Howdy Pop Pickers
And so welcome, look you see, to volume two of my “Random Bowie” project,. If luck, fate and the hammer of the gods be with me, my intention would be to do one of these a month. Whilst sadly we will get no more Bowie albums (bar posthumous releases), it is not like there is an immediate shortage of records I may pick at random to muse on.
For many, though, this second instalment will seem like the last of consequence. As in, this is it, folks. For certain critics, David Bowie’s zenith, his zeitgeist, his epitome and his final act of greatness is the album this month. Scary Monsters…..And Super Creeps has, as we shall see, become something of a line in the sand, or if you will a flag in the ground.
Some trivia and what have you to commence? Surely. This album marked the end of an era for Bowie in a couple of ways. At its most obvious, it was the last album to be conceived and commenced in the 70s, a decade few would argue with being his greatest. This was also to be his last record for RCA records, with the next coming out on EMI some three years later.
Which songs would you, the more casual of Bowie listener, associate with the Scary Monsters album? It is proudly home to two superb singles in the form of Fashion and Ashes To Ashes. The former, weirdly perhaps, has never felt like it has ever been unfashionable or out of step with any period in the 37 years since release. The latter is, famously, a “sequel” to Space Oddity, with the fate of that song’s ostensible protagonist, Major Tom, being explored. A curiosity is that, in his lifetime, Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes were, until Let’s Dance came along, the only solo Bowie singles to make number one in the UK. At a time when you had to actually sell songs to chart, etc.
Anyone who attended, or if we are honest endured, the Glass Spider tour of shenanigans in 1987 will also be familiar with a third, lesser known single. The Glass Spider shows routinely started with a heavy handed, stage loaded with people performance of Up The Hill Backwards. A good enough song, but not quite in the league of the two other singles. Also, in certain territories the title or if you like titular track was released as a single.
Other than the singles, any standout moments? A few. Let’s start with the title track. It’s one I didn’t really like for a while. The song always felt, if this a term, over layered and more busy than it needed to be. Bowie’s affected cockney vocal tone, distorted, was something I found quite distracting. Roll on episode six of the superb FlashForward TV show, however, and you get an episode named after the album and song. You also get a cover version of the song by a band called Sea Wolf. This is due for the most part to the rather ingenious yet menacing use of the version, but to be honest I like the cover version more and it led to me rediscovering the Bowie version. Sadly it would seem the Sea Wolf recording is not available to buy.
If you think the above is a crime, then think on. For a cover of a Bowie song to be better than the original is rare, but it happens. Evidence of proof? Nirvana’s take on The Man Who Sold The World.. But maybe we will get to that album one day.
For many the most outstanding track on the record is Teenage Wildlife. It’s one that has also been open to some interpretation, indeed debate, of the meaning. Quite a few, it seems, have taken the song to be David having a bit of a dig at the emerging ‘New Wave’ artists of the day, in particular Gary Numan. I’ve never had that feeling off the song.
To my ears Teenage Wildlife was the sound of Bowie closing a chapter of life. It was an expression of progressing if not getting old. A statement, to an extent, to the record industry that as he very much was David Bowie he was not going to be taken advantage of like a teenage pop star. Also, bearing in mind other lyrics on the album (“more idols than realities” from Up The Hill Backwards), I’ve always felt the song was him saying “enjoy my music, but I’m not here to influence, direct or dictate your life”. This I took from what always seemed to me to be quite clear words to that effect –
You'll take me aside, and say
"Well, David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway"
I'll say "Don't ask me, I don't know any hallways"
But they move in numbers and they've got me in a corner
I feel like a group of one, no-no
They can't do this to me
I'm not some piece
Of teenage wildlife
A shunning of fame, perhaps, maybe. If so, he certainly did for three years as he went off to act on stage (The Elephant Man) and screen (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence) before very dramatically embracing it with Let’s Dance and beyond.
One thing that has always troubled me deeply with the Scary Monsters album is It’s No Game. No, not the Japanese lady vocals, some of the English language lyrics off of David himself. Specifically these lyrics –
Draw the blinds on yesterday,
and it's all so much scarier
Put a bullet in my brain,
and it makes all the papers
This was released just 3 months before someone did put a bullet in the brain of well known Bowie friend John Lennon, and it did indeed make all the papers. A pure co-incidence, of course, but still quite a dark, possibly macabre, accidental bit of actual foreshadowing, rather than how the term foreshadowing is lazily used these days.
Speaking of lazy uses, the critics. If you cast your mind back to the start of this post, I mentioned that for critics it would seem that Scary Monsters….And Super Creeps was as good as it was to get. Virtually every album from Bowie from Black Tie White Noise onwards was reviewed somewhere as being “…his best and most important since Scary Monsters”. This, for a Bowie fan, got quite tiresome and annoying after the third or fourth recycling. It is with some joy, however, that I discovered Bowie was aware of this critical laziness. Indeed, legend has it that at one point he considered releasing a record called “my best and most important one since Scary Monsters” just to beat them at their own game.
I, for my sins, have the 1992 Ryko edition of this recording on CD. It was, I believe, the last of the Ryko re-issues. Four extra tracks feature. There’s a superb, haunting re-recording of Space Oddity on it, presumably with the intention of it being paired with Ashes To Ashes. There’s also an excellent re-recording of Panic In Detroit, with the tempo most decidedly upped from the original Aladdin Sane version and a ferocious vocal from Bowie. The cover of Alabama Song isn’t as good as The Doors cover version, and the line about “show me the way to the next little girl” is just damned creepy no matter who does it. Crystal Japan is the fourth and final bonus track, an instrumental which I think also featured on the All Saints instrumental compilation.
Is Scary Monsters a record that you, the casual Bowie fan looking to own more of his material, should consider? Yes, absolutely if you don’t already own it. The critics are right to keep highlighting this in one respect, as it most decidedly is a really good balance between commercial, accessible David and creative, critically acclaimed Bowie.
And yes, well, there you have it. No idea what the random album will be next month, or whenever it shall be. Let me gaze lovingly at my collection and see which long player takes my fancy.
Thank you, as ever for taking the time to read.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!