Rebel Rebel (US single, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1976).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1978).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1983).
Rebel Rebel (Live Aid, 1985).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1987).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1990).
Rebel Rebel (TFI Friday, 1999).
Rebel Rebel (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
Rebel Rebel (VH1 Fashion Awards, 2002).
Rebel Rebel (remake, 2003).
Rebel Rebel (Sessions @AOL, 2003).
Rebel Rebel (live, 2003).
By late 1974 glam was over: its death came swiftly, with great theater. Most of the glam acts, which had never found much commercial success in the US, were deposed on their home soil, replaced by distorted echoes of themselves: cartoon pop acts (Mud, the Bay City Rollers) and opera buffa rock groups (Sparks, Queen*, 10cc, etc.).
Retreats, farewells followed. Slade went up into the hills after ’75 to live in exile, while Marc Bolan kept pleading with an audience that had tired of him (“Whatever happened to the Teenage Dream?” he asked in February ’74—it only hit #13). Mott the Hoople, self-chroniclers to the end, issued as their last single the retrospective “Saturday Gigs,” with Mick Ronson in tow. Roxy Music closed each side of Stranded with resignation letters—spiritual (“Psalm,”** an eight-minute gospel song about renouncing fashion for Jesus, a more prestigious fashion, with Bryan Ferry backed by the London Welsh Male Choir) and existential (“Sunset,” which finds Ferry sitting in his sports car, contemplating the void).
And “Rebel Rebel” is Bowie’s parting benediction. Despite its title, the song’s more reconciliation than revolution—more than anything, it’s generous, an offer of pure acceptance. In “Rebel Rebel,” the singer sizes up a girl (or boy, or both) whose outrageous style catches his eye. The singer’s perspective isn’t that of a fellow teenager, though, but someone a bit older—someone out of the scene, who’s a bit jaded, who’s bemused, at first, by the tacky kid’s antics. She’s young enough not to know better, he’s old enough to care. But as the song goes on, the singer grows more inspired by her. She breaks him of his habits, so he gives her his backing. They strike a bargain: her youth and outrage for his knowledge of how she can fit into the world.
So “Rebel Rebel” is a primer of a rock & roll record: everything’s easy to play, everything’s kept simple. It’s as though Bowie, singing to his new find, is teaching her to sing about herself. Bowie makes a vocal for anyone’s voice, as he stays to a four-note span for over half of the song, and sings much of the lyric in a loose, conversational manner (there’s a bit of David Johansen in it). The verses are identical to the choruses (barring the “hot tramp” tag at the end of each chorus), with the only chord variations coming on the two 4-bar bridges. Everything is made subordinate to the beat: the bassline, apart from its one big moment—the sweep of notes that marks its introduction—mainly plays two simple alternating lines; the drums are four-on-the-floor, with the occasional modest fill; Mike Garson’s piano is buried so deep in the mix it sounds like a distant cowbell. The lead guitar riff provides the melody (Bowie sings along to it at times)—it opens the song like a car alarm, courses through it like blood.
Malcolm McLaren once said the first wave of punk kids were former Bowie and Roxy Music fans, who had found nothing for them in the likes of Station to Station or Siren. Bowie seemed to predict this: “Rebel Rebel” is him dividing the kingdom, distributing inheritances. Even the cheap promo video he made for “Rebel Rebel” would teach the punks style and attitude: Bowie’s thrift-shop motley; his blithely arrogant, if awkward, poses; how he holds his Fender Stratocaster with disdain, hardly pretending to play it.
Sometime in the ’80s, Bowie was being kept awake in his hotel room by someone above him playing “Rebel Rebel” on electric guitar, and terribly. Finally, Bowie walked upstairs, prepared to deliver a humiliation: he would show the guitarist how to play the song properly, then tell him to shut up. He knocked on the door, and John McEnroe, aspiring guitar player, answered it.
You can’t blame McEnroe for obsessively playing the “Rebel Rebel” riff, as it seems crafted for obsession. A shuttle from D to E,*** the riff’s made of three parts—an opening burst (four notes, the first bent), a centerpiece (two quickly strummed E chords) and a resolution, five descending notes that end back with the riff opening. Its structure’s reminiscent of the “Ziggy Stardust” riff, while its tone has a taste of “Jean Genie.” Bowie makes the riff inescapable—in the four-plus minutes of the original “Rebel Rebel,” the riff is only absent in the two bridges and in the two-bar tags at the end of each chorus.
Alan Parker played the riff on the record, using a Les Paul standard and a Fender reverb amp with a single Wharfedale speaker. He later said Bowie had about three-fourths of the riff down when he played it for Parker on an acoustic guitar: he told Parker to make it a bit more Rolling Stones. Parker replayed the riff on his electric, adding some clang and bends (Bowie credited Parker with the three final notes of the riff: Ab, D and E). Its godfather was Keith Richards, who’d made a lifetime habit of compelling two-chord riffs; its target was Mick Ronson, who Bowie seemed to be trying to outdo.
Though “Rebel Rebel” is about as simple as a rock song gets, there’s still a compositional trick in it—over half of the song is a colossal 40-bar chorus, which Bowie sneakily turns into a set of variations, filling its bars with new lyrics. So while the two verses of “Rebel Rebel” are exactly the same, with identical lyrics and chords, the end chorus offers Bowie’s variations; words keep coming, bouncing off each other, as though Bowie, who started the song in studied indifference (“your hair’s alright”), is falling deeper in love with each passing second. You can’t get enough, but enough ain’t the test! You’ve got your cue lines and a handful of ‘ludes/you wanna be there when they count up the dudes. (There’s a whole novel in that last line). How could they know!? he wonders towards the fade-out: after all, he didn’t. The song fades out at last, and he watches her walk off into her youth. She’s his juvenile successor.
Doesn’t “Rebel Rebel” go on a bit, though? Four and a half minutes on the LP, the song’s melodic and harmonic stasis makes it feel even longer. On a dance floor it worked well enough, as its Moebius strip of a guitar riff and its endless stomp beat made it trance-music (Rodney Bingenheimer played it at least every half-hour at his English Disco in LA; Joan Jett and Cherie Currie were on the floor); on the radio, DJs often faded out the final minute.
We have a remedy, as Pete Townshend once said. Soon after Bowie came to America in April 1974, he cut a revised version of “Rebel Rebel” for US radio, doing a series of overdubs onto the original master (with Geoff MacCormack on congas and castanets). The American single is shorter (nearly two minutes less than the LP cut) and seems even faster. Bowie loaded the new mix with hooks and gimmicks: careering and echoing backing vocals, clattering percussion, muttered interjections. He kicked it off with the “hot tramp” chorus tag and faded it out while the track was still boiling. It’s the essential version of “Rebel Rebel” for me—Bowie’s single of singles. Bowie seemed to agree, as most of his live versions of took their cue from it.
Recorded 14-16 January 1974. Released as RCA LPBO 5009 in mid-February ’74 (it hit #5), two months before Diamond Dogs came out. The American single (RCA APBO 0287) was cut in New York in mid-April ’74. It only hit #64 in the US, and was never compiled until the 30th anniversary reissue of Diamond Dogs. Performed in every Bowie tour until 1990, revived around century’s end. A new arrangement, debuted on stage in 2002, was recorded in 2003 during the early Reality sessions, and wound up on the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtrack. Merged with “Never Get Old” to make the 2004 mash-up record “Rebel Never Gets Old,” which blessedly I won’t have to write about for years.
Much of the “Rebel Rebel” composition/recording history is from David Buckley’s extensive liner notes for the Diamond Dogs reissue, now out of print.
Top: Daniel Meadows, “Portsmouth: John Payne, aged 12, with two friends and his pigeon, Chequer, 26 April 1974.”
*Queen’s first appearance on Top of the Pops in February 1974 only happened because Bowie’s promo for “Rebel Rebel” didn’t reach the studio in time for broadcast.
**Watch this video, not only for the great performance, but to see Ferry make a flawless tambourine catch at 6:20.
*** What are the riff chords? The “official” sheet music throws in an A chord, so it’s D/D-A-E for every two bars. This how-to video by a headless Brit seems more on the mark, though, and it has the sequence as Dsus2/E/E6. I guess we should ask McEnroe.