“Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a song: even its title is a grotesque hybrid.* Its parts include: Bowie’s simpering, vaguely-rapped verses which at times sound as though he’s doing an Old Hollywood “Asian” accent (recall that Bowie used a borderline-racist accent on “China Girl” during the Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider tours); a Prince-inspired emoted pre-chorus; a “soul” chorus that’s meant to be a tribute to Smokey Robinson but which sounds more like Johnny Hates Jazz; and a mid-track eight-bar “Method” rap by Mickey Rourke.
Bowie’s lyric also seems cobbled together from a few bad ideas. It starts with a list of sub-Jim Carroll doper casualties, builds steam with a run of inane similes (life is a broken arrow, memory is a swinging door—I’m surprised we didn’t learn love is like a rose with thorns, too). Then in the chorus, Bowie tries to reboot the song and make it a generic soul ballad. All of this is delivered via one of Bowie’s most excruciating vocals on record, with the showboating high Gs on “happy ev’ry day of your LIIIIFE” apparently meant to distract you from noticing how poorly sung the rest of it is. The melody is so contorted, the lyric so ill-suited to it, that Bowie pronounces “Chernobyl” as “CheRR-no-BEEL” to make it scan.**
Then there’s the Rourke rap. Rourke and Bowie had met in London and briefly were a regular duo in the clubs; it was as though Rourke was auditioning for Bowie’s new “wild man” companion after Iggy Pop had sent in his notice. To be fair, as ludicrous as it is (“blew heads outta shape in the name of Trotsky, Sinn Fein, Hitler, cash down” (are these time-traveling mercenaries?)), the rap’s far from the worst offender in the track—Rourke sells his junk better than Bowie. Rourke’s not aping Run-DMC as much as Joe Strummer or Paul Simonon (as apparently was Bowie: the way he sings “vermin…cowardice…lice” seems like a parody of “Straight to Hell”) in one of the Clash’s gonzo attempts at rap, like “Red Angel Dragnet.”
Bowie later tried to explain the song’s disjunction by saying it represented “how people are trying to get together in the face of so many disasters and catastrophes, socially around them, never knowing if they’re going to survive it themselves. The one thing they have got to cling on to is each other.” But if each scenario—grubby “street” life, cloud-headed romantic dreams—rings false, slapping the two together just doubles down on the mistake.
There’s a few minor things of musical interest—while the song’s harmonically minimalist, with just four chords, all of them are extended: a C major 7th and a C major 9th alternate as the tonic chord until a B-flat major 9th/D in the pre-chorus upends their dominance, using a D Minor 7th as a pivot chord. There’s also an out-of-nowhere bar of 5/4 in one of the last choruses, which just serves to throw an ugly song further out of whack. Just dreadful stuff, the sheer dregs of Bowie’s recorded life.
* As the song’s partially titled after an Earth, Wind & Fire hit and nearly plagiarizes its chorus in the outro, I suppose Bowie considered “Shining Star” to be an EWF tribute as much as a Smokey Robinson one, and some of his singing in the choruses does seem like an attempt to ape Philip Bailey.
** That said, it may be closer to the Russian pronunciation (still sounds comical when Bowie sings it, though.)
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, at Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down. Rehearsed for the Glass Spider tour but somehow didn’t make the cut.
Top: “Falk v010,” “My Computer Class, 1987, Kleinmachnow, East Germany.” Featuring “a kick ass KC85/II sporting 8 KiloByte RAM, a NO SMALL CAPS rubber round keyboard, a whopping “HD ready” 320×256 pixel screen, a “save me 10 times and you have one functioning copy” cassette recorder and an operating system called CAOS (Cassette Aided Operating System) with lovely BASIC.” My high school in Connecticut, in 1987, didn’t have anything better, though I think we had PASCAL by ’88.