Record Collector Presents Bowie DECEMBER 2016 - by Tom Seabrook


Bowie In Berlin author Tom Seabrook lifts the veil on the making of Station To Station, probably Bowie's finest album - and the one that nearly killed him.

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It is September 27, 1975. A few miles west of his space-age pad in Bel Air, David Bowie is in Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches to Golden Years, a swirling, hypnotic love song built around duelling funk guitars and crisp, layered percussion. The song has come together quickly; all that remains now is for Bowie - who will later claim to have written the song with Elvis Presley in mind - to add the lead vocal.

"Knowing that it might be a challenging vocal," producer Harry Maslin recalls, "David sat next to me and said: 'Remember, I'm not really a vocalist, I'm more of a songwriter... be patient with me.' The reason why this sticks out in my mind is because he proceeded to go into the studio and nail the vocal in one take... blowing my mind as to how proficient he truly was."

Bowie and Maslin were confident they had a hit on their hands - so confident, in fact, that Golden Years was rush-released as a single even as work continued on the rest of the album. To the casual observer, it would seem that Bowie was all set to continue the run of effortless, imperious form that began with Hunky Dory and had continued through the genre-busting majesty of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. In fact, things had already begun to spiral out of control.

The party line about Station To Station is that it's the record Bowie made in a fog of cocaine and mental instability; that he barely remembers making it at all. "I know it was recorded in LA," he once quipped, "because I read that it was." In a 1997 interview with Planet Rock, he claimed to have only one specific memory of what amounted to two-and-a-half months of recording sessions: screaming at lead guitarist Earl Slick in an effort to demonstrate the type of feedback he wanted at the start of the title track.

Bowie was among the many rather than the few when it came to overdoing it with cocaine during the '70s, and his fellow musicians' memories are similarly cloudy. Earl Slick and rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar have both admitted retaining little more than impressions of the time they spent making the album; drummer Dennis Davis put his fragmented memories of the era down to "too much champagne". As a result, most of the stories told about the Station To Station period are about chemical excess, marathon recording sessions, parties at Peter Sellers' house - but not the record itself.

Fortunately, there was one sane person, as Slick later put it, left in the room: Harry Maslin, whose memory extends even to the types of mics and monitors used during the sessions. "I was the person charged to maintain 'focus' on what we were trying to do," he says. "As a producer, that's part of my job... Artists tend to let their attention be diverted from time to time, following whatever spontaneous/creative path that may develop."

Maslin was first drafted in to work with Bowie in January 1975, towards the end of the Young Americans sessions. "I had taken over the production when Tony [Visconti, who had overseen the first wave of sessions in late 1974] got caught up in the MainMan disputes" - the beginnings of what would end up being several years of legal disputes and recriminations between Bowie and his management. Young Americans became Bowie's biggest international success to date: eight months later, Maslin was the ideal candidate to produce his next album.

During the intervening period, in a break from the frenetic norm, Bowie had spent very little time working on music. He had entered the studio for a couple of days in ]une to make a brief, aborted attempt at cutting a record with his old mate Iggy Pop (scrapped after Iggy failed to turn up on the second day) but showed little inclination to get on with making another album of his own.

In interviews he put this down to a growing dissatisfaction with music and the machinations of the industry; he had, he said, "rocked my last roll", and was now more interested in pursuing writing, directing and acting. "I'm not in love with music," he told Creem. "I just use music to achieve something I have in mind, an idea or a feeling I want to get across. But I'm not one of those people who treat it as sacred. You've got to play around with it or it gets to be a dreadful bore."

There may have been some truth in this. Bowie's dispute with former manager Tony Defries, which began around the turn of the year, would hardly have fuelled his enthusiasm for making music (or, indeed, touring, which he steadfastly refused to do in support of Young Americans), and he was otherwise engaged on the film set of The Man Who Fell To Earth for much of the summer. Even so, you had to go back to November 1974 to find Bowie's last major recording endeavour. For a man who had made seven studio albums in less than five years, that was a very long time indeed.

For all his talk of boredom and dissatisfaction, the fact of the matter is that Bowie was simply not in a fit state to make a record. By the time that he arrived in Los Angeles in April, he was teetering on the brink of mental and physical collapse brought on by a dangerous cocktail of overwork and overindulgence. He had first started using cocaine a few years earlier as a means of maintaining the pace of a frantic schedule of recording and touring; since then it had become one of the primary ingredients in a very limited diet rounded out, such as it was, by cartons of milk and finely chopped peppers.

At the same time, Bowie was also developing an unhealthy preoccupation with what he later described to Tony Parsons as "Egyptian mysticism, the Kabbalah, all this stuff that is inherently misleading in life". Fascinations such as these were not exactly new to him, but they were growing more and more troubling and served only to exacerbate an already heightened sense of paranoia.

For the first few weeks of his stay in LA, Bowie lived in a house owned by Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes, who was away on tour at the time, before moving into the spare room at the home of his new lawyer and manager, Michael Lippman. Then, tired of being told to clean up his act, he asked his wife, Angie, with whom he still just about shared the most open of marriages, to find them a place of their own.

All manner of tales have been told about Bowie's troubling behaviour during his period, some more plausible than others. There are stories of days and nights spent chanting spells and obsessively drawing occult symbols on the door; a genuine fear that Jimmy Page, another rocker with a deep interest in black magic, was out to get him; storing jars of his own urine in the fridge so that malevolent forces couldn't use it to put a hex on him. Where once he had written songs about The Supermen, matters had accelerated to the point where he was now building fifteen-foot polyethylene sculptures of them in his back garden. "I want to be a super-being," he told Playboy, "and improve all the equipment that I've been given to where it works three hundred per cent better."

In conversations with journalists that spring and summer, Bowie seemed at pains to maintain the illusion of productivity, variously describing the nine screenplays he had already completed; the autobiography - or possibly a series of autobiographies - he was working on; the finished albums he had in the can, ready to fire off as and when he felt they were ready to be heard. Beneath the bluster, though, there are glimpses in these reports of the true state he was in: the paranoid pulling down of blinds, the general air of distracted irritability and the troubling pronouncements about hating sleep and loving "fast drugs".

For all Bowie's claims of being able to write songs in mere minutes, he was simply not in the right frame of mind to make another record; as things stood, he had only written one useable song (Golden Years) since the end of the Young Americans sessions. The two dominant women in Bowie's life - his estranged wife and his girlfriend, Ava Cherry - both thought it had been written for them; the singer himself had more pressing concerns. "Everywhere I looked [there were] demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one's emotional plane," he later told the NME.

In June, Bowie decamped to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the set of Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which he was to star as the title character, Thomas Jerome Newton. The film came as a much-needed respite. The change of scenery seemed to suit him too, New Mexico's clean air and natural light fostering a much healthier perspective than those dark, shuttered rooms in LA. Though he was still worryingly thin, Bowie had by all accounts managed to curb his drug use while on set, and was beginning to feel creative again. At least two of the songs that wound up on Station To Station (Word On A Wing and TVC 15) were inspired by the time he spent working on the film. There was also the prospect of composing the soundtrack, which he began to work on in his room at the Albuquerque Hilton.

Shooting wrapped in late August, and Bowie returned to Los Angeles with a tentative plan for his next album. By the middle of the following month, he found himself in a downtown rehearsal studio, Sound Instrumental Rentals, with Harry Maslin and a reconfigured band: Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Dennis Davis and backing vocalist Geoff MacCormack (AKA Warren Peace) resumed their roles from before, with George Murray coming in on bass and The E Street Band's Roy Bittan replacing Mike Garson (another casualty of the MainMan cull) on keys.

"The band was perfect," says Maslin. "From the relaxed coolness of Carlos Alomar to the sometimes raging angst of Earl Slick, they complimented each other and contributed greatly to the end result. Dennis (on drums) and George (on bass) were the ultimate rock professionals." The musicians spent a few days honing the fragmentary material Bowie brought to them before entering Cherokee Studios. "He had one or two songs written," Earl Slick explained to Circus shortly after the album's release, "but they were changed so drastically that you wouldn't know them from the first time anyway." (Elsewhere, Slick recalled the time Bowie came into the studio and announced that he wanted to record "a new song that I haven't written yet".)

Station To Station established a method of working that Bowie would follow throughout the remainder of the '70s, on his "Berlin" albums and beyond. First, he and the nucleus of his band - in this case Alomar, Davis and Murray - would work through his initial ideas, turning fragments into arrangements as quickly and spontaneously as possible, with Maslin chiming in where necessary. "There were no attitude problems and they were all willing to take whatever direction was offered, which was abundant," Maslin says. "When you work with musicians of their calibre you must communicate on their level, which they respect, and consequently the team gels and great things are the result."

Once they had established a basic structure for each of the songs, Bowie and his cohorts would begin the slower and more laborious process of overdubbing. On Station To Station, this generally began with Alomar and Slick adding competing lead-guitar parts, Bitten laying down piano and keyboard tracks, and then Bowie and Maslin experimenting with keys, sax, additional percussion and more.

Only at the very end of the process - often after most of the musicians had been sent home - would vocals be added. As Maslin recalls, recording the vocals was one of the hardest parts of the process. "He might change the words of a song from one time to the next, and if you engineer vocals the way I do, you have to know what he's trying to do to capture it the way you want... You've got to be totally aware."

Maslin's job was made doubly difficult by the fact that Bowie seemed to approach each vocal differently, from the rebel yell of TVC 15 - "a love song between a girl and her television set" - to the delicate, lovelorn Wild Is The Wind. Maslin captured a range of vocal performances, often using different microphones in an effort to match the singer's stylistic diversity. As is so often the case with Bowie, however, the first take was often the one that stuck.

In the past, Bowie had grown accustomed to making records quickly during breaks between tours. Now, with no live engagements planned until at least the turn of the year, he was "going to take a little more time about it and make sure everything stays in bounds", as he told Melody Maker. "But you never know what is going to happen. It's a bit like walking a tightrope."

Experimentation was the order of the day. The very first thing heard on the album is the sound of a train, lifted from a sound effects record that was then doctored with unconventional phasing and equalisation. "David was really into it," Maslin later recalled. "He was like a child playing with sound." Elsewhere on the record, there are layers of Moog and Mellotron, as well as sounds plucked by Maslin from an early drum machine. "I rented it from SIR and discovered it only had a mono output," he says. "I needed the individual sounds of the loop so I proceeded to crack open the case and rewire the outputs to a mixer. Needless to say, the rental company was not pleased... but we did pay for the damage."

Though no timetable had been established for completing the album, Bowie was in no mood to take it easy. He would work solidly for three or four days before taking a couple of days off "to rest and get charged up for another sprint". On one occasion, Bowie and his band went straight from an all-nighter at Cherokee to the Record Plant across town (Cherokee having been booked out by another artist that day), where they continued into the evening. "That was the session when David and I both played saxophone on TVC 15," says Maslin.

The price of this unrelenting creativity, of course, was that Bowie had slipped back into the worst of habits. "I look back on some things in total horror," he later told the NME. "I was out of my mind, completely crazed."

The wider world got its first taste of Station To Station when a wayward-looking Bowie mimed his way through Golden Years and his recent American chart-topper, Fame, on Soul Train. What should have been a high point in his career to date - he was one of the first white acts ever to appear on the long-running revue show - was anything but, as he stumbled through both the performances and the brief interview segment, which host Don Cornelius brought to a swift close after a handful of questions from the audience and a few rambling, disjointed responses from Bowie.

Bowie would later say that he had been overawed by the occasion, and that, in an effort to calm his nerves, he had had too much to drink beforehand. That didn't stop the Golden Years clip becoming a kind of semi-official promo video for the song, which would soon find its way into the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. But Golden Years gave little indication of the rest of the material on Station To Station. The album sessions continued through to the end of November, with the songs growing ever more expansive and experimental as time wore on.

"After the success of Young Americans, I felt we could take some artistic risks on Station To Station," says Maslin. "I knew we had Golden Years as a good potential hit single to maintain the roll and help push the album. I also knew I could whip Stay into a good single. Consequently, I decided to push for musical innovation rather than load the album with potential radio hits."

Certainly, nothing would prepare listeners for the title track, which, at just over ten minutes, remains the longest single song in the Bowie catalogue. It started out as two shorter fragments that came together during rehearsals, before the feedback-laced intro was welded on at Cherokee. More than a minute passes before Roy Bittan strikes up the ominous two-note piano riff that underpins the opening section. He's joined first by Earl Slick, whom Bowie had instructed to play a modified Chuck Berry riff throughout, before the dream team of Alomar, Davis and Murray unveil the most potent of Neu!-like grooves.

Bowie doesn't start singing until the fourth minute of the song, but when he does, he launches into one of the richest and most evocative lyrics of his career, bringing into focus some of his deepest preoccupations of the past year, including the Kabbalah Tree Of Life, "one magical moment", and Aleister Crowley's poetry collection White Stains. The song's first line introduces listeners to Bowie's latest alter ego, The Thin White Duke (The Return Of The Thin White Duke was also the name of the autobiography he had started writing on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth).

After five minutes, the song shifts gear into what was originally known as It's Too Late, a strident funk workout powered by bright piano chords, Dennis Davis' thunderous drums and Bowie's dubious claim that what we're witnessing here is "not the side-effects of the cocaine" but instead "must be love". "It's too late to be hateful," he sings, doing his best to convince himself as much as anyone else, "The European cannon is here." For Maslin, the song was "something that had to happen". "Building on David's Thin White Duke," he says, "we wanted to take the listener on a musical journey and translate some ideas to what was going on in the mind of the artist."

The second track, Golden Years, would already have been familiar to most of those who bought the album, and feels like light relief after what came before it. Half a minute longer here than on the original single edit, it's still something of an oddity, the dying breath of Bowie's plastic soul as he leads band and listeners alike into the most artistically rewarding and challenging phase of his career. Despite the polished pop sheen, however, there's an underlying uneasiness in Bowie's plea for his "angel" to "run for the shadows". As with the rest of the album, demons lurk in the distance.

Station To Station's first side is rounded out by a different kind of oddity: Word On A Wing, a piano-led ballad that steps dangerously close to soft rock. Having delved deep into Gnosticism on the title track, Bowie here seems to be hedging his bets somewhat by kneeling before the Lord, to whom he admits he's been "trying hard to fit among your scheme of things". Whether or not he had really felt the call of Christianity is unclear; this could just be another case of Bowie the actor stepping into a role - though he had taken to wearing a large gold crucifix given to him by Michael Lippman.

Asked about the song a few years later by the NME, Bowie claimed to have written it during "days of such psychological terror" on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth. "It was the first time I'd really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and Word On A Wing was a protection. The passion in the song was genuine," he said, adding that it was "something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set". Whether these "situations" were the result of outside influences or merely the effects of Bowie's crumbling psychological state remains unclear.

Station To Station is an album characterised by its steadfast refusal to stick with any single style - a reflection, perhaps, of the mindset of its creator. Side Two, then, presents three more very different songs. TVC 15 is the second of two tracks that Bowie started writing on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and derives much of its "hologramic" imagery from the film. For the most part, the song is jaunty and almost carefree - or at least as carefree as Station To Station gets - until rumbling discords and battling saxophones bring the veiled terror of the lyric - about a girl sucked into a demonic television - back into focus.

Track five, Stay, makes good on the disco-funk promise of earlier experiments such as 1984 and Fascination. Davis, Murray and Alomar provide a solid foundation of stop-start drums, deliciously restrained bass and naggingly effective guitar, over which Bowie sings of the torture of missed romantic connections and Earl Slick drops in some career-best lead lines. Golden Years aside, it's probably the closest to what listeners might have expected of the follow-up to Young Americans - at least until the players launch into the explosively improvisational second half of the song. Lyrically, the key moment comes early on, with Bowie pondering whether to "take something to help me" after a week that has "dragged past me so slowly", leading the listener to once again wonder about the cocaine side-effects mentioned at the start of the record.

The album closes with a magnificent reading of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington's epic ballad Wild Is The Wind. The song was originally recorded by Johnny Mathis for the 1957 film of the same name, though Bowie's primary inspiration was Nina Simone's elegant take on the song, recorded and released in 1966. Here, he wrings every last drop of anguish from the lyric over a restrained backing of walking bass, light drums and probing guitar. The vocal is one of the finest of Bowie's career, and all the more impressive for the fact that it was captured in one pass during the first take.

And that, after six tracks of wildly varying lengths and styles, is that.

Given that Bowie spent appreciably more time working on Station To Station than on any of his previous albums, there has been much speculation over the years about what else might have been recorded during those two-and-a-half months at Cherokee Studios. Harry Maslin confirms that there were "additional recordings left on the shelf, as well as at least one very good session that included (to my recollection) Roy Bittan, Bobby Womack and Ronnie Wood".

None of these have ever seen the light of day, despite the many opportunities that there have been to release them. The most likely explanation for this seems to be that David Bowie was just as protective of his master tapes as he was of his memories. Despite Bowie's claims to the contrary, Maslin has assured that he remembered "much" from the sessions.

Stone Canyon Drive, Los Angeles, December 22, 1975. David Bowie sits alone in his rented home in the Hollywood Hills, a modernist white cube guarded by a pair of giant gold sphinxes. He's been living here since the summer, surrounded by half-finished sculptures, books about black magic and the Nazis, and multiple television sets. A black candle burns in the background. Bowie's face is gaunt and ghoulish, his body weight down to just under six stone after a year of living on little more than cocaine, red peppers and milk. He's been awake for days and nights, his mind fracturing into shards. He's got a new record out next month, but he's already on to the next thing: recording the soundtrack to a film he's starring in - if only he can lay off the coke for long enough to come up with something worth using...

With Station To Station in the can, Bowie turned his attention to composing for The Man Who Fell To Earth. He'd already started talking the project up in the press and in television interviews, such as the one with Don Cornelius for Soul Train, and a satellite link-up with ITV's Russell Harty at the end of November. (Famously, Bowie denied a request by the Spanish Government to co-opt the satellite link to announce the death of Generalissimo Franco, apparently considering his chat with Harty to be more important.)

For the soundtrack sessions, Bowie called on a couple of faces from the past: Paul Buckmaster. who arranged the strings for Space Oddity back in 1969, and Herbie Flowers, who had played bass on the same song, as well as much of Diamond Dogs and numerous other hits of the period. Buckmaster brought with him a friend, the classically trained keyboardist J. Peter Robinson, who would go on to compose music for a wide range of films and television series, including The Bank Job and The World's Fastest Indian.

The results of their work together, which remain unreleased, have been the subject of much debate and conjecture ever since. The only concrete detail that all concerned agree on is that a keyboard-driven version of the Low track Subterraneans, played by Bowie, Buckmaster and Robinson, was once planned for inclusion on the soundtrack; it also seems likely that the Low outtake Some Are was written with the film in mind. In 2007, Buckmaster revealed a few titbits to Bowie biographer David Buckley about "medium-tempo rock instrumental pieces", "slow and spacey cues with synth, Rhodes and cello" and "a song David wrote, played and sang, called Wheels, which had a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it". (He also admitted that he, like Bowie, was hampered by heavy cocaine use, which probably explains why no further details are forthcoming.)

Harry Maslin was present for some of the soundtrack sessions but, before long, he was on his way back to New York to mix Station To Station at the Hit Factory, so remembers only a couple of tracks. Bowie himself later recalled having about five or six finished pieces at one point, and as late as the turn of the year, it seemed that Bowie's recordings were still very much in consideration for the soundtrack. In late December, director Nicholas Roeg gave a journalist from Street Life magazine a tantalising preview of one track - "a simple melodic instrumental based around organ, bass and drums, with atmosphere courtesy of studio wizardry all put together and performed by Bowie himself" - the implication being that this was very much a done deal.

As Bowie would have it, it was only when film studio executives started to involve themselves in the process that the chances of him providing the soundtrack began to fade. "I can't remember the details, but there was a great row," he told the NME a few years later. "I was under the impression that I'd be writing [all of] the music for the film... but I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people's...

"I just said: 'Shit, you're not getting any of it.' I was so furious, I'd put so much work into it." In subsequent interviews, Bowie pointed the blame at Michael Lippman - whose short time as his manager was nearing an end - for failing to seal the deal. As far as Paul Buckmaster was concerned, however, the music he and Bowie had recorded was "just not up to the standard of composing and performance needed for a good movie score".

Several other onlookers have since confirmed that, by the time Station To Station was completed, Bowie was in no fit state to be making any music at all. Certainly, the Russell Harty interview had shown him to be tetchy and uncomfortable - he seemed barely able to answer questions about his upcoming tour of the US and Europe, let alone soundtrack a film. More frail than ever before, he looked and sounded like a man on the verge of mental and physical collapse.

At the time, the official explanation for Bowie's withdrawal from the project was one of "contractual entanglements". Instead, Roeg hired The Mamas And The Papas' John Phillips to oversee the soundtrack, who assembled a winning mix of quirky Americana, golden oldies by Bing Crosby and Artie Shaw, and otherworldly instrumentals by the Japanese composer and percussionist Stomu Yamashta.

Bowie's attempts to record the soundtrack might have ended up as a brief footnote to his career were it not for the fact that the sessions for The Man Who Fell To Earth - or at least what we know of them - seem to point so firmly in the direction of Low. Beyond the fact that at least Subterraneans was carried over from one project to the next, the soundtrack sessions also led Bowie towards yet another mode of working. Nine months before he started recording with Brian Eno, he was already trying his hand at assembling moody, wordless music using unconventional instruments (notably the Chamberlin, a kind of Mellotron-like keyboard). Whether these proto-Low soundtrack recordings will ever see the light of day remains to be seen. Paul Buckmaster reportedly has a DAT containing some of the finished songs, and Bowie himself must have had tapes of the rest somewhere.

What we do have is the film itself, which remains the finest example of Bowie's work as an actor - perhaps because, in playing a distant, disorientated alien stranded in America, he barely had to act at all. Eventually released in March 1976 to generally positive reviews, The Man Who Fell To Earth would cast a long shadow over the next year of Bowie's career. He later said that Nicholas Roeg had warned him that the character of Thomas Jerome Newton would stay with him, and it did, but perhaps not in the ways the director would have imagined. Having been afforded the luxury of choosing his own wardrobe for the film, Bowie carried the look over to the sleeves of Station To Station and Low, both of which feature stills from the film. He also drew on aspects of Newton's cold, detached, alien character for his nastiest stage persona to date: The Thin White Duke.

David Bowie stands, hands on heart, barely moving, peering out into the empty auditorium during the final dress rehearsal for his upcoming world tour. It is February 2, 1976 and he is on stage at the Pacific National Exhibition Coliseum, in Vancouver. His band - now featuring ex-Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye and Canadian guitarist Stacey Headon - strikes up the opening chords of Word On A Wing, the centrepiece of his new LP. The musicians remain stock still, away from the glare of the spotlights, as Bowie starts to feel his Way into the song. "Just as long as I can see / I'll never stop this vision flowing," he sings, before making light of his current state of health with the glib ad-lib, "I look twice as thin as Bowie..."

"My Whole thing, of course, has always been changes," Bowie explained to Circus magazine on the eve of the Isolar - 1976 Tour, a five-month, sixty-seven-date trek around the US and Europe, which saw him return to Britain for the first time in two years. Yet here he stood at the precipice of something rather more urgent than a shift from folk to glam, or glam to soul. Ravaged by drugs and fast succumbing to serious mental instability, he had driven himself right to the brink, and needed to do something about it - fast.

"It took a friend - who I won't name - to tell me at last that I'd gone too far," Bowie told Crawdaddy in 1978. "This friend pulled me over to the mirror and said: 'Look at us both. If you continue to be the way you're being at the moment, you're never going to see me again.'"

As bad as things had got, Bowie was still self-aware enough to realise the effect that his Los Angeles lifestyle was having on him, and how urgently he needed to get away. "I was lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I really was killing myself," he recalled in 1996, "and that I had to do something drastic to pull myself out of that." He was in no doubt about the extent to which his environment and circumstances had been responsible. "Los Angeles, that's where it all happened," he told the NME. "The fucking place should be wiped off the earth. Even Brian Eno, who's so adaptable and quite versatile... he couldn't last there more than six weeks. He had to get out. But he was very clever: he got out much earlier than I did."

The first step Was a temporary escape to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, for tour rehearsals at Point Of View, the residential studio owned by another hard-living rocker who understood the benefits of a clean break, Keith Richards. It was here that a frail, fragile Bowie began the slow road to recovery while also starting to formulate a plan to move back to Europe following the completion of the tour.

Before that, though, there was some housekeeping to attend to. Upon arriving in Jamaica and finding that no hotel had been booked for him, Bowie placed a quick, curt call to Michael Lippman to tell him that his management services were no longer required.

Having sacked two managers in the space of a year, Bowie decided he didn't need another one, and instead reorganised his small entourage by putting Pat Gibbons in charge of business management and ceding all responsibility for press and publicity to Barbara Le Witt, with the ever-dependable Corinne Schwab continuing as the singer's personal assistant.

Further upheaval came as a result of two forced changes to Bowie's backing band. With Roy Bittan already committed to touring and recording with Bruce Springsteen, his place behind the keys was taken by prog rock veteran Tony Kaye, who, like Bowie, had moved to Los Angeles in 1975. Earl Slick, meanwhile. had left Team Bowie in rather more acrimonious circumstances. By late 1975. questions were being asked about his commitment to the cause after it became apparent that he was planning to launch a solo career under Lippman's guidance. Then, once he started quibbling about the amount he was due to be paid for the tour, the game was up. He was quickly replaced by Stacey Headon, a young and completely unknown guitarist from Toronto, Canada, more used to playing in bars than stadiums.

"The band came together very quickly in a very relaxed, totally Jamaican atmosphere," says Kaye, who also remembers Bowie himself being relatively buoyant: "Parting ways with his past management and taking control of his life and financial world seemed a relief to him." The new line-up made its debut on January 3 at a taping of Dinah Shore's CBS TV show Dinah!, for which they performed Stay and Five Years, with their leader in high enough spirits to consent to a karate lesson from another of Shore's guests. Then it was back to rehearsals, with the tour itself set to begin a month later in Vancouver.

In the last week of January 1976, Bowie released Station To Station. Melody Maker's Allan Jones called it "one of the most significant albums released in the last five years", while Robert Christgau of The Village Voice hailed it as "a great record, both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise" and Richard Cromelin of Circus praised "the most challenging leg of [Bowie's] winding journey". In Rolling Stone, Teri Moris offered the more reserved opinion that Station To Station was "a much better album than we'd been led to believe Bowie was willing to make", before sounding a note of caution: "one wonders how long he'll continue to wrestle with rock at all".

In the years since its release, Station To Station has come to be recognised as one of the nest albums of the era; in 1999, Brian Eno declared it to be "one of the great records of all time". "It certainly is not for me to praise the album in the manner that Brian does," says Harry Maslin, "however, I am confident that we made a very good record, one which deserves to be included as one of David's best efforts."

Bowie would doubtless have come to agree, though at the_time he didn't seem entirely convinced of its worth. "I don't think it's innovative," he told Circus, "but I do believe it's a pretty good coming together of one of the things I've wanted to do from the beginning, which is to combine a European style of lead melody with an R&B instrumentation." (He also felt that he had "compromised in the mixing" by giving the album "that extra commercial touch".) Given the ways in which Station To Station prefigures not just Bowie's subsequent work but also that of countless other acts, particularly during the post-punk/new wave era, "pretty good" is quite the understatement.

In September 1976, when Bowie and Brian Eno started work on what became Low, they inaugurated what they would later describe a New School Of Pretension. Some of those who attended Bowie's tour earlier in the year would have been forgiven for thinking that they'd already attended the first class. In lieu of a support act, Bowie played Radioactivity by Kraftwerk, one of his favourite records of the period, over the PA, before screening Un Chien Andalou, a '20s surrealist short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, most famous for the scene depicting a razor blade cutting into an eyeball.

Though, come the end of the tour, Bowie's band had hit the peak of its powers, off stage the strain was beginning to show. Following a gig on March 21, Bowie and Iggy Pop had been arrested at their hotel by vice squad detectives in Rochester, New York, and charged with criminal possession of half a pound of marijuana. ("Rest assured the stuff was not mine," Bowie subsequently told Playboy. "I can't say much more, but it did belong to the others in the room... bloody potheads." Given the kinds of things he himself had been dabbling in, he could probably have counted himself rather lucky.)

"The whole Station To Station tour was done under duress," Bowie later admitted. "I was out of my mind - totally, completely crazed." For some, the very fact that he was prepared to tour the album at all came as a surprise, particularly given his refusal to go out on the road in support of Young Americans and numerous declarations during 1975 that he was done with rock'n'roll. But then this was, of course, a man prone to rash pronouncements; and, indeed, one who had already "retired" from live performance at least once in the '70s. Around the start of the tour, he told Circus: "I love rock'n'roll. Everything I've said about it in the past is all wrong."

In fact, his reasons for taking on this five-month tour of huge sports arenas seemed rather more prosaic. "Good lord, of course I'm doing it for the money," he replied when Hit Parade's Lisa Robinson asked whether he was enjoying the process.

The Isolar touring party also picked up a new member in Los Angeles: Iggy Pop, who, like Bowie, had spent the past few years working his way towards the point of utter self-destruction but was now slowly coming round to the idea of sobriety. The two men had seen very little of each other since their brief attempt at making a record together the previous May, but would become virtually inseparable for the next few years: living together, traveling together and making records together, with each man also doing his best to help the other clean up (as well as leading each other astray from time to time).

The Isolar shows are widely regarded as some of the finest of Bowie's career, and for good reason. Never again would he manage to assemble quite so powerful and resilient a band. The rhythmic trio of Alomar, Davis and Murray were among the greatest backlines the world of rock-funk-soul has ever seen, while unsung heroes Headon and Kaye could give most other Bowie sidemen a run for their money. There were a few instances, however, where having so skilled a group of musicians had its drawbacks, with proto-punk classics such as Queen Bitch and Suffragette City suffering at times from over-elaboration.

After his final US show, at Madison Square Garden, and a private screening of The Man Who Fell To Earth for his band, Bowie set sail for Europe.

May 2, 1976. David Bowie sits on a specially chartered train as it makes its way up from the port of Dover, through the Kent countryside, and into the suburban sprawl of his youth. Finally, after two years in the North American wilderness, he's coming home. A public address system has been set up in advance of his mid-afternoon arrival at London Victoria; in a few minutes' time he will pull in to the station and announce his triumphant return...

It didn't work out quite like that. The PA system failed, leaving Bowie unable to greet the assembled crowds with much more than a wave - a wave which, when caught on camera by one of many photographers in attendance, looked worryingly like a Nazi salute. This blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment has since prompted much debate - and, indeed, entire theses - concerning whether or not the resulting photograph is proof of Bowie's fascistic tendencies. The most sensible conclusion to be drawn is surely that, for all his ill-considered proclamations and deeply unhealthy interests, he was just wving, and he wasn't actually a Nazi. "That did not happen," he said when asked about the incident a year later. "Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And the bastard caught me."

That said, the Victoria incident did serve as an important wake-up call. The Thin White Duke, Bowie later told Crawdaddy, "was an ogre for me - the most scary of the lot". The ogre had already threatened to derail the Isolar tour as it wound its way across Europe, most notably when Bowie and Iggy were detained at the border between Russia and Poland by guards who discovered several volumes of questionable literature, including a book by Albert Speer, the "first architect" of the Third Reich. He reared his ugly head again a week later when an interview with a Swedish journalist yielded the dim-witted suggestion that "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader". Clearly, it was time to cut him loose.

"The minimalist, Germanic Thin White Duke persona was a great choice for the tour and a sign of things to come," says Tony Kaye. "David was extremely aware of what was influencing him and what he needed to create."

And, conversely, what he didn't. "I've given up adding to myself," Bowie said in 1977. "I've stopped trying to adapt." From here on in, there would no more characters, no more masks, no more alter egos. What you got was just Bowie.