Thursday, 13 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 14): 'One damn song that can make me break down and cry'

Between August and November 1974, David Bowie recorded the album that was to become Young Americans on breaks between the various legs of his tour. The first leg of David Bowie's 1974 US tour was known as the Diamond Dogs Tour. The second leg was known as the 'Philly Dogs' tour (i.e. the same show but with a soul vibe). The third and final leg was known as the 'Soul Tour' and was essentially the tour for Bowie's forthcoming album (although some of the Diamond Dogs songs remained in the set list). The backing singers would perform a short warm-up set on the 'Soul Tour' which was notable for its performance of Bowie's 'Memory of a Free Festival'. This particular show is the first time Bowie performed 'Footstompin'' live. It is audio only and it is from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on 28th October 1974.

 

Young Americans was recorded with Tony Visconti at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. To give the record the authentic soul quality Bowie wanted he brought in a then unknown young singer called Luther Vandross, Sly and the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Bowie would go on to work with Alomar for more than 30 years. Alomar recalled that when he first saw Bowie he was "the whitest man I've ever seen, translucent white".

By December 1974 Bowie had almost finished Young Americans. He called up John Lennon who he had met previously. He played him the record over and over again. Then, inexplicably, he told him he had decided to cover Lennon's 'Across the Universe'. No-one was more confused than Lennon himself who asked May Pang (his then-girlfriend) "why that song?" He invited Lennon to come to the studio who jumped at the chance. Carlos Alomar was playing a riff he had added to a cover of 'Footstompin'' they were performing live. Lennon, meanwhile, was playing some chords and singing some lines from Shirley & Company's disco song 'Shame, Shame, Shame'. Bowie misheard it as 'fame'. He went away and twenty minutes later he came back with the lyrics to the song we now know as 'Fame'. It was the making of the album, which was released in March 1975. The album got to number two in Britain and number nine in America. 'Fame', whilst getting to number seventeen in Britain, got to number one in America. Bowie himself described the album as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey".

Young Americans
All songs written by David Bowie except where noted.

Side one

  1. 'Young Americans' – 5:10
  2. 'Win' – 4:44
  3. 'Fascination' (Bowie, Luther Vandross) – 5:43
  4. 'Right' – 4:13

Side two

  1. 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' – 6:30
  2. 'Across the Universe' (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) – 4:30
  3. 'Can You Hear Me?' – 5:04
  4. 'Fame' (Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Lennon) – 4:12



Around February 1975 David Bowie began to realise that although he had left MainMan, his former management company, they would still retain the rights to the master copy of his recordings. Although John Lennon consoled him with stories of his own on-going attempts to get free of his former manager Allen Klein, David Bowie frequently became angry and later depressed. His cocaine habit was beginning to take an even heavier toll on his psyche than was apparent from his performances on 'Cracked Actor' and the Dick Cavett Show. As a result of an argument with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, a well-known fan of occultist Aleister Crowley, Bowie became obsessed with black magic, the Nazis search for the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny (the lance that reputedly pierced Christ's side) as well as Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. Bowie would spend days off his face on copious amounts of cocaine watching black and white films about the Nazis over and over again imagining he was gaining deep insights into the nature and meaning of life. As a result of his alien appearance and behaviour (particularly the scenes in the car from 'Cracked Actor') he was cast as the role of an alien in Nick Roeg's film adaptation of the book 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'. Bowie, who mostly refrained from indulging in drug-taking during the shoot, put in a stunning, almost universally critically-acclaimed performance, demonstrating an incredible ability for focus despite his state of mind. Watch it here.

Next time: Europe, electronica and religion

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