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20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #5 David Bowie: ‘Station to Station’ (1976)

30 May

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It was tough to pick one Bowie album for my list, above all others, but this was the one. A version of this post originally appeared on here three years ago, when David was still with us, but the words still ring true.

David Bowie was, and I suppose still is, 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.

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It’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…

6 Feb

At the beginning of January 2014, I was at a low ebb. As often happens following the loss of close family and loved ones, I needed time to reflect and redefine myself. As some of you know, it’s daunting and difficult to carry on with pivotal people suddenly removed from the landscape of your life. As often happens at times like these, we fill our time with distractions. With time off work, and bracing myself for final goodbyes, I took myself to the local cinema and saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the most recent adaptation of that story, directed and starring Ben Stiller. It turned out to be the very best film to have seen at that particular moment.

Also, with the recent death of David Bowie, I was reminded of one particular scene. Mitty, who has always lived internally, dreaming his dreams but doing nothing about them, is suddenly given impulse to fulfill some of them and embark on an audacious quest for a missing photo negative. The point of his quest is more than just a photograph, of course, it’s rather the fact he did anything for real, at all. In Nuke, in Greenland, he almost gives up on his quest, until he imagines his true love singing to him. The song is ‘Space Oddity’, and actress Kristin Wiig’s vocals are shared with Bowie.

 
I’ve posted both that marvellous scene and the full film version of the song. Wiig’s lovely vocal blends perfectly with Bowie’s original, but I heartily recommend seeing the whole film.

 
A lot has happened since I first saw this, and perhaps like many of you, I finally did a few things I’d been putting off for a long time. Perhaps there are a few other things I’m still to do. Actually, I can tell you that, for a fact, there are. Maybe it’s the same for you too. Like Mitty, and Bowie’s Major Tom, you have to take a leap into the unknown sometimes. The encouraging thing is that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again.

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a wonderful, inspiring film, which now means something rather special to me, and this scene in particular encapsulates that moment where we stop just dreaming and start trying to live some of what we’ve been dreaming. And thanks again David Bowie. Your music helped again and I doubt it’ll be the last time.

 
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on… Commencing countdown, engines on… 3, 2, 1…This is Ground Control to Major Tom, You’ve really made the grade….it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…

 
Let’s go.

 

“Check ignition and may God’s love be with you”. Goodbye to David Bowie.

18 Jan
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Bowie in 2013.

It’s been nearly a week since the death of David Bowie, and after the initial shock and grief at his passing, a lot of us have acclimatised to this new Bowie free world. I know some people will still say “Oh come on, get a grip”, but I actually feel like some distant relative has died. Maybe a cool bohemian uncle I haven’t seen in a while, but still somebody who has always been there in the background. Bowie’s music quietly changed my life, way back when I was all teenage and impressionable. We can debate how original or not he was at various points in his career, but there wasn’t really anybody like him; at least no one who was like him who was that huge. I can’t even find words to do him justice right now, except this tawdry ramble. Even a 17 year old in my first class this morning knew who he was, and she wasn’t happy about the news either.
You see, Bowie was a huge, important element that we took for granted, like the sun at the centre of the pop culture solar system. It’s a lot darker now he’s gone, and it’s only now we can see how much his work impacted on multiple music genres (and that’s before we consider his contribution to the other arts over the years, particularly his presence in film and fashion and broader cultural impact. He wasn’t lauded among lesbian, gay and transgender circles just because he once wore a dress and makeup. Nobody did that back then, but Bowie kept on doing it, because he wanted to and because it suited his current vision, and why the hell not. Through those bold statements he made a message clear: that it is ok to be different, and as some of us are by default, that’s a powerful and liberating message. He inspired many of us to walk our own path and do it to our own beat, regardless of the naysayers.

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‘Aladdin Sane’ photo shoot, 1973

His musical journey alone has been quite a ride. From wannabe Mod in mid ‘60s London, to the early singles (including a personal favourite in “I can’t help thinking about me”), to his first top ten hit in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity”, heralding something new and strange as NASA pushed the boundaries out in space; meanwhile Bowie was aiming to reach new inner worlds in his and our personal space. On to the Glam Rock years and the audacious character of Ziggy Stardust and his band The Spiders from Mars; science fiction camp with raw stomping tunes. But unlike his friend and contemporary Marc Bolan, Bowie didn’t stagnate in a tired genre cul-de-sac, as Glam had become by 1975. He instead embraced what he called ‘plastic soul’, taking his cues from American soul music and reinventing himself on the album Young Americans. Soon after there was another reinvention: the introduction of the nihilistic Thin White Duke on Station to Station, followed by his experimental ‘clean up’ period recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). Into the ‘80s with the deliberately commercial but brilliant Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the huge singles “Ashes to Ashes”, and “Fashion”, sounding like another new dawn, unlike anything else in the charts, practically inventing New Romanticism and taking the New Wave somewhere even more new. Through to his huge commercial year, 1983, when his re-issues dominated the UK album chart and the new album Let’s Dance reaching No.1 all over the world, with the title single doing the same. Despite (or perhaps because of) the commercially constructed hits like “China Girl” and “Modern Love”, Bowie hit a creative block, that was to produce two mediocre albums in Tonight and Never let Me Down, before his arguable creative renaissance with the band Tin Machine. Soon after, with this increased vitality, came four more studio albums throughout the ‘90s, testing musical avenues as unlikely as Industrial and Drum and Bass music on the Earthling album, and two more albums into the first decade of the 21st Century. However, Bowie’s quiet retirement from live performance then led to an unannounced retirement from recording; with his 2003 album Reality looking increasingly like it might be his last. But Bowie returned, without fanfare, with the excellent The Next Day in 2013, and now, three years later, his epitaph, the astounding Blackstar. As a recent review said, for a 69 year old to be referencing modern Hip-Hop elements is remarkable, but not so for Bowie; we expected it of him, He was a true artist and true artists are interested in the next stage of their exploratory journey, not the past. So it was with him to the very end. He also chose his collaborators very astutely; people who would help him achieve his vision. From Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp, through Eno and Gail Ann Dorsey, he surrounded himself with talents that could make his music work, and who marvelled at Bowie’s creative lead.

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On stage in 1976 as The Thin White Duke.

His influence on numerous generations, and particularly the generation that spawned Punk and New Wave, can’t be denied. His death has caused an understandable loss in all fans of popular music, practicing musicians and fans alike. I do think one fear is that the world that helped launch Bowie is gone (as a creative brand separate from its creator David Jones). As Billy Bragg pointed out this week, the art schools that helped produce talent like Bowie are a dying concern. As Bragg commented, artists could gain “enough confidence in their own creativity that they were able to go on to find fame and fortune”. Without this motivation, even Bowie admitted he would probably have just been a collector and fan of music. In an increasingly homogenized world, an understandable fear could be that the vital creative avenues to artistic success and the innovative paths are blocked by a society that might no longer allow them.
For now, all I can say is that like millions of fans, my thoughts are with Iman, his family and close friends. Many of us never knew David, and that’s ok, because he spoke to us through his records. As a true potent artist should do, he gave only parts of himself through his music, and remained a mystery and a cipher for his artistic vision. We didn’t know him, but he made us feel like he knew us, through his music. That is a special gift.

I’ve never seen this scale of lament for an artist or musician before, at least from certain quarters, which is testament to his influence and impact I suppose. The cultural divide between those who knew and those who didn’t (and still don’t) has never been so highlighted.  As I said, Bowie was sometimes easy to take for granted, in a sense, as he was just always there in our lifetime, like that metaphorical sun at the centre of the popular culture universe. I got used to the idea that he’d always be there. It’s a void that has no real current replacement in my view.

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The 2002 Heathen Tour.

In his last days Bowie conducted himself with real dignity. If it’s true about his health failing over 18 months or more, then I think he was courageous about it. We can learn a lot from his conduct, considering how famous he was. He never chased the lime light in the same way some do. When he stepped off the stage he was quite private, if sociable. No undignified headline chasing. His work ethic was admirable, right up to his last weekend, and also his determination to tie up loose ends. A lot of people don’t get the chance. Make each day count, make peace with folk and bow out in the ‘right’ way.

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He was an artist. He really meant it. The recognition he’s getting is deserved. The single of ‘Heroes’ is headed for the top ten for the first time, and he has 23 albums in the top 100 iTunes chart, and at the time of writing is apparently the No.1 best selling artist in the world.

“Oh no love! you’re not alone”, he sang to my teenage ears, “No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen…I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. You’re not alone ”.

Through joy and pain, David, you still remind me that I’m not alone, and if that was not enough reason to miss you, if we see or hear your like again it will not be for a very long time.

Safe journey Spaceboy.

New year, new ideas!

9 Jan

Gosh, it’s 2013 already, and what’s occurring in the experience of Serendipity 3864?

Well, a few bits of interesting news and thoughts here, which I shall communicate in a brief numerical fashion! Continue reading

Station to Station

1 Mar

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. Continue reading