Released: March 1975
Chart Peak: #9
Weeks Charted: 50
Certified Gold: 7/2/75
The title song of David Bowie's Young Americans is one of his handful of classics, a bizarre mixture of social comment, run-on lyric style, English pop and American soul. The band plays great and Tony Visconti's production is flawless -- just a touch of old-fashioned slap-back echo to give the tracks some added mystery. The rest of the album works best when Bowie combines his knowledge of English pop, rather than opting entirely for one or the other. Thus, "Win," one of his best pop ballads, makes great use of an R&B chorus; it works much better than the straight James Brown impersonation "Right." He does a plaintive version of John Lennon's "Across the Universe," while "Fame" and "Fascination," besides being complementary titles, continue his merger of styles on a positive note.
As for Bowie's growth as an artist, the highlight of the album comes when he stops the band and asks, "Isn't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" With any other pop singer in the world, you'd know that he or she wanted to be taken seriously. With Bowie, you just believe that he half does and half just says what he thinks he's supposed to. Which isn't bad, but only the way it is.
- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 5-22-75.
I am neither pro nor con Bowie, so I am happily out of the controversy that surrounds him. I understand he puts on a pretty good stage show that has miraculous effects on people, largely raised on television, who do not know what a stage show is and are liable to be impressed by anything surpassing a high-school graduation ceremony.
Whatever Bowie does on stage, and no matter how skillfully, it cannot and does not carry over to recordings. He comes off flat and pedestrian with his overfed, underpowered vocals and lyrics filled with incomprehensible blah. Some of his early albums were loony and funny, but he is now apparently taking himself seriously and it just doesn't work. Almost all of this album is pale and unprofitable, with the exception of his rendering of John Lennon's wonderful "Across the Universe," outstanding because of the way he butchers the tune. Participating in the desecration, doubtless in the belief that he is doing something to salve his indulgently tortured psyche, is that poor fool Lennon, who has been living off his former accomplishments these last five years in the hope that he will destroy his reputation. Much more like this and he'll have finally pulled it off.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 7/75.
- Billboard, 1975.
It's just another passing phase for the Bowie kid, but you've got to admit his contribution to the soul age is an admirable one. Now the incredible Average White Band have a pale-haired Britisher hot on their trails, out to prove that Londoners can be as soulful as the Scots.
As good as the vocals on "Young Americans" are, the rest of the album sounds as if it's running at a slightly distorted speed. Leave one of your older Bowie LPs on the steam heat, then put it on the turntable and you'll see what I mean. It's not a pleasant distortion at all. It is most annoying on "Win," a song that could have been as impressive as "Sweet Thing" from Diamond Dogs.
The majority of this album was recorded at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, home of the East Coast Soul Sound. The strangest thing is that the most successful and the most soulful track on the album, "Fame," was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan. Written by Bowie and a new collaborator named John Lennon plus Carlos Alomar, it sounds very much like the Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces." Once you've heard it, it sticks with you and while you listen to it, it's really quite difficult to stay still.
But back to those distorted vocals. The second worst track on the album is "Across The Universe," that classic tune from the Beatles' Let It Be album. Usually I love the way Bowie interprets other people's material, but this is just hideous. Even Lennon standing at his side playing guitar was not enough to intimidate him into a better performance.
On the whole this is a very successful experiment for David Bowie. It is certainly much better than many of his other experiments. If fact, if he does decide to stay with this for more than one album I imagine he will become quite excellent at it. (Of course the progressive world will suffer the loss of a major creative force if he does fall into the Top 40 soul music format.)
- Janis Schacht, Circus, 6-75.
David Bowie issued seven albums in a 37 month period during the seventies, more prolific than Stevie Wonder and just slightly less so than Elton John, the other two speed demons of the early and mid-decade. Two of Bowie's efforts from his 1973-76 spurt, David Live and Young Americans, were products of his soul-boy phase. There is near unanimity that the latter studio set was superior to the concert record.
Made in America featuring star American sessionmen, Young Americans did something no previous Bowie effort had done -- it sired a single that did better in the States than at home in Britain. "Fame," written by John Lennon and Carlos Alomar and recorded with Lennon, was a US number one, his first Top 10 hit in the Home of the Brave. It was so popular it even came back to the top spot, leading before and after John Denver's "I'm Sorry." The instrumental hook of the song is clearly derived from James Brown's "Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)," but that did not make it any less effective.
"Young Americans" was one of the few hit singles to name an American president. Nonetheless, it was not alone in citing Richard Nixon. He had previously been beseeched ("Wonderful World, Beautiful People" by Jimmy Cliff) and besmirched ("Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).
Luther Vandross loaned vocal backing and a song to the set. His "Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)" metamorphosed into "Fascination."
In 1987, Young Americans was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #72 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
After the total alientation of Diamond Dogs and the total ripoff of David Live, I'm pleased with Bowie's renewed generosity of spirit -- he takes pains to simulate compassion and risks failure simply by moving on. His reward is two successes: the title tune, in which pain stimulates compassion, and (Bowie-Lennon-Alomar's) "Fame," which rhymes with pain and makes you believe it. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Springing back to scotch rumors of his declining inspiration, Bowie surprised everyone by turning to blue-eyed soul in this strongly Philadelphia sound-influenced set. Indeed most of the recording work was done at Sigma Sound, the "home" of the "Philly-sound." The title track is a classic and rocketed up the singles charts to be followed by the Lennon/Bowie track "Fame." John Lennon also gave Bowie's astonishing cover of The Beatles' "Across the Universe" a touch of brilliant authority by providing the "original" guitar solo (this as "Fame" were recored in New York for Lennon's convenience).
Compact Disc sound captures the echoing space, understated guitar and swirling sax to perfection, giving the sound the very room to grow in which was lacking on vinyl. The gently distant timpani and string backing to "Can You Hear Me" works exceptionally well from CD.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
Bowie affects Philly Soul and a hodgepodge of other things. Ace sidemen can't save this spotty album, but the title track and "Fame" (co-written by John Lennon) became worldwide hits. * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
On Young Americans, Bowie delves into soul grooves, with dazzling results. It includes such sensuous groovers as the title track and "Fame." * * * *
- Aidin Vaziri, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Released in March 1975, Young Americans represents the zenith of David Bowie's flat-pack soul period. A frequently overlooked record, it nestles in the valley between the twin peaks of Ziggy Stardust and Berlin.
While on tour in America in 1974, Bowie was seduced by black American music, and subsequently called his producer, Tony Visconti, to fly over from England to make a quick and dirty soul album. For his backing band, Bowie used a hybrid of his touring players, experienced sessioneers (such as bass legend Willie Weeks), and talented newcomers (guitarist Carlos Alomar and singer Luther Vandross).
Written mainly in the studio, the album shimmers in its limpid exuberance. From the ostensible banality of "Right" to the plaintive cry of "Can You Hear Me," there is much to savor. The powder-white aggression of "Fame" -- recorded after the body of the album with Bowie's new best friend, John Lennon -- is like a song version of Bowie's BBC documentary, Cracked Actor.
The cover art reinforced Bowie's new authenticity and apparent accessibility. Gone was the stylized androgyny; here he was, looking straight at the camera, cigarette smoke crumpling skyward, a straight portrait shot suggestive of several decades earlier. Even the album's title clearly pointed to its target audience. Although Bowie has since enjoyed a schizophrenic relationship with the record, and was to spend most of the rest of the 1970s courting the Old World, Young Americans made him a superstar in America.
- Daryl Easlea, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
(Special Edition CD + DVD) "Young Americans" is easy to overlook, since David Bowie did most of these robot-soul space-funk tricks better two years later on Station to Station. But it broke him in the U.S., building on the Philly R&B style, with a young Luther Vandross debuting on background vocals. "Win," "Right" and "Fascination" are cult faves, while the disco-fused John Lennon duet on "Fame" jolted both men's careers. The title song might be Bowie's best ever, with the rhythm inspiring his most passionate (and compassionate) love letter to his fans. Outtakes include "It's Gonna Be Me" and "Who Can I Be Now," two great gospel tracks cut at the last minute to make room for Lennon. But the prize rarity is DVD footage of Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, all coke psychosis and shoulder pads. He sniffles, twitches, twirls his princely walking stick and generally makes a drug-addled ass of himself. Ah, fame. * * * *
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 6/28/07.
Bowie high-tailed it to Philadelphia to make a state-of-the-art R&B album. He called it "plastic soul," but he sounds downright sincere, especially in the Stevie Wonder sunshine vibe of "Win."
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 8/25/16.
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