This is the second of the series of commentaries based on replacing broken video links from much earlier entries. While replacing, “Diamond Dogs,” (Day 121) I found this video, from one of Bowie’s last concerts (this appears to have been from March 2004– his last concert was in June of that year). Here he performs what at that point were two 30+ year old songs, “Diamond Dogs” and “Five Years.”
Both of these songs come from concept albums, both of which are among my favorites. The “Diamond Dogs” albums evolved from Bowie’s idea of an aborted “1984” musical. The song, which is how the album opens, sets the scene of a dystopian future. Unlike some of the other songs, such as “Big Brother,” “We Are the Dead” and “1984,” this one contains no specific references to the George Orwell book and really establishes this vision of the future as Bowie’s, not Orwell’s. The album is Bowie’s last with a leg firmly in the glam era and foretells his brief “plastic soul” period that was epitomized by his following album, “Young Americans.”
In this respect, I think Bowie was marking the inglorious end of a brief but intense period of excess and hedonism. Bowie’s characters burn out in spectacular fashion. Decay and dystopia are ongoing themes for Bowie, but there’s a subtext that the decay is of our own making, and that while nightmarish, the process of going down the drain is nonetheless glorious. The previous song I looked at from this series was, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” from 1999, which is pretty much as explicit an articulation as Bowie had to offer— “they wore it out, but they wore it well.” I would say that was a coincidence, but the theme is so prevalent throughout Bowie’s career that it really wasn’t a coincidence.
If “Diamond Dogs” marked the end of an era, at least for Bowie, the very beginning of that era came with the song her performs next in this set, which was the opening song of, “Ziggy Stardust” and therefore the start of Bowie’s glam period. “Five Years” can stand alone outside the context of the album and it takes something of a leap of faith to connect its theme of pending Armageddon with any kind of story related to Ziggy. But its been done, including by Bowie himself. For me, seen in the context of the entire glam period, “Five Years” kind of asks the question, “what would you do if you knew the world would end in five years?” Bowie’s answer was pretty much everything.
The song paints a picture of chaos in the streets. Its a theme he would pick up again in, “Panic in Detroit,” and “Diamond Dogs” itself.
Bowie had to know that the two songs are kind of linked, yet he chose to perform them in reverse order. Going out on a limb here, I think he’s making a statement about the cyclical nature of rises and falls. Its Frank Sinatra’s, “That’s Life”— “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May…” Empires rise, empires fall. It looks the same seen from reverse order.
This (continues to work) as a metaphor for Bowie’s own life. Periods of excess followed by obliteration, at least for the version of Bowie that existed at the time, followed by reincarnation, which in turn would end, and the cycle would begin again. Ominously, this performance was weeks away from Bowie’s longest period of oblivion. It would be nine, rather than five years before he’d reemerge with, “The Next Day.” And there, even the title of that album (and song) are kind of anticipated by, “Five Years.” What happens the day after that five years is up?
As a side note, pay attention to the role of Gail Ann Dorsey’s backup vocals on both songs. That’s a feature absent from the original studio versions of these songs.