Harry Maslin, who succeeded Tony Visconti as co-producer
of Young Americans and returned for Station To Station: "There was no specific sound in mind. 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."
Earl Slick (guitar): "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.
Slick: "He had one or two songs written 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."
Station To Station
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."
Slick: "The tracks went down pretty fast once
we learned them."
Maslin: "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.
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
Word On A Wing
Bowie refers to Word On A Wing as his hymn. Is he
being facetious? How intentional are the religious connotations
of the lyrics?
Maslin: "I don't know about Word on a Wing, to tell
you the truth. I get 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 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?
Maslin: "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."
Slick: "Who knows what he's thinking at the time?"
The singing style on TVC 15 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
Slick: "The song just came out of nowhere. That's
a song about a television that ate his girlfriend."
Maslin: "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."
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.
Stay, a song of loneliness and love connections missed,
is the album's most indisputably disco number.
Maslin: "Dennis Davis 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."
Maslin: "I think you were a little spaced out
Slick: "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."
Wild Is The Wind
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
Maslin: "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."
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
"Kirlian photo by DB - Apr 1975" shows the side effects of the cocaine evident on his forefinger - "left - before consuming coke; right - after 30 mins".