In the studio
The recording of ‘Young Americans’ began on the first night of sessions for the album, on 11 August 1974. It initially had the working title ‘The Young American’.
David Bowie and Tony Visconti had parted ways after The Man Who Sold The World, although the producer had been drafted in for salvage work on Diamond Dogs and David Live.
Bowie had self-produced Diamond Dogs, and initially attempted the same during the initial few days of work on Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studios. Displeased with the results, however, he flew Visconti to Philadelphia and immediately put the producer to work.
I had just finished an album in London [Nightlife by Thin Lizzy] and flew to Philadelphia the very next day. All I wanted was to hit the bed in my hotel room but I was taken, under orders, to Sigma Sound Studios instead. My friend and colleague David Bowie, who seemed abnormally very pale and thin, greeted me. He had amassed a band consisting of Mike Garson, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks and Dave Sanborn. They had been there a few days prior to my arrival and they were going through a new song called ‘Young Americans’. I asked the house engineer, Carl Parulow, if he was the engineer and he said, ‘No, you are!’ I wasn’t expecting this at all. I already felt jet lagged prior to really being jet lagged (really, I was suffering from sleep deprivation) and all I expected to do that night was to let someone else do that job, the engineering. David took me aside and said he wasn’t pleased with the sounds and I simply had to do the engineering. Okay, how could I refuse my dear friend?
Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) book
Initially, Bowie chose to record much of the album with the full band playing together in the studio, rather than assembling the backing tracks gradually. He also sang his lead vocals as the band played, which necessitated some technical changes in order to avoid the instruments bleeding into his microphone.
David wanted to sing live in the room with the band, which meant the band would undesirably go down his vocal microphone. I applied a special technique that was only described to me but I had never used before. I put up two identical vocal mics, one in front of his mouth and the other in front of his neck. They went through identical channel paths except one was switched out-of-phase on purpose. The theory was if David sang only on the top mic he would be in-phase. The band went to both mics and they would be out-of-phase and mostly cancelled. Damn it, it worked! A lot of David’s vocals in the final mixes were live because of this wacky idea.
At some point, it could have been later that night or the next afternoon, a new musician and two singers joined us. They were Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark and Luther Vandross. They were quickly assimilated into the session as we started to put down serious takes of the song ‘Young Americans’. By late evening, or early morning we had it! What you hear was mainly a live take, with the exception of Dave Sanborn’s sax intro that was overdubbed.
Who Can I Be Now? book
On the second day of recording, guitarist Carlos Alomar brought two people to the studio: his wife Robin, and his friend Luther Vandross.
I started making little vocal arrangements and showing them to Robin. I didn’t know that Bowie had overheard all this. He was sitting right behind me at the board, and he said, ‘That’s a great idea. Put that down.’ So I put it down and next thing you know one thing led to another, and I was doing the vocal arrangements for the whole album. I wrote one of the songs on the album. Bowie overheard it and said, ‘I want to record that. Do you mind?’ When I did it, it was called ‘Funky Music’. Bowie changed it to ‘Fascination’. He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say ‘funky music’, since he was a rock artist. He said, ‘Do you mind?’ And I said, ‘You’re David Bowie, I live at home with my mother, you can do what you like.’
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
Luther Vandross had the idea for the hook in the chorus of ‘Young Americans’.
I said to Robin, ‘What if there was a phrase that went, “Young American, young American, he was the young American – all right!’ Now, when ‘all right’ comes up, jump over me and go into harmony.’
Spin, April 1987
Playing piano on the song was Mike Garson, whose elaborate work on Aladdin Sane had been a defining feature of that album.
That piano part on ‘Young Americans’ is me and ‘Can You Hear Me’ is me, so I’m on quite a few things but not everything. I was playing straighter because his music was not as weird as it was in the Aladdin Sane period, so I went with the flow, you know?
This is probably my favourite Bowie song, other than Lady Stardust. I like this song because it overall feels like a David Bowie anthem. Also, there’s a Beatles reference! The backing vocals on this track are beautiful, the percussion is fun, and I always love a good alto sax. The lyrics are powerful as well.