Diamond Dogs (2016 Remaster)
Following 1973’s Aladdin Sane, David Bowie laid his Ziggy Stardust persona to rest, but its ghost still haunts Diamond Dogs, which pushes glam-rock pageantry to its musical and ideological breaking points. By the mid-1970s, the distress that seeped into Bowie’s Aladdin Sane songbook had become all-consuming: Where that album fixed his electric eye upon Vietnam War-era America, 1974’s Diamond Dogs was preceded by a weeklong journey on the Trans-Siberian Express through Russia and Europe that provided Bowie with a front-row seat to totalitarian rule and post-war ruin. That experience spawned a conceptual vision that couldn’t be contained by a mere album: Bowie’s original plan was to stage a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian opus 1984, elements of which were previewed in his theatrical prime-time NBC spectacular, The 1980 Floor Show. But after Orwell’s widow refused to sign off on the project, Bowie decided to approach similar themes of societal decay and inequity from a different angle, supplementing his initial Orwell-inspired compositions with a Clockwork Orange-esque narrative about a gang of impoverished inner-city ne’er-do-wells storming the palaces of the rich. Years before punk hit, Bowie was already anticipating the Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses of the world rising up to strike fear into the hearts of the establishment. But what this recombinant album lacks in narrative coherence, it makes up for in sheer audacity. “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll, this is genocide!” Bowie declares over canned crowd noise at the top of the marauding title track, drawing a discomfiting parallel between the omnipotent rock star lording over his crowd and the authoritarian dictator holding court at a rally. And from that playfully provocative starting point, Diamond Dogs embarks on a high-wire tightrope walk between sleazy excess and gobsmacking extravagance. On the one hand, the album finds its sturdy anchor in “Rebel Rebel,” an eternal glam-generation anthem that retrofits the hammering caveman rock of The Stooges for pop radio. But Diamond Dogs also features tantalizing glimpses of the 1984 musical that never was, through elaborate multi-sectional vignettes—like the “Sweet Thing”/“Candidate” medley—that compensate for the departure of longtime guitar foil Mick Ronson by foregrounding Bowie’s swirling sax-work (not to mention the regal piano melodies of returning Aladdin Sane scene-stealer Mike Garson). And while Diamond Dogs’ closing three-song suite points to Orwell’s vision of the future, it ended up predicting Bowie’s own, with the chicken-scratched guitars, fierce funk grooves, and mirror-ball-twirling strings of “1984” cracking open the portal to his next phase as pop’s consummate plastic soul-man.