Need holiday gift suggestions for your favorite music geek? Presenting some weighty classic-rock reissues for your consideration: David Bowie's Station to Station — in both a three-CD "Special Edition" and a five-CD/three-LP/DVD "Deluxe Edition" — and a three-disc set commemorating Jethro Tull's Stand Up.
By the time David Bowie began work on Station to Station in 1975 he was, to put it charitably, a mess: strung out on coke and speed, pale of cheek and spindly of frame, a nihilistic, anhedonic shell of a man wallowing reflexively in the pleasure pit of Me Decade Los Angeles.
Gone were the swagger and flash of his fiercely coiffed, gender-bending alter egos Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. The languid soul of his recently completed (and highly successful) Young Americans album had given way to paralysis, chaos and addiction. Indeed, Bowie resembled all too closely the fragile, reclusive space alien he'd just portrayed in Nicolas Roeg's ponderous sci-fi flick The Man Who Fell to Earth. But however down, he wasn't out — in fact, he was on the cusp of a bold new phase. It would begin with a very different incarnation: the Thin White Duke.
He's name-checked in the first line of the first song, which happens to be the album's epic title track: "The return of the Thin White Duke/ Throwing darts in lovers' eyes." This elegant, charismatic fascist exudes the faded glory, contained violence and wretched excess that had been clogging his creator's soul.
The song's three-and-a-half-minute instrumental intro is equal parts rock groove and industrial noise symphony, but it subsides like a wave for the vocal. The track chugs along on the druggy rails of the Duke's poetic vision for a bit as Bowie murmurs opaquely about the journey "from Kether to Malkuth" (from "crown" to "kingdom" on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, according to our research). Then, as though whipped into an epiphany, the tune becomes a positively glorious, questing, ultra-romantic pop anthem: "It's not the side effects of the cocaine," Bowie sings. "I'm thinking that it must be love." A litany of realizations tumbles out:
It's too late to be grateful
The band positively cooks, notably pianist Roy Bittan (of E Street Band fame) and lead guitarist Earl Slick, whose wailing solo digs as deep as Bowie's impassioned vocal. It's a strange sort of rebirth, but the catharsis is undeniable. "Does my face show some kind of glow?" sings rock's ultimate chameleon in apparent disbelief. Well, it sounds like it does.
What follows are such signature Bowie gems as the irresistibly funky "Golden Years," the achingly tender "Word on a Wing," the prankish harbinger of new wave "TVC15" and his go-for-broke rendition of the tempestuous Tiomkin-Washington ballad "Wild Is the Wind," a number previously assayed by Nina Simone and Johnny Mathis, among other giants, but which Bowie somehow made his own.
Strung out on coke and speed, pale of cheek and spindly of frame, Bowie was a nihilistic shell of a man wallowing in the pleasure pit of Me Decade L.A.Station to Station is a tour de force. It sounds better than ever in EMI's "analogue remaster" rendering, accompanied in the three-disc "Special Edition" by two CDs capturing a legendary 1976 concert in Nassau, Bahamas (which, despite evidence of the "side effects" Bowie discounts in song, showcases more great playing by Slick and the band); a scale reproduction of the original LP sleeve; several iconic color pics on cardstock; and a booklet packed with great photos and a revealing essay by ultra-fan Cameron Crowe. The "Deluxe Edition," meanwhile, also includes three vinyl LPs; a five-track CD of singles versions; an audio-only DVD featuring 5.1, new stereo and original analog mixes; and assorted other goodies. I pity the jolly, bearded fool who has to load this behemoth onto his sleigh.
And what do Bowie and the enigmatic Thin White Duke mean when they declare, "The European canon is here?" Despite the decidedly continental drift of the latter's regal character, it's not entirely clear.
But Bowie was about to deliver his own European canon, forsaking L.A.'s sunshine and dope for the restorative rigor of Berlin. There, in collaboration with like-minded geniuses Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Iggy Pop and Tony Visconti, he would create the dazzling, difficult cycle of albums that included Low, Heroes and Lodger.
Still, I keep returning to Station to Station, with its dizzying climb from the depths of despair to the rarefied summits of revelation. It's a trip we need to take more often.
A while ago in these pages, I considered the remastered edition of Jethro Tull's debut LP, This Was, a bluesy ramble that's a portrait of the British quartet as scruffy neo-traditionalists. But the band's sophomore outing, 1969's Stand Up, is generally regarded as the first "true" Tull album, insofar as it lays out the path frontman Ian Anderson and his mates would follow for many years to come.
Original electric guitarist and co-leader Mick Abrahams, for one thing, had departed to form his own project, Blodwyn Pig. And for another thing, Stand Up marks the arrival of Martin Barre, who has stuck around ever since. Barre's punchy tone and stinging leads herald a harder-rocking band, giving bassist Glen Cornick and drummer Clive Bunker room to stretch out. And Anderson's songs here show both the stylistic eclecticism and sonic heft that became hallmarks of his best work.
A number of Stand Up tracks would become fan favorites and staples of Tull's live repertoire, notably the heavy blues-rockers "A New Day Yesterday" and "Nothing Is Easy"; the caffeinated, world-folky "Fat Man" (distinguished by Anderson's killer bouzouki riff and Bunker's virtuosic percussion); and the signature instrumental "Bouree," a swinging take on Bach that summarized the band's originality and versatility in just under four jazzy minutes.
The disc also features lesser-known but worthy songs like the midtempo "We Used to Know" (believed by some fans to have been looted by the Eagles for the changes to "Hotel California"), the gorgeous "Reasons for Waiting" and the pensive "Look Into the Sun." A spirit of experimentation and growth pervades every aspect of the set.
The crisp remastering brings out hitherto muted details, but it mainly serves to underscore the excellence of the original recordings, which were engineered by Andy Johns (who would later work on discs by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen and become a noted producer in his own right) under the auspices of producer/Tull manager Terry Ellis.
John Peel informed Anderson that he didn't like Tull's new direction, sparking a rift that never healed.Ironically, though, the album's innovations were lost on the band's biggest early booster, influential BBC DJ John Peel, who bluntly informed Anderson that he didn't like Tull's new direction and recommended a return to the straightforward blues of This Was. Anderson was crestfallen, and the exchange prompted a falling-out that was never healed; Peel died in 2004. (The band nonetheless played some of this material on Peel's show, though the host declined to be present when they did; several of those tracks can be heard at the end of CD #1, along with assorted outtakes and mono versions.) Tull's leader regretfully recounts this rift (and shares other fascinating tidbits) in a lengthy 2010 interview on the new collection's DVD disc.
The DVD also features an audio-only surround-mix version of the same 1970 Carnegie Hall concert included on CD #2. This stellar performance for a drug-rehab charity helped provide the name for Tull's next studio album, Benefit. Portions of the show were included on the 1972 retrospective Living in the Past, but hearing the set in its entirety shows just how fearsome the band (now a fivesome with keyboardist John Evan) had already become. They roar through Stand Up highlights, several glorious Benefit tracks and even the righteously heretical "My God," which would become a pillar of the breakthrough 1971 LP Aqualung.
EMI has been typically reverent in assembling this triple-disc artifact: The artwork preserves the pop-up cardboard image of the group befitting the disc's title, while the booklet features a thoughtful new Anderson essay and a suite of photos marking a time when rock musicians thought nothing of posing in headbands and knee-high suede boots. Tull devotees will devour it.
No matter how often we hear about the decline and/or death of the musical artifact in these digital times, a fat boxed set remains a welcome gift to the true fan — especially when the music is as substantial as the package.