David Bowie’s embrace of the soul/funk musical genre has become caught up in several cultural mythologies. One is the rock community derived notion that soul and funk are “commercial” genres without much staying power. Especially on the uptempo side of it. Another was Bowie’s association with the early 70’s glam rock sound-with classics of the genre such as “Changes”,”Jean Genie”,”Rebel Rebel” and of course “Ziggy Stardust”. But when I first heard David Bowie’s Isaac Hayes inspired uptempo cinematic soul of “1984”, from his album Diamond Dogs from 1974? It was clear the man had a plan.
Bowie himself referred to this period of his career as “plastic soul”. He seemed to see himself as a white rock artist wanting to embrace a music outside of his culture. And that the burgeoning funk sound represented “squashed remains” of Afrocentrism in Western music. What helped to sooth his initial cynicism was the presence of the Nuyorican guitar maestro Carlos Alomar, the guitarist whose lines inspired many of the songs on what would become David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. And indeed, the result was one of Bowie’s most dramatic musical and conceptual reinventions.
The title song starts the album-very much a stomping gospel inspired uptempo 70’s soul number. Its David Sanborn’s melodic sax solo that carries Bowie’s vocal melody. But between Mike Garson’s piano walk down-along with the bass/guitar interaction between Alomar and Willie Weeks. “Win” is a string laden ballad full of heavily revered rhythm guitar and Sanborn playing rather modal style sax flourishes. “Fascination” gets deep into the funk-with the bass, guitar and sax all heavily processed for a huge and meaty groove.
“Right” is a mid-tempo sax/percussion/Clavinet/guitar based groove-with the emphasis on a number of repetitive choruses. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is a relatively balanced uptempo soul rocker-with a bluesy guitar break on the refrains and the use of synthesized string orchestration. John Lennon joins Bowie on a rocking soul version of Lennon’s Beatle classic “Across The Universe”-which has a country blues guitar flavor about it. “Can You Hear Me” is a very similar country soul type ballad where Lennon returns for “Fame”, the classic James Brown style funk hit, for the albums conclusion.
Young Americans has remained somewhat controversial over the years. Its often considered a classic album today. But Young Americans did bare out some of Bowie’s concerns about doing funk and Philly soul. These songs all have a strong groove. But some of the uptempo songs don’t have multi faceted structures-mostly repeated melodic choruses. And Bowie’s voice had a ragged rock style on the sleeker numbers. Some of the ballads had a more 60’s style country/soul flavor-showcasing how Bowie still had some catching up to do with what was happening in black American music by the mid 70’s.
Basically, the big hits in the title song and “Fame” are the two big occasions where the strong grooves and strong melodies come together. And the musicianship on all the songs is exciting and first rate. The presence of a young Luther Vandross as a backup singer here helped get the him (deceased along with Bowie today) a shot at his future solo career. In terms of funk, songs such as “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Golden Years” a year later would solidify Bowie’s funk sound a bit better. But this album represents the important slow beginning for the funkiest, most soulful aspect of David Bowie’s sound.
Just before bed last night, I learned that David Bowie had passed away earlier in the day at age 69. It would seem he was dealing with terminal cancer for the last 18 months. He recorded a final album entitled Blackstar, a darkly jazzy exploration he recorded while ill and released on what turned out to be his final birthday. During his near half century as a recording artist? He was extremely prolific and musically challenging. So while I just dealt with Bowie last week? Wanted to extend on the tribute since he’s completed a cycle from birthday to grave.
With Bowie’s mid/late 70’s change in persona from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke, musical transitions were happening with him even thicker and faster. For the most part? Bowie’s 1976 album Station To Station reflected his burgeoning interest in an ambient type of electronic Kraut rock. But still there was a lot of the Philly influence still left in his sound at that point. With Carlos Alomar really at the peak of his powers with Bowie? A new hit and tremendous creative triumph emerged from this groove entitled “Golden Years”.
A brushing percussion and hand clap powered rhythm provides the intro to the jam-accompanied by Alomar’s thick and phat rhythm guitar chug and a bluesy harmonica. This segues right into the percussive,marching main rhythm of the song itself. Alomar’s guitar on the rest of the song is a densely mixed polyphony of bass and higher pitched phased tones. The refrains of the song are more brightly melodic-with a ringing bell like percussion bringing in the joy even more. The song basically outro’s on the main chorus that maintains itself throughout.
What “Golden Years” does is showcase how Bowie was able to do within the black music spectrum what the Rolling Stones did: evolve with the changes of the music. So this finds Bowie’s funk transitioning into the disco era with a lean toward the four on the floor beat. It all makes sense with change being the key fixture in Bowie’s musical career as well. It’s also a great lyric with him encouraging a young,attractive lady to believe in herself because “nothin’s gonna touch you in your golden years”. For this and many dozens of musical reasons? David Bowie will be missed.
From his early years performing Anthony Newley style show tunes about laughing gnomes up through his persona as Ziggy Stardust? David Jones (better known by his stage name of Bowie) celebrated an embrace of musical and thematic eclecticism. Rock played a big part in it. But he also drew a good dose of inspiration from the rhythmic timing of funk and soul. After his most iconic years as the glam rock icon of Ziggy and the related character Aladdin Sane? Bowie began sporting white soul boy suits,slicked back hair and focusing on that soulful end of his sound.
It got going for Bowie in 1974 when his Diamond Dogs album came out-it’s Isaac Hayes inspired song”1984″ drawing him to a new group of session musicians and singers than the Spiders From Mars. In addition to the presence of David Sanborn and Luther Vandross,t he main drive behind this change was Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar. As a composer and arranger? He really understood how to rock up the funk. This led to the final number on Bowie’s soul oriented Young Americans album of 1975 ending with a collaboration with John Lennon entitled “Fame”.
An ascending backwards guitar opens the song into a more reverbed one. A brushing drum roll and acoustic guitar introduces the the slow grooving funky drummer that’s accompanied by three different guitar riffs-each playing off the one another. One is a low liquid one providing the bass line, the other is a more popping one of the same tone while each instrumental refrain is accented by a ringing high rhythm guitar. Bowie and Lennon’s vocals,both in their lower and high ranges,duet in near incoherence until descending into a chant of the song title at the end.
Together,Bowie and Alomar’s sound on this song heavily channels James Brown’s variety of funk. Everything about this song, itself built around layers of bass toned and higher pitched guitar, is entire built on Brown’s understanding of all the instrumentation being “on the one” with rhythm. Melody,harmony and all. The interesting this is? Brown himself was in turn inspired to work his own song “Hot (I Need To Be Love)” directly out of this groove the following year. So along with being a huge hit for Bowie, it’s an example of the cross pollination of funk in it’s prime.
Filed under 1975, Carlos Alomar, David Bowie, Funk, funk guitar, funk/rock, glam rock, James Brown, John Lennon, rock 'n' roll, rock guitar, Uncategorized