Rebel Rebel single – GermanyWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: December 1973, January 1974
Producer: David Bowie

Released: 15 February 1974

David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Alan Parker: guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Tony Newman: drums, percussion

Available on:
Diamond Dogs
David Live
A Reality Tour
Live Nassau Coliseum ’76
Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)
Live In Berlin (1978)
Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78)
Serious Moonlight (Live ’83)
Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87)
Glastonbury 2000
Nothing Has Changed
Legacy

The first single from David Bowie’s eighth album Diamond Dogs, ‘Rebel Rebel’ was his valediction to the glam rock movement which he had helped lead since 1972.

It’s a fabulous riff! Just fabulous! When I stumbled onto it, it was ‘Oh, thank you!’
David Bowie

The central riff, which loops throughout the song aside from the pre-chorus bridge and the line “Hot tramp, I love you so”, owes a clear debt to the Rolling Stones, whose guitarist Keith Richards spent time with Bowie during the recording of Diamond Dogs.

One night, I was in London in a hotel trying to get some sleep. It was quite late, like 11 or 12 at night, and I had some big deal thing on the next day, a TV show or something, and I heard this riff being played really badly from upstairs. I thought, ‘Who the hell is doing this at this time of night?’ On an electric guitar, over and over [sings riff to ‘Rebel Rebel’ in a very hesitant, stop and start way]. So I went upstairs to show the person how to play the thing (laughs).

So I bang on the door. The door opens, and I say, ‘Listen, if you’re going to play…’ and it was John McEnroe! I kid you not (laughs). It was McEnroe, who saw himself as some sort of rock guitar player at the time. That could only happen in a movie, couldn’t it? McEnroe trying to struggle his way through the ‘Rebel Rebel’ riff.

David Bowie, 2003
Performing Songwriter

‘Rebel Rebel’ is the perfect summation of Bowie’s gender-bending glam years, and one of Bowie’s final attempts to act as spokesman for a generation. He had assumed the role since his rise to fame with the Ziggy Stardust album, from the climactic cry of “Give me your hands!” in ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ to the dismissal of the Beatles and Stones on 1973’s ‘All The Young Dudes’.

In 1972 and 1973 Bowie was planning a stage adaptation of the Ziggy Stardust story. The project never came to fruition, but two songs written for it – ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me’ – were recorded for Diamond Dogs. This helps explain why those songs owe little to the dystopian vision of that album, a loose adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bowie had for several years flirted with androgyny and cross-dressing, and ‘Rebel Rebel’ continued the themes. His opening lines – “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” – were likely influenced by Jayne County’s 1973 song ‘Queenage Baby’, which contained the line “Can’t tell whether she’s a boy or a girl”.

‘Rebel Rebel’ was a copy of a song I had called ‘Queenage Baby’! I was recording songs for MainMan and they were all sent to Bowie because he was supposedly ‘interested’ in producing me. All he did was steal all my ideas! Bowie called MainMan and played his ‘Rebel Rebel’ demo over the phone and Cherry Vanilla screamed ‘Oh my God, he’s trying to sound like Wayne! How are we going to tell him?’ Leee Black Childers was there and he related the story to me, as we were roomies at the time. I was FLABBERGASTED! And I was helpless to do anything! It just gnawed at my insides like a rat gnawing away at my stomach. MainMan had me on salary and gave me an account at Max’s Kansas City, which they never paid!
Jayne County
Louder Than War, January 2012

Another possible antecedent, however, is George Formby’s 1939 song ‘Grandad’s Flannelette Nightshirt’, which features the couplet “Down at the church they were in a whirl/No one seemed to know if I were boy or girl”.

Bowie reportedly slipped an early copy of ‘Rebel Rebel’ to Rodney Bingenheimer at LA’s infamous glam nightclub Rodney’s English Disco. As the song began playing, the assorted starlets and underage groupies went wild, knowing instantly it was Bowie’s latest release. ‘Rebel Rebel’ became a dancefloor fixture thereafter, until the club closed in early 1975.

In early 1971, I was working for Mercury Records in LA and took Bowie around Hollywood. We stayed at my friend Tom Ayres’ house. I remember Gene Vincent being there and Bowie writing the lyrics for ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and talking about the Ziggy character. He was talking about making it into a stage play. I think LA was a culture shock for Bowie. His mind was blown, everything was so big and bright. But it was a culture shock for others, too, because he was wearing a dress, the same one from the cover of The Man Who Sold The World. One party was at [socialite, columnist] Dianne Bennett’s house and [Warhol acolyte] Ultra Violet was there, in a milk bath. Bowie sat on the bed and played stuff from Hunky Dory and Ziggy on acoustic guitar. Everyone loved it.

In London, Bowie took me to the Cellar club, where they played music by Slade and T. Rex. That was where he gave me the idea for doing Rodney’s English Disco in LA. I always loved Bowie’s glam stuff. When I had the club, he would send me acetates and test pressings of those songs. ‘Rebel Rebel’ was such a great dance song. It was really the glam rock song. It was like an anthem.

Rodney Bingenheimer
Uncut, March 2008