Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me

Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.
Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (live, 1974).

“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is an island of melody and reassurance on an otherwise diseased-sounding record. It seems to be playing the role reserved for cover songs on Bowie’s earlier albums (see “Fill Your Heart,” “It Ain’t Easy,” “Let’s Spend The Night Together”): a spot of familiarity in a strange landscape. “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” even sounds like a cover. Bowie chose it to lead off Diamond Dogs‘ second side, thus making whatever LP concept remained even more incomprehensible*; its relative prominence was likely a commercial move, as the song seems like a possible single (& a live version of it would be).

Co-composed by Bowie’s close friend Geoff MacCormack, who wrote some of the verse melody and chord sequences, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was originally slated for the vaguest of Bowie’s mid-’70s projects, a stage (and/or TV) musical version of Ziggy Stardust. In Bowie’s interview with William S. Burroughs in November ’73, Bowie said he intended to create a “cut-up” musical performance of Ziggy. He would write some 40 scenes, which he would then “shuffle around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night…”

Like some Ziggy tracks (“Star,” for example), “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” refers to rock & roll as something occurring elsewhere—it’s more a stage direction than a description of the actual record. But the song’s also a fairly artless (for Bowie) rumination on the transactions of stardom. A rock star flatters his audience, thanking them for his fame, giving them in recompense a singalong chorus that puts them on stage with him for a moment. Performing the song in Boston in November ’74 (link above), Bowie broke off halfway through and tried to spell out his intentions: “This one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me, and singing,” he said during another performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” that year.)

By Bowie’s standards of the time, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is a fairly basic composition and performance, from its “Lean On Me” inspired piano intro, to Bowie’s familiar vocal strategy (low and rich in the first verse, high and dramatic in the second, and in the chorus repeats), to the chord sequence of the chorus (C/E minor/F/C), which is the same as a host of pop standards, like “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (it’s also a simplified version of “Over the Rainbow”‘s chorus).

Still, it’s not as warm a song as it first seems—Bowie’s lyric is ultimately ambivalent about his audience, despite his flattery (“they sold us for the likes of you”), and some surviving cut-up-inspired lines like “lizards lay crying in the heat” further confuse things, while Bowie’s brutal lead guitar playing eats away at the melody’s sweetness.

* A far more coherent Side 2 of Diamond Dogs would have been: 1984/Dodo/We Are the Dead/Big Brother/Chant.

Recorded 15 January 1974. The David Live version, recorded in July ’74, was released as a North American single (PB 10105) in September; it was a rush-job meant to compete with Donovan’s cover, though neither single charted.

Top: Elton John breaks in the piano in his new Surrey mansion, June 1974.

6 Responses to Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me

  1. diamond dog says:

    The opening lines are sung ridiculously low I thought was a mistake with speed at the time it still sounds odd. I thought it works on another level introducing the lovers winston expressing his love to Julia so thought it sat well in the running order ,side A setting the scene and then side B using the Orwell elements? It works well as a song on its own as well but I’ve always thought the opening to be pitched oddly but its there for reason.

  2. apologia pro sua vita says:

    Since you’ve slammed some of me fave Bowie tracks elsewhere, I’m slamming this one, ha ha! It’s the first totally mediocre song to appear on a Bowie album. Many more were to come but this is the first. There’s nothing this offensive in his 60s work. A grim look ahead to the awful wasteland that is 80s Bowie.The bit about the lizard’s OK but then it all goes to hell with the chorus – THE most tedious section of a Bowie song ever put on vinyl at this point in his career. A true needle-lifter. God, even Macca with Maxwell’s Silver Hammer doesn’t get me racing to the skip button so quick.

  3. Rufus Oculus says:

    Oh dear. I thought it was ”they sold dust for the likes of you”. Sorry but I love this song and even the Donovan version makes me smile with his strange emphasis on ”you”

  4. Chris says:

    Beautiful song – one of his greatest vocal performances up to that point. I’d always assumed the lyric was a clandestine reference to an affair, but the idea of audience as subject also works.

  5. Eivind Lunde says:

    I do love this song, but found the live version pretty awful. Changes the feeling of the song completely, and I don`t think Bowie is at his best when he does some live improvisation over the tune.

    He`s not a jazz singer.

  6. Christopher Williams says:

    Donovan’s version is now on YouTube: I can wait another 42 years to hear it again.

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