Station to Station.
Station to Station (rehearsal, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1978).
Station to Station (’78 live edit, from Christiane F., 1981).
Station to Station (live, 1983).
Station to Station (live, 1990).
Station to Station (live, 2000).
Station to Station (live, 2004).
1. One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.
Not sleeping for days, unable to turn off his mind, Bowie instead read, book after book: on the occult (Aleister Crowley, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians), on tarot and defensive magic (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense), on the historic/symbolic obsessions of Nazis (Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), on numerology, on the secret history of Christianity, on UFOs, on the Kabbalah, on political conspiracies (it’s unknown whether Bowie picked up The Illuminatus! Trilogy, first published in 1975, but it sure seems like he did). He supplemented his diet with Krautrock records (especially Neu! and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn) and German Expressionist films.
So by the time he wrote “Station to Station,” mainly in the studio, Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open. “Station to Station” inventories his obsessions, makes a mandala of his loose thoughts. The lyric often reads like grandiose gibberish and yet it hits upon the sublime. “Station to Station” seems the culmination of Bowie’s musical life; it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.
Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.
As a child in Bromley, Bowie had wanted to be an American. This was a fairly common aspiration among his generation, but Bowie took it seriously, as he did most things. The first public mention of David Robert Jones is the Bromley Kentish Times of 11 November 1960 (“Limey Kid Loves Yank Football”), in which the 13-year-old Jones is shown introducing American football into his London suburb, equipped with shoulder pads and a helmet that he received from the US Embassy. A few years later, Bowie and his friend George Underwood would walk around Bromley pretending they were Yanks, so as to better pull girls. And the first Bowie singles were fumbling attempts at code cracking—“Liza Jane,” a noisy ghost of an American Civil War-era ballad; “Take My Tip”’s milkbar beatnik vamp; Bowie’s attempts in “I Pity The Fool,” or “And I Say to Myself” to mimic a black American’s singing voice.
Now, in ’75, Bowie was living in America, feted by Americans, a regular guest star on American TV. He wasn’t just living in America: he was in Hollywood, in the westernmost reaches of an ungovernable, adolescent country. To get there, he had left behind seemingly everyone who had helped to form him—his wife, his child, his half-brother Terry, his mother, his old manager Ken Pitt, the mime Lindsay Kemp. His old fellow players: Hutch, Bolan, Ronno, Bolder and Woodmansey. To live in America, even as a guest or an observer, was for Bowie something like becoming an original Christian—divesting yourself of everything you own or love. And he was left with himself.
In the opening lines of “Station to Station,” Bowie paints himself as a Prospero in an exile of his own devising. “Here am I,” Bowie sang. “Tall in my room overlooking the ocean.” As uncanny, as wonderfully weird, as these first incantatory lines of “Station to Station” are, they ultimately suggest a diminished figure, a man reduced to his shadow. Bowie had once sung about exploring space, transcending time, becoming a rock god: now he’s confined to a room, casting spells that flash back on himself, pacing in his circle.
Oh, Mother Goose,
she’s on the skids.
Shoe ain’t happy,
neither are the kids.
Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”
For much of this time, Bowie was living as a guest in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood. The stories of his confinement have piled up over the years, rumors and half-lies and intricate fictions. They make the fleshy center of most Bowie biographies, of course, because it’s the juicy stuff: Bowie was convinced someone was trying to kill him and kept a loaded gun in the house. Bowie saw UFOs daily, often at sunset. A groupie recalled him tracing swastikas on windows. He lit candles, drew pentagrams on the floors. He thought he was being tailed by the CIA, who sent undercover agents into his home in the guise of aspiring scriptwriters. Bowie stored his piss in jars in his refrigerator. He was convinced the Rolling Stones were talking to him via their LP covers. Bowie believed he was in a secret duel with Jimmy Page to become head warlock and chief Aleister Crowley acolyte. He thought he would be named Prime Minister of the UK after some transition to neo-Fascism.
Most of these tales weren’t true, but they could have been. Bowie was living in a fetid pool of rumors, echoes, junkie laments; he was holding court in a circle of vampires. Having staked his lot with the future, Bowie instead wound up shackled by the past, lost in the old heresies, the moonlit religions, tales from the plague years. The Sixties had churned much of this stuff up: it had risen to the surface in the wake of the failed revolutions, had been reborn in airport paperbacks, radio call-in programs, newspaper astrology columns.
So “Station to Station” is filled with the wrack of a dozen religions and cults. Flashing no color—the Golden Dawn Tattva, a meditational system. Does my face show some kind of glow—Kirlian photography, with which Bowie was enamored, photographing his fingertips before and after using cocaine. The European canon—a play on the Pāli Canon, a set of Theravadan Buddhist scriptures. The stations to stations themselves, both of the Cross and, perhaps, of the train trip Bowie had made across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1973. Making sure white stains—an Aleister Crowley poem (who also, according to legend, once threw a dart at a pair of lovers). Drink to the men who protect you and I—fascist icons, or the seven world-bringing Archons of the Gnostics, or Buddhist lamas (Bowie reportedly telephoned his old mentor, Chimi Rinpoche (“Silly Boy Blue”) and begged him to come to Los Angeles to rescue him). And the reference to the 10 sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree of life, with Bowie falling from kether, the godhead, to malkuth, the material world, the sphere at the greatest remove from God.*
As such,”Station” is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier “Quicksand,” another inventory of obsessions, another dalliance with Crowley and Nazi imagery. Yet the singer of “Quicksand” seems harrowed, terrified of going mad: the man singing “Station to Station” already is, or welcomes it.
Like over here, it’s bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it’s a dirge—the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying.
Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.
The return of the Thin White Duke. Bowie’s agent of liberation from America was a wastrel aristocrat, some collateral descendant of minor royalty, roaming from city to city, leaving behind a string of rent boys and unpaid hotel bills. (A “thin white duke” could also be read as a line of cocaine, but really, about every line in the song could double as a coke metaphor.)
The visual inspiration for Bowie’s Thin White Duke character—emaciated, ghoulish, dapper—seems partly to have been Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret. Most of all, though, the Duke seems like a disco-era Edward VIII, who Bowie mildly resembled. Like Bowie’s Duke, Edward VIII (who became a Duke after his abdication) had an air of shabby gentility, impeccable manners masking an amoral heart, and had the taint of Nazism—here the former king is reviewing SS troopers on a pleasant visit to Germany in 1937.
So Bowie spent some of America’s bicentennial year touring around the country in the guise of some rotten offspring of Junkers and counts, a walking revenge from the Old World. Even if Bowie had intended to curse or mock his adopted country, it hardly mattered, because the music he was performing was so compelling, so merciless in its precision and power. He opened nearly every show with “Station to Station,” making his audiences witnesses to a nightly communal exorcism.
Of course Bowie, like his old costume Ziggy, soon took it too far. When he returned to England in the summer of 1976, he gave interviews intimating that a great fascist power was coming soon to the UK, which he approved of, and called Hitler the first rock star. Rumors spread of Bowie giving a Nazi salute upon his arrival in Victoria Station (unconvincing video here), and biographers later dug up Bowie’s mother’s flirtation with the British Union of Fascists in the ’30s as evidence of original sin.
Bowie was tasting what was already in the air in Europe, a resurgence of interest in fascism and Nazism. The compromises and shames of the war, the allure of fascist imagery (often mixed with sadism), as seen in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or Cavani’s The Night Porter, or Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, which treated Vichy collaborators with a measure of sympathy, culminating in Pasolini’s repellent fascist nightmare Salò, premiered at the same time Bowie was cutting Station. A year later, some British punks would be wearing swastikas on their clothing as a ready-made outrage.
Still, Bowie’s acts proved too outrageous even for the times (the Rock Against Racism coalition would cite Bowie as a main offender), and he spent the next few decades publicly repenting. Far from having escaped from delusions and bad magic in Los Angeles, Bowie had turned out to be an infected host, bringing his cocaine-fueled necromancy back to Europe.
Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.
John Crowley, The Solitudes.
What was at the root of it all? As MacDonald suggested, since the mid-’60s, Bowie had been moving towards some form of Gnosticism—a belief that we were born elsewhere, in a higher realm, and have fallen into this world, conquered by what a nameless Gnostic prophet termed “love and sleep,” with only a self-elected few aware of the true nature of things. Gnosticism lies behind Bowie’s early Tibetan songs (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”), his generational changing-of-the-guard songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the Teutonic cod-myths of “The Supermen,” and culminates in the dream journals “Quicksand” and its monolithic successor “Station to Station.”
Yet “Station” is also the end. The iciness of Bowie’s singing in its early sections, the sense of confinement and the joy of an eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic and getting out of town, suggests that the promises of Gnosticism—the belief that somewhere in us is a fragment of the original, true God, that the material world is a prison without a lock—wound up not being enough for Bowie. He had unlocked doors that led to further doors, he translated symbols into further symbols, and he came out of it all as lost as he began. What if there was nothing, after all? What if all there was was the world, its sordid histories, its empty words?
All that remained certain was work. However outlandish his imagination grew, however much he punished his body, Bowie still was able, night after night, to slavishly craft his music. “Station to Station,” a transcription of a man shaking off madness, is also a near-perfect studio recording. Most crack-ups happen off screen, with unusable studio tapes or half-finished manuscripts their only evidence, but Bowie’s was mixed as brightly as an ELO record.
Like a child, playing with sound.
Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.
“Station to Station” opens with a minute of train noises, a juddering and whistling that wends from right to left speaker: Bowie’s tribute to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, which started with a car engine revving to life. It’s an ironic tribute. Bowie’s response to a West German car on the sparkling Autobahn, driving through the Ruhr valley in purring bliss, is the ominous iron sound of the locomotive, which, not so far off in the European past, had meant troop movements and mass deportations. The train intro, later reproduced on stage with synthesizers, was taken from a sound-effects LP, with producer Harry Maslin and Bowie first equalizing the recording, then doctoring it with phasing methods.
As the train fades into the distance, a single note on Earl Slick’s guitar bleeds into feedback. A rhythm assembles in arithmetic: four quiet beats, a metronomic two-note piano pattern (which, eventually bolstered by guitar tracks, underlies much of the opening section), a trio of notes repeated on bass. Carlos Alomar offers minimalist arpeggios, a ghostly organ plays chords, and then, with four kicks of Dennis Davis’ bass drum, the song lurches to life.
Alomar, as he had with most of Station to Station, served as Bowie’s creative interpreter, especially in the opening section, layering in guitars once the rhythm tracks were completed. Earl Slick, called on to provide the guitar feedback that hangs like a metallic cloud over much of the opening, struggled at first. Slick “was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section,” Alomar later told David Buckley, and kept being defeated by the limits of sound, unable to sustain guitar notes for that long. The solution was, as Alomar recalled, “Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.” So Slick and Bowie eventually played via a “row of amps chained together,” six in all, each amp with a different effect, with a single microphone to capture the din. For the final mix, Maslin took some of Bowie and Slick’s guitar tracks and merged them together, along with additional Alomar overdubs.
Set in cut time in A minor, the opening section is built on a five-bar repeat (the band, like Bowie, going in a circle): three bars of A minor, centered on the two-note pattern originally played on piano, then a roller-coaster ride over two bars (F to G), capped off each time with an octave leap-and-drop in the bass. A six-bar “thin white duke” section opens and closes the sequence, but otherwise, the entire section is nothing but the repeated five-bar pattern, with Bowie’s vocal sometimes flowing against the song structure (so for instance, “dreams are/wo-ven” bridges over the end of one pattern repeat and the start of the next). Bowie’s vocal is precise down to its basic elements, with Bowie ending verses either harshly (a dental fricative like “mal-kuth“) or with a caress (‘wo-ven, “Ohh-cean”), and often acting out his lines (singing “bending sound” with an extended half note and a fall over four tones).
Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?
After Bowie quietly sings “white stains” and Alomar’s guitar dances for three more bars, the world opens up. A key change and a slamming shift to 4/4 begins the middle section, essentially a 21-bar bridge. In MacDonald’s words, there’s a “drunken grandiloquence” to this part of the song, an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles. With a romping piano line (the two-note water torture finally over) and Bowie’s soaring, waltzing vocal, almost entirely consisting of triplets (“once-there-were moun-tains-on /mount-ains-and once-there-were/sun-birds-to soar-with-and…”)
After two-bar break (drum fills, a spray of piano notes, a tongue-twister (‘wonder-who-wonder who-wonder when“)), comes the peak of the section and the song, Bowie offering a question, a toast, and a command, each of his lines followed by a rapid chord progression over six beats, from station to station, C/D/E/A/E/F#m, leading to the G chord that starts the next phrase. At the end of this, there’s a seamless move (only a bar of 5/4 lets on that another change is coming) to the final section, which opens with Bowie’s best lines in the song, if not his life:
It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine!
I’m thinking that it must be love.
On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song. His voice hiccups on “cocaine” and it croaks out “love,” as if he’s so unaware of the latter that he can’t conceive of how to properly say the word.
And the more resigned the lyric grows—it’s too late for hate, for hope, for anything, really—the more elated the music becomes. Roy Bittan’s piano dances, Dennis Davis and George Murray slam down the foundation, Slick and Alomar drag race. Bowie gets caught up in it—rushing through his lines, savoring the repetitive locomotive sounds of “the European canon is here.” The song ends in a long vamp, a romp; it’s a retreat by a deliriously happy army.
This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.
David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.
Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY, 23 March 1976. Rather than with train noises, this version opens with a four-minute-plus Stacy Heydon guitar fusillade, part “Flight of the Bumblebee,” part surf music, part heavy metal, finally brought to a close by the Duke’s belated appearance. The band, mainly the same unit that cut the studio version, aims here for pure power, all subjugation and spectacle. Bowie already delivers the “side effects of the cocaine” line with bravado. The Duke returns in the outro, which becomes the template for every subsequent live version. On the Station to Station reissue.
Tower Theatre, Philadephia, 28-29 May 1978. From a mammoth synth train reproduction to the young Adrian Belew staking his claim as the song’s definitive guitarist to a Bowie vocal that’s all sinew, it’s arguably the song’s finest performance. The band uses the key change as a signal to rocket off: there’s an intense communal joy to this music, and even Bowie gets carried away by it. This is the recording used in the 1981 German film Christiane F., as mimed by Bowie’s then-current band (with G.E. Smith on lead guitar). In the film, the audience seems mainly comprised of kids coming off bad highs; the enigmatic junkie Christiane makes her way to the stage and stares at Bowie as if she’s far older than he is. Later on Stage.
Pacific National Exhibition Colosseum, Vancouver, 11-12 September 1983. By this point, the Thin White Duke, drained of menace, had been incorporated into the menagerie of official Bowie personae, which in the ’80s were a sort of Super Friends contingent Bowie would bring out when given musical cues. This is the least essential version of “Station” by a long shot, with twinkling keyboard fills, a superfluous brass section, and a Bowie vocal that, while still sturdy, veers into Anthony Newley-isms on certain lines. Later on Serious Moonlight.
Tokyo Dome, 19 May 1990. For the greatest-hits tour, it’s Belew again, now with a decade of prog rock under his belt, so what were once habits are now vices. Somewhat akin to the ’76 version, with an emphasis on brute force. Bowie comes in on rhythm guitar towards the end.
Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY, 4 June 2004. Bowie’s second-to-last (to date) American concert, with Earl Slick back on lead guitar after nearly three decades and the excellent Gail Ann Dorsey enveloping Bowie’s vocals. Though it’s possibly one of the last times Bowie will ever perform “Station,” it’s a youthful-sounding, muscular performance, with no claims made and no debts collected.
10. Sephirah Kether. The Crown, The Summit, 1.
The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.
William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).
In February 1976, taking a break from his ongoing tour, Bowie went back to Los Angeles, packed up everything he owned, and shipped it to Switzerland. He was going to live there, partly on advice from his accountants, who wanted him to go into tax exile, and partly because he wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as humanly possible. On 28 March, he left New York via ocean liner, heading for Italy. He was casting his lot with Europe, burrowing back into history, going back to the weary Old World, rededicating himself to the European canon—he was done with being an American. Of course Bowie would return to the US again, and he’s lived in New York for over a decade now. But whenever he returned it would be on his own terms.
John Lennon had proclaimed the ’60s dream over in 1970, but Bowie had, in his odd way, remained a believer for far longer. Tom Carson wrote, some 20 years ago: That is, [Bowie] took it for granted that the music would always be consequential and associated with radical impulses towards change. Even his most revisionist Seventies work depended for its point and urgency on having those Sixties assumptions constant in the background. It’s hardly unprecedented…for a figure originally perceived as breaking with tradition to be understood in the long run as that tradition’s last upholder—which, in relation to Sixties utopianism, was just what Bowie was.
There’s a real pain, a sense of a grand disillusion, underlying much of “Station to Station,” an abdication in a song, an imaginative disarmament. Retreating to Europe and a hoped-for anonymity, Bowie would spend the next few years breaking apart his music while trying to piece together himself again. He would go on to make some of his finest records, certainly some of his most popular. But “Station to Station” is the terminus, if not of some utopian or Gnostic dream, perhaps at least a belief that such dreams were viable. If you were to draft a map of Bowie’s complete works, “Station to Station,” plotted somewhere near the margins, would be marked: here he went no further.
Recorded October-November 1975.
Ian MacDonald’s 1999 article, “White Lines, Black Magic” originally published in Uncut, is one of the finest pieces written about Bowie in this era, and this essay is in hock to it. Available in the collection The People’s Music. Other sources: Marc Spitz’s Bowie (Spitz uncovered the “Yank Football” article), Hugo Wilcken’s Low, Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” in the March 1976 Circus, David Buckley’s Strange Facscination and liner notes to the reisssued StoS, Tom Carson’s essay on Bowie in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992 edition).
Top to bottom: Bowie in New Mexico, summer 1975 (Geoff MacCormack); the infamous return to Victoria Station, May 1976; Bowie in Cherokee Studios, fall 1975; Bowie drawing the tree of life (first used as back cover of the Ryko StoS reissue) ca. late 1975; newspaper ad for the Isolar tour, 1976. Otherwise, stills from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed summer 1975, released 1976.
* At the time of its release, I doubt few knew what Bowie was singing about here, though he always accompanied the line on stage with a hand movement sliding from “top” to “bottom.” Robert Matthew-Walker, apparently lacking a lyric sheet, thought Bowie had just made up the words “kettner” and “malkuth.” I originally heard “Melkur,” which is a Doctor Who monster.
Fantastic post! Though I think you should pursue this Melkur idea. After all he threw dart in lovers’ eyes too.
Absorbing and thorough as ever and as the song deserves. To the versions above, let me add the cracking one he performed at Glastonbury 2000, his 30 year return, mysterious and powerful as ever. Oh, and if you want to read a great, very funny, seriously weird novel inspired by the Bowie urine story and similar, check out Charlie Williams’ , my favourite rock novel of 2010. Merry Christmas
Always felt the Earl Slick guitar feedback intro on the record was beautifully restrained whereas on the live versions the intro tends towards the histrionic but that aside what a wonderful wonderful track
The lyrics at first appeared like a scribbled note ,brief and random but with more investigation of the things mentioned reveal a detached and lonely person almost lost in magic and drugs.
Congrats on a fantastic peice , you should publish in a book !!
Bowie’s finest though his tortured soul was lucky to return so many of his fellow dabblers did not.
hers an article that is fascinating for those who are intersted in some of the philosophy involved in some of bowies work..
It’s 2 AM on Christmas morning and I’m lying in bed, listening to Station to Station on repeat. The song is so powerful, so intense, switching between hope and despair at whim. After nothing but christmas carols for days, this seems to be the perfect antidote. Pure, human desperation.
Thank you very much for this illuminating post.
[my apologies…I’d inadvertently posted this underneath Stay…I meant St-to-St!]
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.
Insightful and beautifully written, as always. As someone who started reading about Bowie from A-4 photocopied unofficial fanclub newsletters in the seventies, I wonder if anybody else shares my opinion that this has become the finest collection of writing on Bowie available in the public domain.
Station to Station certainly seems to make a strong case for necessity being a more legitimate parent to invention and creativity than cocaine. Since Golden Years was written in advance and Stay is pretty much an extended band workout, Bowie has only come up with two original songs for this LP besides the title track. This suggests that Bowie wasn’t finding it easy to come up with new material and that the song Station to Station -one of the finest things he, thus by definition anybody, has ever recorded – is probably a welding together of various ideas that might not have even made it to the recording stage in easier times. In addition to the cocaine-fueled madness of the conventional narrative, Bowie was also a man whose business and financial affairs were in a mess and who was under great pressure to come up with a follow-up to his hit Fame.
A good comment by Whitebait – Earl Slick rarely gets the credit his contributions deserve.
Re-reading the magnificent Station to Station post in April 2014, I have to agree: this is the best writing about Bowie online and some of the most inspiring music writing period. Looking forward to buying the book!
Brendan, I don’t believe I had read your post before today, when it came to my attention via Anonymous’s reply, but like Anonymous I can only second your estimation of Chris. It long ago became impossible for me to comment on his work without embarassing myself and, I have to imagine, him. As research on Bowie, as insight into his art and as writing about him, O’Leary’s work is peerless (sorry, Chris).
I have noted the same thing here several times–this is the best critical writing on Bowie to date and should absolutely be a book. Welcome!
“it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.”
..Your writing,tho beautiful and with a grand poetry befitting the atmosphere of this track dosn’t ring true to me at all
As Brendan O’Leary pointed out-The truth of the matter seemed much more with all the drugs n pressures,Bowie was really struggling as a songwriter.The ecstatic release of the final 2 melodic parts here (lyrically too) seem like a brief moment of joy that he could still make the music fly like he used to.. .
His new musical Gods were sound and rythm-and with that new focus his melodic talent naturally started to wither.. Tho there’s still plenty of pleasures to be had in his later 70s stuff-for me they’re smaller,less timeless pleasures..He’d never again be able to scale the dizzying strange melodic heights of Life On Mars,Space Oddity or Lady Grinning Soul. Ashes To Ashes was the final beautiful ‘goodbye’ to his God-like musical muse..
Within a few years he’d be producing mediocre dreck like Blue Jean-that his younger self wouldn’t’ve even considered.
Wasn’t it Earl Slick on lead in 1983 too?
Yes, that was Slicky. What I hate about the video of the concert is that it puts his intro in the background.
“Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open…” Well, I’ve got to say that so far this is probably my favorite song entry on this particular site, in terms of the observations made. I’ve just become a huge fan of this blog. And I believe the song itself is quite miraculous, an exemplar of form and control, especially considering the psychic, emotional and chemical turbulence out of which it was spawned. You could say this about the entire Station To Station album itself, but in particular the title track.
Just recently I purchased a copy of a brand new book about David Bowie’s music – yes, another one! – called The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970’s, by Peter Doggett. And the author makes an interesting comparison between Station To Station and Van Der Graaf Generator’s 1970 track Darkness (11/11). He draws a parallel between the howls of wind which open that song with the eerie train effects that signalled the beginning of Bowie’s song. Also, in a footnote on the same page (244), Doggett observes that a missing link between Quicksand and Station To Station, in thematic terms, is provided by Peter Hammill, the frontman of Van Der Graaf Generator, specifically his (In The) Black Room, the closing track from his 1973 solo album Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night. Doggett observes that Bowie had immersed himself in Hammill’s work around 1974, and that the song (In The) Black Room itself is preoccupied with various adventures of the spirit, from the Tarot and religious belief to psychedelic drugs.
In fact, I’m actually quite a big fan of Van Der Graaf Generator, as well as Peter Hammill’s ’70s solo work. Stylistically, in terms of songwriting, vocal performance and lyrical/thematic preoccupations, one can certainly draw a many intriguing parallels and comparisons between the two artists’ work from the 1970’s. (In another interesting parallel, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp has been a friend and collaborator with both Bowie and Hammill, contributing his distinctive guitar playing to the Van Der Graaf Generator albums H To He, Who Am The Only One (1970) and Pawn Hearts (1971).
Interestingly enough, there’s a song on Van Der Graaf’s World Record called Masks, which came out in 1976 – the same year as Station To Station. And I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Bowie himself may have been (at least in part) the subject of that lyric. Now, I have no firm basis for this theory, and it’s just a supposition, a crazy hunch on my part. But one has to remember that this song could probably have been written around the time Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor film was aired on BBC’s Omnibus series. And there was probably a great deal of concern expressed among Bowie’s friends and peers in the business, concerning his health and his mental state. For example, in 1975 Mick Ronson gave an interview in which he harshly – if no doubt justifiably – stated in no uncertain terms, “I just wish Dave would get himself sorted fucking out. He’s totally confused, that lad. What he really needs is some good friends around him…I just wish he could be in this room, right now, sat here, so I could kick some sense into him.”
Try to look at Peter Hammill’s particular lyrics in this light:
(And hopefully I’ve succeeded in making the link! ;))
And anyway, like I said before, it’s just a theory, a crazy hunch. I simply thought I’d throw it out there…
Silly me. I goofed again with the italics (I’ve just got to be more careful there)! Here’s a minor correction from my post above:
…..Just recently I purchased a copy of a brand new book about David Bowie’s music – yes, another one! – called The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970′s, by Peter Doggett. And the author makes an interesting comparison between Station To Station and Van Der Graaf Generator’s 1970 track Darkness (11/11). He draws a parallel between the howls of wind which open that song with the eerie train effects that signalled the beginning of Bowie’s song.…..
I know, I know, I’m nitpicking myself to death here, but I just don’t want anyone to think that my mistakes were actually – Heaven forbid – deliberately made, for…whatever reason! 😉
P.S. And here’s a link to the song Masks itself. I forgot to provide that:
And while I’m at it, it seems like I’ve forgotten two other useful links! Whoops…
Here’s the link with Darkness (11/11), the Van Der Graaf Generator track whose opening was compared by author Peter Doggett with that of Bowie’s Station To Station:
And here’s the link with Van Der Graaf Generator frontman Peter Hammill’s solo track (In The) Black Room, thought by Doggett to be a thematic missing link between Bowie’s Quicksand and Station To Station. Check out the lyrics, kindly included by the poster:
Wonderful assessment as always.
Good to see Stage getting the acknowledgment it deserves (here and elsewhere). This rubbish about Stage being a poor album is a myth. Contains some of the best versions of some of his best songs. Sure the original track listing is all wrong but that’s been rectified now. Stage rules.
I agree, best Bowie reviews/writing ever and I’ve read them all.
Wasn’t Earl Slick the lead guitarist for the Serious Moonlight shows in 1983? So by 2004 he was back after two decades rather than three-ish.
Again, Incredible review.
For me, this record forms the first part of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’; it has far more to do with ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ than ‘Lodger’ does. Both sonically and lyrically it prepares us for what was to follow and, of course, Bowie’s LA noir nihilism on ‘StationtoStation’ is the perfect starting point, a Year Zero, if you like, for a journey that will ultimately terminate in a Berlin that offers salvation and redemption.
Shame, though, that the handy ‘Berlin Trilogy’ couldn’t apply to this reading of the three records, but Isherwood had first dibs on it anyway!
Paradoxically, this spiritual and geographical journey would have been undertaken in reverse in the 1930s. Weimar Berlin provided the perfect starting point for any journey out of decadence and atrophy and the contemporaneous Los Angeles of the 30s would have been the longed for destination. Here was located the ultimate prize; the American Dream. Which brings us back to Isherwood…
PS Not sure where this leaves ‘Lodger’ but I’ve always looked past it anyway, as ‘Scary Monsters’ dominates the post-70s/pre-80s horizon.
PPS For what it’s worth, ‘StationtoStation’ is true genius at work. I believe it to be Bowie’s greatest creation. We shan’t see its like again.
Re the ‘stations to stations themselves’, the phrase ‘station to station’ appears in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove’, when Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) uses it to denote a type of call to the operator in his frantic attempt to call the US president from a pay-phone. Is there a connection? It’s certainly the only time I’ve encountered the phrase outside Bowie’s use of it, though presumably it was common enough in 1960s American telecommunications jargon. It’s interesting, though, the way Mandrake wracks his brain to remember the phrase, losing vital seconds in his bid to prevent nuclear war. Whether Bowie was aware is anyone’s guess, of course. Still, Kubrick had been an influence on both Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust.
CultureJudge, I had heard the phrase in a number of films, the magnificent Dr. Strangelove included, without knowing its meaning. I looked it up after reading your post, and according to wikipedia.com and dictionary.com it’s a long distance call which the caller agrees to pay for regardless of who answers, with charges beginning as soon as the call is answered. The phrase was commonly heard when such calls required operator assistance.
I wonder who (if anyone in particular) is the “you” that “drives like a demon from station to station”. The first section’s “Here am I…” and “Here are we…” verse-openers give a feel of the Thin White Duke addressing (serenading) the audience/listeners; kind of narrating really, but the address is ‘general’ – for all the audience members/listeners.
Section 1’s final verse (considering “The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts etc.” as book-ended choruses) shifts to a much more personal “There are you; you drive like a demon from Station to Station!”
(ASIDE) My first interpretation of that line was of a dementedly determined guy (or girl) recklessly speeding across a kind of desert landscape from radio station to radio station! I never sorted out what their purpose was. By the way, I still hold STS as Bowie’s greatest song; Sections 2 and 3 are beyond brilliant (and the contrast set up by the trudging first section can’t be quantified).
So, back to the demon-like driver; let’s back up to acknowledge this is the only occurrence in the song of the word ‘station’ and by extension, the song’s title. I’ve read here the assertion that there’s some connection with the “Stations of the Cross”. I don’t detect any connection – unless it could be in that line “You drive like a demon from station to station”.
Well, who are some candidates? There’s obviously Jesus, but immediately the “you” is not him. Jesus did not figuratively or literally “drive like a demon” from station to station of the cross – it’s more like he was driven (by those ubiquitous Roman guards, and helped a bit by a guy named Simon). And any demonic-imagery has no resonance with Jesus; it’s like he’s Teflon to that tag – it slides right off.
But Jesus’ being driven may be germane indeed.
It wouldn’t make sense for the “you” to be, say, an apostle (who were most likely terrified of being rounded up) and the “driving” imagery fails.
The women were reportedly there, but the only words we have to work with – “drive like a demon” can’t conceivably apply to them.
So, if indeed it’s a fact STS has a reference to the Stations of the Cross, it can only be in that line and the “you” who “drives like a demon from Station to Station” would have to be Satan, who is not onstage in the Gospel renditions, but not acknowledged does not necessarily mean not there. I’m reminded of the scene in the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”, when Jesus is tempted off of the cross, and a male individual, dressed in native/civilian garb, who seems to be beckoning, or gesturing (or working some magic) at Jesus right before the girl appears.
Personally, I don’t think Bowie meant the Angel formerly known as Lucifer in that line. And by extension I don’t perceive any link to the ‘Stations of the Cross’.
I would most definitely love to hear/read any explanations that provide some link with them, but they have to be supported by the material – the lyrics.
In a 1997 interview Bowie himself says STS is about the stations of the cross amongst other things. I agree its a masterpiece and difficult to decipher, when I first heard it at about 14 I had no idea of the layers of meaning but just loved it.
“Exactly how true is the story that you can’t remember making Station To Station?”
“Very true. I would say a lot of the time I spent in America in the ’70s is really hard to remember, (sighs) in a way that I’ve not seen happen to too many other artists. I was flying out there – really in a bad way. So I listen to Station To Station as a piece of work by an entirely different person. Firstly, there’s the content, which nobody’s actually been terribly clear about. The Station To Station track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross, All the references within the piece are to do with the Kabbala (a set of mystical instructions supposedly given to Moses on Mount Sinai and often said to have links with ritual magik). It’s the nearest album to a magik treatise that I’ve written. I’ve never read a review that really sussed it. It’s all extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say.”
Printed in Q magazine in 1997
Transcription at Bowiewonderworld website which has loads of old interviews to read.
I aways assumed “drive like a demon” meant to drive very fast and recklessly. This is in contrast to following the stations around a church when one is supposed to pause, pray and reflect. The “you” could refer to himself and his flitting from one thing to another.
Here’s an alternative decoding of what “Station to Station” means.
When one does cocaine, one can hardly wait to do more. “Station” could be code/slang/cant for wherever one breaks out a ‘thin white duke’. Driving like a demon from and toward these stations would be consistent considering the drug in said demon’s system and said demon’s presumed intrinsic want to do more. Though in a sense, the cocaine is driving the “you” to drive like a demon.
This reminds me of the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones”:
Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine.
Casey Jones, you better watch your speed;
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind!
Finally, the notion that DB et al., or whoever thought of dubbing anywhere they get a chance to do a bit more coke a “station” reminds me also of an interview done with the Grateful Dead around 1981-1982 on the Tom Snyder show, where some band members use the word “civilian” as a general term for a non-member. The correlation being the ‘inside joke’ or more precisely, the use of a word to mean something it doesn’t intrinsically mean.
Perhaps worth mentioning that Kraftwerk returned the homage with a tip of the hat in their song Trans Europe Express: “From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City, Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.”
And, who knows, maybe it was more than a hat tip. Perhaps Station to Station’s focus on trains was what inspired Kraftwerk to tackle that theme.
If this gets laughs I’ll understand. These things usually do, but I put these photos of Bowie and Conrad Veidt together for another purpose.
As Weimar cinema was one of Bowie’s chief interests and influences at the time, is it conceivable that he modeled his appearance after Veidt’s in Paul Leni’s expressionist The Man Who Laughs?
I think you’re right on it there. Well spotted!
surely surely surely this simple shot was no accident.
I thought it was ‘wonderful wonderful wonder when’. I felt he sang it as though there’s an implied ‘but’ in there which fits with that reading, but perhaps that was just my imagination.
Just found this site and what superb reading,
I’m so glad I found your site. What am amazing read.
Late to the party:
I always thought the Krautrock influences on STS were overstated, but listening to the first Neu! record, the transition from Sonderangebot to Weissensee sounds remarkably similar to the opening of this song, even down to the drum patter on Weissensee.
I recently finished your book and I must say, the very last line about how he went no further was such a powerful way to end it.
It’s true, but I never realized it before. I mentally break up the Bowie canon to “pre-Station to Station” and “post-Station to Station.”
I initially wondered why you stopped at StS, and while I’m sure it also probably had to do with word count, I now realize how clunky it would have been to try and include Low. They’re worlds away despite being so close together in time.
the thing i like about the Stage version is that he gets the words wrong and then has to mime to it on Christiane F.
and nobody seems to mention the Velvets and ‘Train coming round the bend’.
or maybe i missed a bit.
great blog i need hardly add.
great song too.
[…] Also also: intelligent knicks and knacks about Bowie’s lyrics and context at this site. […]
[…] Chris’s blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame is a richly detailed analysis of Bowie’s body of work. I’ve spent countless hours reading through the stories, the influences and the impacts of Bowie’s songs. His first book compiling and refining that analysis covers Bowie’s career up to 1976, finishing with an incredible piece on perhaps Bowie’s greatest work – the song Station to Station […]
(FIRST- I’m delighted to find your work here)
Bowies research into the European canon, funny how people see it spookily occult, it’s probably quite common for a European Buddhist to look for equivalents in our own cultural heritage, love how you’ve drawn this all together…
BUT it’s a song, and I reckon on first listening the european canon would be the European Cannon. For all the duke knows and abdicates… he’s pretty cocksure. He’s arrived, but none of his prior learnings can explain it. He is beyond the edge of his world.
It is the “European Cannon”.
[Takes deep breath] There are truly marvellous moments in this song, (esp. the opening vocal section) but, ultimately, for me, they don’t add up to the meisterwerk that a lot of you are feeling here (plus those poll results!).
The negatives, imo:
– 90 seconds of train noises is 70 seconds of train noises too much
– I don’t think the sections work as well together as the sections in, say, ‘Blackstar’. It still feels like three bits stuck together to me.
– Chris mentioned Belew’s getting too proggy in one performance. Well, for me, the middle section with “rapid chord progression” that Chris talks about in section 7. above is really rather proggy in itself, whoever’s playing. Reminds me of Genesis a bit.
– The final “elated” section may be creating an ironic distance between music and etiolated lyrics, but that still leaves the music sounding not a million miles from Elton John (and I mean *’good’* Elton John, but still…)
So, I like the song quite a lot. I love parts of it. But it’s not one of the very greats for me.
Now please be nice…I wear glasses (to protect me from the Duke’s darts, mainly…)
[…] with me, it was the euphoric sound of total disappointment. The author of the blog Bowiesongs has argued that “Station to Station” represents the peak of Bowie’s career, the moment when the explosive madness of his early years […]
that ‘cocaine…love’ line:
in Crowley’s Moonchild [a fun adventure w/ occult dollops]
the lovers in the beginning could have that as a motto.
& it may be obvious but ‘white stains’– AC’s erotic poem–
is a pun w/ seminal connotations but also occult, white being associated w/ Kether, ‘staining’ earthly malkuth with divinity?
No; Malkuth is the lowest ‘station’ on the Tree of Life; it represents the physical, material world. Sure, it’s dirty; but it’s the plane upon which our consciousness has the body-as-agent; like “the hand is the cutting edge of the mind”. This is the stage upon which we have the opportunity to manifest our own dreams or nightmares into real life.
Leaving Malkuth (only one way – up, though there are three possible next stations, you advance in spiritual endeavors. But everybody has to start at square/station one: Malkuth.
Kether is the highest station on the Tree; it’s called the “Crown”, “the Godhead”.
Malkuth, the lowest, is called the “Kingdom” (it’s an interesting and informative metaphor; a Crown is itself a symbol of sovereignty while the Kingdom is all that to which the sovereignty pertains.
The stations on the tree of life are not arranged linearly, the design has “bridges” or paths connecting each station to at least two others. For example, the two next highest stations, just below Kether (technically, they’re below and each one side, respectively) are Binah and Chokmah and there are paths connecting each to Kether – yea! even to each other.
I just love the 5th station – Tiphareth (the Beatific Vision),
The literal “magical movement” from Kether to Malkuth seems like it means God become incarnate. Huge drop! Think Lucifer plummeting though the Earth’s crust on Michaelmas.
By the way there is no path on the Tree of Life connecting Kether (the Crown, the highest station) directly to Malkuth.
I admit I’m actually quite the Neophyte (and that title may be grasping too high) about the Kabala and the Sephirot. I invite any/all corrections to my layman’s explanation; though I do feel I helped George there get a feel for how off he was.
I devoured most of Crowley’s works a few years back and periodically like a comet come around for more or for reminders.
I have a totally unrelated early interpretation I’ll lay out in a separate post.
Here is a new audio/video edit of “STS” from previously unseen Super-8 footage of the 1976 tour. It’s cut from a very small amount of film, because that’s all that was available. However, from what is there, there’s a good bit which is actually of Bowie singing “STS.” There are some editing tricks used, including some instrumental visuals which don’t totally sync up with the recording (from Live at Nassau 1976), but it’s still remarkable to see this, the only footage of DB singing this juggernaut from a time when it was still new. I didn’t put it together. Nigel at Nacho’s Video’s channel did. Have a look!
I read these blogs in weird orders. I often end reading about songs I think I know completely about at some random point.
This was easily one of your best ever posts! Amazing stuff, I learnt a lot!
[…] 7) Station to Station […]
The coda to Blackstar…the single, well heck, the flute sounds like it does on “Mandala” by Stomu Yamash’ta on The Man Who Fell To Earth OST.
Lovely post, well worthy of the song it deals with.
I disagree about the live versions – I’ve always thought the second half was played too fast live and doesn’t have the funkiness of the studio version. Also, you hit the nail on the head with
“On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song.”
…it’s so true, and the latter delivery is far better than the former. I also dislike the “Woo-oo-hOO-hoo” harmonies in the outro of the Stage version, they seem out of place.
One thing that’s bugged me is that the ’76 Nassau live version has a grandeur to the intro which I think is lacking from any other version (that bit when the synth comes in for the first F to G chord change is MASSIVE), but there’s no train noise, and it goes on for far too long.
(The song was always great though, however it was played)
It may be unrelated (is anything?), but the chugging intro of STS reminds me of the intro to Rainbow’s ‘Greensleeves’ (play ’em!). Perhaps the influence of long cokey days on the couch with Glenn Hughes?