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2023 Albums Thing #029 - David Bowie “Young Americans”

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Bowie was a Mod back in the 60’s and Mods have a love of Soul and rhythm & blues. The Philly Sound of Philadelphia International Records and producers (Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff was THE predominant style in soul and R&B in the mid 70’s and, as an old Mod, Bowie would have been tuned in to that. Gamble and Huff were creating this sound for the likes of The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and the Three Degrees at the famed Sigma Sound studio in Philadelphia.

Almost as important as the shift in sound “Young Americans” is about to reveal was one of its musicians, Carlos Alomar. Bowie had first met Alomar when he was a member of the Main Ingredient and Bowie was recording Lulu’s cover of “The Man Who Sold The World”. He wanted him to play on “Diamond Dogs”, but that never happened. Between legs of The Diamond/Philly Dogs tour in 1974 Bowie started recording at Sigma Sound and Alomar was along for the ride this time, bringing with him drummer Dennis Davies. These sessions made up the bulk of what was to become “Young Americans” and at their conclusion Alomar joined Bowie’s band for the resumption of the now Philly Dogs tour. Carlos Alomar stayed with Bowie for almost 30 years, up until the album “Reality” in 2003. We’ll be hearing more about Carlos Alomar.

The assembled band featured some fine musicians from the Soul world. Alomar, drummer Dennis Davies (another who would stick around for some years), bassman Emir Ksasan, percussionist Larry Washington of MFSB and backing vocalists Robin Clark and a then unknown Luther Vandross. Bowie also bought in the guitarist from his Diamond Dogs tour, a young New Yorker, name of Frank Madeloni a.k.a Earl Slick, we’ll be hearing more about him later too. Oh, and after assisting with the final mix of “Diamond Dogs” Tony Visconti was back to engineer and mix this album.

I have a love/hate relationship with “Young Americans”. There is some of Bowie’s best in here (the title song, “Right”, “Fascination”) and equally, one very questionable choice (“Across The Universe” may rank as the very worst of his covers) but you can’t argue that as the follow up to “Diamond Dogs” this was a bloody brave move. 

After the drum intro to “Young Americans” (an intro so good that Paul Weller copied it exactly for the song “These City Streets” on his album “Saturns Pattern” !) there is absolutely no doubt that Bowie has engineered a huge change in style. The title track is smooth, funky and a flat out superb song. It was the first song recorded for the album and according to Tony Visconti is a live take apart from David Sanborn’s Sax which was overdubbed later.

“Win” is a soulful ballad. “Fascination” is Bowie’s re-write of backing vocalist Luther Vandross’s song “Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me)”. Bowie heard the song and asked Vandross if it was OK for him to re-work and record it. Vandross responded “You’re David Bowie, I live at home with my mother, you can do what you like.”. Have a listen to both, “Fascination” is really a cover.

“Right” closes out side 1. A  groove that the band lock into and Bowie riffs on. Side one is wonderful, faultless even. 

Side 2 starts with “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and later “Can You Hear Me” which both continue the theme from Side 1. Then we reach a real boo-boo. After the original sessions were finished Bowie and the bend went off to LA to finish off the Diamond Dogs tour. They returned to Sigma Sound in November 1974 and with the band now having been road tested some tracks were re-recorded. Tony Visconti took these “finished” tracks back to London to mix the final album. In the meantime Bowie went off to New York where he eventually met up with Visconti for some final mixing at the Record Plant. Also recording at the Record Plant was John Lennon who was at the tail end of his “Lost Weekend” and finalising his album “Rock ’n’ Roll”.

Long and short of it is Bowie and Lennon record together and one of the results was the godawful version of The Beatles “Across The Universe” which appears on Side 2. It’s playing right now as I type this and if I never hear it again it will be a day too soon !

Fortunately they also wrote and recorded “Fame” based around a riff Carlos Alomar had worked up when Bowie performed The Flares’ 1961 single ‘Foot Stompin” on the Dick Cavett Show in November 1974. “Fame” closes out the album.

In interviews a couple of years later Bowie described “Young Americans” as his “plastic soul” album. Carlos Alomar disagrees with this as given the musicians involved he sees it is a genuine Soul record. 7 of the 8 tracks are among Bowie’s best, if they’d just included “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” instead of The Beatles cover I’d be holding it up there with “Diamond Dogs” as a masterpiece.

Fascination - https://youtu.be/K-N_xAOOn2w

Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me) - https://youtu.be/k4NVNGnhCRg

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