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Diamond Dogs
David Bowie

RCA 0576
Released: May 1974
Chart Peak: #5
Weeks Charted: 25
Certified Gold: 7/26/74

David BowieClearly, David Bowie is not the "homo superior" he once claimed and many believed him to be. That claim and belief were based on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, two records of startling genius which will be among the great albums of the Seventies. But since then Bowie has disappointed even his most rabid devotees. Aladdin Sane was frustratingly uneven, Pin Ups was trivial, and now comes Diamond Dogs, perhaps Bowie's worst album in six years.

It would be presumptuous to pretend to explain Bowie's deterioration -- he is a remote man whose mind remains mysterious -- but two considerations are worth entertaining. First Bowie's earlier records did not sell particularly well in the U.S. despite his successes in England, which certainly must rankle so vainglorious a man. And this may have prompted Bowie to hope that if America didn't eat him up when he was good, it might when he was bad.

From Aladdin Sane on, Bowie has tended to pander to what he thinks the public wants and to imitate those who have been more successful than he -- Alice Cooper and Mick Jagger, for instance. He has deliberately cheapened himself and his music.

David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Secondly, as it continues to elude him, Bowie has become more and more obsessed with superstardom and its trappings, which is why he has dropped his forename and now styles himself, in emulation of Garbo and Brando, simply Bowie. Hunky Dory and Ziggy were conceived with care in solitude; since then Bowie's energies have been directed toward stardom at the expense of his music, which he now seems to regard almost with contempt.

Why else would he elect to play lead guitar on Diamond Dogs? Guitarist Mick Ronson was always one of the best things about Bowie and for Bowie to replace him is like Mick Jagger filling in for Keith Richard.

Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust were great because of the challenges they presented. Bowie dared listeners to confront a novel and alien sensibility; dared them to reexamine their smug sexual assumptions; dared them to question their comfortable relation to rock 'n' roll, which had become merely a commodity little different from mayonnaise or aluminum siding. He promised that music could again matter, as it had before Dylan, the Beatles and so many others maundered into what was at once middle age and second childhood. In short, Bowie challenged us and our music, both mired in a deathly complacency, to change:

Look out you Rock'n Rollers
Turn and face the strange
Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older

Bowie was never very specific about the nature of these changes, but at least we saw their necessity, and the proof seemed in the pudding -- in the zest, energy and originality of Hunky Dory and Ziggy. What made the challenge so inviting were Bowie's prodigious talents as a writer, arranger and producer. His best songs were deft, vivid constructions, utilizing all the tricks of the Sixties trade and recharging them with the force of his personality and imagination, pushing them into the Seventies. While Don McLean sang that the music had died and almost every major figure of the Sixties seemed intent upon proving McLean right, Bowie was giving them all the lie.

But unfortunately, it was a lie, for Bowie led his followers into the desert and left them there. No sooner had he turned his back on it and retreated to nostalgia. Aladdin Sane pined for the good old days, "when people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored," and Pinups travestied mid-Sixties pop, "Rebel Rebel," Bowie's most recent single and, typically, a hit in England but not here, is an attempt at a 1964 smash. So much for ch-ch-Changes.

On Diamond Dogs Bowie shouts, "This ain't Rock 'n Roll -- this is Genocide." Suicide is more like it, for it's Bowie, not the listener, who's in trouble. First the guitar: Maybe Bowie plays it himself to get a raunchy, untutored feel the more polished Ronson couldn't capture, but the result is merely cheesy. When debuted on The Midnight Special, "1984" was a powerful song, most of whose strength and sweep Ronson provided. The version on Diamond Dogs, without Ronson, is sickly, and a fluttery string arrangement cannot beef it up. And there's his voice: Once Bowie's high, dry vocals, brittle and angular, were remarkable for their wit, phrasing and credibility. But now he's withdrawn to his anonymous lower register, and when he strays from it he sounds campy and forced, never compelling. Finally, where Bowie's songs used to be signalized by their rich complexity and, simultaneously, their sparkling clarity, Diamond Dogs is at once simplistic and murky. Once heard, the songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy were almost impossible to forget: The melodies were fascinating and sharply defined. But these tracks are muddy and tuneless, and their sloppiness cannot be rationalized as spontaneity.

Diamond Dogs depicts a not-too-distant future in which the remnants of the human race live out their dying days in frantic pursuit of sleazy sex. What seems to interest Bowie here is not the future but the sex. Most of the songs are obscure tangles of perversion, degradation, fear and self-pity, whose nightmarishness occasionally recalls The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie's most frightening album. It's difficult to know what to make of them. Are they masturbatory fantasies, terrified premonitions, or is it all merely Alice Cooper exploitation? Unfortunately, the music exerts so little appeal that it's hard to care what it's about. And Diamond Dogs seems more like David Bowie's last gasp than the world's.

- Ken Emerson, Rolling Stone, 8/1/74.

Bonus Reviews!

I've been re-reading all my Bowie reviews from the last year or two, and they've struck me in retrospect as pretty vicious; granted, I find his personality repellent, and feel that he's been an almost totally negative influence on rock-and-roll. Still, the man did write "All the Young Dudes," and I love that song with a passion. Perhaps I've been unfair. Okay then, I thought, let's try to like David's new album when it arrives. Let's bend over (no quip intended) backwards, in fact.

So I tried. I put Diamond Dogs on, and pushed all preconceptions out of my mind, determined not to let the Bowie personality interfere with my appreciation of a record. Unfortunately, halfway through side one, I had nodded out in my seat. This, my friends, is junk. I hae to admit, I'm surprised. Bowie's earlier work was at least superficially impressive, because, as Nick Kent put it, David has a talent for creating "grandiose, thoroughly vacuous images... without actually transforming them into anything tangible, he simply endows these images with layer upon layer of synthetic sheen, so that one rarely questions their credibility, having been utterly bamboozled by the sheer scope of their superficiality." In other words, he was a master of the kitchen-sink approach, and even if you detested what he was doing, he held your interest, by and large, while he was doing it.

This time out, however, David apparently decided to show us he's a musician as well as a symbol of teenage revolt; so, with Mick Ronson off to pursue a solo career, Dave did all the lead guitar work here (for what it's worth, he's not bad in a primitive sort of way). Unfortunately, it becomes painfully obvious that Ronson, who appeared on all his other albums, was the one with the smarts all along; the arrangements on Diamond Dogs are uniformly blah, and the production (also, for the first time, a one-man job by the artiste) is so restrained as to be non-existent. The songs themselves are merely silly, unless you're impressed by love poems to lizards.

There is, however, one exception to all the above: "Rebel Rebel," as you probably know by now, is a dynamic little piece of catchy Sixties rock-and-roll, and it's sung and played with real conviction and fire. I will resist the temptation to observe that if the Easybeats had done it, it would have been a classic, and simply mention that, sadly, this is a different version from the one RCA has out as a single. That "Rebel Rebel" is shorter, more elaborate, and better done overall -- grab it, and save your $6.98.

Sorry, David, I really tried this time. Too bad, since I was in the mood, that you didn't.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 8/74.

A subtler, more aesthetic Bowie comes to the forefront here. With all new material on the disk, a shift perhaps not as radical as some folks would like, has taken Bowie into areas which should reinforce his musical presence in the 70's. While acoustic instrumentation never shows up, a number of tunes carry the feeling. Both sides blend extremely well for the best overall results. Best cuts: "1984," "Sweet Thing," "Diamond Dogs," "Big Brother," and "Rebel Rebel."

- Billboard, 1974.

I've never been much of a follower of David Bowie, but I must say that his latest album has really interested me. It's got the same kind of futuristic vision that made Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland so loftily eerie, an unsettling combination of fact, fiction and fantasy held together by the generally tight level of musicianship we've come to expect from the Bowie corral of musicians.

Bowie's terrible vision begins with the recitation of the shocking, haunting "Future Legend." Through the "Diamond Dogs" cut the mutated creatures stalk the earth for their prey amidst "Brown Sugar" sax riffs. Then into "Sweet Thing," a kind of back-handed, demented love poem flowing from the perversion of values in Bowie's future society. Onward comes "Candidate," in which Bowie paints the contempt held for his constituency by a plasticized, computerized future politician.

Back to "Sweet Thing," then, for a few bars -- which makes sense, since love and politics have always been intertwined. Then the monstrous "Rebel, Rebel," that incredible single Bowie seems capable of making but once every other year -- successor to "Gene Genie" in terms of commercial marketability and sheer sonic delight.

Flip the record over and it's "Rock 'N Roll With Me," another love poem, though Bowie manages to pervert the poem into something quite unlike love poems before it. Then to the gist of the matter, the self-explanatory "We Are The Dead." After all, didn't Bowie start out this endeavor with the succinct "This ain't Rock 'n Roll -- this is genocide"? "1984," a space age Shaft-like anthem then follows, fleshing out the futuristic society. On its heels comes the annoying "Big Brother," rendered frightening not only by its lyrical content but also by its unnerving mellotron and precise saxophone fills. Then finally, "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family," which is really what's at the center of all this -- the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family unit. The beginning at the end.

I really don't know what to make of this maddeningly enchanting record -- but one thing's for sure, I hope it never comes true.

- Gordon Fletcher, Circus Raves, 9/74.

In which a man who has always turned his genuine if unendearing talent for image manipulation to the service of dubious literary and theatrical gifts evolves from harmless kitsch into pernicious sensationalism. Despite two good songs and some thoughtful (if unhummable) rock sonorities, this is doomsday purveyed from a pleasure dome. Message: eat, snort, and be pervy, for tomorrow we shall be peoploids -- but tonight how about buying this piece of plastic? C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Bowie killed off Ziggy, the character, and The Spiders, his real band, at the end of his '73 UK tour. But this follow-up album simply screams out for Ronson's distinctive style. Returning to the Orwellian theme of his earlier album The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie explores scenes of urban decay and depravity with only the classic single "Rebel Rebel" standing out from the overall pretentiousness of the album.

The sound from Diamond Dogs on CD is muzzy and indistinct in places. Saxophone and cymbals in particular blend and get lost together in a dull wash of sound. None of these tracks has the snap and focus of earlier Bowie albums on CD. Even the single "Rebel Rebel" lacks the expected vocal impact with Bowie's voice being mixed well back in a boxy acoustic.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Mick Ronson and his stinging guitar were gone, as was Bowie's inspiration. Pompous and drenched in doom, it was time for a change, and thankfully, Bowie knew it. The sorry thing is that he still felt it necessary to verify it with the release of this posturing, ill-conceived, and unnecessary album. That said, fairness dictates that the inclusion of "Rebel, Rebel," one of his best songs, be mentioned, and the title track is not without its merits. The Rykodisc reissue contains two bonus cuts: a previously unreleased 1973 track, "Dodo," and the demo version of "Candidate," which is superior to the overproduced vinyl version. The original recording suffered from poor production values, so while the CD's sound is a major improvement, it is still limited by its source. As an added plus, the CD reproduces the original putrid album cover. C

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

An ambitious smudge of an album, it nevertheless contains some standouts in the lean, riff-heavy hit "Rebel Rebel," the fatalistic futurism of "1984" (an early discoish harbinger of his Thin White Duke era), and the title track. * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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