Mojo SEPTEMBER 2016 - by Chris O'Leary


This autumn's Bowie box set will feature The Gouster: a recreation of the "lost" 1974 album that would morph into Young Americans. Chris O'Leary chronicles its baby steps.

Young Americans is being reissued this fall under a new name, The Gouster, and with a different tracklist. It's apt for an LP fluid even by Bowie's standards. The Young Americans that arrived in record stores in March 1975 was very different from the album Bowie originally envisioned and had started recording the summer before, at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia.

The album was upended by the last-minute addition of two January 1975 New York recordings with John Lennon: Fame and Across The Universe. ("That was terrible," Young Americans co-producer Tony Visconti says of the latter. "Even Lennon told me, 'I don't know why he wanted to do that - it's one of the worst songs I've ever written.'") But even the late 1974 edition of The Gouster, the album Visconti was scoring in London while Bowie was cutting new tracks with Lennon, was itself quite different from the scrappy initial Sigma Sound sessions.

You can hear a first draft of Young Americans in studio tapes of the first days of the sessions, August 13 and 14, 1974. These are part of the Sigma Sound Studios Collection of Drexel University's Audio Archives, which are stored in an unassuming-looking building close to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Drexel acquired them when it inherited a six-thousand-five-hundred-tape haul from the shuttered Sigma Sound, which had closed in 2003.

These tapes document Bowie working his band into new, half-formed compositions.The mood is loose, open, with little ornamentation and the occasional flub. The band's a compact unit taking up barely half the sixteen available tracks - Carlos Alomar on guitar, Mike Garson on piano and Fender Rhodes, Willie Weeks (bass) and Andy Newmark (drums). The saxophonist David Sanborn is there as well, nosing in midway through takes, likely still learning the songs. The trio of Luther Vandross, Robin Clark and Ava Cherry, while present, aren't singing their backing vocals yet, though Drexel has a wonderful vocal rehearsal tape on which you can hear Vandross working the other singers like a drill sergeant.

For a while, Bowie had been toying with the idea of producing female singers, first Lulu, with whom he envisioned cutting a "soul" record in Memphis or Philadelphia, á la Dusty Springfield. Lulu's lead-off single would have been Bowie's Can You Hear Me?, of which she recorded a version in early 1974 (the New York session for the single was where Bowie first met Carlos Alomar). It's a huge missing piece of the Young Americans puzzle (Lulu said she met Bowie backstage years later and he told her, 'I have those songs, I have to get them to you," yet never did). What did the Lulu Can You Hear Me? sound like? How lush and elaborate was its arrangement? Bowie soon reclaimed the song for himself, cutting gorgeous, spare takes of Can You Hear Me? on both August 13 and 14 at Sigma.

Then came Ava Cherry, Bowie's paramour at the time. Bowie had formed for her The Astronettes, a vocal trio with his schoolfriend Geoff MacCormack and an American singer, Jason Guess. These Latin and R&B-inspired sessions, recorded while Bowie was also cutting Diamond Dogs, were essentially an early rehearsal for Young Americans and Bowie replicated their set-up in Philly - three-part harmony vocals, prominent bass and drums, saxophone, the always-adaptable Mike Garson on piano, organ and synthesizer. What had been missing in London was proper American funk, which Bowie located in New York with Alomar. Scouting out Sigma Sound as a possible studio for Cherry, Bowie was captivated by the musicians there and soon enough booked session time for himself.

From these sketches, Bowie began to fashion a new identity, the'gouster' of the album's working title. This was a stage gangster whose dress - baggy pants, braces, necktie, fedora - was owed in part to Cherry's father, a jazz musician in '40s Chicago, who donated some of his old suits and silk neckties to thecause.

Bowie rewrote I Am a Lazer, a song he'd composed for Cherry and The Astronettes, as his gouster's theme song. In the Astronettes version, Cherry is "black Barbarella", threatening to roast some poor guy "like a turkey". But in Philadelphia, on August 13, Bowie unveiled his revision (entitled simply "Lazer" on the tape box). Over a rolling Professor Longhair-esque piano line by Garson, Bowie begins: "Let's hear it for the gouster," moving up on the last word. "Baggy pants and a watch chain." He's posing in the mirror, trying on his duds, switching hairstyles: "Dogtooth or paisley? / Processed or straight?" Cherry's Barbarella character is now his gun moll, with "razor blades in her bra", but he's the star. "I... am... a... laser!" he bellows in the refrain. "Burning through your eyes!" (He would later recycle the melody for 1980's Scream Like A Baby.)

The early Sigma tapes disclose another songwriting influence. Onstage in Philadelphia that summer, he'd sung the Ohio Players' Here Today And Gone Tomorrow, in which a woman blows through town like a sailor, gets the singer hooked, leaves him behind. A similar scenario is laid out in two major songs of the first Sigma sessions: It's Gonna Be Me and Shilling The Rubes.

It's Gonna Be Me - an extraordinary song first unveiled as a bonus track on Ryko's 1991 reissue of Young Americans - is now officially restored to its centrepiece status on The Gouster. "Oh yeah, that's one of the best things," Visconti tells Mojo. "I think he left it off because... well, I don't know the story but he said it was just too personal. He didn't want to live with that song on that album, coming back to haunt him." Multiple takes on the Sigma tapes find Bowie trying to make the song cohere, with the band moving at a somnolent tempo as he works out a lengthy, often-frank lyric ("I balled just another young girl last night"). And the still-unreleased Shilling The Rubes is the female take on the same old story - the voice of someone who's left to "weep over the breakfast tray" - while the verses' carny imagery ("it's only a Ferris wheel... ringmaster, cannonball") play to Bowie's growing interest in the idea of the rock star as manipulative huckster, a note also struck in Who Can I Be Now?, also restored to the 'new' Gouster.

Bowie's greatest priority throughout the Young Americans sessions was that he wanted an American hit single, and he intended to keep at it until he got one. A first candidate was a disco remake of John, I'm Only Dancing ("Dancin'" on the Sigma tape boxes), a frenetic workout with Bowie free-associating lyrics: "call on doctor Jones!" "boogie down with Eddie now!" (or "Davey," depending on the take). Cut repeatedly at Sigma during 1974, a final version was slated to lead off The Gouster and appears destined to do so again.

And there's more good news for Bowie fans. Both I Am A Lazer and Shilling The Rubes will have their public debuts this September at a David Bowie conference in Lisbon. Toby Seay, who runs Drexel's Audio Archives, and the scholar/musician Leah Kardos will finally play the "lost" tapes to an audience: a fitting tribute to a restless musician who'd rip up his scripts and do retakes until (and now beyond) the end.

DAVID BOWIE: THE GOUSTER (reissue's likely tracklisting) - John, I'm Only Dancing / Somebody Up There Likes Me / It's Gonna Be Me / Who Can I Be Now? / Can You Hear Me? / Young Americans / Right