IN MY PHYSICS textbook at school was an amazing photo of two galaxies colliding. Just imagine being on a planet in a system in either of those nebular spirals, watching all those heavenly bodies slide on by, because the odds were astronomically low that anything would collide. Far out!
Imagine those two galaxies to be records. More specifically, The Man Who Sold The World and Young Americans. If you were to be somewhere along the point where the two merged what you would hear is Station To Station.
This is Bowie's Christmas gift, recorded late last year on the spur of the moment. The title has several meanings, some of which are alluded to in the title song. Whether it's part of some overall concept is unclear since the cover isn't available, but if there is it's obscure.
I love this record. I love it because it rocks like a bitch, because it has stupid lines like , "It's not the side effects of her cocaine. I'm thinking that it must be love", and because Bowie has the sense of humour to not only mumble half the songs, but mix them so low down it's impossible to make out a word. When a person is confronted with a wedge like:
"Baby, you vibrate every,
Each night I sit there thinking,
Some mumble mumble my
She mumble mumblecher, her,
My TVC one-five. She's mumble mumble my baby"
he's not going to spend too much time listening to what the artiste has to say.
What makes this album such a wondrous slab of wax therefore is its sound content. The musicians 'include': Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, George Murray, and Roy Bittan.
Producing with Bowie is Harry Maslin. Bowie arranges, and that's where the album's beauty lies. This man knows how to keep the surprises coming, and when the band is hot – and it is indeed hot – well, Jack, the result is a pure delight from ears to toes and everything in between.
Get out your copy of 'Golden Years' and listen to it. Those ceaseless, insinuating guitars, how his falsetto "Angel" dives into the canyon, the swishing cymbals through the verse and the sharp attack as it slides into the chorus, those handclaps that hook in so precisely; how everything is devoted to propelling the song along its course without a pause for the view. It's one of the finest three minutes yet put on a single.
On the album it's a minute longer, remixed to add lots of brilliance and sparkle. It sounds even better.
Preceding it is the title track. To return to the opening metaphor, The Man Who Sold The World is ably represented by Earl Slick's paranoid Ronsonesque scrapings, with more than a touch of Diamond Dogs anarchic post-Crash dementia thrown in for good measure. Coupled with the beefed-up dance rhythms of Young Americans, it makes for an uneasy but compelling coalition. Funk in the wastelands. Aladdin Sane meets Cab Calloway.
All this is laid before you in 'Station To Station'. Opening with a steam train phasing from speaker to speaker, the band soon starts strangling a doom-laden riff out of their respective axes. Slick and Alomar sound like psychopathic chickens. Bowie lays low for several minutes, as he does throughout most of the long tunes, letting the musicians build the atmosphere. "The return of the thin white duke, Throwing darts in lovers' eyes"… Halfway through the tune's 10 minutes the band switch into flat-out dance rhythm while Bowie's thought is that "It's too late to be grateful. It's too late to be hateful".
'TVC 15' is the closest to a straight rock tune. What the title means I have no idea, and it is here that he mumbles more than ever. But the soundarama is at its peak, built on a dozen different Sixties riffs, Bittan's piano being particularly extraordinary. Through each verse Bowie provides vocal under-pinning by humming like a chorus of '30s crooners – what a card! Along with 'Golden Years', it's one of Bowie's best tunes. Watch for it as the next single.
The second side's magnum opus is 'Stay', which is one of the most uncompromising slices of overdrive funk yet to be recorded. Again, Bowie stays in the background, and on this outing the musicians really let go. Supposedly, the guitar raunch is Ron Wood, with Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark holding down the other end of the rhythm machine.
What I love most about this album is that its commitment to kicking arse and being A Great Record Of Our Time relies only minimally on its verbal/literary content. Which is to say, what a great sound! Let me play that again!
Sounds, 24 January 1976
© Jonh Ingham, 1976