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Bowie and Orwell's Big Brothers

The track list for David Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs offers a couple obvious clues about one source of inspiration: song titles include both “1984” and “Big Brother.”


Side one

  1. "Future Legend" – 0:58

  2. "Diamond Dogs" – 5:56

  3. "Sweet Thing" – 3:37

  4. "Candidate" – 2:39

  5. "Sweet Thing (Reprise)" – 2:31

  6. "Rebel Rebel" – 4:30

Side two

  1. "Rock 'n' Roll with Me" – 3:57

  2. "We Are the Dead" – 4:58

  3. "1984" – 3:27

  4. "Big Brother" – 3:21

  5. "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family" – 1:58


But Bowie didn’t just want to use themes from George Orwell’s 1984 on the record.

He initially hoped to turn the 1949 dystopian classic into a full-fledged musical of its own.


According to Christopher Sandford’s biography Bowie: Loving the Alien, the adaptation would've been “a West End musical, with an accompanying album and film.” But in a Rolling Stone interview with William S. Burroughs from February 1974—just months before the release of Diamond Dogs—Bowie himself mentioned he was “doing Orwell’s 1984 on television.” But thanks to Orwell’s widow, Sonia, the musical never progressed past the incubation stage.


“My office approached Mrs. Orwell, because I said, ‘Office, I want to do 1984 as a musical, go get me the rights,’” Bowie explained in 1993, “and they duly trooped off to see Mrs. Orwell, who in so many words said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your gourd, do you think I’m turning this over to that as a musical?’ So, they came back and said, ‘Sorry, David, you can’t write it.’”


Since Bowie had already started “putting bits of it down” in the studio, the surprise rejection forced him to pivot quickly. His ill-fated musical became a concept album with Orwellian overtones. Though Sonia Orwell passed away in 1980, Bowie never resurrected his original plans for her husband’s harrowing tale.


As was typical of Bowie, sound was preceded by vision. On Diamond Dogs, the extraterrestrial messiah that was Ziggy is gone and we encounter Bowie as half-man, half-dog.



Musically, the album creates a tension between dark and light, sinister, yet seductive.  Positioned somewhere between glam rock (or in Bowie’s case art rock), soul/funk and the soon-to-arrive punk, Diamond Dogs is a transitional album. Bowie was always on the move.


Diamond Dogs features multiple tracks that bear direct influence from Orwell’s novel. Beginning with the opener ‘Future Legend’, Bowie introduces us to “Hunger City”, his own version of dystopia, where people are compared to “packs of dogs.” Although many of these lines are inspired by words from Burrough’s Naked Lunch, the image he paints is distinctively Orwellian.


And in the death

As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy

Thoroughfare

The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building

High on Poacher's Hill

And red, mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City

No more big wheels

Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats

And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes

Coverting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers

Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue

Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now legwarmers

Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald

Any day now

The Year of the Diamond Dogs

This ain't Rock'n'Roll

This is Genocide


However, there are three tracks on side two in which Bowie explicitly references Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘We Are the Dead’ is named after a line from the book, which was most likely inspired by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae (1915).


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.



1984


Someday they won't let you, now you must _________

The times they are a-telling, and the changing isn't _________

You've read it in the tea leaves, and the tracks are on TV

Beware the savage jaw

Of 1984


They'll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of _________

And tell that you're 80, but, brother, you won't _________

You'll be shooting up on anything, _________'s never there

Beware the savage jaw

Of 1984


Come see, come see, remember me?

We played out an all-night _________ role

You said it would last, but I guess we enrolled

In 1984 (Who could ask for more?)

1984 (Who could ask for mo-o-o-o-ore?)


I'm looking for a _________, I'm looking for a ride

I'm looking for a _________, I'm looking for a side

I'm looking for the treason that I knew in '65

Beware the savage jaw

Of 1984


BIG BROTHER


Don't talk of dust and ________

Or should we powder our ________?

Don't live for last year's capers

Give me steel, give me steel, give me pulsars unreal

He'll build a ________ asylum

With just a hint of mayhem

He'll build a better ________

We'll be living from ________

Then we can really ________

Please saviour, saviour, show us

Hear me, I'm graphically yours

Someone to claim us, someone to ________

Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo

Someone to ________ us, someone like you

We want you, Big Brother, Big Brother

I know you think you're awful ________

But you made everyone and you've been everywhere

Lord, I'd take an ________ if you knew what's going down

[…]


Watch the 1984 Summary video and fill in the blanks with the correct word or phrase.


  1. Nineteen eighty-four is about _____________________.

  2. George Orwell wrote 1984 in the late _____________________.

  3. 1984 takes place in _____________________.

  4. The main character of 1984 is _____________________ .

  5. At the beginning of the book he starts writing a _____________________.

  6. Julia works in the same building as him. She's some kind of _____________________.

  7. Winston and Julia go to O'Brien's house and confess that they want to be _____________________.

  8. In the ministry of love they _____________________Winston in all sorts of horrible ways.

  9. Winston and Julia are basically _____________________people after they get out.

  10. The last words of the novel are 'he loved _____________________ _____________________.'


Discussion questions


  1. What does a totalitarian government try to do?

  2. What is the London in the book like?

  3. Who is Big Brother?

  4. How can the government watch you in your home?

  5. What is the penalty for breaking the rules?

  6. Why does Winston start writing a diary?

  7. How does he feel about Julia?

  8. Why does he accept O'Brien's invitation to his apartment?

  9. Where are Winston and Julia taken by the police?

  10. What happens there?

  11. Why are they eventually released?




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