Review Summary: The howl of Halloween Jack.Diamond Dogs
is one of the most important albums David Bowie ever released. It captures him at a rather tangled transitional phase - battling with the glam rock splendour of the past, whilst sowing the tentative soul seeds of the future; of which, would come to dominate Young Americans
the following year. Because of its awkward position, Diamond Dogs
is album of many contractions; featuring some of Bowie’s finest moments, but at the cost of a disconcerting listening experience for the consumer.
It’s all rather muddled. It’s a loose concept album based on George Orwell’s seminal 1984
, but said concept falls apart quickly, and is presented in such a fragmented manner that it loses cohesion. Similarly, the music is just as divided, featuring traces of glam set appositionally against funky moments, making for a rather eclectic mix. Yet somehow it all works - the messiness and boiling pot of ideas begins to take shape after one takes sufficient time to make sense of it all, and that‘s when Diamond Dogs
starts to form as a flawed, but wholly intriguing picture.
Bowie committed to a massive decision in choosing to sack the Spiders from Mars band, opting to play guitar and produce himself. In hindsight, it was perhaps a poor and hasty decision, as the absence of Mick Ronson’s phenomenal guitar work is simply a tragedy, no matter how satisfying Bowie’s riffs are on tracks such as ‘Rebel Rebel’. It also serves as a huge indicator of his desire to move from glam into pastures new, and as such, at certain points on Diamond Dogs
, one begins to see the cracks in Bowie’s will to rock n roll.
Further evidence of the transition from rocker to plastic soul man is captured in the superb ‘1984’. Featuring a slippery funk groove and fantastic vocals; its lyrics manage to re-focus the Orwellian narrative, serving as the most clear expression of the album’s supposed concept. Speaking of the 1984
concept; it’s satisfying to know that Bowie used it as a springboard rather than a prop. Although it has a heavy and bleakly Orwellian tone throughout, the lyrics on Diamond Dogs
explore Bowie’s own ideas of post-apocalyptic existence. ‘Future Legend’ sets the scene, with its references to the fictitious and frankly nightmarish ‘Hunger City’, with its ‘Diamond Dogs’ inhabitants - a pack of scavenging caricatures, underpinning the paranoia and violent, drug-riddled fantasies explored throughout.
The composition process was also a crucial step in Bowie’s artistic evolution. It was around this period that Bowie began abusing cocaine to such an extent that his colleagues became worried about his declining physicality and wild personality swings. Reports surfaced of his obsessive, control-freak nature in the studio, where he would scream at those who attempted to speak whilst he was working. It was also the first time he heavily experimented with the ‘cut-up’ writing technique famously deployed by author William Burroughs - a creative process Bowie would return to throughout his career.
Despite the difficulty of transition and Bowie’s recent lifestyle and career choices, Diamond Dogs
boasts some cracking moments. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is a sharp and swaggering rock classic, whilst the title-track opens to one of the genre’s most iconic lines: “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll / This is genocide!”. ‘1984’ and ‘Big Brother’ explore the album’s concept further - the former featuring a nihilistic tale buoyed by a splendid funk groove, whilst the latter bares witness to Bowie’s first stab at the plangent basso profundo
vocal style; which he also deploys on the intertwined trio of ‘Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)’ - each booming with gothic splendour and despondence.
is a messy, conflicting concept marked by a tenuous transition from glam rock to plastic soul, and that’s precisely why it was such a crucial and important record in Bowie’s catalogue. It captured an artist mid-evolution, baring witness to his first steps away from the past, and as such, it remains an intriguing listen. An album of many firsts, Diamond Dogs
features a small platter of sparkling Bowie classics, and even with its flaws, the overall experience shapes up as a fabulous, nightmarish ride through a grim and terrified vision of a dystopian future. Conclusively, this dog’s howls might not be diamond, but where it matters, they’re most definitely still gold.