Review: David Bowie – Young Americans

It’s just a small note, but it spoke volumes: “Somebody lied, I say it’s HIP To Be ALIVE.” Both words, “hip” and “alive,” were handwritten in capital letters. And this text, written on a DIN A 5 sheet and decorated with all sorts of flourishes, was hidden behind a glass case – and was perhaps the most meaningful exhibit that could be seen in the traveling exhibition “David Bowie”.

Nosferatu in a tuxedo

“I Say It’s HIP To Be ALIVE”: When Bowie wrote these lines for his song “Win” in 1975, he was suffering from ever-increasing cocaine addiction. The 27-year-old felt that his survival was a statement for pop culture – a perverted form of “living for art”. Bowie stopped eating and took even more drugs in the hope of finding a new direction for his music. When he performed at the Grammys on March 1, 1975, he certainly looked like a corpse. Yoko Ono, who was on stage with him, couldn’t believe that the emaciated Nosferatu in the tuxedo was Bowie.

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With “Young Americans” he achieved one of those image changes that wouldn’t work for so many artists. He resets everything to zero, and then: a new style of music, a new outfit, a new attitude. Everything believable. He had already buried Ziggy Stardust in 1973. “Rebel Rebel” from 1974 was still glam. Perhaps the disco sound of tracks like “1984” from the “Diamond Dogs” album gave the closest indication of what Bowie was planning. He had heard his Philly records. The recordings went to New York and Philadelphia.

Bowie called his new sounds “Plastic Soul” in a derogatory and amused manner, perhaps because he didn’t want to dare to compose soul as a white Brit. Later he flirted with even harsher words: “The remnant of ethnic music survives here in the age of muzak rock, written and sung by a white guy.”

Eight songs for eternity

The result is one of his most coherent works to date, with only seven original compositions and one cover. Bowie never sang better than at the time of “Young Americans” and the album “Station To Station” released a year later, when he was finally on his feet at the age of 28. Here he shouts and whispers like never before, and like never again after. Not only in the sad loserdom of “Win” (one of his great pieces, never played live again, Covered brilliantly by Beck in 2001). “Fascination”, co-composed by the then unknown Luther Vandross, shows Bowie at the height of his singing art. The associatively intoned text “can a heart-beat / live in a fever? / raging inside of me?” is an expression of an overwhelming feeling that only music can trigger in you. With the background singers Ava Cherry and Robin Clark, Bowie developed a unity that he would never allow again with accompanying vocalists; in pieces like “Can You Hear Me” it extended to an equal distribution of voices.

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“Young Americans” occupies a dormant position in the musician’s oeuvre. Most fans today react to the work with a friendly shrug of the shoulders, although in addition to the title track, which was promoted through TV appearances, it also contained Bowie’s first number one single in the USA, “Fame”, written with John Lennon. In the seventies his other records were louder: The New Age of “Hunky Dory”, Ziggy of course or the Berlin trilogy.

The album was also not very welcome live; until the end of Bowie’s stage career in 2004, the brass pieces were difficult to integrate into the set lists. There was no tour for “Young Americans”, the “Isolar I” gigs for “Station To Station” only included “Fame”. There are some rarities from the album on YouTube, “Win,” for example, in a version from the 1974 Soul Tour.

The man on Soul Train

The marketing machine still worked well, Bowie was invited to “Soul Train” and looked like “Interview with a Vampire” again. He championed “Street Life” and “Afro Sheilas”. One of his most popular song lines to date is still “Do you remember, your President Nixon? /Do you remember, the bills you have to pay/ For even yesterday?”, and the fact that it came from a Brit instead of a US patriot impressed listeners even more. Add to that the cynicism of “Fame,” in which Bowie once again thought about his position: “Fame / What’s your name?” Bowie anticipated his fame in America.

The record’s tracklist, on the other hand, was a tricky matter. Excited about his first collaboration with Lennon – although the guitar riff came from Carlos Alomar – Bowie included “Fame” on “Young Americans”, as well as a ridiculously clumsy cover version of the Beatles’ song “Across The Universe”. Instead, the good “Who Can I Be Now” and the passable “It’s Gonna Be Me”, perhaps his most difficult song to date because it was the slowest, were played. The album photo shows the musician as a cigarette-smoking crooner, his wavy hair illuminated in gold, as is his reflective bracelet. He actually looked pretty healthy in the picture.

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Only eleven months after “Young Americans” came “Station To Station,” recorded in Los Angeles. Rock, Funk, Metropolis: The ten-minute title song alone threatened to overwhelm the entire “Young Americans” album. David Bowie came up with a new fictional character, the Thin White Duke. He described him as a bard who sang about romance but felt nothing about it. The idea for this character, he said, had been floating around in his head for a year. There was no sign of this fakery on “Young Americans,” but he was convincing in both roles.