The enduring value of Diamond Dogs

Matt Roberts crawls through the outpourings of Bowie praise to look at a long-forgotten album

When David Bowie died at the beginning of this year, there came an inevitable flood of retrospectives, reappraisals and re-releases. Perhaps because Bowie himself was no longer alive to tell the sycophants and the glory hunters to fuck off, there was a huge public outpouring of grief from any vaguely relevant musical personality.

Month after month of editorial after editorial as each increasingly inconsequential celebrity clambered over one another to supplicate themselves before the altar of Bowie’s memory—and get themselves back in the national press for a scant few moments. The crescendo of this masturbatory outpouring came during the BBC’s ‘Bowie’ Prom, when a resplendent Amanda Palmer (of all people) declared “David is in the house with us tonight”—spoiler alert, he definitely wasn’t (other than during Conor O’Brien from the Villager’s chilling rendition of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’).

So, with every member of the musical establishment embarrassingly falling over themselves to conduct séances with the late great David Bowie, you probably aren’t surprised to be reading a self-important student journo writing a similar piece (albeit some months late to catch the press hype). I have evidently spent the beginning of this piece writing about how cheap and easy Bowie retrospectives are to let you know this isn’t a Bowie retrospective like all the other Bowie retrospectives—it is a letter of love addressed to a slightly maligned album—Diamond Dogs.

I am writing this because I understand the people that don’t rate Diamond Dogs—the first time I heard it I thought it was overwrought and self important, embodying everything wrong with the hubristic later years of glam rock. None of the catchy riffs and sing along tunes of Ziggy, and none of the quaint acoustic, poetic sweetness of Hunky Dory. It was loud and big and brash and frankly slightly embarrassing from the man who claimed to be the ultimate purveyor of musical taste.

A lot of the obvious criticisms of its pseudo-orchestral grandeur come from the fact that it didn’t start life as an album at all, it started life as a rock opera adaptation of 1984 which Bowie wanted to put on in the West end in the summer of the appropriate year.

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Let that just sink in for a moment. David Bowie tried to write a rock opera adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, and whilst he failed to get it made, he went on to make a concept album with a track called ‘Big Brother’ on it—you can see why I’m keen to forgive this album for some of its sins.

It is in the lyrics of this album that Bowie really comes into his own—the opening track ‘Future Legend’ is not so much a song, as a rabid soliloquy about life in a dystopian future where “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats, And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes”. Beyond this prologue the album ticks all of the classic Bowie boxes—the crowd pleasing jump about ‘Rebel Rebel’; the aching peaks and troughs of ‘Sweet Thing’ and ‘Candidate’; the lighters in the air sing along epic of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll with me’; lastly the utterly bizarre jackhammer mania of ‘Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family’.

This is an album that needs to be listened to for sheer scope of artistic vision—if you haven’t heard it before, go away and give it a go—and for God’s sake don’t listen to it on shuffle.