Station to Station is the tenth studio album by English musician David Bowie, released by RCA Records in 1976. Commonly regarded as one of his most significant works, Station to Station was the vehicle for his last great character, The Thin White Duke. The album was recorded after he completed shooting Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the cover artwork featured a still from the movie. During the sessions Bowie was heavily dependent on drugs, especially cocaine, and recalls almost nothing of the production
1 Station to Station 10:14
2 Golden Years 3:29
3 Word on a Wing 6:04
4 TVC 15 5:32
5 Stay 6:15
6 Wild Is the Wind 5:56
Recorded September – December 1975,
Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles
Produced by David Bowie, Harry Maslin
Arranged by David Bowie
David Bowie (vocals, guitar, alto sax)
Carlos Alomar (guitar)
Earl Slick (guitar)
Roy Bittan (piano)
George Murray (bass)
Dennis Davis (drums)
Recording at Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles
Interviews with Harry Maslin and Earl Slick extracted from “The Return Of The Thin White Duke” by Richard Cromelin, Circus magazine, March 1976:
Harry Maslin, who succeeded Tony Visconti as co-producer of Young Americans and returned for Station To Station: “There was no specific sound in mind. I don’t think he had any specific direction as far as whether it should be R&B, or more English-sounding, or more commercial or less commercial. I think he went out more to make a record this time than to worry about what it was going to turn out to be.”
Earl Slick (guitar): “Young Americans was more cut and dried,” Slick observes. “It was just what he wanted and that was that.” Maslin adds: “I think basically he was trying to make a commercial album… . He wanted to expand his acceptance, so he tried a little more Americanised direction.”
That commercial challenge met, Bowie was free to take a more spontaneous tack when he went into Hollywood’s Cherokee Studio with Young Americans veterans Slick, Carlos Alomar (guitar), and Dennis Davis (drums), along with new bassman George Murray and Bruce Springsteen’s pianist Roy Bittan. Actually, “spontaneous” hardly says it.
Slick: “He had one or two songs written but they were changed so drastically that you wouldn’t know them from the first time anyway, so he basically wrote everything in the studio.”
Maslin: “To understand the way David works is to know that you can’t understand the way David works. He’s always changing things, just changing completely, so it’s hard to tell at times what he’s talking about. Right before the mixing we would change the lyrics of a song.”
Station To Station
The title song’s 10:08 time (it’s the longest cut Bowie’s ever issued), the depth of its complex textures, and its segmented structure qualify it as the album’s most formidable challenge. “Yeah,” laughs Slick, shaking his head slowly at the memory, “especially when he walks in and says ‘I’ve got this new song that I haven’t written yet’.” Maslin says that, in effect, Station to Station is two songs in one, and that a “total environment” was the sonic goal.
“Bizarre” is Slick’s prompt evaluation of the cacophonous opening. “That’s the only word I can think of. It makes sense I don’t know why I’m saying that, but it makes sense to me.” Its source was a train section off a sound-effects record, doctored by Maslin with equalisation and unconventional phasing methods. (He got a little help from Bowie: “David was really into it… . At times he was like a child playing with the sound.”) Sombre piano chords set the tone while an insistent bass-drums-percussion pattern asserts itself beneath an urban-chaos miasma of sound beeps, hideous grinding, menacing footsteps and some wailing guitar feedback generated by Bowie and Slick width enough force to blow out three of their Marshall amps. “We both played all the way through the song,” says Slick, “and then Harry took part of David’s and part of mine and stuck them all together.”
Slick: “The tracks went down pretty fast once we learned them.”
Maslin: “It’s an advantage to go in fresh like that, without rehearsals. The band isn’t stale on a song.”
Bowie relied quite a bit on the band’s creativity and on Maslin’s technical suggestions, but the basic directives resulted from David’s instincts at the moment. Slick tries to describe the musical conference with Bowie that led to his commanding guitar performance on Stay but gives up with a shrug. “He explained what you hear. He doesn’t say normal words. I’ve been wrong with him for two years and I know what he wants just by… ” He can’t find the phrase to complete the thought.
From start to finish, Golden Years is the purest descendant of the Young Americans sound, but even so the disco sound has been highly modified. It was one of the few songs the group rehearsed, the first they completed, and the one that immediately seemed right as the single pick. Maslin achieved the “round” quality of the backing voices by using an old, neglected RCA mike. (Similarly, he tried to utilise different microphones on Bowie’s leads throughout the album to gain a variety in sound that would complement Bowie’s stylistic diversity.)
Word On A Wing
Bowie refers to Word On A Wing as his hymn. Is he being facetious? How intentional are the religious connotations of the lyrics?
Maslin: “I don’t know about Word on a Wing, to tell you the truth. I get different feelings from it. I love the song. It’s just unexpected out of him.”
The “you” that Bowie addresses in the song could well be a person (though an exceedingly rare one, a perfect lover who brings him nothing short of enlightenment). But the tremulous reverence of his low register singing, the celestial soprano voice at the end (not from an angel, but a Chamberlain, a sophisticated version of the Mellotron), and the nature of the language suggest a more lofty object:
Sweet name you’re born once again for me…
Lord I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things…
Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on the wing
I don’t stand in my own light …
I’m alive in you.”
Has the Chameleon Kid got religion?
Maslin: “That’s what it sounds like to me too. I don’t think he’s into any specific kind of religion or philosophy. He’s interested in them all, and mysticism, but I think David’s too intelligent to try to follow one philosophy.”
Slick: “Who knows what he’s thinking at the time?”
The singing style on TVC 15 hearkens back to Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World/Ziggy days, sporting as it does that razorlike timbre that initially seems so fragile but in the long run proves invincible.
Slick: “The song just came out of nowhere. That’s a song about a television that ate his girlfriend.”
Maslin: “David is very interested in electronics, he’s very interested in video, and that’s supposed to be the epitome of where it could go. A hologramic television set with anything you could fit into a television.”
Each night I sit there pleading
Bring back my dream-test baby
She’s my main feature
My TVC15 he just stares back unblinking
So hologramic, oh my TVC15.
Stay, a song of loneliness and love connections missed, is the album’s most indisputably disco number.
Maslin: “Dennis Davis is a black drummer from New York, and that’s where his roots are. Even when you had him play in a stricter rock & roll sense, you would still get that feeling out of him.”
But as Slick himself observes, his guitar solo — a swirling, tortured, impassioned workout — takes the song in an entirely new direction. “It wasn’t worked out in advance,” he says. “I think I was feeling right that night too.”
Maslin: “I think you were a little spaced out that night.”
Slick: “I was very spaced out that night. It was done about five in the morning. I’d been waiting around four hours, drinking a lot of beer… . Right, that was a beer song.”
Wild Is The Wind
As on Word, Bowie’s vocal on Wild Is The Wind impresses Maslin as “an amazing singing job.” They did seven vocal takes on the latter and ended up using the first – an ornate, meandering reading of the intense love lyric which captures both its exaggerated romance (“You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins”) and its undercurrent of desperate need (“Like the leaf clings to the tree/O my darling cling to me”). Bowie’s aura and arrangement recall the mood he would evoke when performing Jacques Brel songs in concert.
Recording Station to Station’s vocals was tricky from Maslin’s standpoint. For one thing, Bowie wasn’t terrifically mike-conscious, and Maslin had to work the board hard to keep things even.
Maslin: “The hardest problem is that he might change the words of a song from one time to the next, and if you engineer vocals the way I do, you have to know what he’s trying to do to capture it the way you want. That doesn’t mean I have to know the meaning of the words. I’m just talking about inflection and things like that. You’ve got to be totally aware.
“He’s not as critical as most singers. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even consider himself a good singer. I think he mentioned that once, just a throw-out line — ‘What’s the difference anyway? I’m not a singer,’ something like that. Kidding, but it shows that he is a little insecure about it probably. I think he’s one of the best, because he’s not into any one singing style. David’s so versatile with his voice, that’s one of the attractive things about him. Phrasing, mostly, is what he worries about because he’s right on when it comes to intonation.”
Station to Station was recorded on 24 tracks, a method that presented a stiff challenge to Maslin and his mere ten fingers on the final mix but which allowed great flexibility. They could for example, “waste” a channel on a single sound-effect which could then be tampered with at whim, and they were able to double instruments and voices live rather than mechanically.
Maslin and Slick remember fun times from the two and a half months of recording, but in the main it was serious, demanding work. “It was rigorous,” says Maslin without hesitation. “We tried to keep it on a private basis. Not too many people in there – usually no one. We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later. David knows exactly what he wants, it’s just a matter of sitting there and doing it till it’s done.”
Maslin also has high regard for Bowie as a producer: “I think he’s far more advanced than the average producer. He knows a great deal about technical things. He doesn’t know everything, he’s not an engineer, but he knows more about arranging a song, he knows more about how to relate to people and get what he wants out of them … If you listen to the rhythms specifically on this album, there are very strange things going on rhythmically between all the instruments … If nothing else, David’s a genius when it comes to working out rhythmic feels. He was the mainstay behind it all.”
“Kirlian photo by DB – Apr 1975” shows the side effects of the cocaine evident on his forefinger – “left – before consuming coke; right – after 30 mins”.
1984 CD: RCA PCD1-1327 (US)
1984 CD: RCA PD81327 (EU)
1991 CD: RYKO RCD 80141 (US)
1991 CD: EMI CDP 79 6435 2 (UK)
1999 CD: 7243 521906 0 7 (EMI UK, Virgin USA)
2007 CD: TOCP-70149 (Toshiba, JAP)
“Golden Years” was originally released in a shortened form as a single in November 1975, and in its full-length version in January the following year on the Station to Station album. It was the first track completed during the Station to Station sessions, a period when Bowie’s cocaine addiction was at its peak. At one stage it was slated to be the album’s title track.
“Stay” was released as a single by RCA in the United States The length of the album version of “Stay” is 6:15.
The verse and chorus structures can be traced back to “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”, a track recorded for the Young Americans album but first released (as a single) in 1979.
“TVC 15” The track was inspired by an episode in which Iggy Pop, during a drug-fuelled period at Bowie’s LA home, hallucinated and believed the television set was swallowing his girlfriend. Bowie developed a story of a holographic television, TVC 15. In the song, the narrator’s girlfriend crawls into the television and afterwards, the narrator desires to crawl in himself to find her.
It was chosen as the second single from Station to Station in the UK, where it reached No. 33.
The B-side, “We Are the Dead”, originally part of Bowie’s attempt to adapt Nineteen Eighty-Four, had previously been released on the Diamond Dogs album.
In America it peaked at No.64 on Billboard singles chart.