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David Bowie - Station to Station CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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4.03 | 361 ratings

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5 stars It was cocaine that got him into his mid-70's creative funk, and by gum it was cocaine that was going to get him out of it. Years onward, this album makes plenty of sense in the context of Bowie's overall career arc - it's just about the textbook "transitional" album, and the only conceivable way to link Young Americans and Low in any rational manner - but I'd have to imagine that hearing this for the first time in early 1976 must have been an incredible shock. Young Americans made it seem like Bowie was pretty much finished, lost in a sea of sporadically interesting dance music and ballads, but this album, while certainly containing some strong funk/disco/soul influences, stretches into bizarre territories that Bowie had either not touched before or hadn't approached in a very long time. "Heroes" might contain stronger material overall, but it's Station to Station that stands as the quintessential consolidation of all of Bowie's strengths. It's funky and dancable and poppy and rocking and largely accessible, yes, but it's also noisy and menacing and largely inaccessible, and the combination is a joy to behold.

And to think, all that needed to happen for this album to come about was for Bowie to go insane. There have only been a few albums where the drug use that went into its creation has reached legendary status (like Syd Barrett with Piper at the Gates of Dawn), and Station to Station certainly qualifies for this list. No matter how many times I read about it, it's almost impossible for me not to giggle uncomfortably when reading about Bowie's experiences during this time; from the diet of cocaine, peppers and milk to the series of hallucinations of witches coming after his semen and Jimmy Page plotting against him, to whatever other horrible things may have happened but were lost to the winds of time, it seems almost a blessing that Bowie's recollection of that time escaped him in later years. His cocaine use of the time (in the sessions, but also in the Young Americans tour) also prompted the creation of a new persona, The Thin White Duke, who was basically an expression of whatever latent fascist/nazi tendencies Bowie might have had deep down inside. All in all, this was not a happy time to be David Bowie.

It was sure a happy time to be a David Bowie album, though. The album has but six tracks, three on each side, and each side follows the same approximate pattern; sci-fi guitar- rocker with lots of great piano, followed by funky poppy guitar-rocker, followed by epic anthemic soul-influenced ballad. Not too surprisingly, I find that the ballads let down the album a bit, but only a bit; "Word on a Wing" threatens at times to get tacky, and "Wild is the Wind" threatens to get boring, but thankfully they never cross their respective lines. "Word on a Wing" apparently meant a lot to Bowie, reflecting his struggle to find spiritual meaning in a world fogged up by cocaine, and while there are a few too many levels of cynicism built up in me to love this (I'm still not ready to take the falsetto singing of "My breath is like a word on a wing" fully seriously), I definitely enjoy it much more than not. "Wild is the Wind," a cover of an old Johnny Mathis song, is given a tasteful, low-key guitar-driven arrangement, and while I'm not sure about the length or much of Bowie's singing here (waaaaaay overdone in the second half especially), I have to admit there's some strong emotion in the moment that he sings, "Don't you know, you're life itself!" It's a strangely unsatisfying way to end the album, but it's a good song regardless.

The funky poppy guitar-rockers are way better, anyway. "Golden Years" has to be one of the most impressive "multi-purpose" songs I know of; you can dance to it, you can play air guitar to it, you can sing it in karaoke, and you can put it on at a party and suddenly make the room seem a lot cooler than before. It's definitely one of the most impressive pop songs Bowie ever did, and boy howdy is it catchy. "Stay," on the other hand, doesn't earn its keep through catchiness, but through some of the best funk, groove-based guitar playing you'll ever hear on an album made by a British white guy. It's not just the guitar playing that makes this groove work so well, though; the bass and the bongos and the mellotron (!!) make the whole thing as addictive as could possibly be. The song doesn't rely solely on the merits of the groove, though; the whole chorus, starting from "Stay, that's what I meant to say ..." is impossible to resist, and the verses definitely have their charms as well. Yup, if anybody ever tells you, for whatever reason, that they dislike "Stay," they're probably lying to you.

It's the two representatives of the first category, though, that make this album so immortal. The opening of the ten-minute title track would have been a total shock to listeners back when this came out (as if seeing a ten-minute track on a Bowie album wouldn't have been shock enough); the first minute combines AWESOME hellish guitar noises with actual train noises, before transitioning into a stomping noisy groove driven by a simple bass line, a two-note piano line and those wonderful guitar textures. The introduction ends up lasting more than three minutes, which on paper seems way too excessive for such a simple set of phrases, but while I might have gotten slightly bored with it the first couple of times I listened to it, I'd never dream of it now. The introductory groove is then used to underpin a "normal" song for a couple of minutes, and then, just when it seems things are starting to run out of steam, the song completely changes directions and becomes some of the coolest five minutes of rock music made in the 70's. This is close to the ultimate nonsensical 70's rock groove, combining lively piano (without which the groove wouldn't be half as interesting), some great understated guitar licks and some of the most hilariously paranoid and confused lyrics ever. Aside from the awesome line, "It's not the side effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love," it also has one of the greatest "I can't believe somebody actually wrote and sang these lines" stanzas of all time: "It's too late to be hateful/it's too late to be late again/it's too late to be grateful/THE EUROPEAN CANON IS HERE!!!!" Look, this song is completely ridiculous on paper, but put it all together and it works as well as anything Bowie did in his whole life.

And yet, "TVC15" is even better. Listen to it for thirty seconds, and you'll think it's going to be a throwaway barroom piano song; listen to it for another couple of minutes, and you'll realize you're listening to a song about his girlfriend crawling into a TV and getting lost inside. Listen to the rest, and you'll hear a combination of lyrics ("My baby's in there someplace!!!!"), melody and arrangements that surpasses even the second half of the title track. The metallic guitars, the lively piano playing, the incessant "Oh my T V C 1 5, oh oh, T V C 1 5," chants, and that nagging piercing sound that should be a saxophone but may be just some bizarre keyboard sound (I don't see a saxophone listed in the official credits for the track) ... all of this adds up to nearly the best argument ever made in favor of cocaine usage by major rock stars. Well, if you ignore the massively debilitating physical and mental side effects, of course.

This album, simply put, is stupendous. All Bowie fans should own it, of course, and anybody who claims to be a serious fan of 70's rock music but doesn't own this album is a liar. Plus, if nothing else, it's probably the single strongest counterexample to the general idea that Bowie never actually innovated; the raw materials might all be familiar, but the synthesis of the various parts here pretty much has to be considered one of the main roots of the post-punk movement that would start a few years later.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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