(Credit: Alamy)

Diamond Dogs: The critical turning point in David Bowie's career

Diamond Dogs is the eighth studio album by David Bowie, released on 24th May 1974. This was the first album without backing band the Spiders from Mars and longtime producer Ken Scott. Consequently, the album embodies a departure for David Bowie. It contains flashes of his previous characters Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, whilst also featuring the new ephemera Haloween Jack, who is introduced on the title track. In what was the last album of Bowie’s in the glam rock vein, the project retrospectively represents the end of his “classic pop period”.

The departure of the Spiders from Mars, and most notably guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Ronson, along with Scott, are two key elements that mark Diamond Dogs out as significant within Bowie’s back catalogue. Ken Scott has since acknowledged that the separation between him and Bowie was necessary as both “needed to work with other people to learn”. This led to Bowie having complete control over production duties, something which has been attributed to the album’s greater scope than its predecessors – in many ways then, this is the first time Bowie used the studio as an instrument.

The absence of Ronson led to Bowie handling the lead guitar on the record, and in 1997, he remembered that after the virtuoso Ronson’s departure: “The guitar playing had to be more than okay,” he said. This led to the album having an original guitar sound. Wonky, surprising and semi-amateurish, it perfectly captures the album as a clean slate and a mesh of disparate Bowie projects.

What was to come after would be the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans (1975), then his glib and controversial Thin White Duke era of 1975-76. Furthermore, Tony Visconti would return to assist in the album’s production. He had not worked with Bowie since the 1970s effort The Man Who Sold The World – subsequently, the duo would collaborate for the remainder of the ’70s.

As well as being a departure, Diamond Dogs is also characterised by Bowie being at a critical juncture in his career, as he was unclear of the direction he was heading in. This is what gives the album its eclectic feel. The decision to depart from the glam rock genre is now regarded as wise, jumping off the ship before it became an embarrassing caricature of itself. However, the album was not and can not be typified as wholly a glam album. Instead, it represents Bowie as a sum of his confused yet liberated parts. For instance, the album contains flashes of funk and soul, something Bowie would fully embrace on Young Americans.

As we have already noted, the album contained hallmarks of his past characters Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, two fleeting yet iconic creations who had publicly been killed off. It also introduces Halloween Jack, although this new character has come to be regarded as nothing more than a cameo, rather than being the centrepiece of the album like his stylistic predecessors.

The title track and ‘Future Legend’ is where he really makes his mark. Jack is said to rule the titular diamond dogs who are “packs of feral kids camped on high-rise roofs, tearing around on roller skates, terrorising the corpse-strewn streets they live above”. Along with the album’s lead single and Bowie’s most-covered track of all-time ‘Rebel Rebel’, these tracks are the extent of Jack’s appearances. 

Thematically, three elements heavily influenced the album’s composition. As seen in the title for the third single ‘1984’, the first of these is evident. Following in the post-apocalyptic, allegorical vein that Aladdin Sane took, parts of Diamond Dogs are influenced by George Orwell’s 1949 magnum opus Nineteen Eighty-Four. Initially, Bowie wanted to produce a theatrical adaptation of the esteemed writer’s novel. However, all efforts were blocked by Orwell’s widow, Sonia, as were anybody else’s until her death in 1980. In fact, ‘1984’ was recorded in January 1973 as part of the sessions for Aladdin Sane, with the paranoia inherent to the predecessor smacking of Orwell’s work.

Consequently, Bowie attempted to write a Ziggy Stardust musical. The chameleonic star envisioned: “Forty scenes are in it and it would be nice if the characters and actors learned the scenes and we all shuffled them around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just performed it as the scenes come out.” Before too long, the project fell through, but Bowie managed to salvage two of its songs: ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me’, and put them on Diamond Dogs.

The other element that heavily influenced the urban, post-apocalyptic panorama were the writings of William S. Burroughs – the title track and ‘Future Legend’ take their cues from his works. In particular, The Wild Boys released in 1971, and its vision of the decay of western civilisation.

David Bowie with eye patch performs Rebel Rebel. (Credit: Alamy)

The album is also significant as it is hailed as a work of proto-punk. In 2015, C. M. Crockford perfectly described it as “the goofy, abrasive place where punk and art-rock meet, dance a little, and depart”. Looking back on the titular pack of feral children, Bowie said: “They were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport… So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way, it was a precursor to the punk thing.” The lyrics from ‘Candidate’ certainly reinforce this proto-punk feel, “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band / Then jump in a river holding hands,” he sings.

In 2016, Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg summarised the album’s array of components, saying it has “manic alternations between power-charged garage rock and sophisticated, synthesiser-heavy apocalyptic ballads”. ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Sweet Thing’ are two of the standout ballads from the album, coloured by a Weimar-Esque cabaret feel and decadence. They are augmented by pianist Mike Garson, who had done the same with the sinister Aladdin Sane.

Ultimately, Diamond Dogs makes for an eventful yet rewarding listen. Musically, it feels as if a Terry Gillam film looks, off-kilter and whacky, but a work of art nonetheless. It represents Bowie honing his craft and departing from the transient, glam inspired part of his career. On the next album Young Americans, released in 1975, Bowie would take off in the soul direction he teased on Diamond Dogs, representing his total break from glam. 

After Young Americans, the next character Bowie would assume, the Thin White Duke, was to become marred by drugs, racism and a paranoid obsession with the occult. Whilst it would give us the classic Station to Station a year later in 1976, it would lead to Bowie fleeing to Berlin to clean up and recording the iconic Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. This truly set him off on his path to a commercial and critical success he had never seen before. 

In many ways, Diamond Dogs was the start of Bowie as a true solo artist. The album is a sonic embodiment of this critical juncture in his career. If he had quit at this point, there can be doubt he would not have been regarded as the legend we see today. Afterwards, he streamlined, honed his craft, cast off the chains of the past and moved into the future (maybe not in his political views though).

Listen to ‘Diamond Dogs’ below.

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