When David Bowie first began work on 1974's Diamond Dogs, he intended for it to be a conceptual album based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For those unfamiliar, that novel, first published in 1949, is one of literature's quintessential dystopian stories — a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind trust and a too-powerful government. Big Brother is watching you.

For someone like Bowie, who grew up during WWII and by 1974 had made it quite clear he wasn't interested in conforming to norms, this was still a powerful story. After all, this was the time period in which Britain experienced a hung parliament for the first time since 1929, among plenty of other political issues, and meanwhile across the Big Pond, President Richard Nixon was tangled up in Watergate and on his way to resignation. In other words, the future looked awfully bleak and Bowie was thinking a lot about what that meant both personally and more generally.

"In retrospect, [dystopia] has been a strong theme in the work that I've done down the years," Bowie told Mojo in 2002. "In fact, I think if there is any consistency to what I do, it’s going to be the lyrical content. I'm saying the same thing a lot, which is about this sense of self-destruction. I think you can see the apocalyptic thing as the manifestation of an interior problem. There's a real nagging anxiety in there somewhere, and I probably develop those anxieties in a 'faction' [fact/fiction] structure."

Bowie's Orwell-inspired concept album did not make it to full fruition — the author's widow refused him the rights to the novel at the end of 1973, and would subsequently refuse all other adaptions of the book for the rest of her life — but that didn't mean it all got thrown out. Somehow it became 1974's Diamond Dogs. In recognition of it s 50th anniversary, we're taking a look at the classic album track-by-track.

1. "Future Legend"

"Leave it to David to start an album sounding like a frightening sci-fi movie about Dracula with this horrible dystopian narrative likely more accurate today than ever before," Bowie's pianist Mike Garson recalled in 2020. "Future Legend" begins with an eerie howl, introduces corpses, rats and vicious dogs and ends with the bubbling noise of a live audience taken from, of all things, Faces' 1974 live album Coast to Coast: Overtures and Beginners.

 

2. "Diamond Dogs"

The title track to Diamond Dogs begins with a segue from "Future Legends." The crowd grows louder and Bowie makes one of his most famous declarations: "This ain't rock 'n' roll, this is genocide." Since Bowie's original 1984 idea had been scrapped, he went with plan B: also a conceptual album, but this one full of scrappy teens living in a dystopian world called Hunger City and a gang leader named Halloween Jack who lives on top of Manhattan Chase, as the lyrics describe. Because Bowie had already begun work on the LP's material before Orwell's widow shut the plan down, things moved swiftly in the studio and even Bowie's bandmates were left trying to keep the story straight — bassist Herbie Flowers would describe it to Uncut in 2008 as "weird" and "mildly unattractive," but interesting nonetheless.

 

3. "Sweet Thing"

The following three-song run — "Sweet Thing" / "Candidate" / "Sweet Thing Reprise" — was initially written as one long track, intended to be the centerpiece of Bowie's musical. It was written using William Burroughs' cut-up method in which one writes out a story, cuts the sections up and then rearranges them in whatever way they please. "You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections," Bowie explained in 2008. "I was looking to create a profligate world that could have been inhabited by characters from Kurt Weill or John Rechy — that sort of atmosphere. A bridge between Enid Blyton's Beckenham and the Velvet Underground's New York. Without Noddy, though." Bowie himself played lead guitar.

 

4. "Candidate"

"I thought it evocative to wander between the melodramatic 'Sweet Thing' croon into the dirty sound of 'Candidate' and back again," Bowie said in 2008. "Dirty" is certainly one word, "sinister" might be another. "I am having so much fun with the poisonous people / Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up," Bowie sings. He was then in the throws of his drug addiction, a difficult journey that permeated much of the work for Diamond Dogs, making lyrics like "We'll buy some drugs and watch a band / Then jump in the river holding hands" seem much more personal than theatrical in hindsight. (The guitar parts Bowie played on these songs would wind up being performed live by Earl Slick on tour.)

 

5. "Sweet Thing (Reprise)"

Bowie played the sax part on "Sweet Thing (Reprise)" in the studio, though on tour that job fell to David Sanborn, whom Bowie would hire for 1975's Young Americans. This is where Bowie's lead guitar playing really astounds, in the last minute of the track. It was something he felt no other session player would have been able to nail the way he wanted. "I knew that the guitar playing had to be more than okay," Bowie told Guitar Player in 1997. "That couple of months I spent putting that album together before I went into the studio was probably the only time in my life where I really buckled down to learn the stuff I needed to have on the album. I'd actually practice two hours a day. I knew the sound in my head, and at that time I didn't know musicians who could carry it off."

 

6. "Rebel Rebel"

Closing out side one of Diamond Dogs is "Rebel Rebel," the grand anthemic tribute to all things glam rock — androgynous outfits, gaudy makeup and lots of dancing — everything Ziggy Stardust loves. At its center is one of Bowie's most famous guitar lines. "It's a fabulous riff! Just fabulous! When I stumbled onto it, it was 'Oh, thank you!'" he would later recall. Guitarist Alan Parker helped Bowie solidify the riff, taking a Keith Richards-esque approach to it. A lot of listeners, as it turned out, related to this declaration of individuality because the song, released as Diamond Dogs' lead single, went to No. 5 in the U.K.

 

7. "Rock 'n' Roll With Me"

The cool thing about being childhood friends with a rockstar, as singer Geoff MacCormack was with Bowie, is that sometimes you accidentally fall into songwriting with them as pals just for fun and you wind up writing an album-worthy track. This is what happened with "Rock n' Roll With Me." "I'd just popped round [Bowie's house in London] to hang," MacCormack would say in Strange Fascination: David Bowie, The Definitive Story. "David was fiddling around on a tiny piano. He got up, and I started fiddling around with a chord sequence and stuff that I had just written. David said, 'Hang on a minute, play that again!' So, it was very much accidental." This was the very first time Bowie shared co-writing credits with another person on one of his songs. At some live performances, Bowie would tell the crowd that the song was about them, a nod to his occasional discomfort with such intense adulation from his fans. "There were times, frankly, when I could have told the audience to do anything, and that's frightening," he explained to Melody Maker in 1974. "Well, I've got that responsibility so I've got to be very careful about what I do with it. It needs a bit of forethought."

 

8. "We Are the Dead"

Here's where the George Orwell influence really comes out full force. In Orwell's 1984, the phrase "we are the dead" is said by multiple characters. "We are the dead," O'Brien, the book's main antagonist says. "Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing." Bowie's lyrics are equally cryptic, once again using Burroughs' cut-up technique. He never performed the song live.

 

9. "1984"

It was Bob Dylan who noted that the times were a-changing, but it was Bowie who warned "the times they are a-telling, and the changing isn't free." "1984" was intended to be the title track for Bowie's envisioned theatrical production, but even while at work on the song, he was thinking several steps ahead musically. "David kept on relating everything to a Barry White album he had been listening to," Bowie's former producer Ken Scott said in 2016. "He wanted that Philly sound; that soul sound. He was already thinking toward the American soul thing he'd eventually get to [on Young Americans]. He was ready to make that change immediately after Pin Ups, while he was working on Diamond Dogs, which is unbelievable to me."

 

10. "Big Brother"

Even those who have never read 1984 nor seen the film adaption of the story have likely heard of Big Brother, the name for the authority figure ruling over the totalitarian state. This was one of the last songs Bowie worked on for Diamond Dogs, meant to reflect the ending portion of 1984 in which the main character, Winston Smith, is successfully brainwashed into believing Big Brother should be obeyed at all costs. Throughout the '70s, Bowie didn't hide his thoughts on this kind of government, telling one reporter in 1976 that he felt "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader." He later tried to explain the comment to Cameron Crowe in Playboy magazine that same year: "Yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. ... I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars."

 

11. "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family"

Leave it to Bowie to finish an album on an absolutely bizarre note. "David asked if I could capture the word 'brother' at the end of the last track, 'Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,' and repeat it ad infinitum," producer Tony Visconti would say in the 2016 box set, Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976). "Of course I could, but lo and behold, that short word was too long for the puny memory banks in the machine. Storage was very limited in those days. So I managed to capture just 'bro' with a snare drum hit and that actually sounded amazing, like a robot with AI that was not working very well singing it."

David Bowie Albums Ranked

David Bowie is not just rock’s greatest chameleon; he's also one of music’s most imaginative conceptual artists. 

Gallery Credit: Bryan Wawzenek

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