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The story of David Bowie’s failed adaptation of George Orwell’s '1984'

“If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor.” – George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” so begins George Orwell’s 1984, which still remains the quintessential dystopian novel. It is a line that sounds undoubtedly like something David Bowie would write, in no small part, due to the fact that he spent a lot of time trying to write his own versions. 

On his 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, Bowie quite clearly signalled the overriding influence of Orwell by writing a couple of tracks entitled 1984 and Big Brother. Tales of dystopia, truth, power and Newspeak ran rife on what is a hugely underrated masterpiece of an album. However, he wanted the take his inspiration a set further. 

Bowie intended to make Orwell’s doomed depiction of the future in a fully-fledged West End musical. The stage show would have an accompanying album and film to go along with it, and, like many fans, I have no doubt it would’ve been a scintillating trio to behold.

Bowie began working away on his multimedia ode to a boyhood hero of his and lifelong obsession. Then, in order to dot the T’s and cross his I’s, he decided to prompt his label into contacting George Orwell’s estate regarding adaptation rights. “My office approached Mrs. Orwell, because I said, ‘Office, I want to do 1984 as a musical, go get me the rights,’” he told David Buckley in the biography Strange Fascination.

“And they duly trooped off to see Mrs. Orwell, who in so many words said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your gourd, do you think I’m turning this over to that as a musical?’ So, they came back and said, ‘Sorry, David, you can’t write it,’” he added. 

This was a rather obvious but unforeseen hurdle for Bowie who had already started working on the project. Thus, he simply cracked on with the two perfunctory tracks and pushed the rest of his work into the copyright-free realm of a contextual undertone. 

His fascination with 1984 started when he just a boy and he found both a strange cognizant kinship and exhilarating escapism in the novel while growing up in suburban Bromley. “You always felt you were in 1984,” he once said. “That’s the kind of gloom and immovable society that a lot of us felt we grew up in… It was a terribly inhibiting place.”

Diamond Dogs was eventually a brilliant product of that 1984 prescient doom and the subversive escapism that rock ‘n’ roll offered away from it, no matter how much it was hindered by Mrs Orwell’s dismissal of a junkie taking on her late husband’s work. 

The copyright for the novel has since expired and entered the public domain, so if there is any chance of unearthing Bowie’s work from his famed vault, then I suggest a producer gets a hold of it right away. Here at Far Out we’d be more than happy to help promote the inevitable masterpiece. 

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