David Bowie remains one of our greatest pop stars, from ‘60s Mod to ‘70s Glam Rock, to the enthusiastic embrace of new technologies and trends in the ’90s, through to the sophisticated pop/rock of the 2000s. However, I would argue that his single greatest album came when he was at his lowest ebb, disenchanted with fame, trapped by addictions and demons, and entering a fight to find creative relevance. These themes would colour his acclaimed late ‘70s albums, but the change began with his 1976 album. That album is Station to Station.
The sound of a steam train comes at you gradually, from one speaker to the other, suggesting something fearful and macabre like a visit to Auschwitz. Then as David Bowie’s voice arrives to sing through arguably the finest ten minute opener to any album, you know you are travelling first class- Station to Station. Of course, with this being Bowie, the lyrics refer not to rail travel but something far more cerebral and theological: Bowie’s belief in the Kaballah, the tree of life.
The mythology behind Station to Station is legendary. Recorded in LA in a blizzard of cocaine, part of Bowie’s memory still views it through the whiteout. As the man says, he knows it was recorded in LA, “Because I read about it”. Yet, despite this abuse, it’s a beautifully constructed and accomplished album, full of intelligence and verve. It also deals with a gaping loneliness of the soul, and a vacant emptiness, unfilled by the trappings of fame and fortune. It’s one of the few albums to deal with those issues in an almost extroverted way; none of the introspection of most damaged artists; this is Bowie talking from the very heart of the storm, not its quiet aftermath. Out of this angst came Bowie’s last great ‘character’: The Thin White Duke, the well attired, thin, callous and cold Aryan superman. It’s creation was also beset by bizarre stories, from alleged witchcraft, collecting of Nazi memorabilia and even an exorcism. Thankfully Bowie doesn’t remember a damn thing, so the myths can remain as true to us as we’d like them to be, and do wonders for the record’s dark melancholy beauty. Even the cover is strange (as was often the case for Bowie art); Bowie in a still from The Man who fell to Earth, in which he starred, playing an extra-terrestrial who looks human. His reality is not ours, he’s not from a place we’ve been, but he’s come to bring us his visions of the other.
Released the year after his fabricated excursion into soul music on Young Americans (“plastic soul” as Bowie described it), and sometime after his Glam-Rock years, Station to Station paved the way for the more experimental and personal music recorded with Brian Eno (the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). Station to Station also manages to be the authentic soul album that Young Americans failed to be, by very virtue of its unashamed lack of restraint. Bowie’s version of “Wild is the Wind” is jaw droppingly wonderful, and one of his greatest recorded vocal performances.
“It’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” sings Bowie, almost happily, as if he’s had the revelation that he can feel again, and so the title track hits its exuberant stride. Now, on most albums you’d expect that to be the very highlight, but this album just keeps on rewarding. “Golden Years” offers a version of Bowie’s brand of soul music, that pays homage to the past in a way “Young Americans” did, but with far more satisfying results. Even my least favourite track, “TVC-15” has much to offer, ending in Bowie’s almost hysterical and passionate exclamations. The album certainly keep you engaged. “Stay” is radical funk, “Word on a wing” is a tantalizing ballad; the album is a pop music masterwork. Also, with a band like the one he had at the time, including his long time guitarist Carlos Alamar, he couldn’t really go wrong in achieving his vision. They were up for anything, and more than capable….anything from soul ballads to Krautrock (Bowie even declares “the European canon is here”, pre-empting his Berlin phase).
At just six tracks (albeit long tracks), Station to Station has no filler; it’s all good. However, it’s admittedly not Bowie’s most accessible record. Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Scary Monsters and Let’s Dance are all far more palatable to the average music listener. But the ambition to be average was not on Bowie’s mind when he created this. The Thin White Duke may have been concerned with a melancholy, and even malevolent scouring of the soul, but he was never about being average.