In 1973, days after completing work on the Pin Ups album, a collection of cover versions which officially marked the end of the Ziggy Stardust period, David Bowie set about the arduous task of creating a West End musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Several songs were written for this adventurous outing but when George Orwell’s widow refused him the rights, Bowie found himself with a set of material heavily influenced by the apocalyptic totalitarian themes of Nineteen Eighty Four and nothing to do with them. This inspired Bowie to create his own nightmarish environment, Hunger City and the Diamond Dogs (1974) album was born.
Along with the obvious Orwellian influence, the first side of Diamond Dogs is also influenced by the cut up techniques of William Burroughs in Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise) and by A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess in the droog-like “Dogs” and in the resemblance of the Halloween Jack character to A Clockwork Orange’s lead character, Alex. The writing style on the album is also reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic dysptopian feel of a number of works by JG Ballard, such as Crash (1973) and High Rise (1975). Much of the second side of the resulting album focused purely on the songs which Bowie had written for his unrealised Nineteen Eighty-Four project: We Are The Dead, 1984 and Big Brother. Several other songs were written based around the Nineteen Eighty-Four theme, notably Dodo (AKA You Didn’t Hear It From Me). Dodo was performed as part of a medley with 1984 from the then to be released Diamond Dogs album for Midnight Special on US TV in October 1973. This performance of 1984 / Dodo is notable as it was a duet with Marianne Faithfull, who elected to wear a nun’s habit slashed at the back showing her derriere.
The song 1984 became the centrepiece of the second side of Diamond Dogs album and in the context of Bowie’s interpretation of the Nineteen Eighty-Four, is thought to represent the imprisonment of Winston Smith and his interrogation by O’Brien. The lyrics bear a passing resemblance to the earlier All The Madmen from The Man Who Sold The World (1970), with both songs being about incarceration. For example, in All The Madmen, Bowie sings “Day after day, they take some brain away” and in 1984, he sings “They’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air”. There are a number of other Bowie songs which involve the theme of incarceration, see also The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud (from Space Oddity, 1969) and Scream Like A Baby (from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980). The theme of incarceration in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of obvious interest to Bowie, having already written around the same theme several times previously. His interest in the theme may come from his Half-Brother Terry Burns’ incarceration in various mental health institutions and his family’s various battles with mental illness.
With it’s Orwell inspired lyrics coupled with the disco-funk feel of the music, obviously inspired by Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft (1971), 1984 is the strongest cut of all the songs Bowie wrote for his Nineteen Eighty-Four project. Musically, the song was an indication of what to expect from Bowie’s ‘plastic soul’ period. Of the other songs specifically written for the aborted Nineteen Eighty-Four Project, the dark and eerie sounding We Are The Dead takes it’s title from a line spoken by Winston Smith to his girlfriend, Julia, before their imprisonment by the Thought Police and finds the characters worrying of repercussions following their illicit affair and the insistent and slightly unnerving Big Brother is based upon the character in Orwell’s book, returning Bowie to the idea of the “Super God” or “Homo Superior” featured in earlier songs such as The Supermen from The Man Who Sold The World (1970) and Oh! You Pretty Things from Hunky Dory (1971). Bowie’s fascination with supermen, whether in terms of his alter-egos, mythical figures, legend, philosophy (mainly due to his interest in Nietzsche, see particularly The Supermen) or novels would eventually culminate in Bowie’s flirtation with Nazism two years later. 1984 shows Bowie’s obsession with power and absolute control as well as those affected by it. He also shows fascination for the schizophrenic manner in which its abuses are encouraged.
On Diamond Dogs, Bowie makes the most of Orwell’s widow’s reluctance to allow his musical based on Nineteen Eighty Four by using Orwell’s concept of dystopian post-apocalyptic hell to create his own nightmarish vision. Whilst obviously showing direct lyrical homage by Nineteen Eighteen Four, Bowie’s song 1984, together with it’s We Are The Dead and Big Brother counterparts, also follows the themes in Bowie’s own work. Just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was evocative of the post World War Two era in which it was written, 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album as a whole is evocative of the time in which it was written. In the UK, it was an era one of three day weeks, power cuts, price hikes, food shortages and threat of IRA attacks. The apocalypse that Bowie spoke of earlier songs such as Five Years seemed to be coming to pass. For the previous few years, Bowie had also strongly believed that World War Three was imminent, as suggested on Aladdin Sane (1973) where “(1913 – 1938 – ?)” followed the title. The first two years refer to the years before the two World Wars broke out and finds Bowie questioning when the Third World War will start. History is pointing in one direction, it is there in the tea leaves and it is there on TV: “Beware the savage jaw of 1984”.