This song is about a boy who rebels against his parents by wearing makeup and tacky women's clothes. It was a defining song of the "Glam Rock" era. Characterized by feminine clothes and outrageous stage shows, Glam was big in England in the early '70s. Bowie had the most mainstream success of the glam rockers.
Three years before this was released, Bowie admitted he was bisexual. The announcement seemed to help his career, as he gained more fans and wrote more adventurous songs.
Bowie did an episode of VH1 Storytellers in 1999 where he introduced this song with this yarn:
I can tell you about the time that I first met Marc Bolan who became a very, very good friend of mine. We actually met very early on in the '60s before either of us were even a tad pole 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 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. That's how life was, you see.
I could also tell you that when we used to play the working men's clubs up north - very rough district - and I first went out as Ziggy Stardust, I was in the dressing room in one club and I said to the manager: "Could you show me where the lavatory is, please?"
And he said: "Aye, look up that corridor and you see the sink attached to the wall at the end? There you go."
So, I tottered briefly on my stack-heeled boots and said: "My dear man, I'm not pissing in a sink."
"He said: "Look son, if it's good enough for Shirley Bassey, it's good enough for you."
Them were the days, I guess.
Bowie's guitarist, Mick Ronson, quit in 1973 in order to pursue a solo career, so Bowie played guitar on this song. Bowie spoke to Performing Songwriter magazine about the legendary riff: "When I was high school, that was the riff by which all of us young guitarists would prove ourselves in the local music store. It's a real air guitar thing, isn't it? I can tell you a very funny story about that. One night, I was in London in a hotel trying to get some sleep. It was quite late, like eleven or twelve at night, and I had some big deal thing on the next day, a TV show or something, and I heard this riff being played really badly from upstairs. I thought, 'Who the hell is doing this at this time of night?' On an electric guitar, over and over [sings riff to 'Rebel Rebel' in a very hesitant, stop and start way]. So I went upstairs to show the person how to play the thing (laughs). So I bang on the door. The door opens, and I say, 'Listen, if you're going to play...' and it was John McEnroe! I kid you not (laughs). It was McEnroe, who saw himself as some sort of rock guitar player at the time. That could only happen in a movie, couldn't it? McEnroe trying to struggle his way through the 'Rebel Rebel' riff."
An alternate version appears on Bowie's compilation album Sound And Vision. On this version, Bowie plays all the instruments, bar the congas, which are played by Geoff MacCormack.
The Diamond Dogs tour was an enormous production. It featured moving bridges, catapults, and a huge diamond that Bowie emerged from.
The album cover was painted by Dutch artist Guy Peellaert. It shows Bowie as a dog in front of a banner that says "The Strangest Living Curiosities." The cover caused some controversy because the Bowie dog had clearly not been neutered. An alternate cover was released with the appendages airbrushed out. Mick Jagger had shown Bowie artwork that Peellaert had done for the not yet released Rolling Stones album It's Only Rock And Roll
. Bowie quickly got a hold of Peelaert and had him design the cover for Diamond Dogs
, which was unleashed to the public prior to the album by the The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was none too happy about this. David Bowie has this to say about the incident: "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."
Willy - Vallejo, DC and Daniel - The North West, England
The lyric, "We like dancing and we look divine," is a reference to the famous drag queen known as Divine, who starred in many John Waters films, including Pink Flamingos and Hairspray.
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 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]. I was flabbergasted! When I would say anything to anyone, they would just laugh and say I was paranoid. I said, 'Something's up here.' They took me into the studio to record. I recorded 'Wonder Woman,' 'Mexican City,' '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.'"
This song was created in a spate of spontaneous inception. Alan Parker, the guitarist on "1984
," recalled to Uncut
magazine: "He (Bowie) said, 'I've got this list and it's a bit Rolling Stonesy – I just want to piss Mick off a bit.'"
"I spent about three quarters of an hour to an hour with him working on the guitar riff – he had it almost there, but not quite," Parker continued. "We got it there, and he said, 'Oh, we'd better do the middle...' So he wrote something for the middle, put that in. Then he went off and sorted some lyrics. And that was us done."
This was covered in Portuguese by Seu Jorge for the soundtrack of the 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Bertrand - Paris, France