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, Young Americans. 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..." or - "we live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?". Great stuff indeed. I could just carry on quoting from this song, there are so many great lines.
The sound is now clearly different to anything Bowie had ever done before. His band had main members who were largely white (apart from bassist Willie Weeks) and a background in rock and jazz, so they certainly weren't a bona fide soul band. They did seem to get the soul vibe, though, particularly saxophonist David Sanborn and Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar and there were soul musicians on congas and backing vocals, including a young Luther Vandross.
It is not genuine soul. however, but it is a fine approximation and simply a damn fine record. "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry...". Indeed. This is up there as possibly my favourite ever David Bowie song.
In the clip below Bowie is performing the song on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974 (a show appearance for which he as notoriously drugged-up on).
Win was a sumptuous song, full of deep, warm bass, delicious saxophone and a real laid-back soulful vibe. Bowie really got the hang of the soul thing with this, although it is still enhanced by some seriously searing electric guitar from Earl Slick."All you got to do is win..." exclaims Bowie in one of his positive pronouncements - he was getting ever more keen on these.
The backing vocals are really good but never intrusive. This is one of my favourite tracks from the album.
Similarly impressive is the copper-bottomed funk of Fascination, which introduced Luther Vandross to the world. The wah-wah that underpins the song is intoxicating and Bowie's improvised soul vocal keeps pace perfectly with the backing singers. It is one of his most accomplished vocal performances to date. This is probably the most credible funk/soul cut on the album. There are two mixes of it, the original and the one that appeared on the 1991 RYKO remaster. There are slight differences, but I often struggle to really discern them.
Right is another highly commendable one. It possesses an infectious conga/bass backing and more clever vocal call-and-response interplay between Bowie and his backing singers as David Sanborn's saxophone wails away along with a funky, Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet. I thought Fascination was the funkiest thing on the album, but maybe I was wrong and this is. The 1991 mix is slightly slower than the original (which appears on all the other remasters).
Somebody Up There Likes Me is driven along by some superb David Sanborn saxophone. He made a similar contribution to Ian Hunter's All American Alien Boy that was released the following year. It is a bright, backing vocal-dominated soulful number that carries a darker message underneath the soul polish about political corruption and the cult of celebrity. Once again, Bowie is dishing out a warning, something this unfortunately by now increasingly coke-addled paranoid semi-recluse was beginning to specialise in.
It is the saxophone you think of with this song, though, and the backing vocals. Never mind the message.
Across The Universe was a John Lennon cover and has been roundly disparaged by seemingly everyone (apart from Bowie encyclopaediac Nicholas Pegg who loves it). I have to say that I agree with Pegg. I too have always loved it. Lennon joins Bowie on guitar and vocals, they drop the "jai guru deva om" vocal refrain and set about producing and entrancing, vibrant cover of the original that seems to suit Bowie's soul incarnation perfectly. I really don't see what the problem is/was. Maybe it is just a "don't you dare touch anything by The Beatles" thing. All that said, as I say later on below, the two tracks that were left off the album were definitely better than this, so there you go. I still don't think it is that bad, though.
Can You Hear Me - this excellent sweetly soulful track began life as Take It In Right and was, apparently written for Lulu. Thankfully, Bowie recorded it himself and made a very impressive job of it too. This is one of the smoothest-sounding albums on the album and was certainly a convincing stab at soul. Once more, the saxophone sound is sublime.
Fame was an absolute Bowie classic and became the second big hit from the album. It is a supremely funky Bowie/Lennon workout containing cutting lyrics about the fame game - "fame - what you want is in the limo - fame - what you get is no tomorrow...". Bowie seemed to be telling his own indulgent story right here, right now.
The funk riff is magnificent on this and, impressively one of Bowie's idols, James Brown, paid him the compliment of using the very riff on his 1976 track Hot (I Need To Be Loved). Bowie was delighted by this, I am sure.
Another impressive thing is the backing vocal "high voice to deep voice" descending scale that comes off to great effect both here and in subsequent live performances.
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.
*These are the tracks available from the sessions that didn't make the album, they are certainly worthy of comment:-
After Today - this appealing piece of disco/soul dates from the August 1974 "Young Americans" sessions. It is a lively number with a falsetto vocal from Bowie at times and lots of funky saxophone. It would actually have made a nice addition to the album it was rejected from, its upbeat sound providing a contrast with some of the slower-paced deep soul numbers that were eventually chosen. At the end, Bowie laughs and exclaims "I was getting into that...". Indeed he was, he should have stuck with it.
Who Can I Be Now? dates from the 1974 Young Americans sessions and is a truly outstanding song. It was inexplicably jettisoned in favour of Across The Universe. It was one of the tracks selected to be on The Gouster album, which was never released. It features a great saxophone intro from David Sanborn and one of those smoky/interjection with falsetto vocals from Bowie supported by multiple backing vocals. The verses are evocative and soulful, while the chorus is big and brash, with the vocals loud and the saxophone wailing. as with all the Young Americans material, though, there is a slightly muffled muddiness to the drum sound, for me, anyway, although the 30th anniversary remaster suffers less so than the others. The title was chosen as the title for the second of the box sets covering Bowie's career, presumably as a reference to his many identity/image changes in the period.
It's Gonna Be Me was another from the August 1974 sessions, this was also left off the eventual album, which was once again a questionable decision. It was also another of the tracks that was going to be on the aborted album, The Gouster. There are two versions of the song in existence. The original one and one that Tony Visconti added strings to, which was lost, but was subsequently remixed by Visconti from his original master tapes.
The original Gouster one is full of late night atmosphere and one of Bowie's finest vocals to date - so far removed from the late sixties/early seventies. It is quite sparse in its backing - mainly piano, jazzy guitar, drums, bass and backing vocals. A lot is spoken about Bowie's supposed "soul" phase but on this one I have to say that he is at his most credibly soulful. The improvised vocal around five minutes in is superb.
The Visconti strings version is from the 30th Anniversary edition and has wonderful sound quality and Tony has done a great job on the remixing. The sound is outstanding. Once more, there is a "which do I prefer?" quandary. It's a difficult one. I actually love both of them, for different reasons - the minimalist soulfulness of the original and the warmth of the strings one. It's a 1-1 draw.
John, I'm Only Dancing (Again) is totally unrecognisable from 1972's upbeat glammy single, this finds Bowie exhorting us to "boogie down with David now..." as he went all Studio 54 circa 1975 style disco. It is probably the only really obviously disco thing he ever did. It contains a light disco wah-wah guitar line and some melodious saxophone from David Sanborn. Bowie's vocal is sensually soulful and there are a few laid-back soul-influenced bits in the middle before the groove kicks backs in again.
Despite the fact that it is nothing like the original song, I have always quite liked it. It fits in with the Young Americans vibe and indeed was on the original, aborted Gouster album.
Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks It’s Gonna Be Me, Who Can I Be Now, and the disco-ed up John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) but it has a bit if a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion. Having said that, turn it up a bit louder than you would other recordings and a nice, subtle bass sound is revealed, together with a clarity to the guitar sounds.
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. It is in possession of a deep, rich bass. However, in comparison to the RYKO, for example, some of the guitar is a bit less clear.