Friday, February 12, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: David Bowie's Young Americans (1975)

I've been listening to David Bowie's Young Americans (1975), the album, along with Station to Station (1976), that stands as a tiny island between the land masses of Glam and the Berlin Trilogy in the Bowie oeuvre. Though I am not what I would call a Bowie expert (more an appreciative student), I would say that there is no other Bowie record that is like Young Americans, with its strange combination of Philadelphia Soul and Beatlephilia.

Christgau's review is illuminating:
David Bowie: Young Americans [RCA Victor, 1975]
This is a failure. The tunes make (Lennon-McCartney's) "Across the Universe" sound like a melodic highlight, and although the amalgam of English hard rock and Philly soul is so thin it's interesting, it often overwhelms David's voice, which is even thinner. But after the total alienation of Diamond Dogs and the total ripoff of David Live, I'm pleased with Bowie's renewed generosity of spirit--he takes pains to simulate compassion and risks failure simply by moving on. His reward is two successes: the title tune, in which pain stimulates compassion, and (Bowie-Lennon-Alomar's) "Fame," which rhymes with pain and makes you believe it. B-
Christgau likes the two hit singles, "Young Americans" and "Fame." (Bowie shares a writing credit on "Fame" with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar.) But the entire album is chock full of excellent material. "Fascination" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me," not to mention "Win," are particularly strong.

What has made an impression on me this past week listening to Young Americans is the extent to which the alto saxophone of David Sanborn dominates the album. The guitar is reduced to the high treble fills found in funk, and the resulting sound, with the backing vocals of Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and Luther Vandross, is a slick edgy urban soul, what Bowie called "plastic soul," and what most of us recognize from the Saturday Night Live Band, which debuted in 1975.

So there is a "present at the creation" quality to Young Americans. Commodified urban chic is the product being extruded.  If you want to hear what an aural leap Young Americans represents, listen to Diamond Dogs (1974) or Pin Ups (1973). Bowie was shrewd to abandon Glam when he did. By the middle 1970s Glam, soon to be lampooned in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), had devolved into the same old arena rock god trap in which prog rockers found themselves.

My feeling is that Bowie has to be studied because he was an amazing synthesizer who had the ability to crystallize and commodify musical vapors swirling in the avant-garde. Basically the guy could do no wrong from 1969 to 1984. He popularized Glam and in so doing drove a stake in the heart of Hippie and his hopes that another world was possible. (After Let's Dance (1983) Bowie loses his mojo. I remember seeing him interviewed on television promoting his Glass Spider Tour. He was attempting one of his countless reinventions, this time as a Steve Jones Sex Pistols Punk rocker. Bowie had once again correctly identified the musical Zeitgeist. But at 40 years old in 1987, and famously androgynous in past personas, he could not pull it off. I remember thinking to myself, "Jesus, is that pathetic.")

Young Americans and its odd matrimony of Beatles and Philadelphia Soul is a one-off. The record strikes me as a conscious effort by Bowie to feed himself some sonic comfort food after starving the Hippies to death with Glam. It is his bon voyage to the 1960s, the best of which, Bowie is saying, are black music and the Beatles. (John Lennon's "Across the Universe" anchors side two of the album.)

Bowie would not tarry on "plastic soul." He would abandon Sigma Sound and Electric Lady for Cherokee Studios in Hollywood and the coked-out brilliance of Station to Station. Does a more bizarre song than "Golden Years" ever receive saturation airplay on AM radio?

Bowie retreats from the United States after Station to Station, relocating to the European continent to help remake popular music with Brian Eno. What we get is New Wave.

If anything, Young Americans and Station to Station, isolated and "islands in the stream"-like as they are in the Bowie oeuvre, buttress the Hippies vs. Punks hypothesis that in 1975 and 1976 something serious and dislocating happens in the West to set us on our current path to destruction. Let's hope the order that began to form back then cracks asunder in 2016.

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