Bowie Night in NYC

September 15, 2015


If you live in the New York area, or are visiting NYC on Saturday, October 17, some good news: I’ll be doing a Rebel Rebel reading at Q.E.D., a fine establishment that’s located in Astoria, one of the most charming neighborhoods in Queens.

Ah, but it’s not merely a reading. It’s “Lord of the Bowies” night, at which the comedian Christian Finnegan and I will co-host an epic Bowie trivia contest. The winner will get a signed book and other swag. There will also be lots of Bowie music: I will lobby for “Laughing Gnome” and “Rupert the Riley” in the playlist. So if you’re a Bowie fan, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night.

Hope you can make it. It should be fun.

You can buy tickets NOW. I recommend that you do so, as there’s fairly limited seating. For directions and other information, Q.E.D.’s main site should have all the answers you need (here’s their FAQ). But if not, leave a comment and I’ll try to help.

Rebel Rebel: A Book

March 27, 2015


A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single pieces.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 124.

Today’s the day: Rebel Rebel is available everywhere (well, in theory). You can buy it via on-line vendors, including Amazon and Book Depository. The e-book should be up in a day or so. There will be some promotions in the next few months: Books Etc. is currently running a discount until May. For UK readers: this £16 sale price is about as low as I’ve seen, promo-wise.

And as a fan of bookstores, I’d love it if you asked your local shop to get a few copies. Above is my local bookstore, White Square Books. In the UK, Foyles and Waterstones should carry it, but it would be great to have it in smaller shops as well.

I’ve been hyping the book for some time now: see the book page for updates, the talks page for extensive radio/podcast interviews and the press page for just shameless self-promotion. Thanks for your patience. The “regular” blog will resume next week, with a fun set of entries, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire and little fat men with pug-nosed faces.

Those who have bought the book, or who are considering doing so, thank you for your support. It means more than you can imagine. Some people have even taken shots of their copies and put them on various social media. The idea that someone thinks enough of your writing that they took a photo of the thing is beyond humbling.

I’ve little left to say about the book, which took three-plus years to write, except that I hope you enjoy it.

The Addison quote above is a feint, as in the following sentence he moves to ridicule “bulky Volumes” for which “the most severe Reader makes Allowances for many Rests and Nodding-places…a great Book is a great Evil.” Writing his triweekly newspaper essays, Addison was essentially an 18th Century blogger. For his ilk, there was no room for padding or preambles. “We must immediately fall into our Subject and treat every Part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid.” I hear you, Addison.

Here was my challenge—how to take the little essays that I put up on the Internet and turn them into something that would justify people paying for a collection of them? Besides it being a vanity project, a tip-jar sort of thing? It helped that the first few months of the blog, esp. the pre-“Space Oddity” essays, were dashed out quickly, with little care. So my revision at first centered on improving those entries, shoring them up, adding more context: that sort of thing.

There were other choices. I needed a more uniform writing style for the entries, which meant I had to gut and rewrite the weird one-offs like the personal narrative in “Changes” and the cut-up aesthetic disaster of the “Sweet Thing” entry. I looked for fresher, more varied quotes. I reduced the level of snark and glibness (fans of “Time” will rejoice), though you still get the occasional nose-tweak—the book’s far from reverent towards its subject. I tried to confine the music theory to a paragraph per entry and exile much of it to the end notes, as I know some people glaze over when they read that stuff.

I think it turned out all right. Hope you do as well.

All best,


An Announcement

December 3, 2014


Longtime blog readers may recall that from roughly the dawn of time I’ve been mentioning that the blog was being turned into a book. Well, that day has finally come. Rebel Rebel (essentially Bowiesongs Book One) will be published on 27 March 2015.

I’m likely to create a separate website for the book soon, and I’ll let you know about it when it’s done. But, you might ask, what’s so exciting about this book then?

* At last count, it was 574 pages! That’s a brick of Bowie for you, perfect for long train trips or island exiles. It’s longer than my copy of Tristram Shandy. And we only get up to the 1976 tour!

* Every entry on this blog from “Liza Jane” to “Station to Station” was revised, updated, corrected, scrubbed up, and made leaner or thicker, more funny or more ambitious (“Alternative Candidate” comes to mind for the latter). There are also a few new entries for songs that weren’t circulating when the blog started in ’09 (e.g., “April’s Tooth of Gold”).

* There’s “The Unheard Music” section, in which I try to catalog, in chronological order, all of the “lost” Bowie songs, from the numbers that he sang in a skiffle band in 1958 to the legendary Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack. Also, a brief summary of the “Bowipochrypha”—songs that fans have thought or hoped were by Bowie but sadly aren’t.

* A lengthy Bowie discography, 1964-1976.

* A huge bibliography of Bowie-related and other material, for fans of bibliographies.

* A rather elephantine notes section, featuring everything from Trevor Bolder’s preferred basses in 1972 to various fine points on chord progressions of Bowie songs to some long, occasionally bizarre digressions (Thomas Paine shows up in one).

And more! I hope you enjoy it. Back to Reality in a few days.


Never Get Old

November 5, 2014

02 385654930_bb7c3f111e_o

Never Get Old.
Never Get Old (video).
Never Get Old (Vittel ad, edit).
Never Get Old (Today Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2003).
Never Get Old (Riverside Studio performance, 2003).
Never Get Old (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (live, 2003).
Never Get Old (The Tonight Show, 2004).
Never Get Old (live, 2004).
Rebel Never Gets Old (2004).

Issued as a hook for Bowie’s first world tour in nearly 15 years, Reality became something else by the late 2000s: Bowie’s Last Album. With Bowie seemingly in retirement, there was a fair bit of fan resentment and bewilderment about this. Reality was really going to be the end? This was his Abbey Road, his Avalon? A “thrusty” (Bowie’s official adjective for it) album with a few covers? It would be as if he’d left the stage with Lodger, another oft-unloved record with which Reality has some affinities.

His return in 2013 loosed Reality from this trap. Now you can consider the record on more favorable terms: as an album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage, whose compositions were written quickly and fairly loosely, its tracks assembled like an Ikea table. The album of an older working artist, of a man used to himself, at an armistice with himself; someone happy not to take himself seriously (hope you’re happy, too). It’s the work of a man pissed off at the world but trying to keep it together for his kid’s sake. Not Bowie’s last album, but his latest album.

In interviews, Bowie hammered home that Reality lacked the thematic arc of Heathen, that there was “no through line” (he said this a half-dozen times) in the album, that it was just a collection of songs and a few covers pulled from a “Pin Ups 2” list. Yet as he said in the album’s promotional video, “going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

There’s far more thematic structure in Reality than Bowie let on. Like Man Who Sold the World, it’s full of extreme figures—Picasso as a cock of the walk; a gluttonous rock star vampire (see below); a Dick Cheney stand-in—and diminished ones: disappointed wives and desperate husbands; various lonelyhearts. There’s death and scars and a long, shadowy sub-sequence in which David Jones buries David Bowie, one more time. And Bowie pulled all of this off lightly, even flippantly, as if he would keep doing it forever.

Some jokes, too. Take the Tezuka-eyed anime figure on the album cover: a record called Reality with a video-game avatar as its marquee artist. Another was the TV ad Bowie made for Vittel water (he had no qualms about this—“basic” TV was a primary means of promotion left to him, as radio and MTV wouldn’t play his new songs). Here he’s a chic brownstone owner (playing on the press’ current image of him) sharing house with his discarded personae. He walks off into the Soho morning, out for a coffee or a Bikram yoga session, leaving the old freaks back at home. He still looks great; he’s in on the joke.


For some time, Bowie had been planning a major world tour, his first since Sound + Vision in 1990, once his daughter was old enough to travel regularly. The Heathen/Low-dominated sets of the 2002 tour needed an overhaul: some more oldies, but also some new, uptempo material. The fast pace and smaller clubs of his “Five Boroughs” NYC shows in October 2002 invigorated him. By year’s end, he was “percolating” with new songs, making demos via his home setup at the time: a Korg Trinity and a Seventies ARP Odyssey, a Korg Pandora effects processor and a lifetime’s accumulation of guitars (“I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately,” he told the Miami Herald). He got Tony Visconti back in the studio in January 2003.

At the time, Visconti was often renting the small Studio B in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios on Broadway, walking distance from Bowie’s Soho home. So Bowie could keep to a domestic schedule—Internet binging or neighborhood walks in the early morning, breakfast with his daughter, off to the studio around 10 or 11 AM and back home by 7 PM for dinner. He could try out something on a keyboard at home, play it in the studio a few hours later, take the file home and listen to it that night.

Bowie and Visconti demoed about seven tracks (top melody sketches and scratch keyboard, bass and guitars over a click track), then began some overdubs, mainly guitar, vocals and keyboards. “Inevitably we’d hardly redo anything,” Visconti recalled to Sound on Sound. “I always record things carefully in the first place because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.” (Visconti said “the bulk” of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board mainly used for monitoring tracks.)

After a break in which Bowie wrote and demoed more songs, he assembled a small group for rhythm tracks (cutting eight tracks in about eight days). It was just Bowie and Visconti, drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/guitarist Mark Plati, all cramped into Studio B, with its 12′ x 10′ isolation booth. While Bowie could have rented the more spacious Studio A, he preferred being boxed in to get “a real tight New York sound,” as Visconti called it (Visconti also said he could better judge bass-end tones in the smaller studio).

This was the end of Plati’s work with Bowie. In the late Nineties, Plati had positioned himself as Bowie’s new right-hand man, and once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels parted company in 1999, Plati was ready to move up. But he hadn’t banked on the return of Tony Visconti to the fold, and the collapse of Toy (Plati’s baby) meant Visconti had the dominant hand. A source familiar with most of the musicians at the time noted Visconti had been gunning for Plati for a while and that Bowie had enjoyed the rivalry, as it bred good creative energy (he was an old hand at this, pitting Earl Slick against Carlos Alomar, Eno against Alomar, Reeves Gabrels against Mike Garson, etc.)

For Reality, Visconti recorded all the bass parts at the demo stage, often leaving Plati to have to trace over his lines (and Bowie preferred Visconti’s original takes on “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”). Visconti had looked a bit askance at Plati’s use of the Line 6 Bass Pod (a preamp that could let the player “dial up” the sound of whichever bass amp and cabinet they wanted), preferring to direct-inject his “very souped up ’67 [Fender] Precision” into the console.

Plati left before the Reality tour to take a gig with Robbie Williams, which he later regretted. He’d been used to Bowie fans, who were so devoted to the music that they knew every player’s name and backstory; now he was just an anonymous face backing a Star.


By February 2003, a good chunk of the record was cut, though Bowie and Visconti weren’t happy with the drum sound, ultimately driving up to Allaire Studios near Woodstock, where they’d cut Heathen, to play Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, then mixing that reverbed sound into Logic Audio.

For lead guitars, they brought in Earl Slick (cranking out his lines through an “enormous” Marshall stack), David Torn (charged with providing “atmospheres” as on Heathen, though he also got some lead riffs, like “New Killer Star”) and Gerry Leonard (mainly incidental work and solo spots, like the “Spanish” guitar on “Pablo Picasso”). Bowie also was keen to get into the mix some old Supro guitars that he’d bought on eBay, including a 1957 Dual Tone retrofitted by Flip Scipio and another patched-up 12-string Supro (heard on “Never Get Old,” among other tracks). Bowie also played scads of Korg Trinity, retrieved his old Selmer baritone saxophone for a few tracks and tried his hand at harmonica again (not heard since “Never Let Me Down” unless I’m (likely) forgetting something).

By May, Bowie and Visconti had pasted together a record, mixing sounds from a wide palette. Mike Garson recorded both synth and piano parts (the latter in California, with Garson putting the finished pieces into a ProTools file). Bowie typically sang three lead vocals for each track—one right after the rhythm tracks were cut, one midway through the sessions and one towards the start of mixing. Visconti synced them up (he’d made sure Bowie had used the same mic, a Manley Gold, for all takes) so that he could make a neat stitching job for a last vocal, following a line Bowie had sung in February with one he’d sung in May. And Bowie was in strong voice—having finally given up cigarettes, he’d recovered at least five semitones.


You gotta stay young, man, you can never be old.

Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.”

Unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young.

James Miller.

Wouldn’t that be fun, to age disgracefully?

Bowie, to the Sydney Morning Herald, 2003.

In 2001, the New York Press editor John Strausbaugh issued a manifesto, Rock ’til You Drop, attacking “colostomy rock” (the book had a cover photo of a wizened, grotesque-looking Mick Jagger): “Rock should simply not be played by 55-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago…its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads…Rock ‘n’ roll is not family entertainment.” (Bowie got a few brickbats, with Strausbaugh labeling him a “self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old creep [conflating] all of rock ‘n’ roll with his own way-past-prime career”).

This was a sharper-pitched (Strausbaugh’s book is full of lurid Hogarth-esque descriptions of sadly aging musicians) version of an old argument: can a youth music grow old with dignity? Should there be some sort of Logan’s Run scenario where rock stars, after they hit 35, agree to kill themselves to spare us the sight of their aging? Bowie had avoided some of this by staying thin, keeping his hair and simply not seeming to age that much (even Strausbaugh admitted Bowie still looked hale in his 50s). But his sheer perseverance rankled Strausbaugh and other critics. Didn’t he know it was over? Wasn’t it a bit embarrassing, all the Internet Bowiebanc Omikron drum’n’bass business?

“Never Get Old” is Bowie’s response (did he read the book? you never know). Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. “It’s a rather silly song,” he told Kurt Orzeck. “It’s kind of [about] a petulant 56-year-old.” To the Sun, Bowie added that “there’s the image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, ‘I’m not gonna get old.’ I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.”

After all, this sort of “get off the stage, old man” warfare was in great part intra-generational: it was late Baby Boomers attacking early Baby Boomers. “Today we’re a generation of angry old men,” Bowie told Der Stern. He had a three-year old daughter for whom Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Lady Miss Keir and Trent Reznor would all be one great jumble, a collective past that would be as easy to pare and remix as he’d done for his latest album. But playing an aging, vain Baby Boomer egomaniacal creep was too juicy a role not to take on.

Singing “Never Get Old” was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it. Around this time he cut a remake of “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher, where he sang “look out, you rock ‘n rollers—pretty soon you’re gonna get older!” with gusto and happy irony. He recut “Rebel Rebel” as an aging rocker still playing at youth, then had it mashed up into “Never Get Old” for a tawdry single that would have made the likes of Strausbaugh retch.


“Never Get Old” is a bipolar song. The E major refrains are hectoring and bloated, with their set of whining guitars stuck in second gear. A grotesque rock star refuses to leave the table, instead filling his belly with more: cash, food, drugs, women (live, Bowie sang “never gonna be enough bullets!” while making a gun shape with his fingers: you’re never gonna be able to kill all of us). Underneath the latter half of the refrains is a grunting, moaning distorted bass figure: the gurgling stomach of the singer, or the factory work keeping his enterprise going.

He’s also feeding on his past. The winding verse melody is similar to that of “Karma Man,” while there’s a pun on old glories (“never gonna get Low“) and maybe even an Iggy Pop nod (“street of life” calls back to the “street of chance” of Pop/Bowie’s “Baby“). And not just his past. The last vocal tag, a soaring bit by Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, mirrors the close of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Yet the verses and pre-choruses have none of this cheek. They’re built on tentative shifts up and down, like a man struck with doubts on a stairway. The verse starts on G major (“better take care”), sharpens the chord (“I think I’d better go better”) and in a breath makes it natural again (“get a room better take”) then moves down to F major (“care of me”). The second time round’s a lower descent, to E minor (..”history”). The pre-chorus does the same moves with C major (C: “forever,” C#: “this feeling that we’re going to be,” C: “living until the,” B-flat: “end of time”), then in a classic “really, Bowie?” progression, there’s a jarring shift from Bb to G# (“head hangs low”) to E-flat (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the chorus.

These qualified, shaky movements, paced by a rhythm guitar (Torn?) that mainly nags at its G string, underscores a lyric marked by regret and loneliness. A man locks himself up in his room (painted blue, blue electric blue?). He goes to the movies, like the mousy-haired girl of “Life on Mars?,” hoping that when the star turns around for his close-up, he’ll acknowledge the little man in the stalls. The moon floats along with its stolen light (its airy progress the little piano break). The refrain is a lie.

A while ago, someone wrote on the “Space Oddity” post, arguing with my choice of words. I’d written “when Bowie dies” and the commenter took me to task: “surely you meant if?” It’s a wonderful protest, and a true one. It seems wrong to write that Bowie will ever die. He can’t die, he won’t die: we just won’t let him.


Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality (ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2/ CK 90576, UK #3, US #29). A video for the song is included on the DualDisc version, one of the several supplemental editions of Reality, whose numbers also include the 2-CD version (with bonus tracks “Fly,” “Queen of the Tarts” and a remade “Rebel Rebel”), the “tour” version (which had a bonus DVD with the LP sequence performed live at Riverside Studio, plus “Waterloo Sunset” as a bonus (the Japanese CD also had the latter track)) and the SACD, which had Visconti’s Dolby 5.1 mixes for all tracks.

“Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004, was issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971) and also was available as an iTunes download.

Sources: Of particular help (to this and upcoming entries) was the marvelously detailed piece “Recording Reality” by Richard Buskin in the October 2003 issue of Sound on Sound. All technical details come from this article.

Top: Damiano, “Rainbow [Gathering] in Italia, 2002”; art for Reality (photos: Frank W. Ockenfels; design: Jonathan Barnbrook; illustrations: Rex Ray).

Rebel Rebel

September 9, 2010

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.