David Bowie (it is known) often used characters, such as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and The Other One.
Here, in 1987, we see the debut of his shortest lived and most controversial character: Suck Man.
Suck Man’s origins are shrouded in mystery. He appeared once on this album, and then never again. David himself never spoke about him, and some Bowie historians claim he never existed at all. But by carefully listening to this album (from another room, wearing a HAZMAT suit) I can now reveal his full, tragic story.
Who is Suck Man? Essentially, he is the sad remains of a once successful rockstar, haunted by his glory days. He has no grasp at all on what his fans want or what might sell, so he’s trying to do everything at once. French horns? Here you go! Rapping? Yeah, he can do that too! Guitar solos? You bet! How about french horns, rapping, and guitar solos all at once, thrown together in a way that doesn’t make sense?! Imagine a whole album like that?! W…Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Suck Man is not a malicious figure. He’s sad, and pitiable. He clings to your ankles, begging for your acceptance. He’ll do anything. He just wants to be loved. If only he could be a hero again, if just for one day.
Never Let You Down is extremely bad, but at least it’s not bad in a boring way, like Tonight, or in an insufferable way, like Tin Machine I. It has entertainment value. There are songs I’ve listened to more than legit good Bowie tracks, and that’s saying something. The most obvious things wrong: the ridiculous production and arrangements. These aren’t songs, they’re crime scenes. The gated snare drum is obnoxiously loud. The backing singers are hideously overbearing. Bowie’s vocals vacillate between R&B and proto-Britpop. The album really does sound like 2 or 3 Michael Jackson tracks playing over the top of each other, all out of step.
It actually contains a little bit of good music – maybe more than Tonight did. “Time Will Crawl” has a cool, slinky saxophone line and a set of strong musical ideas. The Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang” cooks nicely and ends the album well. Both these songs have twenty things shoved into them that don’t work and which I outright hate, but I see the skeletons of good music inside the layers of cancerous blubber.
Midway through the burnout of this musical Hindenburg, we get “Glass Spider”, which is not the worst song, but certainly the most embarrassing. Baby spiders have lost their mommy. Suck Man practically gift-wrapped this track for you. Not only is this track on the album, he actually titled the accompanying toured, and it was the second track. For God’s sake, at least Paul McCartney had the decency not to subject us to a “Wonderful Christmas Time” tour!
Suck Man also likes socially conscious lyrics. This was the era of Live Aid and Hear ‘n’ Aid, where every rockstar wanted to make a difference. Don’t ever play this to a former African child soldier. The gated snare will trigger PTSD flashbacks to AK-47s in the trenches of Sudan.
The rest of the album is ghastly. You listen in morbid fascination. Believe it or not, there’s an even worse track (“Too Dizzy”) that Bowie took off the record out of shame. Imagine being too bad for Never Let You Down – it’s like playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and getting KO’d by Glass Joe.
“Transition…” – David Bowie, “TVC15”, Station to Station
He was right to muse on it, because transition is interesting. Not medical transition (though that must have intrigued him also), but philosophical transition. Ship of Theseus. Lumpers vs splitters. Much of philosophy is based around the question “when does a thing become something else?”
Is transition a continuum, like day becoming night? Or can it be quantified into discrete steps? Historians have spent countless hours wargaming World War II, trying to isolate the point where Hitler definitely lost. Was it 1940, when the Luftwaffe was crushed in the Battle of Britain? 1941, when the United States entered the war on the Allied side? 1942, when Stalingrad held? When was the final moment that Germany could have won World War II, and after which, they absolutely couldn’t? And how thinly can we slice the bratwurst? A month? A day? A single second?
Aladdin Sane is an exposition of transition. We see Bowie at a cracking point, where fame was becoming overwhelming, a burden. He invented a new character, a guy with worms filling his brain and white-ants eating his bones, but his confusion was no fiction. Over the next year his backing band would either leave or get fired, unable to handle his egomania and drug abuse. The paranoid Berlin years have their genesis here.
Musically, it’s fierce and punishing: along with The Man Who Sold the World, this is the heaviest thing Bowie ever recorded. But it has an experimental side that, again, seems like a preview trailer for Berlin. Transitions. Beginnings and ends.
We see both sides of the album, right out of the gate. “Watch That Man” is a loud party song – Bowie (perhaps in character, probably not) is at a party, noticing scenes of glitz and glamour and pronouncing them merely “so-so”. Maybe it’s not even that. Maybe it’s about to become a nightmare.
“Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” is the end stage of that party. The song is dominated by a 45-bar avant-garde jazz solo by pianist Mike Garson. Surely Bowie’s brilliance was becoming impossible to deny by now. Damned well nobody else was doing stuff like this in 1973. What’s the meaning of the dates in the titles? 1913 was the year before World War I. 1938 was the year before World War II. Does this mean that Bowie thought that the third World War would happen in the 70s? And did it?
“Cracked Actor”, “Jean Genie,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are homages to or parodies of the Rolling Stones. The guitars crush and maul, and his vocals sound both inspired and exhausted. “Time” sees a new influence popping up: Jacques Brel, who he discovered via Scott Walker. “The Prettiest Star” is a lovely song: it was originally his failed second single, here remade with Ronson’s guitars and some added backup vocals.
The album overflows with great music, but two songs overshadow the others.
The first is “Panic in Detroit”, anarchic and violent, a track which burns with the guttering energy of a trash fire. The female backing vocals pull its genre way from rock, making it sound as indeterminate as any riot. The second is “Lady Grinning Soul”, a delusive opium dream made music. I like it every bit as much as “The Bewlay Brothers”, which means Bowie scarcely ever wrote a better song.
Aladdin Sane is far tighter (and a good bit better) than Ziggy Stardust. The Mick Jagger meets Jiminy Cricket character of Ziggy Stardust evolved into Aladdin Sane, a manic guy caught between two transition points and being torn apart by fame. The trip is finishing, and the come-down has begun. This is 3am insomnia, the album: paranoid, anxious, and still unable to sleep.
David had a remarkable talent for throwing fragments down at random and having them form a complete picture. Diamond Dogs is a fractured album with mismatching halves (the first a concept about a post-apocalyptic gang that rides around on rollerskates, the second an abortive attempt at a stage musical version of Orwell’s 1984) but it ends up being one of his most complete-sounding records.
The halves feed each other, and bleed onto each other. The post-apocalyptic tracks form an optimistic beachhead, which the 1984 side effectively quashes. First the fire, then the flood. I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog: gaudy adventures in the wreck of the Earth, with a grim final page.
The title track is probably the worst song: it sets the tone, but doesn’t get out of the way when it should. Why is it six minutes long? It’s the most blatant homage to the Rolling Stones Bowie ever wrote, and one of the last. Sometimes I skip it.
“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise” is a genius-touched epic, farmed from William S Burrough’s technique of cutting up lines and reassembling them (again with the happy accidents). Bowie’s singing is wonderful, and the mood established by the scrambled lyrics are delirious scissored photographs of urban decay. The three tracks are curiously interchangeable, they all seem to work fine on their own, or in any order. Maybe their positioning is itself a cut-up.
Then “Rebel Rebel” opens with its scorching signature guitar riff, played by Bowie himself. This was his first studio release without Mick Ronson, and he seemed eager to upstage his former axeman. There’s interesting production elements going on in “Rebel Rebel”. Rock guitarists typically lay down two guitar tracks side by side (one panned left, the other right.) Bowie, it appears, only recorded one, panned dead center. This gives his tone a sharper, more brittle sound (compare “Rebel Rebel” with “Watch that Man” or “Hang Onto Yourself”), it cuts rather than bludgeons. It’s a great riff, however it was recorded. There’s a legendary story about how tennis legend John McEnroe (fresh off of Wimbledon), attempted to play it in his hotel suite, and botched it so badly that Bowie himself overheard from the room below, and banged on the door to correct him.
As with “Diamond Dogs”, “Rebel Rebel” feels gaseous. There’s a perfect ending point at 3:30 that Bowie blows right past, continuing for another minute. Rock DJs soon got into the habit of dropping the axe at three and a half minutes, and soon Bowie was doing the same (as you can hear yourself from the version on Reality, for example). Some of David’s songs (eg “Breaking Glass”) grew longer with time: this one grew shorter.
Then the 1984 half of the album begins, which is the stronger side. The songs work marvelously, whether alone or together, and there’s no pacing issues evident.
“Rock ‘n Roll With Me” is the last dance before the war begins. “We are the Dead” is a descending vamp through parlous gray madness, with none of “Rebel Rebel’s” optimism. The tinkling organ sounds aggressively and effectively fake – the sort of musical instrument they’d have in Oceania.
“1984” is a fascinating funk rock experiment, quite similar to the music on Young Americans. Then the album’s greatest track arrives, the astonishing “Big Brother”. “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” ends the album in primitive violence. The sudden, jarring end (in the middle of “Brother”) is particularly effective.
There’s still another story to Diamond Dogs which has nothing to do with apocalypses or Orwell: David succesfully staying in the game as an artist. At the time, the glam genre he’d hung his hat on was falling to pieces. For the first time, T-Rex’s new album was not a top 10 hit, and they never had another one. Mott the Hoople had failed to follow up “All the Young Dudes”. Was Bowie next? Would he join the rest of the glam rockers in obscurity, paved over by uncaring history?
Happily, Diamond Dogs was the album that achieved escape velocity, breaking free from Planet Glam. He left his old style behind, revealing that it had needed him more than he neededit. This is more than an album. It’s the sound of David fighting for his life and winning.
“Great” is a landmine in the English lexicon. It means “eminent or important”, but has picked up a secondary meaning of “qualitatively favorable”. Hitler was a great man, and Hitler wasn’t a great man. Both of these statements are true; sometimes important things are not good and vice versa.
Let’s Dance is great. The album broke Bowie in the United States, and it’s clearly one of the most important things he ever did. Soon Bowie would be on the run from its shadow, trying to recreate it and failing (Tonight), then unsuccessfully circling back to what he had before (Tin Machine). But time has diminished Let’s Dance, and made its weaknesses more apparent. You might say it’s dancing on feet of clay.
The songwriting is very smart (absolutely to a fault). The title track opens with harmonised vocals stepping upwards in thirds, a postmodern reference to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. “China Girl” contains a pentatonic major melody that suggests the famous Oriental Riff. Everything’s allusions and callbacks, Bowie trying to fill dance-floors while remaining palatable to theater types.
The production glitters like diamonds. Cubic zirconium, maybe, but for a few minutes you’re having too much fun to notice. Nile Rodgers’ mix is all edge and cut, meant to decapitate dancers through a club PA. A careful listen reveals that the mid-range frequencies are scooped away, turning the album into a flashy but hollow facade. It’s all highs and lows, and lacks substance. There’s little guitar (why pay Stevie Ray Vaughan for his time and then not use him?), and when it appears it sounds thin and weak.
Side A contains all the hits, plus the forgettable “Without You”. Side B is the more uncertain and interesting one. “Richochet” puts its snare on the 1 and 3, giving it a staggered rhythm that sounds “off” even though it’s perfectly on. The lyrics are portentous enough for the drums to sound like bomb blasts, with Bowie’s vocals a robotic call to take shelter. Not a great track, but you finally see some struggle from Bowie, which is a relief on an album as mercilessly polished as an Apple tech demo.
“Cat People” is a remake, “Criminal World” a cover, but both come off fairly well in Nile Rodgers’ hands (although “Cat People” loses its mystery and rushes to the climax too early). “Shake It” is a disposable dance song that pads out the minutes, and then the album’s over. It’s shocking how fast the Let’s Dance ends, and how little music you’ve heard.
There was nowhere to go after Let’s Dance. It annexes itself with sheer power, the way nuclear warfare ends the need to its existence. Let’s Dance is exterior and nothing else: an amazing exterior, nothing really has depth or stays with you. Low grows stronger every time I listen to it, and Let’s Dance grows weaker.
The album is like its production job – a big but empty musical souffle. It was a monster that Bowie never needed to fear: he was better than it, always. Let’s Dance is great album, but I cannot say that it’s a good one.
Oscar Wilde espoused an idea called kaloprosopia, creating oneself as a beautiful character. “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”
Discussions of who you really were irrelevant to Wilde (and still are, I guess, as he’s dead). People misunderstand everything anyway, so why not be misunderstood as something interesting? Turn yourself into the Taj Mahal, which has so much paint and white marble that nobody can believe there’s plain sandstone underneath.
I don’t know to what extent Bowie liked Wilde. All I know is that he appears on this album’s cover in a dress, and in two more years he’d declare himself gay in the pages of Melody Maker, and twenty years after that he’d declare in Rolling Stone that he was never gay and it was all a publicity stunt, and thirty years after that his former wife Angie would allege to a biographer that she’d caught him in bed with Mick Jagger. Reality? Truth? What’s that?
By 1970, Bowie’s career hadn’t amounted to much. A minor hit with “Space Oddity”, and a follow-up called “The Prettiest Star” which sold 800 copies. Commercial rejection caused him to throw caution to the wind and write some of his most bold and startling material. The Man Who Sold the World is a heavy metal album, recorded several months before Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, an album it nearly matches in riffs and intensity.
Unlike Space Oddity, he had a tight band around him now (an early version of the Spiders, lacking only Trevor Bolder on bass): particularly Mick Ronson, who nearly dominates the album with his guitar work. Tony Visconti was learning a trade at a rapid pace, and his production work almost becomes another instrument.
“Running Gun Blues” was a track Bowie never seemed to keen on performing live after he got famous, for whatever reason (“I’ll slash them cold, I’ll kill them dead! I’ll break them gooks, I’ll crack their heads!”) but it rocks hard and has some strong vocal work. Terrible lyrics aside, it’s a notably early entry in the “crazy Vietnam vet” genre; the album was recorded only a few months after word of the Mai Lai massacre arrived in the United States.
The album doesn’t have one closing song, it somehow has two. “The Man Who Sold the World” is the record’s catchiest cut. “The Supermen” is apocalyptic and Wagnerian, with Bowie shrilling out his lines like an Etonian robot Hitler. Either song would work as an album closer, and it seems only a trick of fate put “The Supermen” last.
But the tracks are like planets orbiting the sun that is “Width of a Circle”, an eight minute epic that predates Ronson’s entrance to the band, although I cannot imagine anyone else playing it. The song is driven by massive riffs, and lead breaks that burn like excoriating fire. Apparently, this became Bowie’s “costume change” song in the Ziggy Stardust era. He’d leave the stage entirely, allowing Ronson to solo over “Width of a Circle” for up to ten minutes!
The lyrics are pretty interesting, fusing the Rolling Stones’ sales pitch for Satanism with homosexual innuendo. I don’t know if the “circle” in the title is a reference to Dante or a something even more nefandous, and that way it will stay. As usual Bowie’s a little cleverer than the Spinal Tappery would suggest: “prayers were small and yellow”…why “yellow”? Cowardice? Or a reference to the yellow book that corrupts Dorian Gray (another Oscar Wilde connection)?
The Man Who Sold the World is full of amazing moments, and it’s a worthy start to a legendary run of albums. Ironically, Bowie himself wasn’t totally on board for it. He’d just gotten married (so the story goes), and beyond a few songs that predated the marriage, his partners in glam had some trouble getting him to write and record. The marriage ended in 1980, but The Man Who Sold the World has lasted and lasted. It’s an enduring classic, and still only his beginning.
My least favorite of the classic DB albums. I don’t like soul music much, and the songs tend to rely upon “call and response” vocal patterns more than actual melodies, which is a shame.
But it’s still special, and contains two of his finest songs. Bowie (at least at this stage of his career) didn’t compromise much: once he picked a style to explore, he carried it through to its conclusion (although whether said conclusion was “The Laughing Gnome” or “Station to Station” depends much on the year and the drugs he was taking). Young Americans represents a total break from the past. It would have bee easy to throw in some riff-driven rockers so the Ziggy Stardust fans have a lifeline, but Bowie rejected any last vestiges of the glam rock that made him famous.
Anyway, amazing song number uno: “Win”. The tone is tender and comforting, propelled by an exposed but deeply affecting vocal performance. I like “Golden Years” a little more, but between the two you have the best work he ever did in this style.
The Beatles cover “Across the Universe” misfires, though considering it also misfired in the Beatles hands, this is probably due to it being a bad song. The “nothing’s gonna change my world…” part remains bewildering: it always makes me think that the singer forgot the vocal melody in front of the microphone and is clumsily ad-libbing a new one.
The song existed as bait to attract John Lennon to the studio, and this gave us the second of Young Americans’ great moments (and a rare #1 hit): “Fame”. The song opens with brass playing a pair of 3/4 bars. The melodies seem to bloom in the air like flowers: their promise false.
The rest of the song is jittery and claustrophobic, consisting of yelped vocals over a sparse rhythm section. Carlos Alomar’s guitar riff is fascinating, jabbing you so quickly and sharply that it seems to penetrate vital organs. If “Fame” was a painting, it would be pointillism. Lennon’s guest contribution is to double the vocals – hitting you with David’s lyrics in stereo.
The rest of the album does the job to varying degrees. The title track (as with the album before it) ends up being kind of a non-event. It sets the tone, but doesn’t really. I quite enjoy “Fascination”, although I miss the heavy riffs and melodic singing.
One dud. Two amazing songs. Bowie would find that America aged him pretty fast, at this stage of his career he produced exceptional work wherever he lived and worked. A pretty amazing accomplishment: we’re watching Bowie jump into empty space…and land on his feet.
The events of the future are unknown, but The Future is an old friend: we’ve seen it come and go before.
First, new horizons appear. The lookout in the ship’s crow’s nest sights a new continent. Astronauts witness the dark side of the moon. But then the horizons blacken. The new continent is despoiled and pillaged. The moon asks the astronauts “you’re here. Now what?” The unknown turns ugly very quickly, as a piece of paper burns from the edges in.
A theme in science fiction (emphasized in the New Wave of the 1970s) is that we might not know what to do with the discoveries of the future: that our wings will burn away, and then we’ll fall. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey took a less (or perhaps more) pessimistic approach, the future will change us so that we cannot fall. Evolution will alchemize us: the primitive shaggy apes are doomed, and though their descendants will succeed in the new world, they are not their descendants. Will we live or die in the future? Maybe it’s not simple. Maybe we’ll be different.
David Bowie saw the film while stoned, and it excited him terribly (interesting coincidence: the astronaut in the film is called “Dave Bowman”). His career was bouncing along like a dead cat at the time – failed bands, a dead-on-arrival album in 1967, and no real musical identity. His manager Ken Pitt was wearily cobbling together a promotional film (the unreleased Love You Till Tuesday), and he needed a filler track. Bowie wrote “Space Oddity”.
Forty four years later, it is Bowie’s signature song. It was performed in space by Chris Hadfield, four hundred kilometers above the earth’s surface. Unlike the apes, the humans, and Bowie himself, “Space Oddity” might never die. It has been selected for quasi-immortality. Nothing about the song makes sense. It’s a filler that will live forever; a tonally complex piece (with fifteen different chords) that can be strummed in basic outline by any starting guitarist; a musically indecisive song (neither sounding like folk or rock) that captures an era and a career. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but clearly we have to make something. It will outlive us, too.
The song’s minor success upon release (it was used by the BBC to score footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing – nobody seems to have realised that the song ends with the astronaut stranded in space!) led to a rushed album, initially self-titled, then rebranded as Space Oddity.
It’s not an unreserved classic. It’s confused at times, as if part of it still exists in imagination, and was imperfectly drawn into reality. The songs are mostly longwinded and complex, and the band doesn’t sound as tight as it needs to be. Tony Visconti’s solution was to slather everything in reverb and room noise, leaving Bowie’s vocal track to hold things together.
Although there’s only one outright bad song – the hideous “God Knows I’m Good” – it’s a frustrating listen at times, sometimes underdeveloped, and sometimes over-egged. Tracks like “Letter to Hermione” are so thin they can hardly stand upright, while “Unwashed and Somewhat Dazed” and “Cygnet Committee” struggle not to collapse under their weight. I want to run a butter knife over it, and smooth all the clumpy parts.
But Space Oddity is obviously a start for him. You can see where “Cygnet Committee” ends and “Savior Machine” begins, for example. There’s moments of real artistry: “Memory of a Free Festival” begins as a pile of indistinct musical fog, and just when you’re good and lost, a ship’s prow pierces the mist. You can hear the song make sense of its own confusion, and it’s one of the finer moments of the album. The album’s lyrics are mostly confessional in nature, which isn’t something we saw a lot of before or after. A lot of it’s about disillusionment. “Letter to Hermione,” “Cygnet Committee”, and “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” are kiss-offs to various relationships and social cliques Bowie was a part of.
Although it lives in the shadow of its very famous track, there’s much of interest here. I would not recommend this as a first Bowie album for anyone, and it might be best as their last: when one’s deep enough in the game to wonder where he came from and how he got to the present. If you want evolutionary steps, this is where we see vestigial legs appearing on Bowie. It’s very spacey, very odd, and very worthwhile.
(Note from management: review is terrible. We estimate that it will be demolished and a better one built by no later than 2039, allowing for cost overruns.)
Here’s where Bowie really gets his shit together. “He already had his shit together on TMWSTW!” Yes, but here he gets his shit even more together. Imagine a 10,000-psi hydraulic shit-compactor that compresses the entire contents of David Bowie’s lower bowel into a one-inch cube. That’s how together his shit is on this album.
Hunky Dory is a lovely collection of music, a classic among classics. Pick a Bowie fan, and ask for their ten favorite songs. I guarantee that at least two and probably three songs mentioned will be from Hunky Dory. (For the sake of sample purity, ignore any female whose answers contains “Magic Dance”.) “Changes”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Life on Mars?”…they just keep on coming, to the point of embarrassment. Damn it, David, you’re supposed give the rubes one good song, and then unload the filler. You’re not supposed to pile up like, four or five classics on each side!
Books could and have been written about why these songs remain listenable and timeless in the face of (ch-ch-)change, bur some of Hunky Dory’s finest moments occur in the the deep cuts. “Andy Warhol” is a song nobody talks about much, and it didn’t place at all in Chris O’Leary’s 2015 Bowie song poll. Yet it contains Mick Ronson’s greatest riff, a jagging, colorful flamenco line that was later borrowed by Metallica for the bridge to “Master of Puppets”. Bowie performed the song personally to Warhol at the Factory in September 1971 – apparently, Warhol completely ignored the song he’d just heard, and commented on Bowie’s shoes!
“Queen Bitch” rips off Velvet Underground and takes them to a new level of violence, pounding the listener into a bloody pulp. But the greatest moment arrives at the very end of the album, with “The Bewlay Brothers”. The song is part acoustic folk, part studio experiment, with a mysterious set of lyrics that fans have spent five decades trying to tease apart.
Bowie would trash the song as portentous nonsense in interviews. But there’s something obviously personal about “Bewlay Brothers”, as if there’s real feelings underneath the fanciful patina of dwarves and rituals. For example, “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not” could only refer to Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, whose seizures would cause him to collapse in public. Bowie’s disavowals seem like an attempt to cordon off the song, and stop people from looking at it. As a man who traded in identities as much as any spy, did he slip up on this one, and reveal the truth?
Hunky Dory‘s weakness might be the production and presentation. Tony’s Visconti’s absence behind the mixing desk is a pretty big deficit: the instrumentation sounds thin. And although the pacing plays some fun tricks (the unresolved tension at the end of “Oh! You Pretty Things” gets cleared up straight away by the F in “Eight Line Poem”) overall the album seems misweighted, with a foppish, baroque first half and a hard rocking second half.
Although it’s only my fourth favorite Bowie album (behind Low, Station to Station, and Aladdin Sane…or damn it, maybe Diamond Dogs?), it’s the one with the catchiest songs. Bowie ruled the 70s like the Beatles ruled the 60s, but if you were to shave his career to the very finest point, it would start with “I still don’t know what I was waiting for” and end with “…malio”.
Tonight is widely regarded as the album where Bowie musically fell apart. It is widely regarded correctly.
It puts its best foot forward with “Loving the Alien”, which aspires to be next David Bowie Classic. Yes, move over “Heroes” and “Rebel Rebel”, it’s time for “Loving the Alien”. Does it live up to its ambitions? What do you think? Of course it fucking doesn’t! The production is smothering, the arrangement uninspired, the melodies rancid. The pre-chorus tries to build, but there’s nothing to build from, nowhere to build to. Guitars and glockenspiels and xylophones lurch upwards in awkward quintuplets…then the chorus arrives, at which point everything goes crash on the floor.
The lyrics attempt a grand statement about peace and unity but come off as another white millionaire wondering why all those brown people in the desert don’t try not killing each other. Seven minutes later, the song ends. It’s self-conscious, tries too hard, and just isn’t good.
He phones it in for the rest of the album, and the line’s engaged. “Blue Jean” is catchy and comes off well, although the xylophonist deserves a beating. The rest of the songs just suck, unless you like Phil Collins. The only saving grace is that Bowie is barely on it.
Let’s get that out of the way, too. He plays no instruments, the tracks are propped up with backing vocals and guest performers, and only two tracks are solely credited to him. Five covers on a nine track album, if you please, padding it out to a whopping thirty five minutes. This is the second shortest Bowie album ever released (after Lodger). You could put the entire thing on a 33RPM record, and have enough space a quarter of Aladdin Sane, or “Station to Station” in its entirety. Is Tonight a serious release? It feels more like a posthumous album. It’s as if Bowie died in 1983, and his label went fishing through his rubbish bin for tapes.
I have no more words to say. It’s like reviewing a box of empty air. Call me crazy, but I actually expect David Bowie albums to have David Bowie on them.
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps is Bowie’s Except Album, meaning it often appears along with the word “except”. “Bowie sucked in the 80s, except for Scary Monsters“. “Bowie was never good when he tried for mainstream success, except for Scary Monsters“, and so forth.
It’s also often spoken about in the same sentence as “scary” and “monsters”. Though that’s less surprising, since that’s the name of the album. It would be strange to talk about the album without mentioning its name, although it would be a fun challenge to do so (and also without identifying it another way, such as “the Bowie album from 1980”). Kafka led a man to the executioner’s block without ever mentioning his crime. Could you arrange words in such a fashion that a reader understands the music, without ever actually being made aware that the album exists?
Scary Monsters is about decay. Not decomposition, not morbidity, just…things falling apart, in a general sense. It’s an album about the crack in your ceiling, and the verdigris embroidering your bathroom floor. All the things you’ve been meaning to fix, even as they advance to an event horizon where it’s not worth the bother.
Bowie assembled some of the finest guitarists to ever set plectrum to string, and made them play sloppily. Vocals are deliberately flat, or mangled oddly in the mixing room (the heavy tremolo rattling the chorus of the title track both disturbs and fascinates). The lyrics discuss fashion and aging, yet they all seem to be about the House of Usher. The building is tumbling down, we’re caught inside it, and we can never leave. Bowie sings about disillusionment and weariness, his voice cracked and broken. None of his albums – not even Aladdin Sane or Outside – evoke this kind of genteel neglect.
“It’s No Game, Pt 1” opens the album in thuggish fashion. Someone took the song, punched it around, and gave it a black eye. Fripp’s guitar part swirls like stagnant water, the drums kick out at you, and it’s interrupted by outbursts of Japanese female vocals, as though someone spliced in the hourly Harajuku traffic report. Although this is the closest solo Bowie ever went to punk rock, it’s cerebral and calculated beneath the blood: more like Public Image Ltd than the Sex Pistols.
Other tracks document various vanishing trends in Bowie’s music. One of the last great Bowie epics (“Teenage Wildlife”) can be found here, as can shorter but equally memorable cuts like “Up the Hill Backwards”. Be sure to get the version with the bonus track, “Crystal Japan”, which was written to score a TV ad for a sake company (of all things) but dredges up strong memories from the Brian Eno years.
“It’s No Game, Pt 2” is a slower and less enthusiastic reprise of the first part. There’s an old Hollywood joke: at eight in the morning you’re shooting Citizen Kane, at eight in the evening you’ll settle for Plan 9 From Outer Space. This song captures that kind of exhaustion and weariness, freezing it under glass.
This album has a reputation as a Bowie threw away most of his artistic pretensions and went fishing for hits. Happily, he caught one (“Ashes to Ashes”). Even more happily, the reputation is wrong: he didn’t throw his artistry very far after all. There’s louche experimental moments all over Scary Monsters. This is the rarest thing: an artistically successful commodity. It’s also one of his most consistent and listenable works. Clearly, the future was bright. He would not put a foot wrong in the 1980s.