This is the third post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The Monday after David Bowie died, as many people shared tributes and stories about what he had meant to them, one of my best friends, Courtney, shared a version of “Rebel Rebel” from the DVD “A Reality Tour.”
The studio version is in my top ten all time favorite songs because Courtney and I have listened to it together approximately 37 million times over the last 15 years, in various dorm rooms, in our homes, and on road trips. Thus, I never paid much attention to live versions, because I didn’t need any version of Bowie singing that song other than the version I shared with Courtney.
But this live performance won me over, in part because Bowie clapped along with the fans and encouraged them to sing with him. There seemed to a communal understanding between Bowie and the audience that he might have created this song, but his fans now owned the “Rebel Rebel” as much as he ever did. Bowie’s wide grin suggested that he was more than OK with this arrangement. It was as if he was saying, “It’s cool. Pat, Courtney, and the rest of you can have this song. I rather like it that way.”
Bowie had originally intended “Rebel Rebel” for a Ziggy Stardust musical. That never came to fruition, so he put it on his 1974 album, “Diamond Dogs.” It was a first and last for Bowie: the first hit in five years to not feature Mick Ronson on guitar and his last glam rock single. In Ronson’s absence, Bowie played guitar on “Rebel Rebel” and most of the other “Diamond Dogs” tracks himself. NME music critics later said the guitar sound had “a rocking dirty noise that owed as much to Keith Richards it did to the departed [Ronson].”
Many musicians have cited Bowie as a major influence. The debt of gratitude that musicians and artists of all kind have for Bowie was evident in several posts over the last week. That gratitude is also quite noticeable when listening to covers of any David Bowie song, particularly “Rebel Rebel.” It’s easy to think of these musicians as “others,” but they, too, were awkward teenagers just like the rest of us. That these artists are diehard David Bowie fans can explain why, on first listen, many of the covers could sound like tributes rather than reimagined versions of the songs.
Bay City Rollers covered “Rebel Rebel” for its 1977 album, “It’s A Game.” This version, like many covers of the song, retained Bowie’s riff and medley. The guitars on this version were less aggressive than Bowie’s guitars and the tempo was slightly slower, but that’s not to say this was a version for wimps. Bay City Rollers’s version included some wicked guitar solos in the style of late ’70s radio rock and background singers “ahh”-ing at all the right places. It’s a very ’70s take on the song, albeit a ’70s very different from Bowie’s.
Shaun Cassidy’s 1980 album “Wasp” was his attempt to reinvent his persona, and thus, his career. This album of mostly covers featured Todd Rundgren and his band Utopia, giving it a different sound than Cassidy’s earlier songs. The album’s cover of “Rebel Rebel” mixed the iconic Bowie riff with some Tron/Michael Sembello-sounding keyboards that gave it a fun new wave feel. The spoken word portion sounded kind of plunked in, but it’s clever if you realize Cassidy was reciting lyrics from The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” The shrill vocals throughout the track can be both jarring and amusing, depending on your mood.
A previously unreleased Joan Jett and the Blackhearts version of “Rebel Rebel” appeared on the band’s 1993 compilation, “Flashback.” The track sounded exactly like you’d expect Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ version to sound. It’s not drastically different from Bowie’s version, though the guitar sounded a smidgeon more polished and Jett shouted “Hot tramp, I love you so” as if she was warning the townsfolk of an incoming invasion.
Tegan and Sara recorded a version with Grace Nocturnal that sounded like “Rebel Rebel” karaoke. This is not a bad thing, at all. “Rebel Rebel” is so good as is that there’s no need, per se, to rework anything about it. The music and arrangement didn’t need to change, so they left it as it was. It sounded like the version we had heard before, but it by no means should be disregarded. Tegan and Sara tracks are worth checking out for the vocals alone, but this track especially is a good collaboration, showing the strengths of the Quin sisters and Grace Nocturnal.
Rickie Lee Jones’ take sounded softer and smaller, though just as fierce as Bowie’s version. It sounded mostly acoustic, save for a few key parts with subtle electric guitar. The simplification of the instruments meant didn’t make for a less rocking song, though, thanks to Jones’ guitar style that blended folky licks with bluesy swagger. Her sweet voice — intimating a vulnerability while also sounding tough — captured the essence of the song.
Seu Jorge recorded Portuguese versions of David Bowie songsfor the soundtrack for the film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” The stripped down version of “Rebel Rebel” was tinged with the samba sound Jorge helped revive in his native Brazil. Jorge’s voice came out like a whisper, giving the song a lullaby-like feel. It was a feel approved of by Bowie, who said, “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”
Virginia band Clare Quilty recorded a slowed down trip-hop version of “Rebel Rebel” for its 2003 LP, “Face The Strange.” The Bowie riff was there, but it was at half the speed we’re used to and sounded like it had been put through the audio equivalent of a fisheye lens. The persistant dreambeat was reminiscent of The Lightning Seeds’ version of “You Showed Me” while the hissing squeaks sounded like Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground.”
The Dead or Alive cover reimagined “Rebel Rebel” as Hi-NRG synthpop dance song. Dead or Alive’s androgynous image was heavily influenced by Bowie’s glam period, so it was appropriate for them to cover his anthem about defying gender norms. Pete Burns’ somewhat abrasive and guttural vocal style fit in with the overall feel of Dead or Alive’s “Nukleopatra” album, which was less poppy and more noisy than any of the bands ’80s albums. Burns’ enthusiastic vocals and grunts throughout the song would sound over the top if they didn’t evoke the image of a fanboy who couldn’t contain his excitement and gratitude.
Bowie himself played with the song after the 1974 version was released. The US single released that year was different from the UK version. In 2003, he recorded the song with a new arrangement and took out the reference to quaaludes. A mashup of “Rebel Rebel” and Bowie’s song “Never Gets Old” was released as a single in 2004.
That Bowie’s song celebrating youth defying gender norms became a US Billboard hit was — and still is — noteworthy. This country has made huge strides in making LGBTQ people feel safer and more welcome, but one only need to look at the Twitter backlash against Caitlyn Jenner to see that we still have work to do. But “Rebel Rebel” didn’t come out in this modern era, where we have politicians who support marriage rights for same-sex couples, TV shows and movies depicting people in the LGBTQ community, straight people overlaying their Facebook avatars with rainbows, men wearing “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts, and people of all orientations binging “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Back then, Bowie helped LGBTQ people, particularly gender non-conforming individuals, at a time when no one else could. He was their PFLAG. He was their gay-straight alliance. He was their “It Gets Better” project. Back then, an ally like Bowie would have been the exception, not the rule. And that’s why Bowie and a song defying gender norms were so necessary.