Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin’s USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future.
Thomas Pynchon, introduction to the 2003 edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Diamond Dogs is a salvage job, a compilation of scraps from stillborn Bowie projects. There are remnants of a Ziggy Stardust musical (“Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”), pieces of a barely comprehensible Oliver Twist-by-JG Ballard scenario (“Diamond Dogs,” “Future Legend” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”), and fragments of Bowie’s grandest failed ambition, a musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We Are the Dead,” “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984″ itself.
Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, vetoed Bowie’s proposed musical, considering it to be in poor taste. (Brownell died in 1980, depriving Orwell’s works of a gatekeeper: it was good news for the Eurythmics.) So we can only guess, via its few surviving songs, as to what Bowie’s adaptation would have been like. He seems most intrigued by the concept of absolute authority, the quisling culture over which it rules and how the mind seems eager to condone and accept it. What fascinated Bowie, what was arguably the only thing that truly interested him in the mid-’70s, was power, and the schizophrenic manner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encourages its abuses. “1984″ is a homage to power, with Bowie singing the title year like a man beseeching a lover (it’s a perverse echo of Roy Orbison’s “Leah”).
The title of Orwell’s book, of course, is the year of its composition with the last two digits reversed, with the world of Big Brother being essentially postwar Britain, with its bombed-out city centers, its food and electricity rationing, its grubbiness (watery coffee, half-cigarettes) and exhaustion. Drawing on the bureaucracy and hive-mind that he had encountered working in BBC propaganda during the war, Orwell suggested that even the well-meaning Labour Party, busy in 1948 erecting the welfare state, would be concerned with establishing and bolstering its power at the expense of everything else.
So it’s not surprising to find Bowie writing his version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four in late 1973, which was something of a bookend to 1948. It was an anemic sequel to the war years, with, once again, government-mandated rationing (PM Heath’s Three-Day Week power cuts, which lasted from January to March ’74), food shortages and price hikes, even bombs going off regularly in London, courtesy of the IRA.
No coup will take place in this country until it is one that would be welcomed or quietly acquiesced in by a majority or a very large minority of the people…in my judgment, we have gone measurably down the road to such acceptance in the last decade, and we have travelled very quickly along it in the last year.
Patrick Cosgrave, “Could the Army Take Over?” The Spectator, 22 December 1973.
There was a sense that the center couldn’t hold for much longer, that the government would fall either to the Communists or the neo-fascists, each of whom at least had some vitality left. The Establishment was old and crazed: in early 1974, Sir William Armstrong, the Head of the Home Civil Service, at a weekend government seminar in Oxfordshire, stripped off his clothes, lay on the floor and, in Francis Wheen‘s words, began “chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world…about moving the Red Army from here and Blue Army from there.” The Christmas ’73 issue of The Spectator speculated on the likelihood of a military coup in the UK; it quoted a Tory lobby hack who said that Britain “had seen our last general election, since from now on the Prime Minister would merely need to continue to prolong various states of emergency and elongate the life of this parliament.” A few weeks later, the Spectator editorialized that “Britain is on a Chilean brink.”
For Bowie, this situation only meant that the endgame he had imagined as far back as “The Supermen” or “Cygnet Committee” was coming to pass soon, and in songs like “1984″ he seemed to welcome it. “I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65,” he sings at one point, but don’t believe him. His Winston Smith wouldn’t have required conversion—he would have shoved his face into the rat cage without prompting.
“1984″ is a milestone for Bowie; it’s the most rhythmically ambitious track he’d ever made. Rhythm was underdeveloped in most of Bowie’s early records, as Bowie concentrated on harmonic progression, developing melodies and juxtapositions—playing out odd chord changes, creating intricate vocal lines, building off riffs, crafting tracks out of sound effects (from Stylophones to varispeed vocals). It didn’t help that Bowie’s first studio drummers were under par, while Woody Woodmansey (and Trevor Bolder) mainly followed Mick Ronson’s lead, serving as the equivalent to a rhythm guitar. With Aynsley Dunbar, Bowie’s first top-rate drummer, Bowie was able to work through ideas he was picking up from James Brown and Isaac Hayes records.
So the opening of “1984,” with its Shaft-inspired chicken-scratch guitar (by Alan Parker), its staggered four-note bassline, Dunbar’s sizzling cymbal work and sweeps of violins (the latter arranged by Tony Visconti, back in the Bowie fold after a few years), is a pure groove—it spins in place for ten bars, and feels like it could go on for hours. The essential “1984″ performance, for me, is the Dick Cavett Show performance in November ’74, where the band is so tight and fluid that Bowie just bounces off of them.
There’s a similar richness in the vocals. Bowie’s developing the sonorous timbre he would use for much of the next decade—it’s the dawn of his imperious Thin White Duke voice, which he uses here craftily (his vocal is full of feints and unusual phrasings: take the way Bowie sings the highest note on the penultimate beat of a phrase, e.g. “you said it WOULD last/but I guess we EN-rolled” or “nine-teen eigh-TY four”). He wraps his vocal in a web of call-and-response backing vocals by the Astronettes, which gives the track a sense of grandeur, particularly in the bridge, where Bowie’s high register contrasts with the basso chorus.
Bowie overlaid these rhythm and vocal innovations on a slightly-off song structure. The verse’s progression from the home key of D minor to F is broken by an odd swerve to E minor, while the chorus is a four-bar extension of the verses, built on a move up to the sixth and seventh intervals—Bb (“be-ware the”) and C (“savage”)—before falling back home to Dm (“lure”). The bridge, the track’s melodic and dramatic high point, starts in 5/4 time (“see, come see, remember”), slows to a bar of 2/4 (“me”), then finally settles on 4/4.
“1984″ was born conjoined with “Dodo,” the latter song originally titled “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.” The pairing worked, thematically—”1984″ set the scene, then “Dodo” narrowed the scope, focusing on a particular doomed man about to be brainwashed. At some point Bowie excised “Dodo” and shelved the song after trying it out as a possible single for Lulu.
Cutting “Dodo” was the right move, as “1984″s power lies in the force of its sweep, how the verses tumble into the choruses, how the intro groove returns to ease transitions between the oddly-timed bridges. In the original medley, “Dodo” emerged after the first bridge of “1984″—its appearance was surprising yet still felt like a natural progression, but it also sapped the tempo and the song never quite recovered. When “1984″ returned at the end, its force had lessened.
“Dodo” on its own still had potential as a narrow, jaundiced piece of funk, but Bowie’s studio version didn’t gel—it sounded sluggish and underdeveloped. Bowie may have considered it too similar, melodically, to “1984,” while “Big Brother” had gone over similar ground, making the aptly-named “Dodo” superfluous for Diamond Dogs.
The first performance of “1984/Dodo” was recorded at the 1980 Floor Show on 18 October 1973, while the studio “1984/Dodo” medley was cut in November 1973 (it was the last hurrah of the old gang, as the track featured Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and was the last Bowie recording produced by Ken Scott). Unreleased at the time, it wound up on the Sound + Vision set.
The revised “1984,” divorced from “Dodo,” was likely cut between 14-16 January 1974 and is the centerpiece of Diamond Dogs‘ B-side. It was released as a single in the US and Japan (RCA PB 10026) and performed throughout Bowie’s ’74 tour. Bowie, showing amazing restraint, didn’t perform the song once during its title year.
Top: Piccadilly Circus with much of its lights out due to power cuts, 1 February 1974.