Bowie stands alone

by A.J. / Melody Maker

24th January 1976

IN AN interview which appeared some two years ago in the magazine Image, Nicholas Roeg offered as an illustration of his approach to film making this observation: “I like the idea of secrecy. I like the idea of a magician. I don’t think the personalities of the director or artist should be made public. It destroys every kind of illusion.”

….Those critics who have characterized David Bowie’s career as no more than a series of casual and superficial flirtations with fashionable musical forms and popular ideas will, I’m sure, find it entirely appropriate that Roeg should have directed Bowie in his movie debut, The Man Who Fell To Earth. The two artists would seem to share a mutual admiration for ambiguity and disguise – qualities which mark their respective endeavors.

….Bowie, for instance, has preferred throughout his recording career to immerse himself in carefully contrived roles and personae through which he has sought to elaborate his various concepts and futuristic visions. He has established a reluctance to adopt any kind of intimate, confessional stance and a determination to assimilate a multiplicity of styles and technique, which has led his detractors to conclude that he has no real or substantial identity of his own.

….That argument has however, become less persuasive and has lost much of its credibility since Bowie made public his confusion and desperation with the audaciously conceived “David Live“, an album of documentary intensity. Bowie it seemed, had become less concerned with the manipulation of fantasy and, on that album, was approaching his work with an hitherto unexpressed directness. With “Young Americans“, released early last year, Bowie established a mode of expression which made it possible for him to explore the anguish of his isolation with articulate insight.

….Young Americans” was a protracted examination of a particular predicament (the loneliness of stardom etc.); much of his earlier work, though expressing similar strain or melancholic despair has been less specific. The appeal of “Young Americans” was however limited by its insularity. It is difficult, after all, to sympathize with such privilege. Bowie may have been suffering all kinds of confusions, but he, at least, had the material benefits of his stardom to alleviate his pain if the going got too tough. All that, though, has gone out the window with “Station To Station“.

….The album has all the desperate and immediate drama of say Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night” And white it bears certain stylistic similarities to “Young Americans” this record is entirely devoid of the luxurious and erotic arrangements which graced much of its predecessor. The music here is mostly dominated by the vivid cutting guitars of Alomar and Slick. There are only fleeting moments of musical extravagance from Bittan, whose baroque keyboard flourishes flicker through the album like echoes of Mike Garson’s work on “Aladdin Sane” (though it should be stressed that Bittan most efficiently avoids Garson’s unfortunate tendency to sound like Liberace on a bender).

….Overall, the sound can be compared to a mutation of the kamikaze guitar riffs which provide the driving force behind “The Man Who Sold The World” and the insistent disco beat which propelled “Fame”. There are also occasional flashes from Alomar or Bowie’s own guitar work on “Diamond Dogs”.

….In short, a strange and confusing musical whirlpool where nothing is what it seems. The title track opens the album, and is, at ten minutes, the longest song Bowie’s recorded since “The Width Of A Circle” (which opened “The Man Who Sold The World“). The first sounds we hear are of shunting trains panning across the speakers (which also, of course, allude to the kind of uncomfortable static precipitated by fiddling with the dials on a radio – “hazy cosmic jive”?).

….The band look into a savage relentless riff which only begins to disintegrate with Bowie’s utterly chilling vocal entry. If the finst line he sings (“The return of the thin white duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”) doesn’t immediately faze you, then the peculiar operatic, if detached quality of his voice surely will.

….The significance of the Iyrics remains elusive, but there’s a terrifying anxiety here which runs through all the subsequent compositions even “Golden Years“. It’s as if Bowie is performing with the knowledge of the fact that there is, as R. D. Laing once wrote “nothing to be afraid of” because outside our own private self there exists nothing else. If anything, it’s this kind of cosmic anguish which forms the emotional Centre of “Station To Station”.

….And the tension which is precipitated stems from Bowie’s refusal to believe this, and his attempts (expressed most forcefully on the lunatic ballad “Word On A Wing“) to confront some omnipotent deity which he suspects may have deserted us. All the nightmares came today, and they looks as if they are here to stay.

….The terror implicit in the opening section of “Station To Station” is – assuaged slightly by the infectious climax which has Bowie stressing the need to believe in something and concluding that “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.”

….The aforementioned “Word On A Wing” finds Bowie seeking to enter a dialogue with, gulp, God (the boy’s nothing if not ambitious), Against Bittan’s eloquent and Lyrical piano and Slick’s stylish guitar, Bowie – crooning like a debauched balladeer – asserts that he is willing to relinquish his independence to the Lord’s “scheme of things” if only he had conclusive proof of his existence. As if in answer to those agnostics who would question this decision he sings. “Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well/Don’t have to question everything in heaven and hell.

….It’s an incredibly disquieting performance which leaves the listener, at least mortally confused.

….The second side of the album offers some respite from the psychic turmoil. “TVC 15” is, on the surface, hilarious, with Bittan’s bar-room piano and rousing guitars stabbing away at yet another infectious riff, and a fabulously looney chorus. Bowie’s vocals are exhilarating and reckless, though he still manages to unnerve the listener with unexpected, off hand observations like “One of these nights I may just jump out of that window”. The following cut, “Stay“, is probably the most straightforward statement on the album: a simple request for someone to share the author’s isolation. It features the same claustrophobic intensity as “Fame“, with Slick and Alomar (and, rumour has it, Ron Wood) slashing across the impenetrable rhythm section with colossal urgency.

….Station To Station” closes as enigmatically as it began with the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington ballad, “Wild Is The Wind“, a full blown romantic recalls earlier Bowie pieces like ”In The Heat Of The Morning” (from his first Deram album). Its forceful, unashamedly dramatic, totally appropriate to the record’s overall sense of barely controlled hysteria.

….I realize that I might check my enthusiasm, but I must say that I find “Station To Station” to be not only the most important recorded statement Bowie has ever made, but also one of the most significant albums released in the last five years. I don’t pretend to understand completely the complications and paranoia of Bowie, but as a commentary on the spiritual malaise of this decade it is as powerful as anything by Thomas Pynchon, and In rock it stands alone.


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