Over a long, discursive interview that he gave the NME in the summer of 1980, Bowie remembered the future. He regretted that he never had the time and the finances to mount a Diamond Dogs musical/film, for which he had even designed set models. While admitting that his scenario had dated, Bowie thought the Diamond Dogs world of feral punk kids roller-skating around ruined cities (because there was no more fuel/cars left) was still a more credible near-future than the one being romanticized by Gary Numan and the Human League: a future of sentient cars and robotic men, of dreams of wires. “The kleen-machine future,” as the interviewer Angus MacKinnon called it. A false myth, Bowie said, one perpetuated by television, politicians and advertisers.
“I don’t believe in this hi-tech society at all,” Bowie said on his promo disc for Scary Monsters. “I don’t believe it exists: I think it’s a great myth…on a very emotional, people level one foresees [the future] instead becoming more terrifyingly real, anti-tech. The old symbolic street fighting thing probably won’t be as symbolic as it once was, but will become a reality. One can foresee it in the dreadful Eighties.”
Bowie, a product of the Sixties in many ways, had never been a Utopian. His early Buddhist leanings had led him to regard time and history as being cyclic, having no real progression, just the occasional strain of coherence set against a backdrop of entropic decay. His proposed futures were generally cataclysms: inter-generational war, neo-fascists, Big Brothers, nuclear holocausts; the only potential liberation came from his Buddhist superhero figures (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”) that later evolved into Ziggy Stardust. They only delayed the inevitable. At the end of “Freecloud,” a town lies in ruins; Ziggy either kills himself or is torn apart by his fans.
Now here he was in 1980, a year that Bowie had half-expected never to come. No matter—he doubled down with “Scream Like a Baby,” a brutal near-future SF song that could have come off The Man Who Sold The World. It seems in part a rebuke to Gary Numan, who, as Bowie told the NME, had spent much of his career remaking “Saviour Machine” (“he’s confined himself terrifically,” Bowie said of Numan, the dagger neatly sliding in). “Scream Like a Baby” also calls back to “All the Madmen,” with its narrator being institutionalized and civilized by force.
The lyric’s fractured storyline—gays and other “undesirables” clubbed off the streets, sent into reeducation camps, drugged, brainwashed and, in some cases, killed—was a common scenario of the time: there was a chill in the air, some almost willing the repression to come. “Scream Like a Baby” could be set in the London of Alan Moore’s near-contemporary V for Vendetta, with its post-nuclear-war fascist Britain that has dispatched its minorities and troublemakers via concentration camps. Both also echo the paranoid early hip-hop classic, Brother D with Collective Effort’s “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?”* Brother D is a Cassandra in a disco, grabbing people at a party, breaking up dances, ranting about genocide: “they’re killing us in the street,” “it ain’t no party in a police state,” “America’s got concentration camps,” “the ovens may be hot by the break of dawn,” “the party may end one day soon, when they round the niggers up in the afternoon.“
“Scream Like a Baby” is a remake of “I Am a Laser,” a song that Bowie wrote for his would-be soul trio, the Astronettes. The original idea was just to do a straight revival of the song, which Tony Visconti was familiar with, having helped arrange the original. “Laser” was the best Astronettes composition, with its soaring chorus and swaggering lyric, and Bowie kept most of the original structure, only expanding the bridge by a few bars.
Visconti liked the song in part because, being an older piece, it had one of Bowie’s brilliantly chaotic chord progressions. The verses are built of two clusters of three chords (Cm-Abj7-G7 (e.g., “and I hide under blankets“) and Bb-Ab6-Eb (“and I mixed with other colors“)), two descending progressions in the key of E flat. The verses are two repeats of each progression, then repeated. The refrain, however, while starting on E-flat, builds to a major chord resolution, while the six-bar bridge is a run of augmented (+) and diminished (°) chords, some of which have no relation to the home key—Gm7/sus4, C#dim7, F5+, C#°, Gm9, Gm7+. It adds to the dissonance fueled by Bowie’s varisped vocals.
On much of Scary Monsters, Bowie strategically used choruses and distorted vocal overdubs to shadow or submerge his voice. There’s often the sense that the singer is being undermined by someone else—a conscience, a secret narrator. One repeated trick was having the backing vocal track be off-beat and mixed low, murmuring back the lead vocal’s lines (it’s used to great effect in “Ashes to Ashes”).
In the bridge of “Scream Like a Baby,” starting at 2:39, Bowie’s two vocal tracks, singing the same lines and divided in the left and right channels, are gradually separated as Visconti speeds up one track while slowing down the other. It’s a schizophrenic breakdown, and suggests the “Sam” that the singer laments could well be himself, a liberating figure that’s actually a splintered piece of the singer’s personality, one eventually snuffed out by his treatment. It’s why the rousing Astronettes chorus, originally intended to be a spotlight for Ava Cherry, still fits—the singer’s idealizing Sam, whoever he really is, and it makes the return of the “Laughing Gnome” descending progression (on Andy Clark’s synthesizer) before the chorus seem even more ominous. (It’s accompanied on the second round by Bowie’s stammered, never-completed “so-cie-ty.”)
Of course, the time of “Cars” and Scary Monsters and V for Vendetta is as far away from us today as the Korean War was to them. Which future won out? You could argue that Numan got it right after all, that the world of 2011, with its blurriness between virtual and actual reality, the omnipresence of machines, seems to be his. But Bowie’s counter-future, a scrabbling, debased world of street fighting, of organized fear and brute force, isn’t that far beneath it. “Scream Like a Baby” seems frantic and dated, or it still just may be too early.
Recorded February 1980, Power Station NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as the B-side of “Fashion,” October 1980. Rehearsed for, but not performed in, the Glass Spider tour of 1987.
* Brother D was Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn, a Brooklyn math teacher/activist who recorded, with the Collective Effort, for the Clappers label in 1980. In a mild contrast to other record labels, Clappers was founded as a Maoist effort.
Top: “urdarntootin,” “London Poultry Shop,” 1980; V meets Evey, “V for Vendetta: The Villain,” Warrior #1, March 1982.