David Bowie was an artist who never stood still in the same place for too long; he was famously continuously evolving his persona and the brand of music that he was perfecting, taking with him taking an arsenal of songs on the wild journey through the music industry. Here, we revisit a performance of ‘Rebel Rebel’ from 1978, one which sees Bowie reimagine the track, elevating it to brave new levels.
The song is a poignant one in Bowie’s career trajectory as it marked the end of his glam-rock style in 1974. Whilst the piece remains a timeless classic, The Starman was a character who never overstayed his welcome at any sonic location. ‘Rebel Rebel’ was his swansong to the genre which had helped him grow into the most exciting artist on planet earth, but, he knew that it was time to flex his artistic muscles once more and move on to pastures new. By 1978, Bowie had completed the Berlin trilogy and had proved that he was much more than your average glam-rocker.
A different person to the one who wrote ‘Rebel Rebel’, this performance in 1978 sees Bowie rearrange the song and turn into a slower number with added soul. The main difference is that the iconic killer guitar riff helps make ‘Rebel Rebel’ such a mighty fine track, but, this version sees Bowie opt to remove it entirely. While on the surface it does rip the heart out of it, Bowie had supernatural skills that meant that it retained a large chunk of its magic even without the special ingredient.
According to Alan Parker, the guitarist on Diamond Dogs track ‘1984,’ the song was a way for Bowie to get one over a famous friend. Parker recalled to Uncut magazine: “He (Bowie) said, ‘I’ve got this list and it’s a bit Rolling Stonesy – I just want to piss Mick off a bit.’ I spent about three-quarters of an hour to an hour with him working on the guitar riff – he had it almost there, but not quite.”
“We got it there, and he said, ‘Oh, we’d better do the middle.’ So he wrote something for the middle, put that in. Then he went off and sorted some lyrics. And that was us done,” he added.
The album cover for Diamond Dogs was another aspect that irritated Mick Jagger. Dutch artist Guy Peellaert painted the artwork and Jagger had previously shown Bowie art that Peellaert had created for the forthcoming Rolling Stones record It’s Only Rock And Roll. The Thin White Duke knew that he needed to recruit Peelaert to design the cover for Diamond Dogs, which was released before The Stones’ forthcoming album, making it look like they had copied Bowie.
Bowie later hilariously gave his take on the incident: “Mick was silly. I mean, he should never have shown me anything new. I went over to his house, and he had all these Guy Peellaert pictures around and said, ‘What do you think of this guy?’ I told him I thought he was incredible. So I immediately phoned him up. Mick’s learned now, as I’ve said. He will never do that again. You’ve got to be a bastard in this business.”
While the situation offered a harsh learning curve for Jagger, this period of time also provided The Starman with an opportunity to reinvigorate himself. This performance of ‘Rebel Rebel’ isn’t quite as thrilling as the fierce original, but neither was Bowie at this point. He was more inclined to show off a more mature side to himself, and this suave and sophisticated version of ‘Rebel Rebel’ provides a snapshot of where Bowie was at in 1978.