The genesis of the Diamond Dogs project is unclear, although David Bowie is known to have written some of the material in Rome in August 1973, shortly after the Pin Ups sessions concluded in France.
Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s second concept album, after The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Like its predecessor, it contains broad themes rather than adhering rigidly to a storyline, perhaps a result of Bowie being denied the rights to adapt Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In 1993 Bowie explained how the MainMan offices had unsuccessfully approached Orwell’s estate.
It was in fact the first time that I was rejected by a literary figure. My office approached Mrs Orwell, because I said, ‘Office, I wanna do Nineteen Eighty-Four as a musical, go get me the rights,’ and they duly trooped off to see Mrs Orwell, who in so many words said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your gourd, do you think I’m turning this over to that as a musical?’ So, they came back and said, ‘Sorry David, you can’t write it.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s impossible, of course I can write it!’ And they said, ‘No, she won’t let you, you see, she won’t give you the rights. She won’t sell you the rights for any amount of money in the world. She said she’s seen one film of it, and that that was such a disaster that she’ll never let it out of her grasp ever again.’
I really had to turn around on a dime, ’cause I was already in the studio putting bits of it down and I thought, oh no!, I kind of have to go somewhere else with this.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
That “somewhere else” was Hunger City. This was partly inspired by a story Bowie had been told by his father, John Jones, who for many years had worked for the English children’s charity Dr Barnardo’s.
I got that from my father’s work at Dr Barnardo’s homes, because Dr Barnardo and Lord Shaftesbury had once gone on the top of the roofs of the city of London, and found all these urchins living up there. And that always stayed in my mind as being an extraordinary image of all these kids living up on the roofs of London. And so I had the Diamond Dogs living on the roofs of London.
They were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And there was no means of transport so in my mind they were all rolling around on these roller skates with huge wheels on, and they squeaked because they hadn’t been oiled properly, so there’s these gangs of squeaking, roller skating vicious hoods, you know, with bowie knives and furs on, and they’re all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough, and they’re wearing funny coloured hair. It was in a way a precursor to what was a punk thing, you know. That’s where it was going. And that’s what I wanted to stage, and I decided that would be my rock musical: Diamond Dogs. It never came up to being a rock musical but I got damn near it.
The David Bowie Story, BBC Radio 1
Other inspirations came from cinematic history. The album’s title track references Freaks, a then-banned 1932 horror film by director Tod Browning, which featured actors with deformities and who otherwise worked at carnival sideshows. Upon its release, Freaks was advertised with the tagline “Can a full grown woman really love a midget?”
On 8 January 1974, Bowie’s 27th birthday, he was taken by Amanda Lear to Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, for a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi drama Metropolis. According to Lear, the film had a marked impression on Bowie.
It was a real big thing for him. He was so paranoid about going out in daylight and being recognised. We saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and David was in awe of it. He rented the film and ran it over and over again in his house. And that’s where Diamond Dogs came from, the whole staging and album and everything Bowie got from Metropolis.
Miami News, 25 January 1978
Bowie’s dystopian scene was set in the album’s opening track, ‘Future Legend’, with its assortment of landmarks: Temperance Building, Poachers Hill, Love Me Avenue. There were more to follow, from pristine landmarks – the coveted “highest of the sterile skyscrapers”; Manhattan Chase, the Queens Clock Tower in New York City – to others from the murky underworld: a glass asylum, slimy thoroughfare, dingy alleyways.
There were places where dirty deals and dirtier deeds were conducted: Candidate’s seedy “another floor, in the back of a car/In the cellar like a church with the door ajar”, or Bowie’s own “amazing” set, which “even smells like a street/There’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend”.
Then, by no means least, there was the colourful cast including Halloween Jack, Calamity’s child, cross-dressers, drug abusers, sex workers, urchins, strays, rich financiers, ten thousand peoploids, the ever circling skeletal family, and the hussies, freaks and weirdos of the title track. The Diamond Dogs themselves were a roaming gang of looters, scavengers and poachers, simultaneously grotesque and glamorous, an extension of Bowie’s admiration for the gentlemen criminals from A Clockwork Orange.
I had in my mind this kind of half Wild Boys/1984 world, and there were these ragamuffins, but they were a bit more violent than ragamuffins. I guess they staggered through from Clockwork Orange too. They’d taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart. They’d been able to break into windows of jewellers and things, so they’d dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds. But they had snaggle-teeth, really filthy, kind of like violent Oliver Twists. It was a take on, what if those guys had gone malicious, if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely ape-shit? They were living on the tops of buildings… They were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller skates with huge wheels on them and they squeaked because they hadn’t been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn’t eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way, it was a precursor to the punk thing; that’s the way it was going. That was what I decided would be my rock musical, Diamond Dogs. It never came up to being a rock musical, but I got damn near it.
One influence on Bowie’s writing was undoubtedly the London-based American writer William Burroughs, whose fictional works such as The Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy were “attempting to create a new mythology for the space age”. Burroughs was interviewed with Bowie for Rolling Stone on 17 November 1973, after which the writer visited Bowie at Olympic Studios.
David Bowie posing for a photograph with William Burroughs for an interview published at Rolling Stone magazine in February 28, 1974. pic.twitter.com/0U6GLqvZk3
— Terry O'Neill CBE (@Terry_ONeill) February 23, 2017
Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ writing technique was adopted by Bowie during the period of Diamond Dogs‘ creation. Although Bowie prepared much of the music before entering the studio, his lyrics were often written later in the recording process.
I have this memory of David taking lyrics and, with a scissor, cutting them up randomly and pasting them together. I got the feeling that there was some lyric-writing and arranging on the spot.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley