20 responses

  1. Interesting review, because perceptive–which is why I enjoy reading your looks back at albums.

    I understand why you drop in the commonplace near the start of this, when you say: ” 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?” I understand because you, I, and the next music fan share those feelings.

    Yet, I’d say, despite a very much changed commercial music field that works entirely differently than the album rock era, and despite little or no encouragement from us, those artists exist — maybe more of them even — but that you, I, and the next music fan no longer care. Why might that be? If the fault might be u –, and we’re good people, open to new creative things — how is it this could be so?

    We’re overwhelmed. We have decades of creative music available, so much of it available with an online click in seconds. The means of musical production, somewhat scarce and expensive then, is available at the price of an induction kitchen stove. Creative minds, confronted with a fragmented and saturated audience continue to produce recordings in uncountable numbers. You, I, and the next music fan can’t keep up, and frankly probably don’t feel intensely we have to keep up. That’s a systematic fault, not the fault of insufficiently creative artists.

    1. That is the best explanation of our current situation I’ve heard. Recently I did a deep dive into the history of Beatlemania and one of the conclusions I reached was that it would be impossible to duplicate that phenomenon in our world, for many of the reasons you mention. I have a half-draft of a post on the subject that I’ll finish sooner or later.

  2. listening to his 80s stuff, I hear an artist who wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to be doing. which I think is something we all go through at some time.

  3. Oh, and, more in the cornflake related lyric how about this?

    “Sitting on a cornflake. Waiting for the van to come.”

  4. Hi Alt!
    Another great review. Haven’t listened to this in forever so will give it a spin this week.

    A thought, as a 65yr old male I listened to this album in the context of what else was going on in the kind of music I listened to at the time, 1980. In that, I think, my experience has not had the additional development that an additional 43 years of critical listening has imbued you with. Not a criticism, just an observation.

    So, at that time, I was 21 and was listening to lots of Prog, Tom Petty – Damn The Torpedos, xtc – Drums…., Police – Reggatta de Blanc, Roxy – Flesh and Blood, Talking Heads – Fear of Music, Remain in Light, Clash – London Calling, etc.

    So, with that as my musical context at the time, Bowie’s album hit different as it did seem to push boundaries, not the least the boundaries of my own ear. Often found that I had to spend time with some artist’s new albums until my ear “got” it.

    In particular I found Talking Heads to be that way. Seemingly every album made my ear go “WTAF?” After repeated listening my ear would “develop” and it would all make sense. Some of the best albums I own were real ear challengers at the time.

    Anyway, Scary was one of those albums, for me, at that time. Hope you might find this additional perspective interesting.

    As always, please keep up the great writing.

  5. Simon & Garfunkel
    Punky’s Dilemma
    “Wish I was a Kellogg’s Cornflake
    Floatin’ in my bowl takin’ movies…”

  6. I enjoyed your review– haven’t thought about this record in awhile. I agree with your assessment that Lodger is far better, but both versions of It’s No Game sound mighty good tonight.

    Meanwhile, that breakfast cereal. How about Simon & Garfunkel’s Punky’s Dliemma?

    “Wish I was a Kellogg’s Cornflake
    Floatin’ in my bowl takin’ movies,
    Relaxin’ awhile, livin’ in style…”

    Until next week.

  7. My overall assessment of this album is similar to yours. It has its moments, but it’s kind of a mess. The big difference is that I think “Ashes To Ashes” is great, while you dismiss it in a few sentences. It’s a super catchy song, but you don’t even mention the music, so I guess you don’t think it’s so catchy. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, with Major Tom as a stand-in for Bowie himself, so it really isn’t a sequel to that song. It’s just a cautionary tale about heroin as far as I can tell. Lots of great hooks, which I suppose is fitting for a song about heroin.

    I like “Fashion” just as much as “Ashes To Ashes,” but aside from those two songs, I’ve never been able to find anything here to hang my hat on, except maybe part 2 of “It’s No Game.” I agree that Lodger is his last great album. I would say that Scary Monsters is his last halfway interesting one, although I never bothered to listen to anything after Let’s Dance. (And I made it through that one only once.)

  8. I realized right after I hit send on my comment that I forgot to, as promised, discuss my views on New Wave music, so I’ll do so now. Essentially, I like the genre a fair bit, but only when specific bands are concerned, and many of the general trends in the scene are distasteful to me. I like New Wave much more when it strikes a balance where it’s not blatantly commercial but catchy and poppy enough not to be the kind of boring that “Up the Hill Backwards” is. I also like it much more when it’s guitar-heavy and rocking, even if not in a very straightforward way (best exemplified on literally anything Robert Fripp played on in the New Wave era). More generally, I like New Wave when it is creative, innovative, and artsy yet still attention-grabbing to the listener. When it crosses the line completely into mainstream, keyboard-heavy pop of the type that my mom listened to regularly coming of age in LA in the 80s, it loses me a little, and when it becomes boring intellectual mush, it loses me a lot.
    Anyway, based on these parameters (but not necessarily completely following their rules, because my music taste doesn’t generally limit itself by specific criteria), the artists I like the most from the New Wave scene are The Police (as long as I ignore Sting’s stupid pseudo-intellectual lyrics and egotistical personality long enough to focus on their fantastic sonic innovations, instrumental skills, and ability to flat-out rock); Peter Gabriel (who I like more with Genesis, because I’m a prog nerd through and through, but whose solo career was one of the few shining points of the dreaded 80s), Talking Heads circa Fear of Music and Remain in Light (their two most innovative albums are their two most interesting, largely due to Eno’s influence and the guest guitar of Fripp on one song on the former and the amazing Adrian Belew on all of the latter, and I am attracted rather than repelled by David Byrne’s antics), and 80s King Crimson, who were obviously quite heavily influenced by New Wave, Belew, Fripp and Tony Levin having done extensive work within the scene, but were also smart enough to keep the instrumental backing constantly interesting and who were the only prog band to really invent a compelling new route for the genre to go in the 80s, though no one really took them up on it. The former three are some of the biggest names in New Wave, so I can claim to like the genre based on my enjoyment of them, but that still leaves a large swath of the New Wave scene to drown unceremoniously in mountains of misapplied synthesizers and uninteresting intellectual pretensions, and I’m not sorry to see it go.
    And I don’t expect you to take Talking Heads off your no-fly list or do any more Police reviews based on my enjoyment and defense of those two bands, because I acknowledge the factors that people tend to dislike about them are the factors you focus on with music, but I hope my views on the genre at least make sense to you and give you something to think about. Have a great week ’til the next review!

    1. I think you presented a good defense of New Wave; it’s just not my cup of tea. My aversion to Talking Heads has more to do with Byrne’s voice than anything else—for some reason, it gives me the creeps (kinda like how I react to Bruce Springsteen). I do have Peter Gabriel 2, 3 and 4 on my to-do list but he loses me with So. Some classify Elvis Costello’s first two albums (which I view favorably) as New Wave, but to my ears he became New Wave with Armed Forces, an album I can’t stand—the sound is too polished and lacks the edginess of the first two. I’m far more punk-oriented than New Wave.

      1. I get it about Byrne’s voice; I generally like it but I can see how it’s polarizing and I wouldn’t say I prefer it all the time over other vocal styles. I do like Adrian Belew’s voice a lot; he uses a lot of similar tactics to Byrne but also has a lot more skills and range in terms of conventional singing technique. And his guitar, both with Talking Heads and with King Crimson, is amazingly creative and unique. I haven’t really explored much Elvis Costello but I’ll certainly give him a curious chance. And as for Gabriel, I agree on objective terms about So (and I love his work prior to it) but it’s one of my mom’s favorite 80s relics and it does have a nostalgic value for me. I just missed my chance to see Gabriel and his awesome Tony Levin-starring band when he played in Denver and I was out of town on a theme park vacation in Orlando that I did not ask for, but still had some fun on. I will swear off all vacations to Florida after that one, that’s for sure.

  9. You know what’s scary? A lot of things. Climate change, gun violence, the Republican Party…Colorado weather? Indeed. Growing up for the last 11 years in Denver, I’ve become accustomed to whiplash-inducing weather patterns that might shock outsiders and even sometimes seem inscrutable and unpredictable to longtime residents, but this past week takes the cake. As recently as last Wednesday, an extended, record-breaking heat wave and dry spell caused midday temperatures to soar above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but as I sit inside and write this comment, I’m looking out the window at over a foot of snow that fell yesterday and today. There was absolutely zero transition time between summer’s extended stay and winter’s early onset (while first snow in late October isn’t uncommon, the ferocity and duration of the storm, and the crazy juxtaposition with the unseasonably warm temperatures that immediately preceded it, certainly were). Hopefully, the weather is a little fairer across the pond where you are, and I hope for my own sake that this isn’t a harbinger of the weather patterns that climate change brings. Anyway, staying cozily at home gives one a natural excuse to listen to music and read music reviews, and today I did just that.

    Your excellent review reminded me that I listen to far too little Bowie compared to my enjoyment of his music when I do put it on (and this is not limited to Bowie; my tendency to obsessively focus on just a few favorite artists at a time, or force myself to tackle complete discographical deep dives if I want to get to know an artist that’s new to me can prevent me from engaging more regularly with talented artists at the periphery of my musical world). In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with a complete Bowie album in my life, and while I’ve always enjoyed the man’s hits, your review convinced me to give this underappreciated album a try today. I really enjoyed it, not least because I’m a diehard Robert Fripp fan – King Crimson is one of my all-time favorite bands (I’d love to enquire as to when you plan to revisit them), and Fripp’s other musical adventures (including the Soundscapes recordings that lull me to sleep in beguiling fashion each night) have become increasingly fascinating to me, and his late-70s period is certainly one of the most interesting eras in any musician’s life, ever. An English prog musician retreats from the music industry, comes back, moves to New York, becomes a major figurehead in the burgeoning New Wave scene (I’ll get back to the genre that you so handily dismiss), then resurrects his old band with a completely new sound? Really a fascinating tale that, as one critic reviewing Fripp’s Exposures box set posited, would make for an excellent biopic. But I digress.

    Your review addresses the lyrics of the album far better than I could even after many listens, and after just one listen, I won’t even try to make judgements on specific songs on their lyrics. But my general impression was positive, with some slight reservations. Melodically and lyrically, most of the songs didn’t really have any attention-grabbing hooks. The main attractions became Fripp’s stunningly terrifying guitar work, Bowie’s expressive vocal style (even when he lacks interesting melodies to sing, I absolutely love his distinctive voice, and that aspect should certainly spur me to seek out more of his music), and occasional gimmicks like Michi’s Japanese vocals or various production effects, and when some or all of those surface-level additions to the songs were missing, the songs without them became disappointingly boring, and even some of the more interesting songs went on a bit longer than necessary. Overall, “It’s No Game (no. 1)”, the title track, and “Fashion” were the main keepers upon first listen (Fripp’s best performances on the album, and good songs even independent of Fripp), and while I expect most of the songs to grow on me a little in the future, I think there’s a ceiling of enjoyment built into most of them, because the main song material is a bit unsatisfying. But I’m glad I listened to the album, as it satisfied my Fripp fandom, got me in the mood for Halloween, and reminded me that I really like Bowie and need to listen to him more regularly. Thanks, Ari, as always!

    PS: I find the cover art fascinating and intriguing, and I initially misinterpreted an aspect of it in a really interesting way. I originally thought Bowie’s outstretched hand, and the shapes around his arm, in the black-and-white shadow portion on the right actually represented the guitar that Fripp wields so effectively on the album, and even though that’s not the case (and it’s a pretty cool effect with the shadow-reflection of the foreground image), it sends a distinctive signal about the character of the album either way.

    I’m getting excited, counting down the days until next Sunday, to get back on familiar ground with your upcoming Dead review. I’ll check back in here then!

    1. Right before I read your comment I saw a piece in my news feed that Chicago is expecting the same sudden change that you’re experiencing now. It’s the kind of weather I associate with the prairie states but not the mountains or the Great Lakes. My first experience that confirmed Al Gore wasn’t kidding was a business trip to Chicago in October 2007. I packed for fall weather but summer refused to leave—and something about the trees didn’t look right. On the plus side, I met my future life-partner on that trip!

      Ireland is experiencing climate change, but it’s nowhere near as dramatic as it is in southern Europe or the States. The folks in Cork define anything approaching 70 degrees as a heat wave. Lately we’ve been getting “blight weather” with lots of rain and some flooding in Southern Cork, which I’m told is not all that unusual (“blight” refers to the weather that causes potato blight). My long-term concern is that the Gulf Stream appears to be collapsing and that will have a huge impact on Ireland and the UK.

      I’ve had Red and Larks’ Tongue in Aspic on my to-do list for some time; I’ll probably get to them in 2024. King Crimson presents a narrative challenge due to the constant lineup changes, but I’ll figure out a way around all that. Is there a particular album that floats your boat?

      1. Makes sense about the weather (as far as any nonsensical problem the human race has caused makes any sense). As for King Crimson, I like the majority of their output but the ones you named are particular standouts I was hoping you would consider, and of the two, Red seems like something that would be more suited to a review from you and also contains my favorite song of all time (at least of everything I’ve heard in my 16 years on this Earth), Starless. With either Larks’ Tongues or Red, do check out the various live albums from the era in between those two albums, which was probably when they were at their best as a risk-taking, jazzy hard-rock live act, as opposed to some of their excellent later live performances that are more polished and rehearsed.

      2. One more thing about the weather- Denver is technically a plains city even if it borders on the Rockies, and should be treated as such. It’s kind of nice to get the, well, best isn’t necessarily the right word, but a lot of largely positive attributes of both worlds. And I love the mountains and outdoor adventure, so it’s perfect for me.

      3. I like Denver, too. When I worked out of Seattle I was always angling for travel to cities with baseball teams, so I went there a couple of times. In both games I attended, the score was 10-8, with Rockies taking the first and losing the second. I think the difference I wanted to point out was unlike North Dakota, where there are no mountains in the eastern part to block the winds, the prairie is open to any weather that happens by. I couldn’t figure out why all the guys in Fargo looked like Roger Maris with flattop haircuts until I experienced the endless wind. And boy, do they have roadkill!

  10. Concludes with an accurate career summation rather than the usual Bowie hagiography.

  11. Oh completely agree! Bowie in the 80s wasn’t the best time. Even he called it “my Phil Collins period”! Scary Monsters definitely has its moments, though. Thank goodness for his late blossoming. Lovely piece.

    1. Thank you! I hadn’t heard his reference to the “Phil Collins period” but it’s nice to know he reconnected with self-awareness. That period was so beneath him.

      1. Definitely, he seemed much more humble from the 90s onwards, more able to laugh at himself.

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