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Bowie’s “Plastic Soul”

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Our wise Taloran’s mention of the fine funky guitarist Carlos Alomar in the Rolling Stone guitarist poll post (see comments #534, 536) inspired me listen to his work (Alomar’s, not Taloran’s, no offense). This brought me to David Bowie, 1974.

In a move away from sci-fi glam rock to what he called “plastic soul,” David Bowie recorded the swinging “Young Americans” with Tony Visconti producing and a new band (Alomar, Willy Weeks on bass, Luther Vandross on background vocals, David Sanborn on sax) at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound (made famous by Gamble and Huff) in Fall-’74.

Bowie and Visconti had also recorded “Win,” “Right,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the great “Fascination” (co-written with Vandross) at Sigma, but then Bowie went back on tour and Visconti returned to London. The tapes were sent to NYC’s Record Plant to be mixed by young Harry Maslin.

Bowie had a falling out with his management company, MainMan, over the direction of his new music and his drug use, among other things, and the album was put on hold. Then in November, recalled Maslin, “I was home one day with my then-girlfriend and a couple of friends and we had a couple glasses of wine. I get a call on the phone and it’s David Bowie.

“He says, ‘Look, you gotta do me a favor. You have to get me some time at Record Plant because I want to finish my album so I can get home by Christmas, and it’s getting late.’

“I said, ‘No problem, let me see what I can do.’ He said, ‘You gotta do one other thing for me – you gotta produce the rest of the album.’ I took the phone away from my ear like I was hallucinating, then put it back and said, ‘Ah, I think I can do that.’ I hung up the phone and told my friends and they all thought I was full of shit.”

Maslin helped Bowie produce “Across the Universe” and the funky classic “Fame” – with John Lennon playing and singing along – and ended up with co-production credit for every song on the album except “Young Americans.”

Pleased with their work together, Bowie then asked Maslin to co-produce his next album – his highest-charting in the U.S. – Station to Station. Recorded at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood with Bowie in character as the icy, arch-European Thin White Duke, Station is a strange but ultimately successful amalgam of Bowie’s Young American soul stylings and muscular rock jamming (led by lead guitarist Earl Slick).

The title track is a 10-minute medley of mechanical beats and soul-rock riffing that somehow combines Kraftwerk and early-Bruce Springsteen. “Golden Years” is great, tuneful, uptempo soul and was the only song on the album to be recorded quickly and easily.

“TVC15″ is odd – even for Bowie – with lyrics inspired by his starring role in the science fiction film classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roy Bittan’s (of the E Street Band) jaunty whorehouse piano, martial dance beats, and a mesmerizing refrain. “Stay” rocks to the dual guitars of Alomar and Slick, and Dennis Davis’s syncopated drumming.

With Bowie wired on coke, working vampire’s hours, and writing/rewriting songs in the studio, Station was very difficult to make, but somehow came out a classic.

About Eric Olsen