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‘Diamond Dogs’ At 50: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song On David Bowie’s Apocalyptic Nightmare
Warner Records
List & Guides

‘Diamond Dogs’ At 50: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song On David Bowie’s Apocalyptic Nightmare

Mind your step. This track-by-track guide to David Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ album takes a journey through the ravenous world of Hunger City.


After performing his final show as Ziggy Stardust in the summer of 1973, David Bowie sought to distance himself from his career-making alter ego with a covers album, Pin Ups. However, a long-term return to concept-free rock wasn’t part of the plan, as he began to develop George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four into a stage musical. When that fell through, Bowie created his own dystopian world to place his songs in, unveiling it on the Diamond Dogs album. Released on 24 May 1974, the record was as ambitious as anything Bowie had yet committed to tape, and would find him waving goodbye to his glam-rock past while also looking ahead to his soul-boy future.

As this track-by-track guide through each of Diamond Dogs’ 11 songs shows, the album was yet another uncompromising missive from an artist declaring war on convention.

Listen to ‘Diamond Dogs’ here.

‘Diamond Dogs’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Future Legend

Amid canine howls and foreboding synths, Bowie weaves together lyrical references to William Burroughs (the 1971 novel The Wild Boys), vocal nods to Scott Walker (the former Walker Brother’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Any Day Now) and a snatch of the melody from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered, all packed into a minute-long album opener that sets the scene for Diamond Dogs. Here is Hunger City in all its putrescent horror: corpses left “rotting on the slimy thoroughfare”, “fleas the size of rats” sucking “on rats the size of cats”, and “packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue”. “This ain’t rock’n’roll, this is genocide!” is the jubilant exclamation that segues, over a sample of crowd noise taken from a Faces live album, into Diamond Dogs’ first song proper, suggesting that Ziggy Stardust’s Rock’n’Roll Suicide had been for naught.

Diamond Dogs

As if to assure listeners that Diamond Dogs really is a rock album, its title track hitches a Stonesy guitar riff to bar-band sax, both ably played by Bowie himself, who introduces the denizens of Hunger City with all the relish of a cabaret MC at a world’s-end carnival. There’s Halloween Jack, lodging on the roof of Manhattan’s Chase Bank; Jack’s faceless “little hussy”, identifiable by the Dalí brooch on her lapel; and the Diamond Dogs themselves, “mannequins with kill appeal” who police the streets “like violent Oliver Twists”, as Bowie later described them. Evoking a dog-eat-dog world of ravenous strays fighting for survival, the song would be given a 21st-century makeover in 2001, when Beck teamed up with hip-hop producer and Missy Elliott co-conspirator Timbaland to record a jittery electronic cover for Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!

Sweet Thing

For all Diamond Dogs’ dramatic imagery, Sweet Thing is where the album shifts into a truly theatrical register, lifting the curtain on a three-song medley crying out for the stage musical that never was. As if observing an encounter on Love-Me Avenue, Bowie sings of “love in a doorway” and “a portrait in flesh”, of sex work and vendor cries (“Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing/… If you want it, boys, get it here, thing”). Yet, despite the seedy acts taking place in the shadows, he lays down one of his finest vocals on record. Mick Garson’s piano adds elegance to the decadence, but it’s Bowie’s performance – alternately commanding and yearning – that elevates the whole, giving Sweet Thing an unlikely emotional charge among unforgiving surroundings.


A martial beat ushers in Act Two of this three-act mini-drama – what Bowie would later describe to Mail Online as “a profligate world that could have been inhabited by characters from Kurt Weill or John Rechy”, bridging the previously unexplored gap “between Enid Blyton’s Beckenham and The Velvet Underground’s New York”. With Bowie now fully inhabiting the role of procurer, the dangers of trade encounters and power imbalances become all too clear, Bowie’s “john” unravelling over slashing guitar, doom-laden sax and a skittish piano that just about makes it through alive. Floors, the backs of cars, church cellars – all are scenes of insatiable lust for a character who, losing his composure, hatches a desperate escape plan: “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands”.

Sweet Thing (Reprise)

A saxophone squall interrupts any such train of thought before easing the listener back into the “Boys” refrain of Sweet Thing and a reprise that, in its rising melody, initially seems set to give Bowie’s characters a soft landing. However, Bowie bows out with an intimation of lives ravaged by addiction (“It’s all I ever wanted/It’s a street with a deal and a taste/It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you”), sounding for all the world like a Broadway star as he hits his final high note. Graceful piano flourishes are soon subsumed by churning guitars that build with little thought for Hunger City’s victims before remorselessly closing the curtain on one of the most remarkable nine minutes in Bowie’s catalogue.

Rebel Rebel

With a guitar riff that hangs just the right side of sleazy, Rebel Rebel struts into view with all the self-confidence of a peacocking fashionista. Effectively Bowie’s kiss-off to glam rock (his subject’s dress is “torn”, their face “a mess”), the song is a call to arms for hedonistic rebellion against staid mores, and a moment of respite from the relentless despair of Diamond Dogs’ first half. Surprisingly malleable, Rebel Rebel would be remixed for US single release, with Bowie and friend/backing singer Geoff MacCormack adding acoustic guitar, phased vocal effects and a battery of percussion instruments that would up the song’s dancefloor appeal and reveal Bowie’s burgeoning interest in Latin and soul music.

Rock’n’Roll With Me

Another chink of light appears with Rock’n’Roll With Me, allowing for the first glimpse of Bowie’s imminent departure into “plastic soul”. A gear shift after all that’s come before, the song rolls along at a gentle pace – gospel-tinged keyboard, “ooh”-ing backing vocals – as Bowie sketches an impassioned portrayal of an artist drawing a line under one creative era (“Me, I’m out of breath, but not quite doubting/I’ve found a door which lets me out”) while extending an invitation for fans to follow him into the next (“When you rock and roll with me/No one else I’d rather be”). “I’m happy my music is going in the new direction,” he told Melody Maker a little over three months on from Diamond Dogs’ release. “There were times, frankly, when I could have told the audience to do anything, and that’s frightening… I’ve got to be very careful about what I do with it.”

We Are The Dead

The first clear acknowledgement of Diamond Dogs’ roots in a planned Nineteen Eighty-Four musical, We Are The Dead revisits the dread of the Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) medley with a restraint that makes it all the more haunting. Walking hand-in-hand with Mike Garson’s lightly-stepping electric piano, Bowie recounts a tale of doomed love (“Something kind of hit me today/I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way”) that seems plucked from the lives of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four characters Winton Smith and Julia, but which takes up residency in Bowie’s own world of surveillance and paranoia. “Oh, dress yourself, my urchin one, for I hear them on the rails,” he sings. Yet, as ghostly backing vocals intone the song’s title – taken directly from Orwell’s novel – and other chilling lines (“We are the new boys/We are the dogs”), it’s clear there’s no escape for “today’s scrambled creatures/Locked in tomorrow’s double feature”.


With its dizzying strings and wah-wah-drenched guitar, 1984 is the clearest indication of where Bowie would be headed after Diamond Dogs: straight to the heart of Philadelphia soul, on his Young Americans album of 1975. And yet the song also carries vestiges of where Bowie had been. Debuted during the recording of his NBC TV special, The 1980 Floor Show, 1984 is the second of three Diamond Dogs numbers repurposed from Bowie’s scrapped stage musical, and it would open each night of his Diamond Dogs/Soul Tour. “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air/… You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there,” he sings, upping the ante on George Orwell’s nihilism as he stares into the “savage jaw” of the future.

Big Brother

Named after the totalitarian ruler of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother opens with a strained Mellotron fanfare as if delivering listeners into the presence of the titular figure. In contrast to the dejection of the preceding nine songs, however, Bowie introduces a strain of suppliance: “Someone to claim us, someone to follow/Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo” he sings from the point of view of Hunger City’s misguidedly grateful waifs, drawing a line between what he saw as the manipulative power wielded by political leaders and charismatic rock idols alike. “One could play an enormous game with people, but I am not prepared to do it,” he told Melody Maker. “I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going.” An unexpected acoustic breakdown, sharing more with Hunky Dory or even Bowie’s earlier music-hall-styled songs, drops in out of nowhere, before sax and guitar grind out the ending like a despot pressing his boot-heel on the necks of his subjects.

Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

Having traversed the slimy thoroughfares of Future Legend and “enrolled” in 1984, Bowie brings Diamond Dogs to a close on two minutes of tribal-like chanting that bursts forth from Big Brother with distorted guitar and skin-crawling güiro. “Brother/Hoo-hoo/Shake it up, shake it up/Move it up, move it up” goes the mantra, until it becomes impossible to tell if this is a declaration of allegiance or an iron-fisted demand. As abruptly as it started, the song ends on 30 seconds of a repeated “Bro” syllable, a locked-groove effect created by accident (Bowie initially wanted the word “brother” to be looped) but which makes for a perfectly maniacal close to Bowie’s end-days dispatch.

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