✻ We look at David Bowie’s recently unearthed, ‘lost’ soul album ‘The Gouster’ , which evolved into ‘Young Americans’.
There’s a ‘new’ David Bowie album out today, sat snugly in the middle of the ‘Who Can I Be Now’ box. ‘The Gouster’ has been retrospectively assembled from previously released or ‘rare’ tracks and alternative mixes from his 1974 ‘plastic soul’ sessions at Sigma Sound, Philadelphia. It’s been put together with new, period-look artwork, to match an early track list sketched out in Bowie’s hand. It wants to be seen as an authentic album, and in some ways it’s the closest thing we have to a fully-fledged lost album from Bowie.
‘The Gouster’ may originally have seen light in this form were it not for Bowie’s restlessness, exacerbated by his escalating cocaine habit. His attention span was best described as short anyway, and the final album could have easily turned out very differently. Its fate was soon sealed once a star-struck Bowie befriended one of his idols. Producer Tony Visconti was in the midst of overdubbing strings and mixing the tracks at his London studio, when he received a call from Bowie, informing him that he’d gone back into the studio to cut more tracks with special guest John Lennon. Visconti was put out at missing out on this meeting of minds, but the additional session was a mixed blessing. The world’s a better place for having the mutant funk of Fame in it, but that’s more than can be said for Bowie’s tortuous, OTT cover of the Beatles’ Across The Universe, which even Lennon raised an eyebrow at, and he wrote it.
The resulting album, ‘Young Americans’, dispensed with several longer tracks from ‘The Gouster’, and is a radically different beast. ‘Young Americans’, at least on the surface, was a slicker, more upbeat, and more showbiz proposition. If you ignore the tortured nature of some of the lyrics, you could argue that it sounds like a night out in the mid ’70s. It seems to evoke the clothes, the drugs, the nightlife of city life.
By contrast, ‘The Gouster’ is more of a wee hours album, heavier on the ballads. It’s Gonna Be Me and Who Can I Be Now, both left off ‘Young Americans’, are slow, anthemic, anguished torch songs. Most of the remaining songs familiar from ‘Young Americans’ are present in more sparce, basic form. Bowie’s vocals are impassioned, but sound frazzled from lack of sleep and too much marching powder in places, particularly against the owl-hoot conga underpinning Can You Hear Me. The guard is down. Even Young Americans itself sounds more wired when shunted to the rear end of the album.
There’s one major exception to this crepuscular mood, and that’s the riotous opener. John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), is a kinetic, funky, seven minute collision of call and response vocals, guitars, keys and sax. It was very of its time, but sufficiently weird enough to become a hit when it eventually crept out as a single in 1979, by which time both punk and disco were on the wane.
Ever the magpie, Bowie would later uncouple the musical chassis of the ‘song’ part of Again a year later and reuse it as the basis of Stay on ‘Station to Station’. What’s most notable about John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) is that it was Bowie’s third, distinct attempt at recording the same song.
Little of the original single cut with the Spiders From Mars a couple of years earlier in 1972 had made the transition, but the song seemed to keep getting stuck in Bowie’s mind palace, a place where the same songs, and the same ideas would percolate.
Having released the original John, Bowie and the Spiders recut their own single for the ‘Aladdin Sane’ sessions. This version, tougher, faster, and garnished with honking sax and an even more outrageous guitar line from Ronson seems to have become the definitive version. It replaced the original single not only when RCA quietly released it with the same catalogue number in 1973, but on the current, remastered ‘ChangesOneBowie’ compilation.
Two dizzying years later, Bowie had shed both the Ziggy image and the Spiders and moved to America, taking a new, bigger, and far less subtle band and an elaborate stage set on a debauched tour of the US. Still touring his old songs, the Spiders material was gifted an almighty kicking onstage, as if demolishing the ‘old’ Bowie. The emphasis changed over the tour from rock to funk and soul, as Bowie’s listening habits changed, and ‘Diamond Dogs’ was quickly forgotten. One of Bowie’s first acts on arriving in the US had been to radically remix his glam anthem Rebel Rebel, for the US market, adding flanging and waves of backing vocals and percussion. Before long, he would be back in the studio again, in his new ‘soul man’ guise, asking “Who Can I Be Now?”
In this context, ‘The Gouster’ seems to make more sense, and so does Bowie’s decision to press on and turn it into a more commercial album. Having built one alias in Ziggy, then torn it down, he was still on commanding creative form, despite his emaciated appearance and deepening habit. He needed a little more studio glitter to paint over his thin skin. From the choice of songs to the performances, ‘The Gouster’, for us, is a welcome look at David Bowie with his guard down. His Beatles cover blunder aside, the Bowie of ‘Young Americans’ gives the outward impression of being much more in control. Maybe the cover of the eventual album says it all, as the Dame looks out at us, in soft-focus, saving face.
“It’s more about what isn’t on there than what is. I was OK with Who Can I Be Now going, but I was sad about John I’m Only Dancing and It’s Gonna Be Me – they weren’t going to be heard for decades”, producer Tony Visconti told Uncut magazine in 2016.
“In a perfect world, I think ‘The Gouster’ could have been a big hit. Fame was a great single. The change I would have made would have been to swap Fame for Who Can I Be Now? and then it would be perfect. In hindsight neither is the best version. The best one is the third option.”
1. John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) – not on ‘Young Americans’, first released as a single in 1979.
2. Somebody Up There Likes Me – alternative early previously unreleased mix
3. It’s Gonna Be Me – not on ‘Young Americans’, first released as a bonus track on the EMI/Ryko edition of ‘Young Americans’ in 1990. An alternative mix with strings was released on the 2007 EMI edition of ‘Young Americans’.
1. Who Can I Be Now? – not on ‘Young Americans’, first released as a bonus track on the EMI/Ryko edition of ‘Young Americans’ in 1990.
2. Can You Hear Me – alternative early previously unreleased version.
3. Young Americans – same version that ended up on ‘Young Americans’.
4. Right – alternative early previously unreleased version.
✻ ‘WHO CAN I BE NOW? (1974 – 1976)’ was released on 23 September 2016 by Parlophone Records. The twelve CD box, thirteen-piece vinyl set and digital download features the material officially released by Bowie during the so-called ‘American’ phase of his career from 1974 to 1976.