Circus - March 1976
The Return Of The Thin White Duke
By Richard Cromelin
DAVID BOWIE, never one to maintain continuity in his work or in his life, has become more elusive than ever in the past year. The disco sound of Young Americans, the noisy split with Tony DeFries' MainMan management company, appearances on Cher and Soul Train, his first cinematic endeavour, The Man Who Fell To Earth, vague mention that he may play the lead in a film biography of Sinatra, persistent talk of his increasing interest in video systems and drugs this melange weaves a shroud of mystery and raises the question: Will the Philly bump 'n' hustle which he rightly calculated as his springboard to American chart success remain his stock-in-trade a while longer, leaving his staunch Ziggy-era fans alienated through another release?
With Station To Station (the RCA album's original title was Golden Years), Bowie answers the question with an emphatic "No." He also offers cryptic, expressionistic glimpses that let us feel the contours and palpitations of the masquer's soul but never fully reveal his face. If his R&B venture was a sidetrack, he now rejoins the main line.
"There was no specific sound in mind," says Harry Maslin, who succeeded Tony Visconti as co-producer of Young Americans and returned for Station to Station. "I don't think he had any specific direction as far as whether it should be R&B, or more English-sounding, or more commercial or less commercial. I think he went out more to make a record this time than to worry about what it was going to turn out to be."
Maslin has just finished listening to a new test acetate of the album ( the third, this one with more prominent high) up in the Beverly Hills offices of the new Bowie organization, Bewlay Bros. It's too late for anything but worry now, because Station to Station, begun in September, goes under the cutting block this mid-December day. A tired-eyed, stubble-chinned Earl Slick, one half of Bowie's guitar team since the Diamond Dogs tour, looks like the leader of a palace coup as he lounges in the plush leather chair behind the attorney's imposing desk. Maslin sits opposite, glancing at the sheet music that rests in his lap. They agree that Bowie's approach this time out was in sharp contrast to his Philadelphia capers.
"Young Americans was more cut and dried," Slick observes. "It was just what he wanted and that was that." Maslin adds: "I think basically he was trying to make a commercial album... He wanted to expand his acceptance, so he tried a little more Americanised direction."
That commercial challenge met, Bowie was free to take a more spontaneous tack when he went into Hollywood's Cherokee Studio with Young Americans veterans Slick, Carlos Alomar (guitar), and Dennis Davis (drums), along with new bassman George Murray and Bruce Springsteen's pianist Roy Bittan. Actually, "spontaneous" hardly says it.
"He had one or two songs written," says Slick, "but they were changed so drastically that you wouldn't know them from the first time anyway, so he basically wrote everything in the studio." Maslin: "To understand the way David works is to know that you can't understand the way David works. He's always changing things, just changing completely, so it's hard to tell at times what he's talking about. Right before the mixing we would change the lyrics of a song."
The title song's 10:08 time (it's the longest cut Bowie's ever issued), the depth of its complex textures, and its segmented structure qualify it as the album's most formidable challenge. "Yeah," laughs Slick, shaking his head slowly at the memory, "especially when he walks in and says 'I've got this new song that I haven't written yet'." Maslin says that, in effect, Station to Station is two songs in one, and that a "total environment" was the sonic goal.
"Bizarre" is Slick's prompt evaluation of the cacophonous opening. "That's the only word I can think of. It makes sense I don't know why I'm saying that, but it makes sense to me." Its source was a train section off a sound-effects record, doctored by Maslin with equalisation and unconventional phasing methods. (He got a little help from Bowie: "David was really into it... At times he was like a child playing with the sound.") Sombre piano chords set the tone while an insistent bass-drums-percussion pattern asserts itself beneath an urban-chaos miasma of sound beeps, hideous grinding, menacing footsteps and some wailing guitar feedback generated by Bowie and Slick width enough force to blow out three of their Marshall amps. "We both played all the way through the song," says Slick, "and then Harry took part of David's and part of mine and stuck them all together.
"When the tumult gives way, the R&B rhythm of Bowie's recent music combines with the old Bowie's distinctive melodic flair to form an infectious and atmospheric whole. Bowie's first verse, which apparently refers to himself, is a slow and deliberate chiller:
The return of the thin white duke
Throwing darts in lovers' eyes
Here are we, one magical moment
Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven.
"The Return of the Thin White Duke" was the song's original working title. The dream is one of anguished uncertainty and lingering hope, with overtones both eerie (the "Drive like a demon from station to station" bridge) and mystical (as in esoterica like, "...One magical moment from Kether to Malkuth"). Halfway along, it snaps into a furious, charging tempo, and the singer's vigorous search for belief is framed by a surging English rock sound which rolls to the finish over Bowie's repeated refrain: "It's too late to be grateful/It's too late to be late again..."
Among the cryptic lyrics appears the brash line, "It's not the side effects of the cocaine," perhaps a proud but polite acknowledgment of the circulating rumours. "I thought it was a little unusual for him to put that in there, but I'm glad he did," says Maslin. "He's probably tried it, like everybody else, but I wouldn't call him a cokey or anything like that."
The tracks went down pretty fast once we learned them," Slick recalls. Like Slick, Maslin came to think highly of Bowie's on-the-spot approach: "It's an advantage to go in fresh like that, without rehearsals. The band isn't stale on a song."
Bowie relied quite a bit on the band's creativity and on Maslin's technical suggestions, but the basic directives resulted from David's instincts at the moment. Slick tries to describe the musical conference with Bowie that led to his commanding guitar performance on Stay but gives up with a shrug. "He explained what you hear. He doesn't say normal words. I've been wrong with him for two years and I know what he wants just by..." He can't find the phrase to complete the thought.
Stay, a song of loneliness and love connections missed, is the album's most indisputably disco number. ("Dennis Davis," Maslin explains, "is a black drummer from New York, and that's where his roots are. Even when you had him play in a stricter rock & roll sense, you would still get that feeling out of him.") But as Slick himself observes, his guitar solo - a swirling, tortured, impassioned workout - takes the song in an entirely new direction. "It wasn't worked out in advance," he says. "I think I was feeling right that night too."
"I think you were a little spaced out that night," Maslin gently reminds him.
"I was very spaced out that night. It was done about five in the morning. I'd been waiting around four hours, drinking a lot of beer... Right, that was a beer song."
Bowie refers to Word on a Wing as his hymn. Is he being facetious? How intentional are the religious connotations of the lyrics? "I don't know about Word on a Wing, to tell you the truth," says Maslin. "I get different feelings from it. I love the song. It's just unexpected out of him." The "You" that Bowie addressees in the song could well be a person (though an exceedingly rare one, a perfect lover who brings him nothing short of enlightenment). But the tremulous reverence of his low register singing, the celestial soprano voice at the end (not from an angel, but a Chamberlain, a sophisticated version of the Mellotron), and the nature of the language suggest a more lofty object:
Sweet name you're born once again for me
Lord I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things...
Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on the wing
I don't stand in my own light...
I'm alive in you."
Has the Chameleon Kid got religion?
"That's what it sounds like to me too. I don't think he's into any specific kind of religion or philosophy. He's interested in them all, and mysticism, but I think David's too intelligent to try to follow one philosophy."
Like Maslin, Slick finally despairs of pinning him down. "Who knows what he's thinking at the time?" he asks with an air of affectionate exasperation.
As on Word, Bowie's vocal on Wild Is the Wind impresses Maslin as "an amazing singing job." They did seven vocal takes on the latter and ended up using the first an ornate, meandering reading of the intense love lyric which captures both its exaggerated romance ("You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins") and its undercurrent of desperate need ("Like the leaf clings to the tree/Oh my darling cling to me"). Bowie's aura and arrangement recall the mood he would evoke when performing Jacques Brel songs in concert.
Recording Station to Station's vocals was tricky from Maslin's standpoint. For one thing, Bowie wasn't terrifically mike-conscious, and Maslin had to work the board hard to keep things even. But he says, "the hardest problem is that he might change the words of a song from one time to the next, and if you engineer vocals the way I do, you have to know what he's trying to do to capture it the way you want. That doesn't mean I have to know the meaning of the words. I'm just talking about inflection and things like that. You've got to be totally aware.
"He's not as critical as most singers. As a matter of fact, he doesn't even consider himself a good singer. I think he mentioned that once, just a throw-out line - 'What's the difference anyway? I'm not a singer,' something like that. Kidding, but it shows that he is a little insecure about it probably. I think he's one of the best, because he's not into any one singing style. David's so versatile with his voice, that's one of the attractive things about him. Phrasing, mostly, is what he worries about because he's right on when it comes to intonation."
The singing style on TVC 15 hearkens back to Bowie's Man Who Sold the World/Ziggy days, sporting as it does that razor-like timbre that initially seems so fragile but in the long run proves invincible. Slick says the song "just came out of nowhere" and it sounds it. "That's a song about a television that ate his girlfriend," Maslin thinks. "David is very interested in electronics, he's very interested in video, and that's supposed to be the epitome of where it could go. A hologramic television set with anything you could fit into a television." Among Bowie's urgent but whimsical lyrics:
Each night I sit there pleading
Bring back my dream-test baby
She's my main feature
My TVC15 he just stares back unblinking
So hologramic, Oh my TVC15.
From start to finish, Golden Years is the purest descendant of the Young Americans sound, but even so the disco sound has been highly modified. It was one of the few songs the group rehearsed, the first they completed, and the one that immediately seemed right as the single pick. Maslin achieved the "round" quality of the backing voices by using an old, neglected RCA mike. (Similarly, he tried to utilise different microphones on Bowie's leads throughout the album to gain a variety in sound that would complement Bowie's stylistic diversity).
Station to Station was recorded on 24 tracks, a method that presented a stiff challenge to Maslin and his mere ten fingers on the final mix but which allowed great flexibility. They could for example, "waste" a channel on a single sound-effect which could then be tampered with at whim, and they were able to double instruments and voices live rather than mechanically.
Maslin and Slick remember fun times from the two and a half months of recording, but in the main it was serious, demanding work. "It was rigorous," says Maslin without hesitation. "We tried to keep it on a private basis. Not too many people in there usually no one... We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later. David knows exactly what he wants, it's just a matter of sitting there and doing it till it's done."
Maslin also has high regard for Bowie as a producer: "I think he's far more advanced than the average producer. He knows a great deal about technical things. He doesn't know everything, he's not an engineer, but he knows more about arranging a song, he knows more about how to relate to people and get what he wants out of them... If you listen to the rhythms specifically on this album, there are very strange things going on rhythmically between all the instruments... If nothing else, David's a genius when it comes to working out rhythmic feels. He was the mainstay behind it all."
At its various whistle stops, Station recalls in turn the density of The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory's pop feel, the dissonance and angst of Aladdin Sane, the compelling percussion style of Young Americans, and even a trace of the youthful mysticism of the early Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud. For now, it renders Young Americans a momentary (if musically important) diversion. And although Bowie retraces some past steps, Station to Station is much too strong and much too original to be classed as a rerun. At a time when, for him, it was becoming too late to be late again, it shows Bowie pulling out on the most challenging leg of his winding journey.
TO CLOSE WINDOW