Sunday 30 October 2011

David BOWIE: Diamond Dogs

(#142: 8 June 1974, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Future Legend/Diamond Dogs/Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)/Rebel Rebel/Rock 'N' Roll With Me/We Are The Dead/1984/Big Brother/Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

I've written about Diamond Dogs before, a long time ago on another blog, and maybe it's a piece too jejeune to warrant a reprint, or perhaps its flapping spirit chimes in more tunefully with the record's curiously jejeune nature; it's hard for me, seven years and a lifetime onward, to call. Half of me says shut up and enjoy the ride, which still seems a lot shorter than its thirty-eight minutes might suggest, and the other half says, wait a moment - did any other number one album of its year, or of its time, push and challenge its audience so firmly and insecurely as this one?

The first thing to note is what a whale of a time this decomposing glitter-Bowie is having watching the world collapse. Let's face it, pop secretly always welcomes the apocalypse - think of Lydon's half-petrified, half-ecstatic tongues at the climax of "Holidays In The Sun," the impatient rush of the Annihilation mix of "Two Tribes," the bit on Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" when Ice Cube storms into the picture with his terrifyingly authoritative "As I walk down Hollywood Boulevard"; oh yes, we pop addicts eagerly await The End, our pulses race at the very thought. "Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun," went the leitmotif of the period's most fashionable sci-fi novel, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, and I always secretly wanted to set that refrain to music (but somehow I always ended up in the neigbourhood of Stan Kenton's "Concerto For Doghouse"). To a ten-year-old besotted with Steve Gerber's Marvel titles and worse, caninohuman immutable apocalypse seemed a more interesting place to visit than, say, Blantyre.

Structurally the record is disjointed piffle, but that works in its favour; the main influence here is not so much Orwell (Sonia saw to any such ideas) as Burgess distilled via Lionel Bart (all these "urchins" bring Dickens far more closely to mind than droogs, but then Bowie has arguably always been far more Bart than Barthes). The lovely thing is that Bowie still, I think, feels deep down that it's 1965, or he's going to try his damnedest to make sure that it is; one of the record's key lines comes amidst the rollerball Philly-lite "1984" when he whispers "I'm looking for the treason that I knew in '65," and the non-closing loop of "Chant" resembles the Yardbirds with their legs broken, trying to relearn Bo Diddley as though relocated to Jupiter.

So much is still invested in the sixties. "Future Legend" tries to scare its listeners witless with drunken electronic pinges, "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" guitar meditations and a phased Bowie growling about the end of everything but together it's a lot less authentically scary than something like "Bad Moon Rising" and a lot more like Journey To The Centre Of The Earth having taken a wrong turning in the wrong volcano. The sound of a Faces audience (complete with a distant "Wa-hey!" from Rod) brings in "This ain't rock 'n' ROLL! This is GENOCIDE!!" - startling enough in 1974, but set against a wrecked Lydon addressing a real, living San Francisco audience less than three years later at the end of "Belsen Was A Gas" ("Be a man! Kill yourself!") it sounds timid, a tad showbizzy; Bowie may well have spoken of the "diamond dogs" as so many little Rottens and Viciouses many years later, but perspective is the easiest thing to have.

Still, this is comparatively minor quibbling; the title track and "Rebel Rebel" are unstable photocopies of Stones rockers which make It's Only Rock And Roll sound arthritic (but then the latter's title track grew out of a band improvisation involving Bowie; nonetheless, "Fingerprint File" is the only thing I've ever wanted to retain from that particular mess of a record). They work because their instability is subtle; the stomps go on for just that little too long, when the ecstasy stops and the comedown and headaches start to worm their way into the listener. And also because Bowie sings them like Iggy and the Stones rather than Jagger. On "Diamond Dogs," for instance, the bridge-to-chorus dissonances become gradually more prominent, that cowbell is struck a little too hard to signify eagerness or even rhythm, and above all there is Bowie's own lead guitar (mostly; the Keef stuff on this and "Rebel Rebel" was the work of Alan Parker, who also does most of the guitar work on "1984") which manages to be both naive and commanding. Bowie's rheumatic saxes also reappear, even repeating part of the riff from "Sorrow" towards the end of "Dogs," but the message is still to leave the sixties ("Come out of the garden, baby"). "Rebel Rebel" too is much more of a gruelling grind than the 45 mix - losing the "You're so TACKY!" chuckle but not the 'ludes reference - to such an extent that it is as though Bowie is trying less to rock us than to hit us on the head with a clawhammer until we submit...and submit to what? He does sing "oh baby come unto me" before each chorus of "Dogs," nine years ahead of "Relax," and are those backing singers really singing "Bow wow wow" as though this were some unexpected midwife between Patti Page and Andre 3000?

The "Sweet Thing"/"Candidate" sequence plays like sixteen-year-old Martian Buzzcocks trying to decipher and copy the "Breathe"/"Time" equivalent from side one of Dark Side; the introduction runs backward into itself and Bowie steadily raises his crooning tone from Scott Walker beef baritone to proto-MacKenzie contralto, but still sounds dishevelled and shaken - when he reaches the quatrain "Like a portrait in flesh/Who trails on a leash/Will you see/That I'm scared and I'm lonely?" his voice quivers like Nelson marooned at the wrong end of a drawing pin. Other elements pass in and out of the song's fibres like electrocuted trains; Adam Faith pizzicato strings, a piano line in the second verse which foresees "China Girl," Bowie's wheezing palais alto, martial drums, Mike Garson finally cutting free under Bowie's careful guitar line and flooding the picture. The "sweet thing" becomes a "cheap thing" and goes straight into the babbling stream of "Candidate"; as the PR junk of the opening lines is steadily turned into the tenderest of doomed love songs (culminating in the famous couplet "We'll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in a river holding hands," a dozen years ahead of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out") the tempo progressively doubles and discordance (principally from Bowie's guitar) becomes denser. Saxes blow raspberries and at one point the song is in danger of drowning in an ocean of tambourines. Then "Sweet Thing" returns, this time as a sneer (yet set against a placid Moog/flute unison); this too eventually gives way to feedback, plectrum scrapings, the song then sloping backwards as though about to tumble off a cliff - and the penny drops; the comparable record from 1974 is Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom (and here we think of "Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road" which ends up doubling back on itself), a part-gibberish, part-profound response to a world no longer clearly understood or recognised (in terms of Bowie's guitar playing, see also Wyatt's languid beginner slides on the same instrument in "A Last Straw"), where expression can only be reached through multiple alter ego voices - Mongezi Feza, Gary Windo, Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler - in the same way that Bowie was now positioning himself as a brand, different with every new release, and distant and quick enough to ensure that his audience didn't latch onto him until he'd firmly moved on. And then, without a break, into "Rebel Rebel" and its foreshadowing of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" (with the latter's "Hello dad, hello mom...").

On side two he opens up a little more, just enough for us to touch the waft of his breath, if not his garment; on "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" the cheesy organ and general air of stadium rock anthem parody are mainly there to fool the ear, since this is the record's "Be My Wife" moment, the point where Bowie steps out of his self-administered straitjacket and tells it straight; his performance is too obviously heartfelt to be a put-on - listen to how he mangles the word "tears" in the first chorus, or how his cries of "I'm in tears again/When you rock 'n' roll with me" are too close not to believe. And yet, this may simply be Ziggy again ("I would take a foxy kind of stand/While tens of thousands found me in demand") taking a further step away from the crowd, and at song's end, or at least before it disintegrates under columns of dusty dancehall saxophone, he finds his own way out (after having given away the confession "No one else I'd rather be") with the line "I've found a door that lets me out." Always running away, always moving...away from what, and towards whom?

"We Are The Dead" is performed as a doped New Depression elegy (to an extent the song follows the traces of the old Busby Berkeley number "Remember My Forgotten Man," although "Baby Bankrupt" is only hinted at in the latter rather than outwardly stated). As the song proceeds - and somewhere in the background (as on "Rock 'N' Roll With Me") there is Lulu, doing her best to bring Bowie back to some kind of earth - the narrative becomes heavier, speedier, more disjointed, more pregnant with dread ("I hear them on the stairs") and the song can barely keep up, since it's falling apart with every new disintegrating barline - if glam is to die, Bowie implies, then here is the underlying, spent ugliness. The song falls apart around him, his guitar sounding more and more alien, more desperate.

But remember that "door that lets me out," and there is something in Bowie's awkwardly assured performance in "Rock 'N' Roll With Me" which gives a greater, if subtler, clue than "1984" as to where he's headed. The plastic Philly romp of "1984" - like a de-fanged "Backstabbers" - could have come from Wakeman's Journey, or, more pertinently, from Jeff Wayne's still-to-be-conceived War Of The Worlds, and Bowie races himself against the ascending bass and 'cello lines only to ram himself repeatedly into a wall built of the feeblest bricks.

The police siren electric piano at "1984"'s fade melts into the synthesised trumpet and rock opera grind of "Big Brother" - five years before The Wall, here's Bowie building glass around himself, wanting both worship and forgetfulness, a steady closedown interrupted only by a forgotten folk fragment from when times were still comprehensible - Bowie yelping "I know you think you're awful square" as though he were still fourteen, before correcting himself, and us, with the codicil "Lord, I think you'd overdose if you knew what's going down." After a high howl of "FOOL!" the backing track steadily falls out of synch; again and again, a music on the verge of collapse, and the only way out is...nowhere, a hell of Klook's Kleek, over and over ("Shake it up!" "Move it up!") which eventually slams into itself and Bowie's barked "BRA BRA BRA BRA" locked groove, that's it, you've eaten me, record off the hi-fi, cut to black, ah fuck off.

Additional notes
Bowie's supposedly suboptimal lead guitar is more punk-anticipating than anything else on or about the album, including the dog's balls; he's got enough to scrape by (and of course has Alan Parker on hand to do all the difficult bits, just like he did with Wakeman's piano on Hunky Dory) and sometimes, as he clearly tells us, scraping is the only sane response to madness, the only upright answer to collapse. Whether he meticulously thought this out is beside the point, and if you even have to think that thought, you're not the sort of person for whom Diamond Dogs was intended.

So why the top-whack session musicians rather than the Spiders? Garson's still there, but otherwise it's Herbie Flowers, Aynsley Dunbar, Tony Newman and the aforementioned Parker; does his hacking of their hackwork parallel Lou Reed's very similar approach (with some of the same musicians) on the same year's Sally Can't Dance (except that proud Lou would never admit or surrender to "technical incompetence," God bless him)? A better parallel might be what Carla Bley did a couple of years later on Dinner Music, where she hired the likes of Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree etc. - the very best to those who think in terms of "very best" - and set them against unruly playing from Bley regulars like Michael Mantler, Roswell Rudd and Carlos Ward (or perhaps "unruly" was hoped for; the record largely fails because everyone's on their best behaviour and it's only on the Carla-herself-dominant "Dining Alone" and "Ida Lupino" that the music peeks out and looks towards further abrasive disruptions of placidity - nineties Arto Lindsay, for instance).

But yes, hack it up, hack glam to death, the fucker's dead anyway and anybody alive in 1974 can see that; give it to those kids on the roof and there you go, a month at the top for a record that in its own way is as fuck-you as Metal Machine Music. But then yet another 1974 record, On The Beach - remember? - with its huge YES to life disguised as a terminal NO and in the end Bowie's going home with the grin, in case you wanted any other part of him; open the exit door next time long will it take us to summon up the nerve?