Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
by James Paton
David Bowie has always been an artist that is continuously able to shed his skin and alter his appearance to seem renewed as the trends of the music-buying public change time and time again. Yet he somehow manages to achieve this without ever sacrificing his artistic integrity, even if the results can be something of a mixed bag. After finding worldwide fame with Ziggy Stardust, and achieving a new level of artistic triumph with its incredible follow up, Aladdin Sane, Bowie later eloped to Berlin with Brian Eno in the late-1970’s to rediscover himself as an artist, eventually emerging with a trilogy of sublime, and thoroughly experimental, Krautrock-inspired masterpieces. In 1980, however, he condensed all of his experimentation into one near perfect album, a final release to put his entire career, as it was, behind him and move into new territory, the subsequent decade may have proven to be something of a barren spell for Bowie creatively, but with Scary Monsters, it certainly got off to a riotous bang.
It has been said that in order to fully progress as a human being, and as an artist as well, one must sever ties with the things that weigh us down- these may be friends, family members, wealth or success, anything that one might become overly attached to. And it is this, quite possibly, that marks Scary Monsters as being Bowie’s most significant album in a career jam packed with seminal releases; this was the point where he finally said goodbye to the characters and posturing that dominated a decade of glorious musical achievement for him. Subverted as it was, by the constant need to change, to reflect on society’s ebb and flow with calculated precision, but with a level of sincerity all too often called into question.
By 1976, however, he was both physically and mentally exhausted, and he made the decision to pack up and move away to the bleak, grey industrial city of Berlin in order to recuperate, revive himself as an artist, and perhaps most importantly, to cure himself of his drug addiction. At the time, German music was beginning to make headway on a global scale, with the city as its focal point, yet was the decision to flit there based solely on this reason alone, or does it perhaps run deeper? After all, the face of Berlin has also changed many times throughout the years, and there are lyrical references to it found within the three albums he made with Brian Eno there.
The now famous Berlin trilogy was brought to a fitting close with 1979’s Lodger, a more stripped back, song-orientated endeavour than either of its predecessors with no instrumental pieces found within its running time. Despite the focused approached however, the album was met with little warmth from critics, yet has gone on to find acclaim in the years since. With guitar work provided by the wonderful Adrian Belew (whom Bowie had poached away from Frank Zappa), and a collection of songs featuring biting lyrics, including the droll “Boys Keep Swinging,” looking back, seeing such indifference is truly mind boggling. Yet perhaps, the album showed some signs of desperation from an artist keen to remain at the forefront of popular music. In doing so though, he began to look over his shoulder at the next generation of recording artists who were, in his eyes, gunning for him and from here, Scary Monsters was born.
By all accounts, Bowie immersed himself in the new wave and new romantic movements upon which he was arguably the greatest influence, and in Scary Monsters, he seemed to take aim at some of the very acts attempting to walk in his shadow, winning over legions of fans in the process, with one such example being Gary Numan. The lyric “A broken nosed mogul are you” was aimed squarely at him, and Bowie’s belief that he was stealing success based on a myth that he was doing something new was also highlighted and shot down rather bluntly when he describes his music as being the “same old thing in brand new drag.” The album as a whole sees Bowie bare his teeth, while his musical collaborations help him flesh out compositions that truly rank among his best, and most complex work.
Opening and closing with the Robert Fripp-led “It’s No Game,” Bowie sings as though a stranger in alien lands watching on, horrified as events unfurl before him, initially reacting with great anger as he screams his lines out, while at the tail end of the album, he approaches the same situation with a much calmer disposition. The delivery of the initial version was said to have been inspired by John Lennon, which makes the choice to have a Japanese woman read the opening monologue carry a more deliberate sentiment. Perhaps given the time of its release, with the move towards digital recording systems (only two years later, Donald Fagen would create the first digitally recorded, mixed and mastered album release with The Nightfly), the use of tape start up and spool effects could itself be used to signify the end of an era, and, in a sense, begin to sound the death knell of analogue technology.
There is a deeply personal edge to some of his compositions here, “Up the Hill Backwards,” has been cited as a commentary on the break-up of his marriage, or possibly even an excursion into the darker side of fame, whilst “Scream Like a Baby” is something of a tale of political rebellion, told from the viewpoint of a prisoner held within some futuristic prison hospital where his mental state steadily worsens as the composition marches on. The title track, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” has been likened to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” Ian Curtis’ tragic tale of a woman afflicted with epilepsy, yet Bowie’s effort feels more introspective, yet entirely deranged. The girl discussed in it likely is a facet of Bowie’s own psyche, and the “strange doors” that she opened, well, I have a sneaking suspicion that that just might have been the result of some hallucinogenic drugs, but maybe that’s just me? Regardles though, what really makes the title track a real stand out is the blistering guitar work of Fripp, with two rip-roaring solos that demonstrate the speed and accuracy of his alternate picking, as if we needed another one though, right?
The most famous song on the album is undoubtedly “Ashes to Ashes,” a cheery, singalong pop song carved out of a downbeat, and ultimately depressing nursery rhyme that brings a sky high astronaut careering back down into the very lowest cesspits of human existence. It’s all very introspective, and explores themes of addiction as first tackled on the 1977 album, Low, but aside from bearing his soul, it is (as the album itself is) a severing of the past. It reads like an obituary for the 1970’s, and the personal problems, facades and musical explorations that the decade allowed for. When his fans went out in droves to purchase the single, making it a chart topper in the UK, they probably didn’t realise that their idol was preparing to leave them all behind as he embarked upon another adventure, another quest to reinvent himself and discover the many new experiences that would lay in wait for him.
Over the next twenty years or so, Bowie would release a further ten studio albums, with The Next Day following a further decade after the surprisingly consistent Reality, and the vastly varying fortunes of his commercially minded ‘80’s work, and dance/industrial styled experimentations of the 1990’s. With the collapse of his ill-fated Tin Machine project and a completely overlooked soundtrack for the BBC adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia, you’d hardly hold it against him if he simply gave it all up, but Bowie has shown himself time and time again to be an artist of near-limitless invention and courage, and sandwiched almost perfectly into the middle of his almost five decade long career is Scary Monsters, an album characterised by how much it looks forward by as much as it looks back. It was undoubtedly a momentous turning point for Bowie as an artist, for better or worse, and within the confines of his expansive oeuvre, there is simply no moment as important as that.
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