Young Americans

  1. Young Americans [5.10]

  2. Win [4.44]

  3. Fascination [5.43]

  4. Right [4.13]

  5. Somebody Up There Likes Me [6.30]

  6. Across The Universe [4.30]

  7. Can You Hear Me? [5.04]

  8. Fame [4.12]

Bonus tracks on 1991 reissue:

  • Who Can I Be Now? [4.36]

  • It's Gonna Be Me [6.27]

  • John, I'm Only Dancing (Again) [6.57]

Bonus tracks on 2007 reissue:

  • John, I'm Only Dancing (Again) [7.03]

  • Who Can I Be Now? [4.40]

  • It's Gonna Be Me (with strings) [6.28]

Bonus DVD tracks on 2007 reissue:

  • 1984/Young Americans/Dick Cavett Interviews David Bowie

Young Americans

Released:

  • RCA Victor RS 1006 - March 1975

  • RCA PL 80998 - October 1984

  • EMI EMD 1021 - April 1991

  • EMI 7243 5219050 - September 1999

  • EMI 0946 3 51258 - March 2007

Personnel:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Piano

  • Carlos Alomar: Guitar

  • Mike Garson: Piano

  • David Sanborn: Saxophone

  • Willie Weeks: Bass

  • Andy Newmark: Drums

  • Larry Washington: Conga

  • Pablo Rosario: Percussion

  • Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, Luther Vandross, Anthony Hinton, Diane Sumler, Warren Peace: Backing Vocals

PLUS - on Across The Universe and Fame:

  • John Lennon: Vocals, Guitar

  • Earl Slick: Guitar

  • Emir Ksasan: Bass

  • Dennis Davis: Drums

  • Ralph McDonald: Percussion

  • Jean Fineberg, Jean Millington: Backing Vocals

Recorded:

  • Sigma Sound, Philadelphia; Electric Lady, New York

Producers:

  • Tony Visconti: Across The Universe and Fame, David Bowie, Harry Maslin

"I thought I'd better make a hit album to cement myself over here, so I went and did it. It wasn't too hard, really," Bowie told Melody Maker in 1976, a year after Young Americans had made him a household name in the States.

 

During his residency at Philadelphia's Tower Theater in July 1974, David made his first visit to the city's Sigma Sound Studios to work with Michael Kamen on some new Ava Cherry recordings. Sigma was the home of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International label, whose roster of artists (The Three Degrees, The O'Jays, The Stylistics, The Spinners) formed the centre of America's black music revolution. Songs like "1984" and "Rock 'n Roll With Me" had already hinted at David's enthusiasm for the soul and funk of the 'Philly' sound, and his encounter with guitarist Carlos Alomar the previous April had confirmed his latest musical aspirations. Ten years earlier, during his time with The Manish Boys, David's most treasured album had been James Brown's Live At The Apollo, and when he met Alomar his "great dream in life...to go to the Apollo" was fulfilled: "I couldn't believe it," he recalled many years later. "Not only did Carlos know the Apollo, he was in the house band there." Sure enough, in April 1974 Bowie had told Rock magazine that he had "been going down to the Apollo in Harlem. Most New Yorkers seem scared to go there if they're white, but the music's incredible. I saw The Temptations and The Spinners on the same bill there, and next week it's Marvin Gaye, incredible!" In the spring of 1974 Bowie was singing the praises of Barry White, The Isley Brothers, the Ohio Players (whose "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" he would soon introduce into his repertoire) and even The Jackson Five, whom he saw perform at Madison Square Garden.

 

At the start of the six-week break in the Diamond Dogs tour schedule, Bowie returned to New York to mix David Live, giving Corinne Schwab a shopping list of black albums he wanted to hear in preparation for his return to Sigma Sound. In the weeks leading up to the sessions, the US chart was topped by The Hues Corporation's "Rock The Boat" and George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby", by far the biggest hits yet to emerge from the embryonic disco movement.

 

David had initially hoped to employ Sigma's resident rhythm group, known as the MFSB ("Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers"), but with the exception of percussionist Larry Washington they were busy on other projects, so another recruitment drive began in New York. Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Pablo Rosario remained from the tour band, but Earl Slick was now replaced by Peurto Rican-born Carlos Alomar, who had played guitar at the April 1974 Lulu session. In addition to his work at the Apollo with The Main Ingredient, Alomar's credits included touring with James Brown, Ben E King, Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett. Alomar recommended replacements for Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers: Main Ingredient drummer Andy Newmark, formerly of Sly & The Family Stone, and the legendary black bassist Willie Weeks, a veteran of The Isley Brothers. When David contacted Tony Visconti in London and told him he had Willie Weeks on board, the producer caught the next plane over: "I'm a bass player myself, and he was my idol," Visconti later explained.

 

Preliminary demo work began at Sigma on August 8th 1974, and Tony Visconti arrived three days later to begin the recording proper. "The session was booked for four and I arrived at the hotel at five and just ran to the studio, really jetlagged," recalled Visconti, who had just completed work on Thin Lizzy's Nightlife. "David arrived at midnight. He was very thin in those days and living sort of reversed hours. He was going to bed at about eleven in the morning and all that. However, on that very first night of recording, there was such an electrifying atmosphere in the air that we recorded, that evening, "Young Americans"." At David's invitation, Carlos Alomar's wife Robin Clark was enlisted as a backing vocalist for the session, as was the still unknown Luther Vandross, who had dropped by to visit his old schoolmate Carlos.

 

The sessions proceeded at a hectic pace, taking only two weeks to complete. "David did mostly live vocals, and although the songs were written, they were being heavily rearranged as time went on," said Visconti. "Nothing was organised, it turned out to be one enormous jam session." Driven by an ever-increasing intake of uppers and cocaine, Bowie became a workaholic even by his own standards, staying awake day and night to record while the band slept in the studio. An anonymous musician later recalled David "waiting several hours for coke to be delivered from New York and he wouldn't perform until it came." Many years later, Bowie would admit that "My drug problems were creating havoc with my voice, producing a real raspy sound that I fought all the time as I wanted to sing high, swooping into falsetto and such. In the end, though, I think I sing higher on this album than anything else I've done." Mike Garson recalled staying up with David "until four, five or six in the morning...I just remember seeing him in an amazing creative space. He was just flowing."

 

The Sigma sessions were prodigiously productive: among the out-takes which would not see the light of day for many years were "After Today", "Who Can I Be Now?", "It's Gonna Be Me", "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)", "Lazer", "Shilling The Rubes", an abandoned re-recording of "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City", and the mythical out-take "Too Fat Polka". "A small group of fans stood vigil outside the studio listening as hard as they could," Visconti remembered. "On the last day, David took pity on them and invited them in for an hour of listening." Many years later Bowie was still affectionately dedicating Philadelphia concert performances of "Young Americans" to "the Sigma Kids".

 

In September 2009 a reel tape from the Sigma sessions, dated August 13th 1974 and containing "Shilling The Rubes", "Lazer", and previously unheard takes of "After Today" and the title track (at this stage entitled "Young American" in the singular), was briefly offered for sale on eBay. Following legal rumblings, the tape was swiftly withdrawn from sale, but not before brief excerpts from the four tracks had been leaked onto the internet: peppered with studio chit-chat, they offer a fascinating glimpse into the album at the earliest stage of its development.

 

Towards the end of the fortnight, the sessions were increasingly marred by disputes with Tony Defries, who disliked David's new material and opposed his intention to scrap the expensive Diamond Dogs set for the forthcoming autumn tour. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times in September, when he was supposed to be promoting David Live, Bowie openly defied his manager by enthusing instead about the new recordings which would not be released for another six months. "My record company doesn't like me to do this," he said. "But I'm so excited about this one...and it can tell you more about where I am now than anything I could say." He explained that in the past he had used "science fiction patterns because I was trying to put forward concepts, ideas and theories, but this album hasn't anything to do with that. It's just emotional drive...There's not a concept in sight." He stressed the album's personal authenticity: "This one is the nearest to actually meeting me since that Space Oddity album, which was quite personal," he explained, adding that "the songs on Diamond Dogs I got the biggest kick out of, "Rock 'n' Roll With Me" and "1984", gave me the knowledge that there was another album at least inside of me that I was going to be happy with." Of his faux-black vocal style, he revealed that "It's only now that I've got the necessary confidence to sing like that. That's the kind of music I've always wanted to sing. I mean, those are my favourite artists...the Jackie Wilsons, that type."

 

When the Philly Dogs tour arrived in Philadelphia in November 1974, Bowie and Visconti took the opportunity to return to Sigma to add overdubs and begin mixing. The album's myriad working titles included Dancin', Somebody Up There Likes Me, One Damn Song (a quotation from the title track), Shilling The Rubes (an American slang term that roughly translates as "conning the suckers" - a throwback to the Hype philosophy of 1970) and The Gouster (according to Tony Visconti, this was contemporary street slang for "a cool hip guy who walks down the street snapping his fingers", but it's worth noting that Cassell's Dictionary Of Slang defines "gowster" as a "habitual user of marijuana, morphine or heroin"). As late as December 1974 David informed Disc that the album would, in fact, be called Fascination, a remark which reveals that he had recently completed a new track. Indeed, although it's commonly believed that all but the John Lennon collaborations were finished at Sigma in August, this is in fact far from accurate. At the end of the Philly Dogs tour in December, Bowie would enter New York's Record Plant Studios with Tony Visconti, Carlos Alomar and David Sanborn to record "Win" and "Fascination", the latter adapted from "Funky Music", a composition Luther Vandross had performed in the tour's support set. An early track-listing of The Gouster, compiled by Tony Visconti shortly after the Philadelphia sessions, confirms that neither track had yet been recorded: at this stage the album was to open with "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)", followed by "Somebody Up There Likes Me", "It's Gonna Be Me", "Who Can I Be Now?", "Can You Hear Me", "Young Americans" and "Right". The Fascination track-listing announced by Disc in December sees the newly completed "Win" and "Fascination" ousting "Who Can I Be Now?" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me". At this stage "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)" was still in the running as the opening track, but circumstances were about to dictate an altogether more radical rethink. Again, previous accounts have often confused their dates regarding the most famous collaboration on Young Americans. Many place it in late 1974 when in fact, as corroborated by Keith Badman's admirable day-to-day chronology The Beatles After The Break-Up, the recordings took place in January 1975.

 

With the title track already mixed in London by Tony Visconti, Bowie and his producer became regular fixtures at Record Plant during December and January, mixing Young Americans with the assistance of in-house engineer Harry Maslin. Bowie was renting two suites in New York's Pierre Hotel, where he spent his free time building model sets and shooting test footage for his mooted Diamond Dogs film. At the same time John Lennon was working at Record Plant, putting the finishing touches to his covers album Rock 'n' Roll; he was in the middle of his famous year-long "lost weekend", and had first met Bowie in Los Angeles the previous September. According to Ava Cherry David was "in awe" of Lennon, but as the two began to socialise in New York the prospect of a collaboration reared its head. In early January an impromptu jam led to sessions at the nearby Electric Lady Studios, spawning David's cover of "Across The Universe" and a new number, the iconic "Fame". For these recordings David roped in Carlos Alomar, Emir Ksasan and other members of the Philly Dogs band, giving Earl Slick and Dennis Davis their Bowie studio debuts. Newcomers were drummer Ralph McDonald and backing vocalists Jean Fineberg and Jean Millington, who later married Earl Slick.

 

Tony Visconti had returned to England with what he believed was the finished album on the very morning of the Electric Lady session. "The three of us, John, David and myself, stayed up until about ten in the morning and had a great time together, and I wish I'd been in the studio with them," said Visconti, who was now busy recording the string parts for "Win", "Can You Hear Me" and "It's Gonna Be Me" with session musicians at London's AIR Studios. "About two weeks after I'd mixed the album, David phoned to tell me about "Fame". He was very apologetic and nice about it, and said he hoped I wouldn't mind if we took a few tracks off and included these." In Visconti's absence David had co-produced and mixed the new tracks with Harry Maslin (whose overall contribution to the album has been given greater credit in recent years: in addition to his acknowledged work on the two Lennon tracks, EMI's 1999 reissue gives Maslin a co-production credit alongside Visconti on every track bar "Young Americans", and credits the production of "Can You Hear Me" to Bowie and Maslin alone. However, the plot thickens: in 2006 Visconti revealed that "that was a credit error. I'm not particularly bothered by it, but I produced that song and David Bowie and Maslin did a little extra work on it after I went back to London, where I recorded the strings"). To make way for the two new tracks, "Who Can I Be Now?" and "It's Gonna Be Me" were dropped from the album. "Beautiful songs," Visconti said later, "and it made me sick when he decided not to use them. I think it was the personal content of the songs which he was a bit reluctant to release, although it was so obscure I don't think even I knew what he was on about in them!" The two numbers remained unreleased until their appearance as bonus tracks on the 1991 Rykodisc reissue, and latterly on EMI's 2007 Young Americans CD/DVD special edition, which included a new 5.1 remix of the entire album masterminded by Tony Visconti, who took the opportunity to adorn "It's Gonna Be Me" with the sumptuous string arrangement omitted from the Ryko version.

 

As for missing out on producing the Lennon tracks, Visconti was philosophical: "If I said I didn't weep I'd be lying. It hurt. I got on so well with Lennon, it would've been the most wonderful experience of my recording career. Oh well." A lasting result of the encounter was an introduction to Lennon's then-girlfriend, May Pang, whom Visconti would later marry. "Never wear a new girlfriend in front of Tony!" joked Bowie many years later.

 

John Lennon's other contribution to David's career came in the form of some hard advice about how to disentangle himself from his manager: Lennon himself was still fighting a rearguard action against Allen Klein in the wake of the Beatles split. "It was John that sorted me out all the way down the line," David said later. "I realised I was very naíve. I still thought you had to have somebody else who dealt with these things called contracts." Shortly after his discussions with Lennon, Bowie began legal proceedings to separate himself from Tony Defries and MainMan. Corinne Schwab contacted a Beverly Hills lawyer called Michael Lippman, who commenced action against MainMan on David's behalf at the end of January.

 

RCA understandably sided with the artist (some executives have since told biographers that they relished the opportunity to repay some of the indignities heaped on them over the years by Defries), and the unreleased Young Americans became a significant bargaining chip. The label was already confident that the new recordings, boosted by a big-name guest collaborator, would give David his American breakthrough. Bowie had sensibly locked the Sigma Sound masters in a bank vault, and RCA's Geoff Hannington visited Electric Lady Studios "at dead of night with dollar bills" to collect the two Lennon tracks before MainMan got its hands on them. Defries tried, unsuccessfully, to block the album's release. The lawsuit progressed through 1975, becoming one of the most talked about legal disputes in showbusiness history, and its aftermath was lengthy and unpleasant. A deal would eventually be struck which, in most estimations, left Defries the victor. It was not until well into the 1980s that David would begin making the sort of money commonly associated with a rock star of his stature. Among the terms of the settlement was the agreement that any new material written or recorded up to September 30th 1982 (the termination of David's original contract with Defries) would be subject to a 16 per cent royalty payment to MainMan. From October 1982 onwards David would assume full rights to his new songs, but Defries retained a percentage of the pre-1982 work in perpetuity: he would receive 16 per cent of all future earnings on work between the severance agreement and September 1982, and an astonishing 50 per cent of all future earnings on everything from the Decca recordings up to and including David Live.

 

Any final analysis of the MainMan controversy must be qualified by an acknowledgement that David had only himself to blame for failing to inspect the small print of the documents he had signed from 1970 onwards. And, of course, the glorious madness of the MainMan circus was instrumental in launching him before a global audience. David told Melody Maker in 1978 that "My anger was spent a good couple of years ago, and all the feelings of being used, done-out-of and whatever have more or less melted into the mist...I certainly would not have achieved that degree of notoriety without all that nonsense going on...Without some of those initial ridiculous fusses, some of the best things might never have come to light. It did come to light through the efforts of him and the crazies who were running around at the time, so I guess I'm thankful for that period in a way." At the same time, he was quick to emphasise that "I'll never condone what went on."

 

"We all got ripped off by Defries," photographer Mick Rock told Uncut in 2003, "in terms of money and the abuse of intellectual property. Partly because we didn't know what the hell intellectual property was in those days. There was villainy afoot, and it's legitimate for David to criticise him, though as he was facilitating access for me, I had no problem with him. And it was because Defries signed David to his production company, rather than directly to RCA, that David was able to do that amazing Wall Street deal many years later [1997's so-called 'Bowie Bonds' flotation], and move his records from one label to another. Long term, he benefited."

 

A happier outcome of the short-term ordeal was that Bowie renewed his friendship with Defries's predecessor Kenneth Pitt, who spent many hours giving David sound advice by telephone during late 1974 and early 1975. Pitt's long-standing financial dispute with Defries was settled in the same year, and 20 years later Pitt was still attending Bowie's concerts.

 

The final touches had been put to Young Americans at Record Plant on January 12th 1975. Bowie telephoned the artist Norman Rockwell to invite him to paint the album sleeve but, as David later recalled, "His wife explained in this quavering, elderly voice, 'I'm sorry, but Norman needs at least six months for his portraits.' So I had to pass." Another rejected sleeve design was a full-length photograph of David in a flying suit, complete with white silk scarf, standing in front of a Stars and Stripes flag and raising a glass. The eventual choice was a back-lit and heavily airbrushed photo of David by Eric Stephen Jacobs, taken in Los Angeles on August 30th the previous year.

 

The album was released on March 7th 1975 to a generally warm reception, particularly from American critics who had never been entirely happy with David's glam period. "It works well. The key here is that Bowie's sophisticated soul...does not sound the least bit put on. The vocals do not sound nearly as strained as they have on some of his more raucous rockers, nor do they sound as camp," noted Billboard approvingly, adding that the record "should not only endear Bowie even more to his current fans but should open up an entirely new avenue of fans for him." Record World described it as Bowie's "most compelling album to date", while Cashbox crowned David "the brightest star in the pop music constellation with this latest RCA release". Rolling Stone was more cautious, recommending "Fame" and lauding the album as "a very successful experiment...certainly much better than many of his other experiments", but describing the vocals as "distorted" and "Across The Universe" as "just hideous". In Britain, some of Bowie's former champions were similarly unconvinced. Michael Watts, whose Melody Maker interview had helped launch David to stardom in 1972, noted disparagingly that the album was "designed to cast our hero in the mould of soul superstar", but that "I get a persistent picture of nigger patronisation as Bowie flips through his soul take-offs at Sigma Sound like some cocktail-party liberal...he patently lacks any deep emotional commitment to his material."

 

David himself has since been less than complimentary about Young Americans, although his famous description of the album as "plastic soul" has been quoted out of context for decades. What he actually told the NME, only a few months after the album's release, was that he was attempting to comment on the media's appropriation of musical forms: "My statement is 'rock and roll is walking all over everybody'," he explained, "Like, I tried to do a little stretch of how it feels musically in this country, which is sort of the relentless plastic soul basically. That's what the last album was." On another occasion, he described Young Americans as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey." Elsewhere he exclaimed, "It's the phoniest R&B I've ever heard. If I ever would have got my hands on that record when I was growing up I would have cracked it over my knee." In 1976 he told Melody Maker that "I don't listen to it very much. I don't like it very much. It was a phase."

 

More recently, David has moderated his opinion. "I shouldn't have been quite so hard on myself, because looking back it was pretty good, white, blue-eyed soul," he told Q magazine in 1990. "At the time I still had an element of being the artist who just throws things out unemotionally. But it was quite definitely one of the best bands I ever had...And I was like most English who come over to America for the first time, totally blown away by the fact that the blacks in America had their own culture, and it was positive and they were proud of it...and to be right there in the middle of it was just intoxicating, to go into the same studios as all those great artists." In 1978 he explained, "I wanted to get into that Warholism of Polaroiding things...Young Americans was my photograph of American music at the time."

 

To this day Young Americans splits Bowie fans down the middle. Some deplore its inauthentic soul-boy pretensions and view it as an aberration by an artist whose talents lie elsewhere. Others revel in its deft embrace of funk and soul, marvelling at how a man under such terrible personal and professional pressures could produce a record of such limpid beauty and consummate musicianship. Certainly, Visconti's production, the band's playing and in particular Bowie's soaring vocals have seldom been bettered. It's not without justification that some of the lyrics have been regarded as superficial and woolly by comparison with the rest of Bowie's 1970s work, but on closer inspection the familiar anguish penetrates the album's soft-focus trappings: the violent underbelly of the title track, the minatory tone of "Somebody Up There Likes Me", and in particular the blistering spite of "Fame" are sorely undervalued. "Young Americans is a fantastic soul record, but soul with something else going on," says admirer Bob Geldof. "There's an edginess to it."

 

Whatever else it was, Young Americans was the album that finally broke the US market, going top ten, spawning a number 1 single in "Fame", and transforming Bowie from a mildly unsavoury cult artist to a chat-show friendly showbiz personality. More importantly, by jumping on the Stax/George McCrae bandwagon, Bowie had undertaken the first significant excursion into black soul by a mainstream white artist and, despite the ridicule, he invited by doing so, had broken down barriers on the path to the forthcoming disco explosion. In the wake of Bowie's Sigma sessions, Elton John recorded "Philadelphia Freedom", which (backed by a duet with John Lennon!) charted alongside "Young Americans" in March 1975. Other British releases that followed Bowie's example during 1975 included Roxy Music's "Love Is The Drug" and Rod Stewart's Atlantic Crossing.

 

In the longer term Bowie's white translation of soul and funk, and the accompanying pose of finger-snapping cool in a tailored suit would prove a keynote for 1980s bands as diverse as ABC, Talking Heads, Spandau Ballet and Japan. Michael Jackson would buy it all back again - as a black artist singing white man's black music - with devastating commercial success. And if "Space Oddity" had originally borrowed from the sound of the early Bee Gees, Bowie was now more than repaying the debt, paving the way for a commercial atmosphere that would foster the Gibb Brothers' biggest successes. In this light at least, the importance of Young Americans is beyond question. Of course, by the time the disco craze arrived, David Bowie had moved somewhere else altogether.