Diamond Dogs

September 15, 2010

Diamond Dogs.
Diamond Dogs (live, 1974).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1976).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1996).
Diamond Dogs (live, 2004).

They’d taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart. They’d been able to break into windows of jewelers and things, so they’d dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds. But they had snaggle-teeth, really filthy, kind of like vicious Oliver Twists. It was a take on, what if those guys had gone malicious, if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely ape-shit? They were living on the tops of buildings…they were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses, really.

David Bowie, on “Diamond Dogs,” 1993.

Where I lived was with my dadda and mum in the flats of municipal flatblock 18A, between Kingsley Avenue and Wilsonway. I got to the big main door with no trouble, though I did pass one malchick sprawling and creeching and moaning in the gutter, all cut about lovely, and saw in the lamplight also streaks of blood here and there like signatures, my brothers, of the night’s fillying.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

“Diamond Dogs” has never sounded quite right: a sordid, overlong Rolling Stones imitation, someone else’s nightmare inflicted with malice upon you. As darkly comical as it is menacing, it’s a “classic rock” song overrun by grotesques (amputees in priest’s robes, Tod Browning rejects, various ultraviolences).

Audiences didn’t know what to make of it. “Diamond Dogs” was Bowie’s least-successful single since the Hunky Dory days, reaching only #21 in the UK, and going nowhere in the States. On the radio, it never seems to segue well: it burlesques whatever song it follows or precedes. Leading off the second side of Bowie’s hits compilation, ChangesOneBowie, it was a wide moat of a groove, taking up the space of two less disturbing songs (I often skipped it, dropping the needle on “Rebel Rebel” instead). The track sounds used, repurposed, as though Bowie found an old master tape and overdubbed slurs and noises onto it.

The germ of “Diamond Dogs” came from Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, who had worked at Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, a British children’s charity. Jones had recounted to his son stories of the Homes’ founder, Dr. Barnardo, and his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, who had gone around Victorian London finding bands of homeless children living on the roofs of buildings. Bowie transposed that image into his now-standard future dystopia, turning the Victorian “ragged boys” into”diamond dogs”: a pack of feral kids living on high-rise roofs, going around on roller skates, robbing and mugging, terrorizing the corpse-strewn streets they live above.

A Clockwork Orange was again central (see “Suffragette City”), not only in Bowie’s droogs-like “Dogs” and their Alex-like leader, Halloween Jack, but in the song’s setting—a ruined, post-apocalyptic modernist building. It could be set in a more decayed Thamesmead South estate where Stanley Kubrick shot Clockwork Orange (or Alton West, which Truffaut used for Fahrenheit 451, or La Défense, playing a future city in Godard’s Alphaville, etc.).

Each day the towers of central London seemed slightly more distant, the landscape of an abandoned planet receding slowly from his mind.

JG Ballard, High-Rise.

Watching films from the early ’70s, you can’t avoid the general sense of shabbiness, regardless of where the films were shot. Take one contemporary example, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, which is a guided tour of blighted Atlantic Coast America, from Philadelphia slums to New York whorehouses to empty Boston parks. It’s decay worsened by the knowledge that the run-down train stations, corner stores and row houses were once clean, stylish, even modern places. Enduring the Seventies meant living in the ruins of the postwar dream of general prosperity, particularly in the cities, which were more and more depicted in films and in the press as asylums, graveyards and prisons.

But “Diamond Dogs,” set in appalling urban ruins, isn’t a despairing song in the slightest. It’s full of vitality, cheap loud tricks, carnival horns, vulgarities, hammering beats (take the way someone keeps thwacking on a cowbell for the nearly the entire track). It makes do with style, it makes playtime out of collapse. The elevator’s shot, so Halloween Jack swings by a rope, Tarzan-style, to reach the street.

The song seems to predict JG Ballard’s High Rise, published the following year, in which residents of a high-rise apartment complex fall into tribalism and warfare. But the high-rise dwellers come to love their new condition: they stop going to work, devoting all their energies to feral pleasures, devolving into hunter-gatherers. It ends with one survivor watching the lights go out in a neighboring high-rise, which makes him happy. He’s “ready to welcome them to their new world.” Bowie was already there.

In the year of the scavenger: “Diamond Dogs” is made partly out of stolen goods. It opens with applause lifted from the Faces’ live album Coast to Coast (you can hear Rod Stewart yell “hey” just as the guitar riffs kick in), and towards the end there’s a blatant rip of Bobby Keyes’ saxophone line on the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Bowie’s main guitar line might well be a rewrite of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” which was born out of a jam session that Bowie took part in. The track ends with Bowie furiously chording on a Bo Diddley riff.

Like “Rebel Rebel” it’s structurally simple, a standard I-IV-V rock song (it’s in A major, and the verses mainly go from the tonic, A, to the dominant, E, while the choruses are basically repetitions of D-A-B, ending back in A) with, as in “Rebel,” two verses, a bridge (6 bars here, starting with “I’ll keep a friend serene”) and ending with an extended chorus.

Bowie sings with exuberance, sometimes ranging widely (“Tod Browning’s freak you was” falls an octave in a single bar), sometimes digging in place (“crawling down the alley on your/hands and knee” is all one note). His guitar work is primitive and brutal, and mixed to be inescapable—as ace commenter Snoball wrote in the “Rebel Rebel” entry, Diamond Dogs tracks like “Rebel” (and “Dogs”) are filled with Bowie’s sledgehammer riffing, lacking the tension-and-release precision of Mick Ronson’s work.

“Diamond Dogs” swims in ugliness (it’s grotesquely funny, too: take how Bowie, having introduced his first character, a genderless amputee dressed in a priest’s costume, has her/him “crawling down the alley on your hands and knee) and it makes no concessions. If there was ever an irony in dancing to a Stones song like “Brown Sugar,”  a party song celebrating slavery,”Diamond Dogs” raises the ante—on its face, it’s completely unredeemable, a honky-tonk celebration of death, decay and violence. Over the years, it’s become one of Bowie’s beloved standards.

Recorded (initially as “Diamond Dawgs”) from 15 January to mid-February 1974. Released as a single (RCA APBO 0293, c/w “Holy Holy”) in June. Performed, no surprise, throughout the “Diamond Dogs” and “Philly Dogs” tours of 1974, and also in 1976. Retired for two decades, then played in some of Bowie’s recent tours.

For SEP, as this is her favorite Bowie song.

Recommended reading: Ballard’s High-Rise, 1975; Thomas M. Disch’s 334, 1972; Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism.


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