Well, it’s been quite the year, hasn’t it? I hope you’ve gotten through it fairly intact.
Not much to say except Merry Christmas to you and yours. Here’s to a safe and happy holiday season, and a hopeful New Year. I didn’t want to revisit my 2019 Xmas post for fear that I wrote something like “2020 is going to be a blast!” Let’s be modest in our expectations now. Perhaps the new year will surprise us. After all, Duncan Jones found the Snowman scarf again.
The blog keeps going at a slow pace. Check in once in a while—you might find something new! There will be two new posts coming relatively soon: one retrospective, one commemorative. The 64 Quartets blog also keeps going at a very slow pace; there’ll be a new entry there soon, too.
I did look back at the 2019 Xmas post after all, and what I wrote at the end of that one applies today: Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.
I’ve known Michaelangelo Matos for some time and greatly enjoyed his 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive. Today he has a new one out: Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, which I enjoyed even more.
Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ massively-researched, sharply-written, concise, and intelligent history of one of pop music’s biggest years, the year of Purple Rain, Private Dancer, and Born in the USA; of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Madonna, Van Halen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and, most of all, the towering presence of Michael Jackson. An era of spectacles, from Stop Making Sense in movie theaters to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” from the Reaganite apotheosis that was the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA to the concluding chapter on Live Aid in 1985. It also covers “underground” scenes on the verge of breaking big—1984 is a golden year for U.S. indie rock, for example (Let It Be, Double Nickels on the Dime, Reckoning, Zen Arcade, etc.), and is also foundational for house and hip-hop.
It’s a year in which seemingly everyone who ever recorded pop music was seen out in public—there’s a wonderful chapter centered on a panel at the New Music Seminar in New York that featured, among others, James Brown, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Madonna, Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, John Oates, Joe Ely, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Yet it’s as often concerned with the doings of music business pros—the A&R scouts, radio programmers, producers, label execs, journalists, TV talent bookers, etc., who made “1984” happen.
Though David Bowie is often a spectral presence in 1984, as Matos says in this interview, he’s still seemingly everywhere that year, as influence and rival, and he does still get a #1 album and Top 10 hit. The pop world of 1984 is one that Bowie both revels in and hides away from—much of his subsequent career is him coming to terms with how popular he’d become then. After all, it was a time when, as Wham!s album was titled, you were supposed to Make It Big.
The following is edited from a talk Matos and I had last week. If you’re interested in the book, please buy it from your local bookstore!(or Indiebound).
CO: There’s an anecdote that you open the book with that really rang true to me. You’re nine years old, you’re cleaning your room and listening to Top 40 radio and you realize that you’ve been listening for hours and you don’t hate any of the songs playing. I was 12 and it was the same deal for me. And…that’s not the case for long, even very soon afterward, right? The “1984 moment” feels very brief—when is it over, as early as 1986, 1987?
Michaelangelo Matos: The moment wasn’t just gone but completely formulized. Part of what makes the ‘84 moment is a great deal about professionals being professional. That’s a lot of it. It’s not fair to say it was this great shining moment and it had nothing to do with the business. It had everything to do with the biz. The biz is what made the moment. It just happened to be a high-water mark of a certain way of doing things that quickly became pomp and circumstance. It was a much faster version of the difference between, say, ’65 and ‘74.
But for a while, suddenly, there was this thing that seemed so promising and playful and the people who were doing it really seemed to be enjoying it. There was a real spark of energy. It wasn’t just, “oh we have to calibrate our business plan according to Thriller.” It was more: “wouldn’t it be fun to make hit songs of all these titles? Wouldn’t it be fun to make a whole album of hit singles?” People were pushing themselves to make good hits. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get on the radio, though you can never understate the mercenary nature of the business. There’s a great deal of cold-faced greed there too. The thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapter about AOR. That was fun.What rock history doesn’t treat these guys as demigods? Well, let me be the first.
CO: It’s striking to realize how old, relatively, many of the big 1984 pop stars were. Phil Collins, Bowie, Tina Turner, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis—some of these people had been around for decades at this point.
MM: Purple Rain is Prince’s sixth album. It had been seven years at that point since he’d signed a contract and six years since his debut.
And Phil Collins is not just somebody who’s been doing it for a long time, but someone who’s absolutely comfortable in the pop field. He is completely comfortable making pop music for large audiences. There is no weird divide for him between that and what he’s done since the ‘70s, because Genesis evolves along with it, Genesis turns into a singles band right as AOR is hitting the skids.
CO: MTV is obviously a big part of the 1984 story, but has it been overstated over the years?
MM: One thing to keep in mind is that MTV is not the be-all and end-all. MTV has a great deal to do with ’81 to ’83, but by ’84, MTV wasn’t the whole story by any means. By ’84, radio has really come back into its own. Top 40 is making hits on its own, in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.
The other thing that is relevant here: when we’re talking about video, we’re not just talking about MTV and not only talking about television, but also talking about clubs. In the early ‘80s every club got a fucking video screen and started playing videos. That was new. And a lot of the big club hits that wound up becoming ‘80s standards first got played as videos in clubs. That’s very important to the whole thing.
CO: One thing you note is that by 1984 the “Second British Invasion” of America is already falling apart, not long after it begins. Duran Duran is falling apart, Culture Club is a mess.
MM: I was looking through some ’89 magazine issues and this was the point when they were “Duranduran”: one word. It’s so funny—the ‘80s get glossed over so much in rock history. The impulse is to glorify these people and it’s often their least glorious era. People overlook all the crazy shit that happened in this period. Like “Duranduran”—what, are you some kind of arthouse thing now? What the fuck! Did Wong Kar-Wai film you? No, Wong Kar-Wai wouldn’t fucking do that with your name—that is a bad manager decision. It’s a glorious era for terrible ideas and decisions on the part of these people. It’s not like all I want to do is point and laugh, but there is some element of that to it. There has to be, it can be so fucking absurd.
CO: One of the last times you could be ridiculous in an unironic way.
MM: All of late ‘80s culture in some ways seems to be leading up to and is almost redeemed by Road House. It’s like, this should suck but it’s so rich and funny and entertaining and you know they knew this, even if they’re doing it totally straight-faced. They know how ridiculous this is. And you get that but in a sadder way when watching a Jefferson Airplane video from 1989.
MM: That’s what I’m thinking of. It’s not like I sat down and watched more than that. I didn’t go “hmm, what else?” I’m happy to let certain lost worlds stay lost.
CO: In your country music chapter, I was taken by one quote [by MCA Nashville’s Jimmy Bowen], that in the early ‘80s “pop music became very stale, the albums were not that good…and country music filled those slots…now pop music got its act back together…[and] they simply pushed us back off of those slots.” You can see this swing back sometime in the ‘90s.
MM: I think he’s really talking about the crossover market. That’s a fairly distinct sector. One thing about that chapter is that it’s kind of an outlier for the subject matter. I think I treat it well and I think it’s a decent overview, I’m not trying to minimize what I’ve done there. But it’s an outlier for me in terms of when I wrote it—it was a Pop Conference presentation that I added a few things to. Most of that was done in a very contained period. I went to Nashville and that’s when I did the research for it. I had things of my own before that and from books from the library here and I sort of melded it all back together. I have a strong memory of that chapter of being a very self-contained unit of time and writing, whereas some others sprawled along and I rewrote things and overhauled things.
CO: I got the sense that you read scads of Billboards, Gavin Reports, Radio & Records for this era, is that fair to say?
MM: Absolutely. There’s a website, World Radio History, that has scans of incredible numbers of trade magazines, music magazines, regular coverage music magazines, sometimes stuff that’s completely offline, completely gone—publications that ended decades ago. This incredible resource. I started working on this book essentially in September 2015, and I moved back to the Twin Cities in February of 2016. So I’d been working on it pretty diligently for six months when I got here and then I discovered that website. I realized I’d been working with very incomplete data with regard to Billboard because I was using Google’s archive.
CO: Yeah, there are pretty big holes in that collection.
MM: Most of 1984 is gone. The gap was something like April 1983 to September 1984. So I was using a little bit of ‘83 and I thought, well I’ll find other things to fill in those gaps, and then I discovered Radio History and they have all the Billboards. That meant putting them all on my iPad and reading them everywhere. Get on the bus, read Billboard. At the same time I discovered [an archive of] all the Smash Hits from 1984 and read them. What was happening was that Radio History was expanding as I worked. I’d check it again after a month and, oh my God, there’s all the Cash Boxes. This was constant. This happened for a good two years until I finally couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which you just have to stop doing research.
CO: When did you have the structure of the book in place?
MM: It’s funny: I’ve had more or less the same chapter list going back eleven years. I started working on this book in 2009. I wrote a proposal, and it wasn’t a good proposal, because I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to manifest that, so I was hedging a lot. So I thought, “I’ve got to downscale.” The proposal I wrote had twelve chapters, one for each of these major artists, and I thought, that’ll be okay, it’ll be like a book of essays. But I didn’t want to write a book of essays. I wanted to write a real history but I had no idea how to do it, because at that point most of my living was still in writing record reviews. That was most of my work. Over the next two years, it became almost none of my work because there stopped being a market for record reviews, for the most part. I had to re-orientate myself to writing features, and as soon as I did, I thought, my God, this is so much more fun, you know?
I remember I’d see things that I’d written about a year or two earlier or six months earlier [in a review] being discussed in a feature and see people linking to it and talking about it, and I’d be like, “I talked about that. I said that very fucking thing.” And nobody had read it because nobody read record reviews anymore. It was a reality check. I realized this is not sustainable, I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to starve to death.
Also, I had come up writing in late ‘90s alternative weeklies, where ideas on the page were expected. You were expected to be thinking about shit in a real way. That’s gone. That left. Suddenly it was like nobody took it seriously anymore. There was no market for it, and I had all these ideas that really needed to be explored at length. That was a frustration, too. That was manifesting in wanting to write a book that wasn’t a book of essays.
CO: There’s a cinematic quality to how you introduce characters in the book—you’ll have a central location, say an awards show, and then you “pull back the camera” when someone appears on stage and give a couple pages of backstory.
MM: That was very deliberate. What I had to do is write the other book. I had to write The Underground Is Massive in order to write this one. It took me a long time to generate the edifice of it. What happened was that I kept a Tumblr page and I would just put shit on it—this is funny, here’s an interesting photo, here’s a song I’m thinking about. With [TUIM], I knew the structure immediately and I knew what the structure of this book would be as well, but I had no idea until I’d written it how one might fill those structures out. What about this, what about that? With [TUIM] I had the lineups of everything, so I knew where the holes were. There isn’t that much drum ‘n’ bass in that book, but I knew where the drum ‘n’ bass piece would lie.
It’s a process—you have to learn as you go. There’s no map to write a book, every fucking book is different. So where I did all those interviews [for TUIM], I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do as many for this one, and I didn’t want to. Because I’d already known, just by looking through the material I already had, that I hadn’t seen anyone talking about any of the shit that I’m reading about from that period. The interesting stuff, the things that I was finding where I was like, “I didn’t know that.”
I set out to write a book about stuff that surprised me. And that was pretty easy to do, because a lot of it surprised me.
When I had my back against the wall and realized okay, I’ve got to put up or shut up and write this goddamned proposal. And what I realized, I looked at the Tumblr and said, wait a minute, why don’t I just use this stuff? I have all this stuff that I already thought was interesting enough to show people—why don’t I just put it all in order? That’s how I wound up writing the outline of the proposal. It was like, you’ve done the work, you just haven’t put the work in order. Once I put all of those things into chapters, it was a matter of connecting the dots.
CO: Was Live Aid always intended to be the last chapter, the close of the book?
MM: I’ve had some version of the twenty-chapter list since 2009. The minute I thought of the idea, [Live Aid] was the logical, obvious, you-can’t-have-a-different-ending ending. There was no second choice: that’s where it ends.
CO: Could something like Live Aid happen now? Obviously, there could be a big charity concert with lots of celebrities, but could there be an equivalent to what “Live Aid” was in 1985?
MM: The culture has lost a lot of the innocence that fueled it. We do not have an innocent culture in any way now. Not that anyone thought anything was innocent then, either. Music culture has become more purely mercenary and is more outward about it, and I don’t think that’s altogether a terrible thing (laughs)—the devil you know. But I don’t know enough about the business as it stands today frankly to make an assessment. I have a very partial overview of current music and it’s been that way for a while and it’s going to stay that way for a while. I don’t want to cover pop—I gave that up a while ago. Not because I dislike pop as an idea but just because my specialties are elsewhere, when it comes to current music. And I think that the question I know how to answer is whether I’d want to watch such a thing, and I think the answer is no.
CO: One thing that struck me in the book was just the colossal sales of physical media. People bought so many records, tapes, CDs in 1984. It’s crazy to think about now.
MM: It’s only crazy to think of it now because physical media doesn’t exist. The very idea that there would be no physical media sales sounded lunatic for a really long time.
CO: You have that quote from Quincy Jones in the intro where he’s basically predicting Spotify in a trade magazine interview in 1984. [Jones: “It could be possible…for you to have no inventory in your house. No books, tapes, anything, if you had access to a satellite, a code book/catalog and a television set…”]
MM: That threw me for a loop. It was one of those things that when I found it I thought, “this is too good not to show people, but I shouldn’t be showing people this.” But I also realized it’s social media and everyone forgets. People put up the same stuff that they wrote every few months and not only will you get a different audience for it every time, you will get the same audience that’s forgotten about it.
CO: I recently did a joke on Twitter and apologized that I’d done a variation on it five years ago, and then realized nobody would remember that or care.
MM: Nobody fucking remembers anything anymore. Nobody retains anything anymore. I have a very old man complaint about it that I’ll spare you.
CO: We finally should talk about Bowie a bit, I suppose. [Matos: I was just gonna say!] He’s somewhat of a marginal presence in the book, although he releases a #1 album in the UK that year—he’s both there and not there in 1984, which is kind of where you’d expect him to be.
MM: He is big in ’83—the book about ’83 would be a whole different thing. And in a sense it is a book about ’83, because so much of what happens in ’84 germinates in ’83. Bowie was too big a presence to ignore. There’s no way to write this book without including some Bowie, and he’s fun to write about, as you know. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be writing a ton about him. He’s not at the Grammys, he’s only on the VMAs because he recorded something earlier. He’s spectral that year. He takes most of the year off, aside from releasing Tonight. Doesn’t go on tour behind it. He does like one interview, and it’s with Charles Shaar Murray and Murray puts it out to three different publications with different stuff in it. That’s that. And Kurt Loder or somebody goes and watches him film the Blue Jean video. He doesn’t do any press. He’s absenting himself. He’s basically like, I’m going to make this record to give me some money, to give Jim [Iggy Pop] some money, and he’s going to take it easy. He’s moved to the Alps and he likes his life.
CO: Tonight is this outlier in the context of top-charting 1984 albums. It’s a bad record but a strange bad record.
MM: Is it an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? It’s completely half-assed: of course it’s a strange record, it’s scraps.
CO: It’s bizarre, the idea he thought someone would appreciate his take on an obscure Chuck Jackson single, or his take on “God Only Knows.”
MM: [In the book], it’s all just a lead-up to Live Aid, where he slays. I hadn’t watched the Live Aid performance in full—I remembered it well—until I read you, you were talking about it was one of the great performances of his career, and it was, wasn’t it? I didn’t think I was ready to understand that, because it took me a long time to get to Bowie. Bowie was such a has-been at the time [the late ‘80s & early ‘90s].
CO: People still forget that.
MM: I was also overly reliant on [Robert] Christgau’s record grades, and there are so many B-pluses and Bs in there—I was just trying to hear the A-minuses, so I missed a lot of good things that way. I didn’t realize for a long time just how fucking indebted Prince was to Bowie. So that took a while.
One reason for Bowie’s spectral presence in other parts of the book is that you can’t just introduce him at Live Aid. It doesn’t make sense in the narrative, and it also would be false. Whereas you can introduce Queen there.
CO: You told me a while back that MTV in the U.S. cut away from Queen’s Live Aid performance midway through, which seems bizarre now, given the rep of that performance.
MM: Cut away from Queen’s performance to an interview with Marilyn McCoo. Who was then the co-host of Solid Gold.
CO: Yeah, it was like “wait, we’ve got McCoo on camera three? Cut away!”
MM: It really does tell you just how little Queen were cared for at that point in the States.
CO: Is the prominence of Queen’s Live Aid performance now something that grew over time, a product of YouTube and the movie?
MM: In Britain then it was obvious they’d stolen the show. That was the triumph of all triumphs, and the close of the book tells that story pretty well. This Melody Maker guy is just like fulminating. It’s against his code of conduct to be saying he liked it. You can sense, oh yes you’ve been indoctrinated by punk and you’ve internalized all the rules but [Freddie Mercury] got to you. Because I was the same way—I hated Queen growing up, I hated them! I didn’t like them all! I still don’t really like them much—I will never ever voluntarily put on a Queen recording. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it’s just not my taste in the least. But I will watch that fucking performance any time because it’s glorious. It’s everything you could possibly want from that band in 22 minutes.
The internet has really shown us how wide and also narrow a canon can be. One of the things I wrote about for an upcoming issue of the Wire was on “what kept you sane in 2020.” And I wrote about Don Giller’s YouTube David Letterman archives. The Tom Waits collection is like 2 ½ hours, it’s every Tom Waits appearance on Letterman from 1983 to 2015. Every one of them is a song followed by banter, and he’s Tom Waits, he’s funny as hell. I was watching this thinking that you cannot have a better introduction to him. This is genuinely the best way to learn about this guy.
CO: The Queen performance is even more striking when, as you write, so many other of the “legend” performances at Live Aid were under-rehearsed and sloppy, like Led Zeppelin. I recall as a kid waiting for this big Bob Dylan/Keith Richards climactic performance and then they stumble out and look like winos.
MM: Not just look.
CO: Did you wind up cutting any chapters?
MM: The book is 40% what I wrote, but no chapter ideas were abandoned. What got cut were profiles of groups, profiles of artists. I left a number on the cutting room floor—Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. I wrote [the latter two] together because ’84 is when they make their duets album that gets released in ’85 in the U.S. as Omona Wapi. I really wanted that in the book because those are the two biggest African acts at the time—those guys were way bigger than Fela [who made the cut for the book]. But I couldn’t include them.
I didn’t get around to writing about Billy Idol. I kept pushing him back, thinking “he’s not going to be in this chapter, he’ll be in the later chapters.” And then I got to the MTV Awards chapter where he performed and I said, “I just can’t do it—this is already overstuffed and I cannot include anything more.” I’ve already got three times as much as what this thing will allow, it’s the Madonna chapter and that’s really the fucking point of it.
I had to cut a long DeBarge thing which actually dovetailed with the Janet Jackson piece, because that’s when she marries James DeBarge. I had a treatment of all of that and then realized, this is not going to work, I have too much here and I have to cut. It became obvious when I did Underground Is Massive that these books are not about my tastes. That [earlier] book would be entirely different if were about what I liked, and so is this.
CO: How do you edit?
MM: I write long and cut. What happens is that I take forever to write the damn thing because I chase every fucking lead down, I try to find everything I’m curious about within that framework and I go to work. I do the whole thing and it takes forever, but when it comes to cutting it I’m emotionless. All that matters is if it works. I’m looking at it completely coldly. I don’t have to think about it because I did it. I wrote what I set out to write, so if it doesn’t work that means it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t space for it. I cut Underground Is Massive to size in about two weeks and I did the same thing with this.
Every book has a wordcount—it’s math. I spend the whole day doing math and what I spend the day doing is figuring out how many words I want each chapter to be, and how many words there are in total, and how much I’ll need to cut. If I’m cutting each chapter down to one-third of its [original] size, it has to be this many words. I do that for the whole book and it makes it really easy. Again, you’re taking your ego completely out of it. Now you’re just doing math. Or say you’ve read through one section and think, “this is rock solid, I can’t do anything.” That means you have to cut the other section out. It clarifies things.
CO: This might be off the mark but one book that yours seems to be in conversation with is Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul, from 1989 [a list of Marsh’s 1001 top-ever singles, which included, somewhat controversially at the time, lots of Madonna and even a Billy Ocean track].
MM: Very much so. I’d say even more [Marsh’s] FirstRock and Roll Confidential Report ..it’s both. Another section that I had to cut was about the proliferation of rock books in ’84.
CO: The Book of Rock Lists, things like that?
MM: If you remember the bibliography of the First Rock and Roll Confidential Report, it’s like 200 books—this is when those books all came out. There were pieces about this—there were pieces about the proliferation of rock books. Marsh had like a book out every six months it seemed; Born to Run had been a best seller.
CO: Yeah the mid-‘80s is when the first wave of serious Bowie biographies all appear, I recall. There wasn’t much before then.
MM: I really enjoyed the photo book about the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Dennis O’Regan. I had so much in there at one point about the making of that tour…that was a lot of what I cut. I quoted the fuck out of that book and then I realized there was no space for it. Chet Flippo wrote it—I was like, oh, you got a real writer. It’s a perfect example of Bowie’s extremely good taste. Bowie had very good taste in music writing. Greg Tate once wrote for MTV News that he went to interview some startup that Iman was working on and apparently they were sitting there talking, she was behind her desk, and she gets a call and “it’s for you, it’s my husband.” And Bowie is lavishing Tate with praise. And of course, Mystery Train is in his 100 favorite books.
Thanks, Matos! Again, if you’re interested in this period of pop history, I think you’ll enjoy the book.
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).
ScaryMonsters 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
This project’s final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. Xmas post, 2013.
But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. Xmas post, 2014.
2016 should bring…the rollout of a new music blog in the spring (ish). Xmas post, 2015 (for the life of me, I don’t remember what this idea was—it obviously didn’t happen).
It’s an established annual tradition that this blog will run a Christmas post and say, “well, this could be the last Xmas post, as we’re almost done.” And then Bowie would put out some new thing. But this time, I am very nearly sure, is the end. I can’t imagine I won’t get through the last nine songs before Dec. 2017. Xmas post, 2016.
I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year. Xmas post, 2018.
At this point, you should really be betting against me, hard. So here, I’ll try to work some reverse magic: I expect next year that absolutely nothing of remote interest will be released by the Bowie estate. See you in December 2020!
I’d like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy New Decade (or happy New Year Before the Decade Officially Ends on 31 December 2020, for the pedants). All my best, whether you’re a longtime reader or someone who pops in once in a while. The blog will continue, as it has been for some time now, with the occasional new entry on older “lost” songs that are reissued (one will probably be up next month); there’s also my new writing on 64 Quartets and the Patreon.
To everyone who bought Ashes to Ashesthis year, thank you; for those who did so and also came to the readings, thank you again. I’m grateful to Bob Stanley, Rob Sheffield, Owen Hatherley and Billy Hough for hosting the readings, and to Rough Trade (NYC and London), McNally Jackson in NYC, and the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, UK. Thanks to Tariq Goddard and Repeater Books. Two friends who were essential to the writing of Ashes to Ashes have books of their own being released next year: keep an eye out for Rahawa Haile‘s In Open Country and Mairead Case‘s Tiny.
A Bonus: Chapter End (Last). The Best of Bowie: the 2010s
My top 10 favorite songs of David Bowie’s last decade.
1. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (LP version). The Next Day had shown that Bowie was back; “‘Tis a Pity,” in its wild solo demo or its Blackstar take, showed that he wanted to go somewhere else. One of the loopiest songs that he ever wrote: you can find a world within it, then another one lurking within that. The studio version has a slight edge thanks to Donny McCaslin’s career-topper of a performance and Bowie sounding as if he was back in the Marquee in London, cheering from a crowd of Mods.
2. Blackstar. A counterpart to “Station to Station,” at the other end of the line. A great fake-out of a song, ominous and lovely and strange, shot through with jokes: “I’m the Great I Am” invokes both the Book of Exodus and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” It’s a joy that Bowie, at age 68, could sit down and say, “well, I suppose I need an epic,” then whisk one together like an omelet.
3. Love Is Lost. The highlight of The Next Day: love as being under house arrest. The harmonies!
4. Dollar Days. Raging against the dying of the light, then sitting down to watch the sunset.
5. Where Are We Now? It was, in retrospect, the perfect way, the only way, for him to return. His last season begins with a notice that it’s going to end, sooner than you think. How Bowie sings “you never knew that, that I could do that,” in a way that suggests he’d never thought he could, either.
6. I Can’t Give Everything Away. As with all the Blackstar tracks, it’s as funny as it’s haunting—there’s a wonderful petulance in the title phrase, along with a deep sadness. The last, inevitably-disappointing box set that the estate releases should have this as its title, with a photograph of the sealed Bowie vault on the cover. It’s Bowie’s “Into the Mystic“—a fading away, a dissolution into sound.
7. Sue (Maria Schneider version). Bowie’s most essential collaboration since the Reeves Gabrels era is one in which he began with fewer chips on the table—the eternal dilettante meets a brilliant composer and arranger with a lifetime steeped in jazz, a genre Bowie would only dabble in. It wound up as a partnership of equals: Bowie’s distinctive presence is central to the track but he’s not allowed to dominate it.
8. The Next Day. Loud, full of piss and vinegar, clipped, blown out—the sound of his early 2000s “rock” style being set afire. An unreconciled life.
9. No Plan. Nothing has changed, everything has changed.
10. Like a Rocket Man. I came to love this throwaway track while writing the last chapter of the book. Utterly shameless steals from all over the place, a possible last dig at Elton John, rewriting the “coke magus Bowie” years as a cartoon serial. It has one of his last great lines buried in it: “Now I wish today that yesterday was just tomorrow.” RIP, DB.
As you’ll see in Ashes to Ashes, I made a joke that I expected the Bowie estate to release “Blaze” or another Blackstar outtake on his birthday, thus rendering the book incomplete before it published. This, surprisingly, did not happen (still a few hours left, though). But there is “new” Bowie music today nonetheless.
This Parlophone set of demos, perversely to be issued only on 7-inch vinyl singles for the time being, could have been titled DB ’68, as it seems to be mostly material written and demoed that year (or at the dawn of 1969, with “Space Oddity”). The “new” songs are:
Angel, Angel, Grubby Face. Demoed for Bowie’s never-made second Deram album, it was described by Nicholas Pegg as Bowie still being under the influence of British writers Keith Waterhouse and Alan Sillitoe, from whom he’d taken plotlines and titles for his first album (“Uncle Arthur,” “There Is a Happy Land,” “Little Bombardier”).
Mother Grey seems to be along the same lines, another piece of DB’s “surreal naturalism” period, lyrically. Demoed around late 1967/early 1968, and likely another “2nd Deram LP” contender.
Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe. A title circulating for years, and I wondered in Rebel Rebel if it was the midway point between the transformation of “London Bye Ta Ta” (which has a new demo version in this set) into “Threepenny Pierrot” for the Looking Glass Murders in 1970. It seems possibly not, but we’ll see soon enough!
Love All Around. The scoop! Not even the title had been mentioned in Bowie histories, lists of bootlegs, etc., until now, I believe.
In addition, an upcoming auction lists three more unknown DB demos from 1965—“How Can i Forget You,” “I Live In Dreams” (“which includes a false start and some discussion around the key of the song”) and “It’s My True Love.”
The Parlophone set seems in part to be a copyright dump (hence the notice that the songs appeared for likely six hours on “streaming services” in December) and thus suggests in the years to come, we might get official releases of the heap of unreleased Bowie demos from that period—“Right on Mother,” “Rupert the Riley,” etc.
So as the Strokes once said, the end has no end. Here’s to Bowie’s birthday, and hope all of you are well.
Hello, happy new year. A quick promotional note, as some dates are finally cemented.
In mid-February there will be a multi-venue book launch in the New York City area for, surprise, Ashes to Ashes.
This will kick off with an appearance on Evan “Funk Davies’ show on WFMU, in sunny Jersey City, from 9 PM to midnight on Wednesday 20 February 2019. I’ll try to get him to play an excerpt of “Leon”; he’s going to ask me about Absolute Beginners, a movie that mystified him a bit.
Thursday 21 February 2019, at 7 PM: a conversation with Billy Hough at McNally Jackson, 52 Prince Street, NYC. Hough is a downtown cabaret star (Scream Along with Billy), film actor (Rampart, Time Out of Mind), and ex-punk rocker (the GarageDogs). He works at McNally Jackson where he curates the How Not To … conversation series. McNally Jackson was Bowie’s local book store and is a great place.
and last, and certainly not least,
Monday 25 February 2019, again at 7 PM, at Rough Trade NYC, 64 N. 9th St, Brooklyn. We once did a karaoke duet of “TVC 15.” Now Rob Sheffield and I will talk about Bowie! Rob is the author of On Bowie, Dreaming the Beatles, Love is a Mix Tape, Turn Around Bright Eyes, and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.
If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it to something. I believe both events are free to the public, but if you want me to sign a book, you’ve got to get it there—that’s usually the deal.
This blog turns 10 years old next year. Those of you who have followed it for a while know that one of its (unintentional) traditions is a Christmas post in which I, the fool who runs the “Bowie song by song” site, say something like “well, it looks like X is going to be the last year for the blog. We’re almost done.”
And then something happens in the following year—new Bowie music, another slowdown in production, etc.—so that I appear at year’s end to say pretty much the same thing.
This time it’s really and truly over. Well, in a way. All the Bowie songs (as of today) have been written about: in the book, if not on here. No doubt some new song will appear soon—possibly on his birthday! (You don’t have to make that joke, really!) But whatever the situation, this doesn’t mean the blog will shut down, nor that I won’t put up new posts on occasion, especially when something new happens in Bowieland (I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year.)
But we are moving into a more “posthumous” period in this blog, sad to say. It feels fitting—the end of a decade, a move ahead into something new.
So, a few things:
Ashes to Asheswill be out in mid February and can be pre-ordered in all sorts of ways (see link).
There will be some fun promotional events for it early next year. Things will kick off with two New York City dates—McNally Jackson in Soho, on Thursday 21 February 2019; and Rough Trade in Brooklyn, on Monday 25 February 2019. With hope, there will be some UK events relatively soon after that in March, and other appearances in the US throughout the year.
During 2019, I’m going to start working my way towards another project (or two), in a new blog or site. If this interests you, I’ll likely have some more details in a month or so. It’ll be quite a long road, full of detours—a shocker, I know.
I’d like to say thanks again to all of you. To commenters old and new, and to anyone who bought a book or has had something kind to say about them. Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.
Hi! It’s been quite a while, I know. But we’re finally reviving the site for its last go-round.
To start with, here’s a review I just wrote for Pitchfork on the latest Bowie box set and my thoughts on the new Never Let Me Down (it’s okay? it made me kind of like the original more sometimes?). Feel free to add your own two cents on the new NLMD in the comments.
Hope everyone has been well—there will be a big book announcement very soon.
Hello! Happy summer. A brief update (I didn’t realize the last blog post was in April!)
Ashes To Ashes, the second and final book of my Bowie song-by-song criticism, is now done. Well, pretty much. There’s still a last, hard round of editing to come, then proofing, and likely some last-minute alterations in the autumn. But the work is finished. It’s strange to say that after all these years. All the Bowie songs are done.
Yes, yes: “but what about ‘Blaze’ or the 35 outtakes they’re going to release as soon as this publishes?” All power to them! I hope that they release tons of great Bowie music. But I consider this book my final word on the subject. Sure, many years down the road, if there have been substantial releases of currently-unheard music that would make me reconsider ideas or correct assertions, maybe I’d do a revision. And if they put out “Ernie Johnson” or “Black Hole Kids” or something, I’ll put an entry up on this blog to let people talk about it.
Two things about Ashes To Ashes:
It’s publishing in early 2019, most likely in February. The date isn’t quite set yet, due to some variable factors. I’ll keep you updated.
It covers everything from “Sister Midnight” to “Blackstar.” It’ll be a big book.
Two things about the blog’s future:
There are five songs that I’ve written about for the book that I haven’t done as blog entries. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’ll likely put up one or two later this year, but you’re going to have to get the book to read some of them. Sorry. To quote the man, I can’t give everything away.
I’ve revised everything, sometimes radically, in the book. But the blog entries will remain as is, so don’t worry if you’re a fan of those versions. And the site will always be here. I’ll try to keep links up to date if I can, but that’s an endless, very tedious task. Given that the great majority of Bowie songs are on streaming services, the need for YouTube links isn’t as much a necessity for most entries anymore.
Thanks for your support over the years, and I hope you’ll enjoy the book. If you liked Rebel Rebel, you probably will. Talk soon.
Easter has passed and the most recent entry on this blog is its Christmas post. So, time enough for an update.
Here’s where things stand. I’m trying to finish the book in the next couple of months, with the hope of it coming out next year. Repeater Books, as always, has been very forgiving of my tardiness. A while ago, I determined that I had to go straight through and revise the whole manuscript before writing the final song entries, rather than periodically stopping revisions to write a new entry, as had been my original plan.
So I’ll be in the unusual situation of writing the last entries for the book before putting them on the blog. The book may well come out before some entries do. But at some point, they’ll all be up, or at least they’ll be available somewhere, in some form.
A few more things. I’ll be presenting at the Pop Conference in Seattle later this month, offering what’s essentially a remix/remodel of a few entries—mostly “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Criminal World.” And I’ll be getting down to New York to see the David Bowie Is exhibit before it closes, as I hope many of you have been able to do, too.
That’s it for now! Hope the spring is treating everyone well, and see you soon. (“Soon” being a relative concept on this blog, of course.)