Station to (work)station: Bowie’s studio milestones remembered12 February 2016
The shock and sadness expressed at the news of David Bowie’s death when it was announced on 11 January was without recent parallel in popular culture – but then so too was his ability to influence every area of the arts, becoming in the process the very definition of the multi-disciplinary artist.
Tony Visconti – Bowie’s regular co-producer and collaborator from the late 1960s through to his final release, 2016’s Blackstar – perhaps knew this best of all. “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way,” he wrote on Facebook shortly after the news was announced.
While Bowie’s extraordinary qualities as a live performer will rightly be celebrated, it is his recorded legacy that will inevitably be the greatest focus of attention in the months and years ahead. Of course, this was founded upon his own visionary songwriting voice – present and correct from his first, eponymously-titled album released in 1967 – but also on an ever-astute selection of collaborators in both production and performance.
Without doubt his first individual studio landmark was 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, whose shimmering production by the late Gus Dudgeon renders it otherworldly even today. But it was 1970’s Visconti-produced The Man Who Sold the World that represented Bowie’s first cohesive LP-length statement – a surprisingly heavy rock album captured over little more than a month at London’s Trident and Advision studios.
As it turned out, the album initiated a golden period lasting until 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) during which Bowie would barely make a bad move creatively. Decamping to Trident again – this time in the company of co-producer Ken Scott – he would next record some of the era’s most immediate and enduring pop-rock songs on albums such as Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Having made an unexpected but hugely successful detour into soul with 1975’s Young Americans, Bowie embarked upon his most intensely creative period in the studio with the following year’s Station to Station. Informed by the emerging wave of experimental German bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk, the album possesses an unsettling ambience that makes it the most obvious antecedent of Blackstar.
Bound for Berlin
Shifting operations to Château d’Hérouville (aka the ‘honky château’) and Hansa Studios in the then-West Berlin, Bowie worked with Visconti and Brian Eno on the unofficial trilogy comprising Low, Heroes and Lodger. Emotionally vexed yet futuristic in feel, the albums found Bowie experimenting with instrumental textures and benefiting from some historic outboard, not least the Eventide Harmonizer H910 that is particularly evident on Low.
“Tony Visconti has used Eventide effects in wonderfully creative ways throughout his career,” confirms Eventide director Tony Agnello, adding that the connection continued through 1980’s Ashes to Ashes (a rack-mount Instant Flanger to deliver the ‘warbling’ keyboard effect) right up until Blackstar (an H9 on some of Bowie’s guitar parts).
New York’s Power Station studios are indelibly associated with the glossy, high-spec pop of the 1980s – so it seems only appropriate that Bowie’s greatest commercial success, 1983’s Let’s Dance, was recorded there. Again underlining his reputation as a man with his finger forever on the pulse, Bowie’s co-producer this time was Nile Rodgers – the Chic co-founder who would bring a thrilling funk edge to so many great records of the era.
Global success of the scale bequeathed by Let’s Dance did not sit comfortably with Bowie, and his disenchantment with the recording process is perhaps underlined by the fact that he had less to do with the making of his subsequent ‘80s albums – contributing fewer instrumental parts and reportedly leaving more crucial decisions to his collaborators.
It took until the mid 1990s for him to fully re-engage, but while subsequent releases were more widely spaced they contain music that may ultimately be regarded as being among his very best. Recorded with Eno and the late David Richards at Montreux’s Mountain Studios and New York’s The Hit Factory, Outside (1995) took a frequently jaw-dropping journey through jazz-tinged rock and electronica, while the Visconti co-produced Heathen and Reality were expansive rock albums imbued with post-9/11 dread.
Away from music, he demonstrated a remarkable level of prescience about the impact the internet was set to have on music-making with the 1998 launch of the BowieNet service, which provided a then-unprecedented level of interaction with fans as well as a wealth of exclusive content. Meanwhile, the so-called Bowie Bonds scheme afforded a new way of generating income from back catalogue work by giving investors a share in future royalties for ten years.
After a lengthy break, 2013’s assured The Next Day resembled a concise history of Bowie styles. Recalling the sessions to PSNEurope, engineer Mario McNulty says that the artist’s philosophy towards the studio “was about using it as a tool and sometimes instrument. He was efficient and got in and out without much fuss or time-wasting.”
The sessions proved highly instructive for McNulty, although “maybe the main thing I took away was that you stick with what your ideas are, but also allow for the players around you to create. David knew better than anyone how to pick the best parts from a player – he knew when to let them free, and how surrounding yourself with the finest musicians in the world would make something unique and powerful. He did all of this while sticking to his original intention [since] the song was written when he arrived at the studio most of the time. He knew where he wanted to go, then the process would start on how to put it down as a recording.”
Although captured at the same two primary studios as The Next Day (The Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, both in NYC), Blackstar – released just two days before his death – felt like something else entirely. Opaque and sonically seductive, the album was recorded with a new band featuring some of New York’s finest young jazz players. Arguably Bowie’s most significant artistic shift since the late 1970s, the album appeared to mark the beginning of an exciting new phase – although in light of subsequent events, its wintry mood and ominous lyrics have assumed the air of an epitaph.
As the importance of recording in the overall music landscape continues to dwindle, David Bowie’s death is a sobering reminder of an era in which groundbreaking studio work was a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. In reflecting upon his achievements, it is to be hoped that more contemporary artists and producers are encouraged to look beyond demographics and download charts to create work that is informed by artistic ambition above any other consideration.