Having looked at the film that spawned him, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jokerside sneaks a look at David Bowie’s last great character, the Thin White Duke who was anchored in the extraordinary 1976 album Station to Station.
IN 1975 THE THIN WHITE DUKE WALKED FROM NEW MEXICO INTO THE CHEROKEE RECORDING STUDIO IN LOS ANGELES, DRAGGING DAVID BOWIE WITH HIM. The Duke would prove to be Bowie’s last great ‘character’ creation, a personality immersed in a concept album, but one of such magnitude it was no doubt part of the reason the artist retreated from major persona changes ass the 1980s drew near.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the album carried by that dapper, fascistic, enigma Jokerside looked at The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not only Bowie’s first major film role, but the glint of hope that broke through the drug-addled malaise that had brought him to the door of the dark and arcane, giving him just enough strength to assemble one of his greatest records; a 38 minute biography of struggle and a call for change.
In 1975, Bowie had talked of personal cost of assuming the Ziggy persona, not his first alter-ego but the first that could sustain a globe-straddling phenomenon. Bowie had in part become Ziggy, a character defined by excess and in that assumed position Ziggy had entered the United States. As a pre-fabricated star on the scale of Elton John, it was a constant performance. Within months Ziggy had morphed into Aladdin Sane, he of the more familiar lightning bolt make-up, popularly thought of as Ziggy on Tour. The album that followed lacked the concept cohesion of The Rise and Fall but was breathtakingly expansive, already foreshadowing the disco glam of Diamond Dogs and the plastic soul that would follow in 1975’s Young Americans. 1975 was also the year, on the back of Diamond Dogs, before the release of Young Americans Bowie also declared rock n’ roll a “toothless old woman”. Well, he steered clear of rock for a good few months.
“In this age of grand illusion”
But what a difference a couple of years made. Aladdin Sane showed how quickly the America that Bowie couldn’t take to had almost instantly informed his writing, recorded in bursts between legs of Bowie’s first American tour. At the tail-end of ‘75, having been consumed by and a consumer of New York and Los Angeles, Station to Station would both compounded his American adventure and set him on a path back to Europe. The album that emerged in January 1976 wasn’t just a break but also a cathartic expression of Bowie’s persona and measured record of his transition from the soul infused and drug ravaged Young Americans period through to the Europe that would foster his ground-breaking Berlin trilogy. The worst, the best, the necessary change.
And to carry that change, a new persona developed from the wake of filming Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. One of the most involved, impenetrable and controversial of his career. So, just who was the Thin White Duke?
The Thin White Duke
“Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…”
In context, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton outstayed his welcome following the wrap of The Man Who Fell to Earth in late summer 1975. Mostly tellingly, in Bowie’s fractured mind. It wasn’t just the “side effects of the cocaine” but part of a long slide that had seen Bowie vacate New York, sink deep into ancient philosophies in Los Angeles and subsist almost entirely on dairy products. Much of this period is difficult to tie down to fact, between Cameron Crowe’s infamous interviews and countless recollections from friends, Angie Bowie and the singer himself; an unreliable witness at the time, and particularly when he had an interviewer to play up to. Relocating to New Mexico to film The Man Who Fell to Earth was a form of “purification”. It was a glance back from the brink that consequently Bowie took to the recording studio for the first time in nine months to express as much the legacy of his recent interests as the alien that stayed within him. Despite the break and the subsequent work that would appear, Bowie’s last notable studio session (he had some failed dabbling with Iggy Pop in the interim) had been to record Across the Universe and Fame with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. And although Bowie would refer to the latter as “a nasty little song” it certainly laid some groundwork for Station to Station.
So a steep task and fractured mind confronted Bowie, and the character of the Thin White Duke developed in response. It wasn’t Newton totally, that passive outsider, unable to resist. The Duke was less passive, more snarling, more insightful and self-analysing. The Thin White Duke has been variously described as aristocratic, Aryan and zombie. Many sporadic TV appearances throughout 1975 show a frosty, cold, wry and occasionally disorientated Bowie. One highlight is the wonderfully terse satellite link interview with Russell Harty – glossing over, chiding and ribbing in equal measure. He’s mostly articulate when not pausing, a dead-eyed stare levelled to the middle distance. There were controversial comments made during the period, including those connected to fascism, but later strongly dismissed by Bowie.
And unlike many other of his other personas, a lot of confusion arises from Bowie’s considerable backtracking after the event. It’s certain that the Thin White Duke ran throughout 1976, anchored around the recording and quick release of Station to Station. And it’s certain that this is the persona Bowie remembered least about. A fascinating transitory character, often overshadowed by the recordings either side, there was a root of the Duke’s soul-searching in Young Americans and a significant hangover in the influential Low, a record that also still unmistakably carried the profile of Thomas Jerome Newton on its punning cover as the Duke faded from view.It’s worth noting that while there were indisputably Nietzschean connotations to the Duke, those themes, along with the magickal and arcane, had long appeared in Bowie’s music. They’re there in Cygnet Committee and Hunky Dory’s Quicksand and Oh You Pretty Things (again, that poor cover-experimentee Peter Noone). But now, Bowie was doing more than mentioning these things. In a physical condition best presented by side one of Low, from Breaking Glass to Sound and Vision he was caught right in the mix.
Station to Station (1976)
“Tall in this room overlooking the ocean”
Really, the Thin White Duke is as difficult to analyse as the album he apparently narrates, sometimes argues. It’s easy to dismiss the character as Bowie’s most ruthless, even evil – yes, even more than the Goblin King – but any analysis is difficult because of the amount of distraction built into the Duke. Unlike Ziggy Stardust, he’s less prevalent in a shorter album. He also appears more “normal” than those early ‘70s glam avatars. Impeccably stylish, simply cabaret, emotionful and emotionless in equal measure. The Duke may actually be Bowie’s most eroding character. And at times, there’s seems to be a real conversation taking place between the searching Bowie and the Duke – particularly in the title track that mixes first, second and third person perspectives.
During filming of The Man who Fell to Earth, Bowie had read, written songs and stories, looked after his son, tinkered with a 16mm camera Roeg had given him… And sketchily started work on an autobiography. That biography never materialised, but the album called the Return of the Thin White Duke did. Only, by January 1976 it was called Station to Station.
The Man who Fell to Earth had sowed the seeds of a character that could carry a knowing and necessary transition and complete some of the greatest music of Bowie’s career. Not bad for a film that, as he said, “he didn’t really know what was being made at all”. But what’s crucial is the speed with which this character came to dominate his mind, just a catalyst of the clashing components in his mind and the Station to Station LP, and a character that took up less than year of Bowie’s incredibly prolific mid-1970s period.
Very good friends
“’Cause you can never really tell”
In autumn 1976 Bowie’s sights had been cleared enough for him to assemble a trusted crew, including Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick and their fine guitars, with key personnel gifted in rhythm and composition that could realise what emerged in the studios. At this stage in his recording career, Bowie would hand out song fragments before choosing from a number of compositions his team had devised. Tony Visconti, however, was lost after the debacle of the January sessions – the last two Lennon additions recorded without him – and Harry Maslin, producer of those, stepped in once again. Although what came out of the Cherokee Recording Studio would be far more developed than nine months before.
In spurts of furious activity, with breaks of a few days in-between, the sessions stretched to December. Sustained once again by amphetamines and coke, Bowie was paranoid and manic depressive in his Thin White Duke skin. And famously, this is an album he had no recollection of recording. In fact, what was it: “I honestly have no idea what I thought between 1975 and 1977”.
It’s good then that there was quick rhythm recording while fragments were fresh in all minds, before the arduous process of overdubbing began. For once, Bowie had no deadline and access to a 24 track. The result was a huge sampling and tinkering process, extended to over scrutiny of detail. It was huge freedom for all involved, something that shines through, but with some cost.
Station to Station
”One magical movement”
Designed for quadrophonic sound (which would be later referenced in TVC15) but soon scaled back to stereo, the opening to the title track is phenomenal. Originally two songs, a barely hidden fact, the shift is a microcosm of the entire album, of Bowie’s current troubled state of mind. Huge stead in the rhythm is obvious from the opening, as the sound of the trains that could be lifted from The Man Who Fell to Earth fade into George Murray’s sumptuous bass. More human soul shredded German-facing precision follows, waiting a desperate amount of time for a new kind of soul to creep in Bowie’s plaintive lyrics. Third person, second person plural – pulling out references to the Kabbalic tree of life, Nietzsche, spelled out along the Stations of the Cross, the 14 points laboured by Christ, merged with the Seripith of Kabbalah. Misquoting Shakespeare, assuming the tall, mage-like poise of Prospero while namechecking Aleister Crowley’s White Stains, and digging deep into Nordic mythology.
Then that kick at almost half way through, superb and raw guitar up-tempo soul. Wonderfully circumspect lyrics lead to a repeated mantra in its very truest sense. Bowie, compelling himself away from the anxiety of clashing of Christianity, the arcane and yearned for love. It’s a crying, hailing call and persuasive appeal to return. “The European canon is here”. All of that is just about glimpsed through the cocaine. At this point in the process, despite huge shifts in the studio, Bowie had not started to suffer too much for his huge drug use. Afterwards, reflecting on the fainting fits that would end the sessions, Bowie would describe “There were pieces of me laying all over the floor”. Still, this is incredible track is the one that led directly into Low.
“Last night they loved you”
Supposedly offered to Elvis, Golden Years was rushed out as the first single after Bowie performed it live in November 1975, a recording that would become its video. That release was more a comment on the blistering speed with which the song was produced compared to the rest of the album. A high quality farewell to the Young Americans era, it’s also an excellent bridge to the to the soul of the rest of Station to Station, a wry in hindsight that sustained the artist in an America, immune to his prolific, changing work that had only discovered him with his previous album. Golden Years is a love song, a talismanic projection of his Angel – whoever she may have been at that point, but doubtfully any of his recent flames or the still intermittently involved Angie Bowie. Despite its catchy, uplifting refrain, it’s hard not to pair the promise that “nothing’s going to touch you with the “Run for the shadows in these golden years” – and what happens after those golden years? It’s typical of the intriguing contradictions that run through the album. Overall however, it remains wonderfully, joylessly uncaring, particularly in the rather laissez-faire lyrics. One of the best Bowie songs to hear in a pub, and that’s saying a lot.
Word on a Wing
“You walked into my life out of my dreams”
A real jewel in Bowie’s crown in one of his finest albums. Word on a Wing is one of his peerless prayers, with a raw, open yearning that can’t help but affect. The instrumentation, in particular once again, the solid rhythm, stands incredible comparison to his work of even a year before. The vocals are a yearning warm-up to the album closer in the middle of the LP. Word on a Wing holds up wonderful pretension and wonderful love. Less contradictive than other songs, with Christianity seemingly rising to the top, but evidencing the sprawling influences and struggles in its modesty in comparison to the sprawling opener. Here, the Duke’s “Ready to change my scheme of things” – or is it Bowie? Again, there’s a soul searching call to himself and a higher power. “Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?” It’s the later, lighter mantra that he’s ready to “shake that scheme of things” that’s one of the albums emotionally crushing moments. A beautiful crush with an Angelic ending.
And special mention here to pianist Roy Bittan, leaving very little room to miss the Mike Garson who’d provided such incredible work on the keys since Aladdin Sane, but was this time uninvited.
“One of these nights I may just jump down that rainbow way”
Nominally, TVC15 is the song that picks up the most freely from The Man Who fell to Earth and its heavy preoccupation with media and other, well, preoccupations. Although, if Bowie was Newton here, surrounded by his patents and multiple television sets, it’s a remarkably heartless suggestion that his “My baby’s up there some place, love’s rating in the sky” This isn’t the lightest slice on the album, but a pulsing pelt of fun. In one album’s time, the honkytonk of Be My Wife would pick up some of the gusto in a homesick recall to London, but here it’s a deceptively cheerful lament. Bowie’s vocals are in opposition to the music more than on any other track. And that’s accompaniment that’s loose and experimental, really showing the freedom this production allowed the artists, their parts flying off in every direction. TVC15 features yet another refrain particularly two thirds of the way through where it highlights the duelling transition and transmission. Another call to arms.
“That’s what I meant to say”
Stay, shows another side of the disco Bowie hovering through Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, but clearly the albums tamest writing assembled around Slick and Alomar’s superb guitar work. It’s the slight point of the album, and that’s mainly because it chooses the narrowest of subjects in such a catholic album. The repetition of the lyrics has a lot to say though, creating its own rhythm against instrumentation that’s simply phenomenal. Just what else to say – among incredible moments, one of Earl Slick’s standouts.
Wild is the Wind
“Give me more than one caress, satisfy this hungriness”
Closing with a Bowie highlight, an ostentatious rendition of Wild is the Wind, in honour of Nina Simone’s version. In his later career, once he’d warmed up the classics again, it would still showcase the sheer power and range Bowie possessed. A flatter, broader, richer romance to finish the album, after Stay’s thematic throwback to his roaring sixties covers of a few years earlier (looking at Let’s Spend the Night Together in particular). The pace is perfect, the opening notes of such depth and light power. The lyrics, pretentious, love-struck and readymade for Station to Station. It’s a pitch perfect end that squares off the complex, emotional and spiritual journey of the last 38 odd minutes. And all from a cover of a cover that truly affected Bowie.
Three tracks recorded during the time remained unreleased on the brief album. The musicians would soon take the album on the road with the stark but blistering Isolar tour followed. For evidence of that, plug in Bowie’s Live at the Nassau Coliseum ’76 recording.
The missing soundtrack
“She’s my Main Feature”
Some confusion still surrounds Bowie’s aborted soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Whether it was supposition, arrogance, addled brains, contractual disputes or forgetful disregard, Bowie never had the gig. The ripping Station to Station sessions were a mere warm-up to a coup de grace – Bowie’s emergence as consummate actor and musician. As it was, the fait de Complete passed to Director Nic Roeg with the note “This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack” was Low. The soundtrack actually fell to John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, who created a more folksy theme for the film but described Bowie’s contributions as “haunting and beautiful”. Not to dismiss Phillips’ score, the film’s loss would prove to be music and the European Canon’s gain as it filtered through two quick-fire, hugely rewarding albums. John Philip’s soundtrack would never see release.
Even in such close proximity, Bowie’s mind invaded by the character he’d just brought to screen, Station to Station can’t be dismissed as anything, least of all a soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Taking on more of his score concepts, Low would reach further from Bowie’s phenomenally successful stray into Plastic Soul, and it’s difficult to imagine the response at RCA to the awkward, half instrumental album that surfaced in 1977. Accounts don’t pull punches, despite songs and vision and Sounds and Vision claiming top spots, the apparent obtuse lack of singles got a swift and derisory response that knocked Bowie for six. But while Low’s legacy is now without doubt, a shining example of his and Brian Eno’s extraordinary work in the late 1970s, it casts Station to Station as an incredible record of captured transition. A rare and precious thing, where the commerciability was almost by accident. It was a bridge under and outside his control.
And by the time of Low, while Newton remains on the album covered, the effect of the alien was dwindling as Thin White Duke, his “ogre”, found he couldn’t last into Berlin. And Bowie’s necessary reduction of cocaine intake.
Bowie would later dismiss the mix of Station to Station as a commercial chasing mistake, however, subsequent years have shown it to be pitch perfect. Low would prove a more compelling and influential album of regard, but Station to Station is his great masterpiece of sparsity and transition.
It’s a challenging and fierce, melancholy, dreadful and optimistic, that manages to capture a mite of the fire hells of mysticism while rocking out soulfully. A job done or a farewell? Berlin beckoned and this is the wave back and glance forward. And crucially, it’s a grimoire as well. When later Bowie suggested the album’s never been sussed there was never the implication that he had either.
“Does my face show some kind of low?” it would.
Jokerside took advantage of the 2010 reissue Original Analogue master for the versions presented here. Absolutely superb it is too.
If you haven’t already, why not read Jokerside’s glance at The Man Who Fell to Earth.
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