Vinyl Frontier: Retro Reviews David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
By Rich Payton and John the Secretary
Take an exhibitionist glam rocker with alien-esque overtones then throw him into George Orwell‘s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ and what do you have? The wild box of frogs that is ‘Diamond Dogs’. If you had heard the first five albums from David Bowie then you might have thought them a little strange. This one goes beyond that, being the oddest and most audacious of 1970’s concept albums.
He would change alter egos after this and not surprisingly as Ziggy (or something close to it) had been milked dry. After the rather more pop friendly ‘Aladdin Sane’, writing an album loosely based on the great dystopian classic of English literature was a brave move. Bowie at this point was clearly someone who thought society was only one step away from anarchy and meltdown.
‘Diamond Dogs’ gets someway to realising the concept but, typical of Bowie, doesn’t quite hit the glorious heights it might have because it needed reining in at points. This might have been because of the drug abuse of Bowie at the time but whatever, it’s certainly worth a listen.
‘Future Legend’ sets the narrative tone with Bowie speaking over an ominous instrumental, telling of a future London in pieces where anarchy has taken over; the streets the domain of the secret police and the looters. The title track is a catchy humdinger much like the glam rock fare on the aforementioned previous album complete with lyrics alluding to being taken away at night by predatory hunters and vagabonds.
‘Sweet Thing’ is a laid back crawl of a ballad focusing on secret love affairs (much like that between Winston and Julia in the influential novel) but also with a nod towards using prostitutes - “Boys, boys, it’s a cheap thing, cheap thing”. But this stolen act of sex might not necessarily be betwixt man and woman as the underlying suggestion is that these backstreet encounters are homosexual.
‘Candidate’ references the song before it thus becoming inextricably linked to it. Very much in the mould of ‘Pink Floyd’ who loved re-introducing a previous tune as part of cohesive artistic spine, this just about does the job. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is another one of those Bowie favourites but it breaks away from what has gone before conceptually. Concentrating on a promiscuous groupie, it sends proceedings back a year to the kind of content that perfectly suited ‘Aladdin Sane’. But here, however good the tune is, it comes across as incongruous.
Bowie gets back to the agenda with the emphatic ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll with me’; a tale of romance and liberation within this totalitarian world. Bowie clearly feels emancipated by rock and roll music as it gave him a way of expressing himself and finding (rather paradoxically) his own identity. In the final third of the album the Orwellian strain becomes totally undeniable and ultimately explicit. ‘We are the Dead’ is a direct quote from ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ referring to the protagonists status once they have broken the rules of Big Brother.
Bowie is turning the novel into a rock opera with this tale of rebellion based on human emotions and drives. On the musical front it’s a pleasant song with chilling overtones but the allusions are becoming rather tiresome. ‘1984’ simply hammers home the above but the dark content is counter pointed against a funky track which signposts the direction Bowie would be going in subsequently with his so-called white soul.
‘Big Brother’ with its pounding bass and ominous chorus is gloomy and downright depressing. But then so was the end of the aforementioned novel. ‘Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family’ signs the album off on a flamboyant note, leaving one with the impression of a zombie filled London. ‘Diamond Dogs’ was the death of many things; Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s glam rock sound and theatrical pomp. He would become rather more sober and abstract afterwards.
It’s an interesting experiment but perhaps ill judged because he shoehorns Ziggy Stardust into a completely different landscape which was constructed by a famous Twentieth Century writer. At this point he was allegedly on rather a lot of chemical enhancement which might explain such a mad concept. Although it certainly has its merits, ‘Diamond Dogs’ is a mish mash of ideas and a little annoying in terms of the lack of originality because Bowie takes too much creative inspiration from another source.
It would have been more impressive if he had used the novel as inspiration but not directly started naming song titles after it. Perhaps this is harsh because thirty five years later we are more aware of the novel due to certain reality television shows. But the tourism is inescapable and that is why ‘Diamond Dogs’ is overshadowed by other Bowie albums.