Musings On Music

The Gouster Vs. Young Americans

The crowning glory of the new David Bowie box set Who Can I Be Now? is the unreleased soul album The Gouster. Much talked about, but never released or rather compiled, the album is the entire reason for some to purchase the twelve disc document. While nearly everything else here has been released before in some fashion, The Gouster has never been presented or released in this way. It was the album that was abandoned in favor of Young Americans. I will make it no secret from the get go that I loathe the album Young Americans. To me, it is David Bowie’s equivalent to The Rolling Stones Dirty Work, both of which I find intolerable in light of their respective catalogs. Needless to say, I was excited to compare the two side by side. See, I’ve tried to like Young Americans, really, really tried. I’ve listened to it at least twice this year, before this release, and every time I just can’t stomach it. Many people feel this way about, say, Tonight or Never Let Me Down, but I like those albums, there is no pretense, they were in his trio of mainstream music machine albums and he did it right. Approaching “Plastic Soul” though in 1975 with Young Americans it comes off as an over the top, shambolic wreck. And again, I want to like the album.

Before listening to either album, I had already reasoned with myself that I was going to be enormously let down by the entire lot of what Bowie would have and did release in 1975. I had pretty low expectations, theoretically, I may just dislike his entire, thankfully brief plastic soul phase and in the end will see no real good in either album other than the obvious singles. Young Americans is something of a shit sandwich with pure gold for bread. Would The Gouster be any different? There was a good chance it wouldn’t be any different or any better at all. Yet, I had heard some of those tracks on the Rykodisc release and I recall them being pretty great. Also, of note, Young Americans is an album I’ve now purchased technically five times, which is interesting for a record I hate. I suppose it’s for the love of Bowie and that someday the fucking thing will click and I’ll take back every unkind word I’ve ever said about it. Maybe it’s an album I keep buying for my future self. Either way, I was ready for both albums to suck back to back. Also, keep in mind, I started this by listening to the whole box set in order. At the point I did this, I had Diamond Dogs and two versions of David Live fresh on my mind. It probably helped set the stage a bit. Also, Diamond Dogs sounds amazing and while it’s nice to have the original mix of David Live, I’ll probably only listen to the 2005 Expanded Edition going forward, for the mix alone if nothing else.

In a lot of ways, by the time the Summer of 1974 had rolled around David Bowie had been trying to kill off Ziggy Stardust for years, first with Aladdin Sane, then Halloween Jack, yet they were still very Ziggy like characters, just ones who seemed darker and more pessimistic, more apocalyptic than Ziggy had been. Recording a Soul album in Philadelphia seemed the perfect ways to complete the execution. The Gouster opens with “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” which is a remake in name only and passing lyrical reference to the 1972 Ziggy era hit. It’s a straight up disco track with some awesome David Sanborn sax all over the place and it’s seven freaking minutes long. It’s brilliant and somehow it seems like the perfect way to say goodbye to Ziggy, vaguely lifting a song from him and turning it inside out to a straight out soul filled, ass shaking disco anthem. It’s got a fantastic vocal from Bowie and the entire thing really makes the vibe of the album clear from the start. This eases you into the blue eyed soul train you’re about to ride for the forty minutes the album claims your attention. It was a fantastically underrated single eventually released in 1979 and an amazing album opener.

The early version of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is simply inspired here and so heavy with Sanborn’s sax it drips authenticity. It’s Bowie’s vocal that sounds sublime here and a completely different take and delivery on this version that makes it thoroughly enjoyable, while the back-up singers give a beautiful gospel touch to the entire affair.  THIS version sounds like Bowie’s authentic take on soul music, not compromising his vocals, sounding like Bowie. It’s got feeling. It’s more organic. These things are true of the entire album it turns out. It also sounds damn good coming in on the heels of “…Only Dancing (Again)”. There is a consistency at work here. Closing the first side is “It’s Gonna Be Me”, first heard on the Rykodisc release from the ’90s and it works so perfectly here that it breaks my heart. A slow burning, bluesy, piano number to start, with some fantastically smoky vocals from Bowie. Once more the choir of backup singers brings a gospel vibe to the entire thing and an angelic sting to the entire affair.  Sanborn is three for three on this side as well and at the end of the first side, The Gouster is already worlds better than Young Americans, a big part of that is that all three of the songs work together toward a consistent sound, an actual vibe that carries through the entire side. The same cannot be said of either side of Young Americans.

“Who Can I Be Now” is one of the best Bowie songs of the entire Plastic Soul era and it’s a great way to open up the second side of The Gouster. Another song first heard on the Ryko release, I remember being baffled at why this wasn’t included on Young Americans, when it was vastly superior to “Win” or nearly anything between the singles. Once again, it’s got the consistent vibe from the first side. It’s more fitting on Bowie than what he attempts on Young Americans, which comes across as forced. This is the culmination of his love of soul music hinted at in songs like “Drive In Saturday” and other select cuts over the years. It’s also the anthem of Bowie’s life and identity crisis at the time, as well as the fitting name for the box set where Bowie was losing his mind in America and living on cocaine. It occurs to me that the box set could be called  “That One Time America Nearly Killed David Bowie.” Still, “Who Can I Be Now” is simply stunning and once more Sanborn and the choir are right up front in the mix.  It’s a pretty magnificent opening. The album seems to be literally telling the story of breaking free from the past and moving on with life.

The early version of “Can You Hear Me” has a better groove by far and is a more stark, soulful presentation, much in line with the atmospherics being used throughout the record. It’s a beautiful piano piece, much akin to “It’s Gonna Be Me” on side one. As jazzy as it is soulful, it’s a song to simply lose yourself in like a fantastic bath. Again Bowie’s vocals on this version feel more heartfelt and authentic, rather than forced and charicatured. This explodes into “Young Americans” which works incredibly well in this slot and the song honestly doesn’t stand out so much for being out of step with the rest, but it does have a far more rich production. The album builds up to this song and if it had been the teaser single for this album, people wouldn’t have felt slightly duped the preview. Otherwise, it works well with The Gouster and clearly belongs that’s been on a record so heavy with Sanborn and backup singers, with wild percussion. It’s the same version on the original album, no reason to fuck with the formula on this one. An early version of “Right” meets the jazzy fade out of the hit single with a super smooth groove and carries out the entire album with a super hypnotic disco delivery, with the vocals and the effects being nearly as fascinating as the music. It simply has more vitality than the eventual version. It’s a funky and effective way to end The Gouster, which thankfully, doesn’t suck. It’s a brilliant soul album experiment by David Bowie and artistically speaking, it’s a much better, more cohesive work than Young Americans ended up being.

After The Gouster recordings were pretty much in the bag, David Bowie made the mistake of heading to New York and running into John Lennon. He no longer felt satisfied with the album, but there’s never been a real explanation why he wasn’t satisfied, and now upon hearing an approximation of it, it’s difficult to understand why. If The Gouster was released it would at least stand up to Diamond Dogs, if not Station To Station or Low. He and Lennon wrote “Fame” and they did an abysmal version of “Across The Universe”, around this time the boredom of “Win” was recorded. I haven’t read into it, clearly several of the songs that appear on both recordings were re-recorded later for the Young Americans versions. Other than the title track, they lack the punch and authentic funky soul of the versions released in 1975. The album falters long before that, though.

Young Americans begins with the title track, which with its super rich production would be out of place on any record anywhere. That said it’s a fine place to start, but it gives a certain expectation on what’s to follow. What follows is the albums first amazing mistake, the optimistically titled “Win” is really a loss. On the other hand it does occur to me, when I hear it, that Young Americans had to have been Prince’s favorite Bowie record. “Win” would seem appropriate on “Scary Monsters”, maybe, or any of the “Let’s Dance” trilogy, but here it seems out of place. If I had to place it, I’d say it was the strings. Normally I’m a sucker for strings, but not here for some reason and this holds true for string arrangements across the entire thing. The record already feels like it’s losing direction. That said, I’m softer on it than ever before and maybe my intense listen to The Gouster has somehow made Young Americans click, because this time around I don’t hate “Win”, I’m just bothered by it.

I’ve always thought that “Fascination” was a pretty great track for the album, not a great song overall, but a near six minute bastion of hope on the first side. Still, it’s not consistent in any way, the record that is–it comes off as supremely fragmented already. The song is good, but in the back of your mind, part of you is wondering “Where the fuck is Bowie going with this.” The song would have been great after “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” for a further alternate lineup and it was a part of those sessions. Here it’s a song that tries to help save an otherwise failing side. It ends with “Right” which, after hearing the earlier version, is at least more interesting. Here the song is just all right, it’s great to end the side with at least, but it lacks something…it’s smoother, more loungey and a little more creepy. Still, I wasn’t feeling the normal level of hatred I had for the album and I was thinking The Gouster had finally freed me from a block.

Just as I was beginning to think that I could appreciate Young Americans with a more informed perspective and ear, I got kicked right in the teeth. It’s called side two and it’s a tragedy. After hearing the version of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” on The Gouster this version falls pretty much flat on its face and seems to almost lampoon itself as a song. Thank heavens the sax is still there. Bowie’s backing vocals are completely ridiculous. It’s not a complete disaster, but once again it just makes it feel like the album is all over the place. There seems to be no real focus. The true thing that ruins the album though is what is possibly one of the worst covers of all time. “Across The Universe” gets me incredibly uneasy and makes my stomach queasy to be honest. There are some fine moments in it, but there are far too many cringe worthy moments for that to matter. Not unlike the side opener of “Somebody Up There…”, “Can You Hear Me” just seems forced, laborious and unevenly over the top. The version found on The Gouster feels authentic, but then, this was supposed to be “plastic soul”, so I guess the formless fashion won the day. “Fame” is the only good thing about the second half of this album and it’s the only thing that gets you through the first three tracks found here. It’s a great fucking song. Everyone knows that. Flawless disco Bowie style. Aces. Buried at the fucking end of his lamest side ever. That’s a shame, but it didn’t feature on The Gouster so that’s one small win for Young Americans. Would have just been a one off single any way. Still it’s too much, too late and it feels like, an afterthought, like “Hey, here’s another single, sorry about the last six songs.”

So why did Bowie go with Young Americans instead of The Gouster? Well, for one thing “Fame” is an amazing song, beyond that it must have been something else. Perhaps, he was so desperate to kill off Ziggy that he needed a complete disconnect and something of a wreck of an album to do that. David Live had already begun that transformation, with a show that had more in common with Bertold Brecht than the Spiders From Mars and a look of a fading Ziggy, being replaced. The perceived artistic failure of Young Americans led directly to the genius of the album that would follow. Perhaps, because The Gouster began with “John…” the connection was still there, and that would never do, because when would it stop? It’s difficult to say. It also makes one wonder what happened to songs like “Shilling The Rube,” “I Am A Laser” and “After Today”, the first two which have never seen release, the latter lost as an exclusive track on a 1990 box set. There is no mention of them on The Gouster, though “After Today” would have been a lovely fit as well.

In retrospect The Gouster is the finer album, while Young Americans is so wildly uneven it causes discomfort to listen to it all the way through. I don’t cringe at a single moment in The Gouster, but even with a more appreciative listen I’ve ever had with Young Americans I still cringe at some point in four out of the eight songs. That says something. Young Americans is the wacky cartoon version of The Gouster and maybe that’s what Bowie wanted. The Gouster is magnificent, cohesive, consistent and lively, with stunning vocal takes. While Young Americans can certainly be appreciated on many levels, it fails because it’s disjointed, uneven, boring and features a few of Bowie’s worst vocals ever recorded. Young Americans has always been viewed as a transitional record, but it’s failing is that it changes direction on itself, within itself, it’s a transitional record that changes course so many times it’s a labor to follow. The Gouster was a transitional record that seemed to capture a mood and a form of music perfectly. Maybe he just had to fall that hard into his own indulgence to rise up to create Station To Station, or maybe, he should have just stayed in Philadelphia. In this case, maybe it was the side effects of the cocaine, because it sure wasn’t love.


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