Forty years ago David Bowie released Station to Station, his eighth album (ninth if you include covers album, Pin Ups). He was still only 28-years old during the writing and recording of it which seems amazing considering his productivity and quality up to this point in the 1970s, as well as the seemingly long time he spent searching for a voice and an identity at the tail end of the 1960s.
Of those previous seven albums, you could make a genuine case for at least three of them to be listed in those ‘Greatest Album of All Time’ lists, and each of his albums from the decade as a whole stands up on its own merits, but it is Station to Station that is possibly the most intriguing, an album that is both accessible and impenetrable.
The mid-70s saw Bowie becoming even less predictable when he had never been that predictable in the first place. His rock image had been quashed by the adoption of the ‘plastic soul’, Philadelphia sound on previous album, Young Americans. He had branched out into acting (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and had just ended his relationship with long-term manager, Tony DeFries. His excesses were heavily documented (see the 1974 Alan Yentob documentary film, Cracked Actor) and to assess Station to Station you need to be aware of the influence of cocaine, the occult and the kabbalah on Bowie’s mind and writing at this time. Later he was unable to recall the creation of this album which shows where his head was (or wasn’t). Fortunately it was created, completed and he was still able to go on a World Tour in 1976.
With just six songs on the album it shouldn’t take too long to analyse Station to Station, but each song has its own layers of intrigue, both lyrical and musical. It is probably not an easy album to list as your ‘favourite 70s Bowie album’ but paradoxically it is for this very reason that it actually very well might be…
It opens like nothing he had done before. A train, phasing futuristically between speakers for over a minute, the warming up of a guitar, a slow foreboding piano, all gradually building into something resembling a song. Bowie does not sing on the title track until after three minutes have passed and the character of the Thin White Duke is introduced. Semi-autobiographical, semi-playful, lyrics are delivered with harmonies as confusing as the allusions. He rediscovers his fascination with Aleister Crowley (explored on his first three albums) with references to magic and the occult but it is in the second half where we get more clarity and almost a sing-along section where Bowie seems delirious, stating “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love”, his vocal style here pre-empting the haphazard style of David Byrne.
Prior to this album, his last single was the funky “Fame”, a co-write with John Lennon, a US number one, and almost an afterthought on the previous album. This funkiness could have been a good indication of what to expect stylistically on the album which overall is quite indefinable compared to previous releases. First single “Golden Years” was a more laid-back, perhaps more mature version and a pretty straightforward song in terms of style, structure and length compared to the other songs on Station to Station, making the top 10 in the UK and America.
“Word on a Wing” closes what would have been ‘Side One’ and is a great insight in to what Bowie does best. It begins as a classic sounding, piano-led love song, before evolving into a dramatic, desperate chorus with some more unorthodox harmonies. Avoiding the predictable, this shows Bowie as an arranger as well as simply a songwriter. On previous album Young Americans he managed to convince backing singers accustomed to soul to step outside their comfort zone for “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (described in interviews on the 2013 documentary, Five Years). The song also shows a strength in vocal which is not a trait always associated with him.
“TVC15” is not a song that is often remembered as a Bowie single. On the surface it’s another piano-heavy song which starts off sounding like a jam in a bar and then becomes a funk stomper. The end section with electric guitar and sax takes it somewhere else and should go on for longer. It also has the best ‘whatever’ handclaps ever. It’s so weirdly great.
“Stay” is a song I have never really warmed to. Opening with a characteristic guitar and all the right components for a funk jam, it is more a musical number and unusually the vocal is not too prominent, acting more as an accompaniment rather than a focal point. The chorus has always sounded a bit clumsy to me, but hey this is my opinion. If this was deliberate then the track placement only serves to emphasise the amazing vocal on album closer “Wild is the Wind”.
Covers by Bowie had been a mixed bag up to this point, with some good versions on Pin Ups, but “Across the Universe” was a album lowpoint on Young Americans. However I know several people who aren’t Bowie fans but love “Wild is the Wind”. It is testament to him that this has really become ‘his’ song. Better vocalists have covered it since (and before) but haven’t matched his performance. Unlike, “Stay”, this is all about the vocal. His low crooning had been hinted at earlier in “Golden Years” and “Word on a Wing” but it reaches its pinnacle here…he means every word.
Like anything rich in allusion, the more you indulge in this album, the more you discover…or the more you think you discover. Bowie’s genius is borrowing from others as well as from himself. It is not a straightforward album, difficult to pinpoint, emphasising his state of mind at the time and bizarrely it’s strength is in its lack of cohesion. In hindsight, Station to Station acts as a midpoint to Bowie’s decade, a bridge between the commercial and the curious.