Home Music Discography Discography: David Bowie: Young Americans

Discography: David Bowie: Young Americans

“There will be no more rock ’n’ roll records or tours from me,” a presumably coked-out-of-his-mind David Bowie declared in April 1975. “The last thing I want is to be some useless fucking rock singer.” Just a month prior, Bowie had released his ninth album, Young Americans, which saw the erstwhile glam rock star reinvent himself as a soul singer. That said, Young Americans isn’t exactly David Bowie’s soul album—it’s something stranger than that. It’s a David Bowie album impersonating a soul album, immersing itself in the sounds and tropes of the genre without losing itself in them.

Of course, Bowie had been immersing himself in the sounds and tropes of a variety of genres up to that point. He’d been a folkie, a hippie, even an occultist in a gown before becoming Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien alter ego that catapulted him to rock’s elite tier. But after two years of playing the character or some variation of him, Bowie was ready to move on not just from glam rock but rock almost entirely. In between legs of the stateside Diamond Dogs Tour, Bowie decamped to Philadelphia, which by 1974 had effectively supplanted Detroit as the soul music capital of the United States. What Berry Gordy, Jr. was to Motown, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were to Philadelphia soul, a funkier and more richly orchestrated style that later paved the road for disco and neo soul. Bowie booked sessions in Gamble and Huff’s Sigma Sound Studios, but he didn’t work with the fabled producers, and only one member of MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), Sigma Sound’s session players, was able to commit.

Instead, the Young Americans sessions featured some familiar faces—chiefly producer Tony Visconti and pianist Mike Garson—and a few new collaborators who would really help shape the sound of the record. Bowie met guitarist Carlos Alomar at a recording session earlier in 1974 and invited the rhythm guitarist on the Diamond Dogs Tour. That didn’t pan out, but Alomar joined Bowie at Sigma Sound, bringing along his wife, Robin Clark, and his best friend, an up-and-coming backing vocalist named Luther Vandross who impressed Bowie so much he put him in charge of the record’s vocal arrangements. All three would join Bowie on the road when the Diamond Dogs Tour (later to be rebranded as “The Soul Tour”) resumed in September, while Alomar would remain an integral part of Bowie’s band for nearly two decades.

The Sigma Sound sessions yielded, among others, Young Americans’ title track and “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the album’s show-stopping centerpiece. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” takes Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch—familiar lyrical territory for Bowie—and recasts him as one-man cult of personality, a celebrity whose status might as well be God-given. It’s telling that Bowie at one point considered naming the album after it and not “Young Americans,” but the latter song is a better thesis statement, and it feels like a microcosm of Bowie’s approach to soul music and his vision of America: imaginative, but skewed and a bit cynical. Backed by saxophonist David Sanborn’s spirited squawks, Bowie captures the ennui of the titular young lovers, exploring the physical (unsatisfying sex) as well as the existential (“We live for just these twenty years/ Do we have to die for the fifty more?” he croons). He then widens his gaze to the changing country around them, alluding to McCarthyism and calling out Richard Nixon (who resigned from the presidency just days before the track was recorded) and Soul Train by name.

But the album wasn’t yet Young Americans. At this point Bowie was still calling it The Gouster, and it hewed much closer to straight-up soul. (The title was an homage to the Black culture of a different American city: “David knew [gouster] as a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the ‘60s, in Chicago,” wrote Tony Visconti. “But in the context of the album its meaning was attitude, an attitude of pride and hipness.”) It wasn’t until Bowie went to New York for additional recording that it really became a David Bowie album—though this unfortunately meant leaving two of the best Sigma Sound cuts, “Who Can I Be Now?” and the yearning “It’s Gonna Be Me,” off the final track listing. “Fascination” grew out of an original Vandross composition named “Funky Music”; Bowie’s rendition sounds less like Philly soul and more like Parliament-Funkadelic’s alien boogie, propelled into interstellar overdrive by Garson’s clavinet, Sanborn’s saxophone and Alomar’s guitar. “Win,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous slow burn that feels like it’s unfolding in Bowie’s daydreams rather than on the dancefloor.

One final session gave Bowie one of the biggest hits of his career. While Visconti was mixing the album, Bowie and his new friend John Lennon snuck off to record a pair of cover songs. Bowie’s take on Lennon’s own “Across the Universe” is hammy and oversung and really doesn’t serve a purpose unless you want to hear Bowie sing a Beatles song with an actual Beatle in the studio. But their attempt to record the Flares’ doo-wop hit “Foot Stompin’” quickly became its own song. “Fame,” even more than the album’s title track, is the first song you think of when you think of Young Americans, and rightfully so. Everything about the song is perfect, from Alomar’s quicksilver guitar leads (which do as much as the rhythm section in pushing the song forward) to Bowie’s jaded commentary on celebrity (“Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame/ That burns your change to keep you in…sane”) to the goddamn vibraslap at the three-and-a-half-minute mark. It became Bowie’s first song to top the Billboard Hot 100, and when Bowie was invited to perform on Soul Train in November 1975—one of the first white musicians to appear on the show—“Fame” was the first song he sang.

The spectacle of Bowie singing “Fame” on the Soul Train stage is one of the most iconic moments of his career, but it also throws the racial dynamics of Young Americans into stark relief. Speaking to Cameron Crowe for Playboy in September 1976, Bowie called Young Americans “the definitive plastic soul record” and “the squashed remains of ethnic music […] written and sung by a white limey.” Bowie, in true British fashion, looked like a plunderer searching for some exotic sounds to spice up his music. But, of course, Bowie was one of a long line of white musicians on both sides of the Atlantic to perform Black music. Elvis Presley became the King by singing Black songs for white listeners, while the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin went from covering old blues songs to claiming the genre as their own. Hall & Oates sold millions of records in the 1980s by repackaging “plastic soul” as “blue-eyed soul.” And today, 45 years after Young Americans, hip-hop—a product of the African- and Latinx-American melting pot of the Bronx in the 1970s—is American popular music’s center of gravity, a fact some white (and non-Black) musicians have taken as permission to adopt “blaccents” and draw on culture that isn’t theirs.

And yet Young Americans comes across not as cultural appropriation but appreciation. It isn’t a Philly soul album, but it doesn’t pretend to be; it’s Bowie’s sincere reconstruction of the things he loved about the genre, shot through with his own idiosyncrasies so as to become something completely new. (Another way of saying it is that it’s fakery without being forgery.) There’s no mistaking Young Americans for the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers or the Spinners’ Pick of the Litter. But then again, no one but Bowie could’ve made an album as consciously artificial as Young Americans feel like its own real and captivating thing.

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