He would be 75 today, and a new book, Bowie at 75aptly aims to unpack Bowie’s “extraordinary life through the lens of 75 significant career achievements and life events.”
Written by Martin Popoff, the book invites readers to closely examine how Bowie’s work was shaped over the decades. Below extracts from Bowie at 75 discusses the creation of his 14th album, The 1980s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
It’s not all bumpy mood swings with Bowie. Often it is an evolution, with Lodgingin retrospect, it sounds like the blueprint (or, more crudely, the demo) of where Bowie would go with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) — basically challenging, post-punk songs of conventional length and approachable with some (but not too much) effort towards quite avant-garde and noisy (thanks Robert Fripp).
But the task was to make something quite commercial, after a series of records for the cult. Bowie’s main contribution to this was his request to plan more diligently and then sit with the songs after the backing tracks were finished, before applying the vocals and, importantly, writing the final lyrics. In this spirit, the band recorded at Power Station in New York, where Fripp said that “everyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously.” Two and a half weeks was followed by a two-month break before they reconvened at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London for vocals plus overdubs.
Once again, in terms of band personnel, the most significant change from last time is a swap in guitarists, with Adrian Belew replaced by Robert Fripp, who really makes his presence known on six out of 10 tracks, including this writer’s favorite Fripp solo of all time on “Teenage Wildlife”. Otherwise, Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis are back, with Brian Eno gone, though his influence is still felt. Roy Bittan happened to be in the same studio recording with Bruce Springsteen and makes a return visit and played on three songs. Significantly, this would mark the end of a long run with Murray and Davis. David would die of cancer on April 6, 2016, aged 66, not three months after Bowie died aged 69.
Scary monsters, issued Sept. 12, 1980, would reach No. 1 in the UK and No. 12 in the US, powered by moderate hits in “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes”, the latter receiving expensive video treatment with plush sets, including a padded cell. Bowie goes full Pierrot for this surreal pre-MTV clip that represents a tie to his mime past as well as the album cover. The song is also known for the line “We know Major Tom is a junkie,” with the track artfully referencing and updating Bowie’s old hit “Space Oddity.”
Elsewhere, there’s the abrasive “Scream Like a Baby”, “It’s No Game” (in two parts), and the heavy title track with its MC Escher-esque synth ping and Fripp squealing away like a dinosaur that stuck in clock mud. But much of the album has good pop bones despite eccentric window-dressing, namely the gnarled, distorted, atonal Fripp pushing and shoving the songs off the charts (Bowie shouts “Shut up!” at him twice, but it hangs Do not know).
Little did we know Scary monsters would mark the end of an era, instigated, arguably, back at Station to Station. It’s also arguably the best of that run, rich with a firm maturity gained from intense collaborations with other sonic assassins like Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp and Tony Visconti, not to mention his stable but also creative ready-and-willing core band of Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis. Essentially, Scary monsters sounds like a victory lap, a powerful push and par against the likes of Gary Numan (see “Teenage Wildlife”), Bowie states that it takes wisdom, history and leadership to perform difficult music properly.
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