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Diamond Dogs: David Bowie’s “Pre-Punk” Gang Song Explained
In Depth

Diamond Dogs: David Bowie’s “Pre-Punk” Gang Song Explained

Introducing the title characters of his 1974 album, the song Diamond Dogs saw David Bowie try ‘to evolve a new street gang’ ahead of punk.

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Just two years before the release of his Diamond Dogs album, David Bowie was looking to the heavens, seeing salvation in the Starman and projecting himself as a rock’n’roll messiah he named Ziggy Stardust, come to save the world from doom. By 1974, he was burned out, convinced there could be no rescue, and pouring all his anxieties into a remorselessly bleak record whose title song did for its parent album what Five Years had done for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars – only to more despairing end.

No market square crammed full of people, no yearning to return to mother; just a proto-Hunger Games in a place Bowie called Hunger City, where George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four met William S Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, and “mannequins with kill appeal” roamed the streets, dressed in stolen finery, wielding bowie knives, ready to hunt their prey “to the ground”.

Amid all this was Bowie’s latest incarnation: Halloween Jack, a “real cool cat” who swings into view, offering himself as a guide through six minutes of dirt-ridden rock’n’roll – only, as Bowie would declare at the start of the song, “This ain’t rock’n’roll. This is genocide!”

And this is the story of the Diamond Dogs. They still rule, OK?

Listen to the best of David Bowie here.

What is the meaning of Diamond Dogs?

As Bowie put it in 1993, the Diamond Dogs were ragamuffins who had “taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart”. Describing them as “violent Oliver Twists… like if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely apeshit”, Bowie initially planned for his waifs to appear as central characters in a theatrical production that would have been his most ambitious project yet.

After being denied the rights to adapt George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four into a stage musical, Bowie began to develop his own dystopian narrative for the songs he’d written. Although that second musical never came to pass either, the Diamond Dogs album that grew from it was stuffed with vivid imagery, such as the makeshift home of protagonist Halloween Jack, situated on the rooftop of Manhattan’s Chase bank. Bowie would later reveal how his father’s work for the Barnardo’s children’s charity – previously the recipient of donations raised at Bowie’s Christmas Eve concert of 1972 – had given him the idea.

“Dr Barnardo and Lord Shaftesbury had once gone on the top of the roofs of the city of London, and found all these urchins living up there,” he said in an interview for BBC Radio 1’s The David Bowie Story. “And that always stayed in my mind as being an extraordinary image of all these kids living up on the roofs of London. And so I had the Diamond Dogs living on the roofs of London.”

What inspired Diamond Dogs?

Fittingly, for a song set in “the year of the scavenger”, Diamond Dogs saw Bowie pick his way through a welter of inspirations across literature, film and music. Aside from Orwell and Burroughs, his reading list at the time also included Anthony Burgess, whose 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange had, via a gang called The Droogs, inspired the image Bowie cultivated for his previous band, The Spiders From Mars. The Droogs’ DNA could also be traced in the Diamond Dogs, whom Bowie envisioned as “roller skating, vicious hoods” with “funny coloured hair” whose mode of transport was lifted right from the pages of Burroughs’ The Wild Boys. “It was in a way a precursor to what was a punk thing, you know,” Bowie told the BBC. “That’s where it was going.”

With references to Salvador Dalí (the brooch worn by Halloween Jack’s “little hussy”), Tarzan and Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film, Freaks, Diamond Dogs’ wide-ranging lyrical touchpoints reflected his gang’s smash’n’grab approach to life: “They’d been able to break into windows of jewellers and things, so they’d dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds and all that, but they had snaggle teeth and they were really filthy,” Bowie explained.

When it came to recording Diamond Dogs, he conducted his own raid – on rock music’s recent past.

The recording: “The music was weird. I found it mildly unattractive”

Originally titled Diamond Dawgs, the song was recorded on 15 January 1974 at London’s Olympic Studios, a facility favoured by The Rolling Stones in the late 60s and very early 70s. And it’s a Stones-like tumble of scuffed-up guitar, persistent cowbell and honking saxophone that Bowie corralled into Diamond Dogs, taunting his chart rivals by stealing the sax line from Brown Sugar during the song’s closing minutes. (More outright filching would follow: The Diamond Dogs album cover would be illustrated by Guy Peellaert, the Belgian artist behind the Stones’ It’s Only Rock ’N Roll sleeve, an artwork commissioned ahead of – but reaching the shelves six months later than – Bowie’s Diamond Dogs’ design. Bowie, who’d been jamming with the Stones when they developed the album’s title track, would sometimes sing the song’s chorus hook while performing Diamond Dogs live during the Diamond Dogs/Soul Tour, brazenly claiming his place in its legacy.)

Opening with a sample of crowd noise taken from Faces’ 1974 live album, Coast To Coast: Overture And Beginners (that’s Rod Stewart yelling “Hey!” as the guitar riff gets into its stride), and closing on a few Bo Diddley-isms for good measure, across both its lyrics and music Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s magpie mindset working overtime to construct a “post-apocalyptic landscape” populated with “little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses… all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough”.

Bassist Herbie Flowers, who played on the entire Diamond Dogs album, recalled working at speed with Bowie in the studio, even as he found himself unsettled by the results. “The music was weird,” he told Uncut magazine in 2008. “I have to say I found it mildly unattractive at the time, but it was interesting stuff.”

The release: “The character I played was a paranoid refugee of New York City”

Initially issued as a B-side to the Brazilian edition of Diamond Dogs’ lead single, Rebel Rebel, Diamond Dogs the song was given a single release in its own right on 14 June 1974, the same day as the launch of the Diamond Dogs Tour, in Montreal. Backed by The Spiders From Mars’ re-recording of a Hunky Dory-era track, Holy Holy, the song peaked at No.21 in the UK and would be a mainstay of Bowie’s mid-70s live shows, worked up into a flashy rock workout during the Isolar – 1976 Tour staged in support of the Station To Station album.

“I’m more approachable on stage this time around, unlike the last time when the character I played was a paranoid refugee of New York City,” Bowie told Melody Maker a little over five weeks into the Isolar tour. “That character was in a world of his own… With Diamond Dogs, I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.”

The legacy: “It was prophetic in many ways”

“The music was loud and angry,” Herbie Flowers reflected in 2008. “Touring Diamond Dogs across America afterwards, it felt like those new songs were anarchic, all about tearing things down. It was prophetic in many ways.”

As New York’s Twin Towers collapsed amid the shocking 9/11 terrorist attacks, Diamond Dogs reappeared in pop culture, with Beck and Missy Elliott collaborator Timbaland contributing a skittish electronic remake of the song to Baz Lurhmann’s jukebox musical, Moulin Rouge! Since then, Bowie’s original has been referenced in everything from the Metal Gear Solid video-game franchise – where it loaned its name to a military corporation – to sports comedy Ted Lasso, in an episode in which the fictional Diamond Dogs support group provide relationship advice.

“I was trying to evolve a new kind of street gang. And develop a rather glamorous pre-punk collusion of elements,” Bowie said in a Yahoo! online chat conducted on 31 October 2000. Over five decades on from its release, Diamond Dogs has endured beyond punk, becoming, in the words of longtime Bowie pianist Mike Garson, “a hit song that really stuck”.

Buy the ‘Diamond Dogs’ picture-disc reissue, plus Bowie box sets and more, at the Dig! store.

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