Friday, 8 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 5

From the sublime to the ridiculous...

Scary Monsters (1980)

Having crawled out of the turmoil of his mid-70s hellhole with a clutch of critically-acclaimed albums to the good, Bowie embarked on a period of phenomenal commercial success as the new decade dawned. Clearly revived and raring to go, another new David Bowie emerged, and this one was to announce his arrival with one hell of a statement of intent. It started with his second number one single, which strangely, given the modern-sounding nature of his new direction, harked back to his past.

Ashes To Ashes revisited the pickle old Major Tom found himself in more than a decade on. But you know what I think about that track, so I won't dwell on it. But the excitement of this incredible return set up the anticipation of the impending arrival of what would prove to be a landmark recording.

Riotous, raucous and rowdy; 'Scary Monsters' is a hell of a lot of fun - this despite the haunting melodrama of its lead single and the sometimes difficult subject matter contained in the songs. There is much less experimentation and improvisation than on the Berlin records. The songwriting was more considered and purposeful. Bowie wanted to court more mainstream acceptance and 'Scary Monsters' was the first big step to achieving that. It has to be said, it worked. 'Scary Monsters' is one of his finest records, no doubt about that.

In spite of its huge commercial success, the music is often angry and dark; the synth sounds are harsh and the guitars rasp with menace, while Bowie's vocals sound desperate at times, none more so than on its terrific opener It's No Game (Part 1). The title track, which tackles the ominous subject of a woman's descent into madness, is another highlight, and Up The Hill Backwards swaggers in the face of the adversity of its subject matter - the public nature of his divorce and generally facing up to a crisis. In fact crises dictate the theme of the record.

There is derision and bitterness too. The brilliant Teenage Wildlife deals with Bowie facing the young new romantic upstarts who were on the rise. While clearly influenced by him, Bowie took issue with their repetitiveness and painting the world with a futuristic high-tech image that he didn't believe existed, or indeed, ever would. It is in many ways the album's centrepiece; the sound is bold, the vocal is confident and it has a bristling tension that pervades throughout the whole record. The momentum does fall away somewhat towards the second half of side two in my opinion, but the quality and impact of the first seven songs more than make up for that.

'Scary Monsters' has become the album that all his subsequent releases have been compared against. "His best record since 'Scary Monsters'" is a stock phrase so beloved of reviewers, yet it is easy to understand in a way. The next few years would see Bowie's reputation almost destroyed as an artist, so 'Scary Monsters' is held up as being the last truly great record he made. Good thing or not, it set a precedent that even the great man himself struggled to live up to.

8.5 / 10


Let's Dance (1983)

Three years was the longest gap between Bowie albums in 1983. In the intervening period, Dave had released a curious EP of Berthold Brecht songs ('Baal') and released collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Bing Crosby and Queen. It was this latter one that set fans on edge. While Under Pressure gave him another number one, it was also a sign that he might be compromising his artistic integrity in return for commercial success. 'Scary Monsters' had been hugely successful, yet it contained enough uneasiness to disconcert your average punter.

When 'Let's Dance' hit the shelves, it marked an almighty shift in fortunes, which Bowie would not only regret, but also take years to recover from. Shunning his long-term friend and producer Tony Visconti in favour of Nile Rodgers was the first mistake. Bowie and Visconti wouldn't work together again for 20 years, and you wonder what might have happened had he been involved. Rodgers gave Bowie a sleek, polished, Americanised sound that would clearly sell lots of records. While Bowie was happy to gain a few hits out of it, he wasn't prepared for what followed.

The truth is, as far as the songs go, 'Let's Dance' isn't so bad. Modern Love, Cat People and Without You remain among the best songs of his post-'Scary Monsters' 80s output, while his remake of China Girl is probably the highlight of the album. What lets the whole thing down is Rodgers' bombastic production. There is absolutely no need for the elongated mix of the title track; it totally breaks up what could have been the record's most shining moment. Elsewhere, the horns get on one's nerves after a while, and those awful gated-reverb drum sounds are just way too dominant. I'm still undecided about Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar parts. There are times I think they work really well in the song, while other times they sound rather forced and contrived. Bowie himself has questioned Rodgers work, pointing out how Ricochet sounded "ungainly": "Nile did his own thing to it, but it wasn't what I'd had in mind when I wrote the thing." It is the album's low-point, I reckon.

Overall, the strength of the material saves 'Let's Dance', with the songs being more than good enough to stand the test of time. Sadly, its enormous commercial success forced Bowie into a corner and instead of setting his unique creative juices flowing, he felt obliged to cater for this new audience. 'Let's Dance' is therefore largely thought of as being the start of a phenomenally steep decline in Bowie's career.

7.3 / 10


Tonight (1984)

The new audience that Bowie found through 'Let's Dance' is the reason 'Tonight' exists. It's a disgrace. He even admits himself that 'Tonight' is an abomination, but at the time Bowie seemed to be suffering another sort of identity crisis. He was now a bonafide mainstream rock megastar, like it or lump it. He felt obliged to cater for his new audience and sadly now there is nothing we can do about it.

The awful 80s production is evident from the very beginning, a sound that was so un-Bowie it was as if there was an intruder in our midst. While Loving The Alien actually isn't a bad song, Bowie himself admits the demo he made of it was "wonderful [...] On the album it's not so wonderful." From there on in things get unfathomably worse. There's a dreadful cod-reggae styled cover of Iggy Pop's Don't Look Down, and the cringe-inducing atrocity that is the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. Utterly unforgiveable, but utterly unbelievable as well. This was never the same man who just a few years before had delivered 'Scary Monsters' was it?

If fans thought their hero teaming up with Queen a few years earlier was a bad move, you can only imagine what they felt when Tina Turner popped up on the title track. What was he doing??? The sad truth is, 'Tonight' has no redeeming features about it. Bowie went into it with very little new material and relied on old Iggy Pop songs and ill-advised cover versions. The very fact that Blue Jean is one of the record's highlights speaks volumes.

In 1995, Virgin reissued the album with three bonus tracks. The last of these was Absolute Beginners, taken from the movie of the same name. This in itself is a disgrace; 'Tonight' does not deserve to have anything even remotely as marvellous as that song associated with it. What Absolute Beginners did suggest though was that maybe 'Tonight' was just a blip, that Bowie's next effort would be a return to form. Let's face it, things couldn't stay this bad for long. Could they?

1 / 10



  1. Again pretty much agree with everything you've written. Lets Dance I think is a great lp but is often lumped in with / blamed for what was to follow. Tonight isn't quite a 1 /10 for me (the next one gets that accolade) because of Blue Jean and Loving the Alien (which I really love) and a couple of other tracks are at least listenable. There is no excuse though for Tonight or God Only Knows ( 2 of the worst things he has ever done). I also really like under pressure. It is a strange one as at the time Queen were on a bit of a rut and it was pre the live aid / I want to break free mtv rebirth. As number 1s go it is a million miles away from the straight forward pop song. Saw an interview with Brian May who says it I the only Queen song he doesn't play on as he walked out unhappy on how Bowie was dominating and that really it is a Bowie track with Mercury vocals on. Mid late 80s def his lowest point but then it did throw out the absolute gem that is absolute beginners

  2. Absolute Beginners is sublime.

  3. There are quite a few of your readers that would have given Let's Dance an even lower rating, but I think you nailed it. I was 12 when the album came out, and it was my first chance to buy Bowie as a new release... very exciting. I'm with you on the title track. I prefer the single to the album version... too mucked up. Tonight is awful, but Loving the Alien is probably my third favorite Bowie song of the '80s, behind Absolute Beginners and Ashes to Ashes. I would put the original version of Cat People up there too.