John, I’m Only Dancing

John, I’m Only Dancing.
John, I’m Only Dancing (“sax” version, 1973).

John, I’m Only Dancing (live, 1972).

David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,” he says, “and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth. He knows that in these times it’s permissible to act like a male tart.

David Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 22 January 1972.

Some forty years later, it’s still Bowie’s most famous interview: “I’m gay, and always have been” seemed a casual aside but it was as deliberate as a Spassky chess move.

Bowie had an acute sense of cultural timing, able to move just ahead of the beat, so January 1972 was the perfect time to out himself. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in the UK for five years, gay liberation had become public after the Stonewall riots in ’69, men wearing glitter and makeup were hitting the top of the charts. Also, Bowie was still a relative unknown. His public image had only begun to coalesce; he had few fans who would desert him when they read the news, and he’d gain just as many through the subsequent publicity.

One thing, though—Bowie wasn’t gay. This blog doesn’t wish to delve into Bowie’s personal life (there are a dozen-odd bios, some quite lurid, if you want that), but it’s fair enough to say that, from the vantage point of 2010, Bowie appears to have been a mild bisexual who only chose women for long-term relationships. Throughout the ’70s, he was perceived as gay (The Gay News in 1972 hoped that Bowie would gain popularity so that “gay rock [will have] a potent spokesman,” while Jon Savage wrote in a 1980 article for The Face that “just as Bowie’s massive contribution to fashion was in the fact that you can still see the glam uniform of baggies, tank-top and platforms on provincial streets, so the spice in his image was gayness“), and Bowie did little to dispel that impression. Then in the reactionary early ’80s, with the AIDS panic at its height, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the coy, repellent headline “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT” and never hinted at being gay again.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” Bowie’s follow-up single to Ziggy Stardust, has been claimed as one of Bowie’s gay songs: a subversive, oft-banned anthem. But the single charted without incident in the UK, and it wasn’t released in the US as much for its unusual sound and Bowie’s poor commercial history as for its controversial lyric. And “John” has little in common with the likes of “Glad to Be Gay,” or “Smalltown Boy,” or “It’s a Sin” —it lacks the Tom Robinson’s track polemical urgency and anger; it has nothing like the Bronski Beat and Pet Shop Boys tracks’ sense of lived experience. “John, I’m Only Dancing” is a vague, shadowy and unreadable performance; its promo video, filmed by Mick Rock, features a writhing male-and-female pair of dancers, while Bowie and the Spiders look like they’ve stepped out of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. If anything, “John” is basically Son of Suffragette City, its lyric again (as in “Queen Bitch,” too) depicting a man in a possibly gay relationship flirting with a woman and trying to make excuses.

This is all late-in-the-day speculation, of course. When he publicly came out, regardless of whether he did it purely for spectacle and money, Bowie opened up a world. His essential moment in “John, I’m Only Dancing” is when he sings, with wryness, sexiness and longing, another man’s name in the chorus. “For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later,” Tom Robinson later said (as quoted in Buckley’s Strange Fascination). Even John Gill, in his Queer Noises (which brutally sums up “Queer David” as an opportunist and a fraud), admits that “I belong to a generation that probably has to thank Queer David for the comparative ease with which we came out…[his] clever packaging of sexual outrage created a safe space where many of us, gay, bi or straight, could play out games and experiment with difference.”

As for the single, it mainly belongs to the Spiders. Mick Ronson’s verse riff updates Eddie Cochran, while he offers a siren wail in the chorus and his coda solo ends with Ronson using the toggle switch on his guitar to create staccato bursts of feedback. He’s mixed to knife out of the speakers. (“A guitar like sawing through metal,” Ian Rankin wrote in one of his Rebus novels, Black and Blue.) The rhythm section is also inspired: Woody Woodmansey, who used mallets for most of the drumming, recalled it was the first time he ever did a drum overdub for Bowie, tracking a couple different tom fills. And Trevor Bolder’s bassline is one of the track’s main hooks, especially in the chorus, where he starts with a slow rise-and-fall and then shifts to bars of octave-jumping runs.

Recorded 26 June 1972 and released in September as RCA 2263 c/w “Hang Onto Yourself.” It hit #12. A remake, with a faster tempo and Bowie’s saxophone accompaniment, was recorded on 20 January 1973 in the final Aladdin Sane sessions (it was slated to be the LP’s final track until scratched at the last minute). This version, bizarrely, was also released as a single in April 1973 with the same catalog number. RCA, with malice or neglect, randomly alternated the two takes for much of the decade (e.g., both versions appear on various copies of ChangesOneBowie), then released yet another version, a remix of the original track with less echo on Bowie’s vocal, as a 1979 B-side (it’s on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust). Bowie’s 1974 sequel, “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” will get its own entry in a bit.

Pick your cover: The Chameleons, Paul Westerberg, the Polecats, Vivian Girls.

Top: George Best, fashion plate, April 1972.

5 Responses to John, I’m Only Dancing

  1. ian says:

    Sooooo, great blog, for sure. I have a quick question about your source material. As you’ve got a great big list of them over on the side, I’d like to know what you think the best one of those are. I’ve read Strange Fascination and Loving The Alien, are there any others that are, like, total must-reads?

    This question is sort of a leader-upper to a bigger question of “how do you go about writing these posts? gathering the sources, sorting through mounds of quotes, etc.” Absolutely fascinating.

  2. col1234 says:

    hey ian–

    smaller question: The utterly essential source is the Pegg “Complete David Bowie,” without which I couldn’t do this blog. It’s an encyclopedia, starting with all songs (A-Z), then LPs, then movies, then tours, and so on. Really recommended. It’s just been updated for the 5th time.

    There hasn’t been a first-rank Bowie bio, unfortunately–the best is probably Strange Fascination, soon followed by the new one, Bowie. Both are very good on background, on capturing Bowie’s various personae and the various people supporting him during each phase; both aren’t that insightful on the songs/LPs (though Buckley’s much better).

    Loving the Alien has some good bits but is rather thin. Tremlett’s is good mainly for the interviews he did w/Bowie ca. 1969=70. The Perone book, a musical analysis, is spotty–sometimes very good, detailed insights (the author is a music prof.), sometimes baffling omissions, utterly obvious points and rather bizarre interpretations. I say this as someone who’s done his share of odd interpretations.

    larger question: i mainly assemble the posts piecemeal–find a good quote here, a good picture there, and build them up. “Google books” searches help, plus access to a good music library, nearby at Smith U. It’s good when there’s sheet music, as I can muddle through the song on guitar and try to figure it out. Sometimes I can think up most of an entry while walking the dog, and then dash it out over coffee, but that’s been unfortunately rare lately. Sometimes I just think of the first line months ahead, and then try to make the rest of the entry fit around it (such as “Starman” being DB’s christmas carol, etc.)

    best, CO

  3. Koshaka says:

    Really a great blog! I’m doing something like this but muuuuuch smaller) And it’s one of my favorite sources, you know! Just loving all this great piece of information you ve done! You’re just a person to respect a lot))
    Sometimes I miss some mp3 for my blog, for example, I cant find the original “John, I’m Only Dancing” – only sax version(
    May be you have some piece of advice for me…

  4. Great song and one of my favourites. Musically, I love the raw sound of the production and the bass line is fantastic. Your blog is excellent. You really do the research, must take ages?

  5. Rufus oculus says:

    It seems even in 1972 Mike Watts saw through Bowie’s act in the interview. “He comes on like a swishy queen”. Watching clips of The 1980 Floor Show on YouTube now DB’s camp act is risibly fake but growing up at the time it didn’t seem so. Perhaps more credit should go to his 1970 interview with the first gay UK magazine Jeremy where it isn’t so obvious that he is pushing his career.

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