Released: 24 May 1974
Mike Garson: piano
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Tony Newman: drums
‘Diamond Dogs’ was the title track of David Bowie’s eighth studio album, recorded and released in 1974.
Kicking off with the war cry “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll – this is genocide!”, the song introduced Bowie’s latest persona. Following on from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack was a gang leader, “a real cool cat” living on a skyscraper roof and fronting the titular gang of Diamond Dogs.
Bowie originally envisaged Diamond Dogs as a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. After Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell denied him the rights to do so, Bowie briefly considered a musical based on Ziggy Stardust, before creating Hunger City, a brand new urban dystopia based on New York and London.
I’d failed to obtain the theatrical rights from George Orwell’s widow for the book 1984 and having written three or more songs for it already, I did a fast about-face and recobbled the idea into Diamond Dogs: teen punks on rusty skates living on the roofs of the dystopian Hunger City; a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Bowie’s fragmented imagery was partly inspired by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, which favoured randomisation as a way to draw out new meaning. The lyrics also contained a variety of imagery, from Tarzan to Salvador Dalí, but perhaps most memorably was the reference to Tod Browning’s Freaks, the notorious 1932 horror film starring real-life circus freakshow performers.
I had in my mind this kind of half Wild Boys/Nineteen Eighty-Four world where there were these ragamuffins, but they were a bit more violent than ragamuffins. I guess they staggered through from Clockwork Orange somewhere as well. And 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 and all that, but they had snaggle teeth and they were really filthy, kind of like violent Oliver Twists. It was a take on if those guys had gone malicious. It was like if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely apeshit and they were living on the tops of buildings, and 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