Saturday, May 17, 2014

4 Facts you do not know About David Bowie’s Young Americans

By the time David Bowie recorded and released his album Young Americans in 1975, he had undergone at least three previous transformations from the Space Oddity to Heavy Metalhead to Proto Punker to Ziggy Stardust. Now cooling his jets from leading the glam rock revolution, the tall Brit settled down in Philadelphia to cut the album that would define his next great transformation as The Thin White Duke. Someone at the time described Bowie as the whitest man he had ever met—translucent white. An odd sobriquet given that he was going to put down the grooviest work of his even-then legendary oeuvre. Working with future R&B Grammy winner Luther Vandross, Bowie successfully made his transition to the hip, laidback grooves en vogue in the mid 1970s where funkified rock-pop planted its flag in the Disco Era.

I bought Young Americans in the compact disc (CD) format in the used bin at The Wherehouse in Lakewood or Long Beach, California, circa 1997 or 1998. And as with a bunch of the other CDs I have been spinning in recent times, I was not completely familiar with this material despite having it on hand all of these years. Oh sure, I’ve heard the title cut “Young Americans” and “Fame” on and off over the years on classic rock radio stations. I have even seen the iconic performance of “Fame” from TV’s all-time hippest trip Soul Train, when Bowie became just the second or third white recording artist to make the reverse crossover.

So it was pleasant surprise to hear the depth of content on this set of songs. To be sure, The Thin White Duke is tied to the times of 1974 and 1975 singing on “Young Americans”:

Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay?
Or even yesterday?
Have you been the un-American?

But the rest of the disc is packed with listenable and danceable tracks that transcend time and could feel at home in any decade that knows how to swing. You could probably even put Young Americans in the headphone album category—of course, that would be the iPhone earbud category nowadays. That’s unless you have some of Beats by Dr. Dre audio headphones.

An outstanding track that gets overlooked is “Fascination,” on which Bowie really gets down with Carlos Alomar riffing stylistically on guitar with syncopation in tow. Saxman David Sanborn, later to be hailed as one of the progenitors of Smooth Jazz, wails along—sho ’nuff, oh yeah—lending new credence to the by-then moribund theory that the instrument was the tool of Old Nick hisself!

As it turns out, Alomar would become a longtime collaborator of Bowie’s, working with the Human Chameleon over the many changes he would conjure forward for the next 30 years plus, but most heavily during Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” period on the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger culminating with his commercial mass-market MTV smash followup to Let’s Dance, Tonight.

Of course, as I have already alluded, what really makes all of Young Americans work is the omnipresent saxophone work of David Sanborn. On just about every track, Sanborn shines through with sultry sax lines that exude an atmosphere of elegant decadence amidst a world-weary attitude toward libidinous behavior.

Speaking of libidinous behavior, “Can you Hear Me” offers an interesting lover’s lament where Bowie could be chiding his ex paramour spurning him by not taking his affections to heart. Or it could also be read as a double entendre where Bowie asks, “Can you feel me inside?...Why don't you take it?” Perhaps, I digress.

There are several bonus tracks on the CD version of Young Americans: “Who Can I be Now?”, “It’s Gonna be Me”, “John, I’m Only Dancing Again”. These were all tracks that were recorded contemporaneously with the rest of the Philadelphia masters. But they were dumped in favor of “Fame” and “Across the Universe,” which were recorded a few months later in New York City, although “John” was released as the A-side of a single to work the promotion of the album in 1975. These tracks have merit, but obviously Bowie thought better of them during the original production and only reconsidered their release on the full album due to marketplace expectations for the number of songs to be present on a higher-cost CD in comparison to the lower cost/quality cassette tapes and vinyl records the then still dominant form factors for major label music releases in the early 1990s.

For all of its Philadelphia infused soul sound, the most famous song on this album was recorded in New York City at the site of so much rock music history, Electric Lady Studios. The track of course is “Fame,” which was a collaboration with former Beatle John Lennon. Resulting from a jam session, according to Songfacts, the music for “Fame” came together very fast with the track being based on the jam and Bowie quickly dashing off the lyrics in about five minutes. Lennon was given a co-writing credit as he gave Bowie the inspiration for the lyrics based on their discussion of the how fame itself takes a little piece of your personal life every day. Bowie was later quoted as saying:

I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.

While most people are aware that Bowie and Lennon co-wrote and sang together on “Fame,” Bowie’s first chart-topping No. 1 hit in America and his breakthrough to the pop mainstream, there are several other facts about Lennon’s involvement with Young Americans perhaps only the most ardent of Bowie fans will actually recognize, such as did you know that:

  • Lennon also played rhythm guitar on “Fame”?
  • “Across the Universe” on Young Americans is a cover of the Lennon/McCartney song of the same name?
  • Lennon also played and sang backup vocals on this Bowie cut?
  • And you might know—but it’s easy to miss—the nod to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band tune “A Day in the Life” in the title cut: “I heard the news today, oh boy”
So where does the legacy of Young Americans leave us today? There is so much to consider in the career of Bowie that it’s difficult to know where to start and stop. Perhaps, the answer is not to look too closely behind the curtain that this master illusionist of rock ‘n’ roll has woven but just marvel at the wondrous auditory landscape beneath our very ears. But if you like to indulge additional senses, such as vision, and you live in Europe, you may want to take in a new exhibit that has just opened examining the years Bowie spent in the German capital (though it was not at the time).

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Blow Your House Down: John Kay & Steppenwolf Huff and Puff into the 80s

There was a time when the name Steppenwolf was synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. With hits and significant movie soundtrack and album cuts such as “Born to be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride” and “The Pusher” Steppenwolf led by charismatic frontman John Kay ruled the airwaves in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Unfortunately, success could not be sustained and the group fell apart and broke up in 1972. But through fits and starts, Steppenwolf would regroup and disband again and again over the course of the next decade plus. But with the proviso that the only original member of the band in each incarnation would be gravelly voiced crooner Kay.

Rolling, or panting, into 1987, the group now booked as John Kay & Steppenwolf entered a new phase of their career. Perhaps inspired by the successful reunions of other veteran rock groups such as Aerosmith, Deep Purple and others in the 1980s or out just to re-establish his legal rights to the name Steppenwolf, John Kay decided to give it another try. Along with noted Hollywood session guitarist Rocket Ritchotte, keyboardist Michael Wilk and, allegedly, drummer Ron Hurst, Kay and the group put together “Rock & Roll Rebels” in 1987.

In a curious development, Kay and Steppenwolf did not sign with a major label for “Rock & Roll Rebels,” but instead decided out of principle or by necessity to use Qwil Music as the label, which was distributed through K-tel International, the infamous “As Seen on TV” purveyor of “20 Great Hits sung by 20 Great Artists” type compilation albums. But the contradiction of a once-ultra-cool, cutting-edge rock act on the kitschy television record label mostly featured in commercials during the “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” seemed a perfect-fit for the schizophrenic 80s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan preached “just say no” to drugs in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic.

In any event, the actual album “Rock & Roll Rebels” has a decidedly upbeat, fight-the-good-fight vibe in resistance to the jaded, seen-it-all ambiance that had taken hold by 1987. On “Give Me Life,” Kay and crew exhort us to grab some fun and not let the good times pass us by without grabbing all you can—you need to be bold. Ritchotte does some nice soloing and quick-fingered fretwork on this song. Even though online sources now list Ron Hurst as the drummer on this album, I’m pretty sure it’s actually a drum machine. This idea is reinforced when I recall seeing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section showing only Kay, Ritchotte and Wilk for a local show.

John Kay circa 1972. Photo credit: Affendaddy /
 Foter / Creative Commons -NonCommercial-
ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
An anthem for those who have a chip on their shoulders against naysayers is “Hold on (Never Give up, Never Give in),” or what I like to think of as the Galaxy Quest song. While risking clich├ęd sentiment, Kay earnestly sings the chorus of “Hold on, never give up, never give in | Stay young and believe in your chance to win.” For those everywhere who have ever heard the wolf at the door at 3 a.m., these are powerful words indeed to steel your nerve and harden your resolve to triumph against incredible odds.

A most interesting track on the album is “Give me News I can Use,” which seems to completely encapsulate everything that made the Crazy 80s, with its literary device of an early evening newscast and highly improbable but very plausible incidents: a train hijacker is shot dead by a midget G-man dressed like Donald Duck at Disney World, the referee was crucified and tore limb from limb at a playoff game. Kay would have shown these live but they will have film at 5. Seems completely reminiscent of news anchor Jerry Dunphy coming on KABC-TV L.A. Channel 7 during the 10:30 station break breathlessly pumping the trainwreck story of the day, punctuated with the motivating “film at 11” signoff. Who could resist watching?

In 1970, Steppenwolf was on par
with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Photo credit: brizzle born 
and bred
 / Foter / Creative 
Commons Attribution-
NoDerivs 2.0 Generic 
(CC BY-ND 2.0)
While you will not find any howling, leather-lunged rockers in the spirit of “Born to be Wild” on “Rock & Roll Rebels” it is a divergent platter that went against the hedonism-for-its-own-sake grain of the Decade of Reagan. Speaking of platters, if you are into collector’s items or just like the warm sound of analog records, the Steppenwolf staff recently found some long out-of-print vinyl copies of “Rock & Roll Rebels.” It might be a good investment as well as good listening! Otherwise, you’d need to buy the CD reissue “Feed the Fire” on Amazon.
-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener