Classic Rock Review

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David Bowie Young Americans (1975)


Err… while I first decided to be kind to the record, as nearly every reviewer in existence, starting from the corporate ones and ending with the independent ones, bashes the chitlins out of it, there’s really too little ground to apply one’s kindness. In a certain way, this is not necessarily a radical departure from everything Bowie had been doing earlier: he always had a passion for ‘authentic’ soul, and traces of the genre can be found on every single album of his starting from Ziggy, maybe even from Hunky Dory; and Diamond Dogs verged on the brink of being ‘soul’ – I mean, ‘Rock’n’Roll With Me’? ‘Sweet Thing’? Huh? And, of course, David Live already prepared us for the ‘big metamorphose’. The biggest departure, of course, was that on Young Americans David completely dumped the ‘glam’ stuff: no more androgynous Ziggy looking at us from the front cover. But if one thinks hard, one will be able to notice that ‘glam’ and ‘soul’ don’t really stray too far from each other – just look at James Brown and tell me he wasn’t a ‘glam star’. It’s all the usual stuff: pompous, overblown, master-of-the-universe-speaking type of music, only this time the rock’n’roll beats and metallic guitars are replaced by funky rhythms and ‘heavenly’ pianos and saxes and wah-wahs. Completely.

Now let it be known that I don’t really think much of ‘soul’ as a genre. It’s a pretty limited and cliched one, and it never places the emphasis on melodies, instead concentrating on image and vocal power and, well, ‘sincerity’ (gee; should we say ’emulation of sincerity’?) and ‘passion’. I don’t give a damn about Motown, and I don’t plan on buying any Aretha Franklin records in the near future. And what about Bowie? Sure enough, he demonstrates a total lack of care for melodies, but he doesn’t satisfy the ‘positive’ criteria either: his vocals can’t live up to the black singers’ potential, his ‘passion’ is entirely trumped up, and ‘sincerity’? Please refer to the introductory passage to see what I’m thinking of Bowie’s ‘sincerity’. Surprisingly, though, it’s his ineffectiveness and faked Philly accent that save the album from utter ruin (for me, at least). Were it ‘serious’ soul, I’d just skip it as an unnoticeable and mediocre record; as it is, it’s still highly mediocre, but certainly noticeable.

Now look here, I totally agree that the whole record contains not more than two ‘classics’ – the songs that bookmark the album. The title track is the most upbeat, vibrating and energetic on the album, and it’s the only song that has some serious ‘breathing’ power: everything else is totally lifeless and artificial. Seems that the lyrical subject of ‘two lovers’ has always fascinated David (he’d return to it, in a somewhat altered manner, in two years on ‘Heroes’), and he gives the song his all, straining the vocals as far as possible. Plus, the arrangement is stunning – Mike Garson’s piano and Dave Sanborn’s sax play a heartlifting, inspiring duel on the intro, and the ‘generic’, but groovy backing vocals chanting ‘young American young American he (she) wants a young American’ will stick in your mind for aeons whether you’d like it or not.

The sax parts are extremely nice and soothing – and sound not unlike that magnificent brassy stuff that John Lennon was releasing at about the same time. Maybe that’s why the backing vocals chant ‘I heard the news today oh boy’ at one point… but wait, John himself is present on the album, collaborating with Bowie on the record’s best track – the #1 hit single ‘Fame’, a song which is a serious candidate for ‘best Bowie arrangement ever’. Its midtempo, mannered funky rhythm is able to drive you crazy, much like the similar pulsation of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steam’, although the latter came seventeen years later, and the vocals roll over you as waves chasing each other as Bowie sings about the downsides of, well, fame. Call me crazy – but I just love these delicious guitar licks, the occasional brass thunderstorms, and the slow, unnerving ‘grind’ of the song. Not to mention that hilarious chanting of the word ‘fame’ at the end when it goes from ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’. Terrific, memorable and a deserved success.

But this is where the paeans end. Out of the other numbers, only the cover of Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ comes across as memorable – and certainly not due to David’s successful butchering of it but to the fact that no matter how far you go in spoiling a Beatles song, it’s still a Beatles song. The obvious question is – why did John allow him do that, as he’s present on the recording himself, playing guitar and singing backing vocals? The number was a quiet, introspective and moody song; here, it’s rough, bombastic and utterly ridiculous. Perhaps ‘ridiculous’ rather than ‘bad’, but… oh well. As far as I know, Lennon hated the way ‘Across The Universe’ was recorded on Let It Be; maybe it was his ‘second try’.

And? What about the rest? The rest is mediocre, grotesque attempts at doing something truly ‘soulful’, but all these songs with short titles like ‘Win’ and ‘Right’ and long running times like four or five or six minutes are almost totally devoid of melody and never ascend to generating some real emotions. Well, perhaps ‘Fascination’ is okay, as it’s at least eminently danceable and, in all, sounds like a poorboy version of ‘Fame’. And ‘Can You Hear Me’ is a rather nice ballad – much too lethargic and hookless for my tastes, but I know people that like it and I’m able to understand them. After all, ‘lethargic’ and ‘hookless’ are rather standard complaints in Bowie’s case, aren’t they? The TV preacher ode ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is dreadful, though, as it drags on for six and a half minutes without achieving anything, the only redeeming factor being Sanborn’s masterful sax playing again. It doesn’t even make suitable background music.

According to the standard match-for-match principle, the bonus tracks here pretty much suck as well. ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ is pretty, a ‘confessional-style’ ballad (Bowie at the crossroads, anyone?), but the other two are just too dreadful to ramble about. Suffice it to say that a) both go over six minutes and b) the second one is a dance rewrite of ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, totally despicable as it is. My advice to you: program this album so that it should always close with ‘Fame’. That way, your last memory will be a good one, and you won’t be willing to extinguish that tempting cigarette that David is holding in his hand on the front cover against his painted lips.

Better still, just get a compilation that has the title track and ‘Fame’ on it and I guarantee it that you won’t be missing any crucial points.

April 10, 2013 Posted by | David Bowie Young Americans | | Leave a comment