Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

August 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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