The release

‘Rebel Rebel’ was released as a single in the UK on 15 February 1974, with the Hunky Dory song ‘Queen Bitch’ on the b-side.

I always thought the single sounded like it was the Spiders playing, even though it was done after we had all left Bowie.
Woody Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie

The single contained a slightly different mix from that on Diamond Dogs, and was edited to 4:22 from 4:31. Subsequent singles compilations featured the album mix. The original single mix was eventually reissued on 2016’s Re:Call 2, part of the Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) box set.

In Australia, ‘Rebel Rebel’ was issued in a shorter edit lasting 4:06.

‘Rebel Rebel’ peaked at number five on the UK charts. It reached number two in Ireland, seven in Finland, and number nine in Norway. It was also a top 20 hit in the Netherlands and France.

In the US it fared less well, climbing no higher than number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did, however, reach number 16 on the Billboard Rock Songs chart. The b-side was ‘Lady Grinning Soul’

The US mix, prepared by Bowie and Geoff MacCormack in April 1974, was on sale for a matter of weeks before being replaced with the UK single mix. It was later included in the Sound + Vision box set, the Best Of David Bowie 1969/1974 compilation, and the Diamond Dogs 30th Anniversary edition.

The album Diamond Dogs was released on 31 May, where the opening riff of ‘Rebel Rebel’ segued perfectly from the maelstrom of guitars that ended ‘Sweet Thing (Reprise)’.

Promotional appearances

In early 1974 Bowie had to leave the UK for tax avoidance purposes. To facilitate this, RCA arranged a brief promotional tour of Holland in support of ‘Rebel Rebel.

On 13 February Bowie filmed an appearance for the Dutch TV show Top Pop, in which he mimed ‘Rebel Rebel’ and was presented with the Edison Award for the Most Popular Male Vocalist.

The clip was filmed at Hilversum’s Avro Studio, and was first shown two days later. It was subsequently included on the video collection Best Of Bowie.

Bowie was suffering from a bout of conjunctivitis at the time, so wore an eyepatch over the afflicted eye – meaning that his permanently-dilated iris received the full glare of the studio lights.

I had conjunctivitis so I made the most of it and dressed like a pirate. Just stopped short of the parrot. I had this most incredible jacket that I was wearing that night. It was a bottle-green bolero jacket that Freddie made for me, and he got an artist to paint, using the appliqué technique, this supergirl from a Russian comic [Octobriana] on the back. But I took the jacket off during the press conference and somebody stole it. I was really pissed off.
David Bowie
Q magazine, May 1993

In 2013, Dutch writer Elly de Waard confessed that she had stolen the jacket. She had, she explained, been aggrieved that Bowie declined her interview request, despite reportedly being instrumental in Bowie receiving the Edison Award.

Bowie also wore bright red dungarees for the Top Pop appearance, and his new pirate glam image was duly copied by a legion of fans. He also held – and occasionally pretended to play – an unplugged matching red Hagström Kent guitar during the show.

Embed from Getty Images

A pre-recorded clip of Bowie performing ‘Rebel Rebel’ was scheduled to have been shown on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on 21 February. However, the film reel failed to arrive in time and Bowie’s appearance was dropped from the broadcast schedule.

The change was advantageous for the then-new band Queen, who were hurriedly brought in to perform what became their first hit, ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’.