By the time punk rock was coming together, one of its progenitors, David Bowie, had already abandoned the loud, sloppy guitars and hedonistic lyrics that would become its trademarks. Sure, the genre was due to come about anyway, thanks to the work of the Stooges, MC5 and Patti Smith, among others, but the fact remains, by the time Ramones came out in April 1976, Bowie had shed his protopunk/glam tendencies. This transition began on his ’75 tribute to Philly soul, Young Americans, but became complete with its followup, Station to Station, which recently received a deluxe re-release from EMI boosted by a live bootleg and, if you really want to spend some money, tons of alternate mixes, concert paraphernalia and glorious vinyl.
Originally released in Jan. 1976, Station to Station set about creating post-punk before there was even a punk. Granted, other artists like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno had already laid some of the groundwork, but Bowie’s late ’70s work was just as important. Taken in context with his subsequent “Berlin trilogy,” Station to Station is still pretty soulful. But compared to the legitimate R&B of Young Americans, it’s a downright insane album, a mere six tracks that take the electrified funk of “Fame” and turn it into some sort of alien dance music.
I should probably mention that Bowie did a shit-ton of cocaine around this period, which is how he was able to work in the studio for days on end before sleeping. And like any good coke record--Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, Oasis’ Be Here Now--the songs are insanely long. The title track that opens the record is 10 minutes long, with a three-and-a-half-minute intro. And it opens with a train taking off for the first 73 seconds. This should be the most indulgent song of Bowie’s career, but instead it's one of his best. The song slowly lurches to life, as Carlos Alomar’s guitar slinks in and wills it to life.
Can we talk about the drum sound David Bowie gets on his records? Because the stuff he scored in the late ’70s is ridiculously good. Eno nailed some fantastically metallic beats for Low, but producer Harry Maslin and drummer Dennis Davis get an amazingly nuanced sound on “Station to Station.” It’s a simple funk beat, drained of its heat and turned into a robotically precise jam. It’s for this reason alone that the title track rules, although it helps that Bowie bothered to craft a nice chorus, when he can remember to sing it.
Station to Station still has touches of Bowie’s old sound. The piano-driven “TVC15” has a pinch of Young Americans’ warmth, while “Stay” has the kind of guitar histrionics that would have worked on Diamond Dogs (and probably would have improved that album). But overall, Station is a new breed. It’s incredibly danceable and funky, but it’s blindingly alien and alienated. The lyrics deal with obsessing over technology. The music often pushes its histrionics into the stratosphere, reaching for something more spacey.
In the wrong hands, Station to Station could have been a prog-rock mess, the sort of instrumental masturbation that punk would reject. Instead, it proves that not all jammy ’70s records suck. The same can be said, intermittently, for Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, the live bootleg that accompanies the Station re-release. The two-disc set captures a taut set from Bowie, one which takes older glam rock tunes and repurposes them for this new sound.
Station to Station and “Fame” dominate the set list, and they’re fittingly funky. Sometimes the songs get to be too much. Davis’ restraint on the record is commendable; his showboating live is deplorable, and he turns the title track into a self-indulgent mess live. “TVC15” still rips, though.
It’s the old songs that make this deluxe edition essential for Bowie fans, though. “Five Years” comes out a little perfunctory, but tight post-punk versions of “Panic in Detroit” and “Changes” are nuts. Yeah, the solo section near the end of “Panic” ruins the fun, but up until then, it’s a completely new, excellent version of an already great song. This is Bowie in his prime, when any style he chose worked, and the crowd loves it. The banter between songs is pretty great too. I love how cocky Bowie gets when he introduces “Changes,” as if no one in attendance could have possibly heard of that particular song.
Young Americans and Station to Station are important transitional records for Bowie. He renounced his glam rock ways, dabbled in funk for a little while and then started exploring more economical post-punk songwriting with his seminal work, Low. The new Station re-release wonderfully captures Bowie just before that point, both live and in the studio.