Released: 15 February 1974
David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Alan Parker: guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Tony Newman: drums, percussion
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)
Nothing Has Changed
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!’
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.
‘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!
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.