Before I began delving into David Bowie’s back catalog a couple of months ago, I couldn’t say I was completely familiar with any of his albums. I already knew most of his popular songs, and had listened to some albums more than others, but the one that struck me the most, which I considered my favorite, was Scary Monsters (1980). I always loved the songs, the instrumentation, the production, and the sound of his voice on this record. Now that I’ve become more familiar with his earlier work, I can hear Scary Monsters as a culmination of the music that came before it, especially the four albums that preceded it. He took all the most accessible elements of those recordings and turned out a collection that is generally considered to be his last “great” album. I still have a number of albums to reassess before I can confirm or dispute that, but there’s no denying that it’s a killer album.
The key track, “Ashes To Ashes,” was also a hit single, an update on the Major Tom character from his first big hit, “Space Oddity.” It’s among my favorite Bowie tunes, with a great syncopated drum pattern and funky slap bass: definitely one of the highlights of his entire catalog. I love the way it begins, in the middle of the groove, like the song is already in progress. “Fashion” was another hit single, a disco song with a rock edge (those “beep beep”s are out of a Donna Summer song, while Robert Fripp adds his crazed guitar histrionics). This must have been a big inspiration to Duran Duran. Another song that got some radio play was the near title track, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).” It’s basically a straight-ahead rocker with a cool Carlos Alomar guitar pattern, and Fripp again adding his unique sound on lead guitar. There are also those cool, watery-sounding vocals in the chorus (“…keep me running, running scared”). I’ve been familiar with all three of these songs since the album was originally released, and they still sound great all these years later. The pleasant surprise is how good the rest of the songs are.
[David Bowie - "Ashes To Ashes"]
“It’s No Game (Part 1)” is a crazy way to open the album, with most of the lyrics sung in Japanese by Michi Hirota and Bowie nearly screaming his abstract lyrics over the top. It’s manic yet controlled, and shows up again in a more subdued version, “It’s No Game (Part 2),” to close the album. “Up The Hill Backwards” starts with a near Bo Diddley beat, then morphs into a loping rhythm, and has a repeated lyrical hook (“It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it”). “Teenage Wildlife” is the longest song here, at about 7 minutes, and feels a lot like “Heroes.” Lyrically, this sounds like a riposte against the younger Bowie wannabes that were getting a lot of attention at the time, most notably Gary Numan. “Scream Like A Baby” is probably the weakest song here, but I still like the synth sounds (by Andy Clark) and the treated vocals (a la “Fame”). “Kingdom Come” is the only non-original song, written by Tom Verlaine from the band Television. It’s a good straight-ahead song with a nice little shuffle feel. Pete Townshend adds some guitar to “Because You’re Young,” which has the dramatic feel of a Phil Spector “girl group” production. It also has one of the catchiest choruses on the whole album. This is a nearly perfect Bowie album, and a great way for him to enter the new decade.
For his next album, Let’s Dance (1983), Bowie made several major changes: He hired R&B guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers (of the funk/disco group Chic), who brought along his Chic cohort Tony Thompson on drums (sharing drumming duties with jazz/fusion great Omar Hakim); he played no instruments himself, handling only songwriting and vocals; and most importantly, hired the soon-to-be-famous Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar. The combination of a soul/funk rhythm section with the fiery blues-rock soloing of Stevie Ray was not something that should’ve worked so well, but with three huge hit singles (and videos) and his new tanned & fit persona, this became the most commercially successful album of his career. Critical consensus now seems to be that this is where he “sold out,” but musically it’s as diverse as a number of his more highly-regarded records. I just think a lot of fans didn’t like seeing their beloved icon attract so many new mainstream fans. That’s not to say this is a great record. I would consider it a good record with several great songs. Its biggest drawback is that the three hit singles were so huge that the remaining songs pale a little in comparison.
About those hit singles: First up is album opener, “Modern Love.” It’s got big booming drums, a clean production, those great spoken lyrics at the beginning (“I know when to go out, I know when to stay in, get things done”), and an urgent vocal performance throughout. The song structure is much simpler than anything he had done before, which makes it more immediate, and a great way to grab listeners. “China Girl,” co-written with Iggy Pop, is another ubiquitous radio song, where Bowie sings in his lower register to great effect. It’s very different from “Modern Love” but just as catchy, and it has a great bass-driven groove. Stevie Ray Vaughan begins to make his presence known here. “Let’s Dance” was the first song I ever heard from this album, in its shorter single version. The album version is over 7-1/2 minutes long, and includes lots of skronking sax in the extended vamp before the outro. It’s got a sparse arrangement but it still grooves, and has some strong vocals (“under the moonlight, the serious moonlight”). This wasn’t a guaranteed hit when it was released, as it didn’t sound like anything else at the time, but now it’s hard to imagine it not being hugely successful.
Another song I had previously heard when it was released in a different version (for a movie soundtrack) was “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” and it’s an excellent inclusion here. I think it would’ve fit comfortably on Scary Monsters. I like how he goes from his lower register to his higher, shouting voice at “See these eyes so green.” Stevie Ray shines on a couple of leads and in the outro.
“Without You” is a minor song that could be mistaken for latter day Roxy Music. I like the way he sings in a breathy falsetto during the chorus (“without you, what would I do?”). “Criminal World” is noteworthy only for a solid, stinging Stevie Ray guitar solo. “Ricochet” wouldn’t have been out of place on Scary Monsters with slightly different production. It’s a little weird, in a good way, and I’m sure a lot of his newfound pop fans skipped this one. A cute little new wave song, “Shake It,” ends the album with an infectious vocal refrain “(“Shake it, shake it, what’s my line?”). It’s a minor song, but I found myself enjoying it each time I played it. Although this wouldn’t go on my list of top Bowie albums, any record that has those three hits and the few other very good songs is far from a failure, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
During the “Serious Moonlight” tour in support of Let’s Dance, Bowie started working on new songs, and the follow-up album, Tonight (1984), appeared very quickly. He obviously enjoyed his newfound pop superstardom (he was always a star, but now he was a multiplatinum MTV idol), and he didn’t mess much with the formula. Unfortunately he didn’t come up with the hit singles this time, so the album was seen as a bit of a letdown, but even with the dated production sounds I found a few songs that really stuck with me. Each time I played the album I enjoyed the first song, “Loving The Alien,” more and more. His vocals are strong and confident, and although on the surface it sounds like another midtempo ‘80s pop song, the instrumentation (especially the marimba) gives it an exotic feel, and at over 7 minutes it has an epic quality. “Don’t Look Down” follows, with an MOR, light reggae feel, pointing to the sound of Simply Red a few years later. It’s not a great song but I still like it, especially the backing vocals (“There’s always something else”). Two mediocre songs follow: his unnecessary, overblown version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and the merely pleasant “Tonight,” a duet with Tina Turner.
The only single I was aware of in 1984, which I liked from the first time I heard it, was “Blue Jean.” It’s the perfect follow-up to the previous album’s hit singles, and should’ve had more chart success. The only other noteworthy songs are two big booming rockers with loud guitars, both co-written with Iggy Pop: “Neighborhood Threat” (great music, especially Omar Hakim’s drumming) and “Dancing With The Big Boys” (Iggy joins in on vocals). This album is truly a product of its time, and it’s occasionally difficult to get past the production, but there are at least three songs that I really like, which makes it a qualified success for me. Commercially, this would begin a slide that continued through the rest of the decade and beyond.
I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a positive review of his next album, Never Let Me Down (1987), and it was years before I bought a copy and checked it out myself. Once again, the dated production doesn’t help matters, but getting past the sonic limitations, I found myself enjoying several songs after listening to it numerous times the past couple of weeks. It opens with “Day-In Day-Out,” a catchy song with a cool, tasteful guitar solo by Sid McGinnis (from the David Letterman show). It reminds me of several Robert Palmer songs from this era, but at 5-1/2 minutes it goes on a bit too long. “Time Will Crawl” is one of my favorites here. Bowie’s vocals sound particularly strong, and the melody is instantly memorable, but it would be better with more sympathetic production. “Beat Of Your Drum” sounds like a cross between INXS and Robert Plant. I like the vocal melody at “Wrong – negative fades – never the twain, reckless and tame.” I also enjoyed his high-pitched vocals on “Never Let Me Down,” and his harmonica playing adds a nice texture to an otherwise standard synth-pop song.
[David Bowie - "Time Will Crawl"]
Is that a sitar running throughout “Zeroes” on top of the steady, programmed beat? Who is he singing about (“Tonight the Zeroes were singing for you”)? His old pal Peter Frampton wails on guitar, even during the verses. Frampton also provides some nice David Gilmour-esque guitar runs on “Glass Spider” (also the name of the tour in support of this album). It begins with spoken word, eerily reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge,” but eventually gives way to a more techno beat. There’s a great hook in the backing vocals (“Mummy come back ‘cause the water’s all gone”). “Shining Star (Making My Love)” is fluffy and light, especially the guitar tone, but it’s a nice tune with some great singing (“I can make you happy every goddamn single day of your life”). Even the spoken word “rap” fits the metronomic rhythm, but the song goes on a little too long. The rest of the album is mostly forgettable, with the exception of the repeated lead guitar figure in “’87 And Cry.” The song “Too Dizzy” was considered so unnecessary that Bowie left it off the reissue of this album. Album closer “Bang Bang” could be a Billy Idol song from this era (I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing). I can see why many fans hate this album, and I wouldn’t try to convince them otherwise, but there are some enjoyable moments to be found. Would I include any of these songs on a Bowie compilation? Probably not…but I’m glad I got to know this album anyway.
This batch of albums started off strong and then slowly petered out, but although there weren’t any major revelations like I had with Station To Station or the Berlin Trilogy, I had a lot of fun spending time with them. I’m curious to find out what you think of them. For his next move, Bowie formed a band called Tin Machine and they recorded two studio albums before he returned to his solo career. I’ll be addressing those records in my next post.