David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Dismissed upon its release in 1974 as the last wheeze of Bowie’s glam-rock era, Diamond Dogs had a lot of strikes against it from the outset. Perhaps foremost, he had already broken up the Spiders from Mars. Diamond Dogs was his first album recorded without any of its members, meaning for most fans one thing: Bowie’s left-arm, Mick Ronson, and the virile animalism he’d always brought to his sound were absent. Also, Diamond Dogs was a loosely-compiled concept record based on a theatrical production Bowie had written for Orwell’s 1984, which was turned down by Orwell’s estate. Now concept albums themselves don’t tend to date all that well, but Orwellian concept albums, well, they probably have a half-life of about eight months at best. Then you make a new one. Add to these factors the decline of glam as an act of hyperbole and excess, the once you stretch it too far it never contracts into place rule—the great fall-off from T. Rex’s Tanx to both Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow and Bolan’s Zip Gun or that of Mott the Hoople from All The Young Dudes and Mott to The Hoople—and Diamond Dogs was bound to be a critical, if not a briefly popular, failure.
But in hindsight, knowing where Bowie was headed in the next four or five years as, alternately, punk crashed and disco serenaded the party briefly, Diamond Dogs should be remembered not only as one of glam’s last great full-lengths but more importantly as a gap-record that somehow manages to cohesively storyboard Bowie’s crude conceptual surrealism while also expanding his sound. This is, after all, his buy-some-drugs-and-watch-a band-album. His reminder that a cock ain’t a cock on a twelve-inch screen. But Bowie’s participating here. He’s not just the voyeur. With Herbie Flowers on bass and string arrangements and mixing by Tony Visconti, who would become a fixture on Bowie’s records for the rest of the decade, Bowie himself was responsible for most of the music—the guitars, the saxophones, the Moog, the Mellotron.
Lyrically however, Ziggy begets Halloween Jack, who’s traded in his velvet goldmine for silicon and bomb dust. But Jack is as wont to leave this world as Bowie is to revel in it. He’s in and out of the narrative like a character in Terra Nostra, present in form if not spirit and vice versa. Real cool cat, and he lives on top of Manhattan Chase, but he’s never there when you visit. It’s an artificiality to revel in and barely absorb—one that sparkles given out for one that grows lumpy and contorted within. But, it’s a concept record that breeds odd forms in shadow. Bowie doesn’t stick to a storyline. He marks these disastrous colors in pastel and pink, sure, but the lines are all out of sorts. Diamond Dogs is recreated in smudges and very oblique mantras, and really that’s the only way to make these sorts of records last.
And yet several of the best songs on Diamond Dogs exemplify Bowie at his most libidinous and direct. In fact, they could have played nicely amongst the “Moonage Daydream”s or “Suffragette City”s of his catalogue. Most importantly, two of the greatest singles he ever recorded—“Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel Rebel”—have all the storm and frizzy froth of Ziggy’s best, and album closer “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” takes that shuffle and combines it with some of the post-hippie rock and gruff space mannerisms of his Man Who Sold the World-era. These are the head-nodders and hand-drummers, the songs that play long at midnight for people who don’t really want to hear the rest of the record—but they’re also Bowie’s way of grounding this ridiculous space-record of his in commodity. In hit. They’re why Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s best selling record to date in America, reaching as high as #5 on the Billboard charts.
Still, in terms of Bowie’s own catalogue, Diamond Dogs is at its most illustrative when linking the jazz-touched lounge punk of 1973’s Aladdin Sane with the neo-soul and disco-funk records Bowie would make as the decade waned. In many ways, the record serves as a textural template for much of pop music at large in the next ten years or more. ‘We Are the Dead” is “The Prettiest Star” gone decrepit and slightly mad—built simply with a chilly Moog pattern and muffled drumwork as Bowie sings of “defecating ecstasy” and loving “you in your fuck-me pumps” in a spinning tilt-a-whirl of imagery and brokeback lovesong. The three-track suite formed by “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” perhaps best illustrates this progression though. You can hear reverberations of Aladdin in “Sweet Thing”’s slow piano crescendo and Bowie’s own vocal theatricality, but as the song progresses, it becomes clear that he’s leading himself away from that cocktail sound to something more intricate and soulful, away from pretense and shadowy neon places towards quiet, dim brick-lacings. For the first time in his work, you begin to hear that transfixed Philly/Sigma Sound studios soul he would mine for 1975’s Young Americans. As it bleeds into the martial drum patterning and moaning saxophone of “Candidate,” it’s clear this is not as much a panic in gastown as a dark, deeply ascendant tonguing in the night. Location doesn’t matter anymore; home is where your star is. He sings of foul politicians and promises so false they’re just songs themselves, like this one but with uglier men at the microphone.
Yet Bowie always seems to see his music in ten-year gulps, and Diamond Dogs was no exception. Generally speaking, “1984” presages the funky wah-wah disco of much of the late decade, but more specifically to his own work, it finds Bowie lathering up the very same sound he’d master with 1976’s dance masterpiece, Station to Station. Visconti’s swirling, gold-laminated string sections, Alan Parker’s wonky-tonk rhythm guitar, and Tony Newman’s hip-fat beatwork all combine to make 1974 sound almost impeccably 1977.
Of course, beyond the visions of late-1970s precall, Diamond Dogs quite frequently gets, erm, dogged for a cut that might justifiably be called the earliest version of the 1980s power ballad. And let’s be honest: “Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me” is why Meatloaf existed—all fluttery, emotive piano, anthemic guitar soloing, and operatic sheen. But it’s a cheap comfort of sorts, the kind of shit you can enjoy in ABBA or Donna Summer but can’t possibly let a ‘serious’ artist like Bowie get away with. And that’s the trick being played on you; this isn’t just a coke-blanched error. “Rock N Roll With You,” with its brave Apollos and shrill Mellotron, is absurd, comical, and puzzling, sure. But on an album that is glam rock stretched thematically to its furthest ends—theatricality as horse-play as much as stage-play—it’s an appropriately outrageous mid-album cooldown.
But even with all I’ve said in its defense, I’d readily admit Diamond Dogs isn’t a starting point for Bowie. It’s an album you love only after you’ve already begun your Bowie affair. So while it may never really find its place for casual fans, for completists and achivists it’s a compelling document to how he somehow managed to cohesively pull off both the tricky concept album minus his band of legend and also give a soft nudge to his base sound in a direction that would allow him to remain commercially and critically viable as the decade went black, and then all too white. And, more importantly, it’s another stellar view on seventies life that Bowie never really lived—the kind of album perhaps only the sixties and seventies could produce. Or, you know, maybe it’s just “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel Rebel” with cock-heavy spirit dogs airbrushed on the cover.
But we know better. This was Bowie at greatness again, refining his past and beginning with his yet-to-come, in Orwellian patois to boot. If you can’t love on that, I guess there’s always Let’s Dance or, cough, one of numerous comps.