Bowie – Diamond Dogs
By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2019. No part of this site may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
Diamond Dogs was a strange, dark and mystifying album. As a fifteen-year-old in 1974, I approached this without many preconceptions. I was not entirely in the dark, having grown up in the shadow of Bowie’s changes. I devoured every interview that he had ever done, talking about Kubrick, Genet, Burroughs and Orwell. Bowie was a god in 1974. The teens of the 1970s could always anticipate a masterpiece that would transport us to another time and place – and Bowie would always teach us something. He gave us Kabuki, Mishima, Genet, Gitanes, Huxley, Dada, Schiele, Krautrock, The Velvet Underground, Warhol, outer space, Isherwood’s Berlin… ‘Let all the children boogie.’
I knew the exact number of milliseconds between each gap between songs on every album and really miss hearing them in their intended order like a symphony – which is now impossible with current music formats. Diamond Dogs was one long continuous piece to be experienced all at once. I can still recall staring at the revolving orange label of the RCA dynaflex album!
My story about RCA’s dynaflex Vinyl
Dreaming of Orange
If you can’t find humor in the dismally disturbing themes on Diamond Dogs (from Bowie’s aborted Orwell musical) you certainly can find it on the album cover! I was listening to my radio during Math class, as usual. The DJ was about to play something from the new Bowie album. He said that Bowie was half man / half dog on the cover. I screamed so loudly that everyone in the class turned around. I could not wait one more minute to see this. The cover was more insane than I had imagined! David looked so freaky and beautiful at once! Maybe, for a split second, he made us contemplate bestiality! It was a fantastic drawing! Only he could pull off this canine countenance! Of course, he got the idea elsewhere – specifically the stunning Josephine Baker photo in which she poses as her pet cheetah, claws out.
Bowie is depicted on the cover as an anatomically correct canine chimera – the central figure in a freak show. The genitals were later censored and airbrushed. The image was based on Bowie’s own drawings and a photo session by Terry O’Neill. The dogs behind him depict Coney Island freak show performers from the Cavalcade Variety Show, The Turtle Girl (Alzoria Lewis) and The Bear Girl (Johanna Dickens).
The work was commissioned by David from Belgian artist Guy Peellaert whom he secretly nabbed after seeing the artist’s painting for the Rolling Stones album It’s Only Rock N’ Roll. Peellaert’s book of rock star illustrations Rock Dreams in 1973 was also admired by Bowie and the Stones.
Peellaert’s painting for the Rolling Stones album cover is an interpretation of the photo below, depicting Hitler and his troops descending a staircase surrounded by his minions. The Stones, in the same scenario are surrounded and feted by beautiful Grecian maidens. Jagger felt the need to pal around with Hitler’s cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl that year (creator and director of the iconic Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will). Peellaert later designed the movie poster for Paul Schrader’s film Taxi Driver in 1977 with an illustration of its star, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle – a character who wanted to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ of the degenerated New York City.
David adapted his new matador look (which was to adorn the gatefold sleeve) from the flamenco rock band Carmen who appeared on his 1973 American TV special The 1980 Floor Show (a pun on Orwell’s book ‘1984’ which Bowie wanted to make into a stage play). Instead, a photo montage of a city by Leee Black Childers was used.
Read my interview with Carmen: Do The Fandango – The Story of Carmen
Diamond Dogs was purely a Bowie creation. Who would he be now? Mick Ronson was gone – and where were the Spiders? We were not given much information – no liner notes or lyric sheet. All I recognized was the tinkling of Mike Garson’s piano, Bowie’s gorgeous vocals and some strange effects. Mostly scratchy guitar and sax that he claimed to have played. Almost all of the tracks had string arrangements. Several songs were synthetically orchestrated with futuristic sounds that have since become much more familiar to us.
This lyrics were basically composed by Edward Scissorhands. This cut-up method of writing borrowed from Bryon Gysin and William Burroughs led to fragmented kaleidoscopic themes – all jumbled and cryptic. We made sense of them somehow, deciphering them in our bedrooms – sometimes alone or with a cherished friend.
This is a rare Bowie album. It’s more like a painting – broad strokes illustrating a society rather than individual characters. The songs are not about isolation or alienation this time. They are about a depraved populace begging for salvation via control. David had virtually become the cracked actor he sang about on Aladdin Sane the previous year. A documentary film of the same name illustrated his frail mental and physical state (which inspired director Nicholas Roeg to cast him as an alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth three years later). Rather than trying to decipher Bowie’s code, I allowed the imagery of the lyrics and the mood of the sounds to set the scene.
The scored poem ‘Future Legend’ sets the stage of Hunger City. Eerie howls and a soaring guitar cry beneath Bowie’s narration, evoking a creepy place and time. The air is foggy (because fog had to rhyme with dog?) with hues of puke green and murky mustard yellow. The buildings are dripping with blood (as David depicted them in his lavish stage set for the tour). Street gangs, wild packs of dogs and other cannibalistic animals run rampant. Everything is oversized, bloated, mutant and indulgent. ‘Fleas the size of rats/rats the size of cats’. It is overpopulated with peoploids (not entirely human) coexisting with robotic devices / assistants that would seem primitive to us now. There is no middle class – only rich and poor. Smashing glass storefronts, the gangs steal from the rich. ‘Mink and shiny silver fox, now leg warmers.’ Riches to rags. The opening track ‘Future Legend’ begins and ends;
And in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare…
This ain’t rock n’ roll / This is genocide!
Collage art by Leee Black Childers:
The Diamond Dogs are evil street urchins – like Kubrick’s Droog-like street gangs who are transplanted from Suffragette City to Hunger City. The youth whom Ziggy Stardust had warned about their future. These were the dudes who carried the news – now grown, corrupted and vicious. The news was never good. Suicidal Billy, stealing clothes from Marks & Sparks, juvenile delinquent wrecks. The future is hopeless. Halloween Jack is the gang leader of these decadent freaks. His girlfriend is a featureless woman boasting a Dali broach – surreal. Sapphire and cracked emerald.
Bowie had originally scribbled the title of ‘Future Legend’ as ‘Fugue for the Dude’.
“‘All the Young Dudes’ is a song about this news.
It’s no hymn to the youth, as people thought.
It is completely the opposite.”
– David Bowie
(Meanwhile in London, impresario Malcolm McLaren was rounding up his own band of Droogs after his faux pas of molding the New York Dolls into a gang of Commie trash in red patent leather. He was more successful with The Sex Pistols. They were more anarchic, more real. They were the Diamond Dogs incarnate! Future Legend? / No future!)
Bowie later described the Diamond Dogs:
“…all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller-skates with huge wheels on them, and they squeaked because they hadn’t been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way, it was a precursor to the punk thing.”
Tod Browning’s film Freaks (1932) was a huge influence. In the film, the mistreated circus freaks band together, form a vicious gang and rise up. This union of freaks was actually a more normal and healthy society – fighting for their right to be treated humanely. In Hunger City (a place far worse than Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) a sick and lost herd yearns for a leader to subjugate them – like animals.
Someone to claim us, someone to follow / Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you / We want you Big Brother.
Any day now…
Bowie’s previous ‘end of the world’ time frame was ‘Five Years’. As Ziggy Stardust, he warned us of this in 1972 – bringing us exactly to 1977 when Punks ruled the streets. And what was Bowie doing at that time? He was immersed in Krautrock. He had already morphed into the Thin White Duke, recorded Station to Station, played the part of an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and began recording Low, then Heroes (besides two albums with Iggy Pop). He was already far removed from Hunger City and Diamond Dogs, although it had only been three years.
On Diamond Dogs, the futuristic apocalypse was only ten years away. He sang of ‘1984’ in 1974, referring to the George Orwell story. But this could be any time, any place. London? New York City? Hollywood? Berlin?
London was suffering power cuts, inflation and most importantly to us, a vinyl shortage! New York City was a very dangerous place – drug infested, bankrupt and in decline. Bowie would soon deteriorate due to the evils of California and not too much later, he would find solace and a creative spark in post-war Berlin.
The wild audience sound at the start of the Diamond Dogs album is actually from the live Faces album Coast To Coast – Overture and Beginners. You can hear Rod Stewart shouting, “Hey!” after the guitar riff starts.
After the place and time are introduced in ‘Future Legend’ the album begins with one of the only two rockers on the album. On the heavily Rolling Stones-influenced opening track ‘Diamond Dogs’ Bowie sings falsetto ‘Wooo hoo hoo hoo hoo, (beware of the Diamond Dog)’. Four years later, Mick Jagger sings the same in ‘Miss You’. The lyrics describe an extremely depraved, violent and decadent street gang. As part of this ‘Year of the scavenger’ Bowie even does some barking and uses another canine word (with an alternative meaning) in the phrase ‘Season of the bitch’. Another warning, ‘There’s gonna be sorrow.’ And there’s the graffiti gang tag line,
Diamond Dogs rule, OK
The use of the phrase ‘…rule, OK’ allegedly originated in the 1930’s among Glasgow ‘Razor Gangs’. Rival gangs were known to scrawl on each other’s turf with the graffiti tag phrase, ‘(Gang name) Rules, OK?’ during disputes over territory. The ‘OK’ is a definitive declaration to convey that there is no negotiation regarding the supremacy of the gang (or team). This graffiti tag phrase was re-popularized regarding favorite sports teams beginning in the mid-1970s
The epic ‘Sweet Thing’/’Candidate’/’Sweet Thing (Reprise)’ suddenly appears as the second track. This is a bit weighty to take on so soon, especially after such a bombastic opening rocker. This is a beautifully soulful, jazzy cinematic suite with some nice crooning by Bowie, tinkling keyboards and a sublime gut-wrenching guitar solo. A cryptic tale of danger in a dark city of hustlers in trench coats huddling in doorways and hiding their forbidden love. And a hint of suicide.
‘When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces…
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band / Then jump in the river holding hands’
Within the imagery of this hellish landscape (not unlike the ‘no future’ situation in London at the time) David includes a wonderful pop rocker for young rebels with a killer riff – You’ve got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl… The Stones-like ‘Rebel Rebel’ – a pop tune about teens in the 70s would fit right in on their album of the era, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll. The single version is much punchier – with a flanging effect and several added ‘la la la las’.
Side Two starts with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’ – a gorgeously soulful anthemic ballad. This is the only personal song on the album – outside of the storyline. Bowie sings about his unique relationship with his fans. It’s one of my favorite Bowie songs. Donovan recorded a beautiful cover of this the same year, true to David’s original.
When you rock and roll with me
No one else I’d rather be
Nobody down here can do it for me
I’m in tears again
When you rock ‘n’ roll with me
Listen (Donovan): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRSfgYJG7rc
‘We Are The Dead’ is another beautifully strange echoing ballad featuring Garson’s treated piano and Bowie’s wonderful voice. In parallel with the Orwellian ‘1984’, prostitution and true love co-exist despite both being forbidden in this horrible place and time. As in ‘Life on Mars?’ Bowie references a cinematic experience, this time reality itself is on the screen.
We’re today’s scrambled creatures
locked in tomorrow’s double feature…
The song ‘1984’ borrows from disco and funk – with its Barry White influence and Isaac Hayes Shaft styled strings. Instead of being about fun and dancing, the lyrics are a dire warning;
Beware the savage jaw / of 1984
Bowie somehow knew that his future would be funky! These soulful sounds foreshadowed his abrupt switch to soul music in the middle of the Diamond Dogs live tour, and on his next album Young Americans.
On ‘Big Brother’, trumpets herald a non-human savior – perhaps another ‘Saviour Machine’. The fanfare is punctuated by a strange acoustic singalong. Lushness returns with Bowie’s sincere and desperate falsetto at the end, ‘Someone to fool us -someone like you.’ Begging to be controlled. Paranoia in a glass asylum.
‘Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family’ evokes a horrific cinematic ambiance – especially the simultaneous chanting of the words ‘Brother’ and ‘Riot’ at the end of ‘on the album, endlessly echoing and circling around in our headphones. The track is only two minutes long , but it seems like an eternity. And this is what he leaves us with.
Here is a cool cover version of ‘Chant…’ by a band called The Wedding Present.
My story: Diamond Dogs – The Unmade Film
© Madeline Bocaro 2019. No part of the materials available through madelinex.com may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Madeline Bocaro. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Madeline Bocaro is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without prior written permission of Madeline Bocaro.