The existence of The Gouster calls to mind Jeff Smith’s 2013 sci-fi graphic novel, RASL. In it, an inter-dimensional art thief realizes he’s made a tragic error when he checks out a dive bar jukebox in what he assumes is his home reality and spies Blonde on Blonde … by Robert Zimmerman. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if he’d thumbed to the next row of discs to see Bowie, draped with a newspaper, and this strange edition of Young Americans. If the buzz surrounding The Gouster is to be believed, and it was at some point on track to be released, then the alternate reality it’s from was a strange one indeed. In the reality of The Gouster, Bowie rushed out a key transitional record — and in doing so played things alarmingly safe. Well, safe by Bowie standards, at least.
Here’s what really happened: Midway through the Diamond Dogs tour, after coping with the hazards of traveling with an elaborate set performance, a thoroughly coke-addled Bowie hooked a sharp left turn. His funkified glam theatricality evaporated, the tour was stripped down and rebranded “The Soul Tour,” and audiences were greeted by a sharp-dressed Brit who was absolutely nuts about the current state of American R&B. The preliminary recordings for the resulting album, Young Americans, took place during this tour. This is where The Gouster was born.
The “lost album” is simply an early draft of Young Americans. Three of the seven tracks are previously unreleased renditions (the title track is purportedly unchanged, but clearly different quality from other versions). All of the songs have been released in some form, either as singles or bonus material over the years. In our reality, Bowie kept recording after the tour ended. Those sessions yielded four additional tracks: “Fascination” and “Win”, as well as his John Lennon collaborations (a cover of “Across the Universe” and Bowie’s first US #1, “Fame”). In just two months of additional workshopping and mixing, the record got weirder, more distinctly Bowie, and primed for success.
What’s remarkable about The Gouster is how normal it is. Though it’s still a severe transition from Diamond Dogs‘ post-apocalyptic rock opera, Gouster‘s live studio mixes rock and snarl far more than Americans‘ string-steeped production. In The Gouster, what Bowie called the “plastic soul” of Young Americans isn’t remotely as glossy. For the most part, it’s a tried-and-true soul record. Were it released in early 1975, we’d be looking back on it as among the most tame albums in the Bowie discography.
The most peculiar thing about The Gouster is its opening track, “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)”. It was shelved until 1979 when it was released as a single and easily fit into the disco set. But in early ’75, this white-fronted dance track could’ve turned heads and would’ve pre-dated the Bee Gees’ break into disco. Why wait until its sound was commonplace to release it? Likely “John” was far too on the nose for Bowie. As the album opener, it wasn’t just a change in style, it could be read as an affront to his prior fanbase: Glam is dead, so here’s a single from the Ziggy era reconfigured into a bold-faced disco hit. All “Major Tom’s a junkie” aside, Bowie’s an artist who loves his subtlety.
From there, The Gouster proceeds in a different direction entirely. No more disco, just pure soul. Perhaps that’s another reason that “John”, despite its charms, didn’t make the cut. Bowie’s original intent at the onset of the Young Americans sessions was to record all the tracks live with a full band in a continuous take, and that’s exactly what The Gouster offers. There’s no strings, just guitars, piano, heavy sax, and wonderful vocals. Familiar tracks like “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Can You Hear Me”, and “Right” are laid bare. They’re quieter, a tad slower, and not encased in a wall of sound.
The most radical departure from the Young Americans performances is “Right”, which is now the closing track. Bowie’s vocals flutter in and out of spacey modulation and his jagged call and response with the backing vocalists is more unhinged, even crazed. Combined with dominant and more adventurous sax, this version of “Right” is the highlight of the album — a jazzy, more experimental performance that hints to future excursions on Outside and ★.
“It’s Gonna Be Me” and “Who Can I Be Now?” are the other tracks that never made it to Young Americans, both of them gorgeous, must-hear entries into Bowie’s short-lived soul era. “It’s Gonna Be Me” also got the production enhancement and strings treatment before being pushed off the final record. The strings version was first released with Americans‘ 2007 edition, and is in all respects a cut above this stripped-down version.
It’s certainly a treat to hear these alternate recordings, but it’s no surprise that this early draft of a record didn’t make it to pressing. It’s pure bonus material — otherwise it would be a standalone release and not an extra sale point for the wholly unnecessary Who Can I Be Now? box set. Maybe on some nearby timeline Bowie did make the mistake of releasing The Gouster as is, but in our reality we got the better deal.
Essential Tracks: “Right”, “Who Can I Be Now?”, and “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)”