Scary Monsters turns 40

Scary Monsters is supposed to be the return to form after Lodger, the final entry in the Berlin Trilogy, proved disappointing to fans and critics.

by Marshall Bowden

The first time I heard “Ashes to Ashes,” I was hanging out with some friends and we were deep into various conversations about music, philosophy, film, and we had WXRT’s new releases program on. I wasn’t paying attention to most of the song until a repeated chorus pierced whatever bubble I may have inhabited and asserted itself:  “My mother said/to get things done/You better not mess with Major Tom.” 

“Hey,”  I said, “listen…that new Bowie song–it’s about Major Tom.”

It being the time before the internet, I couldn’t just stream it, but I heard it a few times in the next twenty-four hours.  It all made sense. Major Tom was still out there, a shriveled shell strung out on some designer drug, watching ‘pictures of Jap girls in synthesis.’ When Major Tom first appeared, he was a mellow space cadet, detaching from his spaceship and floating off into space. The song, “Space Oddity,” was inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in more ways than one. In the psychedelic ending astronaut David Bowman is allowed to see the development of the human race as well as his own death and rebirth as a star child. Major Tom is simply a further expression of humankind’s wish to shake off everything from this lifetime, including our bodies, in a bid for ultimate freedom and even Godhead. It also recalls the terror of the moment when HAL, the computer endowed with artificial intelligence, refuses to allow Bowman back into the ship. This is not a voluntary floating off into space peacefully, it’s murder. Imagine being adrift, isolated, unable to satisfy any basic needs, dying when oxygen runs out. But ‘Ashes to Ashes’ suggests that surviving would be worse still. 

Scary Monsters is supposed to be the return to form after Lodger, the final entry in the Berlin Trilogy, proved disappointing to fans and critics.  Lodger is the album where Bowie left Berlin and traveled the world taking stock of what had transpired during his drugged-out period and subsequent rehab in Berlin. We hear from guitarist Adrian Belew that the relationship between Bowie and Eno “just didn’t seem to have the spark that I imagine they might have had during the Heroes album.” [Buckley, Strange Fascination]. This may be because Eno felt that a lot of the gas had run out of the trilogy by now. It was 1979 and it had been two years since Bowie and Eno convened in Berlin to work on Low and Heroes. Both had been released in 1977, and in ’78 Bowie was on his Isolar II Tour, playing music from both albums as well as selected older material. Much of Lodger was recorded in Switzerland between tour segments, with some additional studio time in New York in March of 1979. 

When Lodger was released in May of that year, it was considered underwhelming in regard to its predecessors. But it is clearly a transitional album, an album of moving outward from the self, back into the pop music world, and writing proper songs again. Lodger is an adventurous album in a different way than Low or Heroes, and it serves as the warm-up for Scary Monsters

One major reason that Scary Monsters succeeded where Lodger had seemingly failed was the return of guitarist Robert Fripp. A major part of the sound of Heroes, Fripp was absent from Lodger, replaced by Adrian Belew, who later became a member of Fripp’s rejuvenated King Crimson. Belew didn’t fail Lodger, rather the process that Bowie and Eno were working with, fueled by Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, put him in a difficult position. He was asked to perform solos against tracks that he hadn’t heard before and for which he was given no preparation–not even the key.  Eno may have given him instructions on what to play and his work does seem to fit the bill for the project but somehow it comes off as an approximation of what Fripp might have played that doesn’t have quite the same effect.

On Scary Monsters, Fripp is a fierce electric presence that positively spits energy with spiky guitar intervals. At a time when a new group of guitarists was creating the language of post-punk, Fripp demonstrated his influence, sounding as good as he ever did on this album. Part of that may also be due to Tony Visconti’s production work–the album sounds much more textured than Lodger, which has a harshness that isn’t present on Low and Heroes. While the music of Scary Monsters is frequently harsh the production makes it deeply listenable in a way that eludes Lodger. It’s impossible to overstate the influence that Fripp exerts over Scary Monsters, and it is a strong exhibit in any argument of Fripp’s greatness as a guitarist, which is saying a lot. His energy is integral to ‘Up the Hill Backwards,’ a Zen lyric that sounds like it suggests giving up but is contradicted by the music. During the two breaks in 7/4 time, Fripp plays in a manner that is more constrained than on some tracks but he keeps all the players in restless motion nonetheless. 

Scary Monsters is generally posited as Bowie’s ‘last great album,’ a theory to which I have generally subscribed. However, I think that his ’90s work is due for re-evaluation, and his career coda, 2013-2016 has yet to be assimilated into his overall oeuvre due to the recent nature of the release and the shock of his death. Nonetheless, what followed as the 1980s unfurled was definitely lesser Bowie. But there are many other reasons the album was read as a sort of goodbye. Bowie himself promotes such a view by bookending his career with Major Tom. It was also the end of the longstanding rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray. Carlos Alomar did continue working with Bowie for some time, but he wouldn’t appear on the next Bowie album, Let’s Dance. Then there are the visual references to previous iconic Bowie albums (Heroes, Lodger, Aladdin Sane) on the back cover. 

The opening track of Scary Monsters, “It’s No Game (Pt. I)” is a song of unrelenting anger and horror as Bowie views the world on a television screen and wonders what is happening even while realizing his own detachment. His purposely uncontrolled screaming vocal seems to rend his vocal cords. “To be insulted by these fascists–it’s so degrading” refers to political situations but also to the new world of punk rockers and club kids who were putting out records that sounded more like Bowie (or a re-imagined Bowie) than Bowie himself. 

Bowie was always trying to bury David Bowie. He announced his retirement on the last show of his Ziggy Stardust tour, which of course was rubbish. The constantly changing characters of the 1970s were meant to leave the previous ones behind. Wringing down the curtain on the Thin White Duke, Bowie didn’t disappear, he simply scaled and changed his approach. 

In many ways, Scary Monsters has more in common with The Man Who Sold the World than it does with Station to Station or Low. As the 1980s beckoned, Bowie saw where it was all headed–the cheap fascism, media as funhouse mirror, the fact that technology saves us from nothing. With Scary Monsters, he sought to bury the emotional flotsam of his past as well as the decade that made it all possible. It set him free to appeal to a wider audience, but it also set him adrift from a lot of what had made his best work possible–the emotional terrain, longtime collaborators, and an instinctive feel for where the culture was headed. 

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