May 1974: David Bowie Delivers DIAMOND DOGS
David Bowie was never one short on ideas or concepts when it came to making new albums. A wide range of inspirations were at play in 1974. The artist had disbanded the wildly popular Spiders from Mars band of the Ziggy Stardust era, and looking for something different when it came time to record the follow-up to the 1973 covers album, Pin Ups. One of the primary influences driving the singer at the time--George Orwell's legendary novel, 1984--took an unexpected turn when Bowie attempted to make it official.
“I found out that if I dared touch [Nineteen Eighty-Four], Mrs. George Orwell would sue or something. So I suddenly had to change about in midstream, in the middle of recording," Bowie once said of the interaction with Sonia Orwell, the author’s widow and executor of his literary estate. "Mrs. Orwell refused to let us have the rights, point blank. For a person who married a socialist with communist leanings, she was the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life. ‘Good heavens, put it to music?’ It really was like that.”
Stung by the rejection, Bowie leaned towards another pioneering author for motivation: William S. Burroughs. “I had in my mind this kind of half [Burroughs’s] Wild Boys and Nineteen Eighty-Four world,” Bowie remarked. “There were these ragamuffins, but they were a bit more violent than ragamuffins. I guess they staggered through from A Clockwork Orange too.”
All of this grim, dystopian source material seeped into the music, creating a dark and foreboding "Future Shock" world. In retrospect, Bowie called the science-fiction influenced work “desperate, almost panicked," and a “very English, apocalyptic kind of view of our city life,” with “obvious inspirations from the Orwellian holocaust trip. It was pretty despondent.”
May 24, 1974, David Bowie released his eighth studio album, Diamond Dogs. Giving the album a considerable head start was the instantly classic lead single, "Rebel Rebel," which arrived in February 1974. Having dismissed the Spiders from Mars, the singer cast himself as his own guitar player, dreaming up and performing the song's guitar legendary riff.
Diamond Dogs was a monster on the charts, soaring all the way to #1 on the UK Album charts, and peaking at #5 on the Billboard 200 in America for the week of July 20, 1974. The #1 album in the U.S. that week: Elton John's Caribou. The album's striking artwork, created by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, quickly caused controversy: "He is a sick man and I love it," Bowie laughed during a 1974 interview. "It is me as a half man half dog hybrid. The record company weasels went crazy when the full image on the gatefold sleeve showed the hybrid’s genitalia. One of the executives actually jumped out of his office window after seeing it. Grown men were weeping. They airbrushed the genitals out on most releases by RCA, but some original uncensored copies made their way into circulation at the time of the album’s release. I bet those copies will be worth a lot of money some day" (he was correct, as copies of Diamond Dogs with the original artwork are among the rarest and most expensive Bowie collectibles in the world).
The “Diamond Dogs” were “all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses, really," Bowie once revealed of the album's title track and second single. “In my mind… they were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough, and they all had funny-colored hair. It was a precursor to the punk thing."
Diamond Dogs was the sound of Bowie's last dance with the glam-rock sound, with his next studio LP, Young Americans, finding the artist in full "Plastic Soul" mode: "I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human," Bowie said in 1974. "I thought, f**k that. I want to be a superhuman. So I created Ziggy, but with Ziggy I had doubts about my own personality. He overtook me and was threatening to cancel David Bowie, so I had to kill Ziggy and create Aladdin Sane. Mind you though, Aladdin is really just Ziggy goes to America. And now Diamond Dogs is just Ziggy goes to America and gets involved with cocaine and bestiality."