Diamond Dogs was David Bowie’s last performance as a glam rock superstar.
Bowie was always a little too arty to settle for straight-up glam in the first place. After all, you weren’t too likely to hear other glam stars like Sweet or Slade make something as out-there as the Brecht-meets-McCartney stylings of “Time” from Bowie’s previous album Aladdin Sane.
Diamond Dogs could be seen as one of the first times in Bowie’s career where he was looking back while also moving forward. He had already officially killed off Ziggy Stardust in elaborate fashion and shed his glitter makeup (although not the bright red hair), and was ready to make his next step as an artist.
Diamond Dogs is yet another concept album, and, true to character, it is about the future. The original idea was to base the entire album around George Orwell’s novel 1984, until Orwell’s widow refused to give her permission. As a result, the setting became Hunger City, a place where people live on rooftops and morality is in short supply.
Musically, the album seems to be a mix of Andrew Lloyd Weber and the hard rock of The Man Who Sold The World. Just to prove he could still be a star when he wanted to, he threw the hit single “Rebel Rebel” in there too, but the true heart of the album lies in the macabre delights that surround that track.
David Bowie — Diamond Dogs: Track-by-track review
1. “Future Legend”
Not so much a song as a spoken word piece set to ominous drones and shrieks, “Future Legend” introduces us to the world of Hunger City and sets the post-apocalyptic tone for the rest of the album. This is a world where society’s outcasts live on the rooftops, glaring down on the town with “red mutant eyes.” Also, “fleas the size of rats feed on rats the size of cats”, because what grimy dystopia would be complete without rats?
One of the ominous background noises is a high-pitched childish voice whispering unintelligible things way down in the mix, which seem to echo the “It followed me home, can I keep it?” whisperings from the middle section of “All the Madmen” — the first time this album recalls The Man Who Sold The World.
The album seems to begin proper when Bowie calls out to an enthusiastic crowd, “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll — this is genocide!” We’ll let that mean whatever you want it to mean.
2. “Diamond Dogs”
The start of this one is pure 1970s, with cowbell included. Over that cowbell is a slightly out of tune and sloppy Keith Richards by way of Grand Funk Railroad chordal guitar riff, played by none other than David Bowie himself! You see, Bowie had a tendency to surprise everyone with rash decisions.
Killing off Ziggy Stardust at a concert was not one of those rash decisions, considering that it was part of Ziggy’s story from the beginning, but it came as a surprise when Bowie then decided to get rid of his Spiders from Mars backing band, who had played with him for five albums.
That means that guitar hero Mick Ronson was gone, with no replacement. And that means that “Diamond Dogs” is one of very few occasions when you can hear Bowie take over on lead guitar (the other times being on his own album Never Let Me Down and on Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot).
He pulls off the job just fine. His playing may be a little rough around the edges, but that works just fine for a concept album about a society that is also a little rough around the edges. Well, “a little” might be an understatement. The song’s lyrics paint a picture of just who these Diamond Dogs are, but not in a way that’s too easy to follow. One of the characters is a “little hussy” whose “face is sans feature but she wears a Dali brooch,” with the reference to Dali being a clear tribute to the surrealism that informs Bowie’s words.
These Diamond Dogs are one of the street gangs who live on the rooftops, who are led by Halloween Jack, which became Bowie’s new persona. Halloween Jack had the same bright red hair as Ziggy, but it was cut shorter and all of the makeup was stripped away. Sans makeup and with haunting shadows, the photos in the album booklet reveal a more gaunt and paranoid Bowie, hinting at his recent dabblings with cocaine which would later become a large problem.
Musically, the track is Bowie’s Jagger tribute of the album. While Aladdin Sane had him purposely skewering the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, this time he uses the sloppy and rollicking Stones sound and swagger to make something single-worthy.
However, when Bowie goes into the studio, he can’t help but add a few off-kilter production touches, such as a wavering background vocal put through an effects pedal and some solo guitar that clashes with the singing during the verses. At the time, the song didn’t perform very well as a single when compared to hits like “Space Oddity” or “Starman,” and for fans of the album, it is unavoidably overshadowed by the three-track magnum opus that follows.
3. “Sweet Thing”
Before beginning this track review, it must be noted that this track and the two that follow, “Candidate” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise),” are basically one track. These three tracks segue into each other and part of their strength is based on the way they come together to form one epic piece.
Because of the 15-minute length of this mini-suite, it was naturally never released as a single or put onto any ‘best of Bowie’ compilations. However, it is often recognized as one of Bowie’s great compositions, as well as perhaps the primary reason to buy the album Diamond Dogs — to get what can’t be found on any other Bowie collections.
The whole thing starts off, naturally enough, with a fade-in with a hint of strings and a piano, hinting at the majesty and drama of the piece as a whole. Bowie comes in with a look at the love-starved sexual depravity of Hunger City:
It’s safe in the city
To love in a doorway
To wrangle some screams from the room
And isn’t it me
Putting pain in a stranger?
To emphasize the darkness of these lines, Bowie for the first time introduces his trademark vocal trick of singing in a shakey basso profundo style in what seems like one octave too low.
The melodramatic scope of the music is complemented by the way Bowie’s singing oscillates between this low register and the pained-sounding sustained notes that are a couple octaves higher, as he asks “Will you see / That I’m scared and I’m lonely?”. The high and low voices harmonize together on the chorus, where the refrain
If you want it boys
Get it here, thing
Boys, boys, it’s a cheap thing
reveal that the first section of the song is about prostitution and the general soullessness of life on the streets of Hunger City.
After a second go-round of this desperate plea of a chorus, we are treated to a stratospheric Bowie guitar solo that seems to be trying to channel Mick Ronson’s classic outro from “Moonage Daydream”. This brings us into part two…
…as the guitar is replaced by a saxaphone that seems to be unsure about whether it should be there or not, until it goes away to make way for phase two of this mini-suite of depravity.
The sustained piano chords and expansive reverb of the first part are replaced in “Candidate” by short, choppy thrashings of a distorted synthesizer as the lyrics become more obscure and nighmarish:
I’ll make you a deal
Like any other candidate
We’ll pretend you’re walking home
‘Cause your future’s at stake
As he says he’s “having so much fun with the poisonous people,” the pace, volume, and intensity seem to slowly pick up and keep doing so, unabated, for the rest of the piece. The song becomes the sound of a nervous breakdown as a screaming background vocal sings, along with Bowie:
When it’s good
It’s really good
And when it’s bad
I go to pieces
…as if Halloween Jack is talking to the voice in his head, or vice versa.
It can only get worse, and there’s still one more verse to go! The imagery turns gruesome and blashphemous, and at the height of intensity Jack suggests
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands
as the shout of the song turns into a full blown scream…
5. “Sweet Thing (Reprise)”
…and that scream comes from the saxaphone, which loses the uncertainty it had in the previous section, blowing away in an obscene manner and sounding much more like a dying seal than something you would hear on a Bill Haley and the Comets record.
The piano and melody from the first section return, as the drug references become more bleak:
Is it nice in your snowstorm
Freezing your brain?
Do you think that your face looks the same?
These lines become especially chilling as you realize that Bowie’s own cocaine use would eventually lead him to drop down to 90 pounds and look extremely sickly.
The song swoops to more melodramatic heights as he screams that the moral destruction of life on the street has “got me, it’s got you,” as if the lifestyle becomes a trap.
The music on the end of the track represents the mental and moral breakdown of the characters, as the music literally falls apart and turns into formless noisemaking and super-distorted guitar fuzz. A few chugging power chords attempt to bring back some momentum until the track, and the whole fifteen minute rollercoaster finally gives up and comes to an exhausted halt.
6. “Rebel Rebel”
For “Rebel Rebel,” the tone of the album shifts as we leave Hunger City for a while. I consider this song and the following one, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” to represent the “vacation” section of the album.
For those that are not familiar with the Diamond Dogs album, chances are this is the one song that you have heard. “Rebel Rebel” basically stands as Bowie’s last gasp as a glam rock superstar, as well as being the only obvious single off the album. True to the glam rock tradition of those like T. Rex or Slade, the song is ridiculously simple, mostly based off a single guitar riff which only diverts from the pattern for a measly four measures in the entirety of the song.
Credit has to go for Bowie for creating and playing one of the most memorable guitar parts of his recorded career, one that would be assumed to have been created by one of Bowie’s numerous other guitar masters if the album credits didn’t say otherwise. The lyrics are about the transgressive fashion style that Bowie and his compatriots helped create:
You’ve got your mother in a whirl
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl
Despite its seemingly misplaced quality as a cheeky celebration of bisexuality in the middle of an album about the downfall of humanity, it still stands as a classic, and makes a case for the art of the stupid-but-great pop song. That riff just keeps going on and on and on!
7. “Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me”
You could call this part two of the “vacation” section of Diamond Dogs. The best way to describe this one would be as a slightly soul-influenced version of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” (a tune that Bowie wrote for that band), which looks ahead to tracks like “Win” and “Can You Hear Me?” from his soul-influenced next album Young Americans.
This serves as an appropriate place to mention one of the other rash and sudden decisions Bowie made at this point in his career. After recording Diamond Dogs, he toured the album in what was at that time his most lavish and expensive stage production. When he says “My set is amazing / It even smells like a street” on “Candidate,” he is not far off from describing his Diamond Dogs tour, which consisted of a stage setup including — yes, you guessed it — a street, a balcony, and a black curtain that kept his backing band from being seen by the audience.
Halfway through this tour, he ditched the stage setup, switched to a white suitcoat, and decided to rework all of his Diamond Dogs material in the style of the black soul singers he became a fan of when touring America. This was the David Bowie of the post-Spiders era, taking his chameleon tendencies to accelerated levels. The roots of that soon-to-be soul Bowie can be spied in this relatively laid-back anthem.
It appears that the title of the song is a tribute to the audience members who come to his shows, as he boasts “tens of thousands found me in demand,” and “the queue is out of sight and out of sound” (it can be guessed he is talking about the line to buy tickets to his shows).
As always with Bowie, it is a mystery just how personal this track is. When he claims “I’m in tears again / When you rock ‘n’ roll with me” it is ambiguous whether it is Bowie the man or merely another fictional rock star narrating in character for a song about another of Bowie’s mythical universes (such as Hunger City, or the planet Major Tom is stranded on). Either way, it serves as a pleasant enough diversion with a sing-along chorus, working to lighten the mood before plunging us back down in the dirt and grime.
8. “We Are The Dead”
The title of the song comes from the Orwell novel 1984, and the pacing of the song can appropriately enough be called funereal. Bowie’s soft, breathy singing style on “We Are The Dead” suggest a sort of mourning, although it is a mourning for the living.
“We Are The Dead” features the sparsest arrangement on the album, consisting mostly of a ghostly organ and some fuzzy descending guitar arpeggios over the prechorus sections.
The lyrics on the song are the closest to being political as it gets on the album. In between the surrealism of lines like
For you’re dancing
Where the dogs decay defecating ecstasy
You’re just an ally of the leecher
Locator for the virgin king
But I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails
there is the story of an unnamed character who is questioning the morality of what Halloween Jack’s crew of Diamond Dogs are doing. He tries to reason by stating:
I looked at you and wondered
If you saw things my way
People will hold us to blame
and eventually pleading:
Why don’t we pass it by
Just reply you’ve changed your mind
Through all of this the line “we are the dead” becomes a metaphor for the mindlessness of those who follow order without questioning.
This comes at an interesting time in Bowie’s public relations image. Not too long after, he would gain some notoriety for showing a fascination with fascism and going so far as saying that England was ready for a fascist leader. Given Bowie’s fractured state of mind, one can’t positively decide what he really meant by this statement, but it is very possible that it was misinterpreted as Bowie showing support for fascism. On the contrary, it could be that Bowie was criticizing England for failing to question the voices of authority, which is precisely what the protagonist of this song is doing.
For this reason, “We Are the Dead” could very well be a political statement which anticipated Bowie’s later controversial statements to the press. Whatever it is, the song is a chillingly effective lament on a society gone wrong.
Here is another song that seems to look forward to Bowie’s “Philly Dogs” soul period that led up to Young Americans. This particular song, with its chicka-chicka wah-wah guitar part, Isaac Hayes-style strings and restless hi-hat beat, didn’t really need to reworked at all in order to become a full-blown tribute to black music.
However, as is typical with Bowie, the tone of the music does not match the theme of the piece. There are no Shaft-like declarations of Halloween Jack as a “bad mother (shut your mouth!)”, but rather the warning to “beware the savage lure of 1984.” After the contemplation and questioning of “We Are the Dead” it seems the last three tracks of the album, starting with “1984,” become a sort of resignation, giving up to the powers-that-be and accepting their doomed existence.
The drug use comes back into play as the situation becomes more desperate, as Bowie envisions a future where
You’ll be shooting up on anything
Tomorrow’s never there
Overall, the song serves as a way to build up tension for the next track and its continuation of the Orwellian theme of the album.
10. “Big Brother”
The music on this one is quite similar to “Candidate,” with a stuttering rhythm track of power chords and honking saxaphone. The track takes away the questioning of authority and replaces it with blind admiration.
This Brother is “someone to follow” and more than that, he is “some brave Apollo.” To highlight the soullessness of the characters singing the song, Bowie delivers the chorus and its praises to Big Brother in a soaring vibrato, while the verses are done with a rather robotic and emotionless delivery. This could be just one of many possibilities of what Bowie meant by “plastic soul.”
The intensity of “Big Brother” builds as the chorus repeats itself and more and more praise goes to Big Brother, until the whole thing gets heavy and boils itself over into unchecked excitement as we segue into…
11. “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family”
…the strangest track on the album, which is not so much a song as it is exactly what the title says it is — a chant. The lyrics of the song in whole (as they are printed in the album booklet), are
Shake it up
Shake it up
Move it up
Move it up
Interpret this however you want, if it needs to be interpreted at all.
Ultimately, what counts is that it is using music and chant as a primal force, a sort of celebration of Big Brother set to what could be some sort of ritualistic dance. And what a strange dance it would be, considering that instead of setting it at a tempo and beat easy to dance to, Bowie instead decides to set the piece to unpredictable rhythms in an odd 5/4 time signature.
Despite its off-kilter meter, the song is quite propulsive and frantic, and the song basically repeats that same rhythm over and over again until the record begins to “skip.” Apparently, this record skipping was unintentional, but Bowie decided to keep it in, as it just adds another dimension to the surreal feel of the piece. Perhaps there is some hidden message in the way that the album ends on an obvious mistake, but I will leave that for someone else to theorize.
From my viewpoint, I will just say that it is an unforgettable ending to an album that is not nearly as celebrated as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or Hunky Dory, but is quite accomplished, as well as an essential acquisition for the serious Bowie fan.
Diamond Dogs by David Bowie
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)”
“Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me”
“We Are The Dead”
“Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family”