It shouldn’t work: David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” with its androgynous storyline and garage-band sound, is from the height of the British glam-rock era, when sexual freedom and defying authority were key tenets in youth culture. Chris Young, a mainstream Southern guy whose persona is not built on rebellion, interpolated the song in his own “Young Love & Saturday Nights” — and somehow, Bowie’s edgy rock riff works within the centrist country sound.
“Young Love & Saturday Nights” arrives nearly 50 years after “Rebel Rebel” was introduced on Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, and at nearly every concert, Young sees fans perk up when they hear Bowie’s familiar lick, the same way that his senses were twisted when a publisher played it for him without warning during a song meeting. “I didn’t have any idea,” Young says, “and within like the first six seconds, I’m like, ‘That’s David Bowie. Why are you playing a David Bowie song?’”
By the time it was over, Young was obsessed. It would, he knew, provide a guitar lick for his concerts that felt like he was doing a cover song for anyone who knew “Rebel Rebel.” But it was still different enough from the original to stand on its own for anyone who didn’t identify its origin.
“Most people get the feeling when that song starts — they go, ‘Why is this familiar?’” says Young, interpreting the facial responses he has witnessed at his shows. “Then the minute that [signature riff arrives], you know immediately what it is, and then it smacks you right in the face at the top of the verse with, ‘No, this is something new.’”
Turning familiar music into something new was the general idea when songwriter Jesse Frasure (“She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” “If I Was a Cowboy”) started sifting through the Bowie catalog for titles that could be ripe for a country re-imagining. The idea might sound like rock’n’roll heresy, but Bowie’s estate practically commissioned the work, conveying interest to Warner Chappell in seeing his music reinterpreted for country. Frasure drew the assignment, and initially had “Heroes” in his crosshairs, before shifting to “Rebel Rebel.”
“One thing was for sure: I didn’t want a David Bowie interpolation to end up hokey,” Frasure recalls. “I felt like ‘Heroes’ could be a little bit sappy and hokey if we did it in a country setting, so I felt like this one at least would have a little bit more edge to it and may be just a little cooler.”
The iconic riff was, of course, the main attraction, in part because Bowie never sang that line as a melody. That meant that a can’t-miss hook was available for the chorus, and Frasure fashioned a basic track to work from, then sent it off to two collaborators, Ashley Gorley (“Last Night,” “Truck Bed”) and Josh Thompson (“Stars Like Confetti,” “I’ll Name the Dogs”), for a Zoom writing session. While they kept the riff, they dropped the “Rebel Rebel” lyrical theme, in which Bowie calls his mysteriously gendered date a “hot tramp.”
“We just tried to find something country to kind of balance it out,” Gorley says. “I have no idea who came up with the title. I think we were just kind of spitballing stuff and thinking of different ideas, and then that kind of spit out there at the end somewhere.”
They purposely avoided using the word “rebel” in the text, though they were determined to find a blue-collar version. Frasure referenced the guy working the docks in Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” as the template. They settled on a local club musician with a rundown Chevy Silverado and a star-struck girlfriend whose father disapproves of her bad-boy choice.
“That scenario is pretty timeless,” says Gorley. “It can happen tonight, and 40 years ago, you know — 50 years ago, whatever that was — the same kind of things were going on. They’re still playing in their bands, driving things that barely run, falling in love with somebody. It’s still happening.”
Even before they knew what the song would be, Frasure had envisioned the word “Alabama” fitting in the middle of the chorus, and that translated into the couple listening to “’89 Alabama.” And in the second verse, they kept the cultural references going by name-checking Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and James Dean.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that history repeats itself,” Frasure says. “To me, it’s so cliché: You pick up guitars, you get the girls, and it’s been repeating itself. And probably the last person you want your daughter to date, that’s the one that they’re going crazy for. So to me, that was a tribute to all those things that we love — you know, drugs, sex and rock’n’roll — and package it in a country-friendly way.”
Once they finished the Zoom write, Frasure completed work on a programmed demo, then had Thompson record a vocal. They pitched it around town a bit with no takers, until Young flipped over it, and texted the writers often enough that they knew he would follow through and record it.
Young invited Frasure and Gorley to attend the tracking session with co-producer Corey Crowder (Chase Rice, Florida Georgia Line) in November 2022 at the Sony Tree Studios, a demo facility that had been recently upgraded. Crowder wanted the master to have a live sort of energy, matching both the raw tone of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and the bar-band plot of “Young Love & Saturday Nights,” and Sony Tree was an ideal setting.
“It’s a cool room,” says Crowder. “I think it actually helped that specific song, just because they’re all in the room together like they’re up onstage or something.”
Drummer Chris McHugh re-created the power of the original “Rebel Rebel” backbeat, and Crowder spent extra time with guitarist Sol Philcox-Littlefield, emulating the sound of the Bowie riff.
“We hunted on that for a minute,” Crowder remembers. “There was several takes where we had to like, ‘Let’s get it a little thinner,’ that kind of thing. That tone was so perfect, you know, you just don’t want to ditch that. So that was a big priority for me.”
Young did the lead vocals later with co-producer Chris DeStefano (Chase Rice, Morgan Evans), making certain to get plenty of sleep the night prior. “Living up to the fact that you’re constantly going to be compared with someone who’s a legend, I definitely did not leave that vocal booth until I was done,” says Young.
“Young Love & Saturday Nights” got significant media attention when Bowie’s country interpolation debuted on streaming services on July 21. RCA Nashville released it to country radio on Sept. 11 via PlayMPE, and it entered Country Airplay quickly, rising to No. 49 on the chart dated Oct. 14.
“I’ve now probably said the word ‘interpolation’ more than I ever have in my entire life in the past two months talking about this, but it’s really exciting for me because I love the song,” Young says. “And it’s cool to see other people getting pumped about it.”
Powered by Billboard.