Young Americans

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Young Americans
Young americans.jpg
Studio album by
Released7 March 1975 (1975-03-07)
RecordedAugust 1974 – January 1975
Studio
Genre
Length40:13
LabelRCA
Producer
David Bowie chronology
David Live
(1974)
Young Americans
(1975)
Station to Station
(1976)
Singles from Young Americans
  1. "Young Americans"
    Released: 21 February 1975
  2. "Fame"
    Released: 25 July 1975

Young Americans is the ninth studio album by English singer-songwriter David Bowie, released on 7 March 1975 by RCA Records. The album marked a departure from the glam rock style of Bowie's previous albums, showcasing his interest in soul and R&B. Initial recording sessions took place following the first leg of his Diamond Dogs Tour in August 1974 at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia with producer Tony Visconti and a variety of musicians, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would become one of Bowie's most frequent collaborators, and singer Luther Vandross. After the initial sessions, the tour continued, with the setlist and design changed due to the influence of the new material recorded; this portion of the tour has been labeled "the Soul tour". At the end of the tour, sessions continued at Electric Lady Studios and the Record Plant in New York City, which included contributions from former Beatle John Lennon. Bowie would label the album's sound "plastic soul".

The album was very successful in the US; reaching the Top 10 in the Billboard charts, with the song "Fame" hitting No. 1 the same year. However, it received mixed reviews from music critics and continues to receive mixed reviews. Bowie himself had mixed feelings about the album throughout his lifetime. Nevertheless, Bowie biographers have considered it one of his most influential records, mainly noting him as among the first white musicians of the era to overtly engage with black musical styles. The album has since been reissued multiple times and was remastered in 2016 as part of the Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) box set.

Background[edit]

I thought I'd better make a hit album to cement myself [in the States], so I went and did it.[1]

– David Bowie in an interview with Melody Maker, 1976

Bowie's eighth studio album Diamond Dogs was his final album in the glam rock genre.[1] Biographer David Buckley writes: "In the sort of move which would come to define his career, Bowie jumped the glam-rock ship just in time, before it drifted into a blank parody of itself".[2] Despite being mostly glam rock, the album contained two songs, "Rock 'n' Roll with Me" and "1984", that exhibit elements of funk and soul, which Bowie embraced for Young Americans.[3][4][5] Diamond Dogs was also a milestone in Bowie's career as it reunited him with Tony Visconti, who provided string arrangements and helped mix the album at his own studio in London. Visconti would go on to co-produce much of Bowie's work for the rest of the decade.[6]

In April 1974, Bowie met New York funk guitarist Carlos Alomar who would become Bowie's guide into black American music and, for the next 14 years, act as Bowie's bandleader.[1][7] Before they met, Alomar was a session musician at the Apollo Theater, playing with the likes of James Brown, Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett. According to Buckley, Alomar's substitute guitarist was Nile Rodgers, the future co-founder of the band Chic and later collaborator with Bowie for 1983's Let's Dance.[8] Biographer Nicholas Pegg writes that ten years prior, one of Bowie's favourite records was Brown's Live at the Apollo (1963), so meeting a musician who played at the Apollo was a dream come true for Bowie.[1] Although Alomar had never heard of Bowie when they met, they connected immediately and formed a working relationship that would last almost 15 years.[9]

In July 1974, towards the end of the first leg of his Diamond Dogs Tour, Bowie resided at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, where he recorded his 1974 live album David Live.[10] During his stay, he visited Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia to work on recordings for American musician Ava Cherry, who he allegedly had an affair with at the time.[11][12] Sigma was owned by the writer-producer duo Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who co-founded Philadelphia International Records, the home of many well-known black American musicians.[1] Following the end of the first leg of the tour, Bowie returned to New York City to mix David Live, where he requested a list of black albums to hear in preparation for his return to Sigma Sound.[13]

Recording[edit]

For the backing band, Bowie wanted to hire MFSB (an acronym for "Mother Father Sister Brother"[14]), a rhythm group of over 30 session musicians that resided at Sigma Sound.[15] With the exception of percussionist Larry Washington, all members were unavailable, so Bowie traveled to New York City for further recruitment. Pianist Mike Garson, saxophonist David Sanborn and percussionist Pablo Rosario were retained from the Diamond Dogs Tour, while guitarist Earl Slick was replaced by Alomar.[16] At Alomar's suggestion, Bowie hired former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, Andy Newmark and black bassist Willie Weeks of the Isley Brothers to replace Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers, respectively. When Bowie informed Visconti in London of Weeks' involvement, Visconti left for New York immediately, explaining: "I'm a bass player myself, and [Weeks] was my idol".[16] Alomar's wife Robin Clark and the then-unknown Luther Vandross performed backing vocals for the sessions.[16]

[Bowie] did mostly live vocals, and although all the songs were written, they were being heavily rearranged as time went on. Nothing was organised, it turned out to be one enormous jam session.[16]

– Tony Visconti on the recording sessions

Demo work began at Sigma Sound on 8 August 1974, while official work commenced on 11 August upon Visconti's arrival. The sessions moved rapidly, only taking two weeks to complete. It was agreed early on to record as much of the album as possible live, with the full band playing together, including Bowie's vocals, as a single continuous take for each song. According to Visconti, the album contains "about 85% 'live' David Bowie".[16][17] During this time, Bowie's cocaine addiction heightened at a rapid pace, as such he stayed up day and night recording while the band slept. According to Pegg, an anonymous musician recalled Bowie "waiting several hours for coke to be delivered from New York and he wouldn't perform until it came." His cocaine use affected his voice, creating what Bowie himself called "a real raspy sound" that prevented him from singing higher notes. Nevertheless, Bowie believed the album contained the highest notes he ever sang on record.[16]

The sessions at Sigma Sound were very productive, resulting in numerous outtakes, including "After Today", "Who Can I Be Now?", "It's Gonna Be Me", a rerecording of "John, I'm Only Dancing" (titled "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)"), "Lazer", "Shilling the Rubes", a scrapped rerecording of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" and "Too Fat Polka".[16] Upon Bowie's return to Philadelphia during the second half of the Diamond Dogs tour in November 1974, he and Visconti used the opportunity to add overdubs and start mixing.[17] The recording attracted the attention of local fans, who began to wait outside the studio over the span of the sessions. Bowie built up a rapport with these fans, whom he came to refer to as the "Sigma Kids". On the final day of tracking, the Sigma Kids were invited into the studio to listen to rough versions of the new songs.[18] The album was recorded under several working titles, including Dancin', Somebody Up There Likes Me, One Damned Song (a quote from the title track), The Gouster, Shilling the Rubes and Fascination. An early acetate of The Gouster provide by Visconti showed "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)", "Who Can I Be Now?" and "It's Gonna Be Me" in the track-listing.[19]

John Lennon in 1975
Former Beatle John Lennon collaborated with Bowie for "Across the Universe" and "Fame".

Following the conclusion of the second half of the Diamond Dogs tour in December (referred to as the Soul tour), Bowie, Visconti and Alomar regrouped at the Record Plant in New York City to record two new songs, "Fascination" and "Win". At this point, Bowie told Disc the title would be Fascination (named after the newly recorded track); "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)" was still in the track-listing but the two new tracks replacing "Who Can I Be Now?" and "Somebody Up There Likes Me".[19] Visconti, who believed the album was completely finished, returned to London to begin mixing, while Bowie remained in New York, working on separate mixing with in-house engineer Harry Maslin.[20][21] During this time, former Beatle John Lennon was working at the Record Plant on his 1975 covers album Rock 'n' Roll. Lennon, who was in his famous "Lost weekend" period, had previously met Bowie in Los Angeles at a party hosted by actress Elizabeth Taylor in September 1974.[22] The two connected and decided to record together. With Alomar, the two convened at Electric Lady Studios in New York in January 1975 and recorded "Fame" and a cover of Lennon's Beatles song "Across the Universe".[19] In Visconti's absence, the session was co-produced by Maslin.[21] Alongside Alomar, Bowie invited guitarist Earl Slick and drummer Dennis Davis, making their debuts on a Bowie record,[23] as well as bassist Emir Ksasan from the Soul tour band. Newcomers were percussionist Ralph MacDonald and backing vocalists Jean Fineberg and Jean Millington.[19]

Bowie contacted Visconti about the collaborations two weeks after Visconti finished mixing. According to Pegg, Bowie was apologetic and asked if two tracks could be replaced by "Across the Universe" and "Fame"; the tracks replaced were "Who Can I Be Now?" and "It's Gonna Be Me". Commenting about the replacement, Visconti said: "Beautiful songs and it made me sick when he decided not to use them. I think it was the personal content of the songs which he was a bit reluctant to release, although it was so obscure I don't think even I knew what he was on about in them!"[24]

Music and lyrics[edit]

Young Americans presented a new musical direction for Bowie.[25] Although songs on Diamond Dogs, including "Rock 'n' Roll with Me" and "1984",[3][4] exhibited a funk and soul direction Bowie would be taking, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic writes that the blue-eyed soul showcased on the album "came as a shock".[26] Along with blue-eyed soul, the music on Young Americans has been described as R&B[27] and Philadelphia soul.[28] Bowie himself labeled the sound of the album as "plastic soul", describing it as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey".[29] Ashley Naftule of Consequence of Sound described the album as "a blue-eyed soul album that plays matchmaker between Bowie's artsy rocker tendencies and the warm earnestness of soul and R&B."[30] Biographer Christopher Sandford writes that the album is "a record of high spirits and lively, colliding ideas".[25] Biographer Marc Spitz felt that the album doesn't showcase "Bowie does black music", but rather "Bowie and black music do each other".[31]

Artwork[edit]

For the album cover artwork, Bowie initially wanted to commission Norman Rockwell to create a painting but retracted the offer when he heard that Rockwell would need at least six months to do the job. According to Pegg, another rejected idea was a full-length portrait of Bowie in a "flying suit" and white scarf, standing in front of an American flag and raising a glass. The final cover photo, a back-lit and airbrushed photo of Bowie, was taken in Los Angeles on 30 August 1974 by photographer Eric Stephen Jacobs.[32] Bowie's apparent inspiration for the cover photograph came from a copy of After Dark magazine which featured another of Jacobs' photographs of Bowie's then choreographer Toni Basil.[33] The cover itself, as well as the cover type was designed in New York at RCA by Craig DeCamps.[34] Sandford calls it one of the "classic" album covers.[25]

Release and promotion[edit]

A black and white photo of a man with longer hair holding a microphone and facing left
Bowie performing on the ABC programme In Concert on 1 October 1974.

After recording much of the album's material in August 1974, Bowie was eager to perform his new work live. Embarking on the second half of the Diamond Dogs tour, lasting 2 September to 1 December 1974, this portion has been given the nickname the Soul Tour, due to the influence of the new material. Because of this, the shows were heavily altered, no longer featuring elaborate set-pieces, partly due to Bowie's exhaustion with the design and wanting to explore the new sound he was creating. Songs from the previous leg were dropped, while new ones, including some from the new album, were added.[35] During this time, a documentary was filmed that depicts Bowie on the Diamond Dogs tour in Los Angeles, using a mixture of sequences filmed in limousines, hotels and concert footage, most of which was taken from a show at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheatre on 2 September 1974.[36] Directed by Alan Yentob and broadcast on BBC1 in the UK on 26 January 1975, Cracked Actor is notable for being a primary source of footage of the Diamond Dogs tour, while also showing Bowie's decaying mental state during this period due to his increasing cocaine addiction.[36] Although Cracked Actor has never received an official release, Pegg calls it "arguably the finest documentary made about David Bowie." After seeing an advanced screening of the film, director Nicolas Roeg immediately contacted Bowie to discuss a role in The Man Who Fell to Earth.[36]

On 29 October 1974, Bowie appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and performed "1984", "Young Americans" and a version of "Footstompin'". During his interview, he was visibly drugged, barely being able to talk and nose sniffing constantly.[37] The title track was later released as the lead single by RCA Records on 21 February 1975, with the catalogue number RCA 2523 and the Ziggy Stardust track "Suffragette City" as the B-side.[38][39] In the US, it was released in edited form, with a length of 3:11, omitting two verses and a chorus.[40] It managed to reach No. 18 on the UK Singles Chart while it charted at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100, his best chart peak in the US up to that point.[41][40]

Young Americans was released on 7 March 1975 by RCA.[32][39][42] It reached No. 9 on the US Billboard 200 and remained on the chart for 51 weeks.[43] It charted at No. 2 on the UK Albums Chart but according to Buckley, sales were overall lower than Diamond Dogs.[44][41] The second single, "Fame", was released on 25 July 1975, with the catalogue number RCA 2579 and album track "Right" as the B-side.[39] Although it only reached No. 17 in the UK, "Fame" topped the charts in the US.[45] Its chart success was a surprise to Bowie, who recalled in 1990: "Even though [Lennon] had contributed to it and everything, and I had no idea, as with 'Let's Dance', that that was what a commercial single is. I haven't got a clue when it comes to singles. I just don't know about them, I don't get it, and 'Fame' was really out of left-field for me."[45] He appeared on ABC TV's Soul Train in early November 1975, where he gave a mimed performance of "Fame" and his most recent single "Golden Years".[46][47] He then sang "Fame" live on CBS's The Cher Show on 23 November.[48][47]

Critical reception[edit]

Retrospective professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic3.5/5 stars[26]
Chicago Tribune3.5/4 stars[49]
Christgau's Record GuideB−[50]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music4/5 stars[51]
Pitchfork8.7/10[28]
Q4/5 stars[52]
Rolling Stone4/5 stars[53]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide3/5 stars[54]
Select5/5[55]
Uncut4/5 stars[56]

Young Americans was released to a generally lukewarm reception, particularly in America.[32] Billboard wrote that the album "should not only endear Bowie even more to his current fans but should open up an entirely new avenue of fans for him."[32] It was further described by Record World as his "most compelling album to date", while Cashbox called the artist "the brightest star in the pop music constellation with this latest RCA release".[32] Reviewing for The Village Voice in May 1975, Robert Christgau described the record "an almost total failure" and said "although the amalgam of rock and Philly soul is so thin it's interesting, it overwhelms David's voice, which is even thinner." He nonetheless appreciated Bowie's renewed "generosity of spirit to risk failure" following Diamond Dogs and David Live, which Christgau had found disappointing.[57] Rolling Stone's Jon Landau praised the title-track and thought that "the rest of the album works best when Bowie combines his renewed interest in soul with his knowledge of English pop, rather than opting entirely for one or the other."[58]

Retrospectively, Young Americans continues to receive mixed reviews from critics and fans.[59] Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic felt the album was affected by a lack of strong songwriting. Although he praised the title track and "Fame", he concludes "Young Americans is more enjoyable as a stylistic adventure than as a substantive record."[26] Douglas Wolk of Pitchfork regarded it as "distinctly a transitional record," stating: "It doesn't have the mad theatrical scope of Diamond Dogs or the formal audacity of Station to Station; at times, it comes off as an artist trying very hard to demonstrate how unpredictable he is." Nevertheless, Wolk also praised the fact that "while there had already been a handful of disco hits on the pop charts, no other established rock musician had yet tried to do anything similar."[28] Jeff Giles of Ultimate Classic Rock gave the album a positive review, saying "it remains a beloved bright spot in a discography with more than its share".[60]

Legacy[edit]

Buckley considers Young Americans to be one of Bowie's most influential records. He writes that it brought fans of both glam rock and soul together in the wake of the disco era.[41] Pegg similarly states that with the album, Bowie became one of the first white musicians to overtly engage with black musical styles and paved the way for other artists to engage in similar styles.[59] Sandford adds that while many white musicians have tried and failed to experiment with black musical styles, Bowie was one of the first to succeed.[25] In the UK, artists who would follow in Bowie's footsteps were Elton John (with his single "Philadelphia Freedom"), Roxy Music (with their single "Love Is the Drug") and Rod Stewart (with his album Atlantic Crossing).[59] Young Americans was also Bowie's first album in three years to not feature Ziggy Stardust, but rather himself.[31] By not featuring Ziggy, Bowie showcased maturity, which Sandford believes was his ticket into the US market.[25] Indeed, the album turned Bowie from "a mildly unsavoury cult artist to a chat-show friendly showbiz personality" in the US.[59] Pegg writes that Bowie's foray into soul and funk would influence numerous bands in ensuing years, including Talking Heads, Spandau Ballet, Japan and ABC.[59]

Bowie himself has said mixed statements about Young Americans. In late 1975 he described it as "the phoniest R&B I've ever heard. If I ever would have got my hands on that record when I was growing up I would have cracked it over my knee."[61] He would further voice his dislike for the record and describe it as "a phase" in a 1976 interview with Melody Maker.[62] Bowie would later reverse his stance in the 1990s, speaking to Q magazine in 1990: "I shouldn't have been quite so hard on myself, because looking back it was pretty good white, blue-eyed soul."[59]

In 2013, NME ranked the album at No. 175 in its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[63] The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.[64]

Reissues[edit]

The album was first released on CD by RCA in 1984, and then by Rykodisc/EMI in 1991, with three bonus tracks. A 1999 rerelease by EMI featured 24-bit digitally remastered sound and no extra tracks. The 2007 reissue, marketed as a "Special Edition," included an accompanying DVD, containing 5.1 surround sound mixes of the album and video footage from the Dick Cavett TV show. In 2016, the album was remastered for the Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) box set; the set also includes an earlier, rawer-sounding draft of the album, titled The Gouster.[65] It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, both as part of this compilation and separately.[66]

The 1991 and 2007 reissues featured, as bonus tracks, "Who Can I Be Now?", "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)", and "It's Gonna Be Me"; the latter was released in an alternate version with strings on the 2007 edition.

The 1991 reissue replaced the original versions of "Win", "Fascination" and "Right" with alternate mixes, but later reissues restored the original mixes. Another outtake, "After Today", appeared on the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, as did the alternate mix of "Fascination".

Track listing[edit]

All tracks are written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1."Young Americans" 5:11
2."Win" 4:44
3."Fascination"Bowie, Luther Vandross5:45
4."Right" 4:15
Side two
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1."Somebody Up There Likes Me" 6:36
2."Across the Universe"John Lennon, Paul McCartney4:29
3."Can You Hear Me?" 5:03
4."Fame"Bowie, Carlos Alomar, Lennon4:16
Total length:40:13
1991 CD bonus tracks
No.TitleLength
9."Who Can I Be Now?" (previously unreleased)4:36
10."It's Gonna Be Me" (previously unreleased)6:27
11."John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)" (single A-side)6:57
Total length:58:06
2007 Special Edition bonus tracks
No.TitleLength
9."John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)" (stereo mix)7:03
10."Who Can I Be Now?" (stereo mix)4:40
11."It's Gonna Be Me" (stereo mix; alternate version with strings)6:28
12."1984" (live on The Dick Cavett Show; DVD only)3:07
13."Young Americans" (live on The Dick Cavett Show; DVD only)5:11
14."Dick Cavett interviews David Bowie" (DVD only)16:03

Personnel[edit]

Adapted from the Young Americans liner notes.[67]

Additional musicians

  • Larry Washington – conga
  • Ava Cherry – backing vocals
  • Robin Clark – backing vocals
  • Luther Vandross – backing vocals, vocal arrangements
  • Pablo Rosario – percussion ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • John Lennon – vocals; guitar; backing vocals ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • Emir Ksasan – bass guitar ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • Dennis Davis – drums ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • Ralph MacDonald – percussion ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • Jean Fineberg – backing vocals ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")
  • Jean Millington – backing vocals ("Across the Universe" and "Fame")

Chart performance[edit]

Certifications[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Canada (Music Canada)[78] Gold 50,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[79] Gold 100,000^
United States (RIAA)[80] Gold 500,000^

^shipments figures based on certification alone

References[edit]

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  74. ^ "Swedish Charts 1972–1975/Kvällstoppen – Listresultaten vecka för vecka > Mars 1975 > 25 Mars" (PDF). hitsallertijden.nl (in Swedish). Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 May 2017. Retrieved 31 January 2014.Note: Kvällstoppen combined sales for albums and singles in the one chart; Young Americans peaked at the number-six on the list in the 4th week of March 1975.
  75. ^ "Italiancharts.com – David Bowie – Young Americans". Hung Medien. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
  76. ^ "Swisscharts.com – David Bowie – Young Americans". Hung Medien. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
  77. ^ "Top Pop Albums of 1975". billboard.biz. Archived from the original on 8 December 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2011.
  78. ^ "Canadian album certifications – David Bowie – Young Americans". Music Canada. Retrieved 31 January 2014.
  79. ^ "British album certifications – David Bowie – Young Americans". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 31 January 2014. Select albums in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Type Young Americans in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
  80. ^ "American album certifications – David Bowie – Young Americans". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved 31 January 2014. If necessary, click Advanced, then click Format, then select Album, then click SEARCH. 

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