Here’s a good ‘un that its taken me a long time to appreciate fully, David Bowie Diamond Dogs. I normally plump for earlier glam Bowie, or moody Berlin Bowie, dismissing this one as a bit of a halfway house between the two with a couple of good singles on it. I’m an idiot, don’t listen to a word I say. No, really I’m a bad judge, Diamond Dogs ROCKS, more than that even, the better bits Roll.
Junking the remnants of the Spiders From Mars Bowie shifted a new band into place but made a really interesting decision on who to take for a guitarist. Now Bowie has always been a great judge of a guitar man if you ask me, Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp amongst them, but on Diamond Dogs he made an inspired choice. Himself. It’s not an original thought at all but I think Bowie’s playing gives the LP a far less polished, scratchier, more rudimentary feel than if he’d plumped for a ‘proper’ player, stopping it from taking any easy rock options*.
Once you get past the cover, which used to freak me a bit as a kid, ‘strangest living curiosities’ and all, into the gatefold including spooky photo manipulation by Leee Black Childers, we’re into the meat of it. The concept, such as it is, involves a post-apocalyptic wasteland, populated by hybrids and glammed up teens running murderous – stolen pretty shamelessly from William Burroughs’ Wild Boys, but hey. Bowie was in fact just starting to use Burroughs’ and Gysin’s cut-up techniques with his lyrics as a means of unpicking the subconscious / creating pretentious lyrical slurry (delete according to your tolerance).
And in the death
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare
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
Apart from the later use of the word ‘peoploids’, which irks me, I love it to death. Especially after the genius exclamation ‘This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide!’ and the music flares and roars into the title track. Pure rock and roll filtered via Lou and the Velvets and the shadows of Ziggy, with more than a touch of ‘Brown Sugar’ around the edges. Every line quotable, every line perfect for a 1537 blog post title (how did he know?!), rejected for this post:
- Wrecked up and paralyzed
- Mannequins with kill appeal
- Bow-wow, woof woof, bow-wow, wow
But I digress, the rest of Side 1 of Diamond Dogs flows non-stop, so we get Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise) / Rebel Rebel. It’s all great too, each track is my favourite one on the LP until the next one oozes into view. You have to love the elegiac, sleazy ‘Sweet Thing’ which sounds to these suspicious ears like a putative rent boy about to take the plunge at the expense of his hope and soul, the swooning sweeping music acting as a perfect counterpoint to the creepiness; a plague rat in a velvet collar*^. ‘Candidate’ which follows is going to be mean, you know that by the title, when have candidates been anything but mean and sleazy, cynical and seedy in songs? The music accelerates as the morality degenerates; it’s a winner – should I ever find myself in the unlikely position of being a post-apocalyptic teenage hustler, then I really wouldn’t want to follow the candidate down to his ‘cellar like a church’ to meet either the ‘tres butch little number’ or have fun with the ‘poisonous people’, but still a certain doomed romance seeps through,
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands
I’ve had worse dates. ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’ is a soiled version of the original, with some sort of snow/drug metaphor – hmmm, whatever could he mean? Then just while you’re grokking all this awesomeness, the lyrical death waltzes and crescendos, including by the way some absolutely FILTHY guitar, it’s all swept aside in a moment of Godlike glam clarity with that riff and that drum beat; Rebel Rebel. I’ve listened to this track at least 15 times over the last three days, hell my daughter and I sang it karaoke style 20 minutes ago, it just fits my definition of perfect music – I can’t think of a single thing you could add, or subtract from it to make it any better^. I know it’s silly but it just hits all my decadent rock highs in one go.
Side 2 of Diamond Dogs is very good but less successful for me, all that teenage visceral stuff I’ve never grown out of is on the other side. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’ and ‘We Are The Dead’, surf the same vibe as Ziggy’s ‘Five Years’ but with a far lusher musical setting, it almost goes a bit Elton John in places. ‘.. Dead’ s lyrics are Bowie doing a full-on Burroughs, a vaudeville Burroughs almost and all the better for it and contain A REVELATION. ‘I love you in your fuck-me pumps’ he sings, surely by extension inventing the phrase ‘fuck-me shoes’ in 1974? talk about being ahead of the curve! It’s okay but there are only so many dogs ‘defecating ecstasy’ I can take before my mind starts to wander elsewhere for its own protection.
Things get back on the money, square on the money in fact for ‘1984’^^ and it’s ridiculous, ridiculously brilliant ‘Shaft’-isms. It’s over-wrought, overstated and over far too quickly at 3:27, not sure why I like this one so much but I really do, maybe it’s the Tina connection. ‘Big Brother’ is another goodie that struts along, sounding very much like the 1980’s arrived six years early. Closing it all off is my fave song title on Diamond Dogs, ‘Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family’, which hits a very cool rhythmic peak before someone gets all smart-arsed and artily discordant, spoiling it a bit.
So there you have it and seen in the context of other Bowie records and what was current and yet to come Diamond Dogs is interesting as hell. It has some of Bowie’s defining glam moments on it, but less cartoony and straight-forward as though he could see through the whole Bacofoil sham of it all and wanted out into weird. There are definite hints of punk here too, not so much in terms of the music but in the imagery and lyrics, gangs of feral urchins partying amidst the ruins, but these undertones were being picked up on by a few of the hippest of the hip at the time. I really should have listened to this album more over the last decade.
Sadly I don’t have one of the original US pressings where you can see Bowie’s cock and balls on the cover (not the real ones but his painted canine ones) which sell for thousands – regardless, I still say this LP is the dog’s bollocks!
*Rock Options – surely another great unused band name? take it with my blessing**
**and an agreement to grant me a perpetual 15% cut on the gross, 20% on all merch including internet sales and overall licensing.
*^stop me if I get too carried away.
^not even an Andean nose-flute solo. Trust me.
^^true to form I assumed this was a Tina Turner song for years.