David Bowie’s Soul, funk and the Thin White Duke
Bowie moved to the US in 1974, initially staying in New York City before settling in Los Angeles. Diamond Dogs(1974), parts of which found him heading towards soul and funk, was the product of two distinct ideas: a musical based on a wild future in a post-apocalyptic city, and setting George Orwell’s 1984 to music. The album went to number one in the UK, spawning the hits “Rebel Rebel” and “Diamond Dogs”, and number five in the US. To promote it, Bowie launched the Diamond Dogs Tour, visiting cities in North America between June and December 1974. Choreographed by Toni Basil, and lavishly produced with theatrical special effects, the high-budget stage production was filmed by Alan Yentob. The resulting documentary, Cracked Actor, featured a pasty and emaciated Bowie: the tour coincided with the singer’s slide from heavy cocaine use into addiction, producing severe physical debilitation, paranoia and emotional problems. He later commented that the accompanying live album, David Live, ought to have been titled “David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory”. David Live nevertheless solidified Bowie’s status as a superstar, charting at number two in the UK and number eight in the US. It also spawned a UK number ten hit in Bowie’s cover of “Knock on Wood”. After a break in Philadelphia, where Bowie recorded new material, the tour resumed with a new emphasis on soul.
The fruit of the Philadelphia recording sessions was Young Americans (1975). Biographer Christopher Sandford writes, “Over the years, most British rockers had tried, one way or another, to become black-by-extension. Few had succeeded as Bowie did now. The album’s sound, which the singer identified as “plastic soul”, constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. Young Americans yielded Bowie’s first US number one, “Fame”, co-written with John Lennon, who contributed backing vocals, and Carlos Alomar. Lennon called Bowie’s work “great, but it’s just rock’n’roll with lipstick on”. Earning the distinction of being one of the first white artists to appear on the US variety show Soul Train, Bowie mimed “Fame”, as well as “Golden Years”, his November single, which was originally offered to Elvis Presley, who declined it. Young Americans was a commercial success in both the US and the UK, and a re-issue of the 1969 single “Space Oddity” became Bowie’s first number one hit in the UK a few months after “Fame” achieved the same in the US. Despite his by now well established superstardom, Bowie, in the words of biographer Christopher Sandford, “for all his record sales (over a million copies of Ziggy Stardust alone), existed essentially on loose change.” In 1975, in a move echoing Ken Pitt’s acrimonious dismissal five years earlier, Bowie fired his manager. At the culmination of the ensuing months-long legal dispute, he watched, as described by Sandford, “millions of dollars of his future earnings being surrendered” in what were “uniquely generous terms for Defries”, then “shut himself up in West 20th Street, where for a week his howls could be heard through the locked attic door.” Michael Lippman, Bowie’s lawyer during the negotiations, became his new manager; Lippman in turn was awarded substantial compensation when Bowie fired him the following year.
Station to Station (1976) introduced a new Bowie persona, the “Thin White Duke” of its title track. Visually, the character was an extension of Thomas Jerome Newton, the extraterrestrial being he portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth the same year. Developing the funk and soul of Young Americans, Station to Station also prefigured theKrautrock and synthesiser music of his next releases. The extent to which drug addiction was now affecting Bowie was made public when Russell Harty interviewed the singer for his London Weekend Television talk show in anticipation of the album’s supporting tour. Shortly before the satellite-linked interview was scheduled to commence, the death of the Spanish dictator General Franco was announced. Bowie was asked to relinquish the satellite booking, to allow the Spanish Government to put out a live newsfeed. This he refused to do, and his interview went ahead. In the ensuing conversation with Harty, as described by biographer David Buckley, “the singer made hardly any sense at all throughout what was quite an extensive interview. … Bowie looked completely disconnected and was hardly able to utter a coherent sentence.” His sanity—by his own later admission—had become twisted from cocaine; he overdosed several times during the year, and was withering physically to an alarming degree. Comments made by Bowie and others in 1976 led to the establishment of Rock Against Racism.
Station to Station ’s January 1976 release was followed in February by a 3 1⁄2-month concert tour of Europe and North America. Featuring a starkly lit set, theIsolar – 1976 Tour highlighted songs from the album, including the dramatic and lengthy title track, the ballads “Wild Is the Wind” and “Word on a Wing”, and the funkier “TVC 15” and “Stay”. The core band that coalesced around this album and tour—rhythm guitarist Alomar, bassist George Murray, and drummerDennis Davis—continued as a stable unit for the remainder of the 1970s. The tour was highly successful but mired in political controversy. Bowie was quoted in Stockholm as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader”, and was detained by customs on the Russian/Polish border for possessing Naziparaphernalia. Matters came to a head in London in May in what became known as the “Victoria Station incident”. Arriving in an open-top Mercedesconvertible, the singer waved to the crowd in a gesture that some alleged was a Nazi salute, which was captured on camera and published in NME. Bowie said the photographer simply caught him in mid-wave. He later blamed his pro-Fascism comments and his behaviour during the period on his addictions and the character of the Thin White Duke. “I was out of my mind, totally crazed. The main thing I was functioning on was mythology … that whole thing about Hitler and Rightism … I’d discovered King Arthur”. According to playwright Alan Franks, writing later in The Times, “he was indeed ‘deranged’. He had some very bad experiences with hard drugs.”