Bowie Week continues here at The Fault!
For Bowie, 1980 began much the same way his last few years had – writing and recording a new album. Eventually appearing in September of that year, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was a dark, antisocial, ruminative album lyrically, and musically it was a near-perfect melding of his experimental and commercial leanings. It sounds very much a new wave album, albeit one with a lot of muscle behind it. Every song moves along briskly, and this album features lots of guest stars supporting Bowie’s usual core band of Alomar, Murray, and Davis. Pete Townshend and Robert Fripp both show up to do what they do best, guitar-wise, while Chuck Hammer contributes the relatively new guitar-synth to the proceedings. Be Bop Deluxe player Andy Clark provides synth (side note: Bill Nelson, leader of BBD, Red Noise, and a solo artist, started BBD as very much a glam band, and their first album Axe Victim was especially saddled with comparisons to Bowie. Luckily, BBD went on to produce great, futuristic sounding prog rock albums that probably deserve a post of their own some day). There was also a member of Springsteen’s band in there. Producer Tony Visconti was at the helm again, contributing Eventide Harmonizer to the drums.
In many ways, Scary Monsters was Bowie’s response to a world he was starting to not recognize (not surprising, given how he was always writing, recording, or touring – doesn’t leave a lot of time to catch up with the nightly news), as well as his response to the fresh crop of new wave artists that sprang up after punk, taking a healthy dose of Bowie as their main (sometimes only) cue. It contains big hits “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes”, as well as gems like “It’s No Game”, “Up The Hill Backwards”, and the title cut. It’s my favorite Bowie album, hands down, from lyrical content to musical delivery. Bowie did at the start of the 80’s what so few ‘younger, fresher’ artists managed to achieve – a perfect album from start to finish. Speaking of the song “Ashes To Ashes”, within the lyrics, Bowie buries Major Tom, the titular star from his very first hit, “Space Oddity.” In many ways, it is David Bowie laying his past to rest to look towards the future. His first album of the new decade, it was also his last for longtime label RCA (although the record company didn’t know that yet). People probably didn’t think too much about the lyrical content of “Ashes”, but Bowie clearly did, as the rest of the decade would see him change directions fasters than a dog chasing a rabbit.
Bowie also did one other thing in 1980, in that he for a time starred as Joseph Merrick in the broadway play The Elephant Man. 1981 didn’t bring much musical activity from Bowie, unless you count a worldwide smash #1 hit single made in collaboration with group Queen. There’s been a lot of controversy over who came up with the famous bassline (it wasn’t you, Vanilla Ice, you giant toolbox), with everyone in Queen (except for Brian May) and also Bowie himself at one time being credited for the musical passage. Whoever really wrote it, I’m just happy Bowie was friends with the band, as we got a lasting, amazing song out of it. Freddie Mercury was also responsible for Bowie (eventually) signing with EMI Records, Queen’s label at the time. I am paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this: [Mercury] “David, you may be rich, but EMI can make you Croesus rich.” Also in 1981, and following up his previous turn in The Elephant Man, Bowie decided to take on the character of Baal, a play written in 1923 by Bertolt Brecht for a BBC Production. For this, he recorded his take on five of the songs, again with Visconti producing, at Hansa in Berlin once again. It’s completely non-essential listening, but it did show that Bowie was stretching his creative muscles. 1982 saw him contribute a song called Cat People (Putting Out Fire) to the film of the same name, with music by legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. He would re-record this song for his next album, but in my opinion, the original single version crushes the remake like a grape. He also rounded out 1982 with the release of a duet with Bing Crosby (originally from a 1977 Christmas Special, making its first official release in ’82), an update of a classic Christmas tune. Bowie was unhappy with his original appearance and with the song as a whole. When RCA released it without checking with Bowie, it was the final nail in the coffin for his relationship with the label. Oddly enough, it’s become a Christmas classic, and in keeping with my true curmudgeonly attitude, I can’t stand it. Bowie also took the time to be the leading man in the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Bowie received praise for his work in the film, which would see release in 1983. Bowie also appeared in the 1983 vampire film The Hunger, which also featured Bauhaus in the opening club scene. Bauhaus, of course, did a rocking cover of Ziggy Stardust (not in the film, but in general as a single. No, the song used in the film is of course Bela Lugosi’s Dead, their own vampire ode. Predictable, but appropriate. The cover of Ziggy might have been cooler, and a little nod-and-wink to the audience at the same time). The Hunger is a well done (if only moderately received) film, and Bowie’s performance seems very Bowie…he’s effortlessly acting as a version of himself. However, before either of his cinematic contributions to the year 1983 would see light, Bowie would release an album that has polarized his fanbase ever since.
Let’s Dance, shall we? In December of 1982, Bowie, having signed a multi-million dollar contract with EMI Records, went to work in NYC at Power Station Studios with Nile Rodgers, the guitarist for disco act Chic. The album was supposed to be produced by longtime associate Visconti, who had even blocked out time in his schedule to make it, only for Bowie to decide to go in a funkier direction after meeting with Rodgers and telling him to ‘help me make hits.’ Bowie, tired of being seen as ‘that arty guy’ wanted to be a massive pop singer, and Let’s Dance made that dream a reality. The songs are very American, very pop, very funk. It was what American top 40 radio was playing, and that ‘new’ channel MTV helped further sales of the album by playing Bowie’s videos for the new album non-stop. You know the title track, you know the single “China Girl” (originally from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot album from 1977), as well as the hit “Modern Love” and the new version of “Cat People.” Apart from Cat People and China Girl, there was one further song borrowed from another release, “Criminal World”, originally released in 1977 by the band Metro. The band was top notch. Besides Rodgers, guitar duties were played by an unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan, with drumming by Chic drummer (and future Power Station drummer) Tony Thompson. It was a popular album, but not a great one. A few of the tunes just flat out don’t work, and the ones that did now sound dated and trite. For many, however, this was Bowie’s introductory statement, that of a suit-wearing, smiling, blond man. Let’s Dance was Bowie’s only #1 single in America, and to support his new sound and image, he went on tour in May of 1983 through December of the same year. Propelled by hit singles, hit videos, an impressive promotional attack, and Bowie’s own press releases, the tour, which was to start in 10K seat venues (much like Bowie’s previous tours) had to expand to larger arenas as Bowie’s popularity grew. The tour was a sellout everywhere it went. It placed Bowie into the upper echelon of mainstream pop stars. He soon realized it’s not where he wanted to be. My opinion? One of Bowie’s worst albums…a sellout, cash-in, boring, uninspired…look, the man’s a genius. He wants to make American funk music? Fine. That was his call. But I didn’t like the sound then, and I don’t like it now, and putting “David Bowie” on the cover doesn’t make the product any more enjoyable. RCA still owned the rights to Bowie’s back catalog and put out the live album Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture in October of 1983, partly to capitalize on the massive success Bowie was having with Let’s Dance. When has a record label not tried to make money off an artist, and to boot, I’m sure they were kicking themselves for losing Bowie to EMI, and all the units of albums he was shifting for them with Let’s Dance. Of his two releases in 1983, give me the live Ziggy album any time.
For a man used to following his own muse, the massive success of Let’s Dance both amused and confused Bowie. While on his Serious Moonlight tour, he started the process of writing his next record. It didn’t go well. When Tonight was released in September of 1984, his newfound public were expecting Let’s Dance, part 2. They didn’t get that. Instead they got strange news from a distant star. Of the 9 songs on the album, 5 of them had been performed by other artists prior to appearing in Bowie form on Tonight, even if 3 of those 5 were Bowie co-compositions from Iggy Pop albums. It’s an inconsistent album, with a terrible cover of the Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”), a duet with Tina Turner (the title track), a duet with Iggy (“Dancing With The Big Boys”), and a couple of bona fide gems (“Loving The Alien”, “Blue Jean”). Bowie now had the mainstreams ear, so a clearly pop-leaning song like “Blue Jean” climbed the charts. A side effect of having the mainstreams ear was that even a weird song like “Alien” was an unlikely hit. Tonight is just strange. It’s like Bowie got the success and adoration he’d always craved, but then decided against it, but was stuck. Commercial interest or artistic integrity? That’s what you find on Tonight – a bit of both. It’s like a lounge act doing David Bowie – if they only knew Iggy Pop’s Bowie compositions. Bowie really seemed directionless here, and this is only reinforced by the pair of songs he wrote solely by himself. The album was co-produced with Hugh Padgham, the man who helped pioneer the big gated drum sound you all know from “In The Air Tonight” by bald singing drummer Phil Collins, so don’t blame him. While time has, in retrospect, been kind to Tonight, it still sounds like a man grasping to re-evaluate his place in the pop landscape after conquering it a year previous. It was a cash-in album that used a lot of the same band members as on Let’s Dance, and Bowie tried to capture a lot of that ‘brand’ of sound as well, because that’s what his new fans expected. For a man who was accustomed to making left turns with no forethought, this new pandering to a temporary audience seemed out of place. Be careful what you wish for. It’s a good thing EMI didn’t saddle us with a cash-grab of its own in 1985. Dance was supposed to be a remix album of songs from, of course, Let’s Dance and Tonight. The plan was (wisely) dropped. A few sleeves were produced, but it was never committed to vinyl or cd, so the world may never know if was good or not. Most remix albums are not, so there’s my two cents on it. Lastly in 1984, RCA released their back catalogue of Bowie albums on that ‘new’ medium of compact disc. The albums weren’t mastered for the new digital medium and sounded garbage.
The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1985, a rare first for a man so used to putting out an album every year. The world did get “This Is Not America“. Better than most of the Tonight album, this song with Pat Metheny, for the soundtrack of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, is a much stronger song than almost anything off of Tonight – of course, Bowie only needed to write words, not music, in this instance. Not so good (and not better than the Tonight album…not better than pretty much anything else you can think of) was his hyper-goofy, hyper-homoerotic, hyper-commercial, boring, trite, ill-conceived cover of the song “Dancing In The Street“, a duet with Mick Jagger. Bowie had long been a fan of The Rolling Stones, covering “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane (and having a lot of the same album get sonic comparisons to some of the Stones’ work), so doing a duet with Jagger probably appealed to him. The original plan was to have the two performers singing live via satellite from two separate stadiums in support of Live Aid charities. The satellite uplink would have caused a time delay making the vocal performances seem off-kilter. Instead, the two met in a studio and recorded their take on Dancing In The Street. The video, when viewed now, looks ridiculously homoerotic – but it was the mid 80’s, a lot of videos looked that way at the time. Prince, anybody? Despite this, the song went to #3 in the US Charts, and all the money raised did go to a worthy charity. I’m OK with garbage if the proceeds help the needy.
The world didn’t get a new Bowie album in 1986, either. Well, not really. 1986 was more of an acting year for Bowie, with a little music thrown in on the side. First up, Bowie appeared in Absolute Beginners in April of 1986, the title song of which is the only good thing about the movie. You’d think a movie with Patsy Kensit, Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade would at least be competent, but it was an all-singing, all-dancing mess. Absolute Beginners might have been DOA, but his next project certainly was…not. Labyrinth released in late June of 1986 and starred Bowie, a young Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of muppets. It’s a ridiculously silly movie, and I’ve only ever seen it the once, so I can’t say how well it holds up. I know many of the stills from the movie show Bowie (as Jareth the Goblin King) and his massive crotch bulge. Like I said, the mid-80’s were a homoerotic time. Bowie also contributed 5 songs to the soundtrack, all of them are utterly terrible, featuring a cream of the studio crop of musicians and slick 80’s production. It’s the slick 80’s production that do the songs in. To round out 1986, Bowie contributed another soundtrack song, for the animated film “When The Wind Blows“, of which he sang the title track. It’s a good tune, and a good film, with additional soundtrack contributions from Roger Waters. Bowie’s tune was sung by him, with all instruments played by Erdal Kizilcay, a man who would figure prominently in Bowie’s musical vision for the next decade. Kizilcay first got noticed by Bowie during the recording and producing of Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah record, of which Bowie had a hand in (because of course he did.)
1987 saw the release of the first ‘new’ David Bowie record in 3 years, Never Let Me Down. It’s also one of Bowie’s most maligned records. Many felt it continued his brash commercial direction, but I think it’s actually a decent record that suffers from that mid-80’s syndrome known as overproduction. A lot of bands fell prey to slick, studio-controlled recordings, with no errors,no spontaneity, and no space to breathe in, where the performances were concerned. Bowie was no exception. The album is awash with superfluous synthesizers, backing vocals, and drum machines. The songs themselves are well written and show a depth of character Bowie hadn’t exhibited since Scary Monsters at the beginning of the decade. “Day-In, Day-Out”, “Time Will Crawl”, “Zeroes”, “Shining Star” (featuring Mickey Rourke)…really most of the songs show sparks of brilliance. However, again, production (by Bowie and David Richards) really makes everything a dayglo nightmare of excess. It’s more of this, more of that, no subtlety or nuance. It prominently features new kid on the block Erdal Kizilcay, with performances from old standby Carlos Alomar, and lead guitar by some guy named Peter Frampton who had an annoying song called “Baby I Love Your Way” become a big hit for himself and a million other people. He is a good guitarist though. It sold better than many of Bowie’s earlier records (at the time). This may be because by 1987, a lot of people had gotten a cd player, and, having familiarity with Bowie as a name, wanted to pick up his latest on that ‘new’ cd technology. I know it was my first Bowie cd, and perhaps that’s why I rate this album higher than either Let’s Dance or Tonight, because I played it A LOT during my last year of high school. So, either it grew on me in a way it didn’t for most people, or the songs are strong. I believe it’s the latter. That’s not to say there aren’t some mis-steps, lyrically. Bowie tries to keep up with ‘the kids’ with the line “she’s in the pocket of a…homeboy!” on “Day-In, Day Out”, and the whole pre-song discussion about the Glass Spider (from the song of the same name) is interesting but silly. Apparently, the vinyl and cd editions feature separate mixes already…I have both (well, I have the vinyl, not sure I still have the original cd). Later versions on disc have the song “Too Dizzy” removed as Bowie never really liked the song. “Too Dizzy” was the only song on the album he co-wrote with Kizilcay, and their relationship became strained about the time the first reissues of this cd started popping up, so there might be more to it than ‘not liking the song.’ Parlophone (who now owns Bowie’s entire back catalog) have been providing a new mix of a classic Bowie album on their retrospective box sets that have come out the last 3 years…if they do an 80’s box set for 2018, maybe someone can remix Never Let Me Down and take out some of the superfluous instrumentation. It might be a new take on a divisive sound. Bowie embarked on an ambitious tour to support the album in 1988 (appropriately called the Glass Spider tour, named after the album cut and featuring a huge spider as it’s centerpiece on stage), which would see Bowie really mix up his back catalogue in terms of arrangement and presentation. This did not go over well with reviewers, who already disliked the source material for a lot of the live performances and called the presentation overblown and pretentious. As the tour progressed, Bowie replaced many of the new songs with older, more well-loved songs from his back catalog. Still, the tour made money, and was a theatrical spectacle. It should have strengthened the David Bowie brand. What happened next would shock everyone, except, perhaps, himself.