Young Americans isn't David Bowie's most heralded album, but time has proven the 1975 disc to be a near-classic interpretation of white man's soul. Bowie was a huge fan of black soul music, and gathered together a crew (including a then-unknown backup singer named Luther Vandross) to help him reimagine his "plastic soul." It was a real curve ball for glammed-out rocker Ziggy Stardust to suddenly abandon the makeup and start singing soul songs.
Virgin/EMI has now released a new special edition CD/DVD package of Young Americans with plentiful bonus features, including video footage, new audio mixes and more. It's an excellent chance to revisit Young Americans in the Bowie canon, although admittedly if you already own the album there may not be enough here to merit buying it again. (And this is the fourth time the album has been released on CD, after all.)
The song "Young Americans" has rightly become one of the most loved singles of Bowie's career – on the surface a joyous, gospel-like anthem, it's actually an extremely sinister snapshot of mid-1970s Americana, with Bowie's marvelous eye for detail. Like Springsteen's "Born in the USA," it's a song usually misinterpreted and yet still hugely popular. "Fame," Bowie's first-ever #1 hit in the U.S., is another satirical, spiteful dig, this time done in collaboration with none other than John Lennon. Here's Bowie, at the peak of his fame, singing about how it "puts you there where things are hollow." Yet again, an irresistible musical hook makes a track that's bitter and bleak go down smooth indeed.
I particularly love Young Americans' overwrought take on the Beatles' "Across The Universe" done with John Lennon, which turns into a kind of ecstatic hymn of despair. But there's also several tunes on Young Americans that are basically just campy dance jams, like "Win" or "Fascination." They sound just groovy, of course, but they lack the subversive kick of the album's best work.
And then there's the bonus DVD footage of Bowie's famous 1974 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. This is amazing, bizarre stuff – just in terms of fashions alone (the gaudy plaid tie Bowie wears may singe your eyeballs). Bowie was at the height of his cocaine addiction here and looks like a walking corpse. He's disturbing to watch, frankly, but gives passionate performances of "1984" and "Young Americans." The 20-minute interview with Cavett included is a real hoot – an extremely jittery Bowie is sniffing and rubbing at his nose constantly as he fiddles with a black cane, perched in his chair like a pink-haired spider.
A smooth and erudite Cavett tries to engage Bowie ("David, what kind of student were you in school?") and the result is peculiarly gripping TV viewing. Bowie's halfway on another planet, of course, rambling on about "black noise" killing entire cities. Bowie's never been easy to pin down, but at this early stage in his career and with the personal problems he was undergoing, he comes across as vulnerable and arrogant at the same time. "I'm a storyteller and a storywriter," he says. "…Nothing that I do is on any kind of intellectual slant." You just want to pack this poor emaciated lad off to a spa for a week of rest, really.
The album includes on the DVD/CD new audio mixes by Tony Visconti in 5.1: DTS sound, which I unfortunately don't have the equipment to check out. The liner notes also include a nice look back at the recording and reaction to Young Americans as well as a chronology of what Bowie was up to in 1974 and 1975. The three "extra" tracks here, "John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)," "Who Can I Be Now?" and "It's Gonna Be Me (with strings)," have all been issued in previous releases of this disc, so there's nothing new here, and I find them less essential than the rest of the album.
One of Bowie's later big hits was titled "Let's Dance," but frankly that might have been an even better title for this album. Nowhere else in the thin white duke's resume will you find an album so consumed by the beat. The rare video footage included here is a real time capsule bonus and a glimpse into Bowie's fractured mindset of the time. If you've never heard Young Americans before, this is the perfect edition to get your groove on again with.