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Week 18 | Diamond Dogs (1974)

Diamond Dogs (1974)

While I am loath to rank my favorite Bowie albums, I have a clear top-three in my head, and this one is #3. As with most Bowie music, the reason for this is that I like the way it sounds. Bowie gives his voice a workout— ranging from highs that had been characteristic of his singing to this point, to lows that he really wouldn’t hit again until much later in his career. Thematically, this is probably Bowie’s most coherent concept album (in the sense that more so than Ziggy Stardust or Outside, this comes nearest to telling a story). It is also both the culmination of the phase of his career that really began with Hunky Dory, the Glam period, and the foreshadowing of albums such as Young Americans and Station to Station that were more comparable with the disco era.

Bowie repeatedly returned to the idea of a dystopian future throughout his career. Especially in the early 70s, Bowie seemed to not only accept the apocalypse as inevitable, but to celebrate it. He seemed to realize that hedonism was destructive, and maybe even a cause of the inevitable breakdown of society, but he embraced and celebrated it (“as they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party). It occurs to me that the world that Bowie viewed at the time may have seemed like it had already broken down and he was simply fictionalizing what he was seeing.

Much of the album is based on George Orwell’s book, “1984.” “We Are the Dead;” “1984;” an “Big Brother” are explicitly so. The title track and “Sweet Thing/Candidate” are thematically connected. As far as I can tell, “Rebel Rebel,” the album’s best known song has nothing to do with the rest of the story, and neither does “Rock ‘n Roll With Me,” except that Bowie’s performance is vaguely ominous.

Bowie usually had a plan for how his albums should be heard. The order he placed his songs was important. This was especially true with Diamond Dogs, which doesn’t adapt well to the age of shuffle. The opening “Future Legend” bleeds into “Diamond Dogs” (but is usually left off compilation albums or radio play). Similarly the closing “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” is a continuation of “Big Brother.” Most annoyingly, my Rykodisc edition breaks “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” into three pieces, as if they were three distinct songs (it is really a song-within-a song, much like “Blackstar”). So many of these songs don’t work well on an iPod playlist, but there’s more of an incentive to listen straight through the whole album (which I frequently do).

I should mention that Bowie employed the, “cut up technique” of inserting random lyrics into his songs on this album. For whatever reason, this was part of its original appeal for me. I have come to think of the randomness as part of the message. Language itself is an illusion of control, but we are not in control of our environment, and our attempt to name things has no impact on those things’ essential nature. As the album progresses, its protagonists celebrate genocide as a rock concert experience, contemplate buying drugs before committing suicide, embrace the inevitability of their demise, then finally submit wholly to Big Brother. Why fight it?

Needless to say, the message of the album is not how I live my life. I don’t think the man who made “Blackstar” while he was dying just gave in to his circumstances, either. Its kind of a fantasy of letting go against the most basic human impulses to live, to think, to love. We want all those things, but its always a struggle.

By the end of the album, Bowie had played out this phase of his career. He literally put an image of himself as a a side-show freak on the album’s (iconic) cover. His next album, “Young Americans,” would feature the first cover image of him that appeared both seductive and plausible heterosexual. I have seen references to Bowie’s character at this point being called, “Halloween Jack,” but “Diamond Dogs” is really the last gasp of Ziggy Stardust (at least on a studio album).

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to introduce a Bowie tribute concert on Buffalo’s Waterfront. My entire introduction employed phrases from Bowie songs in every sentence. And of course I ended by shouting, “This ain’t rock and roll, this is Canal Side!” People who know the album, and Buffalo, got the joke…

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