My Set is Amazing, it Even Smells like the Street: David Live (1974)

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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were obvious: never a fellow accused of being overweight, the ghostly light the Dagmar photo captured of him on stage originally made him look as blue as the soul-inspired suit he was wearing.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.

07fec618dab241267f70f0d2fea3d6dbTony 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.

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Photo credit: Terry O’Neill

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.

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A rare glimpse at the “Hunger City” cityscape sets used on the first leg of the tour (which apparently cost $275,000 in 1974 dollars), largely abandoned during the second “Soul Tour” leg

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.

bowie-74This 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.

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The People From Bad Homes: Diamond Dogs (1974)

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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.

David Bowie and William BurroughsBowie 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).

rock_music_sets-bowie-1974-diamond_dogs-Diamond_Dogs002While 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.

the-man-behind-the-mask-david-bowie-on-stage-during-the-diamond-dogs-tour-1974Diamond 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?

145946_a_720Bowie’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.

 

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Thank heavens, that mullet is gone for good!

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 (Part One): The Astronettes

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(L-R) MacCormack, Guest, Cherry, Bowie

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?

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The original 1995 release

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.

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The 2009 version

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.

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The 2010 Remaster

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.”

tumblr_m9ss9xxqlt1r0gqpso1_500It 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.”

A-286518-1359329239-7262.jpegLike 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.

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