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Songs of '74: David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel' Was a Grand Goodbye to Glam

The song's celebration of androgyny targeted Bowie's core audience, but what really sold the song was the opening guitar riff.

Source: RCA

1974's 'Rebel Rebel' would become one of Bowie's best-loved songs.

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That opening riff. The smash of drums. The downward spiral of bass. Those few seconds set the pace for the next four and a half minutes, which consequently set the stage for the chapter in the career of eternal musical chameleon and icon David Bowie.

In the grand scheme of things, "Rebel Rebel" was something of an unassuming song compared to the grand theatrics of Bowie's previous albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane. Certainly in the eyes of fans and followers, he had been on an artistic high, inhabiting the role of outer-space rock idol Ziggy Stardust for much of the previous year and a half. When the Spiders From Mars tour wrapped up in July 1973, Bowie famously expounded from the stage: "Of all the shows on the tour this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we'll ever do."

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Source: News Licensing / MEGA

David Bowie's 'retirement party' at the Cafe Royal, London, July 1973.

Of course, Bowie had no plans to retire. What Bowie was really saying is that he was hanging up the Ziggy Stardust persona and moving on to something else. After the "retirement party," he embarked on several projects through the remainder of 1973 with serious intentions to adapt Ziggy Stardust into a musical and turn George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 into a theatrical production for television.

Both projects fell through, except for two songs that he composed for the musical: "Rebel Rebel" and "Rock 'n' Roll With Me." Along with the abandoned projects, Bowie also broke up his backup band (which included longtime collaborator and friend Mick Ronson) and broke with producer Ken Scott. For his forthcoming album, Bowie tapped producer Tony Visconti, someone he hadn't worked with in four years, but a figure he trusted. As for the guitarist who needed to replace Ronson, Bowie took it upon himself, with help from session musician Alan Parker.

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Source: RCA

David Bowie - Diamond Dogs (Withdrawn Original Album Artwork)

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Recording sessions for the album that would become Diamond Dogs began in earnest in late December 1973 at Trident Studios in London (and were completed later in the Netherlands). Bowie's lyrics reflected the last gasp of the glam rock era he intended to leave behind, melded with the nihilistic outlook of a "hot tramp" who zeroes in on her partner's devotion even if her mother is not sure "if you're a boy or a girl." Those celebrations of androgyny targeted Bowie's core audience, but what really sold the song was the opening guitar riff, thumping bass line – courtesy of Herbie Flowers, who had created the iconic sliding bass opening for Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" – and proto-punk style that was directly aimed at the gut.

The end result was the first single released from Bowie's Diamond Dogs, on February 15, 1974. On February 14, Bowie traveled to Hilversum, in the Netherlands to film a lip-synched performance for the Dutch music program Top Pop. Broadcast two days later, this was the unveiling of the very brief "pirate" image that, in reality, was a coverup for the fact Bowie had conjunctivitis. The look was ditched soon after when he adopted the orange swept-back hair, suit and suspenders for the supporting Diamond Dogs tour that year.

Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management, Downtown Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc/David Bowie/YouTube

David Bowie - Rebel Rebel [REMASTERED HD] • TopPop

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"Rebel Rebel" reached No. 5 on the UK's Official Charts and No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100. Reviews from that period praised the song for the hard-to-forget guitar riff and to-the-point lyrics that in hindsight, foreshadowed the anti-establishment atmosphere that spawned the burgeoning punk scene in New York and London between 1974 and 1976. In an interesting contemporary review from AllMusic, the original premise of "Rebel Rebel" belonging in a scrapped musical was highlighted by the opinion that the song "did not contribute to the overall theme of the album." In a literal sense, it never did.

Source: ℗ © BMG Rights Management, Warner Chappell Music, Inc/Chris Young/YouTube

Chris Young - Young Love & Saturday Nights (Official Music Video)

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And how has "Rebel Rebel" fared in modern culture since those long-ago glam days? Bowie continued to perform the song off and on for the remainder of his lifetime -- according to Setlist.fm, it was the third most-performed song of his career, behind only "Fame" and "The Jean Genie" -- and it's been covered by everyone from Tegan & Sara and Joan Jett to Dead or Alive and the Bay City Rollers. And the song continues to make an impact even in genres that would seem far removed from Bowie's scene in the mid-'70s -- take a listen to the title track from country star Chris Young's newest album above, and see if that guitar riff doesn't sound a little familiar...

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