Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Diamond Dogs

So I was walking down the street in London one time and who do I run into but David Bowie. Give the man his privacy, I think, but in the end I can’t resist saying, “Mr. Bowie, I just want to tell you I’m a huge fan.” To which he replies, “I am a God. You are a repugnant toad and smell funny.” Then waving his hands about in the air for me to disappear, he says, “Shoo, shoo.”

Okay, so that never happened. But if it had happened I’d still be one of the biggest Bowie fans in the world. I rate him the greatest artist of the seventies, during which he didn’t put out a single less-than-great LP except 1974’s David Live. Name me another great musician about whom that can be said. Dylan? Don’t make me laugh. Lou Reed? Hardy har-har. The only band that even comes close is Steely Dan, and they’re not really in the same league and besides, they blew it in my opinion with 1977’s Aja, which they produced to death. Sure, critics had their doubts about 1979’s Lodger, the last of Bowie’s Berlin trio with Brian Eno, but over the years the album has been given a second look and deemed underrated.

Another album that was seriously underrated upon its release was 1974’s Diamond Dogs. Conceived initially as a theatrical production about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowie’s ambitions foundered when the author’s estate said no way, Jose. The concept album that evolved out of that idea is as sketchy as most concept albums, and you need know nothing about Bowie’s ideas about a future dystopia to enjoy the hell out of “Rebel Rebel” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me.”

The last of his Ziggy Stardust LPs—technically he’d retired Ziggy, but his look remained the same—and the first without the Spiders from Mars, Diamond Dogs marked a transition for Bowie. It’s right there in “1984”—a Shaft-inspired tune that anticipates the “plastic soul” of Young Americans—and “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me,” which also anticipates the Philly soul sound Bowie would appropriate as his own. But the LP was also a continuation of his previous rock LPs; “Rebel Rebel” and “Diamond Dogs” are both rockers, albeit rawer than anything on Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane. And then there are the songs that almost defy description; “Big Brother” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” are odd eggs, with nothing Bowie did in the past to anticipate them and nothing in the future to demonstrate that they were signposts to his re-creation of himself as a soul man.

The brief opener “Future Legend” has Bowie talking about a future gone horribly wrong over some synthesizers; a dog howls, Bowie gleefully talks about how the “last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare” and “red mutant eyes gazed down on the hungry city” before proclaiming it “the year of the Diamond Dogs,” after which he utters those famous words, to the sound of thunderous applause, “This ain’t rock and roll; this is genocide!” At which point “Diamond Dogs,” a Stones-influenced rocker, kicks into gear. Having dispensed with the great Mick Ronson, Bowie surprisingly decided to play lead guitar himself on all but two tracks, and it works; his raw riffs ride over his own sax playing and some excellent drumming, while he warns, “Come out of the garden baby, you’ll catch your death in the fog/Young girl, they call them the diamond dogs.” He even throws in a few “bow wows” and “woof woofs” while his saxophone runs roughshod over the melody, then the legendary Mike Garson comes in to play some piano at the end.

“Sweet Thing” is the opening part of a trilogy; it begins on a slow note, with Bowie singing in a low voice only to shift into a higher timbre in time to sing, “Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing.” Garson plays some Asiatic piano, while Bowie croons, “I’m glad that you’re older than me/It makes me feel important and free” after which he plays a roughshod guitar solo accompanied by Garson, one of the greatest rock pianists ever—I encourage you to listen to his remarkable solo on the title track of 1973’s Aladdin Sane if you have doubts. Bowie then returns to the sax, which plays with the drums to mark the beginning of the second section of the trilogy, “Candidate,” which opens slowly and features more blustering Bowie guitar and excellent sax. As the song goes on the pace picks up and Bowie sings faster and faster, suddenly in a rush, name-checking Charles Manson and barking, “If you want it boys/Get it here, thing/So you scream out of line/”I want you! I need you! Anyone out there? Any time?”

Meanwhile he plays some more savage guitar, before finally crying, “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands,” at which point the band plays a reprise of “Sweet Thing,” with Bowie throwing everything he has into the vocals, after which Garson plays some piano and then Bowie plays one very heavy and distorted guitar riff, a wonder really, at which point the song segues delightfully into the great “Rebel Rebel.” Bowie’s big guitar riffs are perfect for what is in effect a proto-punk tune, with Bowie singing those famous lines, “Got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” The chorus is great, as is the way he sings, “Hot tramp, I love you so,” and this one is so brutally simple it’s hard to believe Bowie, no blues and boogie man, came up with it. I especially love the ending, where the tempo picks up and he begins to ad lib about torn dresses and live wires and handfuls of ludes, and “How could they know?” Well, how could they?

In my opinion, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” are one of the great one-two punches in rock history. Garson opens, Earl Slick tosses off some power chords on the guitar, and then Bowie plays the soul man and balladeer. And is there a more romantic chorus than, “When you rock ‘n’ roll with me/No one else I’d rather be/Nobody here can do it for me/I’m in tears again/When you rock ‘n’ roll with me”? Bowie throws more emotion into the second verse, accompanied by Garson, some saxophone blurt, and Slick’s excellent guitar, which builds to a sublime moment, one of those moments I live for, when Bowie repeats the chorus and basically blows the ship out of the water. Always condemned for being all intellect and no feeling—for being the alien he always pretended to be, in short—on this one Bowie sounds like he means it; he’s in tears again and the tears sound, if tears make a sound, real.

“We Are the Dead” is my least favorite track on the LP, moving as it does at a crawl from nowhere to no place. Backed by electronic keyboards, Bowie makes his best of things, but the melody simply isn’t very catchy. It does pick up its pace towards the end, with Bowie singing against a backdrop of vocalists repeating, “We Are the Dead,” only to pick up the chant himself, but it doesn’t help, the song just kind of lies there like a dead starfish on the beach. Meanwhile “1984” goes Superfly on your ass, with some cool opening percussion and funky strings followed by Alan Parker playing great wah-wah guitar. Bowie’s vocals are impassioned as he sings, “Beware the savage storm/Of 1984,” and lots of vocals join him as he finally falls to repeating “1984” over and over again.

“Big Brother” opens with some trumpet played by some unknown somebody, or maybe it’s synthesized, I don’t know. I do know it sounds great, and leads to Bowie’s wonderful opening lines, “Don’t talk of dust and roses/Or should we powder our noses.” No, he wants a “glass asylum/With just a hint of mayhem,” and the chorus that follows is colossal, yes, colossal is the only word that fits. Meanwhile Bowie plays some sax and goes into a little section that sounds like the Bowie of Hunky Dory, before returning to that colossal chorus, calling for “Someone to claim us/Someone to follow/Someone to shame us/Some brave Apollo,” and it’s hard to not hear it as a call for a dictator, because this is the same Bowie who would later create a furor after making comments calling for a fascist leader for Britain and calling Adolf Hitler “one of the first rock stars.” He later utilized the “Cat Stevens excuse,” i.e., by saying that he was speaking “at least partially tongue-in-cheek,” but a statement like “I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership” doesn’t sound tongue in cheek to me, and makes me think, “Ho-kay, Lord Haw-Haw, whatever you say.” I love the guy, but it’s a tough call as to which one made a bigger fool of himself back in the day, Bowie the fascist or Eric Clapton the racist.

“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” is one of the odder songs in Bowie’s canon. To a propulsive beat, multiple vocalists repeat nonsense syllables in a chant to the accompaniment of Bowie’s hard rock guitar and lots of percussion instruments. I can’t believe I didn’t like this tune when I was younger because it’s flat out strange but quite catchy, right down to the repetitive stuttering echo that closes the song.

The swan song of Ziggy Stardust is as powerful as it is eclectic, and as strange as the cover depicting a Bowie who is half-man, half-dog. And the hybrid cover is appropriate, because as I’ve said Diamond Dogs is a transitional effort, with Bowie looking backwards and forwards at the same time. It’s certainly not the best of his seventies LPs—my votes go to Aladdin Sane and Station to Station—but it certainly deserves better than the critical pans it received upon its release. Why, in my book it would be worth buying just for “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me.” And other than “We Are the Dead,” there isn’t a bad song on the thing. Glam was dying with its glitter-encrusted platform boots on, and the shape-shifting Bowie was canny enough to walk away and reinvent himself as a whiter Barry White. But as far as last gasps go, Diamond Dogs is a fine record, as decadent as the dying Roman Empire over which Bowie the chameleon, the man who sold the world, fiddled, ready to hit the dressing room and swap his glitter duds for a stylish baby blue baggy trouser suit with shoulder pads.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 8/26/15

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  • Monk_Crabbs

    I didn’t read your piece yet, but I wanted to say I met Dan in middle school because of “Diamond Dogs.” I walked into the restroom and he was standing at a urinal. He quietly sang to himself, “Rebel, rebel you tore your dress.” And I responded “Rebel, rebel your face is a mess.” And a pot smoking (eventual) friendship was born.

    • Michael Little

      Wow. I never heard that. Amazing! I wonder where Dan is these days. I know he’s had his share of troubles. But back then we were the Second Coming of the Beat Generation!

      • Monk_Crabbs

        Yeah, that could have been the seminal moment for a great “Spinal Tap” tidbit for a future interview if Dan ever became famous or if I had any talent, creativity or ambition. Yes, we were syncopated Beats–but it was a blast. Last I saw Dan was circa 1985. He stopped at my apartment for what seemed like a normal visit. Left. And I never saw him again, though we did speak a few times in that era by phone. Maybe a letter or two. But really nothing since. It would be fun to catch up with him. At least a couple of lifetimes have passed since then…I’m certain for all of us.

  • Monk_Crabbs

    Great review. It’s been forever since I listened to DD. But, your retelling of it was spot on as I remember it “cha-chunk” on an 8-track player. BTW, the ‘Cat Stevens excuse,’ is a brilliant little quip.

    • Michael Little

      Thanks, Ben! Great photo!

  • Michael Little

    A-? What are you, some kind of Bowie hater? Mr. Bowie had more talent in his colon than you have in your entire body. I’ll bet you don’t like “Modern Love” or “Let’s Dance” either!

    • Michael Little

      Dear me: You’re right. I hate those songs. And I can’t believe that you, or should I say I, actually likes them!

      • Michael Little

        Please, please, could I stop arguing with myself? The better me hates “Let’s Dance.” The same way he hates that atrocious Bowie/Jagger video!

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