David Bowie - Young Americans [Special Edition]

Cam 06/04/2007

Rating: 4/5

Back in 1974, David Bowie decided to engage in an extraordinary extravaganza; staging impressive but expensive live shows all across North America to promote his recently released 'Diamond Dogs'. This proved to be the factor that would keep him from going back to the UK in two years -European promoters thought the shows were too expensive to take the risk- and would ultimately influence the making of his ninth (yes, ninth in less than seven years) studio album: Young Americans.

During a break in the tour (curiously the same day Nixon resigned) Bowie managed to bring to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia what would become the core backing band for his new project, which included arguably the best rhythm section to have worked in any of his albums: session bassist Willie Weeks and former Sly & the Family Stone drummer Andy Newmark. Brilliant and underrated, guitarist Carlos Alomar injected fresh eclecticism and intense knowledge to the songs as well as introducing Bowie to a young unknown friend of his called Luther Vandross who would (with Alomar's wife Robin Clark and his own vocal group) sing and arrange backing vocals. To put the cherry on top, highly-rated session saxophonist David Sanborn and old Spider from Mars Mike Garson joined them.

With that band, it was obvious that David wasn't planning on making a new glam record; instead he turned to the Philadelphia soul scene of the sixties and fifties for inspiration. 'Plastic Soul' he called it, a unique drastic change of style that was as radical as the prospect of his now beloved Arcade Fire going electro. Proper soul was practically half dead at the time, with its few exponents jumping on the disco wagon for commercial success, so having a British white boy superficially exploring the genre wasn't seen as sacrilege by anyone but the distant British press.

With Tony Visconti in charge of the control room, the sessions went smoothly, spawning seven genuine soul songs in the process. The stunning title track proved that groove could be effectively mixed with intelligent lyrics, -creating a radio hit in the process- and amalgamate the New York sounds of the moment (a hint of salsa in the backing rhythm and a general R'n'B feel) into 5 glorious minutes. 'Right' toyed with disco while 'Somebody up There Likes Me' had a direct gospel influence thanks to Luther Vandross' appropriate backing vocals arrangement. But above soul, above R 'n' B, above salsa, the single greatest influence on this record is that white powder that always starts with c and ends with e. Bowie's voice was raspy yet confident and expansive. That's right children, drugs can help you create seminal works of art, but wait a couple of years and you'll have to pay the price with two whole decades of rubbish records.

Resuming the 'Diamond Dogs' tour in LA, Bowie met a recently separated John Lennon for the first time at a party hosted by Elizabeth Taylor (oh! the glamour!) arranging a meet up in the New York at the end of the year. Less that 15 days after the tour was over, another one began. The Soul Tour served as a showcase for the yet to be released new songs but the constant dates and heavy schedules ignited David's cocaine addiction.

By early 1975 the tour was over and so were the sessions for Young Americans, after adding two new songs: the mellow Win and the funky Fascination (another Vandross tune stolen and metamorphosed by Bowie). David only went into the Electric Lady studios to add some final touches and record an impromptu version of Lennon's 'Across the Universe'. It was only natural for David Bowie to invite John Lennon to the studio, and so it happened (even though, according to Visconti, they were both nervous at the time, drawing sketches of each other in order to break the ice). The former Beatle contributed backing vocals to 'Across the Universe' and started to jam with Carlos Alomar, whose own cover of The Flares's 'Footstompin'' would radically transform and become Bowie's first US Number 1 single under the name of 'Fame' (lyrics inspired by a conversation between Bowie and Lennon on the topic).

Released in March, 'Young Americans' had gone through various transformations - changing names and dropping two brilliant songs included as bonus tracks on this release in favour of 'Across the Universe' and 'Fame'- but proved to be the album that cemented Bowie's relationship with America and his status as a major superstar. Back in soulless Blighty a Number 2 placing meant that it was Bowie's first studio album for three years not to reach the top spot, and both singles ('Young Americans' and 'Fame'), were no more than minor hits. Still, the influence of this record on British pop during the next decade and the New Romantic movement would be of immeasurable proportions, starting from the image of Bowie on the front cover which practically created the 80's popstar hairstyle of choice: the 'wedge'.

The DVD includes a rather fascinating performance of 1985 and Young Americans on the Dick Cavett Show showing two extremely different aspects of Bowie and his cocaine addiction. On stage he is flawless, energetic, lucid and extremely confident; on the interview he is constantly moving, vulnerable and breathing awkwardly.

Oh and by the way, if you live in America, you'll have to wait a month for the cigarette to be erased from the cover, somebody up there doesn't like it.