The Young American
Diamond Dogs Album Cover
…it's an artist from Belgium called Guy Peellaert, who did a book called ‘Rock Dreams’ that I nicked. Well, I didn't nick the book, but I saw the book at Mick Jagger's house and I nicked the idea of doing a cover.” David Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show 1974
It was only after this session that David asked Peellaert to make a painting in the style of ‘Rock Dreams’ that would be used for the cover of Diamond Dogs. Peellaert was embarrassed, especially since he had created real ties with Jagger and didn’t want to betray him. But he found David's creative proposal (which had the idea of male-dog hybridisation) too interesting to refuse. He accepted the commission on the basis that he had not heard from Jagger for some time and believed that the Rolling Stones project would not materialise. Back in Paris, Peellaert used some fragments of O'Neill's photographs to create the now famous image of David – drawing on his extensive personal documentation to create a ‘Freak Show’ environment inspired by the popular entertainment of amusement parks such as Coney Island. Peellaert’s method of working was described by Paul Wiminck of the Peellaert Estate…
It's hardly noticeable on the cover illustration of the Virgin CD reissue of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, where Bowie is depicted as the naked half-dog, half-man star of a post-apocalyptic Coney Island-style freakshow. A smaller reproduction of the original vinyl gatefold illustration, the CD cover essentially splits the upper man half and the lower dog half at the booklet's fold, so that the animal's nether regions are only visible upon opening of the jewel case. But in 1974, the mutant Bowie was emasculated with an airbrush by worried RCA execs on the eve of Diamond Dogs' release to retailers, and the genitals never made it onto the covers of later vinyl pressings. "It's not the same as the 12-inch," deadpans Richard Fiore, when asked to compare the CD reissue with the vinyl edition as it was originally envisioned. Fiore was RCA's production manager throughout the '70s, and recalled the Diamond Dogs incident for Medialine recently. The cover painting came from Guy Peellaert, a Belgian artist who at the time had published a book of fantastic portraits of contemporary rock stars titled Rock Dreams, and who went on to design a cover for The Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock 'N' Roll. The Diamond Dogs painting captures the decadent, glam-freak element Bowie had become known for in his live appearances and previous recorded work, and fuses it with an Orwellian pollution and gloom (resonating with album songs such as "1984" and "Big Brother"). AGI completed manufacture of the gatefold sleeve, which had full-color printing on both sides. Fiore said that upon his receipt of the test cover, he noticed the dog-man's genitals resting casually on its thigh, and placed a call to RCA label management to simply notify them of the cover's content and ask their opinion. "Go with it" was the management's reply, according to Fiore, who now serves as BMG Direct's senior director of production. While Fiore notes that he had no personal objections to the material, the radio and retail climate was highly conservative; the Beatles' infamous "butcher cover" fiasco of 1966 had made every label think twice about what radio stations and record retailers would and would not except. Accordingly, RCA eventually reconsidered its decision to "go with the genitals" - but not before ordering a complete run of anatomically correct covers for Diamond Dogs' first pressing. Bowie himself had signed off on the cover, Fiore said, and the records were in the middle of being pressed when he received the call from management directing him to scrap the covers and replace them with a run of new covers that obscure the penis in airbrushed shadow. For his records, Fiore kept possession of the test package, complete with his preproduction notes. Apparently, several other employees saved a few of the Dogs covers from being destroyed as well. While the incident cost RCA thousands of dollars in scrapped LP sleeves, the few surviving original covers fetch thousands today, sans record, amongst vinyl collectors. Copies are so scarce that specialty shops were, until recently, likely to dismiss the original cover's existence as rumor. Diamond Dogs is one of Bowie's most popular and acclaimed albums, containing the hit title track single as well as "Rebel Rebel." It peaked at No. 1 in the U.K. and remained on the country's chart for 32 weeks; in the U.S., it reached No. 25 and stayed on the chart for 10 weeks. In its recent review of top album covers, Q magazine interviewed both Bowie and Peellaert about their memories of the cover. "The only problem with the project is that they removed the prick," Peellaert commented. "I thought it was very sad." Bowie however told Q that his concession to the airbrushing was indeed based on the fact that he, like RCA, believed "no record store would carry it" with the genitals intact. "I let them do a reprint rather than lose the album completely."
Guy Peellaert (1934 - 2008) was a Belgian artist, painter, illustrator, comic artist and photographer. In 1974, a collection of his works produced between 1970-1973 were published under the title ‘Rock Dreams’. These works were referred to as ‘false’ portraits as they were a combination of photomontage and painting. Mick Jagger was aware of Peellaert’s work and commissioned him to work exclusively on the cover for the next Rolling Stones album ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ due for release in October 1974. Jagger showed David some of Peellaert’s work and told him about the commission. David had already conceived the idea of producing the Diamond Dogs cover featuring him as half-man half-dog and had sketched out his ideas.
Recognising an opportunity, David invited Peellaert to breakfast and then persuaded the artist to accompany him to a session with photographer Terry O'Neill.
David had the idea of being photographed in the manner of French dancer Josephine Baker based upon a photograph of her taken by Boris Lipnitzki in 1926 where she appeared lying on the ground and posing in the manner of a wild animal.
Peellaert’s preparatory composition
Peellaert also produced another painting of David based upon one of O’Neill’s photographs which was to be used for the inner of the album’s gatefold cover. In fact, a test proof exists which shows this. However, it was dropped in favour of a montage of images snapped by then MainMan photographer Leee Black Childers. It has been suggested that this was done by MainMan to save money but there’s no doubt that Leee's photos did better depict the dystopian and somewhat abstract feel of Hunger City's landscape rather than Peellaert's artwork.
The process developed at that time by Mr Peellaert was quite complex and painstaking. The very first step involved a rough sketch of the future composition, the equivalent of story-boarding a one-image movie. From there, a time-consuming picture research phase was launched, with Mr Peellaert and several assistants sourcing all kinds of photographic material (celebrities' faces, body parts, backgrounds, objects…) to be used as the composition’s building blocks. Most were sourced from magazines and books that Peellaert had begun to assemble into his own visual database during the Pop period (it would grow over the years into a staggering archive). Others were sourced from picture agencies, and the rest was shot directly by Peellaert using a Polaroid (for example, when he needed a very specific attitude that he couldn’t find elsewhere). A Rock Dreams montage might involve dozens of such elements, each of which was printed individually at the precise scale required by the final composition. When the montage was completed, the last step involved photographing the composition (made of dozens of composite layers) and printing the final result on a special photo paper on which Peellaert could apply colour. This was done mainly through airbrush painting (a nod to the billboards of the artist’s youth) and Peellaert also added small acrylic flourishes locally to emphasize certain effects (the sheen of a dress for example).
The completed work was handed over to David on 7 March 1974
The “dogs” in Peellaert’s painting were based upon Alzoria Lewis and Johanna Dickens who were billed as “The World’s Strangest Family” within the Cavalcade Variety Show in Coney Island, New York from 1930s - 1950s.
Initially, RCA executives gave the green light for the album’s artwork to be produced showing the dog’s genitals but then changed their mind after an initial batch of covers were printed. In July 2001, Medialline News ran the following story under the heading “Dog Genitals Made For Costly Cover Re-Do on Bowie Album”….
The original uncensored RCA cover
Image courtesy of David Cantello