In the studio
It was laid down during the final sessions for the Aladdin Sane album, in a week of recording from 19-24 January that also saw Bowie tape ‘Cracked Actor’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ (sax version), ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, ‘Time’, and an early version of ‘1984’.
‘Panic In Detroit’ was one of the last Aladdin Sane songs to be completed. The final overdubs were recorded on 24 January, just days before Bowie and the Spiders returned to America to resume the Ziggy Stardust Tour.
There was some disagreement during the recording. Bowie wanted drummer Woody Woodmansey to play a Bo Diddley beat, in step with Mick Ronson’s rhythm guitar. Woodmansey disagreed and wanted a more conventional rock beat, but Bowie eventually prevailed.
He only ever once told me what drum beat to play, on all those albums. It was ‘Panic In Detroit’. He’d played it to me while we were on the road – in Detroit, ironically – so I had it in my head. I’d worked out a riff – it was very John Bonham, as I’m a big Bonham fan. Then we went into the studio in, I think, San Francisco and I started playing the beat I had in my mind.
David just stopped and said – no; just play a Bo Diddley beat, really simple. He started humming it, and I said – but you haven’t heard all the other drum fills I have for it. He said – I don’t wanna hear them.
I tried again – there are like 10,000 drummers who could play it like that, and he said – no, not like you’d do it. So, I started playing the Bo Diddley beat and immediately I knew he was right, the bastard! It was so simple and effective.
Music Republic Magazine
The beat desired by Bowie was eventually enhanced further by congas performed by Geoff MacCormack, who also sang on the track.
Aladdin Sane, Track 4 – Panic in Detroit
This one uses a Bo Diddley kind of vibe. DUN du DUN du DUN – baDUM bum. Then in a very David-like way he switches and goes into something else in the verses. Then comes back to the catchy hook. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) June 28, 2020
‘Panic In Detroit’ was notable for its use of backing vocalists. In his past recordings Bowie had tended to perform all vocal parts himself. There were a few exceptions, but they normally including using the Spiders From Mars or, in the case of ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, a chorus of studio guests.
This track is unusual in two ways. This is the first time David had not done backing vocals himself, he preferred to use the always lovely and talented Linda Lewis and Juanita Franklin. The other is the phasing on the drums. I don’t remember specifically but I think that, as opposed to using the Countryman phaser, we set up tape phasing just like we used to use at Abbey Road.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Bowie recorded a new version of ‘Panic In Detroit’ in December 1979. It featured Zaine Griff on bass guitar, Andy Duncan on drums, and producer Tony Visconti on guitar and backing vocals (the latter treated to sound like a Speak & Spell device).
The new version was intended for use in the UK during ITV’s The “Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?” Show, but was replaced by a re-recording of ‘Space Oddity’ from the same session.
The 1979 recording was released for the first time in 1992, on Rykodisc’s CD reissue of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). It was issued again in 2002 on a bonus disc included with initial copies of Heathen, where it was described as an “outtake from a 1979 recording”.
‘Panic In Detroit’ was performed by David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars during some of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust Tour dates in America.
I remember playing this one for the first time in Detroit in October of 1972 just a month after I first joined David and the Spiders on the Ziggy Stardust tour in the US. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) June 28, 2020
It was performed more regularly during the following year’s Diamond Dogs Tour. Bowie wore bright red boxing gloves during the performance, with a rope routine choreographed by Toni Basil.
Because we were alone together working a lot, I really had to do my homework. I always came in armed with more than one idea, because he knew the music back and forth and he was armed with a jillion ideas. He taught me so much. I saw him come up with the boxing gloves and rope routine for ‘Panic In Detroit’ in the space of a minute. I wanted so badly to make a proper exchange. This was taking rock to theatre and taking theatre to rock.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
A live version recorded on 14 July 1974 was issued later that year as the b-side of the ‘Knock On Wood’ single. It was also issued in the US on the flipside of the ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me’ single.
The live recording was also included on the 1982 RCA album Rare, and in 2005 was included in the expanded reissue of David Live.
Another version from the same tour, recorded at Detroit’s Michigan Palace on 20 October 1974, was released on the 2020 album I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74).
‘Panic In Detroit’ was revived during the Isolar Tour in 1976. A recording from 23 March can be heard on Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, edited to remove Dennis Davis’s drum solo. The full 13:08 version was made available as a digital download.
Bowie performed ‘Panic In Detroit’ again during 1990’s Sound + Vision Tour, 1997’s Earthling Tour, and A Reality Tour in 2003-4.