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Beautifully numb

Would there have been post-punk without the appearance in the winter of 1976 of David Bowie’s quite devastatingly brilliant tenth album Station to Station?

columns Updated: Oct 15, 2010 23:58 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Would there have been post-punk without the appearance in the winter of 1976 of David Bowie’s quite devastatingly brilliant tenth album Station to Station? With the likes of Roxy Music spreading their rococo rox and Joy Division springing their chiselled gloom through their own trajectories, I would think yes. Whether the post-punk revival of the last decade would have sustained and grown like untended grass beneath our feet today without this album is another matter.

Listening to any track from Station to Station today, you’d be hard-pressed not to think that this is coming from an amazing, unheralded contemporary of The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Interpol, the Strokes and all those blokes who have brought style back into music. With this album, Bowie officially jumped track from his glam rock sound, moving into a zone where lush advertised a certain emotional stand-offishness, where the layered sound of numbness is vuxe reissue box set of Station to Station was released to the sound of subsonic mandolins. With a price tag of Rs 5 short of five grand, this may seem steep. But for Bowie fans, aesthetics is all and were it not for the fact that one has to open the box to play the music inside, I would have framed it on the wall next to my Egon Schiele print. Along with the original six-song album remastered and the 1985 CD master (there is a big difference in the bass and treble sounds in the two), there’s the five singles from the album on a CD, and two other CDs featuring the until-now bootlegged concert at Nassau Coliseum, New York, in 1976, as well as the Station to Station vinyl and a double LP of the Live album. (Playing Bowie LPs on your turntable, as opposed to CDs on your system or iTunes on your iPod, seems to be the right thing to do.) Along with all the music is the luscious treasure trove of a 24-page booklet (oh, the joys of liner notes!), publicity photos of Bowie, a replica of the Nassau gig ticket, a poster and many other knick-knacks.

But the music. Yes, the music. The album was recorded during a period when Bowie, living in Los Angeles, was strictly on a red peppers, cocaine and milk diet. He had also just come out of playing the lead role of an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s cult film The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was the role in the film, mixed with his state of mind that made Bowie ‘live’ the character of the Thin White Duke, an immaculately attired gent whose personality was that of an emotionless, hollow man. Bowie’s method-acting performance of the Thin White Duke was part-cabaret (thus the dollops of 20s German Expressionist aesthetics in the concerts), part kraut-rock a la Nuremberg rallies.

The title track starts with a stupendous architecture of sound. Bowie introduces the character of the Thin White Duke as a Grand Guignol. The music is sinister and majestic, and when his whirring voice enters the stage, joining the predatory stomps, it sounds like precision clockwork. “The return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes...” to which he adds with a heavy wink: “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine/ I’m thinking that it must be love.” The irony is driven home with mad merry-go-round loudness.

‘Golden years’ is a get-down-on-it song marinated in disco. If you sense Bowie doing an Elvis, you’re right — he offered the song to the burger-addicted Elvis Presley who turned it down. The cabaret-style piano fits in perfectly with the rhumba drums in the faux-religious ‘Word on a wing’, “In this age of grand illusion/ You walked into my life/ out of my dreams/ I don’t need another change.” Bowie calls it the closest he came to a ‘born-again’ situation at a time when he needed to hold on to something solid. The track has the solidity of sand inside a sandclock.

The bar-room levity of ‘TVC15’ is a foray back into glam rock where Bowie tells the story of a woman who disappears into a television set and the man wants to follow her. Apparently, the song’s based on Bowie’s friend Iggy Pop having a drug-fuelled hallucination in which he thought his girlfriend was lost in the TV set. What follows is the guitar jingle-jangle that takes us into ‘Stay’, a funk-fuelled, cocained soundtrack.

But it is the final track, ‘Wild is the wind,’ that stops us from breathing. This is Bowie’s finest moment as a singer. He is smouldering in his version of Nina Simone’s 1966 cover of the 1957 original written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and sung by Johnny Mathis. Station to Station, like ‘Wild is the wind’, is a breath-stopping album about the desire to — and the accompanying inability to — feel. Arguably, this is one of Bowie’s finest albums; inarguably it’s his most powerful.