20. Young Americans

young americans

Young Americans” is David Bowie’s 9th studio album and was originally released on 7 March 1975.

Now we’re reached the Top 20, the quality of album is really starting to crank up.

By mid 1974, Bowie was creeping ever deeper into a rather dark place with massive international fame not being quite what he hoped it to be. With the gruelling “Diamond Dogs” tour and the pressures of outrageously complex theatrical nightly performances, with relationships with both his wife and his manager quickly deteriorating and on a famous diet consisting of just milk, peppers and cocaine, Bowie was both skeletal and barely coping. This was all so well documented in the brilliant “Cracked Actor” BBC documentary (watch it here).

In this environment, it’s extraordinary that Bowie decided to change his musical direction so radically from the “Glam Rock” genre that Bowie had mastered so well to the disco, black influenced “plastic soul” that was the “Young Americans” album. It was the first time while in a position of fame that Bowie decided to take such a dramatic change of musical direction and while this started his unique reputation of being the “Chameleon of Rock”, it’s easy to forgot how much professional courage such an undertaking  would have required. It could so very easily have backfired resulting in critical ridicule and the mass abandonment from his legion of fans. The fact Bowie succeeded in producing such a fine album that was a huge commercial success, especially in the tough American market where the album reached the Top 10 is a testament to the musical genius that is Bowie.

Recorded primarily during a break in the “Diamond Dogs” tour at the famous Sigma Sounds studio in Philadelphia, USA, Bowie himself described his new album somewhat derogatory as “Plastic Soul”. In truth it was anything but “plastic” or “fake” having garnered a group of highly talented (mainly) black musicians that injected a high degree of authenticity into the new album.

The only musician to survive from previous albums was pianist Mike Garson, although this would be his last album with Bowie for nearly 20 years. The album introduced a relatively unknown Puerto-Rico guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would work with Bowie for the majority Bowie’s future albums. On bass and drums were the very well respected session musicians Wellie Weeks and Tony Newmark respectively and on saxophone, the then almost unknown David Sanborn who would bring such a rich sound to the album. The impressive cast doesn’t end there. Backing vocalists included Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and a then almost unknown Luther Vandross.

Bowie would record two tracks later on in New York at the Electric Lady Studios when he got together with the one and only John Lennon, where two more highly important Bowie musicians were first introduced, Earl Slick on guitar and Dennis Davis on drums.

One other key ingredient to add into the mix was Tony Visconti, who after helping to mix the previous “Diamond Dogs” album, was reunited with Bowie for his second spell as album producer and in this case also studio engineer during the Stigma Sounds sessions.

With such an amazing cast of musicians and with the unique writing ability of David Bowie, a great album was almost guaranteed. Bowie loved “black” music that was dominating much of the US music scene at the time and wanted to create his own version of the Philly Sound, Motown, Soul Train, black styled music. He succeeded wonderfully and created one of the first white “disco” albums, before the likes of The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band,etc. made it hugely mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong, “Young Americans” is a wonderful album, but for a couple of key reasons I rate this as my least favourite album of Bowie’s unbelievable 70’s output. Music is a funny thing and much comes down to personal preferences and it’s just that disco/soul however you want to label it, is just not my favourite style of music, especially when it comes to Bowie. As much as I enjoy this album, I simply enjoy all the other Bowie albums to come in my rankings just that bit more. Additionally, there are a couple of tracks that brings down the album overall from what it could have been and that’s all it takes to be rated lower than the awesome competition.

The album kicks off with one of Bowie best known songs, the title track “Young Americans“. Describing the struggles of a young couple in post-Nixon USA, the joyous musical arrangement belies the hard hitting lyrics. Like much of the album, the track is basically recorded live in the studio and gives the song a wonderful vibe and feel that is perfectly captured by Visconti. The funky groove is fabulous as is Sanborn’s sax and with Bowie fast-flowing lyrics, this really is a classic track. The highlights for me though are the re-use of Lennon’s famous line “I heard the news today, oh boy” and the wonderful climax “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?“. This was released as the lead off single and became Bowie’s first top 20 US hit. No wonder really. There was no official video for this, although Bowie’s performance on the “Dick Cavett Show” is a good substitute. See it here.

young americans single cover

The next track “Win” is my favourite offering here. It’s a truly wonderful song, with Sanborn’s sax a particular highlight. It’s slower, more mellow and less wordy than much of the album and has a feel that reminds me somewhat of the “Station To Station” album to come. Bowie’s vocals move from tender to downright ominous as he sings “Someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires“.  This track along with the next (“Fascination”) were both recorded later in the year at the Record Plant studios in New York to in theory complete the album and so has a slightly different feel. I’ve always loved this track and as they say is worth price of admission alone.

Fascination” comes next with that funky groove in full swing and with Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar dominating throughout. Co-written with Luther Vandross and recorded in New York, the vocal arrangements with Bowie following the backup vocals during the chorus is particularly catchy.  “I know people think I’m a little crazy” does rather sum up Bowie’s experiences in the US. It’s a solid all-round track that is typical of the sound that Bowie was after with this album.

Right” is a mellow track with Bowie in fine form vocally but the unfortunate backing vocalists really struggled with the odd-ball time signatures and in-out timings (as documented on both the “Cracked Actor” and “Five Years” BBC documentaries). It’s one of my less preferred tracks although when it swings through the motions during the second half of the song, it does have a hypnotic feel. Perhaps because it was so difficult to record, this is one of those rare Bowie originals that has never been performed live.

Somebody Up There Likes Me” which opens side two in many ways is the centre-piece of the album and perfectly encapsulates the album, with it’s smooth yet funky guitar driven arrangements, catchy backing vocals, Bowie’s cool delivery and with Sanborn’s sax floating over everything. The blue-eyed soul boy at his best.

Across The Universe” is where things go very wrong. In early 1975, Bowie teamed up with John Lennon and decided to record a few tracks together at the Electric Lady studios in New York. This track is one of the results of their collaboration, a cover of Lennon’s/The Beatles classic and it just doesn’t work and it just doesn’t fit within the theme of the album. It’s bland and boring with the real tragedy being that much much better tracks were dropped to make room for this. I can only imagine Tony Visconti’s shock at hearing that this song (which would have made a perfect B-side to “Fame”) meant “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” had to be dropped from the album. If not for this track, this album would likely have been rated a few notches higher, it’s that close.

Can You Hear Me” is one of the weaker tracks on the album, a ballad with a much more simplistic arrangement and featuring Bowie’s least impressive vocal performance. It’s just one of those tracks that I’ve never got into and adds weight for this to be Bowie’s least impressive 70’s era album.

Fame” is the second track to be included from the Lennon sessions and is altogether a different story. Here, Visconti can’t argue that this fully deserves it’s place on the album. Featuring a killer guitar line by Alomar (based in turn on “Foot Stompin” which Bowie had been unsuccessfully working on) and Lennon’s high pitched “Fame” backing vocal, this has become one of Bowie most loved treasures. Detailing Bowie’s disappointment having finally achieved fame, the use of multi-speed vocals is brilliant and classic Bowie. Released as the second single off the album, it achieved No 1 status in the US (Bowie’s first), one of the very few singles to chart higher in the US than in the UK where it only reached a relatively disappointing 17. Bowie no doubt thrilled to work with his hero Lennon would rank this as one of his favourite songs, with it being the song he would perform live the most throughout his career. Bowie also re-mixed “Fame” in 1990 for the movie “Pretty Woman” which had a rather excellent video. Again, there was no official video for the original “Fame”, although Bowie’s humorous, poorly lip-synced performance on Soul Train (the first white performer to feature) has become the unofficial video. Fame 90 Video.

fame

So an overall fine album, especially if you’re a fan of disco or black soul based music, but with one particular weaker moment.  And a brave album, when you consider the glam rock genre that had been Bowie’s ticket to stardom and success up to that point. But Bowie hadn’t really cracked the US as he had the UK, with glam rock just not something that appealed to enough of the market there. So a brave but also an astute move of Bowie’s by predicting the success of disco and creating an album that would ultimately appeal to a much wider audience in the market he most craved to break.

The album has been re-released a number of times, with some worth a mention.

In 1991, it was re-released and remastered on CD as part of the superb Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision series where most of the reissued albums featured bonus tracks. With the “Young Americans”, these were:

Who Can I Be Now” the first of the two tracks dropped from the original album listing to make room for the Lennon tracks. A rather nice ballad, featuring Mike Garson’s piano more predominately than elsewhere, Sanborn’s ever present sax and some wonderful backing vocal melodies, this is soooo much better than “Across The Universe”.

It’s Gonna Be Me” is another ballad with an upfront piano based arrangement, it features Bowie’s crooning, coke-cracked vocals at its best, but overall it doesn’t quite do it for me. The whole thing comes across as a little flat and is the most “plastic” of Bowie’s tracks recorded for “Young Americans”.

John, I’m Only Dancing Again” was recorded during these sessions and was originally planned to open the album before finally being dropped. A totally reworked version of Bowie’s glam classic “John, I’m Only Dancing”, only the chorus lyrics remain while the rest is transformed into a hip, disco driven funky jive 7 minute marathon. In the context of the album, it works rather well, but give me the original Ziggy versions anytime. This new version had previously seen the light of day when released as a single in 1979, the full version on 12” inch.

john-im-only-dancing-again

In 2007, a Special Release version of the album was re-issued again, this time including a DVD with a wonderful new 5.1 surround sound remix which gives the album a new lease of life.

In 2016, the album featured in the box set “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)“, which also included a version of “The Gouster“, the original name for the “Young Americans” album, with the original track listing from just the first Sigma Sound sessions. It’s a nice to have although there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been previously released.

who can i be now boxset

Bowie wouldn’t officially tour the album, although when he resumed the US only “Diamond Dogs” tour, it was totally revamped with all the complex sets discarded for a more intimate live experience re-badged as “The Soul/Philly Dogs” tour which did feature some of the new material. The LA performances from this part of the tour was released for the 2017 Record Store Day on the excellent triple LP “Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)”  which included both “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “John, I’m Only Dancing Again”. It has since been released on CD.

cracked actor lp

As I mentioned earlier, two fantastic BBC documentaries capture Bowie superbly during this important period. The first “Cracked Actor“, filmed in 1974 during the recording of the album in-between the Diamond Dogs tour is a simply stunning insight into Bowie at the time, struggling to cope with fame, LA and drugs. Cracked Actor Link. The second one is “Five Years“, in which five formative years are discussed in detail, including the 1974-75 period and the recording process for “Young Americans”. “Five Years Link“.

Many regard this as one of Bowie’s very best albums but for me, there are many more albums that I prefer. While enduring a coked-out hellish existence in LA, Bowie would refine the “soul boy” sound on his next album but add a layer of European influenced electronica to create a truly special masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame

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23. Tonight

bowie tonight

Tonight” is David Bowie’s 16th studio album and was originally released on 1 September 1984.

After the incredible commercial success of both the “Let’s Dance” album and the “Serious Moonlight” world tour, Bowie was under some pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up album. Soon after the tour completion, Bowie hit the studio (Le Studio, Quebec) with much of the same band from the “Let’s Dance” sessions and recorded the oddity that is “Tonight”.

There were a few key changes to the “Let’s Dance” personnel. Nile Rodgers was replaced as producer by Derek Bramble who in turn was replaced during the sessions by Hugh Padgham (well known for his previous work with The Police). Rumour has it Bowie wasn’t happy with how the album was progressing under Bramble and grew tiresome of being asked to sing extra takes when the first one was perfectly OK.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was also gone (he left Bowie acrimoniously before the “Serious Moonlight” tour), replaced on guitar with Derek Bramble and the return of Carlos Alomar. In attendance also was Iggy Pop, who’s writing would feature so predominantly on the album, although he only officially sang co-vocals on the one track.

With most musicians the same, “Tonight” has a similar feel and sound to the monster album that was “Let’s Dance”, which of course was Bowie’s intent. Unfortunately, one gets the distinct feeling that Bowie was more concerned with simply getting something “out there” for the masses to consume, rather than working on an artistic masterpiece as was his norm. Remarkably, he only wrote four new songs for the whole album (the other five tracks were covers) with two of the new tracks co-written with Iggy Pop. In fact Iggy Pop with five writing credits has almost as many writing contributions as Bowie himself.

Of the three EMI 80’s solo albums, “Tonight” is my personal favourite for the simple reason it has a number of tracks that are so much better than found elsewhere in the trilogy, although this album certainly suffers from a few “weaker” moments.

The album opens with “Loving The Alien“, which is an absolutely beautiful, stunning track, one if his best moments of the whole 80’s period. On the subject of religious hypocrisy and conflict, it’s classic Bowie in that the orchestration is eerie, catchy, beautiful and mournful all at the same time. I distinctly remember when I put this album on the turntable for the very first time in my bedroom all those years ago thinking, wow this is going to be a totally amazing album. Sadly, this is the standout best song until we hit the last track. Which is a little frustrating because you can’t but help think what if Bowie only put in the same energies into every track on the album. This was released as the 3rd single off the album and featured one of the very best videos he’s made (and he’s made lots of good ones) full of religious and alien juxtaposition imagery. It’s a must watch. Music Video.

loving the alien

Next comes a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down“, off his excellent “New Values” album. Bowie transforms the song into an almost reggae piece, likely a Hugh Padgham influence. There are worse covers on this album, but this version doesn’t quite work. The problem with Bowie doing Iggy is that what makes Iggy work is his raw energy and without that, one is often left with just the skin and bones of the song. I often wish Bowie had covered instead “The Endless Sea” off the same album, as it would have suited Bowie a lot more.

God Only Knows” is an iconic Beach Boys song, so to cover such a beast is thwart with danger. Bowie sings it well enough in his best lower register, but the overall arrangement here is dreadful and the song just sounds grand in that pretending, karaoke kinda of way. I don’t believe he’s ever performed this live, so maybe he thought once was probably enough.

Side 1 ends with the title track “Tonight“, a cover of his co-written song with Iggy Pop off the brilliant “Lust For Life” album. Remember what I said earlier about sucking the raw energy out of an Iggy song, well this version leaves behind nothing but a dried up old pip. The original is a wonderfully powerful piece, the last moments spent with a girl dying from a drug overdose, the opening spoken section critical to frame everything. Tina Turner, who sings a barely noticeably duet with Bowie here, refused to include the opening section and the remaining reggae plod of a song is just a shell of the brilliant original. This was the second single off the album and even with Tina Turner on board, couldn’t make the top 50 in the UK. Music Video Live With Tina Turner.

tonight single

So great start, not such a good finish to Side 1.

Side 2 starts with yet another Iggy Pop “Lust For Life” cover, “Neighborhood Threat“. Same rule applies here, with the original so much better but at least this version isn’t weighed down by a dodgy reggae based arrangement. Bowie himself said recording this with the band he had at the time was a mistake. Enough said.

Blue Jean” does pick things up considerably. The only other new track (along with “Loving The Alien”) written solely by Bowie for this album, it’s a fun, catchy and almost “glam-like” in its sound. It certainly isn’t a great song, but it does have that “something” which makes it sparkle upon listening. The opening single off the album, it had a fabulous 20 minute music video “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean” (directed by Julian Temple with whom Bowie would work on “Absolute Beginners”) which is absolutely hilarious. With Bowie playing the part of the nerdy guy trying to get the glamorous girl and also the part of the drugged out rock star Lord Byron, it really is worth watching.   Jazzin’ For Blue Jean Video.

blue jean single

The next track “Tumble and Twirl” is a new track co-written with Iggy Pop and is one of the album highlights. The band really works well here and the almost Latino vibe sounds great, suiting the song which depicts their experiences when visiting Indonesia. It actually has “energy” and a sense that everyone is enjoying themselves here.

The same can’t be said for yet another cover, the Leiber/Stoller standard “I Keep Forgettin’“, although on reflection it’s probably the best cover performance on the album. It’s just not particularly rememberable (pun of course fully intended).

Thankfully the album ends on a high, the truly excellent “Dancing With The Big Boys“, co-written for the album with Iggy Pop and Carlos Alomar. It again highlights just how much better this album could have been with more moments such as these. Featuring the band bashing out a big, loud rhythm and with Bowie and Pop co-singing their panicky concerns for society, Bowie once said this track was the sound he was after with the album and one he hoped to perfect on the next album (he unfortunately failed there). This would have been a far better single than the tragic “Tonight”, but what would I know.

Having just completed a huge world tour in 1983, Bowie wouldn’t tour this album. Instead he next focused on a number of film related projects such as “When The Wind Blows”, “Absolute Beginners” and “Labyrinth”. As such, many of the tracks have never been performed live by Bowie, although thankfully “Loving The Alien” is not among them.

So overall, the album was a mixed bag with some excellent tracks, some OK and some dreadful. It was a hit album though at the time, reaching No 1 in the UK and 11 in the US. But considering the amazing quality of Bowie’s albums to date, it was certainly a concerning dip in the overall quality with both “Let’s Dance” and now “Tonight” not up to the usual Bowie-Universe standard in terms of quality and originality.  Sadly, worse was to come until things picked up with the introduction of the Tin Machine experiment, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Loving The Alien, Tumble and Twirl, Dancing With The Big Boys