Golden Years

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Cut in a few days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single just weeks later: it charted while Bowie was still enisled in Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles finishing off the record. Harry Maslin, who produced it, recalled that “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, in contrast to the seemingly endless revisions needed for most of Station to Station.

“Golden Years,” which would be Bowie’s last US hit until the ’80s, seems like a self-compilation in a single, a consolidation of strengths. Structurally similar to “Rebel Rebel” in that it’s built on a continual chord change (here, it’s F-sharp shifting to E, a move repeated in nearly every bar of the verses and choruses), its smooth, metallic disco sound seems a natural extension of “Fame”‘s anomic funk.

Still, it’s not just “Son of ‘Fame’,” as it’s structurally and lyrically more nuanced than the earlier single. “Golden Years” opens as a blessing, its title phrase whispered and cooed, and its opening verses find Bowie in huckster mode, his vocal a series of considered appeals: “don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere!” he begins, a run of sharp monosyllables slowly descending in tone; the swaggering consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time“; the paralleling of the highest and lowest notes of the song—Bowie’s octave leap to “AN-gel,” matched, four bars later, with the low “days are yuh-uh-ung.”

This is music for a fraudulent boom time, an advertisement placed in the gold rush. But the offer of “golden years” is entirely individual, not communal—the promise is made to one person, to be anointed, put in the back of a limousine and sealed off from the street. It’s not so much the promise of riches as it is of removal: nothing’s gonna touch you; never look back. Yet “Golden Years,” as it continues, seems to erode while the singer watches. A rap of materialist promises becomes a sudden prayer to God, followed by Bowie murmuring “run for the shadows” over and over again. And where Bowie once caressed the words “golden years,” now he pinches them, drags them out, distorts them—“years” in particular becomes a strangled curse.

Said to be written for either Ava Cherry or Angela Bowie, both of whom Bowie was leaving, the lyric’s likely as much derived from Bowie’s exile in Hollywood—long days alone and paranoid in his mansion, occasional nights appearing on TV, taking karate lessons with the Fonz: hooray success. Last night they loved you, Bowie sings, opening doors and pulling some strings; the tacit follow-up being that the following night the door could be shut. The essential video complement is Bowie’s performance of “Golden Years” on Soul Train, where Bowie is a wraithlike spiv who’s barely able to mime the words (it’s as if he’s hearing the song for the first time, and he still seems in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth) while the audience dances beneath him, as if communally denying his presence.

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

Bowie had written some of “Golden Years” in LA in May 1975, before he left for New Mexico to spend the summer filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. His friend and collaborator Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie played an early version of the song, suggested the wAH-wah-WAH tag after each chorus phrase. The opening guitar riff’s been claimed by both Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, Station to Station‘s dueling guitarists.

Its influences seem to have been “Broadway” songs: the Drifters’ “On Broadway” (Alomar recalled Bowie playing “On Broadway” on piano and putting his own vocal hook into it: “they say the neon lights are bright, on Broadway…come get up my baby”) and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” from which Slick said he pilfered some of the guitar riffs.* The earlier rock/R&B influences seem fitting when you consider that Bowie wrote the song with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind (this version, by the impressionist Stevie Riks, offers a look into a parallel universe where Presley and Bowie dueted on the song), though apparently Bowie never officially submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with Col. Tom Parker had petered out.

Bowie kept “Golden Years,” with its minimal chord changes and identical verse/choruses, from “Fame’s” flirtations with monotony by constantly toying with its structure. So after opening with an 8-bar chorus, an 8-bar verse is followed by a 2-bar bridge and a 4-bar chorus. Another 8-bar verse is followed by the bridge now extended to 6 bars and with new harmonic material (the song’s knottiest chord progression, G-C-Am-A#o7**-Bm-Em7, on “nothing’s gonna touch you in these/golden years”). A  2/4 bar (over which Bowie sings a descending “Go-oh-ollld”) leads into another 4-bar chorus, and Bowie follows this with verse variations—first delivering a word-packed, near-monotone, almost-rap vocal, a run of sixteenth and eighth notes (ending with a surge up to F# on “believe oh Lord, I believe all-The-WAY”), then offering something of an alternate chorus, the repeated “run for the shadows.”

The final track offers layers of hooks and pleasures, from Dennis Davis’ expert timekeeping and the various percussive fills pushed up in the mix (handclaps, castanets, snaps, shakers) to Bowie’s rich, cool, layered vocals (“Maslin achieved the “round” quality of the backing voices by using an old, neglected RCA mike”***) to the continually dueling guitars—one mixed in the right channel playing variations on the opening riff throughout much of the song, while the other keeps a shimmering rhythm going in the left channel, and eventually crafts a three-chord riff (MacCormack’s “wAH-wah-WAH”) at the end of verses/choruses. (An acoustic guitar, possibly Bowie, is mixed in as well).

Recorded September 1975, released November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). Bowie seems not overly fond of it: he never performed “Golden Years” on the “Station to Station” tour, waiting until 1983 to debut it live, and he’s only played it sporadically since, a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.“)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

** According to the Low/Station to Station songbook, 1977. The oddest chord–the A-sharp diminished seventh–is sometimes replaced on tab sheets with a B minor seventh.

*** From Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” Circus, March 1976.

8 Responses to Golden Years

  1. enjoying this series very much. i’ve read that ‘golden years’ may have been performed at the aborted 22/02/1976 stop of the isolar tour. a recording supposedly exists, but is not in general circulation.

  2. Deacon Lowdown says:

    Ah, and now we approach the reign of the Thin White Duke, the last and my personal favorite of Bowie’s characters. (I assume you’ll write more about him once you get to “Station to Station”)

    except for his decadence, which he borrowed from Aladdin Sane, the Duke was the polar opposite of Bowie’s previous characters, especially Ziggy. Ziggy was a prophet of hope, in a time where there simply was no more hope to be had. As mankind approached its end, Ziggy was still preaching from onstage: there’s a reason that the album ends with Ziggy’s anguished, desperate cries of “You’re not alone!”

    The Duke, by contrast, is a nihilist who cares nothing for humanity. While less connected than the songs on Ziggy Stardust, Station to Station’s songs all have common themes that paint a portrait of a desperate, self absorbed man. The Duke sings love songs and tender ballads, to be sure, but his voice is cold and inhuman. He spouts cliches (“Here are we, one magical moment”) without meaning them ; he can only think of Love as a means to serve himself, be it love from a person(“Who will provide me with love?”, such a sense of entitlement!), or from a God (“Word on a Wing).

    The great irony is that Bowie’s Martian was incalculably more human than the Duke ever could be.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Excellent!
    I’m not sure that he’s not fond of the song. Isn’t the reason for its absence from live performance simply that it is a demanding one to sing night after night? I’m sure I read once that Golden Years was the song Bowie often found himself singing to himself while doing nothing in particular around the house.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. Deacon Lowdown says:

    Oh yes, and I believe the “Station to Station” tour is also known as the “White Light” tour in reference to both the song “White Light/White Heat” and the stark, minimalist lighting used on the tour.

  5. diamonddog says:

    Perhaps my favourite single of Bowie’s instantly cool and detached , a fond farewell to his estranged wife it is believed? I love the full length version on the album (vinyl please)it was a time i remember well and could not wait for christmas to come or a birthday (lp’s were usually bought by my mum for occasions as i was only young). The riff is stunning and earl slick plays it wonderfully it really is so wonderfully recorded the cd’s so far lack the depth of sound on the original vinyl. I loved Bowie performing this on Soul Train he is so very obviously pissed and awkward but still carries authority….stunning. Nothing else sounds this good a real treat.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Regarding “Word on a Wing”…

    Since this is Bowie’s lifeline in an album devoted to paranormal techno-phenomena (TVC 15) and gnosticism/black magic/kabbala (Station to Station), I will let it pass. But it always made me recoil in horror how someone who spent most of the decade trying to destroy (wittingly or unwittingly) Western civilization as we know/knew it, goes back to his big imaginary friend in the sky in this lapse of judgement. I suppose cocaine and despair make strange bedfellows.

    It really is one of the most amazing ballads Bowie ever wrote, but every time da Lawrd steps in for a cameo I feel my guts contract like a boner against an icepack. Maybe that’s Bowie after all: shocking you with revulsion while getting you hot and bothered by putting his freak on you.

  7. Mark Foster says:

    Wow!! Who is writing this work. This is the most insightful and interesting Bowie discussion I have ever seen!!! Where to I sign up??? And when is the book coming out. The writing on this site could be the Bowie Bible.

  8. KenHR says:

    What an unstoppable riff. Really listening to this one day back when I was in my early 20s, trying to learn Alomar’s part by ear (this is just prior to widespread internet access…well, at least in my life), I suddenly realized what genius it is.

    Alomar is criminally underrated as a player, arranger and co-writer of some of DB’s best.

    In regard to the track as a whole, it’s one of my favorites to belt out in the car on the way to or from work. I always got a kind of Grey Gardens vibe from it, the song’s narrator reassuring their charge that (to mix references) it was the pictures that got small…

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