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Released in September 1980, Scary Monsters was David Bowie's final album for RCA Records and is regarded as the his last great album. It was critically acclaimed at the time at and went straight to the top of the album charts. The last Bowie album to achieve this milestone was Diamond Dogs in 1974. Produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti the album was released under the banner, "Often Copied Never Equalled", a reference to the new wave acts around at the time that he had inspired. It's No Game #1 gets the album off to a great start with guest vocalist Michi Hirota singing in Japanese. Apparently Bowie thought that having a Japanese singer would do his credibility a lot of good. He sounds really angry singing lines like, "So where's the moral when people have their fingers broken by these fascists" and "Put a bullet in my brain and it makes all the papers". Happily he's a lot calmer during It's No Game #2 which closes the album. Up The Hill Backwards (the fourth and final single release from the album) criticises the public coverage of Bowie's divorce from Angela Barnett. "While we sleep they go to work. We're legally crippled. It's the death of love", he moans. It's undeniably catchy and very under-rated. The title track is next up and focuses on a woman's descent into madness. "When I looked into her eyes they were blue but nobody home" sings Bowie. Robert Fripp's guitar is particularly impressive on this song. Ashes To Ashes was the first single release from Scary Monsters and had a memorable video directed by Bowie and David Mallett. It mentions Major Tom from Space Oddity who's now a "junkie" at "an all time low". It's been noted that the last verse sounds very similar to a nursery rhyme that goes, "My mother said that I never should play with the gypsies in the wood". Fashion has to be one of Bowie's most danciest songs ever and features the phrase "Beep beep" which he apparently borrowed from an unreleased song called Rupert The Riley. It's been suggested that Fashion is a song about fascism although Bowie denied this in an interview. Other critics felt it poked fun at the New Romantics. It sounds to me like Rolf Harris is playing his diggery doo on this song. Listen to it carefully and you'll see what I mean. Teenage Wildlife follows Fashion and is the longest song on Scary Monsters (at just under seven minutes) and contains the line, "A broken nosed mogul are you. One of the new wave boys". A dig at Gary Numan it's been claimed. Bowie said that his vocals on Teenage Wildlife were an imitation of Ronnie Spector. Scream Like A Baby was originally written for a singer called Ava Cherry and critics have praised it because of its "Ultra modern new wave guitar/synth sound". I like this song because Bowie sings like his life depends on it. The two remaining tracks on Scary Monsters are Kingdom Come (a Tom Verlaine song. He used to be in a group called Television) and Because You're Young which features Pete Townshend on guitar. Scary Monsters is a brilliant album which is rightly regarded as a classic. You should be able to purchase it for under a tenner.
If the first half of the 70’s was David Bowie’s octane-fuelled androgyny-party then the latter half was his hangover recovery. By 1976 the side-effects of the cocaine were tangible and Bowie subsequently retreated into collaboration with Brian Eno emerging with Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, the superb Berlin Trilogy. More remarkably, Bowie had in the process stripped himself of any form of glamour, be it the make up, the bright hair, the loonish characters, and most of the theatrics. By the time of Scary Monsters in 1980, The Thin White Duke was a distant swastika-shaped blip on the radar. The first thing to say about Scary Monsters is that its Bowie’s first album about life. Many of the lyrics are in the first person, but it is the overall mood of the album that is most striking. Bowie emerges from the 70’s angry, disillusioned and, as the title suggests, worried. This is most apparent on the opening gambit “It’s no Game (Part 1)”. Shrieking vocals and wailing discordant guitars are pitted against a babbling Japanese monologue. There appears to be a number of detractors out there, causing Bowie to growl, “ to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading”. Further outbursts are made, particularly on behalf of others, including the gay community on “Scream Like a Baby” and the impoverished on “Kingdom Come”. The album’s central track “Ashes to Ashes” continues the story of Major Tom, who has become a sinister and disoriented figure who would like to come back to earth and simply get on with life. Musically this is wonderful, with dripping-tap synthesisers punctuated by staccato bass and distant wailing guitars. The desperate second chorus is perhaps Bowie’s finest moment. “Up the Hill Backwards” begins busily, then breaks into a simplistic riff allowing the vocals to exploit the space in the music. The lyric tells o f a social divide, and for the lower classes the balance of power has “got nothing to do with you”. The album is truly lit up by “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” a pulsatant white-knuckle ride propelled ever upwards by Robert Fripp’s guitar acrobatics. “Fashion” is a humorous barb at the various fads prevalent in Western society around the early 80’s – perhaps this is even aimed at the New Romantics who were following two steps behind Bowie himself. Elsewhere, “Teenage Wildlife” sees Bowie the veteran looking on as a young pretender (perhaps even the young Bowie) come to terms with the trials of adulthood. Bizarrely, Bowie communicates as a father figure. The final pair of tracks on Scary Monsters allow the album to close on a note of optimism. Despite Pete Townsend’s ominous guitar intro, “Because You’re Young” is truly warming. “Its No Game (Part 2)” reverts to the lyrics and riff of the opening track, but this time the delivery is measured and assured, while the guitars are perfectly in tune. The “silhouettes and shadows” who previously plagued the artist are now coolly dismissed with ease. It can be concluded that the artist has reclaimed his sanity, if not his dignity. Overall, Scary Monsters is perhaps the fulcrum of the Berlin Trilogy. Eno is absent, but Bowie once again progresses as an artist, in part due to his retention of the core of musicians from the preceding albums. There are many high points here and the album has aged reasonably well. This is seen by many as Bowie’s last classic (it is indeed a classic) before the inspiration vacuum slowly began to catch him up. It is hard to disagree with this opinion; Scary Monsters and its attendant singles were a commercial success, but this was at little or no expense to the artist. For less successful outings, visit some of Bowie’s output over the next 15 years.
With this album we see the return of the electric guitar to the forefront of Bowie’s work. The screaming vocals of the first track mark a resurgence of the rawer more powerful aspects of him. It is a lot less polished than the likes of Lodger. The mark of Mr. Eno is missing, it is a lot less twiddly a lot less refined and caressed. This is a man on a mission and yet at moments it fails to engage. “It’s No Game” is excellent, the hissing rattle before howling guitars strike to the point of taking over the song, engulfing us, causing Bowie to yell at them to shut up. Hmm all sorts of psychological bunkum to work with there I am sure. The introduction to “Up The Hill Backwards” is absolutely fantastic, then Mr. Bowie puts it down and the song changes to something completely different. How he must be chortling to himself. Then halfway through we are reminded of this outstanding musical phrase. The screaming, distant guitar is magnificent, he picks it up again, toys with us and then slowly it fades, leaving the listener gasping for more. The high point of this album, and possibly his career, is the title track: “Scary Monsters”. Words fail to describe how good this track is. 20 years on and this track still sounds as fresh as something very fresh indeed (as does the whole album). Bowie steps into the dark and attires himself so well with it, (as ever). NIN, Manson, Metallica, Pearl Jam and Nirvana all dream(ed) of writing a song as good this. The anvil percussion in perfect cacophony with Robert Frip(p) on guitar, culminating with honey soaked, harmonised vocals. I liked Tin Machine (well the first album) but that album never reached the heights that this track does. “Ashes To Ashes” sweeps you up and caresses your ears, gently, floating you off to memories long gone before “Fashion” comes along and kicks your butt. The pulsating tone introduction paving the way for a stoic guitar performance with mo re than a passing prod at himself and others. “It’s No Game II” entices you and slips neatly inside your head. Bowie having amused himself for a while leaves the guitar alone (until probably Tin Machine stumbles along). The album has some of the best moments of his career and in places it is not quite so good. His charm seems to be fading before he ambles back with awful (but very popular) commercial dirge then the carpet and slippers of “Black Tie…”. Some say Scary Monsters was his last great album, it certainly seemed to go horribly wrong after this but then who can look into the eyes of a God for 10 years and not come away blinded. I would agree were it not for “Outside” which is such a good album to equal if not surpass everything he did in the seventies and everything he did in the seventies was musical genius. In between we have only had glimpses of what he is really capable of. This album hints at grunge 10 years before it was thought about, it is a catalogue of ideas for others to pick over, it remembers the past and gives us a last glimpse of what he is really capable of until “Outside” comes screaming out of the shadows. Try it, there is something for all the family here. And any album from 1980 which sounds as good in the year 2000 must be good.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 It's No Game, Pt. 1
2 Up the Hill Backwards
3 Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
4 Ashes to Ashes
6 Teenage Wildlife
7 Scream Like a Baby
8 Kingdom Come
9 Because You're Young
10 It's No Game, Pt. 2