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).