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Today in Music History: Bowie Starts Recording at Sigma Sound

August 11, 2011 by in Journalism

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The AV Club, August 11, 2011. (No longer on their website after a website overhaul that eliminated all local interest content. It can be resurrected through the Wayback Machine.)

For a Bromley boy, alien immigrant, and Goblin King, David Bowie sure does like Philadelphia. We already paid tribute to him in July for the recording of David Live—the musical wake at the end of his skeleton-march Diamond Dogs tour—at the Tower Theater. But Bowie, a quick-change artist cycling from alien trans-ient to Soul Train conductor in one record spin, transformed so radically in the ’70s that we don’t feel we’re repeating ourselves by mentioning him again. The Bowie who croaked and rattled through David Live was hardly the Bowie who arrived at Philly’s Sigma Sound on Aug. 11, 1974 to record the songs that would become Young Americans.

He was still otherworldly, flame-haired, and strung out into another universe, though not yet down the rabbit hole of pool exorcisms and urine preservation. He’d tired of the apocalyptic mythology, cut-up lyrics, and spandex jumpsuits of his previous rock incarnations—Ziggy Stardust, his American cousin Aladdin Sane, and their Orwellian friend Halloween Jack. At Sigma Sound Studios at 12th and Race, the studio of Gamble and Huff’s then-current Philadelphia Soul, Bowie would fashion himself a new sound and a new persona to go with it: the palest black man in town.

His entourage, including self-identified “bisexual alley cat” Angie Bowie and their kookily named son Zowie, holed up in Rittenhouse’s decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll Barclay Hotel for two weeks during the recording. Bowie would produce meticulous, coke-anxious arrangements during the day, then head to the studio at dusk to record at night, as he once heard Frank Sinatra did.

But the music emerging from the second floor of Sigma Sound wasn’t like anything Ol’ Blue Eyes—or even Bowie himself—had ever produced. Abandoning his previous influences (space exploration, Andy Warhol, 1984, garden gnomes), Bowie looked to local dance halls. Particularly influential were Gamble and Huff, whose Philadelphia International Records launched an assault against Berry Gordy and Motown in the ’70s with the lush strings, sliding hi-hat whispers, and swanky R&B rhythms of Philadelphia Soul—a genre that would later, with a jolt of electricity and spin of a mirror ball, become disco.

But first Bowie had to run the genre through his slick production machine, adding artifice and self-consciousness. Young Americans embraces its own falsity; Bowie seemed to be out to reclaim the term “plastic soul,” a term thought to have originally been coined by a black musician to describe the way Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones co-opted the African-American musical tradition. As Bowie himself reflected on Young Americans in 1976, “It’s the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.”

To produce this soulless soul, old Diamond Dogs—including Mike Garson, the force behind Aladdin Sane’s cabaret-earthquake piano lines; and Ava Cherry, bombshell and Bowie mistress—joined forces with new recruits, including Carlos Alomar on guitar and a velvet-voiced crooner named Luther Vandross. (Spy a young Vandross singing backup for Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show below).

The resulting album is quintessentially American, perhaps all the more American for its imitations and datedness. References to Richard Nixon timestamp it in August 1974 (Tricky Dick resigned just two days before recording began), while a suburban montage of refrigerator romances and picture windows onto life rolls past. “Do you remember your President Nixon?” Bowie asks in the title song. “Do you remember the bills you have to pay? Or even yesterday?” This cheerful amnesia is a national trait as much as the blues rhythms he co-opts.

Bowie himself would quickly forget Young Americans, with memories of its production smudged out by drug use and its slick soul better performed on 1976’s jittery Station To Station. But Philly and Sigma Sound haven’t forgotten the skinny white boy who was their surrogate son in the summer of ’74.

Bowie’s brief soul detour did yield one lasting truth, however: His 1975 appearance on Soul Train, below, proves once and for all that dude can’t dance. (Lauren Smith)

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