Disco, omnivore of music genres, ingested anything given it. So there were disco records based on Beethoven symphonies, ’40s swing tunes, country stomps, Italian police thriller themes, cartoon noises, and, Bowie’s contribution, glam rock songs.
“John, I’m Only Dancing,” a UK #12 in 1972, hadn’t been released in the US, so Bowie considered it a potential breakthrough single there. It was just a matter of resuiting “John” for the times, the sexual ambiguity of the original making it ideal for a disco revision. Bowie even slotted “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” as a potential lead-off track for his new record, which at one point was going to be called Dancin‘. As the sessions went on, though, and after Bowie had played “John (Again)” on tour in September-October ’74, his enthusiasm for the remake seemed to cool. The happy appearance of “Fame” at the eleventh hour made “John (Again)” seem a bit redundant, and the latter was left off Young Americans and shelved. In 1979, just as disco was peaking, Bowie issued “John (Again)” as a stand-alone single, and it charted the same as the original.
For “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” Bowie fit a new set of verses to the original track’s chorus. While both “Johns” are in the same key, the rhythm, naturally, radically changed in the remake. The original “John” was built on a chassis of chugging acoustic guitar and sharp Mick Ronson interjections, where “John (Again)” is four-on-the-floor classic disco, with Ronson’s signature riff converted to a keyboard line. The original’s constantly moving bassline (which provided the melodic hook in the chorus) was replaced by a repeated four-beat line wedded to the bass drum.
And where the original “John, I’m Only Dancing”‘s two brief verses were miniature character sketches, evoking a world of seedy nightclubs and quick assignations (“I saw you watching from the stairs,” “Annie’s very sweet, always eats her meat”), the remake has five hectoring verses, in which Bowie, spurred by his backing singers, seems like a demented MC, calling back to T. Rex and Chuck Berry hits, getting off the occasional joke (the first line’s pretty good). Where the original “John” constantly moved and evaded, the remake is far more static, the only curveball being a bar of 3/4 that ends each verse.
There’s a feeling everyone is working a bit too hard on the remake—the groove ‘s impressive, but where the original “John” had a sense of space and depth, this track seems cluttered, the playing too agitated, with Bowie venturing into disco burlesque at times. Only the latter half of the track, when the chorus singers urge each other on, Bowie growls out some affirmations, and Carlos Alomar lets loose with some fine rhythm guitar, really seems fit for the dance floor.
Recorded 11-18 August, 20-24 November 1974. Released as RCA BOW 4 (#12) in December 1979 and later collected on ChangesTwoBowie and reissues of Young Americans.
Top: Patrick Davies, “Ric Briggs, a Fashionable High School Student,” 1975.