Ever the cultural magpie, David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ saw the one-time king of glam-rock fully embrace the funk and soul-infused sound he’d dipped his toes into with Young Americans.
‘Golden Years’ set the tone of Bowie’s tenth studio effort, Station To Station. It was the first track Bowie took on in the studio and was the first to be finished. While the majority of tracks on Station To Station took weeks to revise and hone, ‘Golden Years’ seemed to arrive fully formed and was released as a single just a week after it had been mixed and mastered, after which it gradually climbed the charts, while Bowie himself was still in Los Angeles’ Cherokee Studios putting the final touches to the rest of the album.
There’s some debate surrounding the origins of ‘Golden Years’. It is generally believed that Bowie started work on the song in LA, shortly before he set off for New Mexico to film Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi art flick, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Like that film, ‘Golden Years’ can be seen as, if not a criticism, certainly a satirical swipe at the rampant consumer culture which, by the 1970s, had America totally under its spell. The title itself seems to evoke the materialist promise of the consumerist West. That’s to say nothing of the way Bowie offers up an infectious dance record that seems to disguise a darker undertone, just as advertising seems to offer the promise of salvation from emptiness. “Run for the shadows,” Bowie sings, as the beat goes on.
But, according to his then-wife, Angela, Bowie never intended to sing ‘Golden Years’ himself. Instead, he actually wrote it for her, in the hope that it might secure her a recording contract: “I worked very hard on his career,” she once recalled. “Then at a certain point I said I’m going to do this, I’m going to take risks, I’m going to go to these classes. And he was fine, no problem whatsoever. But another point I said OK, well now, I need to actually perform. And I did The Mike Douglas Show, singing ‘I’ve Got A Crush On You’. And David was so astonished that he wrote ‘Golden Years’”.
In contrast, Bowie always maintained that the song had been written for Elvis Presley. “Elvis heard the demos, because we were both on RCA, and Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley’s manager] thought I should write Elvis some songs,” Bowie said. “There was talk between our offices that I should be introduced to Elvis and maybe start working with him in a production-writer capacity. But it never came to pass. I would have loved to have worked with him. God, I would have adored it.”
Whoever it was written for, it’s clear that Bowie was hoping ‘Golden Years’ would have as much success as his previous hit, ‘Fame’. In an effort to capture the same magic that had sent that record to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, Bowie assembled the same group of musicians who’d performed on it in the 1975 recording session. It worked a treat, and by 1976, ‘Golden Years’ was a huge hit, winning over listeners with its incorporation of elements of 1950s doo-wop and groove-laden rhythm tracks.
Seeing as he didn’t perform ‘Golden Years’ during the Station To Station tour, clearly, it took Bowie a little time to embrace the single, but that can only be expected of a man in the middle of a stylistic overhaul. In retrospect ‘Golden years’ symbolises a definitive moment in Bowie’s artistic development, marking the division between his uniquely British, rock-leaning sound and his full immersion in American dance music, which would culminate with 1983’s Lets Dance.