Stay (Dinah!, 1976).
Stay (live, 1976).
Stay (Musikladen, 1978).
Stay (live, 1983).
Stay (live, 1990).
Stay ’97.
Stay (live, 1997).
Stay (Musique Plus, 1999).
Stay (live at the BBC, 2000).
Stay (live, 2002).

“Stay” is equivocation bracketed by extravagances: its roll call of an intro and, most of all, its two-and-a-half-minute outro, where Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar’s guitars war, underpinned by a George Murray bassline that could support a Buick.

Recorded in what Alomar later described as a “cocaine frenzy,” “Stay” was in great part the doing of Bowie’s rhythm section—Alomar, Murray and Dennis Davis. Davis and Alomar were veterans of the great jazz-funk unit The Roy Ayers Ubiquity, and at times “Stay” seems like a lost Ayers track with vocal overdubs by an android. During the Station to Station sessions, Bowie had played a shell of “Stay” on guitar, some chords and the vocal melody, for the trio, who, after some jamming, “gave [the song] back to him,” Alomar said, adding that he wrote out a chart that served as the basis for the completed track.

So a group effort created the jittery intricacy of “Stay,” in which a relentless, shaky funk beat (it always seems on the cusp of shifting to a different rhythm, and there’s a measure of 3/4 for the last bar of each verse) supports a harmonic structure built of primarily ninth chords (fuller-sounding, yet also more dissonant)—the verse is G9-A9-C9-F9, for instance. Further twists are overlaid upon this foundation, like a Bowie vocal line laced with slow triplets (“change-in-the weather,” “hap-pened-to you,” “make me de-light”).

Bowie, in his three verses, keeps to a narrow melodic range, to the point where Bowie seems as much reciting his lines as he is singing them, then he offers a disjunctive, barely-there melody in the chorus, with wide melodic intervals (e.g., a seventh in “never say is/stay this time”), odd, even random-seeming emphases (take the way Bowie darts out the title phrase just as the chorus kicks in) and a generally distant, abstracted tone.

Over this Bowie set a lyric in which an alienated singer seems barely capable of, or only vaguely interested in, trying to land the object of his desire. Phrases of the modern pick-up scene, offered in the verses, come across as bizarre and awkward, as if Bowie’s sounding them out phonetically, while the chorus is an after-the-fact confession, the singer admitting to himself that this time he actually meant it, but, as always, failed to respond, and it ends with a line seemingly out of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which Bowie sings in such a knotty way that it becomes a twisted defiance: “cause you can never real/ly tell..when/some..body/wants…something/you want too/ooo.

Bowie’s distracted presence is nearly beside the point here, though, as in “Stay” it’s as though he’s guesting on his own record: a squalling Slick solo overshadows his verses, and Bowie disappears completely by the four-minute mark (playing “Stay” on tour, Bowie sometimes would stand, arms crossed and looking bemused, while his guitarists wailed on). It’s a showcase for the backing band, and during the intro, over 9 four-bar repeats, the group assembles. First Alomar’s solitary guitar, mixed in the right channel, offers a coiled spring of a riff, then Davis and Murray give the downbeat, followed by two repeats in which colors are added: congas, shakers and a droning keyboard line by Roy Bittan. On the fifth repeat, Murray and Davis begin echoing the guitar riff, while Earl Slick tears in, mixed in the left channel. Finally the track coalesces as the players prepare for the verse, with Slick getting a brief solo before, with a sweep, Bowie comes on stage at last.

Robert Matthew-Walker wrote that “Stay” melodically quotes from most of the other songs on Station to Station, which, if so (I admit I don’t really hear this), suggests that the track was one of the final pieces recorded, and makes “Stay” serve as something of a recapitulation in the context of the record (it’s the middle track on Side B). The ruthless sound of the guitars, especially in the outro, was owed in part to Slick overdubbing over tracks Alomar initially had laid down.

Recorded September-November 1975. On Station to Station and released as a US single in July 1976 (RCA PB 10736, c/w “Word On a Wing”—with the exception of the title track, every song on the Station to Station LP also appeared on a single). Seemingly designed for a road workout, “Stay” was a constant of many Bowie tours (allowing guitarists Stacey Heydon, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels to show off their chops, for good and ill).

Top: Robert Plant surveys the conquered city from the balcony of the Continental Hyatt House, Los Angeles, 1975. (Peter Simon.)

19 Responses to Stay

  1. diamonddog says:

    The final funk showdown showcasing a band so tight they are the musical equivalent of P J Probys pants. The plan for a million mediocre new romantic funk outings. A masterpiece of detachment and bleak white boy funk splendour. Classic I never tire of hearing.

  2. snoball says:

    [i]“cause you can never real/ly tell..when/some..body/wants…something/you want too/ooo.“[/i]

    This blew me away first time I heard it. Bowie’s lyrics go from ridiculous (most of ‘The Laughing Gnome’) to random (literally on the chorus of ‘Looking For Satellites’), but this line is one of his best.

  3. philT says:

    the live version from nassua 1976 is just one of the best things i’ve ever heard.

  4. Joe the Lion says:

    The live version on the now-official Nassau album is slightly different to the bonus track offered on the 1991 reissue, even though it’s the same performance.

    In the bonus track version, after Bowie sings the chorus for the last time, he continues singing variants on ‘Stay, if you want to’ – from 3.37 to 4.45 – ending with a final strangulated croon. This is removed from the album version, although can just about detect it buried in the mix.

    I don’t really have a theory on why this would be, especially because the singing in this section is the highlight of the track for me (along with the blistering guitar work). Maybe someone thought it got in the way of the funk workout?

  5. col1234 says:

    That’s very odd, and a good catch–I went back to my old Ryko Cd and you’re right about the edit. No theory here, either, but it quite likely was Bowie’s call, so maybe DB just didn’t like his vocal.

  6. diamonddog says:

    The end voacals are not there in the previous bootlegs either seems the ryko people only had the stereo tracks and its rather high in the channels, the new release features a mix from the multi tracks so maybe they had a chance to lower it in the mix. I personally prefer the huge sound on the bootleg.

  7. ian says:

    Man, more things left on the ground next to “Panic”‘s 10-minute drum solo (which I’ve always been a fan of, scatting included).

  8. martyn watson says:

    Stay is the result of Bowie’s reworking of John I’m Only Dancing…same chords/structure.

  9. nball says:

    The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ is spiritually akin to this song. Both are overlooking the ocean, both have travelled as far west as land allows. California serves as a geographic and spiritual terminus. There are occult dalliances in both songs. The western dream reveals its emptiness. It was a magician’s spell all along. At least Bowie could retreat to his Old World roots. Whereas the Eagles lacked that recourse and sort of dissipated.

  10. neu75 says:

    Warren Zevon must have been a fan – check out its similarity to “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” from his “Excitable Boy” album from 1978…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Interesting point about the remix of Stay on RYKO. Anyone else hate the way the lead guitar is mixed out of the live albums? In particular Ronson on the Ziggy Motion Picture (compare Moonage Daydream to the unofficial bootleg as an extreme example), but also for example the Station to Station bonus concert compared to the bootleg Thin White Duke, and even on the reissue of David Live it seems to be turned down. I was really disappointed with the Ziggy Motion Picture mix. Would loved to have heard Cracked Actor with Ronson’s full contribution

  12. Jubany says:

    Why is it that there’s no mention neither here nor in the JIOD(A) entry that they are the same song with different melody and arrangement? Great, great blog, btw.

  13. Cato says:

    I feel that Stay was always very much an Alomar composition with support from Dennis “the human metronome” Davis and George Murray. Sure, it was a Bowie song at least originally but the linings and fillings of this song could have never emerged with the above three. While I very much enjoy Earl’s solo on this its still very much standing on the strong foundation laid by the others. In short, I don’t think the band has ever gotten as much credit as it should have. At a minimum Alomar should have gotten arranger’s credit for many songs.

  14. Vinnie M says:

    Goddamn goddamn. Gotta love that funk. I wish I had Bowie’s hair circa Man Who Fell To Earth daily.

  15. KenHR says:

    The live Nassau cut is an incredible funk workout, so much so that it took a long time for me to come around to appreciate the studio track, with its weird vocal double-tracking and strangely understated vibe. Just a great, taut jam, and one that’s surprised many friends who don’t really know Bowie.

  16. Galdo says:

    I think it’s funny and amazing that Bowie’s presence starts to fade away completely as the outro is growing. You almost forgot he had been there. Nice effect for me.

  17. Hometime says:

    “…underpinned by a George Murray bassline that could support a Buick”,
    as an amateur bassist, one of my favourite sentences in the blog.

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