Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), early version.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (live, 1987).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (with Frank Black, live, 1996).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (live, 1996).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (The Jack Docherty Show, 1997).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (Live At the 10 Spot, 1997).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (acoustic version, 1997).

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” is a corrupter corrupted: a contemporary Clarissa and Lovelace. A man plays havoc with a fragile girl, drumming up her insecurities, inciting her worst fears, making her dependent on him. She winds up broken, out on the street talking to herself and chased by demons, but by now he’s obsessed with her. Whatever depths she plummets, he’ll fall with her, hand in hand.

It’s Bowie’s most aggressive straight-up rock track since “Diamond Dogs.” He called “Scary Monsters” at the time “a piece of Londonism,” narrated by a “criminal with a conscience who talks about how he corrupted a fine young mind,” and he sang it in his Mockney accent (though not entirely—he sings “again” (at the close of the first verse) fairly flat, not as “ah-GAYN”). It’s an odd move, perhaps an attempt to give a “South London” realism to the track or add to its lurid horror-movie feel (the title was apparently inspired by a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad campaign—“Scary Monsters and Super Heroes”). Bowie, as always dedicated to his whims, kept the accent for all subsequent live performances of the song.

“Scary Monsters” is made of violent collisions of sound—the manic abrasiveness of Robert Fripp’s guitar tone as it snarls, screams, mocks the singer throughout; the descending dog-bark bassline in the intro; the feverish acoustic guitar strumming, as if played by someone with a gun trained on them; the hissing sibilance in Bowie’s vocal (“now she’s stupid in the street and she can’t socialize”); the occasional clanging in the left channel, the sonic equivalent of a strobe light*; Dennis Davis’ echoing tom fills punctuating each vocal phrase; the distorted, quavering backing vocals (all by Bowie) that sound like a violent argument cutting into a radio signal.

Along with “Teenage Wildlife,” “Scary Monsters” has Fripp’s best playing on the record: here, especially in his main 10-bar solo, he seems to be playing all the “wrong” notes—the solo comes when expected, a burst of energy after the second chorus, but it doesn’t provide release as much as it drags you further into the mire. Fripp later said that for his solo, he used as a starting point the chords of the bridge rather than of the intro, sounding the notes “D” and “B” as a sonic tribute to his collaborator. While there’s been some speculation that Fripp used his “new standard tuning” on Scary Monsters, tuning his guitar in fifths (CGDAEG), he didn’t start using the tuning until around 1984. Fripp’s work here appears to have just been his Les Paul, a few amps, room reverb, a handful of other tricks and assorted brilliance.

Tony Visconti thickened the mix: using an EDP “Wasp” synthesizer, he programmed the “barking dog” sound and had various instruments trigger others, making a concatenation of sounds. For instance Davis’ snare was fed into the “trigger circuit” of the Wasp, while Davis’ eighth notes on the kick drum triggered the sound of George Murray’s treated bass—the latter, though recorded conventionally in the early LP sessions, was routed through a Kepex noise gate during overdubs. Also “sometimes the kick drum and tom-toms that bled into the snare drum track also triggered the sequence,” Visconti wrote.

Much like “Diamond Dogs,” the result is a murky, frenetic, repurposed-sounding track, but the energy of the players, Bowie’s sly, scraping vocal and, most of all, the pure hooks of the chorus (the godfather of many Pixies and Nine Inch Nails choruses—when Frank Black and Trent Reznor sang “Scary Monsters” with Bowie in the mid-’90s, it was like they were covering themselves) made it a rock standard despite its dedicated strangeness.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC, and April 1980 at Good Earth Studios. Released as a single in January 1981 (RCA BOW 8, #20 UK). Played live in 1983, 1987, 1995 and 1997. In the latter year, “Scary Monsters” became a centerpiece of Bowie’s Earthling tour, and was a go-to performance for TV appearances: The Jack Docherty Show, Live at the 10 Spot, Saturday Night Live, etc.

* This is a cowbell run through a guitar distortion pedal, very indebted to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” (See links in comments.) Thanks to Marion Brent for finding this.

Top: Still from untitled short film documenting New York City (see here), shot during autumn 1980. Filmmaker(s) unknown.

25 Responses to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

  1. Thanks for the blog. Keep up the good work. Always liked this song but not the mockney accent. But the corn flakes inspiration? I would never have guessed it but it does sound vaugely familiar.

  2. Remco says:

    I love the way your enthousiasm shows on the really great tracks (and this is certainly one of them). I hope you can keep up writing such inspired pieces once the quality starts dropping, which should be fairly soon

  3. diamond dog says:

    Great article (though I expected more disection ?) as ever on one of the albums finest pieces and one of his seminal stage favs.
    I like the mockney accent …in fact just turn it up to full and listen to it till your ears bleed.

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, this one was like “Queen Bitch” for me—a song that makes words rather pointless. All that you can say, really, is “play it loud & if you don’t like it, you lose.”

  4. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Do we know who plays the acoustic guitar on this?
    When it came out I thought it owed a lot to Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control. It seemed like the first major case of Bowie being influenced by the work of his own fans. It’s worth looking for the scene from the film ‘Control’ when they are recording ‘She’s Lost Control’; compare the use of the aerosol can with Visconti’s methods.

    • col1234 says:

      probably Visconti—he’s on acoustic on most of the other tracks. But maybe Alomar.

      haven’t seen that film yet. I do think Joy Division was the one successor DB respected/feared—you never see any cracks about them from him, the way there are about Numan.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        it’s worth watching. There’s an interesting scene when they have just recorded one of their best songs and Ian Curtis is mad at himself. When asked what’s wrong, he explains that he’s mad because he sounds like Bowie, and Bowie was a fake because he didn’t ‘kick it in the head when he was twenty five.’ It’s indicative of what happened to a lot of (British?) Bowie fans who went on to become successful in their own right; they disowned him and pretended Bowie’s influences were their influences. (I remember going out one night when ‘Under Pressure’ was number one. It had been on Top of the Pops earlier in the evening. One of the people in the group I was with – he was in a relatively successful band at the time, a band often linked with Joy Division – pretended to have never even heard of Bowie.)

  5. Marion Brent says:

    http://imomus.com/index032010a.html

    If you scroll down about two-thirds of the way, you’ll find Momus’s musings on Scary Monsters and She’s Lost Control, plus a link to a 1980 interview where Bowie namechecks Wire and Joy Division as his two favourite new British bands.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Thanks for those. I wanted to mention that ‘Wire and Joy Division’ interview but couldn’t remember its source. As someone who spent most of 1979/1980 listening to 154 and Unknown Pleasures, it was a great thrill to hear that Bowie was doing the same as me. Do you get the ‘Irish’ bit in the interview?

      • Marion Brent says:

        No, I don’t get the Irish bit! Maybe he was thinking of U2 or something. That whole interview is pretty good, he talks a lot about Scary Monsters. It’s here:

        [audio src="http://imomus.com/bowiepeeblesnyc051280.mp3" /]

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Thanks again. The fact that the interview was conducted the day before Lennon was shot adds a poignancy to some of the comments about life in New York.
        There’s a whole thesis to be written about Bowie’s use of voice/accent in interviews.

      • Marion Brent says:

        Yes, when I was reading this entry about Bowie’s “mockney” accent, I was thinking that I’ve heard him speak in an accent no so far removed from that in the nineties and noughties! But in the late seventies/early eighties, he sounded a good deal posher, as if trying to burnish his credentials as artist intellectual.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Yes, that late seventies posh is my personal favourite. Best example is the 1975 Russell Harty interview. There’s one more you missed out and that’s his ‘London Laddish’ accent. He’s actually very good at accents; there’s a Parkinson interview where he talks about Mick Ronson and his father and he does his ‘Yorkshire’. Funny and revealing in its own way.

  6. Marion Brent says:

    Also on that link an interview with Visconti about the song and a snippet from the original demo (with different words).

  7. col1234 says:

    Thanks for this find–it’s something I vaguely remembered but forgot about, and very valuable. Made a note of it in the entry.

  8. Jeremy Earl says:

    Wow this subject is link laden!

    “concatenation”? i love it. The more i read this blog the I realise that I need to read Visconti’s autobiography. As for Scary Monsters? Brilliant song really, although I’ve never been a major fan of its live treatments.

    Thanks for all the interview links.

  9. Maj says:

    This song is a masterpiece, IMO. Great rock song & great guitar work on it, that’s for sure. I usually don’t care for guitar and guitar solos but even I have to admit Fripp is doing some frippin’ (bad pun) great work there. But I guess it’s the drums & percussions that really sell this song to my ears.🙂

    • Maj says:

      Oh, one more note. I wonder if “you know what I mean” is supposed to be a reference to Alfie. I know it’s a fairly common filler phrase but since Alfie is a very Cockney guy (& uses this phrase) & screws girls over, Scary Monsters just kinda reminds me of the film & vice versa.

  10. diamond dog says:

    ive dug this out again and give it a further listen sounds like an anvil being struck throughout?? just purchased the portuguese vinyl with laminated front and almost green reverse cover? been after it for ages so snapped it up , its also on a orange label , the uk was the awful black.
    I think there is a slight influence of joy division on there but they are worlds apart in style , shes lost control was for me their most immediate and punchy tunes obviously influenced by the sound on the idiot (which was on the turntable when he took his life?) Curtis probably like most of us is very precious about Bowie and feel they have the right to slag him…lets face it no idiot or low ..no joy division ..so good job he did not kick in the head when he was 25!!!

  11. swanstep says:

    Great, strange track although, like some others here, I can do without the mockney too. I think Psychedelic Furs get about 30% of their career from this. I’ve never thought about She’s Lost Control here – maybe…interesting. (I’ve heard some people urge that the acoustic strums at the beginning of Up the Hill Backwards are a Love Will Tear Us Apart crib/reference. I’ve been skeptical of that but now I’m thinking… maybe!)

  12. Momus says:

    A possible source for the line “she asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind”. At about this time the New Musical Express produced an insert supplement (possibly designed by Barney Bubbles) called The NME Book of Modern Rock. It was a sort of New Wave encyclopedia, and the entry on Bowie (probably written by Tony Parsons) described him as possessing “a charisma which, in other contexts, would be dangerous”. Bowie seems to have liked the back-handed compliment; he later took Parsons out for dinner at the Ivy.

  13. Edward says:

    For me “Scary Monsters” the song is very inspired by “Fat Mamma Kick” by the Walker Brothers from their last LP “Nite Flights”. In fact SM the album takes the 4 songs Scott Walker wrote for NF and runs with it.

  14. WRGerman says:

    Did anyone else read Iggy Pop’s tribute to Bowie in Rolling Stone? He mentioned that in 1974, Bowie played him a rough early version on acoustic, entitled “Running Scared” and offered it to Iggy, who said he didn’t know what to do with it.

    “David was not a person to waste a piece of music: Never waste an idea. I first heard his 1980 song “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” when we were in a house on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was called “Running Scared” at the time. He was playing it on the guitar and wanted to know if I could do something with it. I couldn’t. He kept it and worked it up.

    That was another big thing I learned: Don’t throw stuff away.”

  15. Big Biscuit says:

    One of my favorite Bowie rockers. I’ve found it curious and wondered if anyone else had ever noticed that in live performances, he never sings the “and she do” part of the second verse? And I also have no idea how a walk changes whether one is a killer or not unless the poor woman was so messed up she couldn’t walk straight after the protaginist in the song was done with her?

  16. greg says:

    Any ideas about who Jimmy is? Way back when, before I read the lyrics, I always assumed it was Jimi’s wailing guitar, then maybe Page, now maybe Osterberg. Do we know?

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