“Future Legend” preludes the titular track of the album, introducing Bowie’s nightmarish carnival ride after retiring his glam alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Bowie’s voice is distorted through an ancient and bureaucratic speaker as he relays a scavenger’s wasteland prowled by Diamond Dogs. The term is derived from Bowie’s father’s work with a British children’s charity, as they would often find bands of homeless children living on the roofs of high rises. This juxtaposition of ragtag children living in squalor above London’s Victorian architecture helped inspire Bowie’s world of Diamond Dogs. A political album, it serves as a chant for the wild youth of the future living off broken infrastructure and art crumbs of the past. The song “Diamond Dogs” is wild fun, but like all rushes, the party comes to an end as the next song begins.
“Sweet Thing” is a haunting search for the next cheap thrill. A ghostly chorus accompanies Bowie as they sing longingly for the escape drugs, hope, and sex allow in a world that has mostly moved on without them. Piano strokes set the highs of the journey as a slow and steady rhythm on the cymbals marches along. The song “Candidate” swiftly interrupts “Sweet Thing” and charges the listener into a frenzy reminiscent of the burst of energy politics can provide when life knocks you down. “Candidate’s” buildup of quickly slung promises makes the future seem somewhat bearable as a faster pace returns to the album. Bowie fills the role gorgeously, singing as an eternally smiling devil offering promises of the good-old times again. As quickly as the “Candidate” appears, the song leads straight back into a reprisal of “Sweet Thing” as the short-lived high of the “Candidate” wears off and the lost followers return to their addictions. The reprisal of “Sweet Thing” entertains a soft-spoken hope building up Bowie’s messianic persona and potential, but the rising chorus finally breaks and rolls back after reaching its angelic apex. The end of “Sweet Thing’s” reprisal leads into a distorted rock riff that continues into “Rebel Rebel,” echoing madness as the glamour fades away and rock and roll takes over the rest of Bowie’s album.
“Rebel Rebel” sounds like more of a subdued version of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” and in turn pokes fun at those constantly in the fight, but never really interested in moving the agenda beyond the carefree now. The allure is the love of fellow outcasts, constantly in the struggle because the forces in their way are by now impregnable. “Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me,” builds on this search for purpose and community also explored in “Sweet Thing,” except now told with less classical notes and more grunge riffs. While the alternating styles feel like they came from different albums, together they showcase that no matter the fight, the music of the times will succeed in bringing rebels together.
As the comradery of “Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me” fades away, the listener has no more allusions before them and is left with only the reality of “Big Brother” awaiting them. Bowie had originally wanted to produce a televised musical adaptation of Orwell’s classic novel, but the late author’s estate turned the offer down. While we will never know what Bowie’s visual presentation of “1984” would entail, we still have the songs Bowie leads the listener through as he anticipates the harsh realities of the coming eighties.
“1984” presents Bowie trapped in a metropolitan maze as he tries to find an escape to the dreadful future highlighted throughout the album. After searching for a ride, a party, a side, and “the treason that I knew in ’65”, Bowie finds himself stuck in the jaws of 1984. What starts as a rebel rock call to action, ends with an eerie twinkle reminiscent of entering the “Twilight Zone.” There is no escape from the future, as it is the approaching stop. Similar to the novel “1984,” Bowie’s character succumbs to pressure and celebrates it with the track “Big Brother”. Like a reclaimed preacher recruiting from a carnival stage, Bowie sings, “Someone to claim us, someone to follow / Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo / Someone to fool us, someone like you.” Even if everyone is being fooled, it is better to simply give in to the strong savior because in the dark and depressing future that awaits, what else is there to do.
Diamond Dogs ends with “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. In an album that mixed Bowie’s early glam days, with the rising rock ‘n’ roll culture, and alternating between dreading and joyful submission to the system, the only way to close the album was to blend all of these styles in a grand experimental finale. Through a mass of chants, the listener will have to choose whether they are celebrating the decadence of decay with the roving “Diamond Dogs,” or if this cheer is the resulting ecstasy from submitting to “Big Brother’s” system. The album closes with a repeated loop of, “Bro, bro, bro…” that sounds like a warning to run until fading to black.
Does the album fade away as a symbol that “Big Brother” is censoring it, or have the Diamond Dogs finally exhausted themselves? That is for the listener to decide. With the 2016 remastered version, Diamond Dogs is experiencing a resurgence among vinyl fans sorting through the record crate for art gems of the past.