white version of the cover that better suited the atmosphere of the project.
Station To Station was a success, placing at 3rd in US charts and at 5th in UK, also the critics were positive and Brian Eno described it as one of the greatest discs of all the time.
You can listen to the album HERE on Spotify
What’s your favorite Station To Station song?
All this post is translated by me and taken from my graduation thesis: The Berlin Trilogy of David Bowie – Low, “HEROES” and Lodger: journey to discover the Thin White Duke