A happy surprise in a season of unhappy ones is the recent leak of an Olympic Studios tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from January 1974. The source is, apparently, someone who made a digital copy of the tape, which was auctioned off by Omega last fall. The winning bidder paid £2,100. Now the world has it—who knows, perhaps the bidder was feeling generous.
As per Omega’s description of the session, from 9 January 1974: “The tape features Bowie pausing frequently to direct the musicians – in total there are six different takes with three being complete. The label lists a final version as “MASTER” but this is no longer present on the reel, presumably having been spliced off to be compiled with other album master tracks, possibly for further overdubbing etc.”
This is exactly the sort of thing—a series of studio takes, with Bowie shifting lyrics around, trying out phrasings and tempos, hitting bum notes, cracking up—that he had no interest in ever releasing. “Official” Bowie outtakes are almost always a complete performance, whether it’s a demo, live recording, fully-mixed studio take, alternate mix of a song, or, a DB favorite, a sketch that he monkeyed with years later to create a fake “lost” song (see “I Pray Ole”). Twenty minutes of Bowie running Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman through a song that he’d not quite finished: not so much.
So is it worth a listen? I found it pretty compelling—played it twice through. Not quite sure why, apart from its novelty. Maybe just to hear Bowie and his musicians doing a normal act—working out backing tracks of a song in a studio one night—is now comforting, similar to how films with scenes in restaurants or offices or crowded streets have a sudden, painful nostalgia to them. Random shots of life as we’ve known it our entire lives can seem as remote as film footage of a Cossack charge.
Bowie had been working on what became Diamond Dogs for months when he cut these takes in early January. This period at Olympic, with just Bowie, Garson, Flowers, and Newman on the session, was when the album, which had been a loose collection of songs from various prospective theatrical ventures, finally took shape—they cut much of the “Sweet Thing” sequence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” “We Are The Dead,” “Big Brother” and “Diamond Dogs” alone in roughly 10 days (along with an early version of “Can You Hear Me”).
Hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” in a stripped-down, developing state improves the song for me. It was always an odd fit for Diamond Dogs, playing the role that a cover song like “Fill Your Heart” or “It Ain’t Easy” had on Bowie’s earlier Seventies albums. A spot of reassurance on a diseased-sounding record, as I once called it—the brass hinge between the “Hunger City” songs on side one and the Nineteen Eighty Four pieces on the second side.
Co-composed by Bowie’s childhood friend (and 1974 tour vocalist) Geoff MacCormack, who came up with some of the verse chords, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was apparently first slotted for the sketchiest of Bowie’s mid-Seventies plans: a Ziggy Stardust musical intended for the stage or TV. Talking to William S. Burroughs two months before this recording, Bowie said this musical would be a cut-up performance. He’d write some 40 scenes and then “shuffle [them] around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out…it would change every night.”
A precursor of “We Are the Champions” and other arena standards, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is made of “rock spiritual” timber—a “Lean On Me”/”Let It Be”-esque piano intro, a Garson organ hymn and a Bowie vocal that takes predictable flight: low and confined in the first verse, swoops up an octave for the second, capping it off with roared refrains and scats (“I’m in tears...I’m in tears”). In the rehearsal takes, you can hear Bowie plotting this course out (“the next time it comes around it keeps straight, like a 4/4 thing…that’s right, the high verse: AH la la la lah-dah!”)
What saves the song from sentimentality is its acerbic take on the relations of audience and actor (“they sold us for the likes of you”). “There are two stars in rock ‘n’ roll—me and the audience,” Bowie had said at one of the last Ziggy Stardust concerts in Newcastle, irritated by bouncers hitting some kids. “And if these stewards don’t stop…the stars are going to make this place into a matchbox.” If it’s meant to be the voice of Ziggy, it’s a Ziggy tartly explaining why he broke up the band and was renting a room somewhere in America to get away from his fans (“I’ve found a door that lets me out!”).
Asked in summer 1974 whether his fans considered him as a leader, Bowie said that “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was his response: “you’re doing it to me. Stop it.” Eventually-scrapped lyrics in the rehearsal takes show how he was playing with this idea: “I would take invaders into hand/ tens of millions fail to understand.”
He could be frustrated by fans who got stuck on a persona he’d discarded. They were content to “adopt the stance of a character that didn’t exist at all, and a life-style that hadn’t been created…they created their own life-style for Ziggy,” he later said, baffled that anyone had taken him seriously. On stage in 1974, he used performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” to have gnomic dialogues with his crowds. In Boston, he broke off midway through it to ramble “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.) On the Diamond Dogs cut, he gave the last word to his lead guitar.
The rehearsal takes have a lightness and a dedication to them, the latter especially in Bowie’s singing—after being in a fog, he was seeing the way out. Diamond Dogs was a defiant album: the album after Ziggy and the Spiders died, the one that showed that Bowie could stand on his own without a Ronson or Visconti (though the latter helped with mixing it), the one he made after Sonia Orwell turned him down for Nineteen Eighty Four; the last album that he cut (mostly) in England. It was, in many ways, his first true solo album, and it always meant a great deal to him. Now, until the YouTube links dry up, you can hear Bowie singing part of it into being.