Rebel Rebel: David Bowie (1974)

Rebel Rebel
David Bowie as Halloween Jack black
Bowie as Halloween Jack
Artist: David Bowie
Album: Diamond Dogs
February 1974 (UK)
May 1974 (US)
Songwriter: David Bowie

"Rebel Rebel" is both David Bowie's farewell to glam rock and a proto-punk track from his Diamond Dogs album. After its release, the song peaked at number five on the UK Singles Chart and number 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Critically acclaimed for its central guitar riff, several publications consider it one of Bowie's greatest songs. 

After he died in 2016, Rolling Stone listed "Rebel Rebel" as one of Bowie's 30 essential songs. Spencer Kaufman of Ultimate Classic Rock ranked the song at number seven on his list of Top 10 Bowie Songs. In 2018, the writers of NME numbered "Rebel Rebel" as Bowie's fifth greatest song. Jon Savage of The Guardian included Rebel, Rebel when he named the 20 best glam-rock songs of all time.

Bolan-ish Glam

Marc Bolan

"Rebel, Rebel" was a defining song of the "Glam Rock" era, about a boy who rebels against his parents by wearing makeup and tacky women's clothes. Glam was big in England in the early '70s. The appearance of T. Rex front-man Marc Bolan on the BBC's music show Top of the Pops, wearing glitter and satins, is cited as the beginning of the movement. 

Marc Bolan and David Bowie were longtime pals. According to Songfacts, Bowie said about his meeting with Bolan:

"We actually met very early on in the '60s before either 
David Bowie & Marc Bolan
of us were even a tadpole known. We were nothing; we were just two nothing kids with huge ambitions, and we both had the same manager at the time. And we met each other firstly while painting the wall of our then manager's office.

'Hello, who are you?'
'I'm Marc, man.'
'Hello, what do you do?'
'I'm a singer.'
'Oh, yeah, so am I. Are you a Mod?'
'Yeah, I'm King Mod. Your shoes are crap.'
'Well, you're short.'

So we became really close friends. Marc took me dustbin shopping. At that time, Carnaby Street, the fashion district, was going through a period of incredible wealth, and rather than replace buttons on their shirts or zippers on their trousers, at the end of the day, they'd just throw it all away in the dustbin. So, we used to go up and down Carnaby Street, this is prior to Kings Road, and go through all the dustbins around nine/ten o'clock at night and get our wardrobes together."

Stones-ish Album Art

The songs "Rebel, Rebel" and "Rock 'n Roll With Me" from the Diamond Dogs album were originally planned in late 1973 as part of an aborted Ziggy Stardust musical. The rest of the LP consists of tracks meant for a musical of George Orwell's 1984. Orwell's wife wouldn't give Bowie permission to use the book.

Bowie's transition from his Ziggy Stardust glam rock persona to his 'plastic soul' sound on Young Americans can be detected in Diamond Dogs.

The album cover for Diamond Dogs was painted by Dutch artist Guy Peellaert. Mick Jagger showed Bowie artwork Peellaert did for the yet unreleased Rolling Stones album It's Only Rock And Roll. Bowie quickly had Peelaert design the cover for Diamond Dogs and issued his LP before the Stones album. Jagger wasn't happy.

For their September 1976 issue, Bowie told Playboy magazine. 

"Mick was silly. I mean, he should never have shown me anything new. I went over to his house, and he had all these Guy Peellaert pictures around and said, 'What do you think of this guy?' I told him I thought he was incredible. So I immediately phoned him up. Mick's learned now, as I've said. He will never do that again. You've got to be a bastard in this business."

Stones-ish Riff

"Rebel Rebel" was Bowie's last glam rock single. It was his first hit since 1969 without lead guitarist Mick Ronson; Bowie played guitar himself on this and almost all the other tracks on Diamond Dogs. The song's distinctive guitar riff, made up of the chords D, E, and A, was created by Bowie and enhanced by the session musician Alan Parker. Bowie later said, "It's a fabulous riff! Just fabulous! When I stumbled onto it, it was 'Oh, thank you!'" Parker, the guitarist on "1984," said Bowie came up with the Stones-like riff to "piss off" Mick Jagger.

David Bowie ca. 1973

Jayne-ish Lyrics

"Rebel, Rebel" is about a boy who rebels against his parents by wearing makeup and tacky women's clothes. The transgender musician Jayne County claims Bowie based this on her song, "Queen Age Baby," which was recorded a month before "Rebel Rebel." County told Seconds magazine: 

"After one of his shows, me and Bowie were chatting. I had just signed to MainMan [Bowie's record label] at the time and had all these great ideas kicking around, and I told David I had the best idea in the world. I told him I wanted to do a whole album of all British Invasion hits. Six months later, he comes out with Pin-Ups [Bowie's cover album]

Jayne County

I recorded 'Wonder Woman,' Are You Boy Or Are You A Girl?,' 'Queen Age Baby,' all these incredible lyrics I had come up with. So I sent him all of my tapes and not long after that, Sherry is sitting at the house in Connecticut. Bowie called her up and said that he wrote this great song called 'Rebel Rebel' and plays her this demo. She listened to it and said, 'This sounds like one of Wayne's songs.' Basically, 'Queen Age Baby' is the mother of 'Rebel Rebel.' If he had never heard 'Queen Age Baby,' he would have never written 'Rebel Rebel."


The song has received critical acclaim for its guitar riff and strength as a glam anthem. Barry Walters of the online magazine Pitchfork reviewed Diamond Dogs following Bowie's death, praised the song's "glorious" guitar riff and its "stomping beat. If Bowie often drifted above listeners' heads, here he shoots straight at their solar plexus and scores with what ranks among the greatest, most insistent riffs of the '70s. Rockers who'd dismissed Bowie as a dandy now gave the dude a pass."


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