Young Americans is the ninth studio album by English musician David Bowie, released on 7 March 1975 through RCA Records. The album marked a departure from the glam rock style of Bowie's previous albums, showcasing his interest in soul and R&B music. Initial recording sessions took place in Philadelphia with producer Tony Visconti and a variety of musicians, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would become one of Bowie's most frequent collaborators, and singer Luther Vandross. Later sessions took place in New York City, including contributions from John Lennon. Bowie would label the album's sound "plastic soul".
Bowie was among the first English pop musicians of the era to overtly engage with black musical styles. The album was very successful in the US; reaching the Top 10 in the Billboard charts, with the song "Fame" hitting the number-one the same year the album was released. It was generally well-received by critics. The album has since been reissued multiple times and was remastered in 2016 as part of the Who Can I Be Now? box set.
Background and recordingBowie labeled the sound of the album "plastic soul," describing it as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey". Initial recording sessions took place in Philadelphia with producer Tony Visconti and a variety of musicians, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would become one of Bowie's most frequent collaborators, and singer Luther Vandross. Bowie drew influence from the sound of "local dance halls", which were blaring with the "lush strings, sliding hi-hat whispers, and swanky R&B rhythms of Philadelphia Soul". Later sessions took place in New York City, including contributions from John Lennon.
Beginning on 11 August 1974, during breaks in David Bowie's Diamond Dogs Tour, Young Americans was recorded by Tony Visconti primarily at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. It was agreed early on to record as much of the album as possible live, with the full band playing together, including Bowie's vocals, as a single continuous take for each song. According to Visconti, the album contains "about 85% 'live' David Bowie".
The song "Young Americans", which Bowie said was about "the predicament of two newlyweds", took two days to record. David Sanborn, at the time a session musician, is featured on saxophone.
The sessions at Sigma Sound lasted through November 1974. The recording attracted the attention of local fans, who began to wait outside the studio over the span of the sessions. Bowie built up a rapport with these fans, whom he came to refer to as the "Sigma Kids". On the final day of tracking, the Sigma Kids were invited into the studio to listen to rough versions of the new songs.
"Fascination" and "Win" were recorded at Record Plant in New York City in December 1974. Visconti then returned to London to begin mixing the album, while Bowie remained in New York. Unbeknownst to Visconti, Bowie took the opportunity to record with John Lennon in January 1975, with engineer Harry Maslin as co-producer. "Across the Universe" and "Fame" were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York in January 1975, with contributions by Lennon. They replaced previously recorded tracks "Who Can I Be Now" and "It's Gonna Be Me", which were later released as bonus tracks on reissues of the album. The guitar riff for "Fame", created by Alomar, was based on an arrangement of his for the song "Foot Stompin'" by the doo-wop band the Flairs. Bowie considered several titles for the album, including Somebody Up There Likes Me, One Damned Song, The Gouster, and Fascination.
PackagingFor the album cover artwork, Bowie initially wanted to commission Norman Rockwell to create a painting, but retracted the offer when he heard that Rockwell would need at least six months to do the job. The album's cover photo was eventually taken in Los Angeles on August 30, 1974, by Eric Stephen Jacobs. Bowie's apparent inspiration for the cover photograph came from a copy of After Dark magazine which featured another of Jacobs' photographs of Bowie's then choreographer Toni Basil.
The cover itself, as well as the cover type was designed in New York at RCA by Craig DeCamps.
Critical receptionIn a contemporary review for the Village Voice, Robert Christgau described the record "an almost total failure" and said "although the amalgam of rock and Philly soul is so thin it's interesting, it overwhelms David's voice, which is even thinner." He nonetheless appreciated Bowie's renewed "generosity of spirit to risk failure" following Diamond Dogs and David Live, which Christgau had found disappointing. Rolling Stones Jon Landau praised the title-track and thought that "the rest of the album works best when Bowie combines his renewed interest in soul with his knowledge of English pop, rather than opting entirely for one or the other."
In a retrospective review, AllMusic senior critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that Young Americans is "more enjoyable as a stylistic adventure than as a substantive record." Douglas Wolk of Pitchfork regarded it as "distinctly a transitional record," stating: "It doesn't have the mad theatrical scope of Diamond Dogs or the formal audacity of Station to Station; at times, it comes off as an artist trying very hard to demonstrate how unpredictable he is." Nevertheless, Wolk also praised the fact that "while there had already been a handful of disco hits on the pop charts, no other established rock musician had yet tried to do anything similar."
In 2013, NME ranked the album at No. 175 in its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
ReissuesThe album was first released on CD by RCA in 1984, and then by Rykodisc/EMI in 1991, with three bonus tracks. A 1999 rerelease by EMI featured 24-bit digitally remastered sound and no extra tracks. The 2007 reissue, marketed as a "Special Edition," included an accompanying DVD, containing 5.1 surround sound mixes of the album and video footage from the Dick Cavett TV show. In 2016, the album was remastered for the Who Can I Be Now? box set; the set also includes an earlier, rawer-sounding draft of the album, titled The Gouster. It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, both as part of this compilation and separately.
The 1991 and 2007 reissues featured, as bonus tracks, "Who Can I Be Now?", "John, I'm Only Dancing ", and "It's Gonna Be Me"; the latter was released in an alternate version with strings on the 2007 edition.
The 1991 reissue replaced the original versions of "Win", "Fascination" and "Right" with alternate mixes, but later reissues restored the original mixes. Another outtake, "After Today", appeared on the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, as did the alternate mix of "Fascination".
Track listingThe bonus tracks "After Today", "Who Can I Be Now?" and "It's Gonna Be Me" were outtakes from the 1974 Sigma Sound sessions in Philadelphia.
PersonnelAdapted from the Young Americans liner notes.
- David Bowie – vocals; guitar; keyboards
- Carlos Alomar – guitars
- Mike Garson – piano
- David Sanborn – saxophone
- Willie Weeks – bass guitar
- Andy Newmark – drums
- Earl Slick – guitars
- Larry Washington – conga
- Pablo Rosario – percussion on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Ava Cherry – backing vocals
- Robin Clark – backing vocals
- Luther Vandross – backing vocals, vocal arrangements
- John Lennon – vocals; guitar; backing vocals on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Emir Ksasan – bass guitar on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Dennis Davis – drums on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Ralph MacDonald – percussion on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Jean Fineberg – backing vocals on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"
- Jean Millington – backing vocals on "Across the Universe" and "Fame"