There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out. One tries as much as possible to put oneself on the line artistically. But after the Dadaists, who pronounced that art is dead…Once you’ve said art is dead, it’s very hard to get more radical than that. Since 1924 art’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing…
David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.
Scary Monsters,* the last consensus “great” Bowie album, is Bowie and Tony Visconti bent on correcting the flaws of Lodger. Visconti wanted a better sound and mix, using the just-opened Power Station in New York for rhythm tracks and his own Good Earth Studios in London for vocals and overdubs. Bowie cut back on the vocal-booth improvisation and took time to actually write; once the backing tracks were down, Bowie spent two months working on top melodies and lyrics.
So Bowie and Visconti honed Scary Monsters to an edge: a joke song about Jamaica turned into an indictment of fashion; something called “People Are Turning to Gold” became the return of Major Tom and a career summary/epitaph. Regardless of what Bowie said about Scary Monsters being full of “mistakes,” the record was his most commercially-minded album since Young Americans. Chuck Hammer, recruited from Lou Reed’s band for guitar/synth overdubs, recalled an intense mood in the studio, with Visconti charting the record’s progress as though he was running a lunar survey. (Scary Monsters was “Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously,” Robert Fripp said at the time. “Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously—the city certainly has that effect.“)
It worked, mostly. Monsters restored Bowie’s fortunes in the UK, where he got a #1 and two other hit singles from it (it didn’t do much in the US, which had only taken to disco Bowie). Monsters has a more unified, more clarified sound: there’s an exuberant anger in its tight performances and a dedication to rhythm not seen since Station to Station. If a bit front-loaded (Side A >> Side B), it’s weathered the past thirty years as well as anything of its time has—Monsters still sounds like Bowie’s “modern” record. Unfairly or no, it became the watermark: everything Bowie’s made since has been measured against it.
Lodger was Bowie processing himself as an influence. Scary Monsters went further: it’s a rummaging through an overgrown estate. Three of its ten tracks recycle Bowie outtakes of the early ’70s, other songs call back to everything from “Heroes” to “Laughing Gnome” to “Rupert the Riley,” and course, the lead single is a sequel to “Space Oddity.” Even the LP sleeve is retrospective, with the return of “Berlin” Bowie’s various emblems—Low‘s Man Who Fell to Earth, the Roquairol tribute of “Heroes” and the mugging victim from Lodger (attached to Aladdin Sane’s body)—now smeared, shrunken and distorted. It’s a touring company disbanding. Even Bowie’s latest incarnation as a grim clown was a nod to the past, to Bowie’s time with Lindsay Kemp in the late ’60s (“The Mime Songs”), when, as he recalled, Bowie had “joined the circus.” But there are two clowns on the cover: the somber, dignified one who looks straight out at you and the disheveled one hiding behind, casting a shadow that fills half of the frame.
Monsters, intended to establish Bowie as an Eighties artist, seemed equally like a closing statement, sampling, mocking and mourning the Sixties and Seventies, with guests ranging from Pete Townshend to old hands like Roy Bittan and Robert Fripp to (relative) newcomers like Tom Verlaine. The record also marks a casting change, with Monsters being the last round for various supporting players. Fripp would never work with Bowie again; it’s the last time Bowie would ever record with his brilliant rhythm section, George Murray and Dennis Davis; it’s the last Visconti-produced Bowie album until Bush the Younger’s administration.
Versions of “It’s No Game” open and close Scary Monsters, and the two tracks in turn are framed by the stereo-miked sounds of Visconti’s Lyrec 24-track tape deck. The first sound heard on the record is Visconti rewinding the deck and pressing “play”; the last is the tape spooling out.
“Part 2,” confusingly, was the first version of “It’s No Game,” the only track completed during the Power Station sessions in February 1980. The song’s chronology recalled John Lennon’s “Revolution,” recorded first as a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar-based track (the White Album version) and then reconstituted a month later as a compressed, sped-up electric rocker for the single. Lennon, who Bowie saw often during the Monsters sessions, inspired the sound of “Game,” as Bowie later admitted—the shrieked, bellowed lines in “Pt. 1” was Bowie’s attempt at the righteous zeal of “Instant Karma,” the catharsis of Plastic Ono Band. It’s no coincidence that “Pt. 1” is sung by an Englishman and a Japanese woman.
“It’s No Game” is the latest development in Bowie’s taste for protest songs, an angrier “Fantastic Voyage,” a broader “Repetition.” A man is woken up by a noise in the street. He sits, flicking through TV channels, disgusted and bewildered by what he’s seeing—the latest set of brownshirts, protesters clubbed on the streets, old dictators, new presidents (he turns from a documentary on refugees to a dish-soap advertisement). The world is reduced to flickering images, silhouettes and shadow, but as awful as the world is, the singer’s still in exile from it. “I am barred from the event,” he starts screaming. “I really don’t understand the situation.” One verse ends with a line seemingly out of Noel Coward: “To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading.”
The two “It’s No Games” also are parodies of protest songs (Bowie can’t resist throwing in some wordplay either, with a pun on Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”). “Game Pt. 2,” the elder of the pair, is a worn-out rant. As Bowie said in 1980: What happens when a protest or angry statement is thrown against the wall (like “camel shit,” apparently) so many times is that the speaker finds that he has no energy to give any impact anymore. It comes over in that very lilting, very melodic kind of superficial level [of “Part 2”]. The sentiment is exactly the same as in the first part but the ambiance has changed, with a gentle, almost nostalgic quality to it, rather than being an angry vehement statement.
“Game Pt. 2,” with its measured, restrained vocal, its precise guitars (Carlos Alomar playing three miniature riffs at various points in the verses) and steady rhythms, seems like a sanctioned protest, a nostalgic fit of controlled anger. Fittingly, the chorus and bridge rework Bowie’s “Tired of My Life,” a maudlin, self-pitying song dating back to Bowie’s teens; the singer’s wearied by life in the way only a barely-grown man would be. Bowie had cut a demo of it around the time of the Hunky Dory sessions with Mick Ronson on harmonies (it’s sadly in debt to Crosby, Stills & Nash), but had set it aside.
The reused pieces of “Tired of My Life” add to the lassitude of “Game Pt. 2,” the former’s wordless chorus melody taken up by the soaring backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti, with Visconti singing the higher notes). A key change to E major comes before Carlos Alomar’s solo (like “Look Back in Anger,” it’s a neat little rhythm guitar run, with as much empty space as notes), then a fall back to D major for the last verse. The track closes neatly and resoundingly, with nothing changed; the tape runs out, the record sticks in its groove, the disc turns off, another MP3 starts.
A world, or at least a side, away is the manic revision of “Game,” its cracked remix, the sinister clown to “Pt. 2″‘s somber one. “Game Pt. 1,” once the tape starts rolling, jump cuts to Dennis Davis waving a soccer ratchet over his head while he counts the band in. For the first time since Low, Visconti used the 910 Harmonizer in force (it’s even applied to the ratchet). The new ingredient is the Power Station, whose room ambiance, mikes and consoles would create the ’80s gated drum sound. If Visconti and Davis arguably pioneered that sound on Low, their work on Monsters seems a blueprint designed for common use.
The first voice on the track is the Japanese actress Michi Hirota (she’s on the cover of Sparks’ Kimono My House), snapping “Shirueto ya kagega!” (“silhouettes and shadows,” full translation here). Hirota originally was to coach Bowie in voicing the Japanese translation (by the professor Hisahi Miura). But as the translation was literal, it was hard for Hirota to make the lines fit the vocal melody—there were just too many syllables. The obstacle became an inspiration: Bowie asked Hirota to recite the lyric herself, but in an aggressive “masculine” manner, shouting and barking out the words.
The Japanese language has a sharply defined gender separation, with men and women (and older men/younger men, etc.) using different words, tenses and phrasings. If a woman was to speak the way Hirota does on “Game,” it would still be startling in today’s Japan; more than that, it just wouldn’t be done. For example, Hirota says “ore,” the pronoun for “I” which only an older Japanese man would use; she also uses more direct verb endings than a woman typically would. Her whole delivery is an aggressive, exaggerated masculine tone (it’s basically how a Japanese teenage boy would speak).
So Bowie intended Hirota to be the song’s secret revolutionary: I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.
Hirota’s first barrage of words triggers Bowie, whose voice seems blown out by rage, to a disturbing and eventually comic extent. Bowie’s voice strangles on the octave leaps and falls of “GAME!!” while he seems to tear his vocal chords with his long screams on “HEAVVVEN” or “SIT-u-a-SHUUUUUUN”. The “Tired of My Life” vocal harmonies, when they arrive, serve as an island of stability for the ear. Bowie’s performance is both acting out the “Western” equivalent to Hirota’s aggressive performance, and also mocking the high-octane rants of the punks. More sound, more fury, ending the same way.
Into all this barges Robert Fripp, asked by Bowie to imagine trying to outplay B.B. King in a guitar duel. Along with his stunning work on Another Green World, Scary Monsters is Fripp’s peak: he never quite sounded as good as this again, whether it was due to Visconti’s use of room mikes, Harmonizers and other tools, or Fripp’s frame of mind, or the material he had to work with. Fripp’s eight-bar solo in “Game,” fired by the key change after the “makes all the papers” line, is as simple as it’s craftily melodic: it suggests the track’s on the verge of moving somewhere unintended, until Davis’ thudding fills yoke it back. Fripp gets off another round in the coda (where the time shifts to 3/4), spiraling and spiraling until Bowie howls at him to shut up.
“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers.” It’s one of the oldest lines in the song, written for “Tired of My Life” at a time when Bowie was still living in Beckenham, walking the streets unnoticed, his name only his name. In “Pt 2” Bowie sings the line as a melancholy descending phrase; in “Pt. 1” Bowie (who’s double-tracked with himself) sneers the line out, biting on the “s” in “papers,” and a beat later Hirota spikes in with “shinbun wa kakitateru!!, lacerating her last vowels.
On December 8, 1980, Bowie was performing The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre, 20 or so blocks away from the Dakota on 72nd Street where, arriving home around 11, John Lennon was shot three times. He died in the ambulance that came for him. His killer reportedly had attended an Elephant Man show a few days before. Bowie found his way to May Pang’s apartment and kept screaming “what the fuck is going on in this world!!” Then he sat and watched television coverage of the Lennon killing until dawn.
Many thanks to Stephen Ryan for his translation and various insights, as well as my favorite globetrotter Sarah.
Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC and (for Pt. 1) April 1980 at Good Earth Studios, London. On Scary Monsters. Bonus: an interesting (if muddy) fan remix of the two, “It’s No Game (Pt. 3).”
* Utter minutia: the album is sometimes referred to as Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) but it’s only identified as Scary Monsters on the LP spine and disc label (though “Super Creeps” is on the back cover).