David Bowie Dreamed of Turning George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musical: Hear the Songs That Survived the Abandoned Project

David Bowie’s 1974 album Dia­mond Dogs intro­duced a new hodge­podge of musi­cal styles: “The music,” writes Nicholas Pegg, “was a four-way tus­sle between the reced­ing sounds of glam, the ris­ing influ­ence of black soul, the syn­the­sized night­mares of The Man Who Sold the World, and the ubiq­ui­tous rock’n’roll swag­ger of Jag­ger.” With its echoes of A Clock­work Orange and William S. Bur­roughs’ The Wild Boys, Bowie called the songs on the album part of a “glit­ter apoc­a­lypse” and described its con­cep­tu­al sce­nario as “the break­down of a city… a dis­af­fect­ed youth that no longer had home-unit sit­u­a­tions, but lived as gangs on roofs and real­ly had the city to them­selves.” His “frag­ment­ed lyrics and the por­trait of urban America’s sor­did melt­down,” writes Pegg, “were clear­ly indebt­ed to Bur­roughs.”

This was a mode in step with the late sixties/early 70s deca­dent ethos (and a con­cept antic­i­pat­ing lat­er cult films like The War­riors and Escape from New York.) And yet, far from soci­etal decay, one of Bowie’s orig­i­nal visions for the project was an adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s nov­el of total­i­tar­i­an social con­trol, 1984. Dia­mond Dogs may work as a con­cept album in an oblique sort of way, but it came togeth­er, writes Bowie blog Push­ing Ahead of the Dame, as “a sal­vage job, a com­pi­la­tion of scraps from still­born Bowie projects.” In addi­tion to the “urban melt­down” sto­ry, an abort­ed Zig­gy Star­dust musi­cal pro­duced two of Dia­mond Dogs’ songs, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock’n’Roll With Me.” And Bowie’s for­ay into Orwell gave us “We Are the Dead,” “Big Broth­er,” and, of course, the Isaac Hayes-crib­bing “1984.” (Hear the album ver­sion below and an ear­li­er ver­sion at the top of the post, with a few more Orwellian lyrics and joined with an ear­li­er song, “Dodo.”)

Per­haps his first pub­lic men­tion of the project came as “almost an aside,” notes Pegg, when he casu­al­ly men­tioned in a Rolling Stone inter­view with Bur­roughs, “I’m doing Orwell’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four on tele­vi­sion.” At first, the project had a much more ambi­tious scope. Chriso­pher Sand­ford describes Bowie’s planned adap­ta­tion as “a West End musi­cal, with an accom­pa­ny­ing album and film, lit­tle of which ever hap­pened.” Orwell’s wid­ow and execu­tor of his estate, Sonia Brownell con­sid­ered the project in poor taste and refused him the rights to the nov­el. (Her death in 1980 allowed direc­tor Michael Rad­ford to make his film ver­sion, and the Eury­th­mics to record their con­test­ed sound­track album.)

What sur­vives are the songs—as well as the visions of Orwell and Bur­roughs that con­tin­ued to res­onate in Bowie’s work. The mash-up of musi­cal styles and polit­i­cal con­cepts in Dia­mond Dogs sig­nals a kind of con­fu­sion of Bowie’s own politics—or those of his com­pet­ing personae—which his lat­er albums dogged­ly pur­sue.

On the one hand, Dia­mond Dogs sees Bowie hang­ing on to the role of alien dandy Zig­gy Star­dust. He had also embraced the avant-garde para­noia of Bur­roughs’ mag­i­cal belief sys­tem and Orwell’s night­mare of insti­tu­tion­al con­trol and sur­veil­lance. Odd­ly pulling these ten­den­cies togeth­er was the soul music that emerged ful­ly-fledged on Young Amer­i­cans. When it came to Orwell, “what fas­ci­nat­ed Bowie,” writes Push­ing Ahead of the Dame, “what was arguably the only thing that tru­ly inter­est­ed him in the mid-‘70s, was pow­er, and the schiz­o­phrenic man­ner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encour­ages its abus­es.”

For a time, as Bowie moved into his Berlin phase, the fas­ci­na­tion with pow­er dom­i­nat­ed his aes­thet­ic, such that he got a lit­tle too car­ried away with his Thin White Duke char­ac­ter’s flir­ta­tions with fas­cism. (“By 1979,” writes Stereo Williams, “Bowie had dropped the Duke image and referred to it as ‘a nasty char­ac­ter for me.’”) But the theme of “dou­ble-thought,” the fas­ci­na­tion with Orwellian dystopias, and the influ­ence of Bur­roughs’ para­noia and cut-up tech­nique sur­vived the death of both the Thin White Duke and of Zig­gy, the inter­stel­lar flâneur.

Twen­ty years after Dia­mond Dogs, strains of Orwell and Bur­roughs came togeth­er in Bowie’s dystopi­an epic Out­side, whose lyrics, writes Sand­ford, “were sub­ject­ed to a spin in his com­put­er, indus­tri­al­iz­ing the tech­nique once lim­it­ed to scis­sors and paste.” Orwellian themes crop up again in oth­er lat­er Bowie con­cept albums, and in a way, he con­tin­ued to adapt the nov­el long after the lit­er­ary exper­i­ments on Dia­mond Dogs, only in cut-up fash­ion rather than as glam musi­cal the­ater.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie’s Music Video “Jump They Say” Pays Trib­ute to Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphav­ille, Welles’ The Tri­al & Kubrick’s 2001

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Pro­duc­tion in Lon­don

How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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