As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent....
Released on 24 May 1974
Recorded at Olympic Studios, London
Running time 38:30
Many felt that Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s “return to form” after the underwhelmingly-received Pin Ups album of sixties cover versions. It had a lot of the guitar-driven glam rock essence of Aladdin Sane. Notably, however, tiny bits of wah-wah funky guitar were creeping in to the sound. A pointer to the mid-seventies “soul” phase Bowie went through, only a small one though. For all the many commenters who have labelled this the album that saw Bowie start to discover soul, one has to say that it is very much a rock album and far more his last glam album than his first soul album.
It is one of those loosely-conceived albums with a supposed concept - that of a futuristic, run-down post-apocalyptic urban setting and the characters who inhabit it. To be fair, the theme runs pretty constantly through the album, but there is no continuing "story" as such. The character of "Hallowe'en Jack" was said by some to be the continuation of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but I was never really convinced of that. Having said that, though, stylistically, Bowie still had a lot of Ziggy about him in the spiky, mullet-y red coxcomb hair-do and musically, glammy songs like Rebel Rebel and the title track certainly kept the spirit of Ziggy alive.
This is no more a concept album than Ziggy though, just a collection of great “glammy” rock songs with a bit of a brooding, dark, futuristic theme. No more, no less. Interestingly, Bowie has subsequently described the album and its "concept" as being a pre-cursor for punk. Hmmm. read this and see if you can run with it...
Bowie described the Diamond Dogs characters, from the title track, as -
"....all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller-skates with huge wheels on them, and they squeaked because they hadn't been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn't eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way it was a precursor to the punk thing..."
Sorry David, I don't really buy that, but, despite that, in retrospect, I guess I can see why you viewed it like that. Personally, I think Rotten and the like's appearance on the scene was just a coincidence that fitted the particularly train of thought Bowie was having. Not that it really matters, but Diamond Dogs inspiring punk, either consciously or subconsciously? No. Not having it. Looking at the cover, though, those two mutant figures do look a bit punky. Maybe he was right. We'll never really know. Anyway, enough of that and back to the songs...
1. Future Legend
2. Diamond Dogs
3. Sweet Thing
5. Sweet Thing (Reprise)
6. Rock 'n' Roll With Me
7. We Are The Dead
9. Big Brother
10. The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family
The album started with the short, haunting spoken introduction, Future Legend, which samples the old easy listening class Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered together with some nightmarish wolf-style howls. Bowie describes a gruesome, post-apocalytptic world called “Hunger City”, where “the last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare…”. It was all very “Future Shock” and “1984” in its unnerving, terrifying prophetic message.
Diamond Dogs - “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll - this is genocide…” is the announcement at the end of Future Legend as some fake crowd noise lead one to initially think that this is a live recording - some stirring guitar licks are accompanied by a Rolling Stones-esque cowbell soon take centre stage as the background noises fade and we are launched into a very Stonesy, riffy six minute plus rock number. Incidentally, the crowd noise was taken from The Faces' live album from the time and if you listen carefully as it fades out, you can hear Rod Stewart shout "hey". An interesting bit of trivia, that.
The song introduces a new Bowie persona in the character of “Hallowe’en Jack” - a seedy figure who “lives on top of Manhattan Chase”. As I said earlier, I was never quite convinced of this character as an ongoing entity, though, he was just someone who appeared in this song, certainly not a character with the strength of Ziggy. In this song he is seen as the leader of the pack of dogs that form his dystopian urban street gang roaming around below, doing his bidding.
The song was a hit single, although any attempts to edit it into “single” format do not win any acceptance from me - I loathe single edits. Thankfully in the UK I always remember it being played in its full version, which is how it should be. Bowie plays a reasonable lead guitar on the track too.
Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise) is the album’s centrepoint - a long, atmospheric narrative full of images that really should be treated as one continuous track, as they fade seamlessly into each other. The track in full is nine minutes long and fits well into the album’s vague “concept” theme with its multiple scenes of urban decay and seedy decadence where couples “love in a doorway” and encounters become more sinister - “putting pain in a stranger”. all Bowie wants here is a “street with a deal” (which was probably close to the truth in 1974-75) and he puts a personal link into the song with the line “my set is amazing - it even smells like street…”.
The Candidate part ends with the classic line “we’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, and jump in the river holding hands…”. All very evocative stuff. The final chugging, repetitive guitar riff at the track’s very end shows Bowie’s first “krautrock” influence - it is very similar to Negativland by German avant-garde band Neu!, dating from 1972.
The song is a genuine Bowie classic and carries so many unfortunate parallels within its lyrical imagery to Bowie’s own increasingly chaotic, drug-dependent life at the the time.
Rebel Rebel - Sweet Thing grinds to an abrupt halt and segues immediately into the instantly recognisable scratchy guitar riff that introduces this superb piece of Bowie rock. It was possibly the last truly “rock” song he ever did, and certainly the last “glam” one. It was a huge hit, everybody loved it at the time. After the (relatively) low key sixties cover in Sorrow, this was, as far as a lot of fans were concerned, Ziggy back with a bang. Compared with the dark, futuristic creativity of the rest of the album, in many respects this was Bowie revisting a previous sound, something he rarely did. The song dates back to 1973 and you can tell. It would not have been out of place on Aladdin Sane at all.
The song has a gender-bending lyric in the “she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…” which horrified some of the older generation back in 1974.
After this, Bowie would do no more glam rock, neither would many others - Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople, T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Elton John all either diversified or split up.
The clip below is taken from a Dutch TV show in 1974.
Rock And Roll With Me was the one that was my first favourite when I initially bought the album. It is soulful piano-driven rock ballad which hints at a future more soully musical direction and it also has a singalong chorus. It has no place at all in any “concept” present on the album - even Rebel Rebel had its seedy, gender-bending decadent side to it but this was just a harmless love song, although it did contain a Ziggy type line in the “tens of thousands found me in demand” bit.
The song was performed on the David Live album in a slowed-down style, almost as a smoky, late night soul ballad.
We Are The Dead has always been the album’s hidden gem, for me. It contains some excellent guitar and keyboards and some very Sweet Thing-style paranoid lyrics. I have always liked the lines “it’s the theatre of financiers - count them, fifteen round the table, white and dressed to kill…”. It fits the album’s concept well and is a vastly underrated song. Bowie's vocal is excellent throughout. "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature...", is another great line.
For some inexplicable reason, Bowie never performed it live, which was a real pity. I think it would have sounded great live.
1984 was the track that saw a funky wah-wah guitar rhythm used for the first time. Apparently Bowie wanted it to sound like Barry White. To me, and to many, it sounds more like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme. It is often referred to as the clear moment Bowie changed direction, as if the whole album was like it, but, as we know it isn't, it is just the backing of this song that shows a slight new direction. You could actually have said the same about Soul Love from Ziggy Stardust.
Lyrically, it explores more disturbing themes - “they’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air…” carries on the “dreadful future” sort of ambience that pervades most of the album. The reference to George Orwell’s novel in the title is no coincidence.
The song was covered, surprisingly, by Tina Turner on her 1983 Private Dancer album. While the beat suited her, the lyrics sounded odd on a r 'n' b/soul album.
Big Brother - the Orwellian thing continues on this mysterious song that contains beguiling lines like “he’ll build a glass asylum, with just a hint of mayhem…”. Bowie is looking for a way out of this nightmare and searches for a leader, “some brave Apollo..”. This is a theme he would continue, with unfortunate consequences, a couple of years later when he made some unwise comments that appeared worryingly fascist.
Musically it is quite soft and melodic, featuring some good saxophone from Bowie and some infectious handclaps.
The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family - Big Brother morphs into this repeated tape loop vocal and industrial repetitive guitar riff. The tape stops and repeats “bro bro bro” endlessly. Bowie subsequently said that this was an accident but that he left it as it sounded great. The best thing about this is its title, which brings to mind images of a group of skeletons cavorting around as the only ones left on a charred, desolate earth.
The cover is great and caused a real stir at the time with the Bowie/dog artwork showing the dog's crown jewels which were airbrushed out on later pressings. I was pleased at the time to have the original, balls and all.
Overall, this was a fine album and served as fine valediction to the glam era. I still love this, Ziggy and Aladdin Sane more than any other Bowie albums. Bowie was right to diversify after this, however.
There were a few tracks that didn't make it on to the album that are worthy of mention:-
It makes another appearance in a funked-up medley with 1984 that was included on the 30th Anniversary edition of Diamond Dogs. The song is altered quite a bit here and is far funkier. Had this medley been included on Diamond Dogs it would have contributed to a far funkier ambience on what was more of a glammy album.
Candidate is a different song to the Candidate that appears as the middle part of the Sweet Thing trilogy on Diamond Dogs. It was, however, recorded in the sessions for that album, on New Year's Day 1974. It is an impressive, soulful but upbeat song with a jaunty, swing-style drumbeat driving it on together with some breezy Mike Garson piano. It contains a sexually suggestive opening couple of lines and an odd reference from Bowie about his being "the Führerling", starting his unfortunate fascist fascination earlier than we thought. It is an appealing song, though, and showed the direction Bowie's music was beginning to take, despite it not making the album. If this and Dodo had been on Diamond Dogs it may have sounded quite a lot different.
Rebel Rebel (US Single Version)/ Reality Tour Remix is quite a different take on the glammy hit single. It misses out the iconic introductory guitar riff and starts with the line "hot tramp I love you so.." before progressing into a rhythmic, conga-driven piece of soul/rock that once more provided a signpost as to Bowie's future musical direction. It was this version that Bowie played live on David Live and Cracked Actor and indeed for many years afterwards. In 2002, Bowie re-worked the song for the Reality Tour, using a quiet, atmospheric guitar opening before crashing into that recognisable riff. He opened the shows with this and recoded a studio version as well. I like both these versions but I will always prefer that scratchy, riffy glory of the original.
** Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks, Dodo and the alternative, extended Candidate but it has a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion. It is, however, less jarring than the others, and often I find myself returning to it. Played through a good system, it is pretty good.
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud. The remaster from 2015 for the Five Years box set is just about ok, but no amount of remasters can hide the album's intrinsic tinniness, however. It is actually by far the worst of those particular remasters.