To celebrate Record Store Day, I revisit Bowie’s magnificent, troubled/euphoric classic…
So it’s Record Store Day today, so I’ve got to play a record. It’s the law. But what to play? Bit of Bowie, surely? Bowie’s back in the zone at the mo, thanks to his first album in ages and that V&A exhibition that I can’t wait to see. I’m a big Bowie fan, but I’m not a blinkered one – the new album is good, just as good as the last few Bowie albums in fact, but I’m not falling for all that ‘greatest comeback ever’ hype. It’s not even the best comeback this year (stand up, My Bloody Valentine), but never mind, it’s still good. But I’m not going to talk about that today. I’m going to talk about Station to Station. Is it my favourite Bowie album? Probably not. It could be Low. It could be ‘Heroes’. On a really weird day, it might even be Lodger. That’s right, I’m a mid-to-late seventies Bowie nut, though stuff like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Scary Monsters, Hunky Dory, all amazing classics. God, I love Bowie. But the 1976-1979 era is my favourite, and Station to Station is one hell of an epic album. I played that one today because I wanted more than anything to listen to the title track, which might be my all-time favourite Bowie song. That there are five extraordinary songs to follow is the icing on the cake. Yep, that’s right, Station to Station is only six songs long. Now, on CD that feels too short, but on vinyl, it works. To be fair, one of the six songs is over ten minutes long, and the others are far from brief, so it lasts as long as an average 1970’s LP. And even though it only lasts six songs, it feels like a proper album – we’re taken on a journey, and in nice vinyl fashion, each side mirrors each other with an epic floor-filler to begin with, a lean, beautiful funk monster to follow and a lovely, lovely ballad to close.
Another reason I chose Station to Station today is because it really does sound different on vinyl than it does on CD. There’s always been the argument that vinyl sounds better than CD, that vinyl is ‘real’ and ‘alive’ and that CD’s are ‘lifeless’ and ‘flat’. Now I agree with the former – vinyl does have that extra dimension in the sound that I can’t quite convey, a spatial, three-dimensional ‘extra-ness’, but I don’t go for the whole ‘CDs sound crap’ belief. I’ll be honest that I do find it difficult to work out the difference between so-called excellent sounding CDs and so-called rubbish sounding CDs. Digitally remastered? Most of the time I wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between a CD from 1987 and a remastered version from a couple of decades later. The only time I did notice more happening in the sound was with the Beatles and the Decca-era Stones reissues, which really did sound amazing. I guess a lot of it also has to do with how good your audio equipment is. Mine’s alright, good but not exactly top of the line. However, Station to Station clearly sounds different on CD. It sounds lower. When I first heard it, it was a taped copy from vinyl – and I thought it was the best thing ever. Then I bought the CD and there was something…..a little off about it. It didn’t sound the same. It still sounded great though, so I stuck with it. After a while, I got used to it – after all, I didn’t have a portable cassette player, so I wasn’t going to be taking the tape outside with me. When the mp3 took off, obviously it was the CD version that I had transferred to my iPod. However, when I began accumulating Bowie on vinyl, I rediscovered Station to Station as I had originally heard it, this time in LP form as opposed to tape. And yes, it sounded like it used to. Higher. Not higher as in helium-affected, but just lighter, I suppose?
The thing is, there’s barely any mention of the vinyl/CD differences of this album online – there’s one review on amazon which notes an alteration in tempo, but apart from that, nothing. So when Station to Station got reissued in 2010 with the hype promoting as being remastered from the original analogue tapes, I thought –‘nice one’, it’ll sound just like the LP. Except it didn’t. It sounded just like all the previous CDs (well, the 1999 and 1990 versions that I’d heard anyway). The ludicrous £100+ Super Deluxe Edition boasted the original 1985 CD remaster, which I was curious about – maybe that one would sound like the LP? However, all references to it mark it down as sounding more or less identical to the 2010 version. Would I ever be able to have my beloved album on CD the way I wanted it to sound? I had to take matters into my own hands, transferring the album from LP to my computer. Now I can listen to it on the go whenever I like. However, there’s still something very special about listening to it direct from vinyl, which is what I did today.
Station to Station – the album and the song – begins with the (real? artificial?) sound of a steam train, the sound of the album slowly gearing up, with the band entering the scene, mimicking the gears of the vehicle gradually picking up the pace, chugging and whistling along the tracks. No Bowie album had started like this – they all started with a bang, a statement, a proper ‘choon’, not a choo-choo. It’s a weird opening, giving the hints of the sonic revolution to come over his next few albums, but Station to Station as an album isn’t as out there as his Berlin/Eno trilogy. The other five songs are all radio-friendly, and even this opening track, once it gets going, is pretty commercial. Still, the seeds are being sown, the promise of things to come stated here, most evidently in his ‘The European canon is here’ proclamation, which signalled the end of his love of the US (most evident on Young Americans). The soul-funk of his previous album is refined even more so on Station, but the effect is less pastiche and more a melding of those genres with something a little off-kilter. Just a read of the lyrics to this title track are enough to sway you – the mystical allusions and weird imagery are magnificently vivid. Once the words begin, the music changes to some kind of rigid-robo funk that sees the band interplaying beautifully (Bowie’s band during this era was his most alive and thrilling) as Bowie unleashes all these wonderfully weird evocations, sung absolutely amazingly, the voice of a master, a one-off, a cracked genius at the height of his magical powers. Around the halfway-mark, the tune swerves into a five-or-so minute stretch of astonishing disco-funk heaven where some kind of nirvana is attained and prolonged, and god you just want to dance your arse off something silly. Guitars soar, squeal , shriek and strut, bass and drums keeps it tighter than tight, piano rolls and twinkles, voice and words combine to shattering effect. This final stretch of ‘Station to Station’ is the sound of an artist at the peak of their powers. This song is only ten minutes. I wish it lasted longer.
So yes, it does fade out sadly, but ‘Golden Years’ is straight after, so we’re hardly coming down at this stage. ‘Golden Years’ was the big single from this album, and it says an awful lot about Bowie that a song this good can be relegated to the second-tier of Bowie’s most well-known 45s. I mean, the beat and the funk laid down on this song is just so damn shiny and smooth, it arguably knocks all of Young Americans down and out, and that had amazing stuff like ‘Fame’ and ‘Fascination’ on it. More beautiful vocals (just listen to the way he sings ‘angel’), a killer guitar lick, some sweet whistling near the end, and an outro that I’d love to be able to loop and play forever if I was clever at that sort of thing. ‘Word on a Wing’ is the first side’s big, big ballad, an ode to none other than God that I’d normally be ambivalent towards but can’t help falling dumstruck for. I’m going to keep banging on about Bowie’s vocals on this album but they really are wonderful. Is this song genuine? Is it real? Is this a real symphony to the man upstairs or is it just an act? I mean, Bowie was going on about his euphoria not having anything to do ‘with the side effects of the cocaine’ a few songs before, a statement that I’m not sure rings true on an album he doesn’t even remember making because he was so out of it. Bowie does sing in character now and then (he did after all create the first pop alter-ego in Ziggy Stardust – sorry, Ringo’s Billy Shears on Sgt. Pepper doesn’t count), and obviously his adeptness at musical shape-shifting has led to accusations of dilettantism. He can put in as much passion in his own songs like this as he does in cover versions like the last song on this album. Is he ‘real’? I don’t care. I believe in ‘Word on a Wing’, which is a perfect example in how to do overwrought vocal drama. I mean, he really gives a beautiful performance here, the sound of a man made small by the sheer presence of the Almighty or Whoever, and it’s sound of someone humbled, and yet when Bowie get all emotional, I do smile – I don’t know why, but it’s the sheer theatrical beauty of the delivery, the kind that makes you want to sing to it as well, the kind of voice that full of highs and lows, but not in a ‘more is more’ kind of way. More the feeling an actor must get when he gets a really juicy, meaty role to get his teeth into. ‘Word on a Wing’ also has a really lovely fade-out, nothing but a lone choirboy voice and an eerie organ solo, the perfect kind of gentle shimmer into quiet that you can end an LP side on.
So we flip over, and we get ‘TVC15’, the other single, the one influenced by Iggy Pop’s dream about his girlfriend being sucked into a TV set or something. Some splendidly jolly piano rolling here, and some ‘uh-oh-oh-uh-oh’ vocals to begin with, and then a super-catchy funk-riff that’s so deliriously silly, leading to the big singalong of the chorus, oh but not before that ‘transmission….transition’ strut of the bridge, genius all of it. ‘TVC15’, like ‘Golden Years’, hits a terrific stride at the end, working its chorus into a fervour that I wish would never end. But if it didn’t end, we’d never get ‘Stay’, which is the song that pointed me towards this album in the first place. Bowie performed it during his killer Glastonbury set over a decade ago, and I was thinking – ‘ I love Bowie, where has this song been all my life?’. This could have been a single, it’s got a fantastic groove, a yearning chorus, thrilling guitar, a funky beat – that Bowie could have songs this good hidden away on his albums gives you an idea of just how prolific and relentlessly brilliant he was during the seventies. ‘Wild is the Wind’ is the obligatory Bowie cover version, and this is definitely one of the best covers he has done. Usually his cover songs are the weakest songs on his albums (‘It Ain’t Easy’, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, ‘Across the Universe’, er….all of Pin-Ups), but this is just glorious, a passionate, stunning, heartbreaking, elegant and magisterial ballad – I don’t go for Frank Sinatra, but I can imagine him crooning this one. This is a real drink-in-one-hand, alone at the bar or singing under the spot-light of a melancholy stage, film-noir end-credits heartbreaker of a song. It ends the album in a strangely retro-mood, far away from the futuristic style of the first track. I’m not even sure if it fits with the rest of the LP, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. And that’s it. That’s Station to Station. Some call it the best Bowie album. Is it? Impossible to decide. All I can say is that it forms part of the greatest run of albums ever. And yes, it sounds bloody fantastic on vinyl.
EDIT: There are some interesting (if occasionally completely over my head) discussions of Station to Station and its various incarnations over LP and CD on this message board: