Did “Diamond Dogs” represent David Bowie at his peak?

BY Brendan Sainsbury

4th Oct 2023 Culture

3 min read

Did “Diamond Dogs” represent David Bowie at his peak?
It’s been nearly 50 years since David Bowie released the album Diamond Dogs, heralded by many as his magnum opus. But did it really mark the singer at his artistic peak? 
Choosing your favourite Bowie album is like choosing your favourite French wine. There’s an abundance of outstanding options. I remember many late-night discussions in smoke-filled kitchens in my teenage years debating the merits of Hunky Dory over Heroes with inebriated friends. For me, the singer’s best work lay in the quartet of albums he made between 1971 and 1974, comprising Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs. While all four went on to become epoch-defining classics, it was the latter LP, with its George Orwell connotations and dark dystopian aesthetic, that impressed me the most.
"Choosing your favourite Bowie album is like choosing your favourite French wine"
For Bowie, Diamond Dogs marked a turning point. Dispensing of the services of legendary Beatles engineer, Ken Scott in 1973, it was the first record he made entirely on his own, both as a producer and—following the disbandment of his backing band The Spiders from Mars—a multi-instrumentalist.
As well as recording the vocal parts, Bowie tackled guitar, sax, and keyboards on the album. For the first time, he also used the recording studio as an instrument, curating sounds and manipulating technology in the same way as The Beatles had done on Sergeant Pepper.  
Like Pepper, Diamond Dogs began life as a concept album that was never fully realised.

The concept behind the album

Bowie’s original plan was to make a theatrical version of George Orwell’s futuristic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The idea had come about during an epiphanic visit to the Soviet Union in April 1973. Later that year, Bowie began recording material in earnest at Trident Studios in London, kicking off with the cinematic theme song, “1984”. But his hopes were dashed when Orwell’s widow, Sonia, refused permission for the project to proceed. 
Furious but undaunted, Bowie fell back on a couple of alternative ideas: a Ziggy Stardust-style musical, and an apocalyptic opus inspired by American postmodern author, William Burroughs (Bowie had interviewed Burroughs for Rolling Stone magazine in late 1973 and had been mightily impressed). In the end, neither project reached fruition with Bowie electing instead to salvage pieces from all three ideas for his 1974 album.
David Bowie, shooting his video for Rebel Rebel in AVRO's TopPop (Dutch television show) in 1974
From the Orwell story came “1984”, “Big Brother” and the disconcerting “We Are the Dead”, a five-minute novella turned to music. From the Ziggy musical, there was the catchy single “Rebel Rebel” and the strident power-ballad “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me”. The rest, including the guitar-driven title-track, comprised a loose assemblage of artistic experimentation much of it using Burroughs’ famous cut-up technique (the random re-ordering of lyrical phrases). 
As it turned out, the hybridisation didn’t matter. Despite its fragmented conception, Diamond Dogs retains a satisfying cohesiveness, a brooding musicality of its own. From the Orwellian ruminations of the spoken-word intro, “Future Legend” to the slurry saxophone of the art-rock tinged “Sweet Thing”, it hangs together like a vinyl Picasso

The album's reception

Not all the contemporary reviews for the album were flattering. Confused by Bowie’s musical complexity, and seemingly unready for the playful transgender insinuations of songs like “Rebel Rebel”, some critics were leery. “Most of the songs are obscure tangles of perversion,” wrote Ken Emerson in Rolling Stone magazine in one of the era’s more damning reviews.
"When I first slapped Diamond Dogs on my turntable ten years after its release, the album sounded both strange and elegiac"
For me, a devoted devourer of George Orwell when I first slapped Diamond Dogs on my turntable ten years after its release, the album sounded both strange and elegiac: bolder than Hunky Dory, less commercial than Ziggy Stardust and weirder than Aladdin Sane
“Sweet Thing” paired with its sonic twin, “Candidate”, quickly became my favourite Bowie track. The sprawling two-piece epic was not directly related to the album’s Orwellian theme, but with its dark, oppressive atmosphere and oblique lyrics, it might as well have been. From the half-spoken first line delivered in a haunting baritone to the operatic outro, Bowie proved that, as well as blending superb musicianship and genius songwriting, he possessed one of the most impressive vocal ranges in rock.
David Bowie, Diamond Dogs tour, 1974. Image: Hunter Desportes, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the span of the singer’s career, Diamond Dogs acts as both an end and a beginning. It was the last time he dabbled in glam rock and the last gasp for his Ziggy character (who appears on the cover), but a precursor to the lighter, brighter “blue-eyed soul” of 1975’s Young Americans.
While plenty of experimental albums would follow, none would package their avant-gardism in such a concise and accessible manner. Diamond Dogs presented Bowie as an alt-rock genius with a populist touch, someone who brought the concept of “strange” into your living room and made it legitimate and cool, leading you down paths you might not otherwise have taken. To me, it reveals the singer at his absolute peak—and acts as a soaring homage to one of my favourite novelists. 
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