David Bowie changes course towards (plastic) soul: Young Americans

David Bowie - Stills from US TV advert 1975 for Young Americans (pinterest.com)

David Bowie – Stills from US TV advert 1975 for Young Americans

Introduction

On March 7th, 1975, David Bowie released Young Americans, an album filled with R&B and soul. A radical musical change for Bowie, one that was executed very well.

David Bowie - Cracked Actor (discogs.com)

David Bowie – Cracked Actor

Soul and R&B

As mentioned in the story on the great release Cracked Actor, David Bowie became ever more interested in black music over the course of 1974, soul and R&B in particular. The rock and glam of the olden days didn’t cut it anymore. While recording his last album Diamond Dogs Bowie tried to emulate the sound of Barry White in the song 1984.

MainMan

Around the time when recordings for his next album started Bowie’s problems with his manager Tony Defries (and management company MainMan) were intensifying. Defries and his company had been paying themselves handsomely during the preceding years, leaving Bowie virtually penniless. More to the point: he was almost half a million dollars in debt. In April 19754 Bowie moved to the US, largely due to the very strict tax laws in the UK. He simply didn’t have the money to comply to those laws.

Towards the end of the recording sessions of what would turn into Young Americans, Bowie would sue MainMan, meaning to end the contract. By that time relations had deteriorated so much that Bowie had secured all recording for the new album in a personal safe, in order to prevent MainMan using them as leverage in the negotiations.

Given the financial state Bowie was in, he was more or less obliged to write a hit album.

Diamond Dogs Tour

Following the release of his preceding album Diamond Dogs David Bowie went out on tour. He started assembling a new band in April 1974 in New York, all the while visiting a lot of concerts (for inspiration and fun), many of them by soul artists.

The tour commenced in Montreal on June 14th, 1974. A month into the tour, recordings were made for a live album, released as David Live on October 29th, 1974, a rare low-point in Bowie’s body of work, something he was quick to acknowledge:

David Bowie - David Live (wikipedia.org)

God that album. I’ve never played it. The tension it must contain must be like vampire’s teeth coming down on you. And that photo. On the cover. My God, it looks as if I’ve just stepped out of that grave.

That’s actually how I felt. That record should have been called ‘David Bowie is alive and well and living only in theory’.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, 10/29/1977

After a break the tour continued in September. By this time Bowie had started recording for his new album. Because the tour was very tightly choreographed, and therefore lacking in spontaneity, Bowie was bored by it. Also, he was unhappy with the upcoming release (the David Live album). In interviews he preferred talking extensively about his next project, something he was extremely proud of.

The last leg of the tour was also known as the Soul Tour. During that part of the tour the whole band had radically changed and the show had been completely revised (away with all the theatrics, in with spontaneity).

David Bowie - Cocaine use info sheet (medium.com/cartoonfood)

David Bowie – Cocaine use info sheet

Drugs

In 1974 drugs, cocaine in particular, had virtually taken over David Bowie’s life. He looked dangerously thin and extremely unhealthy.

I was so blocked … so stoned … It’s quite a casualty case, isn’t it. I’m amazed I came out of that period, honest. When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it. I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.

David Bowie, Musician, August 1987

David Bowie - Cracked Actor (documentary) (pinterest.com)

David Bowie – Cracked Actor (documentary)

The BBC followed Bowie during his stay in Los Angeles in September 1974 and used it for a documentary, which would be broadcast in January 1975 using the moniker Cracked Actor. His paranoid behavior was a terrifying sight. He talked incoherently, didn’t seem to be part of this world anymore and looked more dead than alive. The documentary provides a beautiful and surprisingly frank image of time, but is oftentimes painful to watch.

Despite his more and more disproportionate drug use over the course of 1974, Bowie remained professional and worked hard on his next album.

Yet, Bowie’s live performance at The Dick Cavett Show in November 1974 (broadcast in England in March 1975) made many doubt Bowie’s physical and mental state. His voice sounded coarse and he seemed unable to reach notes he usually reached effortlessly. The performance can be seen in the video accompanying this story: click here.

In March 1975 Bowie moved to Los Angeles where (the consequences of) his addiction only worsened. His nasal septum had almost entirely disappeared, and his paranoia was increasing ever more. Everywhere he went he felt hunted, he suspected conspiracies all round. His interest in the occult made him even more anxious than he already was.

During this time in his life he played a part in the movie The Man Who Sold The Earth and made the successor to Young Americans, Station To Station, something Bowie had little to no memory of later on…

Recordings

Back to 1974. The recording sessions for the new David Bowie album took place in three different recording studios.

Sigma Sound Studios, Philadelphia, August 11-22 and November 20-24, 1974

David Bowie - Young Americans - Recording sessions (gooseneckmsuic.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans – Recording sessions

On August 8th, 1974, when the first leg of the Diamond Dogs Tour was finished, Bowie and entourage went to Philadelphia, to the Sigma Sound Studios. Bowie had been inspired by America, discotheques and Philly Soul. To get the right feel the right musicians were assembled, including the former Sly & The Family Stone drummer, a still young saxophone player David Sanborn and a number of background singers. One was Luther Vandross, who was just starting his career at the time. Together with Anthony Hinton, Diane Sumler and Bowie’s girlfriend at the time, Ava Cherry, he would contribute very much to the album.

It also signaled the start of a year long cooperation with guitar player Carlos Alomar. Bowie had found his new guitar sidekick, who, like Mick Ronson, would become extremely important to Bowie’s career. One of the first things Alomar said to Bowie was: “Man, you look like shit. You’ve gotta come to my house and eat some decent food”, to which Bowie complied.

After three days Bowie’s regular engineer Tony Visconti arrived, kick-starting the recording procedures in earnest. Many songs were recorded, tried or cut short. Some were re-recorded or re-named at a later time.

During the first session the protocol for this album was established: (almost) everything was played, sung and recorded live. As a result, songs were recorded and finished rather quickly. The album’s title song was completely done within two days.

Bowie’s drug use, his preference for cocaine in particular, made Bowie work his ass off. He kept on going and going. Oftentimes the people around had trouble keeping up with him.

David Bowie - Young Americans - Working the board (avclucb.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans – Working the board

One of the songs that came out of the Sigma Sound recordings was John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), a remake of Bowie’s own John, I’m Only Dancing. It was planned for use on the album, but was ultimately scrapped. The song was released as a single in 1979.

The Springsteen cover It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City was also recorded, intended to include a contribution by Springsteen himself. When the two met on November 25th, 1974, Bowie decided differently. The song was released for the first time in 1989.

After the recordings Visconti left for England to mix the new album at his home studio. It was supposed to be called The Gouster and contained the songs John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), Somebody Up There Likes Me, It’s Gonna Be Me, Who Can I Be Now?, Can You Hear Me, Young Americans and Right. This album configuration was released in 2016, as part of the box set Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976).

Record Plant, New York, December 1974

In December Bowie worked on new songs in New York’s Record Plant. Luther Vandross’ song Fascination and Win were recorded there.

David Bowie & John Lennon (observer.com)

David Bowie & John Lennon

Electric Lady Studios, New York

On January 1st, 1975, Bowie set up camp at Electric Lady Studios. On the 30th of that month, John Lennon came down at the studio. Bowie and Lennon had been friends for quite some time. When Bowie said he wanted to record the Beatles song Across The Universe and asked Lennon whether he would be prepared to contribute, Lennon was eager:

David told me he was going to do a version of ‘Across The Universe’ and I thought, ‘Great,’ because I’d never done a good version of that song myself. It’s one of my favourite songs, but I didn’t like my version of it. So I went down and played rhythm on the track. Then he got this guitar lick, so me and him put this together in another song called ‘Fame’ which is on his next album too, I had fun and it’ll be out soon.

John Lennon, Melody Maker, 03/08/1975

The recordings went very smoothly and there was plenty of time left to do something else. Carlos Alomar, David Bowie and John Lennon worked together on a riff, that would ultimately turn into the phenomenal Fame:

God, that session was fast. That was an evening’s work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.

David Bowie, Musician magazine, May 1983

Young Americans

David Bowie - Young Americans (davidbowie.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans

On March 7th, 1975, David Bowie released his ninth album: Young Americans, which was preceded by a single of the same name on February 21st.  On March 16th Bowie filmed a TV commercial for the Young Americans album, directed by Chuck Braverman. The image placed at the top of this article stems from that video. The video has been restored and can be watch on YouTube, click here.

Young Americans was Bowie’s biggest hit in the US until then. Partly because of the success of the second single, Fame, which reached the highest position in the charts world wide, including the US.

The album deviated quite strongly from everything Bowie had done before: arty rock and glam was replaced by soul, R&B and funk. Bowie’s presentation was completely different as well. He dressed in suits only and looked quite ‘distinguished’.

Later, Bowie commented that Young Americans had been deliberately marketed that way, it was planned to be a success:

My Young American was plastic, deliberately so, and it worked in a way I hadn’t really expected, inasmuch that it really made me a star in America, which is the most ironic, ridiculous part of the equation. Because while my invention was more plastic than anyone else’s, it obviously had some resonance. Plastic soul for anyone who wants it. We really worked hard to make that record come alive.

© David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Before the album title was definitely settled on, many names had been considered: The Young American, Dancin’, Somebody Up There Likes Me, One Damn Song, The Gouster and Fascination. Shilling The Rubes was considered as well, but Bowie was advised against it, especially in light of his management troubles.

The original title for the Young Americans album at one point was Shilling The Rubes, which is circus slang for taking money off people. I was advised that my stunning wit would not go down well.

David Bowie, 01/08/1997, 50th birthday live chat @ AOL

Album cover

David Bowie - Young Americans - Album cover photo shoot (tumblr.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans – Album cover photo shoot

Initially Bowie wanted to hire Norman Rockwell to make a painting for the album cover. Upon learning it would take at least six months, he decided to use photographer Eric Stephen Jacobs. On August 30th, 1974, black/white photographs were shot for the new album. Bowie was in search of the same kind of ‘feel’ he had seen before on the front cover of After Dark magazine.

The album cover was designed by Craig DeCamps at the RCA Records office in New York using the photos that were shot on August 30th.

Later a second photo session was organized for promotional photos.

Reception

Initial reactions to the album were mixed at best:

  • “an almost total failure” en “although the amalgam of rock and Philly soul is so thin it’s interesting, it overwhelms David’s voice, which is even thinner”
    (Village Voice, Robert Christgau)
  • “the rest of the album works best when Bowie combines his renewed interest in soul with his knowledge of English pop, rather than opting entirely for one or the other”
    (Rolling Stone, Jon Landau)
  • [Young Americans is] “more enjoyable as a stylistic adventure than as a substantive record”
    (AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine)
  • “distinctly a transitional record” en “It doesn’t have the mad theatrical scope of Diamond Dogs or the formal audacity of Station to Station; at times, it comes off as an artist trying very hard to demonstrate how unpredictable he is.”
    (Pitchfork, Douglas Wolk)

Nowadays the album is more valued than it was when it was just released. It is part of many Greatest Albums of All Time lists and is regarded as a brave, sincere and well executed attempt to add soul and R&B to Bowie’s repertoire.

David Bowie 1974 (theguardian.com)

David Bowie 1974

Bowie’s opinion?

Later on, Bowie seemed a bit ashamed of Young Americans:

My own recent music has been good, plastic soul, I think. It’s not very complex, but it’s enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the studio. It doesn’t take very long to write… about 10, 15 minutes a song. I mean, with Young Americans I thought I’d better make a hit album to cement myself over here, so I went in and did it. It wasn’t too hard, really.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, 03/01/1976

A half year later he claimed it wasn’t too difficult and didn’t mean too much:

I’ll do anything until I fail. And when I succeed, I quit, too. I’m really knocked out that people actually dance to my records, though. But let’s be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans, the album ‘Fame’ is from, is, I would say, the definitive plastic soul record. It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.

David Bowie, Playboy, September 1976

Review

As is often the case with artists who want something different than walking down the same old road again and again, their next step is misunderstood and the artists themselves seem to dismiss it as a failure, confirming the common feel (of the particular time).

In the case of Young Americans I wholeheartedly disagree. I think the attempt is very well done and lives up to its intentions and I throughly recommend it. Does it equal Low, “Heroes”, Lodger or Scary Monsters? No, those albums are untouchable. But, to me, Young Americans is the best album of everything that came before.

Rating:

David Bowie - Young Americans - The singles (discogs.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans – The singles

Singles

Two singles were culled from the album, of which the first was a huge hit and the second was a global box-office smash. Up to this day Fame is a dance classic.

  • Young Americans
    (released on February 21st, 1975
  • Fame
    (released on July 25th, 1975

Songs

David Bowie - Young Americans - Billboard Ad (pinterest.com)

David Bowie – Young Americans – Billboard Ad

All songs written by David Bowie, unless stated otherwise.

  • Young Americans
  • Win
  • Fascination (written by David Bowie, Luther Vandross)
  • Right
  • Somebody Up There Likes Me
  • Across The Universe (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney)
  • Can You Hear Me?
  • Fame (written by David Bowie, Carlos Alomar, John Lennon)

Musicians

  • David Bowie – vocals, guitar, keyboards
  • Carlos Alomar – guitar
  • Mike Garson – piano
  • Andy Newmark – drums (except Across The Universe and Fame)
  • David Sanborn – saxophone
  • Earl Slick – guitar
  • Willie Weeks – bass (except Across The Universe and Fame)

With help from:

  • Larry Washington – conga
  • Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, Luther Vandross – background vocals
  • Dennis Davis – drums on Across The Universe and Fame
  • Jean Fineberg, Jean Millington – background vocals on Across The Universe and Fame
  • Emir Ksasan – bass on Across The Universe and Fame
  • John Lennon – vocals, guitar, background vocals on Across The Universe and Fame
  • Ralph MacDonald, Pablo Rosario – percussion on Across The Universe and Fame

Other releases

David Bowie - The Gouster (consequenceofsound.com)

David Bowie – The Gouster

In 1984 Young Americans was released on cd for the first time. In 1991 the album was re-released and remastered with three bonus songs: Who Can I Be Now?, It’s Gonna Be Me and John, I’m Only Dancing (Again). In 1999 the album was released featuring 24-bit remastered sound, without the bonus songs. In 2007 Young Americans was released once again, this time as “Special Edition”, again containing the bonus songs (It’s Gonna Be Me in an alternative version).

The latest release was in 2016 as part of the box set Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976), the release that also contained the first release of the The Gouster album.

In closing

What do you think of Young Americans, a successful attempt at soul and R&B or a (too) obvious attempt at making a hit record? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: David Bowie changes course towards (plastic) soul: Young Americans. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.