FEBRUARY 2nd - MAY 18th 1976
David Bowie: Vocals, Saxophone
Stacey Heydon: Guitar
Carlos Alomar: Guitar
George Murray: Bass
Tony Kaye: Keyboards
Dennis Davis: Percussion
Station To Station | Suffragette City | Waiting For The Man | Stay | Sister Midnight | Word On A Wing | TVC15 | Life On Mars? | Five Years | Panic In Detroit | Changes | Fame | The Jean Genie | Rebel Rebel | Diamond Dogs | Queen Bitch
Bowie's 1976 tour signalled the end of his mid-1970s sabbatical in America and the beginning of his relocation to Europe. It was to prove one of the most controversial periods of his career, but also produced one of the finest live shows he ever staged.
There is some debate over the tour's "official" name: it has also been referred to as the "Thin White Duke tour" and the "White Light tour", while others favour the "Isolar tour", after the company that Bowie set up to handle his affairs following his split from MainMan; the word "Isolar" appeared enigmatically on some of the 1976 tour's promotional materials. It's an anagram of "sailor" (a favourite word of David's, appearing in several lyrics and later becoming his online handle), and David also once explained: "Isola is Italian for island. Isolation plus Solar equals Isolar. If I remember correctly, I was stoned."
Rehearsals began in December 1975 at Keith Richards's studio in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Bowie's relationship with his new manager Michael Lippman had disintegrated during the Station To Station sessions, and David finally sacked him at the beginning of 1976, issuing a lawsuit on January 27th in an attempt to recover earnings he claimed Lippman had withheld. The suit was destined to drag on until the autumn, providing an unwelcome distraction during the Low sessions; Lippman eventually won and disappeared from Bowie's story, later to become George Michael's manager. During the Station To Station sessions Lippman had taken Earl Slick onto his books and won him a solo contract with Capitol Records, driving a wedge between Bowie and his guitarist. Slick, who recalled that his "relationship with David just vaporised", attributed the falling-out to a misunderstanding with Bowie's management team. In Slick's place Bowie hired an unknown 21-year-old Canadian called Stacey Heydon. Roy Bittan was unavailable, so former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye joined the otherwise intact Station To Station band.
Occasionally introduced by David as "Raw Moon", the five-piece group was his smallest live band since the early days of The Spiders, and the standard of musicianship had rarely been bettered. The band whipped up a visceral, driven sound for the new songs and oldies like "Five Years" and "Panic In Detroit", the latter extended by an epic-length drum solo from Dennis Davis. Of the chosen set-list, Bowie told reporters that "I think "Jean Genie" is a gas, I still like that one. I still love "Changes". All the songs I still do I still like, but I'm not doing "Golden Years" or "Space Oddity". I've really been radical for this show and I won't do any hits for the sake of doing hits." Perhaps the most interesting addition to the set, albeit one that disappeared after a few of the American dates, was "Sister Midnight", a new song which would be recorded for Iggy Pop's The Idiot later in the year. Iggy had spent much of 1975 in Los Angeles in an even worse condition than David, and had recently discharged himself from a psychiatric institute he had voluntarily entered to wean himself off heroin. Now David's constant companion, he became a permanent member of the Station To Station entourage.
There were other changes in the air. David had already made the decision to sever his connections with Los Angeles, and as rehearsals continued Angela Bowie was busy house-hunting in Switzerland, where she had helped to negotiate residency. The house she found, a chalet near Lausanne called Clos des Mésanges, became David's official residence as of mid-1976, although it would seldom be his home over the next few years.
David Bowie - Live on stage: Station To Station Tour 1976
David Bowie - Live on stage: Station To Station Tour 1976
David Bowie - Live on stage: Station To Station Tour 1976
David Bowie - Live on stage: Station To Station Tour 1976
On January 3rd, by which time rehearsals had moved to New York, the band appeared on The Dinah Shore Show, performing superb versions of "Stay" (its first outing, a fortnight ahead of the album's release) and "Five Years". The show offered little indication of the forthcoming tour's presentation, owing more to the style of the Soul tour concerts: while the band wore rhinestone-encrusted Vegas outfits, David danced exuberantly in a dark blue shirt and voluminous flares.
Bowie's initial ideas for the staging of the tour were extravagant, involving nine-foot-high puppets moving in choreographed sequences; a maquette of one such puppet, created by David from found objects, was among the items on display at the David Bowie is exhibition. The idea was abandoned, and when the Station To Station tour opened in Vancouver on February 2nd, it seemed instead to be a reaction against the theatrical excesses of 1974. This time no attempt was made to disguise the paraphernalia of speaker cables, amps and lighting rigs. After pre-show tapes of Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity (Bowie had apparently considered asking the group to play as support), the show began with a projected film sequence from the 1928 Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali silent Un Chien Andalou, showing a razor-blade cutting into an eyeball. Thereafter the visual element was provided entirely by banks of white light against black backdrops, capturing the stark spectacle of David Bowie in his latest incarnation. During the first few dates David experimented with costumes for his new character, and early gigs saw him take to the stage in tight turned-up jeans, laced boots and Bob Dylan cap (an ensemble not entirely unlike the earliest Ziggy costumes), and also in a softer outfit dominated by a pair of enormous yellow flares. However, within the first few days a far more forbidding image had crystallised and would remain unchanged for the duration of the tour. The Thin White Duke stalked the stage in pleated black trousers, black waistcoat and white shirt, his hair slicked tightly back like a Weimar cabaret singer straight out of Isherwood's Berlin. David told Melody Maker that the new show was "more theatrical than Diamond Dogs ever was...it's by suggestion rather than over-propping. It relies on modern, twentieth-century theatre concepts of lighting and I think it comes over as very theatrical."
From Vancouver the tour travelled down the West Coast (coinciding with David's final departure from California - he emptied his house during the three-night residency in Los Angeles) before zig-zagging across America for two months. Reviewing the second night, The Seattle Times revealed that "Bowie came on like a suave French boulevardier" and when not singing "would either walk off or dance in a sort of angular, jumpy way, with lots of squats and stiff-legged stretches." There were teething troubles, however: David was "drenched in big spots and banks of fluorescent lights that caused a buzz in the sound-system", and in the critic's opinion his saxophone playing in "TVC15" left something to be desired: "I hope he meant to contrast with the band, because he did - he sounded like he was playing another tune." By the time the tour had moved into America's heartland the praise was less reserved and the showbiz glamour of 1974 was back with a vengeance: guests at the Los Angeles concerts included Elton John, Rod Stewart, Britt Ekland, Patti Smith, Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, Ray Bradbury, Alice Cooper, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr and even the President's son Steve Ford. The Los Angeles Times found David "happier, more confident, and relaxed", while six weeks later the New York Times considered the closing US date at Madison Square Garden the best Bowie show yet, noting the impressive effect of David's "cool, hostile distancing".
The Nassau Coliseum gig on March 23rd was recorded by RCA and a selection broadcast on The King Biscuit Flower Hour. Two tracks from this excellent recording, "Word On A Wing" and "Stay", were later included on the 1991 reissue of Station To Station, and the entire concert was eventually released as Live Nassau Coliseum '76, packaged with 2010's lavish Station To Station reissue.
Three days earlier, on March 20th, had come the first of two inflammatory episodes. After the Rochester concert Bowie's hotel room was raided by police and, with Iggy Pop and two companions, he was arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession, a felony carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison (David's long-lost and breathtakingly cool police mugshots, taken at his arraignment four days later, were unexpectedly unearthed in 2007 during the estate sale of a retired Rochester police officer, and were promptly sold for $2556 on eBay). The case never came to trial, and in retrospect it's remarkable that this was the nearest Bowie ever came to a drugs bust. But by the time the case was dropped it had been overshadowed by a far larger controversy, which was to blight the remainder of the tour.
From April 7th the show began its European leg - Bowie's first concerts outside America since 1973 and his first ever major dates on mainland Europe. Back in February, David had explained that the show's blinding searchlights and follow-spots were inspired by German expressionist cinema and the photography of Man Ray. Now, as the tour moved into Europe, journalists who had been listening to his recent political pronouncements had different ideas. "It might have been staged by Speer," wrote one reviewer.
It was during the latter half of the Station To Station tour that Bowie's deluded fixation with the origins and symbols of fascism landed him in serious trouble with the media, who were just as disposed to exploit controversy as Bowie was to court it. The lure of a good meaty scandal has prompted many historians to misrepresent the story: certainly Bowie was partly to blame, but the pulse-quickening tales of Nazi salutes and dictatorial ambitions have been greatly distorted to the detriment of our understanding of a very significant episode.
Much - too much - has been made of David's alleged far-right sympathies during the 1970s, not least by the National Front, who years after the controversy were still trying to claim David for their own risible newsletter articles: "It was Bowie who horrified the music establishment in the mid seventies with his favourable comments about the NF...Bowie who, on the album Hunky Dory, started the anti-Communist musical tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the new wave of Futurist bands", claimed the National Front's youth paper Bulldog in 1981. In fact Bowie had never said anything remotely favourable about the National Front. What he had said, mostly a year earlier during his darkest Los Angeles days, was nonetheless naive and irresponsible. In August 1975 he had told the NME that "There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who'll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did...the best thing that can happen if for an extreme right government to come. It'll do something positive at least, to cause commotion in people and they'll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it."
Bowie had long been interested in the life of Adolf Hitler, and had expressed genuine admiration for his media-manipulation and stagecraft. "Look at some of his films and see how he moved," he told Cameron Crowe in 1975. "When he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist...he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock'n'roll concert. The kids would get very excited - girls got hot and sweaty, and guys wished it was them up there. That, for me, is the rock'n'roll experience."
There was nothing in that particular disquisition, perceptively analytical as it was, that could be construed by anyone with half a brain as genuinely sinister. In many ways it was no more than a restatement of ideas which had informed dozens of his songs: "Cygnet Committee", "Saviour Machine", "Star", "Big Brother", "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and countless others had long encouraged their audience to consider the razor's edge between glamour and oppression. As early as December 1969 Bowie had told Music Now! that "This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it's not careful it's going to end up with a Hitler." Sadly, things took a turn for the worse as the Station To Station tour began. In February 1976 Rolling Stone quoted David as saying, "I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I'd be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad." This, like several other pronouncements published in Rolling Stone and Playboy during 1976, derived from David's coke-infested interviews with Cameron Crowe the previous year. The Playboy article reveals a harsh and unsympathetic figure, dismissing peers and predecessors with arrogant put-downs and holding forth on the virtues of "fast" drugs, but between the provocative quotes there are flashes of ironic self-ridicule which have long since been forgotten. At the end of the interview Crowe asked Bowie if he stood by everything he had said, to which David replied, "Everything but the inflammatory remarks." Crowe himself was under no illusions: Bowie, he asserted, was "fully aware that he is a sensational quote machine. The more shocking his revelation, from his homosexual encounters to his fascist leanings, the wider his grin...The truth is probably inconsequential." However, then as now, few readers were interested in context. The damage had been done.
When the tour reached Berlin, the rumour spread that David had been photographed outside Hitler's bunker. Then, during a short mid-tour vacation with Iggy Pop, David's possessions were searched on a train at the Russian-Finnish border, and books about Albert Speer and Josef Goebbels were confiscated by Soviet guards. Bowie said they were research material for a musical he was writing about Goebbels. By now the accumulation of incidents was encouraging journalists to pursue the "Nazi" angle. At a press conference in Sweden David was reported as saying, "As I see it, I am the only alternative for the premier in England. I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. I mean, fascist in its true sense, not Nazi. After all, fascism is really nationalism. In a sense, it is a very pure form of communism."
On May 2nd the tour finally reached London where, in a well-staged publicity stunt, David arrived at Victoria Station in an open-topped Mercedes. He stood up in the car to acknowledge the crowds of fans who had gathered to welcome him back to Britain, and what happened next has been hotly contested ever since. Myth would have it that in front of the assembled posse of photographers Bowie snapped up his right arm in a Nazi salute. Photographs flooded the newspapers and at last the proof seemed overwhelming.
David was quick to react. He furiously denied that he had made a salute, saying that the photographers had caught his arm in mid-wave. Looking at the photos today, it is patently clear that this is exactly what happened. It's his left hand that is waving, and furthermore it looks nothing like a salute. "I don't think I'd have done anything as daft as that," he said in 1993. "They were waiting for me to do something like a Nazi salute and a wave did it for them." The whole episode has, in any case, been puffed up over the decades, often by people who have seen neither the photographs nor the original press coverage: contrary to popular assumption, the text beneath the NME's famous "Heil and Farewell" photograph (in which David's arm isn't even raised) made no mention of a salute.
Bowie's stay in Britain was only to last a week - the six sold-out shows at the Wembley Empire Pool were the only UK dates of the entire tour - and he agreed to meet just one journalist, Jean Rook of the Daily Express. She asked him, of course, about the alleged comment concerning fascist rule in Britain. Bowie implied that the remarks had been an ironic response to provocative questioning: "If I said it - and I've a terrible feeling I did say something like it to a Stockholm journalist, who kept asking me political questions - I'm astounded anyone could believe it. I have to keep reading it to believe it myself. I'm not sinister...I don't stand up in cars waving to people because I think I'm Hitler. I stand up in cars waving to fans - I don't write the captions under the picture." Rook pointed out that it was all good publicity, and asked if it mattered. Bowie replied, "Yes, it does. It upsets me. Strong I may be. Arrogant I may be. Sinister I'm not...What I'm doing is theatre, and only theatre. All this business about me being able to raise 7000 of my troops at the Empire Pool by raising one hand is a load of rubbish...What you see on stage isn't sinister. It's pure clown. I'm using my face as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants - they're Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976."
As ever, Bowie's argument was that he was holding up a mirror, performing a symbolic character in his ongoing dramatisation of the zeitgeist, a concept to which Fleet Street was unlikely to listen. His articulate rebuttals of the "Nazi" allegations were sidelined in favour of the juicy quotes, and it took Bowie a long time to live down the controversy. Reviewers arrived at the Wembley concerts in May 1976 primed by the events of the previous few days. Sounds commented on the show's "stormtrooper vibe", The Guardian considered it "more Nazi than futuristic", and Melody Maker noted that it "raised echoes of his recent controversial comments about fascist rule for Britain."
The Wembley concerts were, however, well reviewed. Melody Maker went on to describe the show as "undoubtedly funky" while the visuals were "inspired...a brilliant glare of black and white expressionism that emphasised the harshness of the music and reflected upon his image as a white-shirted, black-suited creature of Herr Ishyvoo's cabinet. It was, I think, the most imaginative lighting of a rock concert I have ever seen." At the end of the first Wembley gig, Bowie was so overcome by the ovation that he left the stage in tears.
The tour ended in Paris on May 18th. By the autumn Bowie had moved to Berlin, and to the intellectual titans of the tabloid press this was proof enough of where his sympathies lay. He was entranced by the social and sexual freedoms of Isherwood's city, but appalled to discover that his own name had already been annexed by Nazi fanatics, some of whom beat a path to his door; he is even said to have seen his name daubed on the Berlin Wall, the last two letters twisted into a swastika. In 1977, Britain's Rock Against Racism movement printed a leaflet called "Love Music - Hate Racism", which printed an image of Bowie's silhouette next to those of Enoch Powell and Adolf Hitler. Bowie's reaction to this groundswell was to manifest itself in a demonstrable swing to the left and a torrent of angry songs. In 1978 he told an American interviewer that "There's a very negative aspect in England at the moment which has reared its ugly head...there's now a party there called the National Front which is the fourth strongest party in the country...I don't think it is an answer to anything at all. It's an answer to an idiot's dream." He added pointedly that "I used the Thin White Duke at one time, which unfortunately backfired a bit in England, but I tried to theatrically show what could happen."
In later years, Bowie would attribute the entire episode to a combination of his own naivety and the media's inability to resist a feeding frenzy. In 1993 he told the NME that his interest in the mythological aspects of Nazism was entirely abstract, and that the Victoria incident shook him into reality: "My interest in them was the fact that they supposedly came to England before the war to find the Holy Grail at Glastonbury and this whole Arthurian thought was running through my mind...The idea that it was about putting Jews in concentration camps and the complete oppression of different races completely evaded my extraordinarily fucked-up nature at that particular time. But, of course, it came home to me very clearly and crystalline when I came back to England." Throughout the rest of his career, from "It's No Game" to "If You Can See Me" and many points in between, Bowie would continue to attack fascism in his songs - just as he always had.
Amid the inevitable streamlining of the facts since 1976, one of the greatest casualties has been the truth of what the Station To Station show was actually like. History has it that Bowie cut a glacial, arrogant figure on stage, a permanently smouldering Gitane clamped between his sneering lips as he glided from one slab of industrial rock into another. At best this is only half the story. The Thin White Duke may well have been, in Bowie's words, "a very nasty character indeed", but the shows were exuberant and joyous. David entered in character at the opening of each concert, but as the show progressed he would play the sax, execute all his usual dance steps and tell jokes between songs. He sweated profusely and would often peel off his waistcoat and shirt to perform the latter numbers topless. On the Diamond Dogs tour David had seldom if ever spoken to the audience; this time around it was difficult to get him to shut up. On more than one occasion, following the band introductions, he told Tony Kaye to stop playing the intro to "Changes" so that he could chat at length with the crowd. His garrulousness owed partly to the fact that he was now weaning himself off cocaine and had turned instead to brandy, and bootlegs reveal that his rambling speeches were often completely incoherent. 1976 wasn't a very happy year for David Bowie, but that doesn't mean that the tour was some sort of robotic nightmare. Paul Gambaccinni described the show as "the finest performance by a white artist I had ever seen", while Bob Geldof, who met Bowie backstage in Brussels, recalled the performance as "just staggeringly brilliant...one of the best shows I've ever seen." These are by no means isolated opinions; the Station To Station show achieved a peak of musical excellence that would arguably not be matched by another Bowie tour for nearly twenty years.
by Nicholas Pegg
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