David Bowie's DIAMOND DOGS: His Greatest Album?
David Bowie’s eighth studio album DIAMOND DOGS (1974) rarely becomes a subject of conversation amongst the Bowie fanatics I know, even though I have come to believe it is his greatest album. Here is why:
More than any of Bowie’s other albums, I find myself returning to DIAMOND DOGS and its mash-up of Bowie’s glam theatricality, George Orwell’s novel 1984, and a cut-up narrative style familiar to William S. Burroughs fans. The result of this mash-up is a raw, dark, and apocalyptic musical landscape accompanied by puzzle-like lyrics that, only upon obsessive listening, begin to assemble into a musical treatise against fascism and, in particular, Bowie’s fear of the rock star (himself).
Bowie even conflates fascism with the power rock star’s hold over audiences. For example, “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL WITH ME” (one of my favorite songs on the album) is a ballad between a musical dictator and his followers. It feels like a music video directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
Consider the lyrics to DIAMOND DOG’s “Big Brother” after Bowie has already lyrically conflated the rock star with Orwell’s Big Brother (DIAMOND DOGS began life as an early attempt to turn 1984 into a musical):
“Please savior, savior, show us
Hear me, I'm graphically yours
Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother”
Smarter people than I have tackled the genius of this album (I'd recommend Glenn Hendler's 33 1/3 book on the subject), but, for me, I think I’m most fascinated by how DIAMOND DOGS appears to be about a rock star so anxious about his influence that he regularly creates identities only to kill them before they get too godlike.
In this regard, you can look at DIAMOND DOGS as a kind of confession by Bowie to all the murders of his previous personas and all the murders still to come.
But, I also think DIAMOND DOGS is Bowie having a conversation with himself about what his art means to him, how scared he is of it and fame, the dissonance between the rock star David Bowie and the Brixton lad named David Jones.
Most artists choose to have these conversations with audiences, making them active participants in the experience – and that’s certainly happening here – but Bowie’s focus seems to primarily be on himself. In other words, DIAMOND DOGS is one of his most personal albums.
Is DIAMOND DOGS David Bowie’s greatest album? That’s a wholly subjective question, but it’s easily one his most meta-textually complex works and, in my opinion, a work of postmodern rock genius. Give it a go on vinyl if you can; you won't regret it.
(By the way, David Bowie left a huge stamp on much of my work, but perhaps none more so than my debut novel PSALMS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, which will be released on 1st September this year. You’ll have to pick up a copy to find out how, but for a tease: I answer the question about whether or not Bowie was holding the universe together before he died. Read more about it here or click on the book image below).