By 1974, the perpetual phenomenon and walking contradiction known as David Bowie was one of the world’s greatest pop stars and was virtually broke. The perfect storm of paying back RCA advances, the pocketbook-ravaging extravagance of the Diamond Dogs tour and a crushing combination of cocaine addiction and splintering ego brought Bowie to The City…of Brotherly Love.
The early 1970s Philadelphia music scene was a sinewy, sexy beast in its prime. Each in their own way, the works of Philadelphia International Records, Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren all signaled a coming paradigm shift which would in a number of years blossom into Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and a full-tilt, white satin Saturday Night Fever/Disco Duck nightmare for the world at large. But, before all that, despite it even…the thing that called to Bowie was that Philadelphia is and always will be emblematic of that thing we all desperately long for: liberty.
Having spent some time in the summer of 1974 at Upper Darby’s Tower Theater recording his first live album, David Live, in the midst of the monsterous Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie experienced the potential of potential. Reworking song arrangements from a discography eight albums deep already hinted at a potential revolution in style.
Sick of his miserable manager Tony Defries and a claustrophobic gallery of space-faced characters of his own design, and no doubt watching as the shattering mirrorball glam sound became as ubiquitous and about as edgy as chewed bubblegum, he realized that Philadelphia could and would free him of the everything he’d been. He was free to begin becoming. Bowie’s first real quantum leap forward towards himself meant androgyny would become hard-nosed buttoned up masculinity, fantasy would give way to mean streets reality, the Englishman would become American, “White” would become “Black.”
UK artists had always been fascinated with and tried to co-opt R&B and Soul…but Bowie’s “Plastic Soul” Young Americans would be the capital “C” Change that would give birth to The Thin White Duke and each subsequent, seemingly more Bowie versions of Bowie. How Revolver changed “psychedelia” and people’s understanding of The Beatles, Young Americans broke what everything everyone knew as “Bowie,” and in the process broke everything everyone knew as “Pop” or “Rock” or “Soul.” But it was the breaking Bowie part that is most fascinating to me. The bold, risky denial of expectation which would become the template for pop-star reinvention.
It also helped that the album was an ice-cold stunner. Funky and soulful as all get out, with help from then unknown, future legendary Black and Hispanic artists (Luther Vandross, Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar) Young Americans is an impossible object of an album that also happened to give Bowie his first #1 hit in America. A monster track with wild multi-tracking and a riff so disgusting even the Godfather of Soul stole it. A monster track that finds Bowie chopping the concept of “Fame” into beefy chunks of funky stew meat with that other very famous person, John Lennon. “Fame” is still utterly mind-boggling, and is the closer on an album that came out before most of the people now living on planet Earth were born.
It’s quite possible (and I would argue this hands down, with a switchblade fight) that Young Americans is Bowie’s all-time masterpiece and bona-fide triumph of art over ego.