And so here we are with another edition of a random Bowie album. Impressive, look you see, that I’ve managed to keep to my idea of one a month for five months at the least. As an aside, this is one I am writing whilst wrestling with that greatest nemesis of mine, for once again I am plagued with man flu what has ebola and sarin gas injected in it. Yes, that bad and no I have no idea if I shall recover.
But you care not for my health at the best of times, and certainly less when you are here on the promise of musings about Bowie. And not just any Bowie this time, oh no. In this edition let’s have a look at, indeed a listen to, the Tonight album.
Rudimentary facts first? Sure. By the commonly accepted standard of counting them Tonight was Bowie’s 16th album proper. It came out in late 1984, some 18 months after the big selling Let’s Dance album and a short while after completing the successful Serious Moonlight tour. Whilst not selling quite as many copies the record was a success, with somewhere over two million copies shipped.
Despite the success it enjoyed it is not an album fondly remembered. This is as true of the people who made it as the majority of people who owned or played it. Usually it is Tonight or 1987’s Never Let Me Down which gets called out as “the worst David Bowie album to exist”. I, having played the album a few times over the last couple of weeks, am not at all sure this is fair.
I am going to reference my Aladdin Sane edition of random Bowie here. That was a record which Bowie was dismissive of, saying that all he ever wanted to say on the subject covered was said in Ziggy Stardust. A similar situation existed with Tonight. With Let’s Dance it would be fair to say Bowie had pretty much delivered the best polished pop record he would ever do. The record, however, had given him a huge new number of fans. He, rightly, felt the best approach was to give this market more of what they clearly wanted.
To do this he brought together most of the musicians and talent behind the success of Let’s Dance, with one glaring omission – no Nile Rodgers. This absence could be seen as a reason why, for many, the record didn’t quite hit the targets. That and the perceived “lack of effort”, as outside of the covers albums Pin Ups and Toy this album surely features the lowest number of songs composed by Bowie specifically for a record.
If for some reason I was ever quizzed or otherwise taken to task on the subject, yes. Yes, if the subject is "which David Bowie album features his name in the best and most interesting font", the answer is Tonight. I just love the way it looks on the front of the album, and on the CD. On the tape, alas, it was just a standard font used by EMI, in red on a white casing.
Whilst I appreciate being poorly structured is a staple of all things I write here, in this instance I am not sure what to do. More musings? A track by track look at the record? The latter, I think, and then more rambling from me.
Loving The Alien – the second best song on the record. A sprawling, seven minute odyssey of lyrical and musical production genius. And one which has courted controversy in all sorts of ways over the years.
Bowie himself suggested that the song was about his “frustration” with organized religion. With references stretching from Templars and Saracens through to then modern concerns about things in the name of religion, this does come across. It seems to go much deeper than that, however, and touches on the strength of faith he’d explored before and would explore again. The passionate dynamic range of Bowie’s vocals certainly underline how important this was to him.
The song today would undoubtedly cause controversy for the religious slant, but back then not so much. It was the video that caused upset, although no one ever really said why. Some stills from it beautify this post. In its original form the video for Loving The Alien was “banned” from TV and had an 18 certificate slapped on it for sale. And yet there is nothing gratuitous or explicit in it. Strangely, when one scene was cut – that of David having a nosebleed – it was passed as suitable to show to all.
Loving The Alien resurfaced in the early 2000s. Bowie performed it on that final tour in support of Reality. The version played live was a stripped down, acoustic version, with David introducing it as being “perhaps the way it should always have been played”. Perhaps this was David’s way of telling us, the fans and the listeners, that we should have been paying more attention to the lyrics than we had.
Don’t Look Down – one of three Iggy Pop covers on the album, one of five songs on the album which Iggy Pop is credited as a writer. David and Iggy were, after all, good mates.
A sort of slow, quasi jazz, reggae, soul and swing fusion number, then. One which may surprise you to learn doesn’t really work particularly well. By the minute mark Bowie already sounds bored with the song.
God Only Knows – I would argue that in 1984 the UK audience at large would recognize The Beach Boys by Barbara-Ann, Surfin’ USA, California Girls and maybe Sloop John B. Over the last 20 or so years God Only Knows has come to be better known, of course, through things such as the ingenious use of it in Boogie Nights and the curious choice of it by the BBC to promote their commitment to music. In respect of the latter, but of course the British Broadcasting Corporation would select a song by one of America’s most treasured artists.
For his cover David decides to go with a slowed down version of a song not generally known for its high tempo. The delivery is quite perplexing, for it’s a deep, strong and committed vocal delivered but there’s always a sense that he has absolutely no interest in performing the song at all. Actually, I am not entirely sure the vocal is as good as I am saying, maybe he’s just taking the proverbial with this.
Tonight – another Iggy cover of sorts, but Bowie did co-write this with Mr Pop for the Lust For Life album. For his version David changed things a bit, wisely getting rid of the original opening lines that referenced someone dying of a heroin overdose. Also, in as seemingly as hidden and unacknowledged way as possible, David does it as a duet. With Tina Turner. Yes, that Tina Turner.
There was something of a rejuvenation of Tina’s career in 1984. Earlier in that year she released the Private Dancer album, a record that garnered much deserved critical and commercial success. The album, strangely, features Tina doing a rather obscure Bowie cover, 1984 from the Diamond Dogs album. Perhaps someone at the label thought it would be a good idea, what with the year being what it was.
Tonight is a really, really good song but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. It’s soothing more than it is seductive, more a lullaby than a love song. Rather beautiful it is, too, and well worth a listen.
When Bowie released it as a single – making no reference on the credits or cover to Tina’s presence – it didn’t chart, at least not in the top forty. Oddly when Tina released it as a single (a live version of it with David) in the late 80s it did really well.
Neighbourhood Threat – mindful of the fact that this was in practical terms pre-CD, why wouldn’t you start off side two of your lp or tape with another Iggy Pop cover? As with Tonight, the original can be found on Iggy’s seminal Lust For Life album.
Sorry, but this is just poor. No one involved in this recording sounds at all interested in being involved with it. One can only assume that it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when it became clear that it wasn’t there was no time to find another song to do instead. Quite possibly the personification of the term “album filler”.
Blue Jean – the jewel in the crown of the Tonight album. Not only does this edge out Loving The Alien for the title of best song on the record, it’s also one of the best songs David’s ever done. Yes I mean that. Sure it’s not deep and meaningful, but it is a beautiful, perfect pop song that makes you feel good – and ultimately that’s exactly what music is supposed to do.
A bombastic start, a catchy tune and a wonderful song to have a smart singalong to. When it was all trendy to do so I used to have this as the ringtone on my mobile phone.
The single was accompanied by a 20+ minute short film, Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, directed by the 80’s most uber avant garde filmmaker, Julien Temple. I can remember sitting and watching the premiere of it on Channel 4; from what I recall it was on a Wednesday night but I may well be wrong.
Other than a lovely reference to Frankie Goes To Hollywood (something along the lines of “I refuse to support Frankie until they tell us who Frankie actually is”), the video saw David do something he’d not done in a while – develop a musical character. Screaming Lord Byron was his name, but alas as fancy as he looked in glitter and gold he just seemed not to endear himself to the fans as much as Ziggy, Aladdin and the Thin White Duke had done. Still, some boss dancing moves in the video.
Tumble And Twirl – another Bowie-Pop collaboration, but one written for the album.
Ostensibly the song is David and Iggy reminiscing about a holiday the two of them had just recently had in Indonesia. Without that knowledge, it’s simply an upbeat, happy go lucky wonderful little ditty. Sorry, don’t have much to say about it in isolation – the tune does its thing and doesn’t really cause any strong reaction, good or bad.
I Keep Forgettin – one of the more interesting decisions made on this record. David shared the date of his birthday with The King, Elvis Presley. It sort of makes sense, then, to do a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, although so far as I know He himself didn’t record this one. Someone who did, however, was Ringo Starr. The version by the 3rd best ever drummer The Beatles had was released just a year before. I had no idea that the world needed so many versions of I Keep Forgettin.
This is actually pretty good. A high tempo, sharp number that feels decidedly 80s yet pays homage to its early 60s, early rock origins. Hear it and you can imagine Bowie crooning it whilst wearing a smart hat and a very shiny suit.
Dancing With The Big Boys – and so the album which started with a comment on organized religion concludes with a swipe at corporate greed. Well, perhaps not greed as such, but how giant corporate companies were conspiring to crush individuals. Done in search of profit, presumably, so yes greed then.
Another Pop-Bowie collaboration, this one apparently stemming from a “brainstorming session” when locked in a studio together. Such circumstances can usually produce great records, and this isn’t much of an exception. It’s very 80s big pop sounding, sure, but it holds up rather well. One dear friend of mine, now so sadly lost somewhere in time and across oceans, had this as their favourite Bowie song. Not for me to question its merits any further, then.
Looking at the above I would say that retrospect says a bit more time should have been given to planning and deciding on this record. Strangely, after playing it a lot lately, the sum of the record is greater than its parts – the whole thing plays well, and isn’t simply dominated by the two outstanding tracks. But still, perhaps dropping at least one of the Iggy covers for another original song (if written with Iggy then so much the better) might have made a difference.
This happens to be the David Bowie I fell in love with. My Dad bought the tape, presumably for his car. I promptly pinched it for exclusive use on my walkman, taking it with me across Europe on school trips. I confess, however, that I used to play Loving The Alien on side one, then switch the tape and fiddle with rewind a bit to play Blue Jean, and that was pretty much it. Somewhere I still have the tape, stored away safely. It was what I would consider to be a childhood friend.
And an update to the above paragraph, a couple of months later. For unrelated reasons I was going through some of my stuff in storage and found the tape!
It was only a few years after the album came out that it became popular to be critical of it. Bowie was very much at the forefront of giving that criticism. In 1989 when part of Tin Machine he made noises that he found the record upsetting, and in 1990 when promoting his Sound&Vision greatest hits shenanigans he, in one press conference, said he was “coming to terms” with Tonight. Back in 1984, however, it got fairly good reviews. This was particularly true of NME and Rolling Stone. It just so happens that, at around the time they were going to review the Tonight album, both of those esteemed publications were offered territorially exclusive interviews with David. I am sure this “helped” the reviewer understand how excellent the record was.
Is Tonight an album worth getting, then? Yes, or maybe. Both Blue Jean and Loving The Alien are amazing songs and should be owned under any circumstances. Should getting the Tonight album to do this be particularly upsetting, then you could always get The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 instead. The album versions of both songs feature. A very nice DVD comes with some versions of the release too, featuring the shortened version of the Blue Jean video and the censored version of Loving The Alien.
But, as I said more than once above, over the last few weeks I have had no quarrel with this record being on repeat. In no way is it a masterpiece and it’s certainly not one of Bowie’s greatest. The album, however, is nowhere near as bad as it is conventionally considered.
Phew. Thanks as usual for reading. No, I have no idea which Bowie album will be next up for random selection. That’s what makes it random, I suppose. If you come back, and indeed should I survive this latest bout of manful, we shall discover the choice together. Except you will only read about it after I have made it. But still, in spirit, together.
Be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!