1975: A Year Of Drastic Changes In Bowie’s Sound
Who was David Bowie in 1975? An amorphous, androgynous rock god born of space-age fever dreams? A confused and increasingly cocaine-fueled man thrust into a bright international spotlight? A fiercely devoted music lover moved by the spirit who just wanted to share something good?
When Young Americans dropped that March, he was a little bit of all three, though the sonic turn of his ninth-studio album showed desperation for change. In the early 1970s, Bowie was unequivocally one of the biggest rock stars in the world. A fiery interest in his back-catalog resulted in his having six albums on the UK charts at once. Still, the contentious 1975 release, heavily-inspired by black America’s soul and R&B, is best understood as a flustered young man going back to his roots – even if they are really someone else’s roots, and therein lies the concept.
Taken out of its context, it’s an enjoyable collection of funky moods and seductive songs – and it gave us two of Bowie’s greatest hits. Taken in its context, it becomes a pivotal moment in an icon’s career and a rare glimpse into a life larger than our own, even if part of the message comes in the moments where he is not.
David Bowie’s American Influence
Though he was born in south London’s Brixton, the boy raised David Jones fell deeply in love with American rock’n’roll. Bowie once recalled his first listening of Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti” as having “heard God.” He cut his teeth performing Elvis and Chuck Berry songs for his boyhood mates, and an early obsession with Charles Mingus and John Coltrane led his mother to buy him a saxophone when he was 14.
Like many great English musicians of his time, his respect for the black American music canon ran deep as Muddy Waters. When he found inspiration stretched thin across four-albums of garage riffs and glam-rock opulence, what better shoulder to snuggle into than the soothing soul of Stateside ghettos?
Bowie moved to the US in 1974, first among the trash and neon of New York City before settling in sunny Los Angeles. By then, he was famously addicted to cocaine and quite recognizable in white urban areas. He was less spotted in predominantly black neighborhoods, however, and time spent in Harlem came as a breath of fresh air.
In August of ’74, he took a break from touring to record in Philadelphia, an area both quintessentially American and well-known for its black music influence. Young Americans was the result of these sessions, inspired by the sounds of Philly club bands that drifted through the streets.
Young Americans, Track By Track
Bowie dropped his Ziggy alter-ego and broke up the Spiders from Mars. In their stead came a new band all red, white and blues. Tony Visconti still acted as producer, but Carlos Alomar took up the guitar, a Puerto Rican man who would stay with him through the 2000s. Bowie hired Sly and the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark and worked closely with a young Luther Vandross. Jazz saxophonist David Sanborn is easily Bowie’s Young Americans co-star – if not the outright star of the album in full.
Before we ever hear Bowie’s croon, we get a face-full of Sanborn’s bright and brassy alto on the album’s title track. “Young Americans” rips right into a jazz-pop burst of infectious, albeit white-washed groove. The chorus is disingenuously catchy. At first listen, it’s just another peppy party song about America’s hopeful and sexy youth, but just like digging deeper into the so-called American dream, these lyrics are fraught with half-truths and uncomfortable inconveniences.
The verses tell the story of two kid newlyweds progressively disenchanted with adult suburban life. There’s mention of racial inequality, McCarthy witch-hunts and recently-disgraced President Nixon, and the ever-present anxiety of being a thoughtful white American who yearns for some meaningful expression. The whole song is wrapped in the ever-hopeful glow of that star-spangled American ethos, always grinning toward the next great chance for real happiness around the corner.
At the end of the song, our fictional heroine takes a bus to chase the counter-culture into more racially-diverse, and therefore more impoverished, neighborhoods. White counter-culture embraces the culture of immigrants and blacks, a culture as purely American as anything else, but it white counter-culture turns its findings into shiny new pop material – case in point, this very song.
Bowie called this sound “plastic soul,” or “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” It’s a cross-road between the banality of pop and its ever-lasting ability to mine those with real pain for the next quick inspirational fix. These were not totally unheard of references. Bowie described 1973’s Aladdin Sane as “Ziggy goes to America.” Its single “The Jean Genie” is as bluesy as freaky Martians get, but Young Americans differs from previous Bowie works in its sheer dive toward unabashed R&B.
The bulk of the album is not catchy pop hooks and white-radio friendly melodies. “Win” is a hazy bit of sexy psychedelia. Bowie’s voice is intimate and emotive as it encourages the listener to do the very American-thing of picking-oneself up from defeat. He moans up and down the scales in syrupy drips over swimmy strings and floating sax from Sanborn. As the song fades out, the back-up singers take more shine, and they keep a good hold of the spotlight as the album progresses.
“Fascination” hits heavy wah-wah notes a la early ’70s Blaxploitation soundtracks. Co-written by Vandross, Bowie’s vocals take a backseat to the slick pimp walk mood and funky call and response by the powerful chorus singers. The power of the song does not lie in Bowie’s presence but in the magic of the music he can’t ignore. It’s the same on “Right,” a steamy, sensual hit of soft jazz where Bowie seems melts smoothly into the R&B mood, as much the star as the powerful back-up singers, the slapping guitar and Sanborn’s wailing sax.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me,” which was at one point, was considered for the LP title, sees Bowie sing of the strangeness of absolute recognizability and fame. If Young Americans gave Bowie space to transition his sound, it also let him step out of that spotlight, sharing the shine with fresh talented musicians and a segregated style of music.
Most of the album was recorded live with the full band in the room, a call back to the early days of music production from which Young Americans took its cues. Two songs, in particular, were recorded in New York City alongside an artist who needed no extra shine, let alone introduction. John Lennon got with Bowie to bless his cover of The Beatles‘ “Across The Universe” with acoustic guitar. He also helped pen “Fame,” the upbeat and experimental album closer, which earned Bowie his first US No. 1 hit. The iconic guitar riff was adapted by Alomar from his song “Foot Stompin'” by doo-wop group The Flairs, tying into the overall sonic theme.
The album title track served as the popular lead single, but “Fame” became Young Americans‘ crowning jewel. Bowie even crossed-over as one of the first white musicians to appear on Soul Train, performing the hit. The rest of the album was seen as divisive, a jarring sonic departure for the Bowie devotees. This was the time of sleek disco jams and big feel-good hits. Burning R&B grooves weren’t usual rock fair. Robert Christgau, noted critic for the Village Voice, called the record “an almost total failure,” but in retrospect, not so much.
“Blue-eyed soul” went on to be wildly popular in the decade’s latter half, proliferated by so-called yacht-rock groups Hall & Oates, The Doobie Brothers, and more. NME placed it at No. 175 of its 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, and it has been remastered or reissued four times since its original release.
It’s a unique Bowie record in that Bowie isn’t showcasing his Bowie-ness so much as who Bowie likes. These 45 years later, it’s still a warm and easy listen, somehow still shining beyond its time because of its Bowieness after all.