Bowie gets all introverted and psychotic. Just another day at the office
After a series of popular and artistically successful albums throughout the Seventies, David Bowie marked the end of the decade with one of his finest yet, Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps), an LP that for many longtime fans would also mark the end of a golden era, one full of inspired creativity.
With guitar wiz Robert Fripp on board, and Tony Visconti at the production helm, Scary Monsters was like no other record Bowie had ever made. In fact it would turn out to be like no other album anybody else had made either.
The LP gets off to a dynamic start with the remarkable “It’s No Game (Part 1),” on which Bowie shares vocal duties with Japanese singer Michi Hirota, who belts out her lines in samurai fashion (and in Japanese no less). The song’s jerky, robotic beat is accentuated by Fripp’s discordant textures, giving the tune a disquieting, unsettling aspect, enough to disorient the listener. “Up The Hill Backwards” is another opportunity for Fripp to rear his ugly head performing a series of inflammatory guitar notes, which don’t really sound like notes at all, but rather aural sculptures set in the mechanical ether.
If Ziggy Stardust came to earth from Mars, he did so organically, not so Bowie on the title track, which finds our protagonist coming from another planet entirely, one that is industrial and synthesised. Fripp’s guitar once again explodes with all the subtlety of an incendiary device from the outer solar system, while Bowie tells the tale of a young girl who “had a horror of rooms/She was tired/You can’t hide beat/When I looked in her eyes they were blue but nobody home.”
The theme of isolation and drug induced dementia permeates throughout the record, especially on the superb “Ashes To Ashes,” one of Bowie’s greatest ever compositions, and also one of his most disturbing. “Ashes” is a sequel to “Space Oddity,” that much is known, however unlike its earlier cousin, which had a contagious melody and affecting orchestration, here, something far more sinister is lurking underneath, only to reveal itself in the chorus: “Ashes to ashes/Funk to funky/We know Major Tom’s a junkie/Strung out in heaven’s high/Hitting an all time low.”
And if the song weren’t spooky enough, Bowie rewrites an old Edwardian nursery rhyme, replacing the lines “My mummy said/That I never should/Play with the gypsies in the wood” with the eerie “My mother said/To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom.”
Almost as good is “Fashion,” a futuristic dance track where the monochromatic beat is complemented by Fripp’s fascistic guitar figures, creating the image of Nazi’s on a catwalk. Post-punk and Bowie wannabe Gary Numan must have been truly pissed off when he heard this song on the radio. Often regarded as an inferior rewrite of “Heroes,” “Teenage Wildlife” actually manages to stand on its own as one of Bowie’s more ambitious numbers, finding him playing the role of world weary traveller heading toward middle age.
He revisits his interest in science fiction on the dystopian “Scream Like A Baby,” a story filled with references to incarceration and sexual deviance. At the end of the song, Bowie brilliantly conveys the effect of his psyche literally being divided into two parts, recreating that sense of schizophrenia David had been obsessed with for much of his life as an artist.
Now Bowie was never averse to covering other people’s material, and he does a stellar job of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come,” a song concerned with personal conflict and the search for salvation in a society disinterested in the purity of youth. Certainly it was a theme Bowie was no stranger to, hence no doubt his attraction to the tune in the first place.
“Because You’re Young” ends the album on a weak note, despite Bowie’s marvellous vocal performance and the addition of Pete Townsend on guitar. If it had of appeared on any of his Eighties LP’s it would have been a highlight, but here it merely comes across as forced and contrived after the quality that preceded it.
Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps) was the perfect combination of inventiveness and commerciality, and proved to be so popular that Bowie didn’t even need to go out of his way to physically promote it, choosing instead to take on the role of playing John Merrick in the stage adaptation of the Elephant Man. Strange days indeed.