Music Therapy: David Bowie, Diamond Dogs

MUSIC THERAPY is an ongoing series in which Cult Critique digs through the record crate to find the perfect vinyl antidote to whatever ails you. If the state of the world has you down, congratulations, it’s probably because you have a functioning central nervous system. So, take an hour to escape from the impending Water Wars and enjoy…

David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (1974)

Is there any better metaphor for late-stage capitalism than the diamond dogs that stalk the title track of Bowie’s 1974 album of the same name? These unsettling creatures are “mannequins with kill appeal” who’ll “hunt you to the ground”: empty luxury alongside animal hunger, greed without purpose. We see them splashed across our screens in lurid tones each day.

Lately, I’ve felt compelled to return to dystopian ‘70s pop culture, from The Warriors and Taxi Driver to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and a slew of underfed British post punk bands, trying to find the present reflected in their grimy mirrors. There is a yawning sense of wrongness, of profound alienation, in the cultural productions of the era that resonates powerfully in our own time of looming ecological crisis and burgeoning authoritarianism.

As the deepest anxieties of four decades ago become today’s headlines, I want to give one of David Bowie’s darkest masterpieces a spin and glean what tumbles out.

“This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll. This is genocide.”

Diamond Dogs is a concept album set in a debased urban landscape Bowie dubs Hunger City in the macabre storybook narration that makes up the opening track “Future Legend.” He originally conceived of the record as a TV musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, although the project eventually fell through. Musically, the album has a rough-and-tumble Mad Max vibe about it thanks in part to Bowie’s aggressive guitar playing and gusty sax. Lyrically, it allows Bowie to embrace his inner pulp merchant as he churns out vivid scenes from a glamorous nightmare city.

Bowie’s guitar work on “Diamond Dogs” is primal and ragged, almost prefiguring punk rock in its lack of finesse and layered with a truly nasty tenor sax line that livens up the “lonely little kitsch” of this gruesome opening salvo. Bowie revels in cataloguing the exploits of Halloween Jack and the various other characters who crowd the city like gargoyles on the face of a gothic cathedral as Tony Newman’s drums keep punishing time. The song sounds like a self-aware imitation of testosterone-fueled rock ‘n’ roll, a queasy, too-clever-by-half Rolling Stones copy.

“Sweet Thing” emerges from a melodramatic gush of piano and bass, a heartfelt counterpoint to the title track’s sneering decadence. The narrator is a hopelessly naïve street hustler recounting life in the urban hellscape (“It’s safe in the city / to love in a doorway / to wrangle some screams from the dawn”). Bowie then brings the dark power of his baritone to “Candidate,” a clipped seduction from a smooth-talking politician who wants to “make you a deal” while highlighting his own artifice: “My set is amazing / It even smells like a street.”

Throughout the first half of “Candidate” Bowie evidently instructed Newman “to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.” The result is a cold sweat frisson creeping alongside the pounding dance beat as we have “so much fun with the poisonous people.” When “Sweet Thing” returns for its reprise, it is with a feeling of sad inevitability that ironically contrasts the fluttering flute—then motoric bass, piano, and drums kick in, and for a brief second Bowie is reaching into his past to offer up a warped version of “Changes,” but what follows is a different meditation on the passage of time, a chart-topping tale of a young scenester embarking on a fling with the jaded narrator.

“Rebel Rebel” is the album’s breakout single, a boot-stomping bisexual anthem riding in on an unstoppable two-bar riff as simple and sweet as cheap wine. It’s a fleeting ray of light on an otherwise murky record, but even the uncomplicated pleasures of Diamond Dogs ring strangely hollow; it feels good in the moment to like dancing and to look divine, but the surrounding menace (“You’ve torn your dress / Your face is a mess”) can’t help but leach the shine from the track’s effervescent pop.

With its warm piano melody, fuzzed-out guitars, and rumbling saxophones, “Rock and Roll with Me” points to the Soul-tinged nostalgia that would inspire Young Americans. The song sets aside the apocalyptic trappings of Hunger City in favor of a parable about the relationship between performer and audience (“I would make a foxy kind of stand / While tens of thousands found me in demand”). Bowie creates a wistful mood of longing as the singer laments, “Nobody down here can do it for me” while a wailing guitar soars, nearly drowning him out.

“We Are the Dead” is crooning and contemplative, full of opaque, icy lyrics that circle the familiar Bowie theme of yearning for connection. In the bleak world of Diamond Dogs, a bare-stripped line like “I looked at you and wondered / if you saw things my way” lands like a punch, emerging as it does from a nonsense slurry of Burroughsian cut-ups littered with virgin kings and fuck-me pumps.

“1984” brings a flurry of strings and plenty of wacka-chicka to the disco dystopia before “Big Brother” offers a culmination of Diamond Dogs’ dark journey. The singer gently chides “don’t talk of dust and roses” before embracing the totalitarian strongman (“I’m graphically yours”). This is the sound of Winston Smith’s ultimate submission, an exaltation of

Someone to claim us

Someone to follow

Someone to shame us

Some brave Apollo

Someone to fool us

Someone like you

“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” closes the album with a coked-up, percussive haze, a forced march into oblivion that fades out to the mimicked skipping of a needle. There is no alien savior this time, no Ziggy Stardust to take our hands and soothe “oh, no, love, you’re not alone” in the last moment before the curtain falls. There’s only one way this story can end: “We want you, Big Brother.”

“With just a hint of mayhem”

It should go without saying that, for all its grim themes and grotesqueries (indeed, because of them), Diamond Dogs is a spellbinding rock record. This is the gritty ‘70s cityscape alive with glittering sequins, Dirty Harry in glammed-up drag, and it’s an absolute blast. Its subject matter might be abject, but its sound is pulsing with opulence. Diamond Dogs finds Bowie embracing a theatrical sensibility amid the imagined apocalypse that would make it one of the founding documents of both punk and goth. It’s a transitional album that covers a remarkable amount of ground, laying Bowie’s glam period to rest while planting the seeds of Plastic Soul and prefiguring the brilliant cocaine psychosis of Station to Station.

Frequent Bowie muse William S. Burroughs is all over the album’s lyrics, with their pitch-black humor, musical ear for gutter slang, and themes of street hustling and grimy degradation. For a record originally conceived as an Orwellian musical, the shock-the-squares imagery and sense of darkly comic malevolence have more in common with Naked Lunch than 1984. Throw in some influences like Oliver Twist and A Clockwork Orange, and you’ve got one of Bowie’s most unabashedly literary albums, and one of his most thematically unified.

“Come out of the garden, baby. You’ll catch your death in the fog.”

So, after wading through the shabby finery of Hunger City, what does Diamond Dogs have to teach listeners after forty-five years? What does this glam rock burlesque of what we’ve come to jokingly call the hellworld have to offer in terms of insight or catharsis?

Well, first of all, it shows that the idea that the world is dying is nothing new. Three years after this album was released, the Sex Pistols were chanting “no future.” Sure, our current feelings of imminent doom are probably a bit more justified than those of an era before climate refugees, but the impulse to channel that darkness into something meaningful is the same. It’s thrilling to gaze into the abyss, and Diamond Dogs is never short on thrills.

The fairytale narration that opens the album marks it as make-believe. Diamond Dogs is a gruesome playground, a place to indulge bizarre fantasies about the end of the world without consequences. Here, we can face the collapse of civilization with style—get pulled out of the oxygen tent and ask for the latest party.