No other figure in classic rock history has gone through as many varied transitions—personally, professionally and artistically—as David Bowie. All throughout his career, but especially during the first half, David Bowie was the king of reinvention. For a large number of his earlier albums, his modus operandi was to create and inhabit a brand new character for each, in order to fully embody and transmit his art in a way that was unprecedented before him. Naturally, he was a fan and pioneer of the concept album, especially when it featured a science fiction-esque theme. For his eighth studio album, 1974’s Diamond Dogs, David Bowie assumed the character of “Halloween Jack”, denizen of the dilapidated Hunger City. What originally started out as a musical based on George Orwell’s paranoid classic, 1984, ended up morphing into one of the strangest and most revolutionary turns in the always inspiring artist’s career.
David Bowie first came up with the idea for a musical based on 1984 while recording his 1973 album, Pin-Ups. However, after being denied the rights to the book by Orwell’s estate, David Bowie was forced to scrap his idea. Nevertheless, he remained fascinated by the concept of a post-apocalyptic world like the one described in the novel. Eventually, David Bowie Diamond Dogs became his own glam-trash expression of such a world, and the songs he had already written for his musical wound up on the latter half of this album, in which the 1984 theme is most prominent.
The album opened with David Bowie howling in his distinctive voice like a wild dog, in keeping with the striking, grotesque and controversial cover art of him stylized as a lean dog with fully visible genitalia. David Bowie described Diamond Dogs as his most political work and his “protest”, so it stood to reason that the last thing he was concerned about regarding his image and sound at that point was making people comfortable. With this album, he succeeded in his quest to both entertain and provoke.
The first track on the album, “Future Legend”, was a spoken word introduction that vividly described an unsettling vision of modern decay. Lyrics such as “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats” evoked an immediate and visceral sense of the post-apocalyptic world the listener was about to enter on the album.
The end of “Future Legend” swung right into the title and titular track, “Diamond Dogs”, which began with the infamous refrain, “This ain’t rock and roll!…This is GENOCIDE!” This was another case of Bowie clearly stating his intentions with this piece. Diamond Dogs was more than just a rock and roll album; again, it was Bowie’s protest. In addition, the album served as his farewell to the glam rock movement that he had been instrumental in launching. On Diamond Dogs, he murdered his old glam rocker self to make room for his next artistic phase.
The next three tracks, “Sweet Thing”, “Candidate” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” were really all part of one epic song suite, some of the most ambitious songwriting Bowie had attempted up to that point. The stream-of-consciousness, William Burroughs-inspired lyrics were hypnotic as they wove in and out of the snaky, intertwined melodies. The moment at the end of “Candidate” when the music went back into the “Sweet Thing” melody for the reprise was, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most sublime moments in Bowie’s catalog.
“Rebel Rebel”, the next track, mainly addressed gender fluidity, especially within the glam rock movement. This song was empowering to those who, as fellow glam rock pioneer Lou Reed put it, “fell between genders.” With iconic lyrics like, “You got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”, “Rebel Rebel” quickly became an anthem and a classic Bowie track.
“Rock n Roll With Me” was notable for being the only song on Diamond Dogs that Bowie didn’t pen all by himself, instead collaborating with musician and friend Warren Peace. This song’s full, rich sound and triumphant yet wistful chorus distinguished it from the rest of the album and served as a wonderful transition into the more directly 1984-inspired songs that followed.
“We Are The Dead” had an unusual, intriguing melody line as well as the feel of being part of a musical, for which it was originally intended, with its ensemble-sounding chorus. Sonically, this song was all over the place, but in a way that was never overwhelming, merely evocative of the oppressive atmosphere that the characters on the album were living in.
The next track, “1984”, was very epic-sounding. Featuring sweeping orchestral arrangements by longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, this song did justice to the iconic novel from which it took its title and inspiration. The wah-wah guitar style that permeates this song was a direct precursor to Bowie’s next musical phase, that of “plastic soul”.
“Big Brother”, the second to last track on the album, is where Bowie finally addressed the notorious villain of 1984, oppressor of the proletariat: Big Brother himself. In this song, Bowie referred to Big Brother as someone who would both save and control his people, not unlike God, who Bowie also evoked on the line, “Lord, I think You’d overdose if You knew what’s going down” when referring to the sorry state of affairs that Halloween Jack’s world had come to.
The last track, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” was a circular, somehow irresistible ear worm that ended on a stuck note, repeating the first syllable of the word “brother” (“bruh”) over and over until finally fading out. The sense of impending doom on this track feels like the inevitable result of the apocalypse Bowie has described throughout the album. Halloween Jack has become surrounded by the ever circling skeletal family: he must join them or die. There were no other options. The repetitive last note seemed almost to express the futility of trying to do anything other than the only thing you could when stuck in a world such as Halloween Jack’s.
Bowie wrote, arranged, produced and performed most of Diamond Dogs himself. He also played his own lead guitar for the first time, contributing to the album’s signature, almost grunge-y sound. At the time, Bowie described the album as “more me than anything I’ve done previously.” Diamond Dogs remains a remarkably complete-feeling album, as well as a fascinating, intoxicating peek inside David Bowie’s head and fitting tribute to the Orwell classic.