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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Rebel Rebel

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Diamond Dogs is an album about dogs, dogs that rock'n'roll. Do dogs rock'n'roll? Sure they do. Let me tell you a story that begins with a dog that rocks.

Once upon a time, in the early fifties, there were two American youngsters called Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who teamed up and formed a songwriting duo. Typically for Jewish kids of the time, the two held firm liberal ideals, which in their case manifested mainly in a love for the culture of the African-American people and interest in their struggle to make it in America. Well versed in black lingo and black music, they wrote songs that celebrated the daily life of blacks and offered them to rhythm 'n' blues artists to perform. In 1953, they wrote a song called 'Hound Dog', which isn't really a song about a dog but actually about a woman chastising her no-good man and telling him to take a hike. The song was performed by 'Big Mama' Thornton, who took it all the way to the top of the R&B chart, giving our duo their first hit.

Delighted, they told their leftwing mates about their success, but received a cold shower. Pop music, they were told, is one of the ways in which the capitalist system exploits the working-class, and taking part in it is doing the work of the devil. That attitude didn't feel right to Lieber & Stoller, who didn't understand how something that brings joy to working-class people can be bad for them. So they bid farewell to their friends, told them that "you ain't no friend of mine", and went to start their own brand of liberalism.

What was wrong with their friends? To answer that, we must understand where they came from. The liberal dream is to reach a world where everyone is free and equal, and its underlying belief is that in this state, Man's good nature would prevail and produce a world of peace and harmony. After the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, it was believed that we are now on the right way to achieving this world, but in the middle of the 19th century Karl Marx pointed out the snag: the capitalist system, which arose along with democracy, creates two classes of employers and workers and the latter are practically enslaved by the former. To reach the perfect world, said Marx, there must therefore be one more revolution, in which the working-class would revolt, eliminate the capitalist system and create a truly equal society. The capitalist system, then, was perceived as the only thing standing in our way to a perfect world. Consequently, Marxists began to perceive it as the root of all evil, the thing that is responsible for poverty, wars, bigotry, crime, and any other cause of suffering.

In Marx's time, this perception was rooted in daily experience. The working-class was extremely poor and exploited, and this condition was indeed the cause of hunger, ignorance, crime, violence, and a lot of misery. It made sense for people to believe that if this injustice would be removed, all problems would go away. But after decades of socialist struggle that dramatically improved the conditions for the working-class, it gradually became apparent that things aren't that simple. By the middle of the 20th century, most educated people realized that the problems of the human race come from many sources and it is naïve to believe that there is just one root of evil whose removal would fix everything. Some, however, kept holding on to their Marxist faith, refusing to let go. The better conditions of the working-class, they claim, are merely sedatives aimed to distract the people from their basically exploited state. The function of art, according to this belief, is to make people face their true condition, so that they will rise up and overthrow the system. Pop music, which concentrates on fun, was therefore vehemently rejected: Marxist "liberals" do not want the working-class to have fun; they want them to become pawns in their revolutionary dream.

Lieber & Stoller, however, were already beyond this crude way of thinking. They were true liberals, wanting to express the many ways in which the human free spirit manifests itself. Working with a black doo-wop group called the Robins, they started to produce three-minute comedies rooted in African-American daily life, and in 1954 they came up with a real doozy. 'Riot in Cell Block #9' is a highly charged drama about a riot that breaks in a jailhouse, performed by the Robins with the reinforcement of a bass singer called Richard Berry who tells the story with a voice full of menace and mischief, and the result is pure exhilaration. It was one of the main portents for the dawn of a new era in music, an era called rock'n'roll, and the record already sets one of rock'n'roll's main tenets. It sounds at first like a jailbreak, with the prisoners breaking loose and using dynamite to blow up stuff, but then you realize that they are not going anywhere – they just want to stay there and have a riot. In the end, the wardens manage to regain control and put everyone back in their cells, but the record ends with the promise that "every now and then – there's a riot going on!" The record bequeaths a dream to rock'n'roll, a dream of a world of never-ending rebellion, never-ending partying, and never-ending fun.

This is the dimension that is missing from revolutionary approaches like Marxism. They describe human existence as suffering, and preach that life should be dedicated to ending all suffering, but they fail to realize that suffering is no longer a big part of life in the Western world. The combination of socialist reforms and the advancement of technology made life a lot easier, gave people a lot of leisure time, and they care less about how to abolish the small remnants of suffering and discomfort that are left and more about how to find happiness in life. The result is pop culture, a culture dedicated to producing actual, palpable joys. Marxism aspires to reach a state of non-suffering, but the children of pop culture know that non-suffering is merely a neutral state, while above it there are states of elation and ecstasy, which are all within our reach. And one of the greatest joyous experiences, at least when you are young, is to rebel against authority, to have a wild riot within the confines of the square world of the adults. The Marxist solution is rejected, therefore, not just because it is unfounded, but simply because it is not good enough. The idea of living in some constant state of non-suffering does not compare to living within a society that on one hand gives you enough freedom to pursue your happiness, and on the other hand contains enough repression for you to be able, every now and then, to have a riot. The children of pop culture don't want a revolution that will fix everything – they want a world where you can always rebel. 'Riot in Cell Block #9' was a manifesto of this new state of mind.

And, within a year of the record's release, the riot was going on like a forest on fire. A new monster was set upon the world, a monster called rock'n'roll, and the teenagers embraced it enthusiastically. Lieber & Stoller were playing their part, still working with their doo-wop group, minus Richard Berry but with a new lineup and a new name – the Coasters – and kept providing their brand of rock'n'roll theatre. But the king of the new style was Elvis Presley, and the song which crowned him was his rocking rendition of 'Hound Dog'. When he performed the song on TV, swiveling his hips suggestively, the walls of Western culture trembled. For the culture guardians, this was a sign of degeneration, of the decline of civilization, but for the youth this was a new world. Elvis was the symbol of the new spirit, and when he moved into cinema he contracted Lieber & Stoller to write the soundtrack for his first musical 'Jailhouse Rock'. The title track is basically a rewrite of 'Riot in Cell Block #9', except that it is a wild prison party instead of a riot, and it is even more self-conscious: there is a moment in which a couple of inmates notice that they have a chance to make a break, but they choose to stick around and get their kicks, because a party in prison is more fun than anything you can find on the outside.  

Musically, however, 'Jailhouse Rock' was already a sign that the riot was dying down. The wild unruly spirit is still there, but you can also sense an attempt to organize it in a more well-structured musical form, and the choreography given to it in the movie does the same to Elvis' freewheeling, hip-shaking style of dancing. Rock'n'roll was beginning to be more acceptable to the "enlightened" mind, and was beginning to be perceived as merely some necessary teenage venting. The music business realized that there's a huge potential market in rock'n'roll and opened up to it. And once again it was Leiber & Stoller who showed the way, with the cleverly crafted records they made with the Drifters. By the turn of the decade, rock'n'roll became a smart and sophisticated style of pop music, still aimed at teenagers but adhering to old aesthetic conventions like harmony, melody and the like. The riot was over, the dog was leashed, the spirit of youth culture was back in its cell.

But the memory lingered, and in some places the original spirit of rock'n'roll kept festering underground, waiting to erupt. In northern England, kids maintained their loyalty to "true" rock'n'roll and hundreds of bands that catered to this taste started to appear until finally, in 1962, one of these bands broke into national fame and opened the door to many others. The Beatles managed to create a style that took the newer, more "sophisticated" style of rock'n'roll, with its harmonies and studio craft, and infused it with the wild explosive spirit of early rock'n'roll. By the middle of 63, Beatlemania took hold of the English youth, and within a year it was a worldwide epidemic. The riot was on again.

It was going on in another cell as well, in a slightly different guise. In and around London, there were kids who shared the rebellious spirit of rock'n'roll, but wanted something deeper. They went to the source, to the electric rhythm 'n' blues that begat rock'n'roll, with its rougher sound and more mature content. By the early sixties there were young bands that fused r'n'b with the explosiveness of rock'n'roll, making music that was even more raucous and explicit. Once the Beatles hit on a national level, it opened the cell door for these bands as well and the first to burst through it were the Rolling Stones. The Stones fashioned themselves as the antithesis of the Beatles, and while the latter smoothed their sound and look to be socially acceptable while retaining their authenticity and edge, the Stones accentuated their roughness and disorderliness, promoting themselves as social outcasts. For the kids who regarded the Northern bands as too juvenile and fluffy, the Stones presented a new degree of rebellion, and they rallied behind them. Gradually, their music moved away from r'n'b towards a sound that was based around slashing guitar hooks and lyrics that were pure bad-boy attitude, and they became the leaders of the riot.

The record that epitomized it was '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', from 1965. It is a tirade against capitalist consumer culture, which offers you numerous products and possibilities, but nothing that can give you satisfaction. But the song does not suggest that we should overthrow this capitalist system – it actually seems to relish this feeling of non-satisfaction. The Rolling Stones offered an alternative to revolutionary Marxism, an alternative that would inform their attitude throughout their career: rather than dreaming of a world that would give you full satisfaction at all times, and would thus be very boring, you keep living in a world that doesn't give you satisfaction and from this dissatisfaction you draw the energy to create explosions of ecstasy. These two experiences – the joyful exultation of the Beatles and the angry dissatisfaction of the Stones – would be the basis for most mid-sixties pop music, and would drive the rebellious and energetic spirit of the time. The riot was everywhere.

That's a well-known story, and it is the way that rock'n'roll history is usually being told. But there is a lesser known story, a secret history of rock'n'roll which happened in another cell block, somewhere a little further away from the center of events. To tell that story, however, we must go back to 1954, and follow the trails of someone we left in cell block #9. Richard Berry, after his stint with the Robins, went on to have a rather undistinguished musical career, but somewhere along the way he wrote and recorded a song that enshrined his name in history. 'Louie Louie', released in 1957, is a pretty weird doo-wop record, moving to a cha-cha beat and sung in Jamaican patois, the hero being a Jamaican sailor yearning for his girl back home. Not an outstanding record, really, but it is driven by an incessant "duh-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh-duh" backing vocal chant, which doesn't leave your head once it settles in it. The record did alright in California, but not enough to be a big hit, and Berry sold the rights to it for $750, thinking he made a good deal. Little did he know that up north, in Seattle, a rock'n'roll scene was budding and that it turned 'Louie Louie' into its anthem. It was no longer a doo-wop, though: the Seattle bands had an aggressive and rowdy (and pretty morbid) attitude, and turned the song into a storming rocker. Long before the Stones yelled "Hey, you! Get off of my cloud!", the Seattle bands were screaming "let's give it to 'em, right now!", just before lashing into the bridge, spitting their venom in the face of the world. It was only a local scene, but it was a riot.

One of the bands on the scene were the Kingsmen, who hailed from Portland. They were not considered a good band even by the modest criteria of Seattle, but when they recorded 'Louie Louie', something magical happened. Actually, the recording went horrendously, with the instruments all missing their mark and the singer's vocals so slurred that they are hardly intelligible. But their manager, in a flash of genius, announced that this was the best performance they ever did and decided to use it. They put it out as a single and it didn't do much at first, but then suddenly, in November 1963, it started a fast climb up the national Billboard chart and dominated it for weeks until it was usurped by a certain record called 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', the record that started the British invasion. All at once, the music world had two riots on its hands – the riot of British rock'n'roll and the riot of 'Louie Louie' – and it would never be the same again.

But what happened that made the Kingsmen's record such a hit? The answer is in the recording. Because the vocals are so slurred, every listener can hear whatever they want in them and a rumor spread that the lyrics were obscene. The teenagers were titillated, the parents were shocked and alarmed, and the authorities were called upon to put an end to this pornographic phenomenon threatening to corrupt the innocent souls of American youth. But nothing could be done: the FBI spent two-and-a-half years trying to make the vocal track clean enough to get the actual lyrics and establish their obscenity, but failed. Everybody "knew" the song was dirty, but nobody could prove it, and the attempts just added to its notoriety and kept it on the airwaves. 'Louie Louie' was the perfect crime, the riot that just kept on going without the wardens being able to do anything to stop it. It just kept going on and on and on.

'Louie Louie', however, was a lot more than just allegedly dirty. The spirit of mayhem that emanates from the record is utterly exhilarating, and became a symbol of the rock'n'roll spirit. It is the most famous example of what later became known as "garage rock": music made by bands who were technically incompetent but could express either the wild glee of the Beatles or the snarling dissatisfaction of the Stones, and that, after all, is what's really important. Lots of times they were intentionally stupid and crude, emphasizing their contempt to traditional measures of musical "quality". Over the next five years, countless of wannabe American bands made lots of bad records, usually missing the mark, but sometimes producing nuggets like 'Wooly Bully', 'Psychotic Reaction', '96 Tears', 'I Want Candy' and many more. And the anarchic spirit of garage rock invaded the sound of the more competent British bands as well. While the British scene had a side that was embodied by Eric Clapton, who idolized the art of blues and wanted to make "serious" music, it also had a side that wanted to make another 'Louie Louie', producing records like the Kinks' 'You Really Got Me', Them's 'Gloria', the Troggs' 'Wild Thing', and many others. This pull in both directions is one of the things that made the pop music of the mid-sixties so great.

In 1967, however, the "serious" side was beginning to take over. Rock musicians started to think of themselves as artists, and instead of making records of wild abandon they focused on making albums that showed technical accomplishment and lyrical profundity. Ideologically, too, youth culture was taken over by a frame of mind that regarded rebellion as worthwhile only if it was aimed at creating a perfect world and directed rock's energy in that direction. By the late sixties, the youth culture, that once offered a real alternative to the old ways of thinking, deteriorated all the way back to infantile Marxist platitudes and revolutionary idiocy. That anarchic mirth – there's a RIOT going on! – that was part and parcel of rock'n'roll from the start, all but disappeared by the early seventies.

Bowie, and the rest of the glam rockers, tried to bring it back to life. With all the futurism, drag, glitter and makeup, it's easy to forget that glam was also a return to the original fifties rock'n'roll, to simple and explosive three-minute records. But by mid-1973, glam was losing its rattling effect, and becoming just another style. Bowie's reaction was to go back to the basics, back to the mid-sixties, and look for inspiration there. His album Pin Ups covered songs from the period, and displays a penchant for garage rock, going against the spirit of the early seventies. While the revolutionary Hippies sang like they knew what the future should look like, Bowie chose songs of confusion ('I Can't Explain', 'Shapes of Things', 'See Emily Play'); while heavy metal bands sang about sexual excess, he picked songs of sexual dissatisfaction ('Rosalyn', 'Here Comes the Night', 'Sorrow') or ecstasy ('Everything's Alright'); and rather than singing of a future when humankind will be free, he elected songs that described freedom as ecstatic outbreaks within the present cycle of daily toil ('Friday on My Mind, 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere', 'Don't Bring Me Down'). The closing track, 'Where have All the Good Times Gone?', laments the loss of that spirit, the original spirit of rock'n'roll, the spirit he was trying to recreate.

It doesn't really work, though. Although he discards the slick, punctual sound of Ziggy & the Spiders in favor of a more anarchic garage sound, he fails to create the same effect that the sixties records have. The problem is mainly in the vocals, which lack the sneer, the screaming-your-guts-out and the effervescent dissatisfaction of the originals. Bowie was no longer a hungry aspiring teenager and couldn't just access these feelings like he did back then, when he belted out 'Liza Jane'. It still sounds good, updating the songs to the sound of 1973, but for anyone who is familiar with the original records it pales in comparison, sounding weak in exactly the traits that count, the traits that define garage rock. To recreate that spirit, Bowie had to create something of his own.

And so, in 1974, Bowie came out with his own 'Louie Louie', except that he called it 'Rebel Rebel'. First came the single, a great slice of vintage rock'n'roll, but the song's full power comes to light when you hear it on the album. Diamond Dogs sets out from the premise that rock'n'roll is dead, painting Hunger City as filled with lifeless freak mutations, an obvious allegory to the rock world of 1974. The heroes roam this wasteland, finding nothing of worth to hang on to, and 'Sweet Thing' ends with them sinking into a drug haze while we hear the sound of the system grinding their spirit to dust. But then, out of nowhere, a guitar hook a-la Rolling Stones rings out loud, slicing through the rot and cutting it to shreds, and everything springs back to life. We need just a couple of bars to realize what it says: there's a new riot going on. And when Bowie's vocal comes in, it is the real deal: electrifying, energetic, horny, boisterous, nasty – everything rock'n'roll should be. After whimpering like a dog on a leash for the entirety of 'Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise)', now he howls like a dog who broke free, and is seriously in heat:

You've got your mother in a whirl
She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl
Hey babe, your hair's alright
Hey babe, let's go out tonight
You like me, and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they're playing hard
You want more and you want it fast
They put you down, they say I'm wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on

Bowie has always tried to be unique in his songwriting, but in this song he is as generic as could be. Not much to analyze here: it's just rock'n'roll, weaving together revolt, dissatisfaction, confusion, mayhem, noise, partying, sex and style into one bundle of eruptive ecstasy. The second line reminds us of the Barbarians' garage-rock classic 'Are You a Boy or are You a Girl?', his "Hey Babe!" brings to mind Bruce Channel's 'Hey! Baby', and the song's doubled-up title was a garage staple since 'Louie Louie' (examples: the Castaways' 'Liar Liar', Music Machine's 'Talk Talk' and the Shondells' 'Mony Mony'). But it is more than just another garage-rock song. It is a song that aims to capture the quintessence of it all, and the title says what it is: rebellion.

Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress
Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel Rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so!

"How could they know?" he asks about all those who don't take part in the riot, those who think that rock'n'roll is stupid, those who don't understand the fun of tearing your dress and messing up your face but prefer to live their lives according to a clear, rational laws of morality and beauty. From the point of view of rock'n'roll, those kind of people are simply living by the rules of the prison, while rock'n'roll sets us free of them without making any new rules. In contrast to those who "don't know", the singer finds that there are those who share the experience and it makes him feel a deep connection with them, so deep that it produces the single most lustful moment in Bowie's entire work.

"Great lyrics for once: 'You've torn you dress… / Your face is a mess… Hot tramp, I love you so.' If only Bowie could settle for that kind of simplicity all the time" remarked Lester Bangs, the American rock critic who led the critical attack against album-oriented-rock and demanded the return to the tenets of garage rock (a term which he practically coined, along with another term which he sometimes used when talking about this type of music: "punk rock"). Bangs and his acolytes did not like Bowie, regarding him as a representative of the cerebral, pretentious type of musicians that destroyed the original spirit on rock'n'roll. What they missed was the fact that Bowie was also calling for a return to that spirit, but doing so while dissecting rock music through his art and looking for the reasons it died. Diamond Dogs is an autopsy of rock'n'roll, but 'Rebel Rebel' uses this autopsy to extract the gist of rock'n'roll and bring it back to life. While the rest of the album is cerebral, its centerpiece is an anthem for mindless fun, and as if to strengthen the point, Bowie just repeats the verse and chorus and then launches once again into the chorus, directing our attention away from the lyrics and towards the spirit of the music. And then, he ends by doing something he never did before: he let's go. Allowing himself to be taken over by the thrill of the moment, he just starts a freestyle rap, improvising on the themes he presented already, getting further and further into it. When he sings about a "live wire", he becomes a live wire himself, transmitting joy to the world:

You've torn your dress, your face is a mess
You can't get enough, but enough ain't the test
You've got your transmission and your live wire
You got your cue line and a handful of ludes
You wanna be there when they count up the dudes
And I love your dress
You're a juvenile success
Because your face is a mess
So how could they know?
I said, how could they know?
So what you wanna know
Calamity's child, chi-chile, chi-chile
Where'd you wanna go?
What can I do for you? Looks like you've been there too
'Cause you've torn your dress
And your face is a mess
Oh, your face is a mess
Oh, oh, so how could they know?
Eh, eh, how could they know?

"How could they know?" he asks once again about all those who haven't "been there", those who do not understand the joy of rock'n'roll. That's the thing about rock'n'roll: you either get it or you don't, and if you don't, no one can explain it to you. 'Rebel Rebel' proves that Bowie, regardless of what Lester Bangs or anybody else ever claimed, certainly got it. And he knew that it has the power to save even the wretched souls of Hunger City.

'Rebel Rebel' is, in a way, also a farewell to this kind of experience. The rest of the album reveals Bowie's pessimism, his fear that this era has gone and rock'n'roll is dead. He was not aware of it yet, but in the same year that he was staging Diamond Dogs several new rock bands formed in New York, bands whose spirit was forged in the same furnace that produced 'Rebel Rebel'. The Ramones, Television, the Patti Smith Group and others returned to the spirit of garage rock, usually referring to it as "punk", and tried to take it in new directions. It took them a couple of years until they got the message through, but once they did, there was a riot going on.

 

'Rebel Rebel' came out as a single in February 1974, two months before the album, and Bowie mimed to it on a Dutch TV show. Suffering an eye injury he was wearing an eye-patch, giving him pirate look which was perfect for the outlaw spirit of the song. This is the last time we see a little bit of the Ziggy style, but mostly it is already Halloween Jack, who will soon take over completely.

'Rebel Rebel' remains the closest Bowie ever came to "real" rock'n'roll. It is a rock'n'roll classic, performed many times over the years by Bowie and many, many others.

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