FEATURE: Station to Station at Forty-Three: Here Comes The Thin White Duke




Station to Station at Forty-Three



Here Comes The Thin White Duke


I will cool it on the David Bowie...                                


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie prepares his Thin White Duke makeup in his room at L'Hotel in Paris in May 1976/PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Kent

pieces in 2019 but, as he is dead, you cannot object me mentioning him! There are Bowie albums that warrant some serious love and, when the anniversary arrives, we need to throw a spotlight on them. The reason I want to feature Station to Station is because of the period in his career it arrived. Although the album contains only six tracks, they are not your usual short and punchy Pop songs that people were putting out at the time. Critics noted how, oddly, Station to Station is one of Bowie’s most accessible and complex albums. The songs are not that mad but there are some Avant-Garde offerings – TVC15 is Bowie singing about his fancy new piece of technology. His tenth studio album followed Young Americans (1975) and was part of his ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Whereas Young Americans embraced Plastic Soul and was a more accessible album, Station to Station introduced this new sound. Bowie boasted a few different personas in his career – including Ziggy Stardust – but The Thin White Duke made his first appearance in 1974 but is synonymous with Station to Station. The looks of The Thin White Duke are based on the character Bowie played in the 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The character gained controversy because of pro-fascist statements and, although Bowie got flack for saying them, he said they were theatrical statements. Perhaps the erratic comments of The Thin White Duke and the somewhat ‘diverse’ music on Station to Station can be attributed, in some part, to a reliance on cocaine – it was a drug that would soon consume David Bowie.

Station to Station transitions from Young Americans and, after Station to Station, he would go to record the remarkable Low. There was still the Soul and Funk of Young Americans on Station to Station – noticeably Golden Years – but there were elements of Electronic sounds inspired by groups such as Neu! and Kraftwerk. The Berlin Trilogy, recorded between 1977-1979 with Brian Eno, ranks alongside Bowie’s most fertile and extraordinary period – and it would all begin with this rather wonderful and unique record in 1976. Genres are blended throughout Station to Station. Krautrock and Pop fuses with Funk and Avant-Garde. Many dispute how much cocaine Bowie was consuming but it was clear it had a hold on him. Between 1975-1976 he was eating poorly and his interviews were becoming more and more bizarre. Bowie was clearly in a bad state but, musically, The Thin White Duke was alive and well. Bowie would often be seen in a white shirt and black trousers/waistcoat; inhabitation this persona and, unlike the warmer Ziggy Stardust, this character was not that warm – the nastier and darker sides of Aladdin Sane being highlighted and lit on fire! It is amazing to listen to the album in all its wonder and, to the casual ear, you would assume this is Bowie operating as normal. Most artists who were struggling with drugs and mental-health issues would not be able to produce anything at all, let alone one of the best albums of the 1970s.

Station to Station was, according to some, recorded over about ten days – others claim that it was as long as three months. Henry Maslin and David Bowie produced the album and it was a feverish time of creativity. Bowie was clearly inspired and, though he claimed to recall little of the recording and what was actually going down, he spoke fondly of the album after its release. It is no wonder Bowie was a bit pleased because, even though there are not that many tracks, every one of them is a stunner and you get so much range! The sound of Station to Station is a bit icier and Funk-Rock-inspired than a lot of his earlier works. The music is experimental and confident; extending from the work on Young Americans to include more machine-like elements and the core of The Thin White Duke. Station to Station is eerie in some moments but compassionate and tender in others. It was David Bowie not wanting to repeat what had come before but keen to incorporate new sounds and take his music in a new direction. One might think a somewhat cold and bold album would not appeal and, whilst some were not sure what to make of it upon its release, the nuance and brilliance of the album reveals itself the more you listen. Golden Years is the most instant track on Station to Station and is seen as a slightly rougher version of Young Americans – Bowie regretting missed opportunities perhaps (although it was originally written for Elvis Presley; Bowie’s then-wife, Angie, claimed it was written for her).

Bowie, at this stage, was incorporating Christian elements into his work. Word on a Wing is hymnal and it is a fascinating song. Bowie, later, realised the song was a cry for help from his darkest days; a chance of salvation and a calling out for some form of compassion. The similarly-titled Wild Is the Wind is one of Bowie’s greatest performances to that date and was, apparently, inspired by a meeting with Nina Simone. It is not all serious on Station to Station. There have been different account of what TVC15 is about and where it came from but there is an account that says it is about Iggy Pop’s girlfriend being eaten by a T.V. set – although this might be an exaggeration. It is one of the most upbeat singles on the album and one of the catchiest. One of the most obvious hallmarks of Station to Station is how detached it sounds. Bowie admitted this himself – he felt the album was fascinating – but that is no surprise considering where his head was then. I think this is one of the reasons why the album is so appealing and intriguing. Look at the experimental nature of Station to Station’s title cut and the two-part suite: starting from the piano-driven sound, it is an eclectic, ambitious and truly wonderful song. What was the reaction to this album that was unlike David Bowie had ever put out before?!

Released on 23rd January, 1976, Station to Station reached number-three on the Billboard chart of the best L.P.s. It remained there for thirty-two weeks and certified gold by the RIAA on 26th February, 1976. Contemporary reviewers loved songs like Golden Years but less impressed with the ten-minute title offering. Some were isolated by the artier sound whereas some felt the record was a leap forward for Bowie and one of the best records of his career. If some were confused by the fact Bowie could never sit still, others revelled in the genre-fusing spirit and loved how he could join disparate artists/genres and make something new and truly wonderful. Pitchfork , writing in 2010 (reviewing the Deluxe Edition of Station to Station), has this to say:

By the mid-70s, it was customary for pop stars to sing of their disillusionment with fame (see: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Neil Young's On the Beach) but they usually did so in an insular, introspective fashion, after they had gained some distance from the storm. By contrast, Station to Station finds Bowie expressing his weariness while the party was still rages on around him; even in the midst of his "Golden Years", he's yearning to "run for the shadows."

In essence, the album is a cry for help from the champagne room: On the hymn-like piano-ballad "Word on a Wing", the career chameleon decries this "age of grand illusion" (tellingly, this LP's Thin White Duke persona would be the last character Bowie introduced), while the title track's momentous prog-disco suite-- with references to Aleister Crowley and Kabbalism-- charts a course from spiritual void toward ecstatic religious reawakening. "It's not the side effects of the cocaine," Bowie declares as the song hits its funky, 4/4 stride, "I'm thinking that it must be love." Rarely have delusions been rendered with such grandeur”.

IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie at Ahoy Rotterdam – The Netherlands on 13th May, 1976/PHOTO CREDIT: Gijsbert Hanekroot

It is the period after Station to Station that interests me. Bowie was clearly burned out by working on the album and The Man Who Fell the Earth but it would not be too long until the world received Low. Bowie scrapped the soundtrack idea and toured Station to Station. It was here that many got to see The Thin White Duke in the flesh. Dressed in his smart finery, Bowie would emerge as this almost spectral figure and was deeply inspired by the Germanic Expressionist film style. Bowie was keen to be as theatrical and striking as he could and, on that tour (which ended on 18th May, 1976) he definitely achieved that. Station to Station is considered one of the finest albums of the 1970s and many debate whether it is Bowie’s finest hour – there is tough competition but Station to Station is definitely one of my favourite. In many ways, the epic Low was a continuation of the work Bowie did with Brian Eno on Low. Station to Station was hugely influenced on Post-Punk and this new ‘Ice-Funk’ sound inspired countless artists. Not only was Bowie himself compelled by his own experimentation but (Station to Station) made a huge impact on music and opened so many minds. So many Bowie albums would and do inspire but you can hear aspects and hints of Station to Station in the work of so many other artists.

One listens to Station to Station and almost forgets Bowie was so troubled and disconnected. This article from Rolling Stone, written a year ago today, highlighted Bowie’s intensity during recording:

“...As always, Bowie worked feverishly. Musicians got used to being called into the studio at any time of day. “I remember one night when we didn’t even have the studio booked, and I was at the Rainbow Bar and Grill,” recalls Slick. “As we used to say, I was ‘under the weather.’ Suddenly, one of the roadies comes in. They search the whole place and find me at a back table. He says, ‘Time to go to work.’ I say, ‘It’s one in the morning, and I’m drunk.’ He says, ‘That’s OK. David’s at the studio. There’s a car outside.’ So I paid my tab, jumped in the car and worked all night. I mean, that was not an unusual thing to happen”.

Bowie, as the article states, was not sure what was going to come next and it seemed, in 1976, he was very much open to options and not willing to limit himself:

I haven’t a clue where I’m gonna be in a year,” said Bowie, after Station to Station was released in January 1976. “A raving nut, a flower child or a dictator, some kind of reverend – I don’t know. That’s what keeps me from getting bored”.


Alex Needham, writing for The Guardian in 2010, explained why Station to Station remains so dear to him:

Then there's the mythology. Being a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to the stories about this record – that it was made in a cocaine blizzard in LA that involved witchcraft, the collecting of Nazi memorabilia and an exorcism that left a silhouette of Satan stained on the bottom of a swimming pool. Yet despite the fact that Bowie was at his maddest (he told NME that Britain needed a fascist leader a few weeks after the album's release in 1976), and so out of it that he can't even remember recording the thing, Station to Station is almost frighteningly accomplished, with a glittering, malevolent glamour I've heard on no other record...

It's the tension between the artifice and the emotion, the sheer enigmatic complexity of what's being expressed, and the uncanny feeling that the band are creating something that's not entirely down to their own consciousness that has kept me listening to Station to Station for more than 20 years. The cocaine had one welcome side-effect: the fact that Bowie doesn't remember making it means it will never be demystified, and the Duke's corrupt glamour will therefore never fade”.

In many ways, Station to Station is too good to be picked apart or repeated. Bowie was working like few others in 1976 – taking Pop music and stretching it in new directions without the sound losing its integrity.


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie in 1976/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/PA

That was a bold and brave thing to do and a reason why Station to Station, for many, is seen as his greatest work. Station to Station prefaced the Electronic revolution that would come in the second half of the 1970s and, whilst not instantly accessible and hit-filled; the beauty of the album is its textures, nuance and incredible sense of confidence. David Bowie might have been in a weird space in 1976 and cannot really remember much of recording the album. He loves how it sounds and he was clearly inspired throughout. The six tracks are varied but hang together incredibly well; the album seems strange and disconnected but it is actually an accomplished, cohesive and spellbinding record that stands up to endless listens. As always, Bowie was restless and keen to avoid being seen as boring – given the majesty and genius on Station to Station, that was never going to happen. Bowie would find stability and clarity soon enough but Station to Station, on its forty-third birthday, marks a time in his life when there were questions, doubts and demons in his mind. The Thin White Duke’s comments and philosophies might have offended some but the music being produced cannot be faulted. I would urge young listeners and those unfamiliar with Station to Station to investigate because (the album) the songs, whilst they might take a few spins to resonate, are striking, original and hugely evocative. It may be forty-three but, in many ways, Station to Station...

CAN never age.