Bowie admits that the song was written out of a coke-addled spiritual despair that he experienced while filming the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. In 1980 Bowie spoke of the song to NME, claiming "There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing. It was the first time I'd really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and 'Word on a Wing' was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine... something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations I felt were happening on the film set."
During the time of recording this song Bowie began to wear a silver crucifix, one which he still wears today. Despite the lyrics claiming that he is 'trying hard to fit among your scheme of things' Bowie seems to be suspicious of having blind faith with regards to religion, exclaiming 'just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well, don't have to question everything in heaven or hell'. This suspicion seems to contradict the sentiment Bowie had while recording Golden Years, where is exclaimed 'I believe all the way'. Bowie later admitted that "there was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking... finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around the Roeg period".
A live version recorded at Nassau Coliseum, Long Island on March 23, 1976 was released as a bonus track on the Rykodisc CD release of Station to Station. After regular appearances on the Isolar – 1976 Tour "Word on a Wing" remained under wraps for over twenty years.
It was revived in 1999 for the VH1 Storytellers TV musical documentary series, when Bowie reaffirmed that the song was a product of 'the darkest days of my life... I'm sure it was a call for help', during those days he declared himself as fascinated by Fascism and mysticism of Third Reich and wondered things like "Can I change the channel on my TV without using the clicker?".