Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)


1. It’s No Game (Pt 1): The album opens with the sound of a tape reel being mounted before launching into one of Bowie’s angriest vocals ever, roaring out the words with abandon, matching the twisted squalls of Robert Fripp’s guitar and a macho Japanese spoken-word aural assault. This is actually a rewrite of a very old (early 60s) and very beautiful song called ‘Tired of My Life’. 9.0

2. Up the Hill Backwards: This is very un-Bowie and lyrics suggesting it’s his post-divorce song “with the arrival of freedom”. Somewhat of a singalong shuffle with a reasonably catchy refrain but generally a trifling affair. Was pointlessly butchered on the Glass Spider tour. 6.0

3. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): A showcase song for Robert Fripp’s wildly spluttering lead guitar, and sung in a mechanical ‘mockernee’ style, the semi-industrial title track about a girl’s descent into madness is jarringly discordant but rocks out forcefully. 8.0

4. Ashes to Ashes: Masterpiece #28. With Ashes to Ashes Bowie crafts one of his most popular and majestic songs, filled with innovative flourishes, sonic textures, plunking piano, spooky whisperings, and a George Murray’s golden moment slap bass. Haunting metaphorical lyrics, this is the sequel to Space Oddity and somewhat of a drug confessional. Featured an iconic David Mallet video that still looks amazing today. 10.0

5. Fashion: Irresistibly catchy with an infectiously funky bassline and killer beat, Fashion is classy neurotic dance song and a commentary on popular culture including another virtuoso performance from Fripp, the star musician of this album. 9.0

6. Teenage Wildlife: Masterpiece #29. Bowie’s bizarre vocal histrionics (Bowie’s imitation of Ronnie Spector) is a highlight of this monumental classic. Somewhat of a sister song to the great “Heroes” and featuring textural edgy guitar from Fripp and newcomer Chuck Hammer, Teenage Wildlife is defiant and wordy (Bowie famously takes aim at his post-punk artistic godchildren eg: Gary Numan), and one of his longest and best songs ever. 10.0

7. Scream Like a Baby: A brooding industrial experiment and an interesting rewrite of a song dating back to 1973 by Ava Cherry and the Astronetts called 'I Am A Lazer', which Bowie wrote and produced, with different lyrics. 6.5

8. Kingdom Come: This track is a cover version of a good song off ex-Television Tom Verlaine’s fine first solo self titled album released in 1979. An ironic lament about life imprisonment and a dissection of a relationship, Verlaine was actually pencilled in to be the guitarist on this album and along with Adrian Belew, was dropped for Fripp at the last minute. 7.0

9. Because You’re Young: Pete Townshend plays on this drab piece with cornball lyrics which sound out of place on this album unfortunately. Would’ve worked better on Let’s Dance. Track down the superior demo version. 5.0

10. It’s No Game (Pt 2): Surprisingly the first track to be written and recorded for the album (and the only one at New York Power Station before a Bowie-requested sojourn, then resuming in London) and makes for an effective album closer. Bowie now brings a calmer and certain world-weariness with him to this track and an air of resignation, and finally the sound of tape flapping as the album closes. 7.5


VERDICT: There’s a reason why every single Bowie album since 1987 has come with the tiresome caveat ‘the best album since Scary Monsters’. This nervy sweeping rock-opus is his last truly excellent album and an extremely well crafted and highly experimental one at that. The songs were written well before going into the studio, and possess one of the best first sides in the Bowie cannon. It’s his last with the Alomar/Murray/Davis lineup, and (for some time) producer Tony Visconti, but sees a triumphant return of Robert Fripp (“Heroes”) and Roy Bitton (Station to Station). This album was incredibly well received upon it’s release, and it’s easy to see why. Very much a song orientated album, it was a return to the more conventional song structure and pop sound, and it is absolutely amazing how impeccable the album sounds (for an album released 30 years ago) particularly when listened to alongside some of it’s contemporaries (eg: stinkers like Iggy Pop’s Soldier, Lou Reed’s Growing Up in Public or Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood). This is the perfect album to close out the 70s and his brilliant career with RCA (then onto EMI) up to that point (even the superb backward-looking album sleeve suggests as such), also has some interesting outtakes from the sessions including a stripped bare Plastic Ono Band-esque Space Oddity (10.0), a remake of Panic In Detroit (6.5), the oblique synth experiment Crystal Japan (8.5), and a slightly irritating cover of Bertold Brecht’s baroque Alabama Song (5.0).

NEXT: “Put on your red shoes…”

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