Dave Amitri on Diamond Dogs
Month 6 of 12 Bowie albums in 12 months and it’s “Diamond Dogs”
“And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building
High on Poacher’s Hill
And red, mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City
No more big wheels
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coverting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald
Any day now
The Year of the Diamond Dogs
This ain’t Rock’n’Roll
This is Genocide”
And so it begins with “Future Legend”. My ears prick, my pulse quickens, here we go. This is the time where Bowie becomes more than fancy clothes, cover versions and rehashed rock ‘n’ roll. The crazy motherfucker is going to take me on a wild ride here. Hang on to your hat Dave…… Except, the next song “Diamond Dogs” is just another Rolling Stones sound alike. I didn’t imagine when watching Bowie and Jagger “Dancin’ In The Street” in 1985 that 26 years later I’d be writing how Bowie had nicked Jagger’s act in 1974. I know Bowie heads will tut and explain how I don’t understand but how do you go from that edgy narration of an apocalyptic vision of a dystopian future inhabited by “peopleoids” to that and not think “I really should be doing better than this”. Because he does do far better than that later on in the album, much better. Maybe it’s just that the track ordering in “Diamond Dogs” is clearly just wrong. More on that in my final summary.
The song “Diamond Dogs” is ok, a decent Rolling Stones tune with some freaky lyrics continuing the theme but this is David Bowie in 1974 and from what I’ve read and what people have told me I expect so much more…
Anyway on to “Sweet Things” which is a lovely song, sung beautifully and with it’s reprise following the slightly heavier “Candidate” it’s a what this album should be about. It’s theatrical in that now familiar Bowie way. Hardly surprising as I’ve read that it was one of the songs he’d had in mind for his musical based on Orwell’s 1984 for which he was denied permission by Orwell’s wife. More on that later, bloody stupid running order.
“Rebel Rebel” next while being familiar to me again just sounds like The Rolling Stones. Maybe there’s an intentional link I’m not aware of but Bowie the plagiarist was not what I was expecting. So frustrating, I want to be thrilled by Bowie. I want to feel what others feel yet 6 albums in it still all feels a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll swindle
However, I’ve committed to this and if I’ve learned anything with these albums it’s that every time I feel I’m running out of steam Bowie finds something to pique my interest and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” does just that. It’s a song with just about every MOR trick in the book thrown in, from Manilow to Bon Jovi it should be the song the radio, hit loving Bowie fans adore but you just don’t hear it in the mainstream. Yet it is possibly the most mainstream Bowie song I think I’ve heard. It’s as far from the apocalypse as an episode of Mr Tumble but I actually like it. I can imagine a sea of big haired mid 80’s kids waving their lighters in the air as Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora close out a show at some enormodome with it. How it fits here? I don’t know. Anyone?
Oh right, now we’re back to the apocalypse with “We Are The Dead” a funeral march that goes nowhere but at least fits the theme, if indeed there is a theme as it’s all so over the place. Nothing more really to add to this song, it’s just there, doing it’s thing.
Now what happens next was a complete surprise to me, from nowhere on the back of some hair rock and a dirge we get the next two songs from his 1984 trilogy. They are absolutely brilliant. THIS is what I was expecting. From the little I’ve read Bowie was seriously upset a not being given permission to write his 1984 musical. Let me tell you, so am I because if this was the standard it may well have ended up being his finest piece of work. It’s really clear that he was desperate to write a stage musical, he’s a performer first and foremost. Creating images and characters and themes but never really following it through. The song “1984” has possibly become my favourite. It fits my pop sensibilities like a glove sounding like “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “The Theme From Shaft” for the theatre sung by Ian McNabb doing “Love Is A Wonderful Colour”. Imagine an album or a show full of this stuff. It goes straight into “Big Brother” which kicks of like a “Tubeway Army” song that Gary Numan would sold his wig for, it grows and grows into everything you’d want from a Bowie song with hooks and a Sgt Pepperesque mid section with brass before breaking into a spine tingling vocal I didn’t know Bowie was capable of. The two songs are an absolute triumph
“Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you”
The album ends with “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. Nope, me neither. It’s a bit of a nothing ending but the fact it ends like the start of The Jam’s “Trans Global Express” is a twist that works for me.
So where does that leave me and my relationship with Bowie? Confused, frustrated, a little disappointed yet occasionally thrilled. He touches such great heights here, up there with “Starman” and “Life on Mars” but somehow he’s yet to create the perfect album for me. I am starting to wonder if the real Bowie heads just sort of ignore the meat and two veg elements to focus on the intricate delicacies that are there if you look for them. The radio listening Bowie lovers are clearly content with the hits. I’ve listened to this on Spotify. Staggeringly “Rebel Rebel” has 220 million listens while the majestic “1984” and “Big Brother” have 5 million between them. That’s quite a disparity. Those two songs are clearly, obviously, absolutely more worthy of reaching more ears than “Rebel Rebel”. This from a man who found worth in the “Thomspon Twins” by the way so maybe it’s me. Either way if this album had got the two Stones tracks out of the way early, opening with “Rebel Rebel”, then the MOR “Rock ‘n’Roll With Me” and ended on the apocalyptic stuff from “Future Legends”, through “We Are The Dead”, “Sweet Thing” then the 1984 stuff I think it would have made for a far more coherent and listenable experience.
So can I after 6 albums offer a couple of thoughts? Firstly if Bowie had focussed solely on his space obsession, his need to make musical theatre and his love of rock ‘n’ roll and released three albums over the same period concentrating on those elements could he have achieved even greater acclaim? I’m really desperately sorry that “1984” the musical wasn’t completed it would have been astonishing. I think a space song album would have been just out of this world (sorry) and a straight up rock ‘n’ roll album could have been a right laugh. A “Pin Ups” of Bowie songs perhaps.
Secondly was Bowie acutely aware of this and so wrapped each release up in mystery, make up, fancy clothes and a story to throw us off the scent? I found this quote from him on “Diamond Dogs”
“I was looking to create a profligate world that could have been inhabited by characters from Kurt Weill or John Rechy – that sort of atmosphere. A bridge between Enid Blyton’s Beckenham and The Velvet Underground’s New York. Without Noddy, though.”
Was he really serious, was he playing up to the arty types and the hipsters while laughing at us and himself? Ultimately what I think matters not a jot and anyway it’s just music. I am truly desperate to love Bowie and parts of this album make that happen but then others leave me searching for the skip button…..