Young Americans was made at a time when David Bowie was attempting to extricate himself from his management deal with Tony Defries and the MainMan organisation. Shortly after the recording session with John Lennon in January 1975, Bowie’s lawyer Michael Lippman began legal proceedings against MainMan to end the management contract.
Bowie had locked away the Sigma master tapes in a bank vault. His label RCA, which sided with the singer against Defries, sent a representative to Electric Lady Studios to collect the Lennon songs before MainMan could use them as bargaining chips.
The single became Bowie’s biggest American hit to date, peaking at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100, and 20 on the Cash Box chart. Bowie’s previous highest-charting single had been ‘Rebel Rebel’, which went no higher than number 64.
The US single had a live version of ‘Knock On Wood’ on the b-side, taken from the David Live album. In the UK the b-side was a live recording of ‘Suffragette City’ from the same album.
The US release was an edited to shorten its running time from 5:10 to 3:16. This version excised the second verse (“Scanning life through the picture window…”), and everything between the lines “Do you remember, the bills you have to pay?/Or even yesterday?” and “You ain’t a pimp and you ain’t a hustler”.
The album Young Americans was released on 7 March 1975. Critics were broadly positive, although some were unconvinced by Bowie’s new soulful direction.
The album peaked at number two in the United Kingdom, and number nine in America. It reached the top ten in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, but fared less well in other countries.
Bowie appeared to disown the album in later years. “Rock and Roll is walking all over everybody,” he told the NME in August 1975. “Like, I tried to do a little stretch of how it feels musically in this country, which is sort of … the relentless plastic soul, basically. That’s what the last album was.”
I’ll do anything until I fail. And when I succeed, I quit, too. I’m really knocked out that people actually dance to my records, though. But let’s be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans, the album ‘Fame’ is from, is, I would say, the definitive plastic soul record. It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.
Playboy, September 1976
In Los Angeles on 16 March 1975, Bowie filmed a television commercial for the Young Americans album. It was directed by Chuck Braverman.
Reissues, remixes, remasters
Young Americans was first issued on compact disc in 1984 by RCA. An outtake from the sessions, ‘After Today’, was included on the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, along with an alternative mix of ‘Fascination’.
The album was remastered and reissued by Rykodisc/EMI seven years later, with three bonus tracks: ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’, and ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’. This 1991 edition featured alternative mixes of ‘Win’, ‘Fascination’ and ‘Right’, although subsequent editions of the album reverted to the original mixes.
Young Americans was re-released by EMI in 1999, digitally remastered but with no bonus tracks.
A new version of Young Americans was released in 2007, billed as a Special Edition, and with the bonus tracks ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’, ‘Who Can I Be Now?’, and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’. The latter song was an alternative version featuring strings.
The Special Edition also included a DVD containing 5.1 surround sound mixes of the album and bonus tracks, plus footage from Bowie’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, including an interview and performances of the songs ‘1984’ and ‘Young Americans’.
Young Americans was reissued in the in the 2016 box set Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) and as a standalone edition, on CD, vinyl and as a digital download. The box set also included the first official release for The Gouster, the six-song incarnation of the album prepared by Tony Visconti for release prior to the John Lennon sessions.
Today all the songs from this period have been heard and they are cherished. As a footnote the next but one Bowie studio album in sequence was Low. So shocked and appalled was one executive at RCA, he was heard to say, ‘I’m gonna buy Bowie a house in Philly and make him write Young Americans II.’ But he really didn’t know David Bowie, did he?
Who Can I Be Now? book