February 3, 2013 by NowhereButPop
David Bowie (born David Jones) is one of the most easily recognized musicians the world has ever seen. This is slightly ironic because of the myriad of different phases of his career, each marked by their own unique imagery and persona developed by Bowie. He’s been the space oddity, the glam rock goddess, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Nazi sympathizing Thin White Duke, the avant garde pop star, and the adult pop lounge singer, just to name a few. Most of these “characters” arose in the 70s due to either the nature of the time or Bowie’s downward spiral into drug addiction. The point is because Bowie’s done so much, and been so many people, there really isn’t one “true” David Bowie. You can’t look at one album and say “That’s David Bowie, the real David Bowie”. No album of his sums up who he is as an artist and what he’s about musically. One album comes extremely close to doing this however, and it’s his 1975 opus Young Americans, a largely forgotten album that more than holds its own against Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, and Let’s Dance.
Young Americans is more of a David Jones album than it is a David Bowie album; it’s the most David Jones album of his entire career. Chronologically it occupies a very interesting time in Bowie’s career. It comes off the heels of his last glam rock album Diamond Dogs, but right before the German influenced pop sounds of Station to Station and the “Berlin Trilogy” albums. Its soul, funk, and R&B sound is the only time this kind of music is captured on a Bowie LP. The best way to describe it is pre-disco. Released a full year before disco blew up in America, Young Americans serves as an undeniable precursor to the disco fad.
Heavily influenced by black soul and funky rock infused rhythm and blues, Young Americans sounds like an album that David Jones, aficionado of Black American music wanted to put out. It wasn’t an album displaying a genre of music that David Bowie had become the poster child of, but an album showcasing his appreciation for a kind of music that had been cultivated without him. This was a new genre of music for him that he wanted to partake in, unlike glam which had become heavily inspired by his antics of the past. Young Americans is the sound of David Bowie moving from the past into the future vis a via playing the kind of music that David Jones had been a fan of.
The album kicks off with the title track which touches upon many sensitive subjects in American history at the time, namely the Watergate scandal, social uncertainty, and the disjointed and disillusioned mentality of young Americans. That patented acoustic guitar in the background is still there, but now it’s being overshadowed by a sax and a funk driven percussion beat. In reality, “Young Americans” is the perfect way for a British musician paying homage to his favorite American music to kick off an album. A song that takes up the blues America was facing at the time and turning it into a top 40 pop hit is no easy feat. It further illustrates that this was an album made by David Jones, and not a musical manifestation of some mercurial and androgynous alter-ego.
Next up is the typical 70s David Bowie ballad “Win”, a song that progressively builds as it goes on and showcases his lower vocal range. Again though the soul influence takes the place of the glam guided musical direction of the past. In an interesting note, this is the first of a few songs on the album that Bowie call himself crazy with the line “I hope I’m crazy”. I don’t know for certain, but I hope this is a reference to his own displays during his glam years. If it is, it would assume a purposeful shift in direction away from glam and again reiterates that this is an album by the “real” David Bowie.
What isn’t speculation however, is that the next track “Fascination” is the centerpiece of the album that serves as a microcosm for the album as a whole. In fact, the album was originally entitled Fascination. It is here that we get the soul and funk influenced in its purest and most concentrated form. This is due in no small part to Luther Vandross who co-wrote the song with Bowie. The dancing groove of the beat supporting the song over the funky guitar riff perfectly conveys the idea of “Plastic Soul” which permeates throughout the entire album. This song narrowly beats out “Fame” as being the best song on the album. The backing vocals do wonders for the song as well to again tell the listener that this is partly an R&B album. This is Bowie as we’ve never seen him before: fascinated by a new kind of music, hence the title “Fascination”. This is a song that demonstrates his love of this music.
Closing out side one is “Right”, another soul song that I suppose is Bowie’s attempt at “baby-making music”. It carries over the backing vocals from “Fascination” and also features a keyboard that sounds like Stevie Wonder doing a cover the Rolling Stones “Angie”. For what it is, it’s a good song, it just pales in comparison when stacked against “Fame” and “Fascination”.
Opening up side two is “Somebody Up There likes Me” which lyrically might as well have been on Ziggy Stardust as it sounds like it’s about some messianic everyman coming to save the world. Instead of a guitar, it’s a saxophone that takes the lead along with the conga beats which drive the song. By this point of the album, there shouldn’t be any more doubt over whether or not Bowie could move on from glam into the realm of “Plastic Soul” as he called it. With “Somebody Up There like Me”, even the most fervent of detractors have to give Bowie credit for successfully meshing himself into that funk and soul sound while at the same time serving as a prelude to the disco fad.
Skipping over an acceptable cover of the Beatles “Across the Universe”, the penultimate track “Can You Hear Me” is the R&B ballad that the album needed up until this point. No album can call itself an R&B album without a ballad lamenting a lost love, and Bowie does it to shocking perfection. The atmospheric guitar combined with the flowing orchestra accentuates Bowie’s range from glam era falsetto to newfound lower registers. It won’t be your favorite, but after two or three listens, you’ll realize that Young Americans need the song to really stand on its own two legs.
Finally, we get to the last track on the album “Fame”, co-written by John Lennon and Bowie’s first #1 hit in the U.S. The closing track shows a cynical and dejected take on fame and the perks that come with it. It’s the sound of David Jones’ frustration towards the life that being David Bowie has wrought him, one of lavishness and thoughtless comfort and ease where anything is up for grabs merely by being famous. That guitar riff is “Plastic Soul” incarnate. For those of you who don’t know, plastic soul is a term coined by an unnamed black musician used to described white people trying to mimic black music. “Fame” is the exclamation point the album deserves and it doesn’t disappoint or let up at all. The seven prior tracks built up like a crescendo just to unleash the cool fury that is “Fame”. It’s a masterful way to end a masterpiece of an album.
Unfortunately the musical trends of Young Americans only lasted for one album. It’s a shame really, because I would have loved to see where he could have taken it with the onset of disco. Smashed between Diamond Dogs, the last of his glam albums, and Station to Station which featured the Thin White Duke, Young Americans is an album that occupies its own space without any theatrics or characters. It’s simply David Bowie playing the music that he loves, and for that reason only Young Americans is an album equal parts David Bowie, and David Jones.