The literally Orwellian Diamond Dogs seemed to signal the last gush and gasp of glam that David Bowie had in him. The album also suggested where the messianic leper would go next after he broke up the band. His sparkling bonds were cut, allowing him to branch out into vastly different territory and slough his old identity while developing a new one. His brand new identity, essentially a work in progress until it came to full bloom on his next album, Station to Station, appeared on the cover of Young Americans: face free from lightening bolts and lipstick; and shot in soft focus like a yesteryear Hollywood starlet.
On Young Americans, Bowie sheds the persona of the extraterrestrial glam rock androgyne genie, slipping into the swank garb and glitzy song stylings of Philadelphia soul. This sudden change in identity was dubbed an exercise in plastic soul—a term that can be taken either as a pejorative or a fitting label for the lovingly rendered pastiche. Bowie fills his ranks with seasoned sessioners including Sly and the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark, Aladdin Sane pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Throughout Young Americans, the fashionable young dude and his spiderless band slink and groove, shuck and jive, dancing all the while to aural mirrorballs and the hazy glistening of city and stage lights.
One of the albums two high-profile collaborators was a then unknown Luther Vandross. Thanks to a friend in a theater workshop, Vandross got to sing back-up vocals during Bowie’s theatrical Diamond Dogs tour, which later evolved into the Philly Dogs tour when songs off Young Americans were incorporated into the shows. Vandross takes backing vocals on Bowie’s full-foray into soul and also co-wrote the funky “Fascination.” The other collaborator was John Lennon whom Bowie met at a party thrown by Elizabeth Taylor. The two got on well and wound up recording a cover of “Across the Universe” and “Fame” for the album, the latter of which Lennon co-wrote.
“Young Americans,” the title opener, bounds and swaggers, carried by David Sanborn’s sax, Garson’s piano and the percussion of Pablo Rosario. Bowie croons about love and a mythic image of Americana that seems to have disappeared, one full of motorcar makers and sticky fumblings in a backseat behind a bridge (or “fridge” if you go by some misprinted lyric sheets). There are some memorable lines in mix including the evocative youth/adulthood juxtaposition, “We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?” and the always fun “ Well, well, well, would you carry a razor / In case, just in case of depression?” After the “A Day in the Life” reference from the back up singers, “Young Americans” builds and builds over a series of questions, culminating in the impassioned line, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” The story goes that when singing the song at a Giants Stadium show, Bowie cut the lyric short (“Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…“) before collapsing on stage and laying still for 10 minutes. Bowie was okay, but he just wanted to see what reaction he would get. The crowd went nuts.
The jaunty “Young Americans” is followed by “Win,” a song slow and sensual with flourishes like a migrating monarch’s fluttering wings thanks to Sanborn’s sax licks. With its soul-saturated backing vocals and lazy, sleepy feel, it’s a song best suited for dancing soft and slow, hip to hip, cheek to cheek or brow pressed to brow. “Can You Hear Me” is similarly suited for the same kind of touchy feely slow dancing while “Right,” slinkly and sexy and saxed-up, is suited for things best done behind closed doors and shuttered windows.
Also made for making the two-backed beast is the feverish “Fascination,” propelled predominantly by the instrumentation rather than the lyrics. Bowie’s vocals are mostly dominated by the song’s disco groove and the screeches and squeals of saxophone. Even Bowie’s backing vocalists are often more prominent than his own admissions of infatuation and feverish need. “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” however, takes a saintlier road and features the best arranged backing vocals on the album. Vandross soulfully hoots and sways and soars along with Bowie while Sanborn returns to the spotlight with his perfectly placed peals and punctuations.
The cover of “Across the Universe,” on which Lennon played guitar, lacks the delicate prettiness and yogic mantra of The Beatles’ version, but it has its own strange pull thanks to the sheer bravado of Bowie’s vocal delivery. It is a bit overwrought, overbearing and over the top, but therein lies the cover’s charm. The repeated growls of “Nothing’s going to change my world” as the song closes lend the Bowie version a much more aggressive feel than the beatific original.
“Fame” serves as a stomping, funky, dancey and ultimately catchy closer to Young Americans. In his first U.S. chart topper, Bowie croons and howls, shifting between falsetto squawks and bellowing half-shouts while picking at the shallow interests of cult of celebrity and the dissatisfaction of the famous. Given our vapid and vacuous obsessions with celebrity culture and those in the spotlight, “Fame” is still a timely song even though it’s rooted deep in the swank slink of the ’70s. It’s hard not to sing along, even if only to blurt out a squeaky but well-placed “fame.”
Alomar based his guitar part for “Fame” on the song “Foot Stomping Pt. 1” by 60s R&B outfit The Flares. James Brown, who Alomar did some work with, would steal the riff (and pretty much all the instrumentation) for the song “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” This blatant lifting led Alomar to state he wanted to sue the Godfather of Soul. Lennon added his own spin to “Fame” thanks in part to a series of jam sessions in which he played rhythm guitar and his own discussions with Bowie on the nature of celebrity. The apocryphal tales concerning the song’s origin state that 1) Bowie wrote the lyrics in five minutes after Lennon said it was easy to write a good song quickly and 2) that the song was originally titled “Aim” until Lennon muttered something about fame.
One of the last songs to be recorded and included on the album, it remains one of Bowie’s most instantly recognizable works. Relatively recently, “Fame” was mentioned in Brian K. Vaughan’s critically acclaimed comic book series Y: The Last Man, two of the story’s characters trading off the lines “bully for you” and “chilly for me” and subsequently becoming smitten with one another. Bowie played “Fame” and well as “Golden Years” on Soul Train in November of 1975, joining the handful of white performers to play on the show. To date, that list also includes The Beastie Boys, Elton John, The Captain and Tennille and, of course, Michael Bolton.
It’s more than a bit prophetic that even when Bowie chided what fame makes people lose that he himself was about to fall prey to the chic yet savage lure of cocaine. He’d lose some time thanks to lost weekends and lose some face thanks to some comments on National Socialism. It’s also rather ironic that after his fond words in favor of fascism, his albums that followed would be rooted in Berlin. So yes, there was still a spacey and adventurous time for Bowie as he pulled out of the Stardust station, odd things ahead, pretty little things, and maybe all we have to blame is fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Marc Bolan & T. Rex – Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow
The Delfonics – The Delfonics
James Brown – Hell