The Return of the Thin White Duke
Richard Cromelin • Circus • 2 March 1976
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
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
"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
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
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'n'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 jet different feelings from it. I love the
song. It's just unexpected out of him." The 'You' that Bowie addresses
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 Chamberlin,
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
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/O 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 TVC15 hearkens back to Bowie's
Man Who Sold The World/Ziggy days, sporting as it does that razorlike
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 mic. (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
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
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.