Friday, 11 March 2011
100 LPs Shortlist #4: "Diamond Dogs" - Bowie
"...And in the death,
As the last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare,
The Shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building,
High on Poacher's Hill,
and red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger city..."
What's a word that means "more epic than epic"? If ever there is one, it is certainly required here.
By 1974, David Bowie was well into a phase of unbridled creativity; turning out wide-screen epic albums that are now regarded as classics. "Ziggy Stardust" (1972) was literally a cinematic concept-story piece full of camp, tension, drama and just plain ol' good times. The songs were great too. "Alladin Sane" (1973) pushed the audience's boundaries by talking about mental illness and introducing elements of avant-garde and Broadway show tunes, but it lacked a unifying focus, despite having a collection of excellent songs. "Pin-ups" (also 1973) was a covers album, and it's mostly a write off.
And then comes this. As soon as the first psychotic howl screeches from the speakers, the listener knows instantly that this record is going to be miles away from the technicolour supernova that "Ziggy" was. "Diamond Dogs" is no less an inspired piece, but it is very bleak in its approach. It's a wild record, but it portrays a very ugly environment.
Rumour has it that this record was supposed to be a musical version of George Orwell's novel "1984". When the Orwell estate denied Bowie permission to model the album around the story line, he took a left turn and created a album depicting some sort of post-decadent, post-apocalyptic, urban dystopian nightmare. Orwell's novel paints a bleak picture of life under the control of Big Brother, but not one as gruesome as this.
Musically, this record is a tour de force, with layer upon shimmering layer of aural detail. The craft that went into this album is very impressive, with most songs linked together without the usual 2-5 seconds of space between them. The only time the "1984" concept comes into play is in the middle of side two when the songs "1984" and "Big Brother" appear. These songs were written for the intended play/concept album before the Orwell Estate denied permission. The rest display a turgid miasma of a story that never really progresses or says anything important. It even doesn't have a lot to do with the original idea as it was intended to be, but really, with music this detailed and well written, who cares? Flaws in the plot could be forgiven in that event.
Chronologically this record ends Bowie's hard rock/glam period. His next LP was a double live LP "David Live" which plunged him headlong towards the plastic neo-soul that would be fully realised on the 1975 LP "Young Americans". In retrospect, songs like "1984" contain a soul feel that would have hinted towards his next direction. But overall, this is Bowie's wild (albeit drug-addled) imagination running amok over 2 sides of a 40 minute LP, and he was rarely this richly diverse and wild ever again.
"...This ain't rock and roll!
This is ... Genocide!!!"
The version of the album presented below includes a bonus track called "Dodo", which was recorded in 1973 but was previously unissued.