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.