Blender - April 2004
The Greatest Songs Ever! Young Americans
By Johnny Black
In 1974, David Bowie checked into a Philly studio with no lyrics, a backup singer/mistress who couldn't sing and a big pile of coke. A few days later, he had created a soulful epic that would bewilder his glam-rock fan base.
"'Young Americans' wouldn't have happened without David Bowie's cocaine addiction," Duran Duran's John Taylor asserted in a recent interview.
Bowie himself has claimed that he can't remember most of 1974, when he recorded the song. "[The year is] none too clear.-A lot of it is really blurry," he said. There's no reason to disbelieve him, but maybe he simply prefers not to say too much about those days.
Who could blame him? After all, when he checked into the Hotel Barclay in Philadelphia on August 11, 1974, his marriage to Angie Bowie was on the rocks, his financial affairs were in chaos, he looked like a ghost and he was seriously underweight, largely because of his escalating cocaine habit.
In fact, about the only thing Bowie had in his favor was that just down the street, at Sigma Sound Studios, was a band of remarkably gifted young musicians waiting to help him record his next album.
Among them was guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had met Bowie earlier that year in New York. "I met him at RCA, when he was producing some tracks for [Scottish pop singer] Lulu. He was so thin, about 100 pounds, and one of the first things I said to him was, 'Man, you look like shit. You've gotta come to my house and eat some decent food.' And he did."
Alomar was instrumental in fanning the flames of Bowie's interest in black music, taking him regularly to Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater to see the greatest soul and funk acts of the time.
Ever the chameleon, Bowie was leaving his glittery Ziggy Stardust persona in the past. Now keen on incorporating elements of funk and Latin music in his own songs, he decided to record at Sigma because it was the home of the Philly Soul sound, producing hits for the O'Jays, the Delfonics and others.
Alomar was the first to hear the fruits of his new direction. "It started off just as little fragments, ideas and riffs that he'd bang out on the piano or on his acoustic guitar," Alomar recalls. "I would work with those ideas, supplying him with signature guitar lines so he could choose - one from column A, one from column B and so on."
The first track that started to come together was something Bowie initially called "The Young American." "It was only about four hours into the first session," Alomar says. "We got to the guitar breakdown, and we knew we had something." Bowie returned to his hotel room and began fleshing out his sketchy lyric ideas.
When everyone returned to the studio the next day, Alomar's wife, Robin Clark, and his best friend, the virtually unknown Luther Vandross, had come in to help on backing vocals alongside Bowie's mistress, Ava Cherry. "Robin and Luther really thought Ava couldn't sing. Her lack of technique caused problems," Alomar remembers.
Bowie tended to start recording late at night and work until dawn. "He used drugs to keep himself awake," Alomar explains. "I didn't get the impression that he was addicted - it was more a functional thing, so he'd be 'on' whenever the moment came to record."
Another sessioneer at the time was saxophonist David Sanborn. "Several of us were pretty stoned during those sessions," he recalls, "but whatever problems David was having with drugs, they didn't affect his control of the session."
On the third day, producer Tony Visconti arrived from England to take over from house engineer Carl Parullo, because Bowie wasn't happy with the sound he had been getting so far. "I could hear the problem," Visconti says. "In those days, in America, engineers recorded 'dry' and 'flat,' waiting for the mix to add the equalization, reverbs and special effects. But the British often recorded with the special effects right on the session. I was British-trained, and David was used to this sound. So I rolled up my sleeves and got right into it."
That same day, Bowie overheard Vandross and Clark improvising some vocals based around the words young Americans, and was sufficiently impressed to immediately incorporate them into the backing track. "We had a bit of a drum problem," Alomar points out. "If you listen to it, you'll hear that the drums feel slow in the middle of the track, so David got me to keep playing the guitar breakdown until the drums got back in time."
The track was completed to Bowie's satisfaction in the early hours of the next morning. Then came Sanborn's turn. "He didn't have a vocal melody or a complete lyric at that point," Sanborn recalls. "It was pretty much rhythm guitar, bass and drums, but Bowie didn't try to direct me. I was free to just respond to whatever the backing track inspired in me. They were very loose sessions, with Bowie usually up in the control booth directing us rather than playing."
Bowie's lyrics, when completed, exposed the despair and emptiness of American society in the wake of President Nixon's resignation. Sanborn says he was surprised when he heard the final version, including Bowie's vocals. "Those sessions had been so loose," he says, "that I was shocked by how coherent it all seemed when I heard the finished track."
Although Bowie has referred to his "Young Americans" period as "plastic soul," and many of his old fans were disappointed in the dramatic change in style, the track put him back in the Billboard Top 40 for the first time in two years.
U2 and the Cure are among the bands who have covered the song. "The Cure don't often do cover versions," lead singer Robert Smith has said, "but we did 'Young Americans' because David Bowie has written some great songs, and that's one of my favorites." A version of the tune graced the soundtrack of the 1999 movie Drop Dead Gorgeous, and "Young Americans" also gave its title to a 1993 Harvey Keitel movie and a more recent TV series. Not bad for plastic soul.