Rebel Rebel

Rebel Rebel (original UK single).
Rebel Rebel.
Rebel Rebel (US single, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1976).
Rebel Rebel (Musikladen, 1978).
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).
Rebel Rebel (live, 2004).

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. [Edit: this turned out to be “Sufragette City,” see comments; I’ll keep the anecdote in this entry, just substitute the song.] 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.

The “Rebel Rebel” riff 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 seems more on the mark, though, and it has the sequence as Dsus2/E/E6.

29 Responses to Rebel Rebel

  1. col1234 says:

    Details of the McEnroe anecdote—which does seem legit, mind—vary from source to source. Sometimes Bowie is in the suite above JMs, sometimes below, sometimes next door. But everyone agrees on the essential humiliating facts involving JM’s crappy guitar playing.

    • Roman says:

      I read an interview with McEnroe where he acknowledges this story as fact. He’s a big fan and there’s plenty of pics of him hanging out backstage on the 83 and 87 tours.

  2. Uncle Arthur says:

    I remember reading many moons ago that the Rebel Rebel single had Ronson on it and then the track was re-recorded for the LP without him – another myth….

  3. Uncle Arthur says:

    Though the version on the video is different from the LP – could be a new backing track recorded for the video – or maybe the single was different?

  4. snoball says:

    I like the fact that Queen’s first TV appearance was due to Bowie (or at least a tape of his promo) not being available – as it mirrors the Sex Pistols’ Grundy appearance happening because Queen had to drop out.

  5. Bill Luther says:

    “Cartoon pop acts” and “opera buffa rock groups”, well put!

  6. bluejean says:

    The single version is a different mix, see-

    Rebel Rebel (Bowie): three different versions exist. The familiar version was released in edited and remixed form (4’22” instead of 4’31” and much more echoey than the album version) as the the first single from Diamond Dogs (RCA LPBO 5009). The Australian Rebel Rebel EP (RCA RCA 20610) features a shorter 4’06” edit. Further mixes of this version are found on bootlegs: a ‘dry mix’ (“BBC Version”) was released on Absolutely Rare (no label) and The Axeman Cometh (DB003) has a “Mix 1”, supposedly from a 1973 acetate, but this version is very similar (if not completely identical) to the regular single edit. The second version (often referred to as the US or “phased” version) is rumoured to be played entirely by Bowie. It was released in May 1974, three months after the first issue, but only in the US, Canada (both RCA APBO-0287) and Mexico (RCA SP-4049)

  7. bombadear says:

    The did Ronson play on the single version of Rebel Rebel is one of those old controversies. There are many who swear he did and indeed pretty much wrote the riff.

  8. snoball says:

    I don’t think Ronno wrote it – it doesn’t have the “tension and release” that his riffs have. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is more like a sledgehammer BAH BAH BAH BAHBAH BAH BAHBAHBAHBAH, really does sound like something a couple of people have worked on.

  9. col1234 says:

    Here’s the “Mix 1” version from the Axeman Cometh bootleg, which I don’t think really is an alternate mix, but take a listen:

  10. sekaer says:

    nice shout out to the GREAT performance by Roxy of Psalm…it’s truly breathtaking

  11. Marius says:

    If Alan Parker really played the guitar on Rebel Rebel, why isn’t he credited on the sleeve? He gets the credit for playing on 1984 – and that sounds nothing like the guitar on Rebel Rebel.

  12. Before the egregious Diamond Dogs 30th reissue, doesn’t Sound + Vision (Ryko 1989) have the 1974 mix – 3’01” in my iTunes. – that matches the way he played it in concert?

  13. Gorm Gullo says:

    Just heard the US version for the first time. Interesting, but a bit cluttered? And even more New York Dolls-inspired? Ref. Stranded In The Jungle for the monkey calls in the outro:

  14. Gorm Gullo says:

    But first and foremost: Thanks ever so much for this fantastic blog!!!

  15. Rufus Oculus says:

    I remember when the Diamond Dogs album came out it caused casual followers who had bought Hunky Dory and Ziggy and A Sane to jump ship. Bowie had lost it and Rebel Rebel was just a Stones retread. According to them.

  16. […] Sometime in the ’80s, David 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. [Source] […]

  17. Anonymous says:

    Great stuff. Now you need to follow this up with a song-by-song analysis of Roxy Music!

  18. Freddy Freeloader says:

    Puzzling, and when you think about the bright lights and the dilated iris, a little worrying, that he has the patch over his good eye.

  19. Karmaman says:

    Did David lift ” you got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if your a boy or a girl ” from George Formby’s – Grandad’s Flannalette Nightshirt ? Superb album and song.

  20. Halina says:

    “The song fades out at last, and he watches her walk off into her youth. She’s his juvenile successor.” Listening to this in my youth, I thought she was the singer’s contemporary. From the vantage of age 55, I think your interpretation is compassionate, to Bowie’s character and in general. Here’s another take from the ever world-weary Steely Dan:
    “Who are these children
    Who scheme and run wild
    Who speak with their wings
    And the way that they smile
    What are the secrets
    They trace in the sky
    And why do you tremble
    Each time they ride by”

    I don’t mind becoming obsolete, but so far in my lifetime each generation has become just as ridiculous as the last. Well, I’ll see how one or two more turn out.

    Thank you for your website, it’s amazing.

  21. sunray jahchild says:

    Thanks for the link to Psalm. Astonishing performance

  22. Love the tribute, but not a Stratocaster. It’s a Kent, matey.


  23. Phil Obbard says:

    A friend notes this line from the novel 1984: “You’re only a rebel from the waist down.” (said to Julia). Could this be a (partial) inspiration for this song?

  24. bzfgt says:

    “In between rounds at Wimbledon in 1982, I struggled to learn David Bowie’s Suffragette City and Rebel, Rebel in my hotel flat,” McEnroe wrote. “I heard a knock on my door. It was David Bowie. ‘Come up and have a drink,’ he told me. ‘Just don’t bring your guitar.’ ” – See more at:

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