If the 1970s were a hellish journey for David Bowie, Scary Monsters represents the first night home, a blanket wrapped round the shivering figure, cup of cocoa in one hand and a series of really awful flashbacks and nightmares everytime he falls asleep.
Okay, that sounds stupid, but I mean that in Scary Monsters we find Bowie finally attempting to take stock of the situation (which, in 'It's no game (ii)' he concludes he really doesn't understand).
Cutbacks and cross-references to his earlier material abound: the intro guitar chords to Up The Hill Backwards are the same as the intro chords to 1973's Panic in Detroit - only played backwards. And there is the celebrated attempt, in Ashes to Ashes, to write off Space Oddity as a heroin song. Bowie, of course, has never been averse to making up all sorts of nonsense about his past, and this is no exception: he might have whiffed the odd doobie in 1967 but a junkie he was definitely not.
This album is generally very strong: Carlos Alomar makes a real impression on its overall sound, particularly in the epochal single Ashes to Ashes (fairly grim aside: I once met the keyboard player from the session. He now plays children's birthday parties in North London as one half of a duo called the "Rock N Roll Pirates".) and Fashion, both of which cross back and forth between disco, funk and new wave - an odd combination which no-one else (except Queen in the dreadful Hot Space) has ever tried. And, tiresome though he is, you do have to take your hat off to Rock's own crashing intellectual bore Robert Fripp, who cuts this record up with some stunning, incandescent guitar playing.
The second half of the album is a more "interesting" prospect than the first which, with Ashes to Ashes, Fashion and the title track, is about as strong a side of vinyl that has ever been recorded. Flip it over and you find Teenaged Wildlife, seemingly the paradigmatic "silly voice, random lyrics" Bowie song, but which has the makings of a great, confessional work - perhaps more personal even than Ashes to Ashes, but it's a pity Bowie sings it as if he's trying to impersonate a Leslie rotating speaker. Scream Like a Baby, Because You're Young and Kingdom come (the last featuring once again the rotating speaker impersonation) are less essential, but the album, and the decade, are brought around quite nicely by It's No Game (ii) (where old smarty pants cross references the very album he's singing on) and finally a very odd sound effect, which sounds like someone pouring cement (perhaps to "finish" the album?).
The Rykodisc pressing I own also contains an extraordinary re-recording of Space Oddity, dating from about the time of this album, which Bowie has rearranged in minimalist fashion to resemble Lennon's 'Mother'. Weird, but true.
I used to think this was the best Bowie album of the lot, but now I think there's too much fat in it for that. But, to quote the old chap, "when it's good it's *really* good". If you're serious about Bowie when he was important, this is one you can't do without.
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Olly Buxton (ElectricRay)
Sep 26, 2009
Dec 22, 2010 09:37 PM UTC
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Some would argue that this is the last great Bowie album, and certainly his only great album of the '80s. While it lacked the bite of its punk brethren at the time, it appealed to some fans of that genre and to middle-of-the-road rockers as well. Muscular playing met with no-frills production, and the product as a whole was infused with a gloriously arty style. "It's No Game (Part I)" opens the album, and is sung in Japanese, and "It's No Game (Part II)" closes, in English. New York punker Tom Verlaine even contributed a track ("Kingdom Come"), and "Scream Like a Baby" tells a dark and violent story with a howl. The drug-oriented "Ashes to Ashes" confesses that Major Tom was a junky while sounding all sleek and alluring, and the dance floor hit "Fashion" took aim at its very subject. The crowning jewel is the title track, withRobert Fripp's guitar ripping the place up at a relentless pace. It's been a long time since Bowie sounded this inspired.--Lorry Fleming