Dave Amitri on Station to Station
When I started this Odyssey, this deep dive back into Bowie’s back catalogue, 12 albums that I’d never heard before at the back of my mind was the hope that somewhere I find some inspiration. Not for me you understand but for one of my musical heroes Billy Mackenzie. I’ve mentioned this often enough so apologies but for those who aren’t aware.. From what I’ve read about Billy and the Associates they were very much inspired by Bowie but so far I’d only found scraps. I was left disappointed and disillusioned by “Young Americans” a lovely mid-80’s yuppie coffee table style album. It’s ok, jazzy and smooth but it would sit comfortably alongside Sade’s “Diamond Life” or The Style Council’s “Cafe Bleu”, not exactly what I was looking for. I must admit I was left a little flat almost to the point of giving up hope but thanks to some words of encouragement on this website I decided to carry on and give “Station to Station” a go. I’m so glad I did. I’m delighted to say it was a worthwhile experience. Finally, perhaps, (no pun intended), perhaps I have found the spark that ignited a young Alan Rankine and a young Billy MacKenzie to make music. Music that really had a massive effect on me and that I still listen to and love today.
I’m going to try and stick to the Bowie theme but I am going to ask you to indulge me a little, accept my artistic licence and understand that I might get a little bit carried away with this one but please bear with me. They’re just my thoughts exactly as they popped into my head as I listened to “Station to Station” and I have listened to it a lot and not just for the sake of doing this article but because it is a fantastic album. I hope I can give you a sense of why I feel it’s that great and relevant over the rest of this piece.
So onto the album. I found a Rolling Stone article and I’m going to pinch this quote from it …
“Critic Lester Bangs, an outspoken Bowie skeptic, wrote that the album “has a wail and throb that won’t let up … a beautiful, swelling, intensely romantic melancholy.” Bowie, Bangs concluded, “has finally produced his (first) masterpiece.”
I can’t argue with that so onto the title track…
“Station To Station “ From the first few seconds of it’s industrial intro I was reminded of the first Associates album “The Affectionate Punch” and “Logan Time”, “A”, “Transport To Central” all those wonderfully hypnotic, ethereal and enthralling songs. The first 6 minutes are a template for an electronic movement that exploded after punk. Vocally there are real comparisons to be made between Bowie and MacKenzie. I wish I knew the technical terms but in the lower register when the words are almost spoken it is uncannily similar. It’s impossible not to imagine Rankine and MacKenzie in a bedroom in Dundee listening to this song and forming their own ideas on the theme. Was this the Associates “big bang” moment? I suspect so….. But of course this is David Bowie so he does return to David Quoie for the last 4 minutes along with some guitar work that wouldn’t be out of place if used by The Darkness. A strong, exciting start.
“Golden Years” next. The hit. This is where I start to wonder if I’m hallucinating. I hear “Club Country” in the rhythms, the flow, the beat, when Bowie sings “Angel”. I don’t know. I just feel it maybe it was a subconscious influence on The Associates or maybe I just really want it to be there…… But of course this is David Bowie and it’s a Stevie Wonder inspired track that’s one hell of a groove. What a song. One of those Bowie “hits” that you’ve heard too often but when you really hear it, man, it’s wonderful.
“Word On A Wing” is a lovely song that takes me straight to some of the later solo Billy MacKenzie material especially that found on the posthumously released “Beyond The Sun”. Strangely there was a review posted today on “The Affectionate Bunch” Facebook page which mentions Billy’s brazen Bowie/Ferry infatuation and also this line which I’m having THAT voice, sighing and smouldering and soaring to new heights of magnificent self obsession That could account for Bowie’s vocal on “Word On A Wing” too…… But of course this is David Bowie and he takes the song off on a Jim Steinmanesque journey to it’s glorious conclusion. Dramatic and overblown but somehow just right in the way other attempts on other albums left me cold.
TVC15 has fewer Associates references for me apart from the opening “Oh oh oh oh oh” I can’t hear anything else really…. But of course this is David Bowie and every album has had one that I can call my least favourite song on the album. The boogie woogie piano, the repetition of the title it just sounds like a really 70’s song.
“Stay” comes next. Wow! Where do I start? How do I unpick this? So I’ll start with what could be me most out there reference point and this hit me from the first time I heard it. The part where Bowie sings an elongated “Stay” immediately put me in mind of the elongated “So” sung by Billy in “Party Fears Two”. Once I’d heard that, much like the “Golden Years” / “Club Country” mash up I can really hear a similarity in feel and vocal. Obviously it’s nothing like “Party Fears Two” but my fevered mind can’t shake the feeling that it was an influence on parts of the song. There are other moments where Bowie’s vocal can clearly be heard when Billy MacKenzie is toning down the operatic side of his voice. I would love to get my thoughts in front of Alan Rankine, maybe Facebook will allow that to happen… But of course this is David Bowie and he takes his “Young Americans” groove of into the stratosphere with “Stay”. It’s a funky, dirty, gloriously driven song which Bowie sings perfectly. The outro is a crazy mix of Santana and Isley Brothers guitar. His best 6 minutes? Maybe. I love it…
“Wild Is The Wind” closes the album. A song I heard first sung by Billy on “Transmission Impossible”. I’ve since discovered there’s probably more singers that haven’t covered it than have since it was it was used in the film of the same name in 1957. Nina Simone, George Michael, Bon Jovi, the list goes on. Billy’s version will always be the definitive one for me. His control, his range, the moments he holds back and the moments he really soars is extraordinary. Of course he would never have sung it had it not been for Bowie’s version on “Station To Station” so for that one certainty alone “Station To Station” will have it’s place in my heart… But of course this is David Bowie and he just doesn’t have that range vocally, he can’t soar so he stretches and breaks a little but that gives his version a fragility that is quite moving. The fact that the band play like a wedding band behind him is something I can’t figure out but it’s Bowie and he does what he does and people love him for it. Right now, I love him for it too.
I once wrote…
“For some reason I don’t quite understand Billy effects me more than any other pop star. Something about his ridiculous talent alongside his suffocating vulnerability and self doubt constantly draws me back.”
To now find this album that in my mind appears to be a moment, the conception, the beginning of what became The Associates and put me inside the heads of Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine in 1977 is quite something. Maybe after 7 months of searching like a desperate archaeologist or genealogist finding a pot from the local store and desperately trying to age it at 10000 years I’m hearing something that isn’t there but in the spirit of these posts I’m putting it out there for dissection by my peers….. But of course this David Bowie his imagination, his sense of drama, his refusal to conform, need to take risks and his invention has frustrated, confused and delighted me in equal measure over those 7 months. Even on this album there is some really unusual musical weirdness that made me scratch my head. It’s a great album and one I’ll definitely listen to again. I’m looking forward to the Berlin Trilogy with renewed enthusiasm for what I’ll find next. “Station To Station” will take its place in my collection. A mosquito set in amber from which the DNA of a band and singer that effect me like no other was extracted to create something remarkably similar while remaining thrillingly different.
(There’s a link below to a piece I wrote on The Associates for Toppermost that some of you might enjoy. Do you hear what I hear?)