Happy birthday, sir.
(photo credit: Coco (Corrine) Schwab)
Category Archives: Music
76 years of David Bowie
Happy birthday, sir.
In the Corner of the Morning in the Past: The Width of a Circle (1970/2021) – Disc 1 (of 2)
Editor’s note: in the final hour of the final day of Bowie Memorial weekend, here at last is the first half of the review of The Width of a Circle. At some point well into the weeds editing the second part (coming next weekend), it slowly dawned on me that this was going to be very, very long as a comprehensive review and that I needed the Buzzsaw of Aggressive Editing to get it down to a manageable size.
I failed to do this, so instead I present the edited version of the review covering the first disc of the box set. This one’s for you, diehard Bowiephiles.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Bowie in his early career as a songwriter/performer, it is that he was very heavily influenced at different parts of his first two decades on the scene by either other performers that he liked (particularly for his pre-first album singles), and by musical people — sometimes musicians, but also producers — that offered him new directions and inspirations. This 2CD book set, a great companion to Bowie’s second self-titled album and a fascinating look at things to come, is a little miracle that documents the in-between period that would profoundly change his musical direction and life — primarily thanks to Tony Visconti and Michael “Mick” Ronson.
Although it will likely never be in my top 10 Bowie “albums,” the purpose of The Width of a Circle is to document much of what Bowie was up to in the first half of 1970, starting with an appearance on a now-lost BBC radio “in concert” type programme called “The Sunday Show” hosted by the legendary BBC Radio One DJ, John Peel. The fact that we can hear this at all is a gift from the aforementioned Mr. Visconti, who taped the show because of his appearance playing bass for David. The original cassette has been cleaned up as much as possible, but it is still a radio broadcast originally preserved on home taping equipment, and there’s not much getting around that.
The show was actually recorded on the 5th of February, and was a rather long day — rehearsal started at 3:30 in the afternoon and the show was recorded at 7:30, with the band finally leaving at midnight. What makes this particular radio appearance so uniquely important to Bowiephiles — and make no mistake, this set is aimed squarely at that market and is likely to be of lesser appeal to the casual fan — is that this marks Mick Ronson’s debut as Bowie’s new guitarist. As evidenced by the very marked change of direction taken for his next album, The Man Who Sold the World (aka Metrobolist) Ronson went from having only been introduced to Bowie two days before this radio performance to effectively becoming Bowie’s musical director in very short order.
Although he was now a public name for the Top 5 single “Space Oddity” from his second self-titled album (something Peel seized on with his typical droll humour), the album had not actually done especially well. Thus, the second reason why this set is important to fans: it is a truly illuminating document of an artist in transition, not sure of where he’s going (yet), but perceptive enough to know that things had to change.
Funnily enough, Bowie got this BBC Radio gig because the “Sunday Show” producer, Jeff Griffin, had attended one of Bowie’s “An Evening With” cabaret-type shows in London. At this point Bowie was already crafty enough to mix some selections from his first, more pop/Anthony Newly-style album and his markedly more “hippie” stylings to make for a decent show, but for the radio gig he chose to mix it up even further — throwing in some covers alongside mostly songs from his second album (pointedly omitting the hit single), with only brief nod to his past (the unused song “Karma Man,” from his flirtation with Decca, which now fit in better with his current hippier material).
Those in attendance for the recording heard largely different versions of Bowie’s selections, including the very beginnings of the more electric-led sound Ronson would bring to the table, plus a bit of Jacques Brel and a sampling of Biff Rose, and even the not-yet-finished “Width of a Circle” for which this collection is named, along with a preview of his new “next single,” which turned out to be “The Prettiest Star,” the official single release of which featured Marc Bolan, rather than Ronson, on lead guitar. The only song in the “Sunday Show” set that really sounded like the recorded version was “An Occasional Dream.”
As if to highlight that he was aware of the ch-ch-ch-changes he was going through (sorry), the show opened with Bowie alone on 12-string for the first four songs, then joined by Visconti and Cambridge to put some meat on those acoustic bones for a couple of numbers before finally adding Ronson, who started off subtle and gradually took the musical spotlight off Bowie, allowing him to sing harder and louder as the set got progressively more rock-orientated.
Ronson later said that he had had to learn the songs reasonably quickly, and mostly by just watching Bowie play and improvising complementary sounds. That he could do this as well as he managed (though the whole band still sounded a bit rough on most numbers) speaks to Ronson’s remarkable ear for music and foreshadows the huge contribution he was yet to make to Bowie’s songs, style, and arrangements. The gig must have greatly impressed Bowie, who asked Ronson — during an interview portion between songs — if he would join the band for the upcoming tour.
Bowie cheekily opened his set with a cover of “Port of Amsterdam,” which today is recognised as one of Brel’s classics but at the time wasn’t as widely known. This and the other solo numbers were the sort of stuff David was doing in the “Evening With” show, and showed off his strength as a player and singer. The second number was particularly well-suited to the format, “God Knows I’m Good” from the second album. It’s a classic Dylanesque story-song format that Bowie would revisit periodically, particularly in “Life on Mars,” but in both this busking version and the album version, the song remains a poignant portrait of the difficulties of working-class like in the UK at the time, as well as a sly comment on religious quandaries.
Bowie then briefly explains to Peel and the audience who the heck Biff Rose is, and embarks on one of Rose’s more eccentric tunes, “Buzz the Fuzz.” It feels out of place with the rest of the show but I’m sure Bowie found it funny, and his performance is enthusiastic. This is followed by “Karma Man” which wouldn’t have been out of place on either the second album or Hunky Dory. The studio song got a proper release (of sorts) on Decca’s too-soon compilation The World of David Bowie later in the year, and was finally properly appended to the Space Oddity album (as we often call it to avoid naming confusion with the first album) for its 2010 reissue.
Cambridge and Visconti then come on stage to accompany Bowie on “London Bye Ta-Ta,” which still feels like a holdover from his first album in its mix of whimsicality and sixties-style Kinks-ian melody. The addition of bass and drums really add to the sound after 15 minutes of only guitar. Next up was the most “rehearsed”-sounding number, because this was the band that recorded it for the album — “An Occasional Dream,” with a nearly-identical performance. Not the only ode to his failed relationship with Hermione Farthingale we’ll be hearing in this box set!
Ronson then joins the band to take lead on “The Width of a Circle” — an incomplete calling-card for the direction of the next album, which turns Bowie’s folkie and spiritual tendencies into a dark and foreboding inward journey, as much inspired by his brother Terry’s seizures as it was by Bowie reading too much Nitzsche. While far shorter and far less hard-rock in this performance than it would become on MWSTW/Metrobolist, it was still a hell of a gear shift on this performance, dealing as it does with hell, Buddhism, a battle with one’s subconscious “monsters,” homosexual encounters with a demon, and other dark themes.
The song, interestingly enough, is named after the title of a painting Bowie’s childhood friend and former band mate George Underwood did based on his impression of a rough mix of Bowie’s second album (it appeared as the rear illustration on the finished release). Bowie for years referred to it as one of his most personal songs, “really reaching into myself” to document a period covering his late teen years, his dabbling in Buddhism, and his fears stemming from the mental illness tendencies within his family.
Sneak preview over, the band play some rough-ish takes on a few songs from the Space Oddity album, starting with “Janine,” a song of some disapproval towards Underwood’s then-girlfriend. Although far lighter with its Elvis Presley type style, there’s still some dark undercurrents cutting through it — after all, who writes a song attempting to convince a pal that his girlfriend isn’t who she seems?
Then came a pair of disturbingly violent Bowie anthems, “The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” the former of which is a sort of Buddhist-based fable dealing with the quest for the true self — with a dose of saviour complex to be explored more fully later — while the latter more explicitly deals with the singer’s battle with his inner anger and his bitterness over the Beckenham Arts Lab. This was a theme which would also resurface in future albums, and which definitely found an outlet in Ronson as the pair’s relationship progressed.
Wisely changing tack, it was time for another Biff Rose cover, “Fill Your Heart,” which was an upbeat number with no unsettling portents whatsoever (and thus had to wait until Hunky Dory before finally getting on a Bowie album), and it paired perfectly with the next song, the world debut of “The Prettiest Star” — primarily because several ideas were lifted from Rose’s “Angel Tension,” from the same album Bowie had covered “Buzz the Fuzz” and “Fill Your Heart” — clearly The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side made a huge impression on young Davy Jones, and went on to deeply influence Hunky Dory.
“The Prettiest Star” is an unabashed love song of the calibre not seen since he was swooning over Hermione Farthingale in Feathers or writing about their subsequent breakup — only this time his inspiration was his new love, Angela Barrett (whom he would marry the following month) and the use of a catchier style. The concert finished up with a full performance of “Cygnet Committee” and a rather loose (and truncated for time, but still enjoyable) version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” both of which fall firmly into Bowie’s growing stable of “bitter songs with lovely tunes and singing.”
The performance taken in full really shows off Bowie’s talent in singing and songwriting, albeit it also inadvertently showcases his unsettled and somewhat bipolar mental state (he was 23 at the time of this recording). Some of the more charming moments come during some of the repartee between him and Peel as the latter tried to kid around with David regarding album names and song titles. Once the full band were onstage, Peel asked Bowie if he would tour with this group, and the reply was a dry impersonation of Peel’s voice and humour with a witty “looking at this lot, no” — which he quickly dropped and answered “yes,” then proceeding to invite Ronson officially onboard. To all and sundry’s good fortune, Ronson said yes to Bowie’s proposal — and a real match made in rock-n-roll heaven was born.
We’ll take a look at the second disc and the accompanying “book” next time — which is more of a mixed bag compared to this one — but if you consider yourself a Bowie fan, particularly of his pre-Ziggy albums, then you want this. This first disc is “just” a live radio concert with a small audience, but the start of many great things. For fans and collectors, the alternative versions from the Space Oddity (aka David Bowie/Man of Words, Man of Music) album — as well as the other material, and the band that did them — makes this an important document of an important year in Bowie’s life.
Whilst you wait …
There will be some delay to today’s planned post due to radio and podcasts commitments, but it should be available sometime tomorrow (in the null space between Bowie’s birth and death anniversaries). In the meantime, I’m pleased to report that an anthology book on Bowie that I contributed to is still available. Me and the Starman is not a book on Bowie himself, but rather on the incredible impact his art had on the lives of his fans.
It was originally released in July of 2019, and I am proud that the initial run completely sold out. I know more than a few of the other contributors to the book, and greatly enjoyed reading about their own personal “Bowie journeys.” The UK website We Are Cult has opted to reprint the book, and as with the previous edition, all profits from it go towards supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.
Softback physical copies can be obtained from the Canadian and UK Amazon stores, or with limited availability from the US Amazon site. I hope you’ll enjoy my essay therein, entitled “Everyone Says Hi.”
Please note: This book is not to be confused with another book widely available called The Starman and Me by Sharon Cohen (nowt to do with Bowie as far as I can tell, but a praised debut novel).
Happy 75th, David
Guest post by Tony Visconti: “On what would be David Bowie’s 75th birthday I would like to present this reimagined version of his Where Are We Now video. The author is a Facebook friend, Antonio Jesus Reyes. Needless to say, every day, I miss my dear friend of almost 50 years. We spent many months together making his last album, Blackstar. On another note this would have been my father’s 105th birthday.”
But I Digress #3: I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74)
From an “offical release” point of view, the 2020 Record Store Day drop of I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74) appears to complete a kind of “live album trilogy” for those of us interested in this key development period (while on tour, no less!) of Bowie’s transformation from rock-n-roller to lily-white ambassador of the pleasures of soul music. Sure, it’s also a diary of his growing cocaine use – but it was a pretty remarkable reinvention, at least to the public – though Bowie himself probably thought of it as getting back into the Black-led music he had enjoyed as a teen.
The original late 1974 release of David Live, as previously mentioned, was recorded in July of 1974 in Philidelphia and was mostly Diamond Dogs/1984 and Ziggy songs with a few other gems thrown in, largely staged and played like a rock musical (complete with elaborate sets, props, costumes, and lighting cues). During a break in the tour, Bowie went into the studio to record what would become Young Americans, and seems to have been ecstatic with the results – obviously so proud of the new material that he was bursting to play it on the tour.
Thus, at ridiculous expense, he trashed the sets and most of the props, abandoned the whole “1984” dystopia concept that had been the theme, replaced most of the band and song arrangements, and cut a few numbers from the previous setlists to make room for some new songs from his not-yet-released next album.
The Cracked Actor album (released in 2017, and reviewed here) documents the recommencing of the renamed “Soul Tour” in early September ’74, with an obviously happier David and also a more integrated band, some feeling their way into the live arrangements of the new material and some quickly having to figure out how to do justice to the earlier stuff – to grow a new show out of the roots of the earlier part of this tour.
About the only thing approaching “funk” on the first run of the tour was the closer “Knock on Wood.” By early September, after the YA recording sessions, the live show now had no less than four songs destined for Young Americans, and altered arrangements on just about all the previous songs — in some cases, now dramatically different from the album versions. The entire show had a looser, more organic feel to it.
I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74), recorded live in Detroit (with some bonus tracks from an even later Nashville date), showcases the band about six weeks later, and by this point the transformation of the show complete. More covers, more soulful arrangements, and yet more material intended for Young Americans (some of which didn’t actually make it onto the final album until later reissues). So from that perspective, this release — while just a straight soundboard boot with none of the mixing and post-production you’d get with an “official” release — is another interesting chapter of the rapid evolution in both the tour and Bowie himself over the course of some six months in this career-altering year.
Having said that, in addition to the lack of “production” on the record, the coke and the rigor of the tour have very audibly taken their toll on Bowie: he sounds hoarse, his high end completely gone, at times reaching for the old smoothness but mostly pretty gruff. As one begins to listen to this new release, right from the opening it is obvious he is struggling; his voice warms up a bit more by the last third of the show, but his range is quite limited and despite his enthusiasm, the crowd did not get the performance they paid for, at least from him.
The “mix” on Dancing, such as it is, is straight off the soundboard, and so the vocals (both Bowie’s and the background singers) are right up front and occasionally clashing, no more so than right on his opening number. While the music is still audible, much of it is far softer than it properly ought to be. This is a pity, as there’s clearly some great playing going on there. David Sanborn’s sax continues to shine, and the addition of Dennis Davis on drums (replacing Greg Errico from Cracked Actor) really added some magic to the band, along with Emir Kasan on bass (replacing Doug Rauch). Poor Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar – the guitars are often backgrounded by the vocals, but careful listening shows that they were bringing a fair bit of firepower to the proceedings as well.
At this point in the tour, Bowie’s army of backing vocalists had been pruned back to six (down from seven). Their equal volume in the mix with the star of the show demonstrates, even more so than Cracked, a truly smooth unit that added a great deal of cover to the struggling frontman, and really keeps the slower songs exciting. It’s a treat to hear them at full force, even at the cost of other band members at times.
Despite its lack of polish Dancing is very different to the previous live records – David Live had technical issues that resulted in substandard sound, an uneven mix and some post-session overdubbing. These were later mostly fixed by Tony Visconti for the reissue. Cracked Actor was far better mixed due to better source material by Visconti for the official release, but I’m Only Dancing is the only one of the three (at least compared to the reissues) that still feels like a bootleg, and has no Visconti involvement. While there’s a lot of overlap in the set lists between them, each offers new arrangements and material, with Dancing in particular including more new songs and some covers/medley interplay not previously heard in these official releases. So if you’re into this period, you should probably own all three of the live albums.
Dancing opens with 30 seconds of the band (billed as the Mike Garson Band – Garson being one of the few who made it through the entire tour), doing the tail end of “Memory of a Free Festival,” an ingenious way to warm up the band while the crowd awaited the star, and immediately you wish more of that was included here. Garson quickly introduces Bowie as “Festival” is wrapping up, and we’re instantly into “Rebel Rebel.” This is the “alternate” and more Latin-feeling “Rebel” version, with lots of Garson and chorus, and some nice separation of Sanborn’s (quite muted) sax. The busier bass work is muddy but detectable, as is the percussion, but the guitars are almost lost by comparison.
A sharp stop and immediately we’re moved on to “John I’m Only Dancing (Again),” and the funk has officially been broken out. Even more so than on his first song, Bowie’s struggle to get his voice out is painfully obvious — so much so that he’s barely recognizable as the Bowie we’ve heard on the other live records. That said, he’s still willing to be even more playful with the lyrics. The overall energy, even here, is absolutely furious. Throughout the album, the crowd are very much in the background, but what you can hear of them indicates that they were thrilled to be there.
Bowie and Cherry sing “Sorrow,” with a different arrangement to make it more of a duet with Cherry, and we finally get Slick’s guitar up front, not to mention some nice echoplex on Sanborn’s sax. The song abruptly runs straight into “Changes,” with especially “caberet” piano from Garson, before finally breaking out the rock on the chorus. It’s the first time the band have had to slow down for the first 12 minutes; they‘ve been balls-to-the-wall to this point.
Once again with no break, the soul wrecking ball smashes straight in with the ultimate 70s cop-show intro for “1984.” This is the first place you really notice both how Bowie can’t hit any high notes, and what an absolute machine the backing vocal unit and the band have become. Garson and Alomar in particular seem to have embraced the change of direction and run with it. A short keyboard segue throws us into a jazzier new interpretation of “Moonage Daydream,” which retains its psych roots but flirts with both soft rock and prog stylings. Slick bathes in the echoplex effects while percussionist Pablo Asano and the rest of the band keep the vibe flowing.
As if the group were afraid to stop playing for more than a second lest the spell be broken, we’re plunged straight into a similar but different arrangement of “Rock N Roll With Me.” Whereas on Cracked Actor the tone was cabaret tinged with gospel, this version restores some of the rock-ballad power but firmly puts the song in R&B territory – foreshadowing more new material to come.
Finally, at the end of the song, the band actually stops playing for the first time in at least solid half-hour, and Bowie says a few words of appreciation. Then, things get weird. Bowie spontaneously claims that the song he’d just performed, co-written with his friend and backing vocalist Geoff McCormack (aka Warren Peace) was “written in Detroit … I dunno if it’s about Detroit, but it was certainly inspired by you.” This is patently not true (it was written in Bowie’s UK home by McCormack, with Bowie contributing lyrics and the bridge), though it might be fair to say it was “inspired” by the soul sounds of the US in the early 70s – especially Bill Withers’ hit “Lean on Me.”
Perhaps due to tape editing or nervousness, Bowie immediately pulls out a harmonica and starts playing “Love Me Do,” a song this writer can definitively state was not written in, or influenced by, Detroit. At the end of the first verse, the beat changes into a swinging version of “Jean Genie.” Bowie’s early love of Anthony Newley shows itself until the chorus, when we get back into the hard rock proper. Slick and Alomar finally both come to the fore here and it is lo-fi glorious. Any concert-goers who had to this point been disappointed by the lack of raw crunchy guitars to this point would have been sated by the extended instrumental, which builds to a satisfying end.
With the briefest of brief pauses for applause, the first disc (record or CD of this two-disc set) ends with a plunge back into the white soul in the form of “Young Americans.” Bowie’s voice by this point is stronger but still strained – his backup singers are outperforming him with ease, and sticking close to the yet-to-be-released album version. Sanborn, pushed into the background on recent numbers, comes again to the fore as Bowie croaks (seriously) “do you remember”s and the spoken-word bits, and goes low on the “break down and cry” line, which is just criminal. It’s a bit hard to listen to, knowing how much better he can perform it.
Disc Two kicks off with Bowie telling the crowd that “Young Americans” and the next two tracks are all from the new album “out next year sometime” (in fact, March). The band goes into 100 percent R&B mode with “Can You Hear Me?” and its laid-back groove. His ragged voice hovers on the edge of James Brown on occasion, but the band is on a flawless slow boil. What I’d give for a properly mixed and “produced” version of this, but of course if Bowie were still with us he would never have allowed this performance to see the light of day, given his subpar vocals.
Bowie introduces Carlos Alomar, who takes the lead bluesy guitar on “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which did not make the final cut of Young Americans, but the studio version was finally added back in for the 1991 reissue. After a minute or so, someone at the board decides his voice needs a touch of echo, and indeed it helps sell the song. Naturally, Bowie introduces “Mr. Sanborn” for the echoplexed sax break. A brief call-and-(drum) response adds a dramatic note, but overall it has to be said that its not one of Bowie’s stronger soul numbers, and one can hear why it was originally cut.
The groove picks up some steam with the much superior “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” The band’s volume has slowly been creeping up in the mix throughout the course of disc two, and here everything is more or less in its proper balance. A brief “thank you!” at the end of the song, and we jerk over to a pretty joyous take on “Suffragette City,” with honky-took keyboards and the return of Earl Slick’s (mixed too low but rockin’) guitar, and the crowd goes appropriately wild at the end of it.
Over Garson’s gospel intro, Bowie thanks the crowd and launches into the soft intro to “Rock n Roll Suicide.” The band (minus the background singers) join in after the first verse, Sanborn joining in last. Again, Bowie’s voice lets him down in spots, but he soldiers on with passion, and finally the singers come in after “you’re not alone” but stay farther in the background than they’ve been at any point heretofore. Rough as he is, this is a Bowie singing spotlight and he gamely makes it work. With a “bless you, goodnight”, the main set is over.
The encore starts off with a great treat, an Alomar-led take on “Panic In Detroit.” By this point and with this type of song, Bowie is starting to sound more Springsteen than British, but he’s clearly happy to carry on. For the first of the three “bonus tracks” from a later show in Nashville, Alomar is also front and center on Eddie Floyd & Steve Cropper’s “Knock on Wood,” which also makes good use of Sanborn and the bass-percussion combos that have been the gas in this engine all night long. If Bowie had recorded a version of the song similar to this arrangement, he might have pre-emptied Amii Stewart with a hit version of his own. The crowd clearly thought it was great.
The band then sounds like its cranking up for “Fame,” but as that hasn’t been written yet, it turns out to be a medley of “Foot Stompin’” and “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” the former a 1961 beat-combo song by The Flares, while the latter was an oft-covered uptempo jazz number first made famous by Shel Silverstein, but also covered by the Beatles in their Hamburg Star Club days. It is joyously done, with the guitar riff soon to be borrowed for “Fame.”
The CD and vinyl versions wrap up with another oddball medley: “Diamond Dogs” segueing into the chorus of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It).” Again, as with the beginning of the album, I’m Only Dancing finishes on a note of high energy and a beautiful rock/soul fusion that leaves the audience cheering for still more. Of note: Bowie’s voice on these Nashville tracks is stronger than on the Detroit ones, but he’s still quite ragged. That drug habit was great for the enthusiasm, but bad for his performance. That said, how else do you write and record an entirely new album featuring a complete change of direction while doing a heavy US tour of your present album, and still make it all work? For Bowie, things go better with coke – at least for while yet.
So should I buy it? And if so, which version?
If you’re a Bowie collector, than grab it while you can still get it for reasonable prices. While it wasn’t an RSD exclusive, it seems to have been a limted edition, so the average selling price is slowly going up. If you’re not a collector but you’d like a good live Bowie album, the one from this era I’d recommend is Cracked Actor, since Tony Visconti did a great job capturing the beginning of the revised tour this album also documents. There are fewer covers and Young Americans songs on Cracked than on I’m Only Dancing, but otherwise Cracked is sonically and technically a superior live record.
As for the question of CD versus vinyl, on this one we’re going to strongly recommend the CD version. Numerous reports in forums and other music outlets complain of receiving damaged or warped records with little to no recourse for returns or exchanges. It appears to be only a modest percentage have problems with the vinyl, but why take the chance?
For Years and Years I Roamed: The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
Evaluating this record is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve had to write for this project — because it’s quite difficult to assess this as a complete work, despite Bowie’s clear desire that we do so. This not-a-soundtrack album is one part notebook for sketching out the future, one part playground, and one part a change of scene. The best place (I think) to start judging this diverse and messy work is to look at where it fits into his discography.
The early 90s were, to be blunt, an incredibly mixed time for Bowie. He had finally tasted the huge and lucrative chart-topping success that had eluded him all his career with his early-80s albums. He had scored an international #1 with “Ashes to Ashes” from 1980’s Scary Monsters , he was on Broadway as the Elephant Man , and film offers were pouring in. Suddenly, he was single, off drugs, and free of his previous bloodsucking management. Everything he touched was turning to gold, and he was determined to capitalise on (and monetise) that success.
Thus began the heartbreaking turn away (to his long-time fans) from his peak with the Berlin Trilogy and Scary Monsters, and into a period where ensuring both his wealth and legacy as a major rock star was his priority (some dare say “cashing in”). We’ll come to that period in more detail in due course, but consider this: given how quickly New Wave went commercial, in retrospect, Bowie might actually have been smart to “sell out” when he did — and while it did serious damage to his career long-term, the success did set him up to (eventually) return to the kind of creative work his core fanbase most appreciated.
His brush with pop idoldom didn’t actually last long; following his monster 1983 album Let’s Dance, the 1984 follow-up Tonight — despite having a few flashes of brilliance — was really only a stretched-out EP and didn’t even match Let’s Dance’s low bar; his pet film project Absolute Beginners bombed; and it only got worse (in several different ways) from there. Again, we’ll cover his crawl back from the pit of the mainstream in future entries — but for context, his return to solo artistry after Tin Machine, 1992’s Black Tie White Noise, also did not do anything like the business his albums from 10 years prior had done, and he was effectively record-company poison by this point. It’s hard to imagine it now, but trading in your fan base for the embrace of the fickle public carries a very heavy price.
So finally, after years of giving audiences variations on a largely persona-less “real” (?) Bowie, he was back to where he’d started in the record business: full of charisma, looks, and talent — but unable to get it to all quite click. Fans will argue about where his long road “back” to being a major creative force quite began, but for me it started with the (still unreleased) material that lead to the focus of this review: a new and unpublicised work fostered by the most ordinary of “day jobs” — knocking out a soundtrack of incidental music for a BBC TV play called “The Buddha of Suburbia.”
Bowie, in his liner notes for the later album of the same name, admits that the “motif driven small pieces” of music he made for that project don’t actually appear on this 1993 namesake album (apart from the title track, which is pure 90s-era Bowie … right down to the sax solos). Rather, that music became the jumping-off point for a written list of influences and memories that he tried to re-work into a full album project that he may have hoped would win back his late-70s audiences.
It didn’t, but not for lack of trying. Though it would never have been a hit anyway — it’s far too unfocused and eclectic — as a musical sketchpad of Bowie looking back on his life after 40 years in the music business, it is a nice change from the “driven by commerical interests” period that preceded it. Bowie later would periodically name it as his own favourite of his albums, but it’s difficult to gauge whether he was just protecting an under-loved project or if he genuinely felt (at least prior to his final two albums) that it was his most creatively-rewarding work. It certainly boasts the most extensive and forthright of any of his liner notes.
At the beginning of the resulting album, the idea of riffing off the motifs of the original soundtrack he’d done just didn’t seem to be working: Bowie and his collaborator on this project, Erdal Kızılçay, whipped up loads of functional sounds and some strong arrangements, but while the title track works fine, “Sex and the Church” just feels indulgent. The former song features some pleasingly quixotic lyrics (but without a strong musical counterpunch), just like most of Tonight and Never Let Me Down — and the latter is an admitted (in the liner notes) riff on provocative words without connection. These are followed with “South Horizon,” which I must bluntly describe as “mediocre jazz,” although it was nice to see old bandmate Mike Garson adding his signature touch to this and a couple of the other numbers.
Next up is another instrumental/ambient flirtation of the sort Bowie’s thrown around once in a while since at least Low called “The Mysteries” — and while enjoyable, it brings what little schizophrenic energy the album had managed to build up to a flying stop. As a piece by itself, it’s worthwhile, particularly in league with his other instrumentals over the years (and Bowie did eventually gather them in 1999 with the album All Saints).
“Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” picks up exactly where Black Tie, White Noise left off, with lots of faux-Rodgers touches, but also pointing out a path to where he was headed. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the lyrics don’t use the dreaded “cut-up” Burroughs lyric methodology (which, truth be told, only works occasionally). The song has something to do with hanging out with the UK’s most notorious gangsters (Crays/Craze, get it?), and introducing them to his dad, and perhaps that wasn’t a good idea. Nice but kinda weird, just how you like your Bowie, and precisely the vibe he finally nailed down in his 1995 album, Outside.
Suddenly, though, a breakthrough: taking bits from all of his 80s music (even Labyrinth!) and blending it with chasers of Eno, Icehouse and Roxy Music, he comes up a cropper with “Strangers When We Meet,” a song so good he recorded it again for Outside. It’s such a startling change to the zig-zags of the record to that point that a dedicated fan listening on headphones, waiting patiently for some solid Bowie, might shed a tear of joy on hearing this obvious reconnection to his muse. The next track, the Kirsty MacColl-esque “Dead Against It,” only reinforces this notion: by gum, the Thin White Duke of Pop may be back!
The hat trick is completed with the rather different (but very foretelling) “Untitled No. 1,” the sound of which would turn up on Earthling and “hours …” in later years. These three songs lay out the blueprint for how Bowie would continue to work, up until his forced retirement from studio and touring performances in 2005 following a “minor” heart attack.
All too soon, however, Bowie brings down the curtain on this resurrection with another ambient instrumental entitled “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir,” which drones on too long (at 6:27) but does emphasise guitar more than most of his instrumentals (and I like the “fake vinyl fuzz” used throughout). The finalé of the album is a alternate version of the title track again (making for very obvious bookends) with a slightly harder-rock edge supplied by Lenny Kravitz (who, thankfully, does not sing). It’s not the best song on the album, and hobbled by its cut-up lyric style, so repeating it doesn’t do the listener any favours. It’s not a bad effort, but seems to say at the end of the day that all Bowie’s learned is that a bit more crunchy guitar laid over the stuff he did in the late 80s is all that’s needed (see also: Tin Machine).
Happily, that wasn’t the takeaway from Buddha of Suburbia for Bowie, and the subsequent albums — while no longer the trendsetting documents he once spit out like pronouncements on his sexuality — were strong and satisfying enough to win back his old fans along with some new ones, decorated as they were with gems of brilliance. As he began sliding into middle age, Bowie had begun to pull off perhaps his greatest trick of all — dragging himself back from the edge of embarrassment, away from the cliff of self-parody. If he still occasionally borrowed from his disciples (and himself), well, there’s worse ways to keep the fires burning.
Two things I learned from this album is that, firstly, the man was unquestionably more than just a talented trendspotter; he was working really hard to match his output to his mental image of what he wanted to do. And secondly, at this point in his career a lot of people were more than ready to write his career epitaph as an art-rocker who became an unlikely but reliable radio star — but the long-time fans who managed to even find this album (as Bowie himself noted, it was labelled a soundtrack, and thus didn’t get any real marketing) may have noticed that this journey he was embarking on was pointing Bowie away from society’s idea of “success” and back to his own definition of it.
But I Digress #2: Cracked Actor (1974/2017)
After having paid a fortune and put enormous effort into creating what amounted to a far-ahead-of-its-time touring rock show-cum-broadway musical, Bowie — now immersed in more funk, R&B, early disco, and other predominately African-American forms of music, an evolution from the black (and white) blues foundations of the early rock music from his youth — decided to scrap much of the existing set, props, and theatrics. Halfway through the tour, he reverted the show back to a relatively straightforward musical revue show. His management must have loved that.
The revised show, which featured mostly new singers and musicians, now included numbers and styles that should show up later in the following year’s official album release, Young Americans. As mentioned in our previous entry, the bulk of Young Americans was recorded during a late-summer break in the Diamond Dogs tour —and his excitement over the direction and strength of the new material he had recorded for it influenced significant changes to even the earlier material still being performed. Nearly every song on the second leg boasted a noticeably-altered arrangement.
That said, the decision to change horses in mid-stream probably wasn’t a purely artistic one. Bowie was likely also influenced heavily in his decisions by the high and increasing costs of lugging that remarkable set and its ephemera around, particularly without having yet seen any royalties from David Live at the time. Numerous are the recording acts that embark on big, lavish tours which end up getting scaled back significantly before the run is over; Bowie was just one of the first to understand the cost and folly of touring elaborate musical-theatre or opera-level productions around versus the (then) far lower cost of a “rock concert” ticket.
Unmentioned last time was that while all of this was going on, the first — and in some senses most important — of documentaries on Bowie was being filmed by a young Alan Yentob, covering both the ongoing Diamond Dogs and Bowie’s own deteriorating mental and physical state, owing to his growing cocaine addition (accelerated, no doubt, by its easy availability in Los Angeles, where the tour was stationed for a seven-night run). The documentary was called “Cracked Actor” in part because of Bowie’s odd demeanour, and remains a vital look at him in the throes of addiction (as well as featuring rare footage of the actual Diamond Dogs tour set, and some of the performances).
See our entry for David Live for details on the personnel changes and other details, but the revamped tour went back out on the road in September of 1974, and as mentioned a high-quality soundboard bootleg recording from the 5th of September (roughly the middle of the LA run) originally known as Strange Fascination, was released as a 2CD set in 1990. A different bootleg, known as Bowie 1974, is said to be from the same night — or at least one of the nights from that week-long run — but is claimed to be an audience recording rather than the soundboard.
The original unedited recording was repressed under other titles, notably Glass Asylum and The Duke of LA. A later edit/remaster of the Strange Fascination source tape became the bootleg A Portrait in Flesh, released in 1998 (though with an original “copyright” of 1983, which remains unexplained). Besides the sound being remastered, Flesh differs from Strange Fascination in a few notable ways. The first was that Portrait trims down the overlong 10-minute (!!) intro of ambient cityscape and wild animal noises, as well as the “outro” of the original concert, which ended with the voice of the promoter on the PA advising that “David Bowie has left the building,” both of which can be heard on Strange.
Finally, this well-traveled soundboard tape made its way into the hands of Tony Visconti for an all-new mix job in 2016. Rebranded after both the song and the title of the documentary, the newly-official Cracked Actor album first appeared as a Record Store Day exclusive release in 2017 (following Bowie’s tragic death), and has since been released separately. Both the film and this album are highly recommended; the former documents Bowie in the worst excesses of his American influence (and cocaine), while the latter captures the hugely-revamped tour, featuring a band and singer-songwriter who were utterly on fire. To put it mildly, it paints quite a different picture than David Live. Together, the two live albums bear witness to Bowie’s latest evolution as an artist, struggling to paint his way out of a corner, and (just a couple of months later!) totally in thrall to his ingenius solution.
Cracked Actor starts off with the aforementioned highly-abridged soundscape that runs for a minute and three-quarters before kicking off with “1984,” which immediately highlights the differences of the two live albums overall: Bowie’s vocal isn’t quite as prominent in the mix this time, but it is still distinct and far more joyful; the backing vocals are the actual live ones, and (as befits the almost all-new backup singers) quite different and more soulful; the guitars are significantly more prominent (and funkier); the drums are nowhere near as muddy; there’s more percussion, and David Sanborn’s sax is more of a team player this time around, though still a prominently-featured element. It’s kind of weird to be able to pick out Vandross singing Bowie lines from Bowie’s back catalogue, and Luther and Ava actually do blend very well.
On “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie sticks to the arrangement heard on David Live, but the main difference is that every element is blended better; we can still hear the drums, and Mike Garson’s keyboards, but neither are as dominant as they were on Live. This moves straight into “Moonage Daydream,” where Cherry stands out more, and Garson and Sanborn aren’t harshly separated to left and right channels the way they were on Live.
The “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” gives Bowie and his backup singers roughly equal volume, and for what it’s worth this time around we get a much better vocal performance from David. You can very much hear the sound of “Young Americans” being re-created in places, and the crowd can be heard in its enthusiasm — it’s very obvious they knew they were watching something special. Garson runs off with the end of the suite and masterfully lands his segue straight into the jazzy style and start of “Changes,” which plays up the alternate jazz and rock-anthem styles. Bowie changes the lyric to “these children that you put chains on,” a better choice than copping out for “spit” rather than the original “shit” he used in Philly. This song in particular has been reworked to be fully cognizant of its live-performance trappings, and exemplifies the revamped tone of the tour — from faux-musical “live movie” to ensemble rock-n-roll show with elements of jazz, cabaret, and even salsa rhythms deployed strategically.
From there we go to “Suffragette City,” which continues the rave-up vibe with some new improved call-and-response stuff, but a strangely-flat “climax” on the “wham bam thank you ma’am” section. Next up is of course “Aladdin Sane,” which again gets a more energetic and Latin-flavoured touch which famously throws in a snatch of the song “On Broadway,” because it becomes obvious in the playing live that it’s the same song — only this one has an Insane Mike Garson Finale™, which then jumps into an a cappella intro and a quick “good evening!” before starting a starkly cabaret-style buildup to the big chorus of “All the Young Dudes,” and indeed this might be the best of Bowie’s many attempts to recapture Mott’s glory in taking this “throwaway song” all the way to the top. It doesn’t quite work, but then none of Bowie’s versions do.
The brief guitar solo on “Cracked Actor” (the song) also really shows off the different feel new kid Carlos Alomar has brought to the party, compared to Earl Slick on the previous leg of the tour. While the set list for Cracked Actor and David Live are identical for the first half of the two albums, the difference sonically is tremendous, not least of which is due to the fact that Actor is, in fact, a completely live record — instead of the hybrid we got (by necessity) from David Live.
Foreshadowing his residence in Europe years later, Bowie employs a faux-Italian (maybe?) cabaret accent to set up the new and slower version of ”Rock n Roll with Me,” an accent he had flirted briefly with a couple of songs earlier. Once the song gets going proper, he abandons the affectation and the rest of the number is done in the new “white soul” style of the forthcoming album, singing around the beats in a manner not dissimilar to what Van Morrison was doing at the time. Bowie had a wide listening list and your humble narrator has little doubt that he was paying at least some attention to the king of Irish soul.
So on to CD2, and this is where we finally get to the “Soul Tour” portion of the rebranded “Diamond/Philly Dogs” tour, courtesy two songs: a cover of Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s “Knock on Wood” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” an “original” that shows Bowie had not lost his skills as an adept forger. Here, it appears as a previously-unheard new song and direct tribute to Al Green and the other soul singers Bowie must have studied ahead of recording Young Americans. The latter song was originally planned to be on the album, but got cut until the 1991 Ryko reissue added it back in — as a bonus track.
“Knock on Wood,” which was introduced in Philly for David Live as a “silly” song, really showcases how much Bowie at this point wanted to be a white soul singer. Although he came to execute the concept very successfully, the idea of literally The Palest, Most Fey UK White Guy wanting to remake himself as an RnB singer is still an amusing one.
In some ways, Bowie’s embrace of American funk and soul styles was clearly intended as an homage to the blues and RnB sounds he grew up with that also propelled the creation of rock-n-roll, but in other ways he was just borrowing another genre of music to get him over a creative hump as he had even in his earliest days — the fact that songs from black artists were topping the charts again certainly played a role as well. His version of “Knock” on David Live is rather stilted (hindered even further by the overdubbing that was needed on the horns) and sounds like an “easy” song for him to do halfway through the show, an on-stage “break” from his own, more difficult work. He obviously liked the song enough to sing it during the entire tour, but as with many of his other cover versions, it didn’t quite click.
Somewhere between Philly and LA, Bowie had added another new song to the lineup in “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which continued the voyage into R&B and was also rather undemanding (apart from a few falsetto notes). At over seven minutes, it’s far too long and probably brought the energy he had built up with the playlist thus far way down (though Bowie, as ever, had a plan for bringing the crowd back). Even on Cracked Actor, the number comes off like an indulgent side-trip deep into his latest obsession, a “look, I can write soul songs too!” moment.
As mentioned, it was recorded for, but not ultimately included on, Young Americans. Today, the song (at least the studio version) might easily slot into a “baby-making music“ playlist right alongside Al Green, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye (among others). As Chris O’Leary has noted, it’s no accident that Bowie was the first white solo artist ever invited on to seminal “black dance show” Soul Train.
Digression within the digression: I remember seeing Bowie on that “Soul Train” appearance; even though I was only a youngster, I had become enamoured of the show as an alternate/black-planet version of “American Bandstand,” which aired on ABC directly before it. Like Bowie, I was a lily-white white kid, and at that point I was living in the southern US, where “separate but equal” was still only in the process of fading away, so it made (in the environment I lived in) perfect sense for black people to have their own dance show.
Even back then, I preferred the music, the costumes, the hair, and the vastly-better dancers on “Soul Train” over the less-enthusiastic crowd on the 70s version of “Bandstand,” and I like to think Bowie did too. Even as a kid, I recognised the analogy of deadpan white-church hymn singing compared to the full-throated African-American gospel singing I had already witnessed in my young life,now being expressed through dance on my TV.
Bowie of course had loved prominent blues, R&B, and rock-n-roll black performers long before now, and worked with black musicians and vocalists prior to Young Americans, but perhaps seeing the huge black population of the US with his own eyes, getting involved with a black girlfriend (Cherry), and discovering shows like “Soul Train” on his tours of the US clearly grew his interest in current R&B and soul music during this period. In another stroke of fortuitous timing, his growing interest in African-American culture was mirroring my own (just as his embrace of androgyny had landed just as I was exploring my own budding sexuality).
Some might say Bowie’s attempt at inventing of “white soul” was just cultural appropriation that served little purpose beyond helping him reinvent himself, and any genuine interest he had in the culture and music that begat the styles coming to prominence in the mid–70s was no more of a factor than the idea that it simply be an inspiration for a direction that would get him out from under Ziggy’s shadow, even as he was rapidly succumbing to every future “rock star” cliche. I think it was a bit less cynical and a bit more organic than that, but as with the other side, I can’t prove it conclusively. Anyway, back to the show.
Regular programming for a Bowie concert resumed from here until almost the very end with a selection of fan-loved songs, the arrangements had altered on most of them, and they were definitely taking on a more soulful flair — more fully using the band and new vocalists. This final act of sure-fire hits started off with “Space Oddity,” and here Visconti left the wireless mic Bowie was using sounding like an inferior wireless mic, whereas on Live he tried valiantly (and mostly succeeded) in repairing the deficiencies of the gimmick. Bowie in turn delivers a more sonorous performance than he had in Philly, though given how much fun he appeared to be having during the rest of the how, I suspect it was him taking the piss out of his big hit.
While not meaning to harp on the point, a great comparison between Cracked Actor and David Live (and likewise the Philly and LA versions of the show) would be to play the two versions of “Diamond Dogs.” The Live version sounds positively dead by comparison: slower, more stiff and bloodlessly executed; all marks duly hit, but suffering from inexplicably underwater-sounding background vocals (perhaps a glimpse into why the other background vocals and horns had to be re-dubbed later?).
The LA version is far more lively, involves more (proper-sounding) background vocals, ups the tempo, and is much more a living beast that sounds way better to listen to — and that sentiment goes for the two records generally. To be fair, the elaborate staging and prop movement used in the first leg may have played a role in the way the songs were performed, and the jettisoning of most of those elements may have dovetailed with Bowie’s desire for livelier arrangements. It’s also fair to say that his new and retained band members were clearly making this more fun for Bowie by the time LA rolled around, and he in turn was audibly having more fun with it, despite the fact that the audience seems more enraptured on Live than the muted response heard on Actor.
On the latter album, “Diamond Dogs” is introduced with the taped “Future Legend” intro, while Bowie dropped “Panic in Detroit” (which followed “Dogs” in Philly), instead going straight into “Big Brother.” The different arrangement gives Sanborn on sax a better chance to wail, and the song ends with a taped version of the “bruh” record skip when then serves as a transition to Mike Garson’s intro to “Time.” I do believe there is exactly enough time between the departure of the lead vocal in “Brother” to the point where he has to be onstage to kick off the lyric to “Time” for Bowie to have a quick cigarette, as was his wont for decades. He certainly offers a more relaxed vocal on this version, though there’s no longer a short-and-bomkers Garson break as there was on the David Live version. Alomar infuses more of his own guitar style into the piece, adding to the less-formal feel of the thing.
A short accented vocal intro from Bowie gets added to the cabaret-styled verse for “Jean Genie,” which like the Philly version busts out the rock stuff only for the choruses. Having already oddly declared “this ain’t rock-n-roll … this is genocide” at the start of “Diamond Dogs,” (…oops…) the actual “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” opens with a simple, gentle piano intro before delivering the building, intensifying and emotional rock anthem Bowie was always so good at, this time in a bit of a different arrangement than was used in Philly, but just as effective (despite the dropped “wonderful” chorus). As with Philly, the regular show ended there, but instead of “Panic,” Bowie encored by introducing the band, and then finished the night with his latest effort, the distinctly post-Spiders but pre-disco version of “John I’m Only Dancing,” now known as “John, I’m only Dancing (Again).” You can really detect the hand (and voice) of a young Luther Vandross in the arrangement.
“John” had been released back in September of ’72 as a non-album single following his success with “Starman,” and it reached #12 in the charts in the UK (it wasn‘t released in the US due to Bowie’s famous “I’m gay and always have been” interview). That notorious talk was retracted by Bowie in the early 80s, once conservatism regained power in the UK and US. As O’Leary notes, history shows that while it is almost certain that Bowie had a number of homosexual and pansexual experiences early in life, nearly all of his notable long-term relationships (Iggy aside) were with women, despite obvious associations with the gay community well before fame came calling. His “coming out” has often been derided as a cheap publicity stunt, and perhaps that’s all it was — but it meant the world to actual gay people, and he had the street cred (thanks to pals like Freddie Buretti) to carry it off.
Sensing a sea change in gay liberation and acceptance, he sided with the underdogs, a calculated risk that earned him as many fans (or more) than it may have lost him — and a lot of teenagers (of both sexes) who were fans of his started having to ask themselves some tough questions about masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and where exactly they fell on this recently-invented spectrum. Since he was obviously married to Angie at the time, a lot of fans came to the conclusion that he was actually bisexual (and that’s probably correct, at least in that time frame) — which again created what we might now call a safe space to identify that way, dress like him, act like him. I doubt he had given much thought to the impact he was already having on young people around the globe when it came to blurring the lines of sexuality — but for some, his charm, flamboyancy, and talent combined to transcend some deep societal assumptions, and put everything their young minds thought they knew back into question.
Casual revelations aside, “John” had originally been recorded with the Spiders From Mars (complete with Bowie’s first proper “music film” by Mick Rock to promote the single), and was widely interpreted as a song about a gay man reassuring his partner that the female he was dancing with was no threat. There was a guest violinist on the track, and according to Nick Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, handclaps were done by the Spiders and some members of The Faces who happened to have arrived at the studio. A second version (referred to as the “Sax” version) was recorded in early 1973 for possible inclusion on Aladdin Sane, and actually rocked better in my opinion. It of course dispensed with violin in favour of saxophone, courtesy Ken Fordham (not Bowie himself, oddly).
For some reason, the single from ’72 was reissued in ’73 with the “Sax” version being the only difference, and again ended up being a non-LP track when Bowie opted to leave it off the album (it would have been the final track). The “Sax” version turned up on some copies of the original ChangesOneBowie, but most have the ’72 original. The ’73 take finally found a home on two later hits compilations and (of course) the 30th Anniversary version of Aladdin Sane. The version created during the Young Americans sessions (from where the Cracked Actor version comes to us) also did not make the actual cut of the resulting album. A 1979 remix of the discarded 1972 Spiders version was issued as a single, and later included as a bonus cut on the 1990 Ziggy remaster, and the Young Americans “Soul” version was later rightfully added to Young Americans for its 1991 and 2007 reissues.
While Cracked Actor was not officially released by Bowie himself, it now counts as an official Bowie live album, having been issued on Parlophone in 2017. It is an invaluable “companion album” to David Live, and really shows Bowie becoming a far more commanding singer; much more willing to play with the material to make it work better in a live setting, and use a greater range of tone and style to infuse more variety into the performances. With apologies to Trevor, the word we want here to distinguish this album is bolder.
The version of Bowie we hear on David Live is of someone focusing on telling a story or creating a mood while also singing, much like a Broadway performer; the Bowie we get on Cracked Actor is a singer making sure his songs are killing the audience with pleasure. It’s a huge difference that goes well beyond the various musical alterations. Though it only came out recently, Cracked Actor is a portrait in time of 1974 and America as seen through Bowie’s eyes, and an invaluable way to contrast and compare the two legs of the Diamond Dogs tour (not to mention where Bowie’s head was at before and after recording Young Americans). Thanks in large part to Tony Visconti, both albums — the incompetently-recorded “pro” concerts and the soundboard bootleg — emerge as must-have historical documents of a particularly busy year of ch-ch-ch-changes (ooh, I’m gonna lose points for that).
My Set is Amazing, it Even Smells like the Street: David Live (1974)
With this post, we have spent the last year looking at the first full decade of David Bowie’s presence in the public consciousness, half of which he spent as an abject failure and half as a luminous success. Following his one-off success with “Space Oddity,” he struggled to make his career work, despite putting out some truly remarkable records. With his glam reinvention as Ziggy, he put his obscurity behind him and became a major name in rock, kicking off an intense period of work and artistic development that paid handsome benefits in the short- and long-term for his career. By the end of 1974, there was no doubt that Bowie was a major success, a major influencer, and (slightly less obviously) a major coke fiend.
At this stage, at least, it was a huge benefit to keeping the market sated with new product (even if some of it never saw official release; see our previous entries on his unsuccessful attempts to adapt 1984 and mount either a Ziggy or 1984 musical). It also clearly provided the fuel he needed to keep exploring and experimenting at a breakneck pace: working with Burroughs’ cut-up lyric technique, increasingly looking to R&B and soul (alongside other genres of music) for inspiration, and taking on the daunting task of largely replacing the band that had brought him so much fame and fortune.
Most of these changes were successful, and his two official albums of ’74 both scored extremely well in the charts, with Diamond Dogs expanding both his audience and musical repertoire considerably, and David Live, despite some serious flaws, solidifying his reputation as a major British artist. For a guy who was, in 1971, looking at already being a novelty act, Bowie’s “second act” — a period of huge artistic and commercial success that wouldn’t wane for nearly another decade — must have seemed to him like every possible dream come true. But he was already starting to pay a price, both in financial and health terms.
As the cover of David Live (which even Bowie himself said made him look like a zombie) showed, the tell-tale signs of cocaine addiction were obvious: never a fellow accused of being overweight, the ghostly light the Dagmar photo captured of him on stage originally made him look as blue as the soul-inspired suit he was wearing. Thankfully, a later re-release of the album properly colour-corrected the image — but Bowie still had the pale pallor of a recluse, and the emaciated frame of a bulimic teenager.
The original release of this album, rush-released to coincide with the second major leg of the tour, also came across as something of a corpse of the original version of the show — even as it showcased a number of interesting (and in some cases enthralling) new arrangements of both the old and new featured songs. Critics listening to the original version complained that the playing was often rather muted, the audience enthusiasm obviously mixed down, the background singing uninspired, and Bowie’s own performance somewhat strained and occasionally off-key.
Tony Visconti, called in to do a rush-mix of the live tapes he had not supervised, had to cope with a number of technical problems on the original performances, recorded over two nights in July in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The finished product in 1974 featured both harsh and variable qualities, with studio overdubs of both the horn work and background vocals being required to make it a saleable release. Visconti still says (of the original version) that it is the Bowie project he was involved in that he is least proud of.
There were other problems behind the scenes, to put it mildly: while most reports of the shows from the first leg of the tour are said to have been exciting, fresh, and well-received, the 12-piece band and singers on the first evening of the recording were blindsided to discover that the Philly shows would be captured for a live album release; they had neither been informed of this nor paid extra for it, a major violation of union rules. Hours before showtime, they threatened not to perform.
It’s not clear how Bowie felt about the situation (which would almost certainly have been a failure of his management not to let the musicians know), but he eventually settled it — less than an hour before showtime — by agreeing to pay every member a $5,000 bonus for the recorded shows. While this might have satisfied musician union rules, the last-minute nature of the deal clearly did not sit well with the band, who by most accounts did not perform with the same enthusiasm they had up to this point. This can be heard quite audibly throughout the album, most notably on Disc Two, though I am unaware of which nights are represented by which songs on the album; I only know that the performances vary between great and plodding, sometimes hitting these two extremes one song after the next.
Still, for those buying the record, the production problems were either unknown or overlooked, as the album did incredibly well — especially given that it was not really as well-produced as other live albums for the period, and got a certain amount of panning from a wide variety of voices, from Lester Bangs to Mick Jagger. In hindsight, the innovation of the new arrangements — already showing off the increasing funk/soul influence Bowie was taking on, as tipped off by his unusual-but-urgent remix of “Rebel Rebel” for the US single — and the skill and variety of styles Bowie showed off in his well-chosen setlist saved the day, even when they didn’t always work on an audio-only level. As later releases proved, even the sub-par performances some say is captured on this record shows off an incredibly entertaining evening that the audience were clearly enthused about.
Thankfully, time and improvements in audio technology meant that later on, the album would be remastered from the bare original tapes — a job that happily fell to Visconti himself in 2005. As far as this reviewer is concerned, this is the only version of David Live that should still be acknowledged: the corrected colour cover matching perfectly with the rediscovered and enhanced performances to do as much justice as possible to the show, and recapturing more of what that portion of the tour — halfway between the grim Orwellian Diamond Dogs and the forthcoming “plastic soul” of Young Americans — must really have been like.
Side note: a dozen years after the 2005 update, Visconti was called upon once again to help remaster another document of the later, “Soul Tour” part of the overall tour, called Cracked Actor. This album started off life as a high-quality soundboard bootleg (then called A Portrait in Flesh) of the 05-September performance in Los Angeles, after Bowie had reworked the show, ditched the hideously-expensive and problematic “Diamond Dogs” city set, and replaced many of the original tour performers with his Young Americans entourage, having recorded that album during a short summer break in the tour.
It was during this return to the studio to cut Young Americans that the overdubs for David Live were done, and as a result of the studio experience and personnel changes, the second half of the tour took on a distinctly funkier, looser flavour, according to those who witnessed it. As can be heard clearly on Cracked Actor, the injection of Young Americans material ahead of the album’s release had clearly livened up the band, the singer, and the audience.
All that said — as a document of the first leg, the 2005 version of David Live, now properly remixed and restored by Visconti, is now a valuable document, though it could never capture the remarkable (and expensive) visual aspects of the first leg, which including moving and functional cityscape sets and functional props, like streetlights. The 2005 resurrection and the original 1974 version are both included in the recent Who Can I Be Now? box set, though the 2005 version was and still is available separately.
In addition to greatly improved sound (though still with detectable issues throughout), the 2005 version also corrects the track listing back to the original running order, restoring songs that had been cut from the 1974 release or inserted randomly as “bonus tracks” on later re-releases. One of those restored was Bowie’s high-wire performance of “Space Oddity,” which was sung into a wireless mic hidden in a telephone from high above the stage. It was previously left out of other versions of the album due to the poor quality of the captured vocal, but Visconti was able to use digital software to patch it up sufficiently to put it back in the album — albeit with a still-noticeably poorer quality than found with the stage mics.
Two other tracks, “Time” and a cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” were originally returned to the recording in the 1990 Rykodisc version, along with a brief segue where Bowie introduced the band. In addition to those songs and “Space Oddity,” the 2005 release also restored “Panic in Detroit.” The 2005 version of David Live is, of course, this one we will be using for this review.
The audio difference in this version is immediately obvious with the very first track, “1984.” David’s vocal is remarkably improved from the 1974 vinyl and 1990 CD releases, and the entire mix is far better balanced and less harsh, particularly in the blending of the (overdubbed) sax and background vocalist parts. While the vocals are considerably restrained from the Diamond Dogs version, it seems like this may have been due to it being the show opener, or perhaps a difference in the first and second nights of recording; his vocals warm up considerably later on, though he is not without strain or occasional other issues. Most of the arrangements here seem designed to prevent Bowie from over-straining his voice, a sensible precaution on a long tour (80 dates, though two were eventually cancelled) but resulting in inevitable complaints of a loss of urgency and energy in the performance from time to time.
The US single arrangement is used for “Rebel Rebel,” and the first and second numbers quickly establish the important presence of Mike Garson on keys, Earl Slick on guitar, and David Sanborn on alto sax (Richard Grando plays the baritone sax, while both would switch to flute as needed, such as with the opening number). Slick, doing his first work with Bowie on this tour, would go on to replace Mick Ronson for the next two tours and albums — and others later. The ever-reliable Herbie Flowers supplied the bass. Tony Newman, who played drums on the album, did the same for this part of the tour tour.
By the time the third track, “Moonage Daydream,” comes along, Bowie seems fully warmed up (or this is from the second night) and turns in a strong performance. Likewise, the entire band seems fully engaged for the suite of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” — although, as there is a lot of sax and background vocals here that were laid on later, it’s hard to properly judge. Overall, when combined with the visual and theatrical elements that would have been part and parcel of it, the entire suite seems to work better here than it did on the original album.
Garson runs through an awkward charge of piano runs at the end of it to bring us to the beginning of a set of Bowie’s recent hits, with “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” and “Aladdin Sane” following in short order. While there is a little strain in Bowie’s vocal on “Changes,” he’s clearly a million miles away from lapsing back into his short-lived cabaret act. He even changes the lyric (back to) “these children that you shit on” in this version.
The “Suffragette City” performance, however, is a good deal less energetic on Bowie’s part, with the saxes and guitar making up for his lacklustre vocal. He does seem, throughout, to have more enthusiasm for songs that get the newer arrangements. Listening to the now Latin-inflected treatment it’s given here, with another trademark bonkers Garson solo, it reminds me of something Joe Jackson might have done on his Night and Day album, and Bowie even throws in two lines from “On Broadway” just to tip his hat at the jazziness of it all.
We then get to one of the first real surprises of the evening — his first formal performance of the incredible hit single he wrote for Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes.” The audience was clearly thrilled, but as with all the Bowie versions of the song, it doesn’t quite work — but not for lack of trying. This time, it suffers from a “theatrical” arrangement that sucks out its urgency (much like “Changes”), which one has to assume was due to the staging. Sanborn’s aggressive alto cuts into it rather too much as well, but his sax falls back into line with the song “Cracked Actor,” which properly belongs more to Slick’s guitar pyrotechnics.
“Rock n Roll With Me,” is where all the various band elements, including Bowie’s vocal, really slide into place. This version works much better than the album version, in our view, thanks to a genuinely more soulful feel (borrowed as it is from Bill Withers, it may not be that surprising that a more R&B arrangement works better).
After cryptically saying “you win” to someone, Bowie launches into a fairly anemic version of “Watch That Man,” a song you’d think the backup singers (including Warren Peace of the Astronettes) would go to town on, but they are strangely held back — as are the rest of the band. Rather than applause, the track ends with a pause before the next number, since this was the end of the first record/CD.
The second disc opens with Bowie telling the audience (who presumably know this by now) “we’re going to play a selection tonight … some silly ones” and then immediately launches into his cover of “Knock on Wood,” likely intended to kick off a short “soul” section but which flops around like a fish on a boat dock. Heavy guitar chords would seem to herald a number from, perhaps, “The Man Who Sold the World,” but it then lurches into cabaret-cum-Elton-John style number with almost no groove (see also Tonight’s terrible version of “God Only Knows,” and other misfire cover versions from across his career). While “Knock on Wood” was released as a single, the world opted to wait for the vastly-superior disco version by Amii Stewart five years later, and even Mick Jagger made fun of how “lame” a version it was (on the 1974 album).
This is followed by “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” with all the soul sucked right out it. A month before he would record Young Americans, Bowie was in the process of aping a soul singer, but had not yet quite found his inner funk. It’s not at all surprising to learn, then, that after recording the next album he scrapped the Diamond Dog stage elements of the tour and much of that band. Among the new background vocalists were a young Luther Vandross and his main Astronette, Ave Cherry. Also brought in for the “Soul Tour” leg was Carlos Alomar, again the start of a long affiliation.
Flowers on bass and Newman on drums were replaced with Doug Rauch and Greg Errico (respectively), but they only lasted a month before being replaced with Willie Weeks and Dennis Davis. The backing vocals expanded from two in the June-July leg to six in September and beyond, which made quite a difference. Slick, Garson, Sanborn, percussionist Pablo Rosario, and Warren Peace were the only on-stage performers apart from Bowie himself who made it through the entire tour.
On “David Live,” it isn’t possible to judge how the audience reacted to these previously-unheard covers and other oddities, but in the opinion of this reviewer the horn sections, lacking trumpets, were very underutilized and sometimes restrained on most numbers, and didn’t offer much to help infuse the needed soul into Bowie’s version (even when they are set free on other numbers). Specifically with “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (Bowie’s slight retitling), the Ohio Players version remains vastly superior.
After a short instrumental break featuring an uncredited acoustic guitarist (Slick, presumably) and Garson, the audience cheers briefly as it recognises the forthcoming “Space Oddity,” followed shortly thereafter by the unexpected sight of Bowie appearing from the rafters in a chair, singing the song into a telephone (with a hidden wireless mic in it) as he is moved out over the front rows of the audience. The new arrangement is slower and a bit more psychedelic at times, a bit more cocktail-lounge at others — and suffers from both the distortion the wireless mic introduced in Bowie’s louder notes, as well as a generally lower-key performance from all players. Ironically, the 1969 original single was re-issued by RCA a year later in 1975, and finally hit the top of the charts in the UK, rather than this version.
The palpably-lower energy heard in Disc Two thus far extends to the next number, the title track of the Diamond Dogs album, which is greeted with considerably more enthusiasm by the briefly-heard audience than is given back by the performers. Compared to the original, the performance throughout is lethargic, and the background vocals literally sound like they were recorded underwater, in what was presumably an intentional effect on stage but is disconcerting in the hearing. How a band can turn such a lively and well-written number into such a mundane club performance I don’t know, but this was likely one of several targets for the critic’s ire on the lower-quality performances here and elsewhere, though a brief highlight is David’s added shout of “keep cool, the Diamond Dogs rule, okay?” with an echo effect on it.
Things pick up considerably from Bowie on “Panic in Detroit,” with the band and the singer finding some new energy (again, I suspect this is from a different night than “Diamond Dogs” before it), and the saxes again trying to fill in as a whole horn section (which is really what was needed). Slick really goes to town here during the solo break, though the background singers remain somewhat lower-key than they should have been. The number ends rather abruptly with some (very clearly) grafted-on audience reaction.
By contrast, “Big Brother” benefits considerably from a new and superior arrangement to the album, convincing vocals from Bowie, and someone appears to have woken up the backing singers. This number segues into the Sanborn-dominated “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” this time a mercifully brief and sax-heavy version, ending with the “runout groove” repeated “bruh” vocal.
Having been spliced back into its correct running order, there’s another noticeable edit in the tape before the audience welcomes “Time,” which (even only in the hearing) is clearly part of the staging that would have accompanied “Big Brother/Chant.” For the former, Bowie sang inside a glass-and-mirror “asylum,” and used the “Chant” section to re-emerge to sing “Time” seated in a giant open hand (“big” brother, get it?). Now here is where we get a full-on relapse into faux-Rocky Horror-cabaret best suited for rock theatre, with a dramatic performance from David and (finally) strong support from the band and other singers. Even Garson gets a few moments to go a little berserk on the keys: he’s more of a punk rocker on that instrument than he could have known (punk at this point only being a small cult scene in New York City and London; a glimmer in Joey Ramone’s eye, you might say).
“The Width of a Circle” also seems to work well with this arrangement, helped along with (surprisingly) equal contributions from Slick, Sanborn, Garson’s Mellotron, his backup singers, and Richard Grando’s bass saxophone along with Newman’s drums. A true collaboration in all parts that works really well as both a song and a jam piece, working way better here than in its original incarnation, complete with its big showy finish.
This smartly moves into a rather chill opening for the first few lines of “Jean Genie” before bringing back the power for the chorus, then reverting back to the low-key intimacy for the second verse (where the audience can, remarkably, be heard clapping along). Throughout David Live, the audience reaction is mostly simply added at the end as (enthusiastic) punctuation on the musical sentence, and occasionally heard reacting to the beginning of a song.
Like Stop Making Sense, the listener is only periodically reminded that there was an audience at all for this, though the dynamics, staging, vocals, and other elements always make it clear this was a live recording. As we’ve noted, the stagier arrangements used throughout work better with some numbers than others, and with “Jean Genie” the new arrangement is appropriate for the circumstances and fine for it, but in no way does it best the raw power of the studio version.
Likewise, the end of the show and “Rock and Roll Suicide” merits an opening cheer as Bowie starts the number quietly, and shows off how rough (on some notes) his voice had gotten after such prolonged and mostly strong singing, but it is carried off — albeit with less urgency — and Bowie introduces the band and the cheering fades, and we’re done.
Next up: Because it provides a notable contrast and record of the quite-different second leg of the same tour, we’ll again digress and take a look at Cracked Actor, now a posthumous “official bootleg” (hat tip Bob Dylan) that was again blessed by Pope Visconti of the Church of Bowie in a new mix released in 2017.
The People From Bad Homes: Diamond Dogs (1974)
Our David was a busy boy in the second half of 1973, with a bunch of different little projects going on in various directions — but no clear vision for what his next album would be, other than the song “1984” which he’d recorded in January of that year (a second version, “1984/Dodo” turned out to be his last-ever work with producer Ken Scott). He also had the ideas and some material created for “The 1980 Floor Show,” which was of course based on George Orwell’s seminal 1984 and had been kicking around pretty much since he’d started making albums under his own control.
Scott moved over to work with Supertramp on Crime of the Century, while Bowie axeman Mick Ronson chose to start recording his own solo album, so I’m sure Bowie’s original plan was to just keep himself busy until (at least) Ronson would be available again, leaving an opportunity for a few notable side-trips. Among them were the ill-fated Astronettes album, “The Man Who Sold the World” single for Lulu, and a guest appearance on one track of Steeleye Span’s lovely Now We Are Six album. If you missed it, we took a deeper look at The Astronettes’ abandoned album here.
Bowie also turned down a request to produce Queen’s second album, and refused an offer to collaborate on a film version of the comic book series *Octobriana,* (which would have starred another girlfriend, Amanda Lear). There exists (allegedly) a demo for another song called “Star” (not the same as the one on Ziggy), which was said to have been written for Lear. Wait, though, we’re not done! He also entertained and had a recorded chat with Nova Express author William S. Burroughs (which would come out a year later in Rolling Stone) in which he first revealed he was trying out Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique for writing — in David’s case for lyrics and a potential Ziggy Stardust musical that would have scenes that could be presented in random order. He continued using the technique, off and on, for the decades.
While only two new Ziggy-style songs came of that intriguing West End musical idea, by the winter Bowie had apparently decided instead to go with a television musical adaptation of 1984, and had already written a number of songs (or repurposed some older material) for that project. When Orwell’s widow turned down the 1984 idea, Bowie — in a process not unlike the creation of Nosferatu — decided to create his own “original” work which would just happen to have a very similar feel. The problem is, he wasn’t anywhere near focused enough to actually construct an entire show on this theme (which, barring direct evidence, we’ll put down to a combination of youthful distraction and his growing cocaine habit).
While an eventual staging was still on his mind (a number of drawn set ideas could be seen in the V&A “David Bowie Is” exhibit), the project ended up mostly flowing mostly into the first few minutes (and artwork) of Bowie’s studio album release for 1974, Diamond Dogs. Perhaps he would have created more material for the project (and the promising new persona of Halloween Jack) with more time, but Bowie was obligated to start touring again in the new year, so the record needed to get done and released. He salvaged what he could of the aborted 1984 material, threw in some Ziggy-type stuff to keep the kids happy, and stuffed it together into an extremely loose concept album (and this is one, barely) that definitely creates a mood, but falls more than a bit short on the narrative side.
As Pegg notes, this ended up not being necessarily a bad thing. The rush to fill out the album ended up expanding Bowie’s repertoire rather considerably, added new funk and R&B elements he had been tinkering with via the Astronettes. Being unable to wait for Ronson to become available again, Bowie himself handled the guitar chores on the album, and he had to work with a new producer.
It also introduced his more mature lower-register singing voice — a new instrument only barely hinted at previously — and one which would play a very significant role in his later work. His basso profundo was a big influence later on for a number of other singers (most notably Peter Murphy). Taking on production duties himself as well, he was (at a guess) forced to make amends to Tony Visconti when it came time for string arrangements and mixing, since Bowie knew nobody better at it. This turned out to be a fortuitous event, as Visconti went on to work with Bowie for decades onwards.
Overall, Bowie’s willingness to push himself a ways out of his comfort zone (he would later say in interviews that he actually practiced guitar for several hours a day to prepare for recording) made for a more interesting record than the “soundtrack” to a non-existent stage show likely would have been — though if the track “1984” is an indication of what he might have done if he’d gotten the rights, his original vision and songs for that version of the show might have done quite well. As it is, the album hit #1 in the UK and Canada, and #5 in the US — though this was largely on the strength of the first single, “Rebel Rebel,” rather than the title track.
Diamond Dogs opens with an introduction to set the mood and fill in just enough story to set imaginations working. “Future Legend,” a heady mashup of George Orwell, William Burroughs, and Anthony Burgess, would absolutely have been the curtain-rising start of the theatrical show, though calling it a “song” stretches credibility a bit.
The sonic collage with narration paints a picture of a dystopian future New York City where “peoploids” roam and die upon the “slimy thoroughfare” while gangs of elite vampire thugs swing from the spires of Chase Manhattan Bank. It sounds (and looked like it would have looked like) a cross between Mad Max, A Clockwork Orange, Escape from New York and Lost Boys, all but one of which came out well after this record, but it would have been exceptionally tricky to realise on stage at the time. Someone (Bowie) can be heard playing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the background, along with someone (Bowie) doing an impersonation of Scott Walker, alongside the sonic wall of sirens, dogs barking, children wailing and other such dystopian sounds.
It segues into the sound of a crowd cheering (stolen from a Faces album), and Bowie proclaiming “this ain’t rock ‘n’ roll … this is genocide!”, one of the most nihilistic rock calls ever. As if to prove his point, he immediately launches into his most blatantly Stones-influenced ripoff yet, the title track. From the melody to the arrangement, Mick and Keith would have had a very strong court case if they’d sued over the music, though the lyrics were rather a different (and darker) affair that save it from being pastiche. Even the humour in it was black as night: the opening stanza talks about the character having a “10-inch stump,” and seconds later mention he was “crawling down the alley on your hands and knee,” the singular “knee” — get it?
Bowie’s idea was that his burnt-out NYC gangs were kind of scavenger pimps-cum-Lord of the Flies in an anarchic ruin, left alone to do as they pleased — and what they pleased was to plunder the stores and bully the locals with a bit of ultraviolence. “When they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party” is another great opening line from David (and, years later, used visually for Screaming Lord Byron), and the song proceeds with considerable steam courtesy of all that ripping off of “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” Despite the strong opening gambit and catchy music, the song comes off the casual listener as just a considerably darker Stones number (and divorced of its context, that’s kinda what it is), and consequently as a single it didn’t do very well (by comparison with his recent successes), failing to crack the top 20 in the UK and not troubling the charts at all everywhere else.
Many — including Bowie himself — have cast Diamond Dogs as being a harbinger of the punk movement that followed only a couple of years later. I’m more inclined to think that the same books and visuals that influenced Bowie along helped create punk, especially when combined with raging youth unemployment and a seemingly-uncaring government had more to do with it. Still, he gets credit for bringing those books’ and visuals into the rock arena first, and in a powerful way. As an album, I think Diamond Dogs was more of a breakup letter to/last hurrah for glam rock, and an embrace of concepts that would eventually evolve into Goth and New Romantic cultures.
But before we get to that, there’s one more “theatrical” movement to get through, the “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” suite. It’s a nice change-up, with the aforementioned R&B elements and his lower-register intro. There’s also an unusual but welcome Asian keyboard fill, courtesy of Mike Garson. The “Candidate” portion (which bears almost no resemblance to its original demo form, which was resurrected much later) harks back to — and is indeed pretty much the last echo of — the “stage show” idea, and the whole suite retains enough of the theatrical feel that listeners would be reminded that this is a concept album.
Then — out of nowhere — Side One ends with the goods: Bowie’s best-ever guitar lead (though he’s not the one performing it, ironically) and a powerful, poppy summing-up of his entire androgynous-glam-rocker milieu: “Rebel Rebel.” It was the natural choice for lead single, and pushed the album to the top of the charts all over the world. Bowie had proven he was more than Ziggy, ironically by calling up his ghost.
Side Two kicks off with a rather more Van Morrison-ish mid-tempo rocker, “Rock n Roll With Me,” a rare (to this point) co-written song; Bowie handled the lyrics and the chorus, while former Astronette (and school-age chum) Geoff MacCormack (going under the name Warren Peace) wrote the melody. It’s a bit reminiscent of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Lean on Me,” but rather more theatrical in Bowie’s hands as you might expect. Pegg notes that this song might originally have been written for the proposed musical based on the Ziggy album, though as with it being in Diamond Dogs there doesn’t seem to be any connection whatsoever to the claimed concept/story.
Listening to the album on CD as one does these days, the shot of adrenaline that was “Rebel Rebel” subsides and suddenly, the album takes a subdued and mildly soulful turn, with gentler tunes filled with introspective lyrics. When listening to the album on vinyl, of course, “Rebel” makes for a thrilling end of the first act, and the show must be rebuilt on Side Two to a finale and denouement. Heard in that way, the sequencing makes more sense than it does when you listen straight through.
“We Are the Dead” slows things down further, though it serves to start dragging us back to the original 1984 concept the album ostensibly represents — and indeed at one point “We Are The Dead” was to have been the album’s title. As a prelude to the restatement of the concept it starts off nicely, and sure enough once it fades out we are in full-on Issac Hayes mode with “1984,” which serves as the first half of the pinnacle of Act Two. If Bowie helped invent cyberpunk with JG Ballard (who, O’Leary notes, wrote a book about high-rise residents gone tribal that was published a year later) via “Diamond Dogs,” Visconti should get credit for helping popularize disco by going into a full-on disco Shaft-splosion with the string arrangements, adding a hell of a lot to the song compared to its two previous versions (from *The 1980 Floor Show* and a contemporary studio version), really giving life to the “plastic soul” concept that would emerge more fully in less than a year’s time.
The video below is a composite re-editing of the “1980 Floor Show” performance taken from rehearsals and outtakes in better quality, but gives you a much better feel both of the original performance and how different the songs were at this stage:
While Bowie was not the first to touch on “blue-eyed soul,” he certainly exploited and expanded on the efforts of his early influences and contemporaries, bringing rock back to its R&B roots as a replacement for glam — even if his execution at this point was sometimes a bit awkward (like the rather embarrassing album closer). Before that, though, we get a nearly Miles Davis-sequel opening for “Big Brother,” nicely segued from “1984” and continuing the excitement with bold, up-front lyrics and vocal fireworks, and a chorus (and some lyrics) seemingly “inspired by” the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Follow Mr Apollo.” It also features some Eno-esque synth work that foreshadows both his collaboration with Eno a few years to come, and the influence both this and those later records would have on a young Gary Numan.
Diamond Dogs is undoubtedly the most commercially successful return to Bowie’s Nietzchian obsession with false saviours and dystopian overlords that plays nicely with Orwell’s warnings, and makes it easy to see why Bowie was so attracted to the book in the first place: it’s a more visual, producible version of the saga of the ubermensch that Bowie has been reaching for since at least his third album. The track is nicely accentuated with trademark Bowie sax squonks, augmented horn works, and a chorale that shortly gives way to yet another “brother” segue before launching into a rather embarrassing (and culturally tone-deaf, if not downright insulting) tribal jam known as “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” to lead us off stage and into that good night. The vinyl version originally ended with a looped “bruh”; the CD version mercifully fades this out quickly. Remember “Memory of a Free Festival” from Space Oddity? Something like that, but with a primitive — rather than hippie — vibe to it. Somebody who’d never heard it before and listened to it out of context might even think it was a bit racist, but in context the effect intended was clearly more about societal breakdown and devolution.
There are quite a few different versions of this album available now, with no less than three different remasterings. The first remastering was the 1990 Rykodisc/EMI release of the album, which features two bonus tracks: the rather retrograde “Dodo,” which was a standalone version re-recorded during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and a misnamed “demo” original version of “Candidate,” which except for a pair of re-used lyrics and the title is for all intents and purposes a completely different (and far, far better) song than its album namesake. For completists, “Dodo” appears to exist in four distinct versions, scattered among various reissues and other works.
“Dodo (You Didn’t Hear It From Me)” was originally intended as part of the original 1984 musical venture, and this is supported by its lyrics (with its references to children reporting their own parents to teh authorities). There was the version that appeared in “The 1980 Floor Show,” paired with an early version of “1984.” It was first recorded (the aforementioned last-ever work with Ken Scott) in late 1973, and languished in the vaults until it turned up on the 1989 Sound & Vision box set — a criminal act, as while the DD version of “1984” is more soulful, the version from ’73 is quite impressive in its own right.
“Dodo” was revamped and re-recorded as a standalone number during the Diamond Dogs sessions, intended to be a duet single with Lulu (and now part of the 1990 and 2004 Diamond Dogs CDs). Pegg believes the DD version was actually intended as a guide vocal for her, but there’s also the notion that Rykodisc simply removed Lulu’s possibly-recorded contribution from this version to avoid legal issues — based on the fact that a longer duet version actually exists with both performers present. That said, it seems like a demo rather than finished track, thanks to some distinctly lacklustre vocal performances. I remain unconvinced that if this single had ever been properly done released, it would have done about as well as previous Bowie/Lulu collaborations had done (i.e., not well), but “Dodo” on its own offers a very jaunty melody not a million miles from the alternate “Candidate,” and Bowie’s original take on the track is quite camp in tone, despite the rather dark lyrics.
The alternative “Candidate,” buoyed by some swinging Mike Garson piano and jaunty band action, actually finds the balance Bowie kept looking for between commercially-accessible music and Orwellian lyrics about messianic complexes, and would likely have been a hit single — had it made it onto the album. To think that it was buried in the vaults until this reissue in 1990 is almost criminal, particularly given the provocative and fascinating nature of the lyrics (“Inside every young pair of pants there’s a mountain,” just as an example).
The second remastering of the album was done at Abbey Road Studios in 1999 for an EMI/Virgin release with no bonus tracks). As your humble narrator doesn’t own this version, it’s outside the realm of this review to compare the second remastering to the first, though we’ve been told the 1999 one is “brighter” than the first.
The 30th Anniversary 2CD version (2004) nicely separates the original album and a mixed bag of related b-sides on a separate disc, the two bonus tracks already mentioned being among them. In addition, there is the 1973 studio versions of the “1984/Dodo” medley and the “Dodo” standa, a 1973 cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” the wildly different 1974 “Rebel Rebel” US single version (with Geoff MacCormack on castanets and congas, a buried lead guitar line, and a tonne of other distractions and re-arranged pieces), a circa-2001 “Intimacy Mix” of the album version of “Candidate,” a 1980 “Best of K-Tel” edit (lopping over a minute off the album track!), and an interesting 2003 remake culled from the bonus tracks of Reality. If it were up to me, the two bonus tracks from the 1990 remaster, the 1973 studio recording of “1984/Dodo”, and that US single version of “Rebel” would be all that would be required to make what I would call a “definitive” version of the album.
The entire Diamond Dogs album was remastered yet again in 2016 as part of the Who Can I Be Now box set. The version there sounds terrific, but includes no bonus tracks per se, though there is an Australian radio edit of the “Diamond Dogs” single on another one of the discs in the set — a rarity never included before, but simply an edited version of the song. For those who want the best-sounding version of the original Diamond Dogs album, the box set one is the one you want (and that applies equally to the other albums covered in that set).
But I Digress #1: The Astronettes
There was quite some internal debate about whether to feature this before Diamond Dogs or not, but ultimately the decision was taken to press on with both Digressions and Reviews in as close to chronological order as could be managed, so before we get to Bowie’s first (and only studio) album of 1974, we need to finish up 1973. While The Astronettes’ shelved album is not, strictly speaking, a Bowie record — in a lot of ways, it is. In addition to branching out creatively, David was stretching his wings in other ways, very cannily learning other aspects of the business (except for one important area, which we’ll discuss later).
By this point he’d already filled the year with producing All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople (having also written that hit single), and co-producing (with Ronson and Ken Scott) Lou Reed’s Transformer, as well as having mixed Iggy Pop’s Raw Power — all three of which are considered classic rock albums today, right alongside Aladdin Sane. He’d made and released a second album (albeit just cover songs) in Pin Ups, too, all to pass the time before his own next studio album. Looking back on the period from late 1972 to early 1974 and all that Bowie found time to accomplish — touring, writing, recording, and producing his own projects; producing and mixing other people’s stuff; and then there were various other side projects like this album and various other, smaller jobs we’ll cover in the Diamond Dogs entry — really, is it that surprising that he was doing cocaine at this point?
The Astronettes album, however, was just a little bit different (at least at this point in time): this is Bowie as svengali, the logical next stage in the development of his ego following all the success and acclaim everything he’d been doing for the last two years. Finally — eight years after he’d first entered the business — he was truly a rock ‘n’ roll star, and he was not going to miss a second of it this time. His earlier success with “Space Oddity” and the subsequent return to repeated failures that had marked his first five years had taught him that when you do manage to grab the brass ring, you hold on for all you’re worth and try your damnedest to never let go.
It might seem odd to think of the Seventies as Bowie’s “second act,” but from his perspective at the time, Ziggy likely seemed a comeback record, and a chance to expand his empire and repertoire. Although we often think of his various rock personas as “reinventions” of himself, in fact he’d been doing that right the way along from the very beginning of his career — first a mod rocker, then a cabaret singer, then a hippie, then a rock god — and always having some bit of side-gig going on, whether it was mime performance or songwriting for others. The Astronettes started as backing singers for the “1980 Floor Show” project, then became an invented “band” for Bowie‘s love interest Ava Cherry, who later released the album herself in 1995 under the name The People From Bad Homes, a line Bowie saved and used later. The record is currently known as Ava Cherry: The Astronettes Sessions, most recently remastered in 2010.
Bowie produced the record, and wrote six of the 12 songs (5 of the 11 on the original release), and elements of these turned up in later works on Young Americans, Tonight, and Scary Monsters, which is the main reason the record is of interest to Bowiephiles. In addition to Cherry, some songs were sung by Jason Guess and Geoff MacCormack (the latter going by “Warren Peace” at the time). Musicians on the record include Bowie veterans Herbie Flowers, Mike Garson, and Aynsley Dunsbar, alongside others including Luis Ramirez and Mike Pritchard.
It is a difficult project to judge, since the intended running order is not known, there’s no clear indication that these are intended as the final versions, and stylistically it is all over the place. The whole thing was done in a month, and shelved just as quickly in order to do Diamond Dogs. Despite claims to the contrary on various listings of the record, Bowie does not sing anywhere in this aborted album, though he is (very briefly) heard speaking, and plays sax (and possibly some other instruments).
In some places, The People From Bad Homes is rather ahead of its time, whereas some numbers (like “Only Me”) are clearly the product of 1973. On the Bowie-written tracks, stabs at R&B, soul, and funk are mostly successfully carried off, and lessons learned from the songs will come up later in Young Americans are on full display, occasionally mixed in with other influences, like latin, blues, and straight-ahead jazz.
One does wonder how the late Sharon Jones (and the Dap-Kings) would handle a slow-burner like “Seven Days,” or what Nina Simone would have made of “Things to Do” — which borrows more than a bit from Santana, and provides the strongest evidence for “this never got to the final mixing stage.” You have to smile thinking about the look that would cross Bruce Springsteen’s face if he ever got around to hearing the Astronette’s version of his “Spirits in the Night.” I truly wish I could talk to my late friend, the musicologist and record collector extraordinaire Ron Kane, to get his view on the cover of Zappa’s “How Could I Be Such a Fool.”
It is especially difficult to judge “I am a Laser,” the lead track on the original release. Bowie later reworked this into “Scream Like a Baby” on Scary Monsters, with all-new lyrics and vastly superior production for the latter version: the original is more sexually-oriented, making references to urination and “golden showers.” The third track, the Beach Boys standard “God Only Knows,” features a string arrangement by Tony Visconti, and closely resembles the version Bowie himself recorded two decades later for Tonight. On this first take, though, Cherry’s singing (and Visconti’s arrangement, including a sax solo from Bowie) provide more soul than the latter version.
The light folkie-pop of Bowie’s “Having a Good Time” sounds like something The Association might have tried if they had been a little weirder, and a short studio conversation snippet at the very beginning is actually the only appearance of Bowie’s voice on the record, saying “I beg your sodding pardon?” It’s a little revisit to Bowie’s Tony Newley period, with a touch of Joe Meeks in the arrangement.
“The People From Bad Homes” (the song) offers the “people from good homes/bad homes” couplet used later in “Fashion,” but apart from that is a very rough draft that someone like Mari Wilson might have made something more out of. “Only Me” sounds like Bowie was going for Marvin Gaye, but here it sounds more like what Steve Miller was going for with his own 1973 album, *The Joker.* On the 2009 version, now called Ava Cherry: The Astronettes Sessions, there appears (finally) the sixth Bowie-written track — “I Am Divine,” which really shows off the “Philly Soul” sound David eventually nailed down for Young Americans, where a reworked version of this song turned into “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” Other songs on the album include Annette Peacock’s “Seven Days,” Roy Harper’s “Highway Blues,” and a take on the jazz standard “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
Like Bowie himself at the time, the product is unfocused: while Cherry takes the lead about half the time, MacCormack and Guest handle vocals (and blend badly on occasion) the rest of the time, and the numbers without the benefit of Visconti’s gifted touch sound underdeveloped and rough. Complicating matters, there is a bootleg version of the original 11 numbers that claims to be directly from the original sessions, and features rather different takes.
Cherry, who went on to have a modest career in music and modeling, was a staple background singer (along with a then-unknown Luther Vandross) on the next few Bowie albums, and did the same for Vandross when he achieved stardom. She’s generally in fine form on The People From Bad Homes/The Astronette Sessions, but seems best-used on the jazzier numbers, even though her own preference was for rock compared to soul/R&B. The Astronettes project is a fascinating insight into how far ahead Bowie was thinking in 1973, but as an album in its own right it doesn’t really work, though several of the numbers individually are successful enough.