David Bowie, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) 1980, RCA
It’s No Game (No. 1)
Up The Hill Backwards
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Ashes to Ashes
Scream Like a Baby
Because You’re Young
It’s No Game (No. 2)
I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s taken me this long to do a Bowie album. I felt that the obvious choices had all been so comprehensively covered that I couldn’t add much to the conversation about them and, as with the Stones, it was important to me to talk about an album from later in his career to better illustrate the importance of his creative longevity. This is one of my favourite Bowie albums for the consistent quality of the songs. It is considered by many critics to be his last truly great album, despite its follow up Let’s Dance achieving even more success.
After a few failed attempts at breaking into the music industry with bands and then a solo album, Bowie first became commercially successful with Space Oddity. When he introduced his character Ziggy Stardust in 1972 he created a personality cult that ensured his influence would long outlive him. Though many people associate him most with his characters Ziggy and the Thin White Duke, this album, his 14th, was the first time he tried to give his fans an entire record of himself without really taking on any kind of persona. His commercial success and popularity peaked in the mid-1980s, so this album is particularly relevant, it achieved more commercial success than the famous Berlin Trilogy, his three previous albums, it reached No.1 in the chart and eventually went platinum.
From the car door slam to the scream of “Shut up!” It’s No Game (No. 1) is essentially an anguished half Japanese post punk shout-fest. Up The Hill Backwards feels like a gentle meander through the small troubles of life, reminding you that while things may not be great, they are at least ok, it covers the first world problem of celebrity press intrusion, and touches on the recent break up of Bowie’s marriage. It’s a soft song with a very 80’s vibe. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) the album’s titular track has a classic mockney vocal. It’s a dark and unsettling song with a couple of brilliant guitar solos. Ashes to Ashes. the number 1 single and standout track on the album starts with that unmistakable twangy sound. It’s yet another amazing song about drugs and as a follow up to Space Oddity it’s perfectly made for fans, despite the fact that it details Bowie’s feeling that has career to date was not good enough. There is a brilliantly pitched undercurrent of malevolence, it’s truly one of his best songs. Fashion is a disco funky diatribe against the new romantics that he inspired, dismissing them as a mere trend with a perfect slice of 1980s electronica. On Teenage Wildlife Bowie gives us the flipside of Heroes, the beat even sounds the same. Where Heroes was full of youthful hope, this dismisses the impetuousness of hip, young recording artists like his former self. It’s a bit angry, but it’s also very beautiful. Scream Like a Baby is the story of a gay couple living under fascist oppression. One is killed and the other eventually embraces the society he is left with. It’s mesmerically dark with quite an electronic sound, part new wave and part harder rock. Kingdom Come has a gospel vibe just to show another influence, it owes a lot to Phil Spector but it’s the least exciting song on the album. Because You’re Young has a great electro beat and it’s another anti-new romantics song or he could be seen to be offering advice to his son from the experiences of his own youth. It’s No Game (No. 2) ends the album with a reimagining of the opener. It’s resigned rather than enraged but the anger still bubbles underneath.
Despite the constantly changing musical styles, introspection and looking backwards over his career is the clear theme that runs through the album rather than pushing to be innovative or exploratory which is what he had always been known for. You get a sense that he was very deliberately trying to make a great album by taking the music and song writing seriously using layered guitar techniques to bring a specific tone and sound to the whole. Apparently he actually sat down and wrote the songs which was unusual for him. Lyrically, it’s one of his most personal albums considering his intimate fears and perceived shortcomings, there is not a great deal of joy to be found here, but a fair bit of cynicism. This is not an album full of characters and flights of fancy, but stark reality. As a lifelong Bowie fan, I’ll forgive him a lot, but most of his albums have some weaker songs and his experimentalism means that no fan will like everything he does, however, this album is so consistent that I can understand why it is so widely considered to be the high watermark of his career.
So what of the legacy and effect on popular culture? Bowie was a glam rock pioneer but his propensity to experiment with all musical styles means his influence can be felt across all spectrums of rock and popular music. You would struggle to find any popular artist who has not been influenced in some way, whether they realise it or not. He was always changing and reinventing and presenting different versions of himself rather than being pigeonholed as one type of artist. As a cultural icon he is incomparable, with fans who remain fiercely loyal to his legacy. He has received more accolades than can be covered here but some highlights include: a 2013 poll in BBC History Magazine named him the best dressed British person in history (as a professional historian, I can confidently tell you that we are well known as arbiters of taste across the fashion world). A 2000 NME poll of other musicians saw him voted the most influential artist of all time. He even has a spider, an asteroid belt, and a constellation of stars named after him.
David Bowie had a huge effect on British culture, on attitudes to sexuality, on how concert tours are managed, on how we understand fame and celebrity and on how we deal with our own failures. While many of his other albums contain great songs, this one is the best as a whole album. The Rolling Stone reviewer of the day said; “on Scary Monsters, he’s settling old scores. Slowly, brutally and with a savage, satisfying crunch, David Bowie eats his young”. It may not be comfortable, it may not be pretty, but this is truly Bowie at his best.