“Iconic”: 1974 saw David Bowie transitioning from Ziggy Stardust to Orwellian street punk to a funky “Plastic Soul” phase

By on July 25, 2016

2016’s Iconic isn’t a true music documentary, we’re sure you’ll agree — the hour-long program is comprised entirely of three filmed interviews with David Bowie, captured during different points in his celebrated career —but even if you’ve seen all or even portions of these interviews before, we think you’ll still enjoy seeing the unedited full-length versions where Bowie is free to speak his mind instead of being forced to speak in soundbites. Watch Iconic now on our Night Flight Plus channel.

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The first of these interviews, taped for an MTV News segment in an art gallery in 1995, finds Bowie espousing at length on topics ranging from his artistic and creative process in writing and performing, his evolution as an artist and other areas of interest.

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Here’s an excerpt:

Interviewer:You went from sort of inventing these characters… obviously, so you started off as Aladdin Sane, and almost like transformed yourself, and then, from these super white figures, and then into kind of becoming an R&B hero, what was that transformation about, particularly, you know, ‘Young Americans’?”

Bowie: “It had a lot an awful lot to do with not wanting to be a … I felt I was entrapping myself. It was always very important to me, and it’s always felt been something I’ve had a real push-pull relationship with all my life, is the idea of being trapped, and pinned down and categorized, I always felt that would be like prison to me, if I wanted to move and change as a writer and a performer, that if I got put into a pocket, if I got so he’s ‘Oh, well he’s ‘that”, it would sort of really, it would rip my guts out as a writer, because my writing is based on the idea of transience.”

“My writing is a very clear understanding that nothing in this world is a real reality, it’s not something that you can hold on to. It can be something you can enjoy briefly, tentatively, for the moment, but it’s there, love, or a sunset or whatever, but like a sunset, and unfortunately in so many cases like love, it’s a transitory thing, and I didn’t want to get locked into being just one thing and not being able to flit, like a butterfly from flower to flower, pollinating my intellect, something like that…had an awful lot to do with not wanting to be pinned down, not wanting to be like a pinned butterfly, or moth, in my case.”

The second interview of the three included in Iconic comes from his appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” which was taped in New York City on November 2, 1974, while Bowie was there for his Radio City Music Hall shows (the interview was broadcast on December 4, 1974).

Bowie and his band gave excellent performances of several songs — the band charges through a very fast “1984,” before Bowie straps on his Ziggy-era 12-string acoustic as the singers groove for “Young Americans,” and it concludes with the still-unreleased “Footstompin'” (unfortunately, none of those performances are included in Iconic, but it’s great to see Bowie during one of the more interesting periods of his career, talking with Cavett).

Speaking of 1974, a new box set of Bowie’s remastered recordings arrives on September 23, 2016, via Parlophone Records, called David Bowie: Who Can I Be Now? (1974 – 1976).

The twelve CD box, thirteen-piece vinyl set and digital download features the material officially released by Bowie during the so-called “American” phase of his career from 1974 to 1976.

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The box set — which is named after a track recorded in 1974 but not officially released until the 1990’s — includes his albums Diamond Dogs, David Live (both the original and 2005 remix), Young Americans, Station to Station (also in original and 2010 remix), as well as a new live album, Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, a new compilation called Re:Call 2 (which is a collection of single version and non-LP b-sides) and a completely unreleased album of Bowie’s recorded during that period, called The Gouster (which was the album — recorded at Sigma Sound, Philadelphia in 1974 and produced by Bowie’s close collaborator during that period, Tony Visconti — later shelved when Bowie went to New York to work with John Lennon and Harry Maslin on recordings that were released as Young Americans).

The box set comes with a book of liner notes courtesy of Visconti, who recently explained that a “gouster” was a word that Bowie had used and that it was unfamiliar to the producer until Bowie explained that is was “a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the ’60s, in Chicago.”

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Visconti has been quoted recently as saying that he and Bowie both wanted to make, in his words, a “killer soul album,” and says that The Gouster became forty minutes of glorious funk.” in the context of the album, its meaning was “attitude, an attitude of pride and hipness. Of all the songs we cut we were enamoured of the ones we chose for the album that portrayed this attitude.”

Visconti has overseen the mastering from the original tapes and photos taken by Eric Stephen Jacobs have been put together for the sleeve based around one of David’s original concepts for the album.

The full details of David Bowie: Who Can I Be Now? are available here.

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As mentioned herein, 1974 was a year of transition for Bowie, who had abandoned his glammed-out alter-ego Ziggy Stardust In order to refocus his creative efforts towards a new sound, and a new locale, trading London for New York City, where he set himself up in mid-April that year.

His last single in the Ziggy Stardust-ish glam rock style was “Rebel Rebel,” released on February 15, 1974, in the UK.

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The track had originally been written for a planned Ziggy Stardust musical in late ’73, and featured Bowie himself on lead guitar instead of bandmate and Spiders from Mars lead guitarist Mick Ronson. It climbed to #5 on the UK charts, and barely managed to chart in the U.S., reaching #65 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart after eight weeks on the chart in mid-June.

The new album which would feature the single arrived in March of ’74 in the UK, called Diamond Dogs (it wasn’t released in the U.S until May 24th, on the eve of a 73-date tour of the States).

Diamond Dogs was a departure, musically and stylistically, from its predecessor, Aladdin Sane, but merely hinted at the new directions he would be going in the near future.

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Bowie had originally planned to stage it as an elaborate rock musical based on George Orwell’s novel 1984, but the Orwell estate had balked at the idea.

Some of the songs he’d written for that project still managed to find their way on to Diamond Dogs, most noticeably “Big Brother” and “We Are The Dead.”

For the 73-date U.S. tour, Bowie had envisioned that the stage set — designed by Broadway veterans Jules Fisher and Mark Ravitz — depicting a post-apocalyptic world, a barren cityscape with catwalks that were lowered from the rafters, and a cherry-picker that when extended to its full length would allow Bowie to hover over the audience (it also got stuck a few times and left him dangling over concertgoers).

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Since he was unable to use the scenarios from Orwell’s novel, he really had no definitive storyline for the visual world he’d created — which he’d peopled by all sorts of punked out characters, some of them violent street urchin types, living on the streets, including a character he’d play onstage called Halloween Jack — but it didn’t seem to matter much to the fans who saw these concerts if there was a story or not.

Bowie performed on this stage for ten weeks before he began making changes. By mid-July, the tour was being downsized due to some unfortunate problems, including part of the set ending up in a swamp after a truck driver was stung by a bee en route to Tampa, Florida, and went off the highway.

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Plans went ahead, however, to record a live album during six shows at Philadelphia’s fabled Tower Theater, but there were technical problems and bad vibes between Bowie and his band.

That album, David Live, released in the fall, wasn’t the best representation of the tour he was doing at the time (as bootlegs from other shows during that tour revealed).

By July 20, 1974, when Bowie’s stage show had moved to NYC’s Madison Square Garden — his first time playing in that particular venue — he’d ditched some of the Diamond Dogs stage persona and he was now wearing boxing gloves onstage.

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Diamond Dogs climbed to #5 on the U.S. album charts, his highest chart position at the time, but he was already changing directions, and the new directions began drawing him towards re-envisioning himself as a soul singer leading a brand new backing band through a soul revue of sorts.

While in New York, Bowie had been going to discos frequented by Puerto Rican and black music fans and he began to gravitate towards the sounds he was hearing in the clubs, and flitting like a butterfly to the next flower.

In early August, Bowie and his new band — including several members of his touring band, as well as future R&B superstar Luther Vandross — began working on The Gouster in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound.

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He’d originally wanted to work with the studio’s house band, which had played on hits by The O’Jays, Lou Rawls, The Three Degrees and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, but they were unavailable due to a scheduling conflict.

The new songs were more R&B-influenced and included “Fascination” (a rewrite of Vandross’ composition “Funky Music”), “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and the title track, “Young Americans.” Bowie would call this his “American” phase, but others have somewhat derisively referred to it as his “plastic soul” phase.

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A few months later, in November and December, Bowie would be back in New York City, meeting up with his new friend John Lennon, with whom he had a long discussion about the problems associated with becoming a celebrity. Lennon and Bowie ended up co-writing “Fame” at the famous Electric Lady Studios, the song conjured up in the studio and inspired by Bowie’s cover of the Flares’ 1961 R&B hit “Footstompin’.” Both “Fame” and Bowie’s cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” would end up on Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans.

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It was during this same time that Bowie taped that interview you see here in Iconic for “The Dick Cavett Show”, fidgeting with a cane he used as a prop during the performance, sniffling and acting nervous (at one point Cavett asks him if he’s nervous. “Um … oh, let’s carry on talking,” he tells Cavett. “Don’t ask me that. Otherwise I’ll wonder, you see. I’d rather not know if I’m nervous until … “, then his voice trails off…

David Live would end up at #8 on the U.S. album charts, and Young Americans would end up at #9, while its title track was his first U.S. Top 40 single, peaking at #29. That song he co-wrote with Lennon, “Fame,” would end up becoming Bowie’s first U.S. #1 and certifiably made him into a superstar.

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By the end of 1975, his transition and transformation would be fully complete — and he would be on the move again, this time moving from New York City to Los Angeles, where he would launch his movie career, and appearing on TV shows like “Soul Train”, and “Cher,” (on November 23, 1975).

You can read more about Bowie’s next phase in our post about his so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” the 1976-1979 recordings, right here.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.