Once, in my early teens, my friend Caspar said to our mate John, “I’m going to get Nick into Bowie. I’m going to play him ’Stay.’” I already knew who David Bowie was and liked some of his stuff, especially the ones that featured science fiction imagery like “Life On Mars?” and “Space Oddity.” But otherwise, my musical appetite was as eclectic as any curious-minded teen and I hadn’t yet got to grips with where to begin with the chameleonic Bowie and what seemed like a dauntingly vast back catalog. So Caspar played me “Stay,” which to this day is still my favourite Bowie song.
I can still remember the circumstances of this revelatory experience. Capar’s mother regularly left him in charge of their small west London flat and four of us – Cas, his brother Rufus, our friend John and I – used regularly to use the adult-free zone to explore popular music, watch what were called “video nasties,” and eat junk food. As Cas placed the needle on the record he said, “Normally albums with only six tracks on annoy me, but this one’s different. This is future music.” I’ve since heard better descriptions of Station To Station, including from Cas himself, but that one’s stuck with me.
In 1977, Brian Eno’s nascent career as a record producer began to take off. He took a call from David Bowie. Bowie was at the end of an exhausting world tour that had showcased Station To Station, his most recent album. He’d retreated from the glitzy environs of LA to Château d’Hérouville outside Paris, France, where he was recuperating from his coke-fueled Californian lifestyle and the creative low and physical burnout that it had precipitated. He invited Eno to join him, hoping the former Roxy Music synth and tapes wiz would bring his ideas and methodologies to the recordings he was working on, a set of musical sketches originally proposed (and abandoned) as the soundtrack to Nic Roeg’s Bowie-starring SF flick, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Bowie was perhaps never so much at the vanguard of popular music as he was during that period, and he and Eno’s collaborations stretched to three albums over the next few years, a trilogy of sci-fi ambient rock that remains hugely influential. But I believe Bowie’s forays into “future music” began with Station To Station, an album that, unlike all the (great) albums he made prior to it, still sounds utterly current. This to me, seems to mark out the very best of all rock music’s oeuvre – it’s transcendent, timeless.
Although he professes to remember very little about the writing and recording of the album, Bowie was at that time practicing what he called “plastic soul,” a white boy permutation of similar, “ethnic music written and sung by a white limey” (although Bowie was one of the very few white artists invited to perform on Soul Train). He’d had huge, worldwide hits with both Fame and Young Americans, pulled from the album of the same name, and seemed about to carry the form forward with his next set of songs.
But he didn’t. I don’t know what to precisely call Station To Station, but it isn’t just plastic soul, although that’s a fair way to describe some of the passages contained on the album. It is also glacial, magisterial mutant funk-rock, already soaking up Krautrock influences but somehow straddling both American and European traditions of the time – or perhaps, hanging suspended above both.
The title track opens the album, a synthesized/treated train sound recalling the percussive choo-choo of Kraftwerk’s contemporaneous Trans-Europe Express (on which they namecheck both Bowie and cohort Iggy Pop). Earl Slick’s guitar noise is employed first as atmosphere, texture before rhythm, presaging work practices to come, and it begins a slow piano introduction to the “Thin White Duke.” The Duke is a character who haunts the album, traveling from scene to scene, place to place, station to station, but is forever dislocated, hinting at Bowie’s state of mind at the time of recording. The track gathers speed and shifts direction, iterates the theme of lateness and a lack of time that finds its way into the following song too. “Golden Years” is probably the album’s most recognizable piece and one of Bowie’s anthems, even if he’s very rarely been heard to play it live. “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere,” he croons, exhorting his baby and perhaps we, the listeners, to “Run for the shadows” by the song’s close. It’s superficially upbeat, a grindingly rhythmic pop song but there’s a sense of hidden menace and desperation in its staccato handclaps and yearning imagery.
The whole album seems to me to be about travel, escape from lost love and the shadows of magic – Bowie was heavily influenced by the ideas of occultist Aleister Crowley at the time, and perhaps that spooked him to write “Word On A Wing,” a cry for help not only perhaps to some higher power but to anyone who could help bring the star back into something approaching the real world. Inevitably Bowie did this himself, but not before the strains of “Word On A Wing” faded out on an angelic, plaintive tone.
“TVC15” is famously “about a TV set that ate Iggy Pop’s girlfriend” and is disconcertingly bouncy. Bowie’s vocals skitter across the entirety of the album, anguished, romantic, numb, wretched and occasionally joyous, as with this track. Next comes the cold chill funk of “Stay,” with its driving, brutal beat, flanged mid-section and utter uncertainty, because “You can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too.” There’s a sunlit desolation to this song and the tragic afterglow of that lyric still gets me. Can you ever really know if someone wants what you want too, or do our desires just coincide? Does it matter? Bowie implies that it does here, and it’s not until “this time tomorrow” that he’ll know what to do. At the point in my life where I first heard this, I felt like that too often enough, albeit for reasons of unknowable adolescent chemistry. No wonder it had such an effect on me.
But the hard-edged romance finally gives way to a release of sorts on the album’s closer, “Wild Is The Wind.” Made her own by the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone after the Johnny Mathis original from the movie of the same name, Bowie was inspired to cover it himself after meeting her in LA. He moves it into different territory again – has a song ever sounded so vast and elegiac with so few instruments? There’s a bass, rhythm and acoustic guitar in there, piano, drums and Bowie’s voice. It’s a performance he invests with both melancholy and passion – surely one of his greatest vocals.
I’ve also heard Station To Station described as “synthetic soul” which suggests that it’s somehow ersatz or lacking something. But maybe it’s the sense of disconnection about it that makes it feel and sound like it was recorded yesterday. Being an Enophile, I adore the Berlin trilogy of Bowie albums he helped create (Low, Heroes, Lodger) – I’ve spent years listening to them. But I still think of Station To Station as the resilient one, in a continuum all it’s own, a soundtrack of the future. Perhaps the album’s resistance to categorization is what makes it so absorbing and abiding. It’s a brooding, weirdly elemental presence among its siblings, transitional for Bowie himself and a middle child amongst his other musical offspring of the seventies, which have all now been catalogued and made, if not comfortable, then at least explicable.
What kind of future Station To Station describes from this point forward is open to anyone’s interpretation. It’s certainly a separation, a boundary between the music of the early seventies and expansive new directions that are still not yet all properly mapped.