Saturday, 19 June 2010

Well-thumbed machine

‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ is a rather ephemeral David Bowie song, but he rated it enough to record it on three separate occasions and I‘m writing about it here, so it must have some merit.

Originally released as a single in September 1972, the song was the follow up to Bowie’s massive ‘Starman’ and, for the first time in his slightly haphazard career to date, provided him with a second hit in a row, which might explain why he liked it so much.

Widely thought to be about a gay man reassuring his boyfriend that he is simply socialising with his female dance partner, the ‘controversial’ subject matter (which is, on the evidence of the oblique lyrics alone, marginal) seems pretty daft these days, and could only really have been daring in the light of Bowie’s androgynous image at the time and earlier pronouncements about his bisexuality.

Amazingly, this tiny hint of deviance stopped the record being released at all in the United States, where Bowie was already regarded with suspicion (and quite rightly, he was always dodgy in any number of ways), although he performed it live on his 1972 US Tour. More comfortable with our sexuality in the UK, and well used to a bit of camp with our popular entertainment, the BBC confined themselves to only banning the promotional film which, as it featured Lindsay Kemp and his dancers, is completely understandable.

Version one is all pop whizz and rockabilly, rounded out with some crunching Mick Ronson guitar, squalling feedback, a murky lead vocal and some neat stereo effects.

The second version (recorded in early 1973 and released, confusingly, as a single in April, with the same catalogue number as the earlier version) is pretty similar but has a fuller, brighter and cleaner production and introduces some rasping saxophone from Ken Fordham (Bowie, could play sax himself, of course, but tended to honk).

The third version - titled ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)to distinguish it from its predecessors - was recorded during the US ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour of 1974, and is a radically reimagined version with new lyrics, a new verse structure and lyrics and a seven minute running time. It prefigures the ‘plastic soul’ style of ‘Young Americans’ by several months and although it features a great Gauloises induced vocal from Bowie, it goes on a bit and tries to hard to be every type of funky all at once - and the new verses sound a little too much like some of the incidental music from 'The Goodies' for my liking.


guttersnipe said...

incidental music from 'The Goodies' - a good thing, surely?

Unmann-Wittering said...

For the Goodies, of course, for Bowie, maybe not quite the effect he was going for?