In the studio

David Bowie began recording ‘Rebel Rebel’ on 27 December 1973 at London’s Trident Studios. This was his final set of recording session in the studio.

Although Bowie played the majority of the guitar work on Diamond Dogs, the album had guest appearances by Earl Slick and Alan Parker. Slick played on ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me’, while Parker performed on ‘1984’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’.

On ‘Rebel Rebel’, he had the riff about 75% sorted out. He wanted it a bit like a Stones riff, and he played it to me as such, and I then tinkered around with it. I said, ‘Well, what if we did this and that and made it sound more clangy and put some bends in it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I love that, that’s fine.’ I used an old Les Paul standard, a black one, and it was an old Fender reverb amp with a single Wharfedale speaker in them.
Alan Parker, 2004
Diamond Dogs 30th Anniversary Edition

Bowie performed the song’s central riff, with Parker adding the three descending notes at the end of each loop. Claims that Keith Richards or even Mick Ronson play on the track appear to be unfounded.

‘Rebel Rebel’ was reportedly recorded in a three-day period, with more overdubs following in January 1974.

The Diamond Dogs album was mixed by Tony Visconti after Bowie struggled to complete the project. However, an earlier mix of ‘Rebel Rebel’ was retained for the release.

He said he’d produced it himself and couldn’t get a decent mix anywhere. He was just asking for advice on selecting a studio, not suggesting we should work together. I suggested he try my place. I was setting up a state-of-the-art sixteen-track studio in a house I’d just purchased but hadn’t yet furnished… We mixed the entire album there, although he preferred his original mix of ‘Rebel Rebel’.
Tony Visconti
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

On 11 April 1974, Bowie and Geoff MacCormack arrived in New York aboard the SS France. They stayed at the Sherry Netherlands hotel on Fifth Avenue. The purpose of the trip was to film a commercial for the forthcoming Diamond Dogs album, to prepare for the tour, and to record Lulu’s single ‘Can You Hear Me’. While there he also recruited guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, key collaborators in the following years.

In New York, Bowie and MacCormack also reworked ‘Rebel Rebel’ for the US market. They added vocals, effects, handclaps and percussion, all but burying the guitar riff beneath castanets, congas, guiro, tambourine, and vocals treated to phasing and and backwards echo.

David and I got very heavily into Latin music. He decided we should put down a new backing vocal and have some congas all the way through ‘Rebel Rebel’. So when we got to New York, they ordered some congas for me and I put a heavy conga thing all the way through and we sang those backing vocals.
Geoff MacCormack
Record Collector, October 2008

The US single version was also reduced in length from 4:31 to 3:01. The additional vocals from the new arrangement were retained for the Diamond Dogs Tour, and remained in place until the end of 1990’s Sound + Vision Tour.