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Station To Station: How A Crossroads Took David Bowie To New Realms
In Depth

Station To Station: How A Crossroads Took David Bowie To New Realms

Helping him overcome a personal crisis, the ‘Station To Station’ album was a ‘magick treatise’ that saw David Bowie wave goodbye to rock.

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Half a decade after writing himself into fame with the intergalactic rock messiah Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie was in danger of crash-landing – just like Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial he had assumed the role of throughout August 1975 in Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of Walter Tevis’ sci-fi novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Though he looked healthier than he had in a while during the shoot, which took place in New Mexico, and for which Bowie, in deference to the demands of the movie, resolved to lead a clean life, when he returned to Los Angeles, preparing to work on what would become his new album, Station To Station, Bowie was at a spiritual, psychological and artistic crossroads that would eventually lead to one of his greatest albums – but not before a reckoning with himself, and with what he called “demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plane”.

Listen to Station To Station here.

“I was out of my mind, completely crazed”

Where Philadelphia soul had influenced the sound and style of his previous album, Young Americans, The City Of Angels now had Bowie in a malign grip. “Los Angeles, that’s where it all happened,” he later told the NME. “The fucking place should be wiped off the Earth.”

“It all” was not only the Station To Station recording sessions, which took place from September through November 1975 in Hollywood’s Cherokee Recording Studios – chosen by co-producer Harry Maslin for the relative anonymity it afforded them compared to higher-profile facilities such as Sunset Sound and Capitol Studios – but the lifestyle that led Bowie to the personal crisis he sought to resolve on the album.

“It was a dangerous time. I was doing too much, with too small a handful of what one might call real friends,” Bowie admitted to journalist Cameron Crowe. He’d not been alone in embracing the excesses available to a global rock star in the mid-70s, but the psychological fall-out that seemed to be coming would frame Station To Station and, ultimately, lead Bowie into entirely new phases, both personally and creatively.

“It’s a blur, topped off with chronic anxiety”

“I had this more-than-passing interest in Egyptology, mysticism, the Kabbalah, all this stuff that is inherently misleading in life,” Bowie recalled in 1983. Black magic, Aleister Crowley’s late-19th-century collection of occultist poetry, White Stains, and the Stations Of The Cross also filled his head. Pushing himself to extremes, Bowie kept increasingly long hours (“There’s things that you have to do to stay up that long,” he later acknowledged) that would see him enter a “hallucinogenic state” in which he envisioned “this bizarre nihilistic fantasy world of oncoming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism”. To Crowe, he reported seeing a body fall past his apartment window, so had taken to living with the blinds drawn, lighting black candles and scrawling chalk symbols around the place, in the hopes of warding off evil spirits.

“It’s a blur, topped off with chronic anxiety, bordering on paranoia,” Bowie said of what was “probably one of the worst periods of my life”.

Though Bowie’s instinct for a headline-grabbing interview could conceivably have led to embellishments for the press, in the years that followed he always insisted he’d been “out of my mind, completely crazed” during the Station To Station sessions. In retrospect, Bowie would come to see the album as “a plea to come back to Europe for me… one of those self-chat things one has with oneself from time to time”, but he also claimed not to remember the sessions that produced it (“I know it was recorded in LA, because I read that it was,” he joked).

“I’ve rocked my roll”

To outsiders, Bowie seemed to be working on a natural follow-up to Young Americans. Knocked off quickly, and issued as a single in November 1975, Golden Years was an assured piece of catchy funk that went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic and, along with Young Americans’ Fame, earned Bowie a performance on Soul Train, making him one of the first white musicians to appear on Don Cornelius’ iconic TV show. As sessions for Station To Station unfolded, however, it became clear that Bowie was pursuing an entirely different vision, and was spending more time than ever in the studio trying to capture it.

With Golden Years in the bag, and Bowie’s stock still high in the US, where Young Americans had gone Top 10 and Fame had hit No.1, Harry Maslin “felt we could take some artistic risks on Station To Station”, he told Record Collector in 2011. “Consequently, I decided to push for musical innovation rather than load the album with potential radio hits.”

Bowie, too, was of a mind to move beyond anything he’d previously achieved. An assertion that, “I’ve rocked my roll… There will be no more rock’n’roll records or tours from me,” and claims to have been variously working on an autobiography (or several) and one or more movie scripts, were received as evidence of Bowie’s retirement from music; but they could just as easily have been indicative of the “boring dead end” he felt rock’n’roll had become, and which he was determined to transcend, asserting: “The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer.”

“He wanted to do the music the way he heard it”

At ten minutes long, Station To Station’s ambitious title track was a statement of intent that drew upon Germany’s burgeoning experimental scene, spearheaded by such groups as Kraftwerk and Neu!, and which Bowie filtered through the frenetic funk workouts that his band – anchored by a powerhouse rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis – could effortlessly turn out, while Bowie interrogated the very concept of rock’n’roll music. One directive to lead guitarist Earl Slick effectively hijacked one of the original rock’n’roll pioneers for his own ends: “Take a Chuck Berry riff and play it all the way through the solo… over and over again, even though the chords are changing underneath,” he said. Screaming the opening feedback sound he wanted at the guitarist was, Bowie later claimed, “about all I remember” of the sessions, which often lasted for days on end, with perhaps a couple of days’ break when he needed to recharge.

“I loved those sessions because we were totally open and experimental in our approach,” Maslin recalled. Without worrying about what his record label, RCA, felt he should be doing, Bowie “felt this was time to feel free. He wanted to do the music the way he heard it.”

What he heard was a maelstrom of mannered European music and angular funk that remains unique, not only in Bowie’s body of work, but in the history of music. But if the opening title track found him surveying his own fragile state of mind – “bending sound”; seeking spiritual salvation; experiencing feelings that, if they weren’t “the side-effects of the cocaine”, then surely they “must be love” – it also found him summoning his final character in a series of alter egos that had begun when David Jones first changed his name to David Bowie, and which, after giving himself over to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, now manifested in The Thin White Duke.

Dramatically entering the song “throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”, the Duke, with his haughty demeanour, slicked-back auburn hair and monochrome clothing – white shirt, black slacks and waistcoat – was, in Bowie’s estimation, a “nasty character, indeed”. But he also pointed the way to his creator’s eventual rescue from LA. Acknowledging the new musical influences Bowie was gravitating towards, the Duke, “flashing no colour”, drinking “to the men who protect you and I”, declared: “The European canon is here.”

“I’m not in love with music. I don’t treat it as sacred”

In all its fractured imagery and ambitious amalgamation of musical styles, Station To Station’s title track felt “like a bridge to the future”, Bowie told Cameron Crowe, establishing a new creative process that would see him through the remainder of the 70s. “I’m not in love with music,” he told Creem magazine. “I’m not one of those people who treat it as sacred. You’ve got play around with it or it gets to be a dreadful bore.” Pulling apart the notions of conventional songwriting, Bowie would bring formative ideas to the core group of Alomar, Murray and Davis in the studio, fashioning finished wholes out of an array of takes that turned these fragments inside out. “He had one or two songs written, but they were changed so drastically that you wouldn’t know them from the first time anyway,” Earl Slick told Circus magazine.

“I’m sure it was a call for help”

Working this way, the rest of the album switched from yearning ballads to heavy grooves which, in the shape of Stay, straddled the two and provoked a career-best performance from Carlos Alomar, whose dense rhythm guitar drives the six-minute song over the finishing line. In the middle of it all was TVC 15, a piece of light relief somewhat played for laughs, insofar as it alluded to an unlikely scenario in which Iggy Pop’s girlfriend was eaten by her TV (“It’s a song about a holographic television, smarter than its owner,” Bowie told Cameron Crowe, adding that it was “the only piece of fiction on the album”.)

But while Bowie would later claim Station To Station was so “devoid of spirit” that “even the love songs are detached”, it contains two remarkable outpourings of emotion that are almost painful in their defencelessness. A “hymn” which Bowie also felt “sure… was a call for help”, Word On A Wing was written during The Man Who Fell To Earth shoot, and finds Bowie plainly seeking spiritual salvation amid “the darkest days of my life”. “It was the first time I’d seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth,” he revealed to the NME, adding that it “was a protection. The passion on the song is genuine.” Closing the album, Wild Is The Wind – a cover of a 50s film tune which Bowie had discovered through Nina Simone’s 1966 recording – was similarly yearning. With a vocal nailed in one take, it marked yet another progression for Bowie, in terms of his abilities as a singer. Having long admired Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, Wild Is The Wind proved he had the range and nuance to take his place alongside them as one of the all-time great vocalists.

“It’s the nearest album to a magick treatise that I’ve written”

Released on 23 January 1976, Station To Station hit No.5 in the UK and went two places higher in the US, peaking at No.3. Hailed by the NME as “one of the most significant albums released in the last five years” (and later named their second-best album of 1976) and by Circus magazine as “the most challenging leg” of Bowie’s “winding journey”, it also led Rolling Stone to echo Bowie’s own prior declarations about “boring” rock’n’roll: “one wonders how long he’ll continue wrestling with rock at all”.

For Bowie, however, Station To Station went beyond music, into another realm entirely. “It had a certain magnestism that one associates with spells,” he later felt. Elsewhere, he described it as “an extremely dark” record that was “the nearest album to a magick treatise that I’ve written. I’ve never read a review that fully sussed it.” Pushing both his sound and psyche to their extremes had not only resulted in a masterpiece, but in creative and psychological breakthroughs that would ensure his next moves were even more audacious.

In the case of Bowie’s relocation to Europe, one of those moves would be literal, and would find him laying the blueprint for the future of music, starting with the first album in his “Berlin Trilogy”, 1977’s Low. However, a deep psychological change had also taken place. Two decades after Station To Station’s release, Bowie reflected on how he had been “lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I was really killing myself, and that I had to do something drastic to pull myself out of that”.

Ten albums and 12 years into his career, Bowie had reconnected with himself and found a kind of peace: “I’ve given up adding to myself,” he revealed. “I’ve stopped trying to adapt.”

Check out our best David Bowie songs to see which Station To Station tracks made the grade.

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