Diamond Dogs is often cited as the beginning of Bowie’s cocaine psychosis period. In fact, it was recorded before he started giving Hitler salutes at railway stations and aggravating Eastern European customs officers with the books on Goebbels he carried in his rucksack, and now presents something of a field day for hindsight-lovers. Or should that be hindquarter-watchers, since everything about Diamond Dogs polarised opinion, from Guy Peellaert’s canine cover to the jagged avant-garde mellotron nightmares of “Future Legend” and “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family”.
Diamond Dogs was first mooted as a rock musical concept based on 1984. George Orwell’s widow refused to sanction it, but it retained the central motif of “we are the dead’, dressing it with surreal ’70s sleaze. Bowie gave notice his career was going off the rails when he performed before an invited fan club audience for US TV’s Midnight Special at The Marquee in October, 1973. A virtual dress rehearsal for his notion of ‘at last, the 1984 floor show’, it was a great gig, with guest stars The Troggs and Marianne Faithfull adding to the bonkers quotient.
But while the idea of a maniacal mainman is convenient, there was still a method to Bowie’s a-lad-insane madness. Ziggy Stardust was inspired by the doomed ’50s rock’n’roller Vince Taylor; Pin Ups was a ’60s tribute covers album, with the Blessed Twig(gy) sharing cover space; and Diamond Dogs went back to old George’s Roaring ’40s nightmare future.
Bowie might not have invented mix’n’match, but he knew how to shoplift at the concept counter with the best of the young dudes.
Having dispensed with guitarist Mick Ronson and broken up the bewhiskered Spiders From Mars (the kids had killed the man, see), Bowie hired veteran musos like Tony Newman, Aynsley Dunbar, Herbie Flowers and Mike Garson, while providing his own off-kilter Stooges guitar and screeching, coke-buzzing wall-of-sound saxophone.
Tacky taster single “Rebel Rebel” was a sop to the glam sleaze that characterised the end of the Ziggy era. But the rest of the album, recorded in London and Holland (though its maker now lived in America for tax purposes), is often seen as a primer for his raw R&B period and the Brian Eno/Tony Visconti Berlin trilogy.
The Aladdin Sane-esque title track fused all three camps with audacious electronic squawk and squit, Bowie striving to make himself as uneasy listening as possible. By contrast, the soulful “Sweet Thing” and the Motown colours of “1984” are akin to sonic bonkers Temptations (in Norman Whitfield’s acid phase) with a Philly topcoat. Young Americans before the fact, these cuts are the best in show.
This 30th-anniversary edition is much meatier than Rykodisc’s reissue, which included the alternative “Candidate” and the sparkling “Dodo”. Here you also get a second disc including those songs, the “1984/Dodo” pull, plus the shorter “Rebel Rebel” single, the atypically groovesome “Growin’Up” and two new “Candidate” and “Rebel Rebel” mixes aimed at the clubs. Er, thanks. Not everyone was grabbed by Diamond Dogs’ bejewelled collar. Eminent critic Robert Christgau described it as, “Eat, snort and be pervy.” Maybe that was the point; an excess-all-areas explosion of whack from the man who would fall to Earth voicing the opinion: “I’ve rocked my roll. It’s a boring dead end. There will be no more rock’n’roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer.”
If that absurd outburst proved to be a bitching lie, you could still argue that Dogs was the first bling bling album; a brutally urban, hardcore artefact. The cracked actor persona Bowie substituted for fluffy Ziggy gave up a highly theatrical and hugely expensive concert tour, spawning the more user-friendly David Live, recorded in Philadelphia, and inspired the chilly funk of Young Americans-yet another lost weekend project, given John Lennon’s participation.
Heard today, it’s obvious that these puppies didn’t all grow up to be Rottweilers. Dated in some parts, way ahead of its time elsewhere (try bearing OutKast in mind when Bow-wow’s frantic cut-up soul vocals kick in), Diamond Dogs now sounds like the work of someone too smart to be pressing the self-destruct button all the way down.
Must have been the side-effects of the cocaine, after all.