Dave Amitri on Young Americans
I’ve been looking forward to this album since I started this project back in January. I’ve often heard how it was Billy Mackenzie’s favourite Bowie album so I thought this would be full of nods to the weird and wonderful world of The Associates. I asked on “The Affectionate Bunch” The Associates Facebook fan page for opinions and hoped that Alan Rankine may share a story or two. In the end an old friend of Billy’s answered…
“I don’t know if it was a favourite but I know he took my newly bought Young Americans in King Buyers in Dundee and traded me 2 Sensational Alex Harvey Band LP’s”
Which proves something I suppose. Nothing from Alan unfortunately. I tried really hard to find something that linked the album to Billy or The Associates. Maybe one song I’ll cover later hinted at some vocal stylisation I recognised but not much more. What I did hear was a sax heavy, smooth, jazzy album that brought to mind artists from the early / mid eighties being so heavily reliant on female backing singers and a saxophonist . On to the album….
The title track is ubiquitous for anyone of a certain age. The “alright’s” instantly recognisable even to the most civilian Magic FM listener out there. It’s a tremendous song and instantly Bowie but I would suggest a complete departure from what had come before. Poppier, jazzier, instantly radio friendly yet only number 18 in the UK charts in 1975 when released as a single. The bleak lyrics hidden behind the songs uptempo rhythms and soulful sounds. I can imagine a whole raft of young aspiring pop stars hearing this and thinking “THAT’S the music I want to make. I was thinking maybe Hall and Oates until I checked and realised they were making music in 1975 but still there are some similarities and their peak came a few years later.. Boy George would have been 14 when released and you can see how this song would have inspired him. The first five seconds of the intro and I start sing the opening to “If You Let Me Stay” by Terrence Trent D’Arby. That I think sets this whole review up as different to the previous ones. There are lot’s of little hints to what a whole generation of 80’s artists heard and carried with them.
The first few bars of “Win” into the backing vocals and Bowies breathy delivery take me right to 1986 and The Blow Monkey’s debut album “Animal Magic” and particularly a song “Aeroplane City Lovesong”. To be honest I could have picked almost any song from the album to register the influence on Dr Robert. Although win isn’t as sax heavy as some of the others the overall feel of the song is just the floaty gorgeousness that The Blow Monkeys excel at. I messaged Dr Robert through Twitter asking if it was fair to say he was influenced by “Young Americans” and he answered “I think it influenced everyone of my generation”. Which while not going into any great detail confirms the obvious to anyone who listened to the album and turned on a radio in 1986…. It’s a beautiful song, pitched just right. Bowies vocal seems less strained than previously and is well suited to the smoother feel. Lovely….
“Fascination” takes me back to Starsky and Hutch and those opening credits but also for some reason that I can’t fully explain to 80’s Scotland and Orange Juice. There’s some Edwyn Collins styling in Bowie’s vocal and the funk guitar and drumming a reminder of “What Presence” perhaps? It’s a slice of slice of funk and soul that may even have got Niles Rodgers thinking. I haven’t checked the dates on that one. Listening while the weather has been so hot it just felt right for sweaty, muggy nights probably more New York than Glasgow but such is the familiarity that I can’t quite pin down it could be anywhere.
“Right” Is my favourite song on the album. It could have come directly from Paul Weller’s “On Sunset” but equally if you use your imagination it’s a great lost Style Council song. I can see Weller with a sweater hung casually over his shoulders, while Steve White does his thing with the beat and Weller plays his funk guitar but what seals the Style Council vibe is the DC Lee backing vocals. Remarkable. It’s the most obvious “influence” I found on the album. It’s a lazy, jazzy, funky thing that if just put on “Our Favourite Shop” wouldn’t need one note changed.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” starts with a Gerry Rafferty or Hazel O’Connor sax solo but doesn’t really go anywhere after that. Maybe I’m missing something but it doesn’t quite work for me.
“Across The Universe” is where I can perhaps here some Billy Mackenzie styling in the vocals but in reality I’m not sure where this song is going with it’s “Hey Jude” like repetition it’s a bit of a return to old Bowie.
“Can You Hear Me” is back to the blue eyed soul Bowie which is where he’s at his best here. Soft vocals, strings and those delicious backing vocals again. There’s something of Colin Vearncombe in the vocal and is another straight out of the “Making a Record in 1986” handbook. It’s not a criticism, it’s a beautiful song.
It finishes on “Fame” another of those songs everyone knows. Much like “Right” being a lost Style Council Song “Fame” could have come straight off an album by The Kane Gang just to keep the 80’s analogies coming. The slightly staccato feel punctuated by bursts of lyric and little funk segments. I suspect it’s a song Grace Jones was familiar with too as it contains elements from “Pull Up To The Bumper” a decent ending.
Whether it’s me, whether I was expecting too much, whether it really is Bowie fatigue but I feel this review is a bit flat. I’ve commented how the previous Bowie albums I’ve reviewed were all crazy mixes of styles which gave me lots to get my teeth into. Maybe Young Americans being a definite style throughout didn’t give me anything to rail against or find my own inspiration for. It’s a nice album that while I can hear all these sounds that I recognise from some of my absolute favourite artists to be honest I wouldn’t listen to again before any of them. I know this came first and it’s clearly a hugely important album that inspired, as Dr Robert said, a whole generation but I think those that came next did it better overall. I guess being the first doesn’t always mean it’s the best.
I was looking finally for the album that inspired the heady crazy days of The Blitz, electronic music and all those creative early 80’s bands and ultimately found a jazzy, funky smooth slice of blue eyed soul. I think maybe it’s me and maybe I’ll stop here as like this review I feel quite flat without much enthusiasm for what comes next. Some artists aren’t for everyone and trying to find what some of my heroes found has left me frustrated and a little disappointed