David Bowie was a man of countless masks, the ultimate rock and roll actor, reinventing himself time and again with each new album. Until Bowie appeared on the music scene, hippies were just hippies; folk singers were folk singers; and country artists, well, they just played country. Bowie changed all that. Combining his love of film and theatre with musical performance, he succeeded in creating a whole new paradigm the likes of which the pop world had never seen before (Arthur Brown was probably the first, but that’s another story).
Before Bowie transmogrified into “The Thin White Duke” on 1976’s Station to Station, he turned himself into the Thin White Honky of Harlem. The title track to Young Americans, which opens the album, establishes this new persona, and was already a classic the moment it hit the radio (way back when). A funky, dance driven number with gospel backing, it remains one of the catchiest of tunes Bowie ever put to tape. The next song, “Win”, is all synth and sax. Apart from David’s suave and libidinal crooning, there’s not much else to recommend it. “Fascination” is nothing more than an electronic-funk workout, something you might listen to at the gym, ‘70’s style. “Right” is a page torn straight out of the James Brown book of funk, while “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is all sexy saxophone (courtesy of the impeccable David Sanborn) and sophisticated rhythms, but little else.
“Across the Universe” is a far more electric and languid reading, and one which many critics have a tendency to dismiss as nothing more than a misguided and artificial attempt at updating the original. I don’t agree. The arrangement is respectful, and both Bowie and Lennon (on guitar and backing vocals) sing with just the right amount of desperation in their voices to make it believable. “Can You Hear Me” is a ballad, with syrupy strings and generic gospel support, and not especially noteworthy, or indeed all that memorable.
Not so the next track. Because bookending the album is “Fame”, arguably one of the finest examples of white funk this side of James Brown you’re ever likely to hear, and guaranteed to get you moving and grooving in no time. A sort of slowed down facsimile of what the blacks were always better at, taking a style which they invented and making it accessible to a melatonin-challenged audience. Bowie was an undoubted master at stealing from the best, with a proclivity for absorbing other people’s ideas before reassembling them into his own. But if there was a tribunal handing out fines to whites for the plagiarism of black musicians, we’d be here all day. Still, “Fame” is another undeniable classic.
Young Americans is far from Bowie’s most essential album. He had made far superior records before, and would continue to do so afterwards. And while not without its flaws (slick, synthetic production by Tony Visconti), it survives as yet another vital piece of the Bowie myth. Upon release, Young Americans was way ahead of its time, serving as the next launching pad unto other worlds, worlds which Bowie himself was the most qualified to explore.