All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople, with Bowie guide vocal).
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie).
Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/ All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1973).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1974).
All The Young Dudes (Mott and Bowie, 1992).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1996).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie and Billy Corgan, live, 1997).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 2004).

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

Why did David Bowie give away his best song? Mott the Hoople didn’t know. The band, watching Bowie demo “All the Young Dudes” on guitar in his manager’s Regent Street office, were baffled by his generosity. Asked if they wanted the song, “we broke our necks to say yes,” Mott’s drummer Dale Griffin later said. One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, Bowie still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act like Mott. He had pitched them “Suffragette City,” but the band had passed on it, telling him they were breaking up. And so Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to rescue one of his favorite bands.

“All The Young Dudes” was born larger than its creator. It’s not just that Bowie’s own version of the song, cut later in 1972, is a wan reflection of the Mott record (the only time Bowie came close to the power of the Mott single was onstage at the last Ziggy Stardust concert). “Dudes” is a band’s song, its power derived in part from its performers’ own mythology and history; take the way, as the song winds down, Ian Hunter riffs against the chorus that his bandmates repeat. The chorus gives the come-on, Hunter closes the sale, picking out faces in the crowd, pointing at them, baiting them, drawing them in.

Pop music is as tribal as it can be universal, and “All the Young Dudes” is one of the great tribal songs: it draws a line in the dirt and says, “this is where we stand,” or “this is far as we go.” On its surface, it’s an attempt to make a secessionist movement of the younger Baby Boom kids, severing them from their hippie older brothers and sisters. Bowie had hinted at this strategy with the line “look out you rock & rollers—pretty soon, you’re gonna get older” in “Changes,” but here he puts it right out:

My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

The cold contempt in Hunter’s voice as he sings the last two lines brings it home. The house has burned down, so let’s just play in the ashes. It’s telling that the hippie brother is sitting around at home, considering himself a revolutionary but lost in his fantasies, while the Young Dudes are out on the streets and starring in their own dramas. Their revolution, if they even want one, is the one D.H. Lawrence proposed in “A Sane Revolution” (“it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples would go a-rolling”), a poem that Mott the Hoople would quote on their last great record.

The ancestors to “All the Young Dudes” are Bowie’s songs about children, “There Is a Happy Land” or “When I’m Five” or “After All.” As in those songs, “All the Young Dudes” ranks and marks its characters, watching them play out their tiny lives onstage (with some fine writing, like the detail about the kid scarring his face by ripping off stickers); again, there’s a sense of ominousness and loss, whether in the way the chorus, opening in triumph, soon descends into minor chords, or how the lyric opens with a kid rapping about how he’s going to kill himself when he gets old (25 years old).

The “news” the kids are carrying, Bowie later said, is the secret knowledge that the world is ending soon: the Young Dudes are the final generation, or at least believe they are. The world’s last children, they spend their days in happy revolt against the world, a life full of petty crimes, costumes and solidarity.

“All the Young Dudes” sounded like a smash from the start (“we knew we were singing a hit,” Hunter later said), and it’s constructed similarly to “Changes,” with a compelling melody set against a fairly complex chord structure. The song’s full of little touches: take the way the opening guitar riff becomes a series of triplets leading into the verse, or how while the verse and the chorus begin the same (moving from C to A minor to E minor to G), each then takes a different path, the verse moving to a D minor bridge (“television man is crazy,” etc.) while the chorus suddenly shifts to 3/4 time after “carry the news.”

The Mott single, produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson, was recorded on 14 May 1972 and released in July. It hit #3 in the UK and was collected on the LP of the same name, again produced by Bowie and Ronson and recorded in June-July ’72. (The Mott track with Bowie’s guide vocal is on the reissue of All the Young Dudes.) Bowie’s version, cut during the early Aladdin Sane sessions at the end of ’72, was an oft-bootlegged outtake until the 1990s, when it was collected on a greatest-hits disc—Bowie’s only “official” version until then was a 1974 concert recording on David Live.

Top: Schoolboys smoking, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972. (Another Nickel in the Machine).