Record Collector Presents Bowie DECEMBER 2016 - by Tom Seabrook


Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps was to have been Bowie's Sgt. Pepper's: thought-out, mature, intelligent and rounded. It propelled him into the '80s as a rock icon at the top of his game, but did it also mark the moment when he began looking backward rather than forward? Tom Seabrook investigates...

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Thames Television Studios, London, September 18, 1979. David Bowie sits in a red chair, lit from behind by blue and orange spotlights, acoustic guitar slung across his white shirt, singing a stripped-back, heartfelt rendition of his most famous song, Space Oddity. A verse in, he gets up, brushes past a camerawoman in a nurse's uniform, and picks up the song where he left off, on a set dressed as a padded sanatorium cell. Every now and again, the screen cuts away to footage of Bowie in what looks like a dentist's chair in a suburban kitchen as he thumbs through a newspaper, wondering which way to go as various appliances explode around him.

The performance, directed by David Mallet, will eventually be broadcast in between comedy skits and songs by The Boomtown Rats and Cliff Richard, as part of Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?, a special New Year's Eve edition of ITV's Kenny Everett Video Show. Bowie had recently recorded this new arrangement of the song with long-standing producer Tony Visconti and two musicians he'd never worked with before: bassist Zaine Griff (who had once been heralded as New Zealand's own Ziggy Stardust) and drummer Andy Duncan. Shorn of strings and Stylophone, and with the familiar rising orchestrations replaced by thirteen Brechtian seconds of silence, the song seemed co take on a new, epic gravity.

"I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song," Bowie later noted to the NME's Angus MacKinnon. It was not the first time he had decided to revisit an old song - he had recently re-recorded Panic In Detroit, and was about to put out a twelve inch single featuring twin versions of John, I'm Only Dancing - but there was something different about this return to Space Oddity. It seemed, with hindsight, to work as a preface co his new album, which would itself stand as both a high point and an end point in his career.

Within a year, of course, Bowie would be topping the charts with Ashes To Ashes, his brilliantly unconventional return to the cosmic psychodrama of Space Oddity. "When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad," he told the NME. "Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space and once he gets there he's not quite sure why he's there... The whole process that got him up there had decayed."

The accompanying album, Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps, would work as a kind of consolidation of everything that came before, with Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud acoustics rubbing up against "Heroes"-style grandeur. For many, it would be the strongest album of Bowie's career - but also his last truly great work for several decades.

What was clear was that Bowie - the most forward-thinking musician of the '70s - had begun to look back over his life and career, seemingly content now to respond to what was going on around him rather than blazing new trails, as he had done so effectively throughout the previous decade. Scary Monsters would also be his final album for RCA, the label that had caused him so much anger and anguish during recent years, but which had also been home to all of his classic works. After this, things would never quite be the same.

Bowie and Visconti started work on Scary Monsters in February 1980 at The Power Station, the state-of-the-art multi-storey New York studio complex opened three years earlier by Tony Bongiovi (a second cousin of Jon Bon Jovi), who had made his name producing everyone from The Ramones to Gloria Gaynor. Bongiovi modelled the studio on Motown's Hitsville USA, where he had worked during the '70s, and it soon became known not just as the premier recording facility in Manhattan, but as one of the finest in the world.

Much of Bowie's recent work had been driven by experimentation - sometimes (particularly during his previous album, Lodger) to the point of abandon. That sense of adventure and exploration would continue to play its part, but Bowie also felt an urge to get serious - to make what Visconti would later describe as "our Sgt. Pepper's". This, Visconti subsequently noted, had been a semi-serious goal throughout their work together, ever since they made The Man Who Sold The World a decade earlier. Scary Monsters was the closest they would get. According to Robert Fripp, who added his devastatingly effective guitar-playing to seven of the ten songs on the album, Scary Monsters was the result of "Bowie's decision to take his rock'n'roll seriously".

Despite these lofty aims, Bowie arrived at the sessions, as was often the case, with very few fully formed ideas. "I've just got some chord changes," he told Visconti. "You know what I'm like." There was only one finished song: It's No Game, a looping acoustic track that Bowie had written as a teenager and demoed way back in 1970, when it was known as Tired Of My Life. Much of the job of fleshing our these ideas fell to the rhythm trio that had served Bowie so well on each of his last four studio albums: guitarist and bandleader Carlos Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray.

Bowie and his band spent several weeks knocking the songs into shape, during which time they were visited by a typically diverse bunch of guest musicians. Roy Bittan, who had appeared on Station To Station, and just happened to be working with Bruce Springsteen on The River, in the studio next door, was drafted in to play piano on several tracks. Pete Townshend turned up one night to add his distinctive windmill guitar chords to Because You're Young, and former Television frontman Tom Verlaine came along with the intention of putting down some lead parts on Bowie's cover of his song Kingdom Come. Sadly, Verlaine spent so long "auditioning" guitar amps that they never got round to recording any of his playing.

Perhaps the most unusual of the various guest musicians was guitar-synthesiser player Chuck Hammer. He and Bowie had met several months earlier, in October 1979, at a Lou Reed gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. Hammer had been playing with Reed for about a year, during which time he had been developing a unique style he dubbed "Guitarchitecture". The idea, he says, was to "extend the guitar's vocabulary through recorded layering of guitar parts".

Shortly after meeting Bowie in London, Hammer sent a cassette tape of three Guitarchitecture tracks to the singer's management. Then, early the following year, he was invited to The Power Station to show Bowie and Visconti what he could do. He turned up with his Roland Guitar Synch and proceeded, as Visconti later recalled in his autobiography, to give them "a quick demonstration of how he would pick a note and out of his amplifier would come a symphonic string session". Naturally, they had to have it on their record.

According to Hammer, Bowie had listened extensively to the tape he had sent him a few months earlier, and he and Visconti already had a fair idea of which tracks they felt were "most appropriate for deploying the 'guitar texture' direction". Hammer recalls, "They appeared to be quite open to any idea I wanted to try. David understood quite clearly what 'textural zones' I was developing from the cassette demos I had forwarded. They really wanted my initial gut reaction and instinct to the three tracks they had selected. These songs were in unusual keys (for rock), which somehow lent an air of unique tonality."

Hammer's initial impressions of Bowie and Visconti's working methods were very strong, and remain so to this day. "They appeared to be quite organised," he says, "and had a number of basic tracks already printed to analogue multi-track tape," though there were no vocals or melodies, and many of the lead guitar and synthesiser parts had yet to be added. "Apparently, David and Tony wanted to record my textural guitar layers in a sonically discreet manner."

For Ashes To Ashes, which had the working title People Are Turning To Gold, Visconti moved Hammer's amp out into the hallway in order to take advantage of the natural reverb produced by the four-storey studio's stairwell. "I proceeded to slowly layer four multi-crack guitar textures in various chord inversions for each chorus section," Hammer recalls. "Prior to recording each layer, we adjusted various texture effects I had brought along to the studio to provide each layer with an altered timbre. Upon playback in the control room, we were all smiles, because it was obvious we had managed to record something quite beautiful."

Hammer also played on Teenage Wildlife, then known as It Happens Everyday. "It had a complex arrangement with a number of different sections, each requiring a different texture," Hammer says. He and Visconti worked slowly through the chord chart, section by section, with a fair amount of trial and error coming into play. "Since this layered direction was quite experimental at the time," Hammer adds, "no one really knew how it might sound." He also played on another track called Cameras In Brooklyn, which lacer became Up The Hill Backwards, but his pares were ultimately not used: "Too bad," he says, as they were "perhaps the most exploratory of all the tracks recorded".

By the end of their stint at The Power Station, Bowie and his cohorts had completed around a dozen backing tracks, including a cover of Cream's I Feel Free and a version of I Am A Laser, an old Bowie tune originally recorded by his early '70s acolytes, Ava Cherry & The Astronettes. Aside from It's No Game, however, they all still lacked vocals, and, in most cases, lead guitar and synthesiser parts.

In the past, Bowie had often come up with lyrics and melodies on the fly, either by using Burroughsian cut-up techniques or simply by singing whatever came to mind, Iggy Pop-style, when he stepped up to the mic. This time, however, Bowie wanted to give the songs a little more thought, and suggested to Visconti chat they cake a break for a couple of months before reconvening in the spring. "When I record something," he told the NME later in the year, "I have to take into consideration... whether or not I would want to listen to it again in a few years' time... I try not to write as immediately as I once used to."

Bowie and Visconti planned to resume work on the album in May. In the meantime, Bowie had some rather different business to attend to: filming a commercial for Crystal Jun Rock sake in Japan. A pensive Bowie speaks only four words in the clip, various murky, Ringu-like copies of which can be viewed on YouTube: "Crystal. Jun Rock. Japan." He also provided the soundtrack: Crystal Japan, an eerie, Vangelis-like instrumental recorded earlier in the year at The Power Station, but which wouldn't have sounded out of place on the second half of "Heroes". It was released as a seven-inch single in Japan, with Alabama Song on the B-side, and has since cropped up on various other more widely accessible releases, including the Rykodisc edition of Scary Monsters, and the retrospective set All Saints: Collected Instrumentals 1976-1999. Asked by a Japanese journalist why he had agreed to appear in the commercial, Bowie gave several answers, concluding chat it was "very effective that my music is on television twenty times a day" because it "isn't for radio".

In April, Bowie made his way back through Europe, stopping in Berlin to catch a show by his old mate Iggy Pop. After Iggy dedicated China Girl to him with the words, "Hi, Dave, wherever you are," Bowie resumed his old role as Iggy's keyboardist for the encores. After a catch-up meal at the Exile restaurant in Kreuzberg, Bowie made his way to Tony Visconti's Good Earth studio in London, to get back to work on Scary Monsters.

True to his word, Bowie had spent his downtime wisely, crafting a series of complex lyrics and melodies chat would breathe new life into the recordings he and Visconti had made in February. "He actually sat down and wrote songs for a change," the producer said at the time. "For David, this is good form."

That was quite the understatement. As Visconti would later note, some of what Bowie had come up with was so good, and so unexpected, chat it gave him goosebumps. Visconti, too, worked hard to transform The Power Station recordings, painstakingly piecing together the best possible version of each song from a variety of cakes. On some tracks, such as Scary Monsters itself, he would perform as many as ten tape edits.

As work continued, some songs fell by the wayside, including I Feel Free (which Bowie would record again, with Mick Ronson, for his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise and an upbeat instrumental crack listed on bootlegs as Is There Life After Marriage? Crystal Japan, at one point earmarked as a potential album closer, also failed to make the final cue. At the same time, several tracks that had once seemed destined for the cutting-room floor were rescued by new additions. The most notable was a long, funky track originally dubbed Jamaica because Bowie and Carlos Alomar had first started playing around with the riff in Keith Richards' home studio in Ocho Rios on the island. Only at the eleventh hour, after Robert Fripp had added several coats of scorching guitar work and Bowie had dreamt up the memorable refrain about goon squads and turning to the left, did the song - now called Fashion - finally come together.

Fripp, who ended up playing on seven cracks during a brisk two-day stint at Good Earth, was one of four guests Bowie and Visconti called on during the second phase of the Scary Monsters sessions. Lynn Maitland, a friend ofVisconti's, joined him and Bowie in the vocal chorus for Up The Hill Backwards, and Japanese actress Michi Hirota, who was in London for the play The King And I, provided the spoken-word pan of It's No Game (Part 1). The other key addition was synthesiser player Andy Clark, who had worked with Jeff Beck and played in Be-Bop Deluxe with Bill Nelson, and who dropped in to Good Earth to provide colour and detail to cracks such as Because You're Young and Scream Like A Baby.

By June, Bowie and Visconti had completed a work chat matched their Beatles-like ambitions: an album of lush, textured, and sonically varied songs chat stand among some of the finest Bowie had ever recorded. Running to a neat yet expansive ten songs over forty-five minutes, Scary Monsters is full of verve and invention, but nevertheless maintains a defiantly commercial edge throughout, as if intended as conclusive proof that you can have it both ways. If some of the sounds felt familiar, it was only because of the fact that Bowie and his cohorts had, on their previous few albums, unwittingly invented the sound of the '80s with their chirruping synths, sharp shards of guitar and electronically treated drums.

Lyrically, the album is among the most impressive - and the most personal - of Bowie's career. As Chuck Hammer puts it, the album as a whole "was concerned with inner psychic life and confronting fears". He adds: "The sonic textures were the landscape and the vehicle to travel into this inner world."

Robert Fripp once said that Bowie is "a number of different people... there are many facets you can pick up on". Bowie tackles those facets in turn as the album progresses, whether he's drawing a line under his recent divorce (Up The Hill Backwards), counselling his young son (Because You're Young), or assessing the peaks and troughs of his career through the lens of Major Tom's slow comedown from his space odyssey (Ashes To Ashes). There's a sense of unease throughout: a maze of "silhouettes and shadows", "tension and fear"; a "horror of rooms" and nurses who don't care. By the end, however, you get the sense that Bowie has, once and for all, lifted himself out of the low (Low?) ebb of the past few years.

The album opens and closes with the sound of tape spooling (Visconti's idea, perhaps to emphasise that here is a record that's weighing up a career to date) and a pair of complementary versions of It's No Game, here transformed from the original acoustic ramble into a muscular blast of duelling guitars and vocals by Bowie and Hirota. Bowie also shares the lead vocal on the next track, Up The Hill Backwards, this time as part of a three-voice ensemble alongside Visconti and Lynn Maitland. Then comes the album's title track, which opens with a flurry of histrionic lead guitar (played by Fripp) and an edgy mix of live and synthesised percussion. Eventually released as the album's third single, it's a harsh, nightmarish track that, tellingly, was one of the few old songs Bowie played on his Outside and Earthling tours in the '90s.

The album's centrepiece, of course, is Ashes To Ashes, a song that Bowie told the NME was "about as subversive as one can get in popular music terms". It is also one of his all-time greatest recordings. As Chuck Hammer notes: "In virtually every project I have been involved in, Ashes To Ashes comes up as a point of discussion and reference." Over a flurry of synthesisers and a chord sequence that never quite resolves itself, Bowie uses the returning Major Tom to unpick his own travails over the past five years, going from "funk to funky", getting "strung our" in Los Angeles, ending up with "no money... and no hair" on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and finally hitting "an all-time low". As the song progresses it morphs into what Bowie himself later described as an '80s update of the dark nursery rhymes of the Victorian era amid the stern warning that you "better not mess with Major Tom".

The underlying thread, as Bowie later explained, was "a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I've done" - a strange sense of doubt which was noted by keyboardist Sean Mayes, who, in his autobiography, remembered a fretful Bowie visiting him in London shortly after completing work on Scary Monsters and lamenting the fact that the album was "terrible" and doomed to failure.

The album's first side comes to an end with another hit in the making, Fashion, a funky vamp on which Bowie takes aim at his imitators from the new wave scene. In an interview with Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone, he described Fashion as being about "the sort of grim determination" at the heart of a lot of contemporary culture. "It's loud and tasteless," he sings, "and I've heard it before."

The second half of Scary Monsters isn't quite able to match the quality of the first, but there's a strength and sure-footedness to each of the remaining five tracks. Teenage Wildlife is a clear retread of the sound and mood of "Heroes", but there's a certain irony to the way Bowie uses this familiar musical backing as the launchpad for another stinging rebuttal of his army of copyists: "the same old thing in brand new drag". Robert Fripp - who, of course, played on "Heroes" too - appears again, this time alongside Chuck Hammer, creating a wash of guitar solos that run backwards and forward against each other. Hammer rightly notes, "When the two styles are brought together on the final mix, the result is quite stunning."

Scream Like A Baby takes the basic frame of I Am A Laser, one of the songs Bowie wrote for Ava Cherry in 1973, adding several layers of piercing synthesisers and a bridge featuring some incredible pitch-shifted vocals. Next up is the Tom Verlaine cover, Kingdom Come, which easily surpasses the somewhat plodding original despite stripping out much of the chorus. Then, before It's No Game (Part 2) brings the album back to where it started, there's Because You're Young, Bowie's ode to his son, Duncan (going by one of his middle names, Zowie, at the time). Reminiscent in places of the superior post-punk group Magazine, it's the most upbeat track on the record, though there's still darkness in the references to broken pieces and "a million scars".

Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps was released in September 1980 and soared to Number 1 in the UK and hit the Top 5 in the US. Despite Bowie's fear that the album would be a failure, it was greeted with some of the most ecstatic reviews of his career - Record Mirror even gave it seven stars out of five.

Though Bowie mentioned plans for a spring tour of "smaller places", there were ultimately no live dates in support of the album. By now, Bowie had other priorities. On February 8, 1980 - mere days before the first Scary Monsters sessions - his divorce from his first wife, Angie, became final, and he was awarded full custody of their son. Bowie's professional concerns had also changed. "More and more," he told Rolling Stone, "I'm prepared to relinquish sales, as far as records go, by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I really wish to make. And I'm trying to stretch out, nor just to be in there with music; trying to get involved in all the other avenues I once used to feel were part of becoming a quasi Renaissance man, you know."

As it was, most of the interviews Bowie conducted in support of Scary Monsters took place either backstage at, or around the corner from, The Elephant Man, the Broadway play in which he would star for much of the rest of the year. Bowie had been to see the play in late 1979 and then, a couple of months later, had been visited by the director, Jack Hofsiss, who was interested in having Bowie take over the lead role from the outgoing Philip Anglim.

To make things easier for Bowie, Hofsiss arranged for him to do a run of performances away from the glare of Broadway, first in Denver and then in Chicago. As it transpired, however, Bowie didn't seem to need a trial run. His first stage role drew near-unanimous praise from fans and non-fans alike, particularly for the way in which he used mime rather than make-up to portray the disfigured title character, John Merrick. "Bowie has the technique of magnetising people," co-star Concetta Tomei said at the time, "and that is something you just can't learn in a school or out of books." As far as the man himself was concerned, he was working on "pure barbaric impetus". As he told ABC News: "A lot of it is pure instinct for knowing that I've found something that I hadn't found before."

On September 23 - nine days after the release of Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps - Bowie began a three-month stint on Broadway at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. Once again, the show was well reviewed, even by critics who didn't know anything of Bowie's past. The only black spot on the run came on December 8, when John Lennon was shot dead outside his home in New York. Lennon's death had a particular impact on Bowie, who later learnt that the killer, Mark Chapman, had seen him in The Elephant Man and boasted that he planned to head over to the Booth Theatre if his plan to kill Lennon failed. Shaken to the core, Bowie resolved to make himself less accessible in the future.

Though Bowie chose not to tour Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps, the album certainly didn't lack for media coverage. Bowie gave several TV interviews and performances, including one on NBC' s Tonight Show, while just the mere fact that he was appearing on Broadway brought him (and, by extension, the album) countless column inches. And then there were the videos. Bowie was no stranger to video, having made his first promo clips with Mick Rock in 1972, but it wasn't until he began working with director David Mallet in 1979 that he really began to experiment with the form. Mallet shot videos for the three Lodger singles - Boys Keep Swinging, D.J. and Look Back In Anger - and would continue to work with Bowie throughout the '80s.

Bowie and Mallet's most memorable collaboration was the landmark clip for Ashes To Ashes, for which Bowie drew the storyboard himself. "We have a very good working relationship," he later said of Mallet. "I show him exactly what frames I want, and then he puts his input in."

The video made memorable use of solarised colour effects and included scenes shot on the same padded-cell set char Mallet had used for the Kenny Everett performance of Space Oddity. The video was also notable for its inclusion of four Blitz Kids from London's emerging electro-pop scene, among them Steve Strange, who would go on to front Visage. To some, it was another sign of Bowie's ability to spot and pre-empt a trend; to others it was yet more evidence of his vampiric tendency to latch onto whoever happened to be cool at the time.

Bowie had first visited the Blitz club in late 1979, with Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, and would later give a rather withering assessment of its attendees, telling the NME that "everybody was in Victorian clothes... I suppose they were part of the new wave or the permanent wave or whatever". This, coupled with some of the lyrics on his new album, would suggest that he had little time for the proto-New Romantic scene. But he clearly saw something of value - or something of use - in these kids from the Blitz. And he was right: Ashes To Ashes landed at the top spot on the British charts, becoming his first UK Number 1 since Space Oddity, while the video is still regularly cited as one the greatest of all time.

For some, however, the Ashes To Ashes video was the moment where Bowie stopped leading and starting following. As one Blitz kid, Christos Tolera, later put it, "The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and, in my mind, for Bowie as an innovator." Tolera wasn't alone in his thinking. In 1981, when Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet was asked what he thought of Bowie, he replied archly, "What's Bowie got to do with me? He's thirty-three and I'm twenty-one."

Bowie would not make another full album for almost three years. By that rime, synthesised pop was everywhere, and the MTV era had begun. Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie chose to embrace it fully, signing to EMI and making a big-budget pop record, Let's Dance, with Chic's Nile Rodgers, whose next major assignment would be Like A Virgin. For the rest of Bowie's decade, genuine musical innovation seemed to take a back seat, with the occasional gem, such as the brilliant yet underrated Absolute Beginners, appearing only sporadically amid overblown tours and film projects such as The Hunger and Labyrinth.

It would rake the widely derided Tin Machine to bring Bowie back from the edge. And when the new "Renaissance man" Bowie emerged on Black Tie White Noise, it was greeted with a line applied, to an almost comical extent, to every record he made thereafter: his best since Scary Monsters.

There's a reason for that. For all the excitement of Ziggy Stardust or the cerebral brilliance of Low, Scary Monsters... And Super Creeps remains, for many, the last in his run of classic albums. "Scary Monsters defined its time and era through the ingenious forging of an extremely wide range of artistic influences," says Chuck Hammer. It is also, he says, "one of the best-sounding recordings ever": "It was a sort of peak for analogue technology, which in many ways still sounds better than current high-resolution digital recording. It is not abbreviated, it is nor numbers, it is not dithered down. It sounds real."

Or, as Tony Visconti put it: "If you must own one David Bowie album, buy this one."