Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 16 January 1974
Producers: David Bowie
Engineer: Keith Harwood
Released: 24 May 1974
David Bowie: vocals, guitar, saxophone
Mike Garson: electric piano, organ
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Tony Newman: drums
‘We Are The Dead’ opens the third and final Diamond Dogs song cycle, which found Bowie at his darkest, most claustrophobic, best.
Diamond Dogs emerged from Bowie’s ambition to create a theatrical production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Denied the rights by Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell, he reworked the concept and created the Hunger City setting and its motley inhabitants.
Were it not for the second-half trilogy ‘We Are The Dead’, ‘1984’, and ‘Big Brother’, there would be little indication of the projects origins. Bowie was adept at remodelling the ideas of others and working them into something new, but in these songs he chose not to cover his tracks and to directly quote Orwell.
Dystopian, absolutely. I went to the doctors for it. You always think you’ve got an ulcer but it’s just heartburn… No, in retrospect, it has been a strong theme in the work that I’ve done down the years. In fact, I think if there is any consistency to what I do, it’s going to be the lyrical content. I’m saying the same thing a lot, which is about this sense of self-destruction. I think you can see the apocalyptic thing as the manifestation of an interior problem. There’s a real nagging anxiety in there somewhere, and I probably develop those anxieties in a ‘faction’ [fact/fiction] structure.
Mojo, July 2002
The title ‘We Are The Dead’ occurs several times in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell may, in turn, have taken the phrase from John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, a poem written during World War One and first published in 1919. The words appear in the second stanza:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, “We are the dead” appears in three sections. In the first it is said by the protagonist, Winston Smith, who understands that resistance against the Party is tantamount to a death sentence.
He felt her shoulders give a wriggle of dissent. She always contradicted him when he said anything of this kind. She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated. In a way she realised that she herself was doomed, that sooner or later the Thought Police would catch her and kill her, but with another part of her mind she believed that it was somehow possible to construct a secret world in which you could live as you chose. All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead, that from the moment of declaring war on the Party it was better to think of yourself as a corpse.
‘We are the dead,’ he said.
‘We’re not dead yet,’ said Julia prosaically.
‘Not physically. Six months, a year – five years, conceivably. I am afraid of death. You are young, so presumably you’re more afraid of it than I am. Obviously we shall put it off as long as we can. But it makes very little difference. So long as human beings stay human, death and life are the same thing.’
The second occurrence is in a speech given by O’Brien, the book’s main antagonist and Smith’s colleague at the Ministry of Truth. Smith and Julia believe him to be a member of the resistance group The Brotherhood, unaware that he is really an agent of the Thought Police.
‘You will have to get used to living without results and without hope. You will work for a while, you will be caught, you will confess, and then you will die. Those are the only results that you will ever see. There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police there is no other way.’
In the final time it is mentioned, Julia and Winston use it as a calling card to mark their shared struggle, immediately before their arrest, unaware that they are being observed by the Thought Police.
The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan – everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead, theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.
‘We are the dead,’ he said.
‘We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully.
‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.
‘We Are The Dead’ was the first Bowie song to contain the F-word in its lyrics, although his cover of ‘Friday On My Mind’ on Pin Ups had done the same in the backing vocals. Bowie wouldn’t use the word again until ‘Girl Loves Me’ on Blackstar.
Bowie wrote the lyrics using William Burrough’s cut-up technique, which he also deployed on ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Sweet Thing’. By writing out lines and cutting them into strips, he rearranged them randomly to allow new meanings to emerge. Phrases such as “you’re dancing where the dogs decay, defecating ecstasy/You’re just an ally of the leecher, locator for the virgin king” are among Bowie’s most darkly sinister, fittingly for the dystopian world he was constructing and increasingly inhabiting in 1974.
This part is so dark and the chords and harmonies are just bizarre. For lyrics – he was using the cut-up technique on a lot of this like William Burroughs. I was there when he’d take newspapers and cut them up and put them together for a song. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 12, 2020
In the studio
‘We Are The Dead’ was recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, on 16 January 1974.
The song was heavily treated with tape delay, most notably on Mike Garson’s Fender Rhodes electric piano. At 2:42 a descending piano line can be heard, presumably headphone overspill from a part that was eventually cut.
I was playing electric piano on this one. The piano playing on this is so simple that it’s hards for me to tell if it was really me playing it. I’m told by those who know that it is indeed. Go figure. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) July 12, 2020
Bowie also applied masses amounts of reverb to his opening guitar chords, which made them howl like the wind through a seedy alley in Hunger City.
‘We Are The Dead’ was the b-side of the ‘TVC 15’ single, released in 1976 in the UK, USA, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.
Unusually for the era, Bowie never performed ‘We Are The Dead’ live, making it something of an overlooked Diamond Dogs song. It remains an oddity, therefore, that he at one stage considered titling the album We Are The Dead, suggesting that he held it in high regard.