Bowie, don’t touch that dial

by Charles Shaar Murray / NME

1976

“A sixty thousand word novel is one image corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninetynine times”

Samuel R. Delaney

LONGACRE BOARD OF EXAMINATION INTERMEDIATE ROCK WRITING

Discuss David Bowie’s “Station To Station” from any perspective available. Up to two hours may be spent on this question. You may answer in note from if necessary.

1. IT MAY be argued that there is a qualitative difference between music made out of necessity (i.e. to fulfil a contractual quota) and music made purely for the sake of enjoyment derived from making it.

David Bowie didn’t have to make this album.

After completeing his work on the movie soundtrack of “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, he was supposed to take a holiday until the New Year (this one), putzo) when he was/is scheduled to go inot rehearsal for the European tour and, presumably, the next U.S. tour.

….However, he ended up writing a batch of songs and flying his band into L.A. from New York to go into the studio and make this; an “extra” bonus album, if you like. Kind of like “The One That Got Away” in reverse.

2. The album opens with the sound of mighty trains chuffing determinedly from speaker to speaker (must be a real trip in quad, Jim), heavily phased to suggest (“allude to” would be more precise) the ambience of the white noise you get when you twist a radio or TV dial attempting to local a channel. (Not to mention “station-to-station” (as opposed to “person-to-person” long distance phone calls).

3. The title song, which opens the album, runs 10:08 (at least, that’s what is says on the label. I haven’t checked it). Bowie doesn’t make his vocal entry until the track is nearly three and a half minutes.

4. If Bowie was James Brown he could well have entitled the second, up-tempo half of “Station To Station” “Diamond Dogs ’76”. The dominant sound of this album overdubs the claustrophobic guitar-strangeling garage band chording of “Dogs” (plus, to a lesser extent, the howling, wrenching lead guitar of “The Man Who Sold The World”) over the itchy-disco rhythms of the “Young Americans” album, while Bowie’s vocals evoke the lugubrious, heavily melodramatic vibratoed almost-crooning of Scott Walker.

5.Golden Years,” the album’s Big single, is placed in the middle of the first side. The placing of an already-familiar single on an album of otherwise new material is always crucial, since it automatically provides a period of decompression, a relaxing of the concentration necessary to assimilate new music.

….Golden Years” is a master stroke of a single (though not quite in the same exalted class as the masterly “Fame“) and it’s quite the most compact and direct piece on the album.

….Elsewhere, Bowie lays out vocally for quite considerable lenghts of time – particulary on the title track’s companion Marathon, “Stay“, which can be located over on the second side – leaving the band to cook uninterrupted.

….His vocals are not only sparse, but mixed right down and mumbled into the bargain.

In the days when I was into lyric sheets (i.e. before I remembered that Dylan never provided a lyric sheet in his life, and realised that a crucial part of my enjoyment of “Horses” was down to listening to the words as part of the record and comprehending/understanding/deciphering more of them with each listen instead of copping the whole thing off a dessicated cribsheets) I would have bitched about not being able to do the heavy lyrical analysis schtick straight off.

….As it is, I find myself listening to the sounds of the music (and the music of the sounds, man, far out!) rather than even trying to make out the lyrics.

….On a purely audio basis, therefore, “Station To Station” represents a solid triumph for Bowie as an organiser of music. Maybe if I had the sleeve I’d know whether it was a concept album (heh!) or not. Hope it isn’t, though.

6. MUSICALLY, THE biggest surprise on the album is the intro to “TVC 15,” the first track on the second side.

….It’s roling bar-room piano (vaguely reminiscent of Climax’s “Loose Up”) with Bowie copping the “Oh-woa-hoo-wo-ho” vocal intro from the Yardbirds’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (the man is nothing if not eclectic) before settling into a tight but relaxed groove with a great chorus in which Bowie carols, “Transition/transmission”. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve heard in a long while.

….Incidentally, I have no idea of what the title means. My theory (which is my own, etc., etc.) is that it refers to Channel 15 on Los Angeles TV, but on the other hand Joe Stevens suggests that it’s the register number of the video course that Bowie’s supposed to be taking at U.C.L.A. while Mick Farren opines that it’s a gearbox of some sort (alternate meaning to the “transmission” motif).

To coin a phrase, I await further enlightment.

7.Stay” features a lurching raunch guitar part performed, or so Mr.Kent informs me, by Ron Wood.

….It confirms my beleif that the standard of Mr.Wood’s playing is entirely determined by the company he keeps, a beleif initally fostered by a comparison of his playing at Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert and on Rod Stewart’s sole albums (sublime) and on the vast majority of Faces manifestations (ridiculous), not to mention a breif earful of a recent Stones bootleg.

….Here he gets plenty of room to smear funk all over the scenery, ably supported by Willie Weeks on bass (and presumably therefore Andy Newmark on drums).

….Bowie’s vocal line, embellished by female back-up voices singing octaves, is quite absurdly effete – not to mention loopily wacky a la Sparks – but it seems almost logical when juxtaposed with Wood’s funk riffs.

….Since I’m working from a blank sleeve with no info, I can give you no exacting tidbits about the world-famous musicians, engineers, producers, arangers, derangers, freerangers and so forth who are doubtless embroiled in the proceedings.

….I can hazard a guess, though, that Tony Visconti is present in some productorial capacity and Paul Buckmaster in an arrangerial ditto, whereas the other musicians are simply whoever was in Bowie’s road band at the time, with another Carlos Alomar or Earl Slick (or both) on guitars. The more Ronsonesque guitar leads on the album are certainly reminiscent of Slick’s work on the live album.

8. In addition to he above-mentioned songs, the album also includes two real croonaruskies on which Bowie – and this is Ian Mac’s idea, not mine, Dave’s ol’ pal (heh heh) sp don’t git mad – sounds totally drunk.

….Dig the scenario – the bar’s closed, the proprietor’s sweeping the floor and stacking the chairs up on the tables with their legs in the air like abandoned mannequins, and this turd in the corner just won’t stop singing along to the backing track in his head.

….More so then anywhere else on the album, Bowie discards the conventional tradition of rock singing (i.e. non-realistic, purporting o be a stylisation/abstraction?) of the wya the singer “normally” speaks and by extension therefore is) in favour of an abstraction of the styles of the so called “Balladeers”.

….Both these songs are placed at the end of their respective sides; “Word On A Wing” comes at the end of side one, while “Wild Is The Wind” ends side two.

….The latter was written by Tiomkin and Washington (the only non-Bowie song); Tiomkin is presumably Dimitri of the Ilk, and is therefore, equally presumably, a theme-from-the-movie-of-the-same-name.

9. The main lyrical motif of the title song is “It’s too late (to be greatful)/It’s too late (to be hateful)”.

10.Station To Station” is a great dance album.

….It’s funk on the edge, the almost claustrophobic rhyhtms of “Fame” diffused through the tortured guitars of Ziggy’s memory tapes, plus that new vocal style, simultaneously ugly and mesmeric.

11. Let’s hear it for the title guy in the baggy suit.

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