Bowie’s Diamond in the Rough
When recording began in 1974, David Bowie had just finished breaking up the band that had made him a Starman. While the Spiders from Mars, comprised of the megalithic talent of Mick Ronson, as well as bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey, were dismantled and scattered on rock’s pinball-lit highway, David had a monumental choice to make, as he always did in his career: Who should I be, now? Never a simple question for the man who would be The Thin White Duke in the course of an album, fate and arguably fear met at the crossroads, and bred Diamond Dogs. Halloween Jack was holding the leash, loosely.
Originally a concept album for a planned live production of George Orwell’s 1984, Diamond Dogs grew past the denied rights and what would have been the title track to British dystopia, which was well-represented in the opening track, “Future Legend”. Prophetic in its own right, as British punk was about to carve itself from the womb of the bloated, dying rock of yesterday, this spoken-word, ominously-toned entry, reminiscent of Burroughs, who would come into more prominence as the needle traveled the black disc, foreshadowed Goth in imagery and a lupine howl. It made a statement the milkshake sweet Ziggy Stardust wouldn’t dare to utter: This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide.
The title track explodes in a menacing riff of sexual aggression, sauntering from Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, a direct descendent denied, a more powerful bastard yet to be made. “Diamond Dogs” surrounds you like a hungry young street pack, sniffing with interest and invitation before rolling sensuously down the back alley into “Sweet Thing”, a slow, steady ballad of sex and illicit acts, playfully arranged around electric organ and cut-up method, but breaking you down into submission with Lou Reed-esque verbal suggestion. “Candidate” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” never suggest they are anything more than equal parts of this sable splendor, the guitar and sax stroke, suck, and envelope the lyrics until the grooves pulse into the lead single, “Rebel, Rebel”.
Glam rock was alive and well, and the call-to-arms tolling of the opening guitar line gave no hint, no one-eyed wink behind an eye patch, that this was the final album of the genre for Bowie. All the androgynous psycho-sexual Saturday night fights at a drive-in were present, driving adolescents to eyeliner-stained tears of joy and parents to consternation, as the song suggests intimately. This song, if any, was the seed to the anarchy the U.K. would experience in a short year. Side Two beckoned, and a question was asked, “Who will Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me?” As if through ESP, a million rebels in ’74 psychically screamed the reply, and passed the question over the airwaves in Morse code guitar.
Although never played live, “We Are the Dead” followed “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” as a brother to “Sweet Thing”, only without the sexual candor. There was plenty of morbid imagery to fuel Bauhaus, who would master the nocturnal music that paired so well with these lyrical dark delights.
The dystopian romp finds its way to the inspiring work in “1984”, and progresses in a paranoia infused wah-wah and strings arrangement belying Bowie’s next foray, plastic soul. Shaft must have been waiting around the corner. An electronic pulse gives way to horn, synth, and a stone-cold strutting bass, even as the French horn proved as effective as a glitter bomb guitar solo. Bowie’s past rears its head, as odd voices of cracked actors read off-kilter lines before dizzily following a guitar riff into the final throes of the “Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family”.
As David made his way through the plastic soul phase of Young Americans, the cocaine and mysticism of Station to Station, and the successful synthesis of electronic ambience known to fans as The Berlin Trilogy, Diamond Dogs found itself buried near the bottom of the album stack, perhaps only exhumed by a curious kid rummaging through his dad’s records in the basement. But, if that kid had any taste, he quickly absconded to college with that album, wearing out the vinyl and turning on as many youths tuned into the college station as Bowie himself. Who will rock ‘n’ roll with me?