Back in the early ‘70s, a new David Bowie release was as exciting as the next album by the Beatles less than a decade before. So much so that The Thin White Duke could have issued almost anything, regardless of musical merit, and still see it enter the Top 20. Since the invention of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s alter ego, the man was on a Glam Rock high, albeit one that would also nearly kill him.
On 1974’s Diamond Dogs, with the Spiders no longer backing him, Bowie embarked on creating an album far more lavish in production than anything he had achieved before. David retained one spider, Mike Garson (keyboards), and hired ex Blue Mink bassist Herbie Flowers, as well as Tony Newman and Aynsley Dunbar (drums). Alan Parker plays guitar on one track only, the rest of the guitars were played by Bowie himself, along with Moog and Mellotron, meaning that the LP was quite a departure from his previous work.
The post apocalyptic theme of the album is expressed through the opening track “Future Legend”, on which Bowie recites a narrative over some creepy sci-fi soundtrack. The title track is a rock ‘n’ roll classic, all Stonesy swagger a la “Brown Sugar”, something which is reflected throughout most of the LP. That The Rolling Stones sold a lot of records was clearly a fact not lost on Davy Jones, which means that Diamond Dogs has a commercial tone to it. Many of the numbers are accessible, and market orientated, at times reminding the listener of Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street, only with far slicker and cleaner production.
The eerie introduction of “Sweet Thing” soon gives way to a more familiar Bowie rocker, where a soprano saxophone segues into “Candidate”, another quality rock number, before launching into the lively and effervescent “Rebel Rebel”, a song that would not seem out of place on any Stones record of the period (or even mid-sixties for that matter). The anthemic “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” sounds like Bowie on Broadway, giving Andrew Lloyd Webber a run for his money. “We Are The Dead” is perhaps the strangest and least commercial cut on the LP, yet is immediately forgotten once the more recognisable guitar riffs of “1984” begin, with Bowie crooning his way through a post-apocalyptic world via George Orwell and an edgy typically ‘70s string section (classical musicians were obviously some of those who were spared from the nuclear holocaust). “Big Brother” is likewise another cinematic number, with a plethora of trumpets and choirs playing behind Bowie’s soaring near operatic vocal work. The final track, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” is indeed the most experimental even it is little more than a repetitive tape loop going round endlessly until the merciful fade out.
There can be no doubt that Diamond Dogs was, and always will be a dystopian rock masterpiece, one which saw him extend his talents like never before. The production is impeccable, yet never clinical. The songs, or at least the majority, are memorable, though never challenging – and there lies the genius. Always give the pundits what they want, but still keep them guessing. The sort of thing Bowie had a natural gift for.