The origins of this album are downright silly.
Before a note was recorded, Bowie made it clear to Tony Visconti that he wanted the next album to have broader commercial appeal. David was apparently unhappy with the sales numbers of the three albums that made up the so-called Berlin Trilogy.
Hmm. Why would anyone be unhappy with three albums that made the top ten in the U.K. and did pretty darned well in the States?
Further examination uncovered a Shakespearean twist: there was a pretender to the throne!
Lodger performed well commercially, peaking at number four on the UK Albums Chart and remaining on the chart for 17 weeks. It peaked at number 20 on the US Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart, remaining on the chart for 15 weeks. Throughout the year, Bowie was out-performed commercially by Gary Numan, who had number-one hits with Tubeway Army’s “Are “Friends” Electric?”, his debut solo album The Pleasure Principle, and its lead single “Cars”. Numan, a huge fan of Bowie’s, was antagonised by Bowie’s fans who viewed him as a mere copycat. Bowie himself criticised Numan, which led to a feud between the two artists that lasted for years. According to (biographer) David Buckley, Numan’s fame indirectly led to Bowie taking a more pop-oriented direction for his next studio album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). (Wikipedia)
Numan openly acknowledged the influence of the Berlin Trilogy, but I guess David chose to slip into Norma Desmond mode (“There can be only one star and I am that star!”) and interpret admiration as competition. While both artists were influenced by Krautrock, it’s a big stretch to call Numan a Bowie clone just because the guy dug electronic music and wore a little makeup.
The sideshow confirmed that David Bowie was indeed a human being with all the faults of the species but in addition to igniting his vanity, it also ignited his competitive fire. The history of popular music is filled with examples of how competition inspired musicians to up their game, from the cutting contests of the Swing Era to the inspirational competition between Brian Wilson and the Beatles (Rubber Soul led to Pet Sounds which in turn led to Sgt. Pepper). Though I think David’s response to Numan and other competitors was a serious case of overreaction, the belief that he had something to prove gave him the motivation to record what many critics have deemed “the last great Bowie album.”
I don’t agree with that sentiment, but we’ll deal with my orneriness later.
Bowie referred to Scary Monsters as “the epitome of the new wave sound at the time,” revealing both the strategy he would employ to dominate the charts and what appears to be a complete lack of modesty but really isn’t. If I had heard that quote before engaging with Scary Monsters, I wouldn’t have even bothered to listen to the album. I’ve never been a fan of new wave, a genre I would describe as “wimp rock” or “the musical equivalent of coitus interruptus.” I would have found his assertion much more palatable had he fleshed it out a bit and said, “Robert Fripp and I attempted to take new wave to a higher level, imbuing the genre with greater intensity and aesthetic appeal.” That may not be true for the entire album, but it is true for the songs l like best.
The nod to contemporary music trends may have made Scary Monsters more accessible to the public than Lodger, but when you listen to the album it’s equally clear that David Bowie hadn’t completely abandoned his avant-garde leanings or his desire to make artistic statements. There are several passages in Scary Monsters that any expert in the field of pop formulas would have dismissed as distinctly un-commercial. Scary Monsters became a critical and commercial success because at the time, David Bowie—like the Beatles, Dylan and Ray Davies in their prime—possessed the will, the desire and the talent to expand the boundaries of popular music.
Where the fuck are those artists now?
“It’s No Game (No. 1)”: There’s no better evidence that Bowie hadn’t gone the way of Abba than his decision to present the opening vocal on the opening track in a language that most of his fan base couldn’t understand. I visited a few Bowie discussion sites and found that even contemporary listeners are frustrated by Michi Hirota’s use of her native Japanese. “I like the song, but does anyone know what she’s saying?”
Easy peasy! She’s singing the same lyrics Bowie eventually gets around to singing, with one important distinction. She uses the Japanese strong masculine pronoun: ore. It was all part of David Bowie’s master plan:
“It’s No Game (Part 1)” features a shouted Japanese female lyric, interspersed with Bowie singing the translation. The female Japanese singer is Michi Hirota, who was at the time a member of Japan’s Red Buddha Theatre, which was performing in London. Bowie was looking for a strident female vocalist: “I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the ‘Japanese girl’ typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.” (Songfacts)
“Oh, okay—so the song is kind of a pro-feminist anthem.” WRONG! In this case, sexist attitudes are only one of many symptoms of a world in deep shit because people have a hard time accepting change in any form.
Let’s rewind to the beginning. After twenty seconds of musique concrète, Michi enters just after Robert Fripp launches into his opening riff. While Michi completes the verse, Fripp (lead), Dennis Davis (drums), George Murray (bass), and Carlos Alomar (rhythm) go about strengthening the sexy, sleazy hard rock baseline. Michi’s tone is assertive and occasionally dismissive—the voice of someone who has seen it all before and knows how the game is played.
After a brief transition marked by Fripp’s siren-like riff, David Bowie enters the scene, completely unhinged in contrast to Michi’s steady confidence. NME came up with a suitable simile to describe Bowie’s vocal: “It’s as if he’s literally tearing out his intestines.” My initial reaction to his seriously over-the-top performance was delighted laughter in response to his obvious willingness to leave it all on the playing field, but as the deliberately fragmented lyrics began to sink in, I began to feel genuine concern for the character Bowie portrays. In contrast to thrill-seekers who crave the adrenaline rush that comes from horror movies and haunted houses, this guy is scared to death—scared about something he struggles to define:
Silhouettes and shadows
Watch the revolution
No more free steps to heaven
It’s no game
I am bored from the event
I really don’t understand the situation
And it’s no game
He seems to believe that a social revolution has spawned a population of fake people (silhouettes and shadows) engaging in frivolity, disrupting the traditional life path that hopefully ended on a high note with a trip to heaven. He sees a world dominated by spectacle rather than substance and has a hard time understanding the lack of seriousness in the field of human activity. He is clearly anhedonic and definitely NOT someone you want to invite to your Halloween party.
In other words, he sees the world for what it is and is justifiably freaked out about it. He makes his case a bit clearer in the bridge:
Documentaries on refugees
Couples ‘gainst the target
You throw a rock against the road
And it breaks into pieces
Draw the blinds on yesterday
And it’s all so much scarier
Put a bullet in my brain
And it makes all the papers
I interpret those lyrics as a set of questions. “Why are there refugees?” “Why isn’t the world working the way it’s supposed to work?” “Why have we lost our connection to traditions that made us feel secure?” “Why would I garner more attention by blowing my brains out instead of contributing to society?” In the closing verse, the lyricist who once extolled the virtues of fascism seems to change his tune:
So where’s the moral
When people have their fingers broken
To be insulted by these fascists
It’s so degrading
And it’s no game
That first line is a double entendre. In addition to losing our connection to morality, the narrator believes there is no longer a moral to the story of human existence. The narrator is part visionary and part Luddite; his perceptions of chaos are spot-on but rather than seeking a healthy redefinition of morality, he still yearns for traditions that once held the world together. He sees himself as a modern Cassandra who can’t make himself heard over the meaningless babble of shadows and silhouettes, so it’s no wonder that he makes his exit screaming “Shut up! Shut up!” over a heavier helping of Fripp’s European-siren-like licks.
Robert Fripp’s “voice” in this piece is as important as Michi’s or David’s. His dissonant fills reflect the living-on-the-knife-edge-of-sanity orientation of the narrator and his all-over-the-fretboard solo mirrors the narrator’s frantic search for answers that are not forthcoming.
“Up the Hill Backwards”: I like the opening and ending, which Bowie described as “a high-energy Fripp quasi-Bo Diddley thing” according to Chris O’Leary’s Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie. When I first heard this song I was amazed—I had no idea Robert Fripp could rock so hard.
The much longer middle is where the lyrics reside and my general reaction to both lyrics and music is “meh.” It’s so new wave to tease the listener with hot rock ‘n’ roll and then ease off the gas pedal. Fuck that.
I found two different quasi-interpretations of this song, which allegedly has to do with facing a crisis. The guys at NME felt it had to do with David’s pending divorce, a theory blown to smithereens by David Bowie himself when he described life with Angela as “like living with a blowtorch.” Biographer Nicholas Pegg dug deeper and found that the opening lines of the song were lifted from Hans Richter’s 1964 book Dada: Art and Anti-Art: ” . . . and finally the vacuum created by a sudden arrival of freedom and the endless possibilities it seemed to offer if one could grasp them firmly enough.” While that makes for an intriguing set-up, Bowie fails to explore the topic in any depth, leaving us with a feel-good song offering the cliché message, “It’ll be alright.”
Freedom can be scary indeed—just ask a lottery winner or a friend who just got laid off in the middle of a recession. Those “endless possibilities” may sound appealing at first, but the loss of familiar surroundings and daily routines can be quite discombobulating. I wish David would have taken the time to dig into this strange dynamic, but alas, he gives us a mere crumb instead of a full meal.
“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”: The Bowie Bible page on this song features a typically ambivalent quote from the songwriter:
It’s a sort of a nasty piece of Londonism. The character on that – and it is a character, it’s not at all subjective – that was objective about a few people I’ve met. Actually he’s a criminal with a conscience, I think. Maybe it is about me, let’s see. He talks in terms of how he corrupted a fine young mind. So it’s the corrupter talking, having his own self doubts, I think.
I don’t know too many guys who haven’t corrupted a fine young wench at least once in their lives and felt guilt pangs about the experience, but this gangster goes much further than robbing a lass of her virginity and I hope his self-doubts eat him alive.
On the same Bowie Bible page, you’ll find a quote from Iggy Pop who remembered David tinkering with the song (then bearing the title “Running Scared”) in a house on Sunset Boulevard as far back as 1974. The updated title came about when David happened upon a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes campaign offering toys called “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes,” and after a little editing, spared himself comparisons to the Roy Orbison classic.
Shit. I should have done a Song Series on “Songs Inspired by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.” Lennon . . . . Bowie . . . there must be others out there.
Back to our story. The music is relentless, tension-heavy rock ‘n’ roll driven by power-packed synthesized drums and Fripp’s stunning flights on guitar. The dominant chord pattern is a back-and-forth of E-D, with a D-C-G-E descent on the transition line and a B-A combination on the chorus—a simple, straightforward pattern that opens plenty of doors for lead guitar improvisation, and Fripp opens all the right doors. David sings the lyrics in a low register with a Cockney accent consistent with the narrator’s status as an underworld lowlife.
The opening verse is brilliantly written, grabbing the listener’s attention with suggestive threads presented in a poetically economic manner:
She had an horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat
When I looked in her eyes, they were blue but nobody home
Well, she could’ve been a killer if she didn’t walk the way she do
And she do
She opened strange doors that we’d never close again
The term for fear of rooms is koinoniphobia and has multiple manifestations, most often a fear of rooms full of people. We’ll hold that thought until we get to the next verse, but combined with the second line, we’re obviously dealing with a very fragile human being. I’m pretty sure that “she could have been a killer” translates to “killer bod” and “walk the way she do” suggests some physical disability, adding to her sense of fragility. I interpret “She opened strange doors that we’d never close again” as sexual adventures, but while I admit I tend to view most everything through a sexual lens, I’m pretty confident that the pair engaged in some pretty kinky activities; whether her disability is a turn-on for this creep is up in the air. It’s also likely that the girl resorts to sexual intercourse as a means of counteracting her essential fragility . . . or she’s a nymphomaniac completely vulnerable to every dick on the planet.
The transition lines that follow the verse (“She began to wail jealousy’s scream/Waiting at the lights, know what I mean”) tell us that the creep is probably banging other broads and the girl has been shadowing him. The chorus presents a challenge, however:
Scary monsters, super creeps
Keep me running, running scared
Scary monsters, super creeps
Keep me running, running scared
Given the chord shift to B, I’m pretty sure that the chorus presents the girl’s inner thoughts. While it’s easy to chalk up her ramblings to paranoia, it ain’t paranoia if it’s real! Her “lover” is a pretty scary guy and a confirmed creep, but for some reason, she can’t let go of the bastard. Her obsession with the asshole is stronger than her fear of rooms and he takes full advantage of that opening:
She asked me to stay and I stole her room
She asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind
Now she’s stupid in the street and she can’t socialise
Well, I love the little girl and I’ll love her till the day she dies
The implication is he kicked her ass out on the street so she can join the thousands of mentally ill homeless people who get little sympathy from passers-by . . . and he calls that “love.” He’s as fucked up as she is.
I like the way David changes the transition line to a more contemporary metaphor . . . but I hope Robert Fripp wasn’t offended:
She wails Jimmy’s guitar sound, jealousy’s scream
Waiting at the lights, know what I mean
The adjectives “dark,” “tragic, “gritty” and even “noir” can be applied to “Scary Monsters,” but whatever label you choose, one thing is crystal clear: it’s one helluva song filled with “killer” performances by all involved.
“Ashes to Ashes”: It would have been helpful if whoever scribbled the track listing on the back cover had attached a warning label next to “Ashes to Ashes” reading WARNING! SERIOUS BOWIE FANS ONLY! Only those who had followed Bowie’s career with religious fervor and fawning critics were likely to give a shit about what happened to Major Tom. I didn’t think much of “Space Oddity” and I think even less of this lame attempt at resurrection. I cared so little about Major Tom becoming a junkie that I didn’t even bother to find out how he could have scored drugs in outer space. Allegedly the song is some sort of reflection on Bowie’s career to date but there isn’t much evidence in the song to support that perspective other than the shared experience of drug addiction.
There is an upside. If you still haven’t selected a Halloween costume, watch the video for “Ashes to Ashes” and use any of the costumes on display in that very expensive bit of video. I guarantee that you will walk away with the prize for “Best Costume” at the Halloween extravaganza.
“Fashion”: In an interview featured on The Bowie Bible, David gave an unusually straightforward description of the motivation behind the creation of “Fashion”:
When I first started going to discos in New York in the early Seventies there was sort of a very high powered enthusiasm and it had a natural course about it, which seems now to have been replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation.
There’s some kind of strange aura about it, and I just wanted to sort of capture that feeling in the song ‘Fashion’. It’s about that grim determination more than anything else.
David may not have been aware of it at the time, but his assessment proved to be quite prophetic. The grim determination to be fashionable turned into something very ugly in the 90s when boys started killing other boys so they could steal their Jordans.
I’ve always had a fascination with fashion. The Costume Institute at the Met is one of my favorite places on earth. But to me, fashion has always been a form of play and any attempt to conform to the latest trends takes all the fun out of it. The song’s chorus addresses this urge to conform by subtly comparing the norms of the fashion industry to those of the military:
Fashion, turn to the left
Fashion, turn to the right
We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town
One of the most positive developments (one of the few, in fact) in our time is the move away from trends in favor of adopting a personal style that’s all your own. Even before the pandemic turned us all into happy slobs, the New York Post declared that fashion is dead (meaning the fashion industry) and it ain’t coming back. Good riddance.
The music to “Fashion” is suitably seductive, reflecting the “sex sells” orientation of fashion moguls. Once again Robert Fripp knocks it out of the park with a guitar attack he defined as “blues-rock played with a contemporary grammar.” Works for me!
“Teenage Wildlife”: Oh, my! It’s partly a reprise of “Heroes” and largely quite a mess. Once I get over how the opening salvo is razor-close to the opening of “Heroes” and adjust my ears to David’s drag queen vocal stylings, I follow the lyrics and say, “Hmm. Not too bad. I think I see where he’s going.”
Well, how come you only want tomorrow
With its promise of something hard to do
A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold
Blue skies above and sun on your arms strength in your stride
And hope in those squeaky clean eyes
You’ll get chilly receptions everywhere you go
Blinded with desire I guess the season is on
Sounds like the old pro giving advice to a rookie, or (more likely) a mentor sharing a few tips with a teenage novice regarding the challenges of adulthood. Like I said, not bad.
Then it all goes to hell in a handbasket with broken-nosed moguls, midwives wearing bloody robes and a wolf howling in a trap. Gary Numan thought the song was directed at him, and if that was David’s intent, he should have followed John Lennon’s lead on “How Do You Sleep?” and launched a direct assault so the rest of us could understand what the hell he was on about.
“Scream Like a Baby”: Sometimes popular music critics are so fucking clueless that I want to scream. Every comment, every evaluation and every so-called analysis of the song focuses on its “ultra-modern new wave guitar/synth sound,” and “Bowie’s use of varispeed vocals.” The only references to the subject matter describe the story as taking place in a dystopian universe where a protagonist called Sam “is evidently being held, along with the track’s narrator, in a political prison.”
Holy fuck, Batman! Read the fucking lyrics!
Well, they came down hard on the faggots
And they came down hard on the street
They came down harder on Sam
And they all knew he was beat
He was thrown into the wagon
Blindfolded, chains, and they stomped on us
And took away our clothes and things
And pumped us full of strange drugs
Sam and his buddy are not political prisoners but victims of state-authorized violence against homosexuals. After beating the shit out of the boys, the authorities move to the next stage: conversion therapy.
And oh, I saw Sam falling
Spitting in their eyes
But now I lay me down to sleep
And now I close my eyes
Now I’m learning to be a part of socie-soc-soci-tsociety
State-sponsored conversion therapy may be classified as dystopian but government-sanctioned violence against the LGBTQ+ community was a reality when Bowie wrote the song and remains a reality to this day. I’d like to say “I can’t believe the critics missed it” but my guess is they probably saw the word “faggots” and chose to skip that rather important detail as “too hot to handle.”
While the story is quite compelling, the music is a bit of a jumble, Bowie’s studio tricks aside. Introducing background/call-and-response singers was a bad idea on “Teenage Wildlife” and it’s a bad idea here. The arrangement should have been minimalist to force people to pay attention to the sickening story.
“Kingdom Come” (Tom Verlaine): If I were a pop star in the 80s and wanted to make an overtly commercial album, covering a song by Tom Verlaine would have never crossed my mind. Verlaine and Television were practically allergic to commercial success (undeservedly so).
But Bowie knew a great song when he heard one, and he deserves a thousand kudos for reminding people that Verlaine was still alive and kicking. That said, I’ll take Tom’s versions (both studio and live) over Bowie’s any time. Verlaine’s arrangement isn’t burdened by overproduction and his use of background singers is both appropriate and well thought out. His vocal carries more emotional impact than Bowie’s effort, which gets a little bit too theatrical given the subject matter. Still, I’m glad the song made the cut.
The narrative about a prisoner breaking rocks in the sun is likely metaphoric, but I’d rather wait until I review Tom’s debut solo album to do a complete analysis.
“Because You’re Young”: Love the guitars, love the drums, loathe the vocals and the lyrics wander far too much to qualify as coherent.
“It’s No Game (No. 2)”: Apparently the narrator took a shitload of valium while the rest of us worked our way through the album, as he now presents his concerns in a rather flat, emotion-drained voice. I kinda miss the guy who was close to losing his marbles, but overall the reprise is well-executed and its message may be easier to take for some listeners. I also miss Michi and Fripp, but since it’s the last appearance of the classic lineup that supported Bowie from Station to Station and through the Berlin Trilogy, I can’t complain—they were one tight group of musicians and deserved a decent farewell.
Bowie explained the reason for the two wildly different takes and whaddya know? It makes a lot of sense:
On the album there are two versions of ‘It’s No Game’, the opening track and the closing track, both done in completely polarised styles. I think the reasoning behind that stemmed from wanting to not come out with one blatant, sort of, protesty song, that showed that feelings of anxiousness about society are expressed on different levels and with different intensities.
Our once-anxious narrator may have lowered his temperature but he can’t help but add one more complaint to the list—a valid complaint indeed:
Children round the world
Put camel shit on the walls
They’re making carpets on treadmills
Or garbage sorting
And it’s no game
Children are still used as laborers in a large chunk of the world and I’ve read that the GOP is doing everything in their power to bring child labor back to the United States. I think our narrator would fully endorse the following quotation: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
That quote is usually attributed to Gandhi, but it turns out that the man who spoke those words was Hubert Humphrey, just a few months before he died. I can’t imagine the extent of his outrage if he were to resurrect in our time and learn that those who are in the dawn of life in the States are required to participate in regular active shooter drills.
So much for morality.
It’s time to get ornery. I don’t agree with the critical consensus that Scary Monsters was the last great Bowie album. I think that honor belongs to Lodger, a far more interesting and compelling work. Scary Monsters has its moments, but those moments are bunched with less-than-stellar offerings that leave the album with only one claim to greatness: Robert Fripp’s guitar work.
I’d describe Scary Monsters as a transitional album where we find David Bowie trying to deal with two opposing urges: the desire to create artistic statements and the perceived need to stay at the top of the charts. That conflict was resolved a few years later with the overtly commercial and highly successful Let’s Dance, at which point in the trajectory I lose all interest in David Bowie. As I pointed out in the intro, Bowie possessed enough juice to expand the boundaries of popular music, but after Scary Monsters, he chose to make music for the masses.