There are box sets, and then there are box sets. EMI's hulking, monster of a box dedicated to David Bowie's 1976 Station to Station (EMI BOWSTSD2010) is one such box set. It's even more massive than The John Lennon Signature Box, itself a lavish and large affair containing 11 discs. The multi-disc box celebrating a single album isn't a new concept, although in the past such offerings were largely based upon session material. The format has proliferated in recent times as record labels have sought new revenue streams (in this case, from collectors) for physical CDs. This holiday season alone will see such sets devoted to Paul McCartney's Band on the Run, Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, the Who's Live at Leeds and the Monkees' Head, to name four coming soon. Station to Station is available, however, in both the deluxe box and a less expensive - and expansive - edition. (Band on the Run will be offered a more affordable edition as well, while Springsteen will offer the two discs of Darkness outtakes as a separate set. Fans of Head and Live at Leeds will have to settle for previous expanded reissues should they opt not to purchase the big boxes!)
Is the 2010 Station to Station worth a substantial chunk of change? That may depend on how significant the original album is to you. At just six tracks over 38 minutes, the album itself could easily get lost among all of the extras in this 5-CD/1-DVD/3-LP monolith. Station to Station represented a transitional period in the oeuvre of its creator/co-producer. Bowie had already traversed multiple genres by 1976: theatrical whimsy, folk, psychedelia, so-called "plastic soul" and perhaps most crucially, glam rock. Many pundits today credit Bowie with creating the genre on 1970's The Man Who Sold the World and epitomizing it two years later on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and its follow-up, 1973's Aladdin Sane. Elements of glam were present on 1973's Pin Ups and 1974's Diamond Dogs, but by the time of Young Americans in 1975, the chameleonic Bowie had abandoned the iconic hairstyle and the makeup. That album found him collaborating with Luther Vandross and even John Lennon on his own brand of Philly soul, recording at Sigma Sound in the City of Brotherly Love. The restless artist's follow-up, however, couldn't have been predicted by anybody. Hit the jump to read on...
After dramatically killing off Ziggy Stardust in front of a live audience, the performance artist/musician introduced his newest character on the opening title track "Station to Station": "The return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers' eyes," he crooned ominously. The Duke was seen on the album's cover, stylishly clad in a white shirt, black trousers and a waistcoat. This was no Ziggy retread. Clothes may make the man, but they were always just one (crucial) part of Bowie's equation. Listeners to the lengthy, 10 minute-plus song heard Bowie in frank mode: "It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love." Musically, he was in a new place, as well. The soulful vocalist of Young Americans was present, but the music itself had taken on a metallic sheen inspired by the electronic sounds coming out of Europe. Even the funky, disco-tinged "Golden Years" (the obvious single, probably to the relief of RCA executives) had a dark edge. After all, the Thin White Duke was, to repeat an oft-quoted remark of Bowie's, "a nasty character, indeed." A more sensitive side came out on "Word on a Wing," featuring one of the singer's most accomplished vocals as he tackled the big questions of life and religion. Roy Bittan of The E Street Band turned in deft keyboard work on this gospel-influenced track. "Stay" most overtly plays off Bowie's past work, with grungy, glam guitars and Bowie singing in his best "plastic soul" mode to create a slick, crunchy rocker. The band was one of Bowie's tighest ensembles, anchored by guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, and also consisting of bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis and Bittan on keyboards.
Bowie defied expectation with the album's final track, a cover of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington ballad "Wild is the Wind," a staple of Johnny Mathis' catalogue. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra poked his head into the Los Angeles studio to join Bowie for a playback of this track while Sinatra was recording next door, and the Chairman duly approved.
With so few tracks, it's no surprise that each one is a winner. "TVC 15" is one of Bowie's most comical songs, marrying a science-fiction lyric reportedly based on an Iggy Pop story related to Bowie about a girlfriend being eaten by her television set! The rollicking backing track boasts a killer piano part and remained a staple of Bowie's live set for years to come.
This edition marks Station to Station's fourth CD appearance, after reissues on RCA, Rykodisc and Virgin. Of those three previous versions, the consensus has long been that the album never sounded better than on the original RCA CD which dated from 1985. (Many of the Bowie CDs on the RCA label from the days of CD's infancy are now coveted by collectors despite subsequent remasters.) EMI has listened to Bowie's fans and included the 1985 RCA CD master among the multiple versions of the album present in the box set. There is also a disc representing the "original analogue master," which remastering engineer Peter Mew of Abbey Road Studios describes in the notes as "the very original that was used for the vinyl...[the transfer from the analogue tapes used for the original album] was made from the Hit Factory master tapes at a resolution of 96kHz 24 Bit, through an ADA 8 Analogue to Digital convertor." He adds that "no other digital processing was undertaken in the digital domain for the DVD 96k 24 Bit PCM Stream. The CD version was sample rate converted to 44.1 khz and noise shaped to 16 Bit, with no other processing." The DVD contains three different mixes: that original analogue master in full 96/24 resolution, original co-producer Harry Maslin's new 5.1 surround remix in DTS and Dolby Digital (alas not in DVD-Audio), and a new stereo remix by Maslin also in 96/24. Finally, the original analogue master is also presented on a 180-gram LP. (Bonus points go to the designer for replicating RCA's orange labels for the discs in this box set, and for restoring the original black-and-white cover artwork.)
The 5.1 remix was the most anticipated mix for this listener; it unfortunately doesn't take full advantage of 5.1. The front channels are discrete with Bowie's vocals particularly present and crystalline, but the rear channels are underused, mostly for ambience. (The album's opening train sound travels from speaker to speaker, getting things off to a promising start, at least!) The RCA master is unsurprisingly the quieter of the two CDs containing the original album; the "original analogue master" has good detail, though, and is also a worthwhile listen. Some listeners might even prefer it. The DVD's stereo tracks in 96/24 both sound stunning, with the percussion, piano and guitar all sounding crisp, vivid and punchy.
Extras are plentiful. A five-track CD EP includes single edits, including the CD debuts of "Word on a Wing" and "Station to Station" in their short 45 versions. Bowie's March 23, 1976 concert at New York's Nassau Coliseum is included as Live Nassau Coliseum '76 in both two-CD and double-LP (also 180 gram) formats. The presentation of this concert (two tracks from which were included on the Rykodisc CD) is the most controversial aspect of the box set; the sound is loud and apparently heavily compressed, to the ire of many audiophiles. Still, if the mastering choice is questionable, the electricity of the reinvented Bowie's performance makes it a welcome addition to the box set.
An LP-sized booklet contains a one-page introductory essay by Cameron Crowe and full lyrics for the album's six songs. There is an interesting two-page spread with advertisements circa 1975/1976, and then a Bowie chronology for the period between May 1975 and May 1976. There are welcome track-by-track notes for the singles EP, and a page of technical notes from Harry Maslin and his associates at Abbey Road. Mention is made of the varying audio levels throughout: "Due to the nature of the flat transfers of the original analogue master and RCA CD master compared to the newly mixed and mastered audio of the Station to Station 5.1, new stereo and Live Nassau '76, there is a considerable difference in level between the various formats. Please note that this is not an error and exists to maintain the integrity of the older masters used in the creation of this release" and goes into further detail about all of the transfers, as is excerpted above.
It's easy to be skeptical about all of the other "goodies" included here. Does the presence of reproduced memorabilia justify the high price tag for the complete set? I doubt it; a potential consumer should ask whether the five CDs, three LPs and DVD are worth the asking price. In any event, lots of such "swag" is included. A replica fan club folder contains a biographical pamphlet with then-current discography, a membership card and certificate, two small "collector's cards," and two A4-size photo prints. Two pins/badges are individually packed in small plastic bags, and the RCA David Bowie on Stage 1976 folder is the most interesting of the reproductions, as it includes a replica ticket to the Nassau Coliseum concert (Section 206, Row H, Seat 2 - for the unbelievable price of $9.50!), a sticker, some press shots, a page of band biographies and a six-page memo from the record company with a Bowie biography. Finally, there is a large folded poster of the artist. All of this is of course secondary to the music.
One quibble is the storage of the discs themselves; both the CDs and LPs are stored in LP-sized gatefolds, with the LPs stored traditionally in the sleeve and the gatefold opening up with slots for the unprotected discs. Some of the CDs were actually quite difficult to remove, and while I avoided scratching mine, there was still a bit of fear each time I removed a disc. However attractive the LP jacket-style design is, more protection would have gone a long way.
But despite any shortcomings audio-wise and in the storage for the CDs, Station to Station still offers an abundance of riches in this super-sized format. There is an abbreviated version of the box set available at a much lower price point, containing only the original analogue master CD and the 2 CDs of Live Nassau '76. Were this smaller set available with the DVD (perhaps the larger box's most enticing item), it most likely would be the way to go for a collector uninterested in memorabilia or 180-gram "audiophile" LPs. All told, though, this set is a treasure trove for deep-pocketed serious fans of Bowie and/or the album, and easily offers hours of immersion into the strange, dark world of Station to Station. The Thin White Duke has returned in style.