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The Bowie & Bowie Ltd blog. “John, I’m Only Dancing” Issue

April 8th, 2018 | by Sandra Flowers
The Bowie & Bowie Ltd blog. “John, I’m Only Dancing” Issue
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As explained in the first issue of Bowie & Bowie Ltd., the purpose of this blog is to offer “another way of enjoying the music of the incomparable David Bowie.” The blog attempts to fulfill this promise by exploring different versions of the same song, with an eye toward discovering interesting differences between the versions (The Bowie & Bowie Ltd. Blog: “Space Oddity” Issue).

With those goals in mind, I’ve devoted this issue to a song which spawned several significantly different—as well as controversial—versions. The versions, in fact, are so different that I’ve included links below to each version’s lyrics. Unfortunately, no official video (or unofficial, either, as far as I can tell) exists for what I’m calling “Version 2.” No harm done, however, as Version 2’s lyrics and musical style make the difference felt even without the benefit of visual proof.

MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE?

VERSION 1

  • 1972, “John, I’m Only Dancing” video by Mick Rock
  • The song’s original lyrics
  • Bowie’s age at the time of recording: 25
  • Persona: Ziggy Stardust
  • Musicians: The Spiders from Mars—David Bowie, guitar and vocals; Mick Ronson, lead guitar; Trevor Bolder, bass guitar; Mick Woodmansey, drums.

Summary

“John, I’m Only Dancing” began life in 1972 as a 7” single issued by the RCA record label, with “Hang on to Yourself” as its B side. The first time Bowie performed the song was on 18 July 1972 at a concert in Aylesbury, England. (setlist.fm). A live version recorded on 01 October 1972 at the Boston (Massachusetts) Music Hall and an April 1973 “sax mix” studio version complete the original set of recordings (The Ziggy Stardust Companion).

In a 2017 interview, Mick Rock describes the genesis of and resources for the “John, I’m Only Dancing” video: a spontaneous suggestion from Bowie, no prior planning, no budget to speak of, and the barest minimum of equipment (Bowie by Mick Rock: John, I’m only Dancing Video). Yet, despite the video’s more than humble beginnings, the finished product strikes one as an elaborate production. Additionally, there’s a new Nacho version of Rock’s video here on the David Bowie News website at David Bowie – John, I’m Only Dancing (Nacho’s 2017 edit). Nacho’s content is somewhat different and provides more technical information than I’ve given here.

Mick Rock’s video has one other distinguishing feature—it appears to be the first of several censuring experiences Bowie would encounter throughout his career. According to The Ziggy Stardust Companion, “RCA considered [the video] too daring for the US market and it remained unreleased there until the ChangesOneBowie (1976) album.”

VERSION 2

  • 1975 studio version of “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”
  • Lyrics for “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)
  • Bowie’s age at the time of recording: 28
  • Persona: The Gouster
  • Musicians: David Bowie and the Mike Garson Band consisted of–David Bowie (vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, harmonica), Mike Garson (piano, Mellotron), Carlos Alomar (guitar), Earl Slick (lead guitar), Emir Ksasan (bass), Dennis Davis (drums), Pablo Rosario (percussion), David Sanborn (alto sax, flute), Richard Grando (baritone sax, flute), Michael Kamen (electric piano, Moog, oboe), Geoffrey MacCormack (aka Warren Peace), Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, Jean Fineberg, Anthony Hinton, Diane Sumler and Luther Vandross (vocal backings). From Bowie Wonder World.

Summary

Both Version 1 and Version 2 began on the Ziggy Stardust Tour while Bowie was struggling to break free of Ziggy. Once he gained his freedom, he finished swapping the androgynous vamp of “John, I’m Only Dancing” for Aladdin Sane. He was then good to go, which is exactly what he did.

Whereas he’d needed only 4 people (including himself) in a standard rock band to perform, film, and record “John, I’m Only Dancing,” he’d assembled what amounted to a 17-piece disco/soul orchestra to transform Version 1 into Version 2. Version 2, producer Tony Visconti explained, “sounded like it was played live in a loft party in Harlem” (David Bowie’s Unreleased Album ‘The Gouster’ – Everything We Know About The Record Described As ‘Forty Minutes Of Glorious Funk’). I’ll leave that for him to explain.

Something I Noticed This Time That I Missed Before

In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Bowie’s long-standing disdain for disco found expression in the beautiful “Bring Me the Disco King,” the most successful version of which was heavily infused with yet another genre—jazz. Meanwhile, Bowie’s best answer to disco was the 1975 version of “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” which was kept under wraps until 1979. And that’s a shame because, if my estimate is correct, it’s the best song of its kind Bowie made throughout his career. I might never have made this discovery were it not for revisiting “John, I’m Only Dancing” in search of overlooked treasure.

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