As the David Bowie tributes continue to pour in, one fact is often neglected: his affection for R&B. After retiring his Ziggy Stardust persona, he embarked on an ambitious 1974 tour to support the album Diamond Dogs. During this time, he experimented with incorporating other genres into his material, a relatively risky move. "I sunk myself back into the music that I considered the bedrock of all popular music: R&B and soul," he said in a later interview. "I guess from the outside it seemed to be a pretty drastic move. I think I probably lost as many fans as I gained new ones." Indeed, his 1975 ode to soul, Young Americans, received a mixed reaction from fans and critics (although it spawned Bowie's first number one hit "Fame"). His 1976 followup, Station to Station, signaled a transition from R&B to Krautrock, but Young Americans' influence lingered. "Golden Years," first released as a 1975 single, contains a funky beat, scratchy guitar riff, and surprisingly danceable elements firmly placing Bowie in the soul realm.
Bowie dove headfirst into R&B during the making of Young Americans, recording at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Two performers who would form the backbone of the album were then-unknown Luther Vandross and Andy Newmark, drummer for Sly and the Family Stone. The title track became a hit, earning him airplay on urban stations. He was subsequently invited to appear on Soul Train, where he performed "Fame" and "Golden Years." Later he admitted that to quell his nerves before taping, he drank quite a bit. Still, he managed to charm the dancers with his moves and his new, cool "Thin White Duke" persona. During the two lip synched performances he occasionally cracked a smile, seemingly delighted at the audience's enthusiastic reception.
As critic Ben Edmonds writes in his Station to Station review, "Golden Years" represents funk done the David Bowie way. "The groove is obviously r&b inspired, but the treatment is rock & roll guitarband," he says. Interestingly, Bowie first pitched the song to Elvis Presley, but ultimately decided to record the song for his next album. The first track recorded for Station to Station, it was originally intended to be the album's title song. Overall, as author Roger Griffin explains, "From start to finish, 'Golden Years' is the purest descendant of the Young Americans sound, but even so the disco sound has been highly modified."
The funk is laid down right away from the first few notes of "Golden Years." Earl Slick's guitar, George Murray's popping bass, and Dennis Davis' strong, steady drumming establish the heavy rhythm. Producer Harry Maslin adds an unusual touch: melodica, which adds a bluesy harmonica-like sound. Bowie explores his broad vocal range, singing "Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere" before soaring into falsetto on the word "angel." The slight echo further emphasizes the word. He urges an unnamed woman to overcome obstacles and take advantage of youth and "golden years." "Never look back, walk tall, act fine," he advises, declaring he will "stick with you baby for a thousand years." His earlier plea to "save her little soul" adds a slightly ominous tone to the track, but his promise to stay with her and that "nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years" suggests at least an optimistic ending.
"Golden Years" became a hit, peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and number nine on the Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart. While Bowie would subsequently move on to the Berlin trilogy, he would return to R&B with his 1983 smash album Let's Dance. Under Nile Rodgers' direction, Bowie would revisit the funky groove with the title track, evoking memories of "Golden Years" and other soul excursions. Bowie may be primarily known for experimental rock, but his mid-70s R&B tracks prove he could conquer an impressive array of genres.