Scary Monsters at 40

Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in the following week in the US, sales there were more in line with Bowie’s withered chart performances of the late Seventies. In the US, it peaked at #12 on Billboard and didn’t produce a single chart pop hit, though it got decent album rock airplay.

Reviewers (mostly) praised it at the time and would keep doing so; the cliché “best since Scary Monsters” would appear in assessments of Tin Machine, or Black Tie White Noise, or Outside, or Heathen. Scary Monsters became an end-stop. The Last Great Bowie Album, Until Maybe This One (Well, No).

Scary Monsters is dressed as a finale, one of several in Bowie’s life. The last album that Bowie made for RCA, concluding a sequence that had begun with Hunky Dory. The last Bowie album in the 20th Century produced by Tony Visconti—their friendship frayed soon afterward; they didn’t speak for years. The last Bowie album with Robert Fripp, the last with the magnificent rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray.

There was its recycling, its sense of recurrence. Major Tom returns, as does Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot. Much like the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous Tattoo You, Scary Monsters refurbished older, abandoned songs: six of its ten tracks derive from or reference late Sixties-early Seventies Bowie compositions. It’s a rummage through an estate sale, finding a “Laughing Gnome” single, an Astronettes demo. Edward Bell’s album cover illustration (see below) includes a Berlin Bowie retrospective, the LP cover characters now blurred, shrunken, distorted. Bowie’s role as a clown was a nod to his time “in the circus” with Kemp in the late Sixties — his costume was designed by Natasha Korniloff, who had worked with him and Kemp in those years. But there are two clowns on the album cover: the dignified one who looks straight at you, and the disheveled one behind him, casting a long shadow.

Is it possible, given all of this baggage, to hear the album fresh today? To hear it as listeners in 1980 did? Though, of course, they had seen Scary Monsters via a prism of impressions and perceptions that we, forty years later, can only guess at. A punk kid who considered Bowie an old vampire, looking to steal what he can. A woman who loved “Fame” and “Golden Years” in her teenage years, getting the new album as part of an RCA Record Club 10-LPs-for-a-penny batch, dropping the needle on “It’s No Game (Part 1),” soon yanking it off (“this sounds awful—why is he screaming all over the place?”) and filing the album away, never to be played again; it’s eventually bestowed upon a library or a cousin.

Monsters was meant to sound fresh, contemporary, to be more commercially-minded than the “experiments” of the so-called Berlin era. Eno was gone. Bowie seemed “more serious,” both Fripp and Chuck Hammer noted. The album would remain contemporary as it aged, with its near-future always near; it would be Bowie’s perpetual New Album. This summer of pandemic and mass conspiracy, of depression (economic, spiritual) and street actions, of increasingly authoritarian and chaos governments, is a world that Scary Monsters would recognize, as it’s already there in its grooves.

Tracks

Bowie and Visconti at the Power Station, ca. February 1980

Scary Monsters was made in two blocks: tracking sessions with guide/sketch vocals at New York’s Power Station, in February-early March 1980, and overdub and vocal sessions at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, ca. April-May 1980. Somewhere along the line, a set of rough mixes and/or alternate takes were bootlegged—the most likely scenario is that someone dubbed some tapes in the last days of recording in New York, before Visconti shifted operations to London. The original “mass release” bootleg of these tapes was, apparently, Vampires of Human Flesh, ca. 1994.

Along with the bootlegged Leon tapes from 1994 and the Young Americans session tapes housed at Drexel University, the “Scary Monsters roughs,” for lack of a better term, are the only documents that we have of Bowie’s in-progress studio work. While not that revelatory—rhythm tracks are mostly the same as those on the album, nor do Bowie’s lyrics differ greatly from final versions—it’s still invaluable. Scary Monsters, a hard-crafted, punchy album, as seen before the last layers of paint were applied. The energy pulsing through the roughs is such that sometimes I’ll choose the bootlegs over the mastered tracks. 

Scary Monsters sounded good in part because of where it was made, the hottest new studio in New York. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977, owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who would book its Studio B for months. Bowie cut Scary Monsters at the same time Springsteen was cutting The River (hence Roy Bittan’s appearance). Decades later, in 2007, Bowie went back to the studio, which at the time was known as Avatar, to cut backing vocals for a Scarlett Johansson record. Chris Moore, who recorded him then, told me that Bowie “said it felt weird to be back there.”

Power Station Studio A, as it looks today

The band was the trio which had supported Bowie on tour in 1976 and 1978 and which had been his albums’ supple backbone from Station to Station to Scary Monsters. I’ve written enough over the years on the brilliance of Carlos Alomar (heard on backing vocals on the roughs, a role that he often played on tour), Murray and Davis. Their departure after this album (Alomar occasionally returned to the Bowie orbit; Murray would retire completely) was inevitable and tragic.

The roughs are the sound of three musicians at work, one establishing something, the other two ratifying it, as they had when they’d made Station in LA and Low in France and “Heroes” in Berlin and Lodger in Switzerland, this magnificent team of movers, each time setting up in a new studio, in a new country, doing mike checks and then leaping off again, ever so easily, Davis to Murray to Alomar, in telegraph bursts, in long, animated conversations in dynamics and rhythm, always keyed into this great joyous connection they had. The roughs give us a Scary Monsters freed from Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, Andy Clark’s synthesizers, Visconti’s effects and processors (Pete Townshend’s lead is already there in the earlier version of “Because You’re Young,” as he’d cut his parts in New York); it’s the album exposed at its thick roots, David Bowie singing over a New Wave R&B band.

Listen to the instrumental outtake that bootleggers mistakenly titled “Is There Life After Marriage?“—it was, in truth, yet another Bowie attempt at covering Cream’s “I Feel Free.” A trio in a New York studio one evening in February 1980, in a world that now seems as far away as the Napoleonic wars. Alomar parries, Murray rumbles, Davis settles matters. Then they do it again.

Words

Years ago on a blog comment thread, Momus wrote about trying to parse Bowie’s lyrics in “Aladdin Sane,” which he accurately described as “eccentric doggerel.”  

“Passionate bright young things /Takes him away to war (don’t fake it)/ Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense! “They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical….There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative.

Bowie’s lyrics on paper rarely resemble “verse,” even by the loose standards of rock musicians. They’re meant to be sung, in his voice, and, sometimes, to be obscured in the mix. One line is a garble, the next a fragment, the subsequent one a sharp phrase that lingers in the memory. This tactical vagueness, as Momus called it, was key to Bowie’s aesthetic. Ziggy Stardust has no comprehensible story but the one that you, listener, choose to give it. In the Seventies, Bowie strove to make his lyrics ever more disjunctive, jarring, abstract: using William Burroughs/Brion Gysin-style cut-up was liberating for him. Meaning would be found, should one wish to find it, in the spaces between the lines, in the note that Bowie used for a particular word, in how he phrased a closing line.

You can take this argument too far (a very Bowie thing to do). There are times where he’s writing lucidly about a particular person or emotion or scenario, and his lyrics are often colored, as he’d agree, by the time and place in which he wrote them. See Scary Monsters, whose lyrics were written from possibly late 1979 to, in a last revision burst, March-April 1980, and in jumps from New York to Japan to London.

We’re lucky, as with the album’s bootlegged rough mixes, to have a window into Bowie’s lyric-writing process for Scary Monsters. The David Bowie Is exhibit included two “sketch pages” on graph paper, invaluable documents of how he compiled phrases, quotes, ideas, stage/production concepts, jokes, and queries, and then began to piece together songs from them. The first is below:

It’s like a transcript of Bowie’s mind. Apparent ideas for covers (“Try Some Buy Some,” “Suzy Q,” “Green Tambourine,” “She’s Not There”), which offers the prospect that Bowie was considering a record similar to Heathen and Reality: three-fourths originals, one-fourth covers (“I Feel Free” got as far as the tracking stage—who knows about the others). “Zow[ie]’s Kids List”—his son’s suggestions? Musical and/or production references abound—Wagner, “Clapping Song” (Shirley Ellis, possibly Steve Reich), James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Stan Kenton’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Philip Glass organ sound,” “Lollipop harmonica solo,” “helicopter sounds.”

On the upper half of the page, you see Bowie assembling “It’s No Game” from a disparate set of lines, a few later discarded (“gradual pagan” and “big head and drum” are in the early vocal take); on the lower half, he does the same for “Up the Hill Backwards,” including a line that Bowie pilfered from Hans Richter’s Art and Anti Art (a Nicholas Pegg discovery from a few years ago):

The other page, whose smuggled exhibit photographs are harder to read (Leah Kardos did her best to transcribe it), is more dense. It’s less a set of prospective lyrics than a word-pile of agitations, observations, rants (“RCA is richer than you’re [sic] whole country”), aphorisms, fears, phrasing/mixing ideas (“get on top of D.D.’s drum,” “Joy Div/ those terrible cockney accents” (see the title track)). Reading it through, however, you find more songs being formed, including “Ashes to Ashes” and, most of all, “Teenage Wildlife.”

Let’s write about society and events of international import… who’s going to lead the working clash? It ain’t me buddy. Over the page Bowie keeps circling back to the idea of an impending crisis (“won’t stop with Iran”). There’s going to be war… there’s going to be chaos…you’re not gonna turn away. Pricks will write songs about it and tell you ‘it’s the truth’. A few lines down, he becomes the prick: it’s not strange it happens every day… It’s the truth. (The working title of “Teenage Wildlife” was “It Happens Everyday.”)

Bowie kept paring and revising lines, sometimes to obscure an image, to make things less obvious. In “Ashes,” “little green dealer” becomes “little green wheels,” while “every day my reason is ebbing” is scrapped. “Fashion” was stripped of more overt lines that equate dance moves to street violence (“shake a fist, start a fight/ if you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right”).

There’s a harshness in the lyrics of Scary Monsters, in part because of its paucity of rhyme (with notable exceptions—the hooky refrains of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance). Bowie instead often uses consonance. The album opens, after Michi Hirota’s barrage of Japanese, with him using hard esses and ens to end his phrases, applying the occasional “oh” and “ev” sound as mortar within a line:

or “Scream Like a Baby,” whose verse’s phonic links are a hard traffic of ens, eds, gees, and uhs:

Or the Buddy Holly-esque “Ashes,” in which Bowie uses a three-note pattern as a rhythmic hook, while varying Major Tom’s message in meter or phrasing or length. Again, there’s nearly no rhyme in the verse, only a series of “ings” and one quick “in/syn.” It’s similar to the verses of “Changes,” another maze of phrasings that seem more akin to recitative in opera than standard pop singing. Further, in “Ashes,” Bowie’s lead vocal is interfered with by layers of mumbled, whispered counter-lines, as if one radio station is breaking into another’s airspace:

Half of me freezing, half of me boiling, I’m nowhere in between, Bowie wrote on his sketch sheet. A reactive person…too much data, possible events. Scary Monsters has recurring themes. A powerless rage at a collapsing world—it’s why Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” fits into the set: life as being sentenced to a prison farm, an armed guard always at watch from the tower. The streets are dangerous, the rooms are traps; he doesn’t know any hallways. A sense of entropy, of energy ebbing, of structures fraying and eroding. Major Tom falls to earth. Skylab falls from the sky, sneakers fall apart. 

There’s the inability of art to provide answers, alternatives, anything of value, and the question of whether the concept of artistic progress was a cruel illusion. He’s never done anything out of the blue, nothing good, nothing bad. The kids keep at it, but they don’t stand a chance. “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie watching his imitators and successors fighting over a kingdom already lost. “One flash of light but no smoking pistol” came from something he’d said about glam rock to a TV interviewer at the end of 1979—that while “in the beginning of the Seventies when it was sort of a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding the smoking pistol. So [rock] sort of went off at tangents after that.”

When Scary Monsters plays in the background, so that you’re only hearing bits and scraps of lines, it seems as if the album is but one song, that it’s telling one story. It’s a horror film. More precisely, a horror documentary. 

The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading. One flash of light, but no smoking pistol. We’re legally crippled. They’re people I know, people I love, they seem so unhappy, dead or alive. She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat. I feel like a group of one. I know too well what’s keeping me here. He jumped into the furnace, singing old songs we loved. 

Images

This photograph is of an LP that I bought thirty years ago, for about four or five dollars, at In Your Ear, a used record store on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. It’s been with me ever since.

The album is slightly more than a foot in length and width. Its outer sleeve is still solid, if the spine has frayed by a thumb’s breadth at the center; the inner sleeve is in more parlous condition, being long engaged in a slow process of tearing in halves. The disc, over time, has nudged through substantial lengths of the sleeve’s bottom and sides. When I pull out the inner sleeve now, a black half-circle of vinyl will appear somewhere along an edge, reminding me that the natural state of things is entropy and that each year, this record’s resale value on Discogs diminishes. 

A late developer, late in discarding teddy bear and comics (and to be honest, neither yet fully relinquished), no good at sports and an academic failure, sanctuary was sought in the art room at school, the harmless pursuit of the cissy.

Edward Bell, 2003, on his youth.  

The cover and inner sleeve were designed in 1980 by Edward Bell. He’d studied graphics at Chelsea, photography at the Royal College of Art. “I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting,” he told David Bowie News this year. As Bell said in 2003, “I was impatient with the technicalities of producing the perfect photograph; if a shadow fell in the wrong place, rather than adjust the lighting, I would airbrush, tint and montage. “

A photographer became an illustrator. This illustrator, having done a series of portraits of friends, got his first show at the Neal Street Gallery, in Covent Garden, London. It was attended by someone introduced as “an important client” and who wore, in Bell’s recollection, “an insipid yellow short-sleeved shirt and bright red trousers, but most damning of all, he wore dark glasses to examine the pictures.” This, of course, was David Bowie, who’d been told about Bell’s work by the photographer Brian Duffy.

Although Duffy was taking photos for use on Scary Monsters, Bowie decided that he wanted Bell to do the sleeve artwork, which would incorporate some of Duffy’s pictures. Instead Bell would deface them, covering one up with his own illustration, reducing other photos to postage-stamp size (others literally became postage stamps, in a sheet included with early issues of the album).

After Bowie was photographed in the Pierrot outfit, Bell asked him to muss his hair, smear his makeup, look disheveled. Become a clown scowling backstage after the show, looking cranked off and sour. Then Bell sketched him.

“This was an image no longer wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” Bell wrote in his memoir. Bowie told Bell to design the cover however he’d like, only asking for his hair to be tinted red in the illustration (it was a dun color in early to mid-1980—see, below, the photograph used for the “Fashion” sleeve, which was the first shot taken of Bowie at the Pierrot session). “In America I’m known as the red haired bisexual,” Bowie explained to Bell—he apparently needed to maintain the brand for a bit longer.

The cover and sleeve design went through various drafts. I’d wager a guess that Bell may have drawn on two sources as a starting point. Derek Boshier’s cover design for Lodger has a muted, off-white color as its foundation and a similar set of jumbled images, meant to signify something opaque.

And Gerald Scarfe’s design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall (as with Lodger, a recently-issued album at the time). Again a white backdrop, again a series of images—here, cartoon grotesques— “breaking through” the backdrop to catch the viewer’s eye.

Perhaps most obviously, the use of hand lettering, in bold strokes in black ink, for the lyrics on the inner sleeves of both albums.

The brilliance of Bell’s cover design is how it illustrates the mood of the album, its feeling of resurgence and collapse, the concept of a long-running circus shuttering for the winter, maybe forever. David Bowie, throughout the Seventies, was always on the cover of his latest album in the center of the frame: displaying a fresh look, a new haircut, a new caprice. Pre-Raphaelite decadent sprawled on a couch. Tragic silent movie star. Glam icon in an alleyway and phone box. 22nd Century pinup. Freakshow attraction. Hollywood glamour queen. A Man who has Fallen to Earth. An emissary from a lost future.

And here, the sour Pierrot. But something’s not right. The Bowie photograph that should be here has instead been torn in two, the smaller half confined to the back cover. Overlaid upon much of the photo is a haughty-looking cartoon figure, which stands off-center, confined to the left half of the front cover. While one’s eye is still drawn to Bowie’s face, there’s so much “empty” space on the cover that Bowie’s usually definitional image becomes unsettled—you’re as much looking at a shadow of his profile, or wondering what his face looks like in the photograph you will never see. (Again, Lodger is a starting point, as the record buyer only saw Bowie’s splayed legs on its front cover).

On the back cover, more substitutions—Bell’s illustrations supplant Sukita’s “Heroes” photograph, Duffy’s Lodger shot, the Low profile. The past becomes a faded, distorted cartoon of itself (Bowie as the Scary Monsters and Super Heroes of his inspiration). “David Bowie” is a set of postage stamps or miniaturized Polaroids. It has the look of a child’s scrapbook, especially when seen as a two-sided whole.

Like many others who saw the David Bowie Is show, I was stunned by how large Bell’s painting is. Having only known it as an album sleeve for much of my life, I found its true form astonishing. I’d never imagined it was such a physical presence—it seemed to take up a fourth of a museum wall. The LP sleeve itself is a reduction, a substitution, a diminishing of an original grandeur.

Bell and Bowie became friends, in the way Bowie was friends with many people: he’d vanish for years, then appear without notice. He gave Bell (who also did the Tin Machine II cover in 1991) a postal address in Switzerland—Bell would mail the occasional letter or postcard, to no response. Then a call would come in.

“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,”  Bell said in his memoir. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coast of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring.” Bowie, calling from Switzerland or Japan or New York, usually at the dead of night of whichever timezone he was in. They’d talk for hours about anything under the sun, then another year or two would pass. It was Bowie as a lighthouse keeper, a harbor master, making his solitary rounds over the years, but mostly existing in his absences, as he does on the cover of Scary Monsters.

Press

Talking with Bowie makes me more than unusually aware of the manifest absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time.

Angus MacKinnon, 1980

The promotion of Scary Monsters was relatively modest by Bowie standards. He wasn’t touring the album; his only TV performance for it was on The Tonight Show, which few in his home country saw at the time; he acted in The Elephant Man throughout what, typically, would have been his album’s promo cycle.

In a handful of late 1980 interviews—with the NME and Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles and London Times, some TV and radio spots, Radio One’s Andy Peebles—Bowie talked through the album he’d made the previous spring (an eon ago, by his Seventies standards) and sketched where he’d go in the Eighties. Whether by circumstance or design, he was particularly open (or, at least, apparently so) and retrospective.

Angus MacKinnon, NME (interview conducted early August 1980; published 13 September 1980).

Angus MacKinnon worked at the NME in the punk end of the Seventies, becoming close friends with Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble (MacKinnon had reviewed Lodger, saying it felt like Bowie was “ready for religion”). In August 1980, the NME sent him and photographer Anton Corbijn to Chicago for a week to interview Bowie during the run of Elephant Man there (RCA footed the bill, booking journalists in the high-end Whitehall Hotel—a truly lost era). Conducted over two days, it’s among the high-water marks of Bowie interviews, a credit to MacKinnon’s skill and to Bowie’s receptive frame of mind. As fascinated by his life as anyone was, Bowie precisely and coolly assessed his Seventies, which seemed like a science fiction novel in retrospect.

Later, MacKinnon said he thought he got what “the interview” meant for Bowie—an opportunity to play a character (see his coke-freak Nosferatu performance for the benefit of Cameron Crowe in the mid-Seventies) but most of all, to do “an intensive form of self-therapy.” Bowie appeared to live in a state of “continual reassessment and often comprehensive rewriting of his past…although one of the more profoundly amoral people I’ve ever met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him.” 

That said, Bowie the son of a PR man, had been adept at media manipulation since he was a teenager. He could, in a flash, discern who an interviewer was, what their likely angle would be, how they could be flattered, their likely status in the publication they worked for. Most of all, what role they wanted him to play. Bowie is “uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear,” MacKinnon wrote. His charm, his wit, his knowledge of what made for a great quote—how a line would play if blown up, marquee-style, in a subhead, or if used as a tart caption to a photograph—his ability to quickly draw you into his confidence: these were his weapons, an armory so colossal that as a reporter, MacKinnon said, you were constantly scrambling to determine if Bowie was contradicting something he’d said only a few minutes before. It was exhausting to challenge his routine habit of blaming “characters” for “his own more irresponsible, or inexplicable actions.” 

MacKinnon begins with basic questions—Bowie’s concept of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, cutting to thoughts on Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie: “Newton is a far better person at the end of the film…when he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody”) and Just a Gigolo (“that film was a cack”). MacKinnon then strings a line from MWFTE to Station to Station, inspiring a Bowie mea culpa for the Thin White Duke “England needs a Hitler” period. (M: I was there and came away thinking you were sort of fascist maniac. B: “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”). “This whole racist thing,” Bowie swears, was because “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur.” He attests that he’s worked “with black musicians for the past six or seven years, and we’d all talk about it together….about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign.” (One can only imagine poor Dennis Davis genially nodding through these sessions.) And a wild bit of psychological legend:

All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked there were these great demons of the past, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain…Mixed up too, of course, were my own fucking characters.

Bowie jumps around the chessboard. Praise for Berlin, place of restoration; a ritual curse on Los Angeles (“the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is.”) MacKinnon pushes him to start talking about the Scary Monsters songs at last. A few lines of thought begin here. The idea of “the future” being another Sixties trick. A detaching from Fripp and Eno, whom he describes as being “intellectuals” as compared to his more instinctive type of songwriting. Thoughts on the “grimness” of contemporary fashion, with a dig at the Blitz Kids he’d recently seen in London (and hired, for the “Ashes to Ashes” video). 

They resume talking a few days later, on the stage of the Blackstone, The Elephant Man’s theater. This time, thanks to MacKinnon’s choice to burn through “simple, factual questions” first and free-style for a half hour, a compelling back-and-forth develops. Bowie admits that “he can’t write young” anymore, that rock music is a dead end for him, and wonders what will he, in the end, really be remembered for? MacKinnon later said he felt like he’d gotten through, finally got Bowie to say something real, only to consider that this was possibly another conversational trick of Bowie’s, and furthermore, what does “real” even mean? Why do we, as journalists, as readers, expect this from pop singers, when we don’t offer it ourselves?

M: Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any—how shall I put it?—guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?…

B: Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.

M: So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?

B: The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so… I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs)….

And a coda, where Bowie considers old age from the vantage point of 33.

Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone; interview, early August 1980; 13 November 1980 issue.

One sign of Bowie’s diminished commercial presence in the US is that he didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone for this interview—Mary Tyler Moore did, for her role in Ordinary People.

Bowie’s still apparently content to accept being a famous second-tier artist, commercially. “More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales…by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I’m going to make.” More differentiation from Fripp and Eno. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record.” Again, the idea of the future being humbler, dirtier, more brutal than the Sixties thought it was going to be. “Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancing around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from here on out.”

Good Morning America, 3 September 1980.

With a few exceptions, Bowie was charming and intriguingly vapid in his post-Seventies American TV interviews, rising to the challenge of the medium. No exception here: some Lodger-era guff about being a perpetual traveler (“Mombasa, Berlin and Kyoto…are my main ports of call”) and praise for his Elephant Man cast. The visual—Bowie looking like a rockabilly Eloi in a purple turtleneck before a backdrop of potted ferns—is exquisite, though.

Robert Hilburn, LA Times, interview 5 September; 21 September 1980 edition

Conducted in an LA dressing room during a Tonight Show rehearsal, this interview is perhaps most notable for one of Bowie’s first, ugly repudiations of his bisexuality—a preview of his 1983 press strategy. For an LA paper, Bowie provides a new variation on his usual escape-from-LA narrative. “I may have been living through a breakdown and not knowing it…In Berlin, I lived quite the reverse style of life that I’d been living. It was designed as a positive step to make myself learn how to relate back to the real world.” The Low era as a purging, “throwing everything out and starting over again.” Yet another sign that despite his protestations, his declining commercial fortunes concern him. “I never tried to define my audience and exploit it like a tobacco company…I just hoped the audience would come along.”

10 October 1980, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, with Tim Rice.

The best of the TV interviews of the period. Bowie offers his story of how he got his album’s title from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box notice of “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” (“Supermen and Nosferatus….as I was writing a New York album, it seemed the perfect collective title for the bits and pieces I was writing”). On regular Broadway theatergoers: “they had heard of me but had some kind of really corrupted idea of what I was about. I suppose they’ve got a different impression of me now: little do they know.”

Gordon Burn, Sunday Times Magazine, interview 2 October 1980; 30 November 1980 issue.

A dishy look at Bowie, thespian (“he looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer…David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s…he has eye-teeth like fangs”) and someone apparently bracing for future conformity.

“I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me but it wears me out trying to fight it. Fighting it used to lead me to that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am…I am still, as you can see, fighting.”

20/20, broadcast 13 November 1980 (presumably filmed ca. October). 

A bog-standard “This Is David Bowie” bio intro (DB was apparently “born on the other side of the tracks in Brixton”) leads into footage of Bowie drawing (“he’s produced a gallery full of paintings”), It comes off as a butchered 10-minute reduction of a scrapped documentary, in which Bowie occasionally appears to say little of import.

Countdown, broadcast 16 November 1980 (filmed ca. October).

Bowie, filmed in an NYC Japanese restaurant, gives off the vibe of a charming civil servant being asked to justify some questionable expense account statements. The bit where the interviewer asks about Bowie’s 1967 debut album, to DB’s “what in the hell are you bringing this up for?” expressions, is a joy. 

Andy Peebles, Radio One, taped 7 December 1980.

The last great interview of the period, parts of which were used for a promotional LP, with Bowie going into each song on Scary Monsters.

On Major Tom in 1980:

What would be the complete dissolution [of] the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space…When he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there and…now we come to him 10 years later and we find the whole thing has soured, ‘cos there was no reason…the technological ego that got him up there…was a potpourri of technological ideas. The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he’d find solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, the cosmic space itself is feeding him an addiction and now he wants to return to the womb from whence he came…

Peebles had flown to New York to talk to Bowie and, seizing opportunity, talked to John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day before. Little more than a day after Bowie talked with Peebles, he’d be standing before a TV set, watching news reports about his friend’s murder.

Stage

Scary Monsters was a greatly unrealized album on stage, as Bowie would never perform half of its songs. It’s in part because the tour on which he would’ve likely sung them, a proposed 1981 venture, never came to be.

An alleged “spokesman” said in late 1980, while Bowie was promoting the album, that Bowie planned to devote three months in 1981 to “live work” while Bowie told MacKinnon “next spring—I want to play smaller places.” The tour was barely in the sketch stages, apparently, when DB pulled the plug after John Lennon’s murder. Given that he was also talking about doing an exhibition of his paintings and video work in 1981, and was in negotiations for film and TV roles, there’s a strong likelihood that a 1981 tour wouldn’t have been on the scale of, say, 1978. More something like a month of shows in the UK and Europe, a month or two in major markets in North America, maybe a Japanese coda.

When Bowie did return to live work in 1983, he was now promoting Let’s Dance to a new, broader audience, one with less of a taste for oddity. The emphasis was on new hits, old hits, a few obscurities for the die-hards. Scary Monsters was represented only by its charting singles.

Songs Never Performed, Apparently Never Rehearsed

“It’s No Game (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2).” The Bowie film archivist Nacho proposed a dream 1981 setlist not long ago, in which Bowie would open and close sets with the two “It’s No Games.” It’s a great idea, but given that “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” sounds utterly brutal to sing, the idea of Bowie opening with it for months seems a bit unlikely.

“Kingdom Come.” Not a shock: a song that audiences mostly wouldn’t have recognized, and as with “It’s No Game,” another wear-and-tear of a vocal.

Songs Rehearsed, Never Performed

“Scream Like a Baby.” Rehearsed for Glass Spider in 1987; didn’t make the cut. The rehearsal tapes show that the band had the song down well, if Bowie sounds borderline camp.

“Because You’re Young”: As with “Scream,” a reject from the Glass Spider set; as with “Scream,” it likely would’ve worked well enough. Though the idea of Bowie’s gang of theater-kid “street” dancers interpreting this song makes me grateful it didn’t make the cut.

Songs Sort-of Performed

“Up the Hill Backwards.” Used as part of the opening sequence for Glass Spider: Bowie didn’t sing it, his dancers lip-synced it. The Legs & Co. interpretation from Top of the Pops in 1981 is superior and more weird.

Songs Performed

“Teenage Wildlife.” Debuted in the Outside tour in 1995, and a highlight of those shows—sung as Bowie watched teenage Nine Inch Nails fans pack up, leaving behind empty rows, it had a fresh poignancy. Carlos Alomar provided continuity, Reeves Gabrels did a fine American art-weirdo’s take on Robert Fripp.

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Debuted in 1983 on Serious Moonlight, but its definitive live versions were Bowie’s duets with Trent Reznor in 1995. A Scary Monsters track tailored for the following decade.

“Fashion.” The “Fame” of Scary Monsters songs—debuted in 1983 and performed in nearly every tour afterward. Had the potential to be irritating on stage, and sometimes was. Its live peak was 1996-97, as it suited the Earthling era well.

“Ashes to Ashes.” Like “Fashion,” often found in his 1983-and-afterward setlists, though Bowie put it on ice in the Nineties after Sound + Vision. For me, he’d never manage on stage to rival the studio version—he tended to grapple around the song and do an approximation. Something was always off: the bassline, the keyboards, his vocal. If I had to choose a performance, I’d go with its slightly-shambolic Tonight Show debut in 1980, in which a pick-up band (GE Smith! Steve Goulding!) and Bowie punch into the song, one still so new that Bowie bungles a verse lyric. They advance, stumble back; something keeps evading them but they keep scraping away at it. There’s a beauty in the effort.

Crystal Japan Epilogue

“Crystal Japan,” for a while during the Scary Monsters sessions, was intended as the album’s closer. Yet after Bowie decided instead to end the LP with a reprise of the opening track, he cast “Crystal Japan” loose. It first appeared as a Japanese single in 1980, then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” the following year; it’s likely, however, that many Bowie fans first heard it as a bonus track on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters—that’s where Trent Reznor, who nicked its melody for his “A Warm Place,” discovered the song. (Reznor confessed this to a cracking-up Bowie during an MTV interview.) 

Had it closed Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” would have changed the album’s tone, brightened its aspect. “It’s No Game (Pt. 2)” is cyclicality—the album ends as it began (furthered by Tony Visconti adding a tape spool-out sound to parallel the “roll tape” intro of Pt. 1)—and exhaustion, with the rage of “Pt. 1” cooled to a weary acceptance of daily horrors. “Crystal Japan,” had it capped off a hard, brutal album, would have offered a respite, an exit, a future. Something akin to “Radio 4,” the closer of PiL’s Metal Box in 1979—an epilogue that, at last, lets in the sun.

Who knows why Bowie pulled the track. Perhaps if it couldn’t be a finale, it just didn’t fit in anywhere else. Maybe he wanted to put the “Berlin” era firmly behind him, and so yanked an instrumental that might remind listeners of “Moss Garden.” Or he felt that a respite and an exit weren’t what was needed at the time.

Bowie had agreed to do a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer (he needed the money, he said, adding that he thought the track would get more airplay than his singles would on radio). So he had to come up with an instrumental for a 30-second bit in which he’d appear to be a visiting extraterrestrial a) on holiday at a Kyoto temple or b) relaxing in the mothership, which, nicely, has a piano and a wet bar. 

During the Scary Monsters sessions, Bowie assembled the track himself on synthesizer (no idea which models—he may have still been using the Low/”Heroes” set, which included an ARP Solina, ARP Pro Soloist and a Chamberlin M1), with Visconti’s only contribution being a treated falsetto vocal. It’s unknown whether DB wrote the piece after filming the ad in Japan (during the break, March 1980, between the LP’s New York and London sessions), or if he’d been working on it for a while, perhaps as far back as “Heroes” or Lodger.

With its yearning melodies and placid feel, it’s a quiet world tucked away within a greater, turbulent one—the sound of a warm place, as Reznor might say. The exiled ending of Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” was fated to forever be alone, a beautiful fragment.

23 Responses to Scary Monsters at 40

  1. Joseph J McPeak says:

    I’ll finish it later. But so damn on the spot. Pushing ahead of the Dame is always so damn smart. It’s amazing. It’s like how did he know that? That’s exactly what I was thinking!

    On Thu, Oct 8, 2020 at 2:23 PM Pushing Ahead of the Dame wrote:

    > col1234 posted: ” Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 > in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, > Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in > the following week in the US, sales there w” >

  2. Rob Thomas says:

    Magnificent stuff. And I’m only half way in. So grateful for your continued work Chris.

  3. danmac50 says:

    I was 21 when this came out. Had been a Ziggy fan, then drifted away as Young Americans wasn’t for me (at that time). Thought (because he wasn’t on Top of the Pops all the time) that he was past it (along with Bolan) then began to discover more interesting music (to me anyway) around the time of “Heroes”. Saw the Stage tour which began to resurrect interest and then after absorbing Lodger was blown away by Ashes to Ashes. The anticipation for this album was incredible. I devoured Angus McKinnon’s NME interview which is still a classic. Could not wait to hear SM. Bought it on holiday even though I couldn’t play it till I got home 10 days later. It didn’t disappoint (though maybe the last couple of tracks did). That album was probably the high point of my fan-obsession with new product and I probably love the album even more now. There’s something to be said for living with it for 40 years and being able to revisit over such a long period. Thanks for the article Chris and as ever for your incredible work.

  4. jonesing says:

    Chris, is it amazing or annoying to keep writing about Bowie after all these years? Amazing or annoying that there’s still so much to say? I am eternally grateful for your continued contributions. I, as a reader, can never get enough, it seems. Thank you!

    • col1234 says:

      ha, yeah. at this point, it’s like revisiting an old friend and putting things to use: a lot of this entry comes from themes, pieces etc. there was no room for in the book—things like that will continue, on occasion, if people enjoy it.

      • Bowie is your muse Chris. He offers you the opportunity to articulate who you are, and where you are. And so too for your readers. You simply must continue to keep us informed and entertained. Keep up the good work!
        Kevin @roxymusicsongs.com

  5. postpunkmonk says:

    Alas, this was the first David Bowie album I bought on its release. One of the stunning albums of 1980 for me [and there were many…]. That same year, I next bought some of the Bowie albums released before it [already budget line product from RCA] that I hadn’t heard a note from on American radio; “Low” and ” Heroes.” To say I was astonished by these extremely vivid albums that [perhaps not coincidentally] seemed to have been hugely influential on all of the New Wave music I was absorbing as fast as I could, would be an understatement.

    So within a year, David Bowie had gone from the guy who sang three [enjoyable] Top 40 singles of my youth [“Space Oddity,” “Fame,” “Golden Years”] to an artist of primary importance. Then, of course, he sat out his RCA contract until 1983, and we were expecting a follow through on from the caliber of work that had preceded it. Uh, not quite. Little had I known at the time, that I had joined the Bowie party at its climax. We naively thought it would always be this good.

    So yes, for the next 33 years, music journalists the world over had that special “his best album since “Scary Monsters” Word macro at their disposal. I myself used it several times. I used it for “Tin Machine,” “Black Tie White Noise,” “The Buddha Of Suburbia,” “Hours…” and “Heathen.” I stand by “The Buddha Of Suburbia” and “Heathen.” And fortunately, on ★ he managed to transcend such notions.

  6. patr100 says:

    I would have been about 17 at the time, I think Lodger had (even with the singles) pushed DB to the peripheral and deliberate obscurity – that may have been his art rock phase but I wouldn’t have been conscious of that then.

    Hadn’t even heard Lodger til much much later. My reaction to the SM promo pics was , “oh He’s dressing up again” – Now, I can see how much SM became better than the sum of its parts. Made up of old reworked tracks and a cover version, Fripp adding just enough confection in places to sugar the pill. The first and last track basically the same. regurgitating his personal mythologies with a return of Major Tom and Pierrot , even the cover art reworked previous album images . Had he run out of new ideas?
    Most of the tracks are still not easy listening and it is probably flattered by a string of prominent singles (at least in the UK) but regurgitation is how a bird feeds its young and what makes SM so remarkable at the time (regardless of its gradual growing reputation ) is that with punk preceding it and the emergence of the “new wave boys” of the 80s, the stakes were so much higher at the time.
    Had he never recorded another song, his reputation was sealed back then. Of course, as we know, he then turns his back on the Blitz Kids and then picking up from his 1960s ambitions, proceeds to become a “pop star” with varying degrees of success.

  7. xenodroid aka chubby white duke says:

    Had he toured in 1981, I wonder if Scary Monsters would have been a bigger hit.

  8. This is the kind of writing I dream about for music I dream about; I don’t want to use the word “seriousness” (which is almost as taboo as the word “Art”) but since Pop has devoured everything, I’m not getting my daily minimum requirement of vitamins “S” or “A” from very many new releases and certainly not from the stuff (glorified PR) written about it all. This is the kind of thing that could have been written about an effort of Brecht/Weill.

    I was in Manhattan, the day after Lennon’s execution, to see Bowie in Elephant Man (an experience I barely remember, now, except the moment B. steps out of the Merrick character and does a meta-thing in the play). Hoping to get an autograph (on Scary Monsters, probably) but Bowie wasn’t giving autographs anymore after what happened to Lennon. He saw the writing on the wall after that watershed, I feel, and backed off the heavy statements for quite a while after delivering, in Scary Monsters, what was, for me, the most angrily and explicitly political thing he’d ever done.

    Thanks for this piece: I’ll have to re-read several times and more slowly, too. There’s always the giddy first rush when Something Good pops up.

    Oh, and: I wanted to post this before but couldn’t; a theory (has anyone else come up with this?):

    Re: Bowie’s “Black Star”: what most critics possibly missed:

    “His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when the two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky’s clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”

    —Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky-(1949)

  9. paul woods says:

    Excellent read x x

    >

  10. StupidintheStreet says:

    One of your best pieces, and about an album I can never get enough of. Enjoyed this immensely! I do find those rough takes on ‘Vampires’ almost as thrilling as the album proper. Surprised that boot doesn’t get talked about more by Bowie fans in general. Cheers!

  11. Jb says:

    Terrific post. Really happy to see more articles appearing here. Loved the books as well.

  12. Mark J Stagg says:

    Bloody brilliant, that’s all!

  13. Simon says:

    Wonderful piece of writing as always Chris, thank you so much.

    Pardon me if I’ve missed it discussed elsewhere in the blog, but I’m just curious if it’s ever been detailed why Bowie chose to break from the Murray/Davis rhythm section after the album? I guess one answer is that there was a big break between this record and Let’s Dance and he then went with Nile Rodgers’ own musicians, but as you mention here, even during 1980 he’d already stated rehearsing a new band, so seemed like he was already looking for something new. Still seems sad to me that the DAM trio never rode again. The musical bedrock for perhaps the greatest artistic run in pop history.

    • col1234 says:

      it was mostly financial. at some point he realized he wasn’t going to tour or record until 1983 & knew he couldn’t keep them on retainer for that long. But yeah, by ’82 he was talking about wanting “new faces” too

      • Trevor Mill says:

        I just about remember a Carlos Alomar solo album (the cover at least). Have you heard it; it would be nice to think it features Davis, Murray and Vandross with some Latin New York funk.

      • col1234 says:

        the only one I recall is “Dream Generator,” from ca. 1987, which was mostly a weird synth-guitar experiment thing that sounded Extremely 1987. no DD or GM or Luther.

  14. The note sequence near end of Crystal Japan is somewhat reminiscent of tone/note squence in Close Encounters of The Third Kind used to communicate with the Aliens.

  15. Phil says:

    The “best since Scary Monsters” tag is an odd one when you think about it. I mean, “Baal” was the best thing he’d done since Scary Monsters for a while – although Tonight and NLMD never were. I guess what those writers meant to convey was a combination of “even better than Let’s Dance” and “let’s pretend Let’s Dance didn’t happen”.

    Tell you what was the best thing he’d done since Scary Monsters, though – The Buddha of Suburbia[1]. It’s variable (so’s Scary Monsters) but the title track, “Untitled” and the instrumentals are right up with his 70s work. Checking back on the song poll, I was amazed to see that “Buddha of Suburbia” the song didn’t make the 100 – having discovered the album recently I think that song’s gone into my bloodstream (my teenage years in outer South London suburbia may have something to do with this). DB was always best when he was writing about nothing but himself, and he never did it with more grace and tenderness than in that song. Zane, zane, zane…

    [1] Yes, this is me shoehorning the latest stage in my own chronological Bowie journey into an open comment box on a completely different period. Don’t suppose you’ll be writing about 1. Outside in the near future…?

    • Christine says:

      I’m with you on this, Phil, I also love the Baal songs, I have had 1.Outside on a loop for the last few days and have been playing Buddha of Suburbia over and over again today! So pleased to see this blog continuing…

  16. R.Fox (Mr.) says:

    Wonderful article – thank you for your consistently amazing research and thought provoking analysis. What a resource!
    ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was my first introduction to DB – as a five/six year old, up he pops on Them Kenny Everett Video Show’ on ABC-TV (Aust) somewhere one between Sid Snott and Captain Kremmen. I was mesmerised in the truest sense of the word – I found the film clip odd, slightly scary, but I couldn’t look away. His pained face, people bowing with the bulldozer, that sky…
    I had never been exposed to a song like it before (I was only a kid) and DB had such a presence, he was unsettling but magnetic. And then of course Let’s Dance and Modern Live came along and that seemed confusing and distant to the tall thin clown who walked the beach.
    Of course in later years, when my musical tastes became more exploratory, I was to become even more amazed and devoted to the TWD, Aladdin and Ziggy.
    But the clown on the beach started it all.

  17. Bill Luther says:

    “Scary Monsters” at 40. Damn I’m old. It would be the last Bowie album I really enjoyed coming out in a magical time for me amongst other LP’s I loved like XTC’s “Black Sea”, The Jam’s “Sound Affects”, The Teardrop Explode’s “Kilimanjaro” et al. And though in retrospect he didn’t need it, at the time I felt that it “validated” Bowie’s existence amongst the whole coterie of new wave/punk/blitz kids whatever (as if there was some imaginary board of “Cool” sitting in judgement of such trivial things)! Nostalgia aside it still holds up well and the opening bars of “Ashes To Ashes” will always magically transport me back to the bedroom I grew up in watching a video of it for the first time on “Rockworld” (and later “The Kenny Everett Video Show”) on a tiny TV set with the volume down too low so as not to wake my parents. And juxtaposed against Ultravox and Gary Numan it germinated a “which came first the chicken or the egg” debate that still hangs in my thoughts. Goodbye Major Tom. MTV, chart hits and financial success were just around the corner, but so was another three plus decades of mediocrity, to my ears anyway.

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