Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

  1. It's No Game (Part I) [4.15]

  2. Up The Hill Backwards [3.13]

  3. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) [5.10]

  4. Ashes To Ashes [4.23]

  5. Fashion [4.46]

  6. Teenage Wildlife [6.51]

  7. Scream Like A Baby [3.35]

  8. Kingdom Come [3.42]

  9. Because You're Young [4.51]

  10. It's No Game (Part II) [4.22]

Bonus tracks on 1992 reissue:

  • Space Oddity [4.57]

  • Panic In Detroit [3.00]

  • Crystal Japan [3.08]

  • Alabama Song [3.51]

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Released:

  • RCA BOW LP 2 - September 1980

  • RCA PL 83647 - 1984

  • EMI EMD 1029 - June 1992

  • EMI 7243 5218950 - September 1999

  • EMI 7243 5433182 - September 2003 (SACD)

Personnel:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Keyboards

  • Dennis Davis: Percussion

  • George Murray: Bass

  • Carlos Alomar: Guitar

  • Robert Fripp: Guitar on It's No Game/Up The Hill Backwards/Scary Monsters/Fashion/Teenage Wildlife/Kingdom Come

  • Chuck Hammer: Guitar on Ashes To Ashes/Teenage Wildlife

  • Roy Bittan: Piano on Up The Hill Backwards/Ashes To Ashes/Teenage Wildlife

  • Andy Clark: Synthesizer on Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Scream Like A Baby/Because You're Young

  • Pete Townshend: Guitar on Because You're Young

  • Tony Visconti: Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar on Up The Hill Backwards/Scary Monsters

  • Lynn Maitland: Backing Vocals

  • Chris Porter: Backing Vocals

  • Michi Hirota: Voice on It's No Game (Part 1)

Recorded:

  • Power Station Studios, New York/Good Earth Studios, London

Producers:

  • David Bowie, Tony Visconti

On February 8th 1980, while he was on an Alpine skiing holiday with his son Joe, David's divorce from Angela became absolute. A week later, Joe returned to school in Britain and David arrived at New York's Power Station Studios to begin work on his new album. Tony Visconti was once again in the producer's chair and recalls that Bowie intended from the outset that this would be his first conscious attempt since Young Americans to cut a record with commercial potential. "There was a certain degree of optimism making that album," said Bowie in 1999, "because I'd worked through some of my problems, I felt very positive about the future, and I think I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted album."

 

A few early versions of the tracks had already been taped at Keith Richard's Ocho Rios studio in Jamaica, previously used for the Station To Station tour rehearsals. As before, the backing tracks were laid down by Bowie and his Alomar/Davis/Murray rhythm section, for whom this was the fifth and final consecutive studio album: only Carlos Alomar would work with Bowie hereafter. Lodger guitarist Adrian Belew would later claim that he was paid an advance for the album months earlier, and was surprised to learn that the sessions had gone ahead without him. In the event, most of the lead guitar parts would be played by "Heroes" veteran Robert Fripp, with additional contributions by newcomer Chuck Hammer, whom Bowie had heard playing with Lou Reed the previous year. Another guitarist due to provide overdubs at the New York sessions was Tom Verlaine, whose composition "Kingdom Come" was covered on the album, but Tony Visconti later recalled that Verlaine spent so long trying out different guitar amps that in the end nothing was recorded. The New York sessions also saw the return of Station To Station pianist Roy Bittan, who was recording Bruce Springsteen's The River in an adjacent studio. Tony Visconti recalled an occasion in the lounge at Power Station when "Dennis Davis actually turned to Bruce Springsteen...and asked, 'What band are you in?'"

 

Initial recording at Power Station continued for two and a half weeks followed by a further week of overdubs, during which only the closing track, "It's No Game (Part 2)", was completed in its entirety. The remaining tracks were left as instrumentals and, as Visconti later recounted, "Instead of immediately writing finished melodies and lyrics, David begged to take a long break to think it all out, so we adjourned until two months later in London." One of the most intriguing documents to surface at the V&A's David Bowie is exhibition was a page of notes made by David in preparation for writing the lyrics of Scary Monsters: an impressionistic mood-board of ideas, it reveals a portentous frame of mind ("These are the last days", "A world of TV and drugs", "Let's write about events of international import"), ideas for vocal strategies ("Joy Div.", "those terrible cockney accents", "Get on top of D.D's drum"), and even a certain soreness about his record label ("RCA is richer than your whole country"). Dotted around the page are snatches of ideas for lyrics, most of which wouldn't make it to the album, although there are distant hints of what might evolve into "Ashes To Ashes" ("Music that spacemen listen to doesn't mean they don't pay back debts/Space talk is cheap - lightweight gravity of the situation"), or "Scream Like A Baby" ("He could have been a cut-throat/He should get some help cause he should have been bigger"), or perhaps "Because You're Young" or "Teenage Wildlife" ("There's gonna be war, there's gonna be chaos/You're not going to turn away/Pricks will write songs about it and tell you 'It's the truth'")...and much more in a similar vein.

 

When the pair reconvened in April at Good Earth Studios, "David had written great lyrics and carefully thought-out melodies, something he hadn't done on the triptych albums." Thus "Jamaica" became "Fashion", "Cameras In Brooklyn" was re-titled "Up The Hill Backwards", "It Happens Every Day" was now "Teenage Wildlife", and "People Are Turning To Gold" had transformed into "Ashes To Ashes". The album's title track was apparently indebted to an advertising campaign for Kellogg's Corn Flakes, who were offering novelty gifts of "Scary Monsters And Super Heroes".

 

At Good Earth, the remaining vocal tracks were completed, including the Japanese narration by actress Michi Hirota, while further instrumental overdubs were added by keyboardist Andy Clark and guest guitarist Pete Townshend. Some of the instrumental tracks recorded in New York, including a cover of Cream's "I Feel Free", were abandoned before any vocals were recorded. Also at the Good Earth sessions, David was reunited with Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, the Buddhist monk he had befriended in the late 1960s. Now working at the British Museum, David's former guru was invited to the studio by Visconti, who was aware of plans to stage a rock concert in Lhasa where it was hoped that Bowie might headline. Nothing came of the proposal. Visconti also introduced David to rising star Hazel O'Connor, whose soundtrack songs for Breaking Glass (including the forthcoming hit singles "Eighth Day" and "Will You") he had been busy producing during the hiatus in the Scary Monsters sessions. O'Connor was granted the honour of cutting David's hair, and he later dropped by to watch her shoot a sequence from the Breaking Glass film which was then in production.

 

Bowie later described Scary Monsters as "some kind of purge. It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with. You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn't happen, or just say, 'Oh, I was so different then.' It's very important to get into them and understand them. It helps you reflect on what you are now." Scary Monsters, then, is an act of controlled exorcism, a therapeutic head-to-head with the inner demons who had appeared so prominently on earlier albums like The Man Who Sold The World. This time, though, the intention is not self-laceration but self-help.

 

Scary Monsters is also Bowie's wordiest album since Young Americans, a development reflected in the songwriting process. David was no longer improvising on the mike but preparing fully crafted songs which combined to evince a rather grim end-of-term report on his rite of passage through the 1970s; he reworks the old Astronettes number "I Am A Laser" for "Scream Like A Baby", revisits Major Tom as an emblem of his own career in "Ashes To Ashes", takes what appears to be an almost embarrassingly upfront look at the aftermath of his divorce in "Up The Hill Backwards", offers parental advice to Joe in "Because You're Young", and harshly addresses those who would seek to put him on a pedestal in both "Fashion" and the undervalued "Teenage Wildlife". These last two songs also hint at the totalitarian undertones of earlier roles, while "It's No Game" berates 'Fascists' and "Scream Like A Baby" projects an Orwellian future in which 'faggots' and other minorities are oppressed. Appropriately, the whole is framed by two variants of "It's No Game", developed from a composition about world-weariness and the vagaries of talent and celebrity apparently written when David was only sixteen.

 

Even the cover version, Tom Verlaine's "Kingdom Come", fits perfectly into what Bowie described as the album's "scattered scheme of things": in his hands Verlaine's pseudo-spiritual lyric becomes a dogged affirmation that the artist is both destined and doomed to pursue his creative muse ("I'll be breaking these rocks until the Kingdom comes/And cuttin' this hay until the Kingdom comes...It's my price to pay"). In 1980 David confessed to the NME's Angus MacKinnon that he was plagued by a sense of "inadequacy" as an artist, that "I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back...my vision gets blinkered and becomes narrowed all the time", and that his talent "comes and goes, it hides, it gets lost and it reappears, rather like a stream that you come across when you're walking through a wood. You see it sometimes and it sparkles and then it disappears...that is the most frustrating feeling of all."

 

In another interview to promote the record, Bowie rather curtly described it as "painless", an interesting choice of adjective for an album that appears to be one of the most sustained personal statements of his career. Its attempt to set a mood of downbeat retrospection within a progressive musical framework appears to be confirmed by his suggestion to MacKinnon that "I don't think I would try to revitalise the same area of energy and sensibilities that, say, Ziggy had. I wouldn't attempt that again, because I haven't got that same positivism within my make-up any more. I mean, the very juvenile sort of assertiveness and arrogance of that period...I can't write young." In the same interview, he explained that "I can do no more than write about how I feel about things...what dubious kind of thoughts I have about where I am and what I've done."

 

Sean Mayes, the pianist on Lodger and the Stage tour, later recalled a social visit from Bowie just after the album's final mixes had been completed: "I sat on the floor in a Knightsbridge flat and heard Scary Monsters. David was depressed - as he always is after completing a project. He was sure it was terrible and would be a failure. But then he laughed and said this was how he always felt!"

 

Scary Monsters...And Super Creeps was released on September 12th 1980 in one of Bowie's finest album sleeves: a grainy photograph of David in his "Ashes To Ashes" Pierrot outfit overlaid with a garish painting of the same by Edward Bell. The retrospective mood was reinforced by the back cover's torn-up glimpses of the sleeve designs for Aladdin Sane, Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Although the cover apparently upset photographer Brian Duffy, who felt that his picture was marginalised by the cartoon artwork, it attracted widespread acclaim. The ink-blot lettering, an adaptation of the Gerald Scarfe style popularised a few months earlier by Pink Floyd's The Wall, would be replicated on countless sleeve designs over the next few years. Such was the success of the image that David released a similar painting by Bell for a 1982 Bowie calendar: this painting, in which he runs his hand through his hair in a style reminiscent of the Hunky Dory sleeve, was included in the packaging of subsequent reissues. The Scary Monsters distressed-clown look, advanced most potently by David Mallet's "Ashes To Ashes" video, remains one of Bowie's most enduring images.

 

The album received universal praise (in Record Mirror, Simon Ludgate awarded it seven stars out of a maximum five), and saw Bowie garlanded with awards: the Daily Mirror/BBC Radio Rock And Pop Awards voted him the best male singer of 1980, as did the Record Mirror readers' poll, which also voted "Ashes To Ashes" and "Fashion" the best videos of the year. Even in America, Scary Monsters restored Bowie's flagging commercial stock sufficiently to take it to number 12 in the chart ("Though the LP begins with a song in Japanese, this should be the most accessible and commercially successful Bowie LP in years," Billboard predicted correctly). Even so, the singles flopped completely in the States. "Ashes To Ashes", a UK number 1, failed to chart at all, while "Fashion" (UK number 5) made a feeble 70.

 

In Britain the album's performance was spectacular, spawning four hit singles, becoming Bowie's first UK number 1 since Diamond Dogs, and staying in the chart longer than any album since Aladdin Sane. Its success can be attributed partly to good timing: "Fashion" became the national anthem of the burgeoning New Romantic movement, composed largely of former Ziggy kids who had come of age and were strutting their brightly-coloured stuff in London joints like Billys and The Blitz. With its massively influential video, "Ashes To Ashes" provided the record-buying public with its first mainstream taste of a Bowie-inspired phenomenon of which he himself was now partaking. "You have to remember that Bowie was the reason we were all there anyway," said former Blitz kid Boy George in 1999. "The Blitz was a homage to what Bowie had created, so it was fair enough if he came in and said, ooh, I'll have some of that!"

 

In this light, Scary Monsters was the ultimate in self-reflexivity even by Bowie's standards. He had, in effect, pastiched what was already a pastiche of all his former selves - each of which had been, in its own time, a collage of other influences. Never before had he worn such a multi-layered mask, and it's one of the album's masterstrokes that in the midst of capitalising on his figurehead status, Bowie simultaneously renews his old distaste for "movements" and disowns his parade of imitators - for "same old thing in brand-new drag", as he pointedly articulates in "Teenage Wildlife".

 

Another factor in the success of Scary Monsters was, quite simply, the groundwork put in by Bowie's previous three studio albums. As he remarked a decade later, "By the time of Scary Monsters the kind of music that I was doing was becoming very acceptable...it was definitely the sound of the early eighties." He also remarked that the album was "the epitome of the new wave sound at the time; from bubbling synthesizers to erratic and unconventional guitar playing, it had all those elements that are, by definition, the young way of playing music."

 

Above all else, its success can be put down to the sheer quality of the songwriting and recordings. "We kind of felt that we'd finally achieved our Sgt. Pepper," said Visconti, "a goal we had in mind since The Man Who Sold The World." But the album's spectacular success was qualified by its aftermath. Scary Monsters was David's last major collaboration with Tony Visconti for twenty years, and - the facts are not entirely unconnected - his last truly great album for a very long time. Greater commercial success lay ahead, but Scary Monsters signalled the end of Bowie's golden run of cutting-edge albums. That it arrived at the start of a new decade and was David's most retrospective recording for some time, has tended with hindsight to seal the impression that Scary Monsters really does, in the words of its final track, "draw the blinds on yesterday".

 

Today Scary Monsters sounds as fresh and dynamic as ever, the triumphant culmination of Bowie's steely art-rock phase and a crucial doorway into early 1980s British pop; it comes as little surprise that it was one of the first Bowie albums selected by EMI for release on SACD in 2003. Its reputation has a tendency to rest on three classic singles, which overshadow its enormously rewarding second side and the elegant framing device of "It's No Game", but even so this is an album which towers over Bowie's career and is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Scary Monsters remains the benchmark by which every subsequent Bowie recording is judges