Just you and your idol singing falsetto....
Released on 7 March 1975
Recorded in Philadelphia
Running time 40:55
In 1975, David Bowie supposedly “got soul” and “reinvented himself” for the third time in as many years. I was never really convinced by the soul thing. Yes, the glam rock guitars had gone and the outlandish costumes too. In came double breasted suits, like something The Four Tops would wear on stage. Musically it was backing singers, funky guitars, muffled drums, congas and a throbbing bass. Whatever it was, though, it was certainly not pure soul, in my opinion. It was a kind of slowed down soully rock, sung with a higher pitched white man’s voice too. Quite what the “Soul Train” TV show aficionados made of this coked-up white dude is anybody's guess. It was not The O’Jays, Billy Paul or The Meters.
1. Young Americans
5. Somebody Up There Likes Me
6. Across The Universe
7. Can You Hear Me
What it gave us, though, was one of Bowie’s finest ever tracks in the lyrically, musically and atmospherically remarkable title track. Five minutes of pure magic. Still my favourite ever Bowie track. I never tire of hearing it, even after all these years. Just hearing that drum intro gets me every time. Then the sax comes in - magical. It is also jam-packed full of great, perplexing lines like this -
"Well, well, well would you carry a razor, in a case, just in case of depression..."
"we live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?"
Great stuff indeed. The next three tracks, the one-word titled “Win”, “Right” and “Fascination” are all excellent - rhythmic and hypnotic. They sort of wash over you and they sure washed the red dye out of all those Ziggy fans’ hair. Ziggy seemed thirty years ago as opposed to just three. That's how quickly things were changing. The difference between this and even “Diamond Dogs” is seismic. This is undoubtedly now an adult album. Although I loved the album's two singles upon release, I got to appreciate the remainder of the album as the years progressed.
The old “side two” sees the quality fall just a little with the rambling “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the ill-conceived Beatles cover “Across The Universe” (surely the album would have been better served by one or two of the tracks that were not used, such as “After Today”, “Who Can I Be Now” or “It’s Gonna Be Me”).
The last two tracks are corkers, the truly soully “Can You Hear Me” and the riff-driven “Fame” (which was later to be sampled on James Brown’s “Hot”) which is the album’s true slice of funk.“Young Americans” is often not mentioned in people’s Bowie favourites lists, but I find myself returning to it again and again. Whether or not it IS soul is debatable but it certainly HAS soul. I am sure that Bowie modelled his "soul voice" on that of Harold Melvin (as distinct from Teddy Pendergrass). Check out "All Because Of A Woman", it has real hints of "It's Gonna Be Me" about it in places.
Interestingly, guitarist Carlos Alomar (who had not heard of Bowie before he was invited to work on the album) said of Bowie's working process for the album, when interviewed about it subsequently -
“….David always does the music first. He'll listen for a while then if he gets a little idea the session stops and he writes something down and we continue. But later on, when the music is established, he'll go home and the next day the lyrics are written. I'd finish the sessions and be sent home and I never heard words and overdubs until the record was released….”
It is fascinating to try and imagine "Young Americans" being written in that fashion. That was one hell of a lot of lyrics to come up with overnight! It is also strange to think that the musicians like Alomar had heard no words when they played the songs' backing tracks. Whatever their genesis, the songs certainly came out well and those who produced them have left us with something vibrant and memorable.
** Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks “It’s Gonna Be Me”, “Who Can I Be Now”, and the discoed up “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” but it has a bit if a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion.
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud.
The 30th anniversary remasters are excellent but hard to get hold of these days.
The 2017 box set "Who Can I Be Now?" remaster is excellent.