Album Reviews

The Sound of Reinvention: David Bowie – I’m Only Dancing

David Bowie – I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 1974) (Parlophone, 2020)

When David Bowie hit the road in 1974, it was with elaborate sets and a setlist heavy on Diamond Dogs, a tour captured on the so-so record David Live. But about halfway through the summer-fall tour, Bowie went to Philadelphia and recorded Young Americans, an album of blue-eyed, Philly-indebted soul. When he went back on the road, it was with different setlists, stages and vibe. The limted-edition, Record Store Day 2020 I’m Only Dancing is the first official document of this tour.

Let’s move back a little bit. Bowie’s first live album, David Live, wasn’t well-received by critics on release. Partly it was the new arrangements of familiar tunes – more R&B than the hard-edged glam rock of Ziggy Stardust – and partly from the recording itself, which left some instruments distant-sounding or needing overdubs. It sold well enough, but Bowie quickly moved on and it remained a footnote in his long career.

Since Bowie’s passing in 2016, this period has been revisited by Parlophone. There was Cracked Actor, a show from September 1974, which showed him in transition: slyly mixed into setlist were a couple new songs. The band was different, too, with an additional guitar player and a stacked group of backing singers. 

By the time he hit Detroit for the show included here on I’m Only Dancing, Bowie dropped most of the old setlist and added a handful of newly written songs: “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Young Americans.” His band was getting more familiar with songs, and Bowie was in a better frame of mind. 

Opening with ‘Rebel Rebel,” Bowie opens the show with yelps and yells, the backing vocals and David Sanborn’s sax giving it slick new vibe. They quickly segue into “John I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a re-arrangement of an older Ziggy-era single. Beefed up with a funky keyboard into, Bowie and company cut a deep groove. 

The new approach works for the slower songs, too. ‘Sorrow” is played as a slow R&B, the band playing an understand groove and giving room for Bowie and the vocalists to harmonize. Meanwhile, “Rock and Roll With Me” swells at the chorus, showing Bowie able to rise the music’s tension and captivate the listener.

The new songs, all sandwiched into the middle of the set, sound familiar to the studio versions. Maybe they’re looser, and Bowie sounds a little rushed at times, but they’re not radically different. “Can You Hear Me,” has Bowie at his soulful, ballad-singer best, while “Somebody Up There Likes Me” builds into a funky groove. One wonders what the Detroit audience made of these new-to-them songs; the crowd noise suggests a warm reception.

The set winds to a close with more familiar stuff: a light-speed “Suffragette City” where the guitars snarl and swirl; a stomping version of “Panic in Detroit,” where Bowie yelps and shouts; the slick groove of “Knock on Wood,” the set-closer for this tour, it builds to a climax of vocals, shouting and Sanborn’s sax, ending the gig on a high note. 

For an encore, there’s a couple of bonus tracks from another show a month later in Nashville. There’s a cover of an old R&B song “Foot Stomping” which the band tears through at light-speed, and “Diamond Dogs,” which builds, swells and even morphs into a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll” before switching back with Sanborn’s soaring sax and some tasty guitar from Earl Slick.

And now, the drawbacks. Likely not recorded for professional release, the Detroit show sounds like it was recorded off the soundboard. This means it’ll sound nice and clean, but the instruments that didn’t need as much mixing (i.e.: the guitars) are pushed back in the mix, while the vocals are right up in front. At times, the band sounds distant and it’s occasionally hard to make out the entire band in the mix – the same problem from David Live. Of course, this doesn’t make the album hard to listen to. It’s actually quite a warm, enjoyable listen – one wonders if the backing vocalists came through this clearly to the audience. 

By the time Bowie finished this tour in December, he’d become a radically different performer from the one who started it. Gone was the glam rock and posturing; replacing it were slower R&B grooves, funkier guitar from Carlos Alomar (who’d become an internal part of Bowie’s sound), and backing singers like Ava Cherry and Luther Vandross. The stage was set for yet another reinvention, and I’m Only Dancing captures it in it’s earliest stages. Bowie fans will eat this up.

Roz Milner

Roz Milner is a journalist at Live in Limbo. They are a freelance writer and media critic who's writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, CTV.ca, The Good Point and elsewhere. @milnerwords on Twitter.

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