Since I’ve been interested in music, one artist who has strived to produce some of the most innovative music during that time was David Bowie. During his career, he has constantly sought to reinvent himself, and his music. His music has evolved throughout his career, ranging from psychedelia and glam rock in the early days, to the creation of Ziggy Stardust on 1972 on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. Then came The Thin White Duke, which saw him moving towards soul and funk on Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. Between 1976 and 1979 came his Berlin era, which saw him release a trio of highly acclaimed, though less commercially successful albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. After this trilogy, came the album this article is about, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). This lead to a change in Bowie’s fortunes. The album was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It reached number one in the UK album charts, and number twelve in the Billboard Pop charts. Released in September 1980, it was certified gold one month later, in October 1980. This would be Bowie’s only album until 1983, when he released Let’s Dance, co-produced by Chic’s Niles Rogers, an album that would become one of his biggest selling albums. So after three less commercially successful albums, Bowie was back, and had released the first of two hugely successful albums. However, what made Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) such a critically acclaimed and commercially successful album?

When Bowie set about recording Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), he made several changes in the way he worked according to coproducer Tony Visconti. On this album, he had spent much more time writing the lyrics and working on melodies before he entered the studio. This was instead of having to improvise, and come up with lyrics quickly. Another change was that Bowie decided that the album wouldn’t be as experimental sounding, and instead, the sound should be much more commercial sounding. If you’ve heard the Berlin trilogy, you’ll realize that much as they’re great albums, they’re not the most commercial sounding albums. When Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was released, the change in sound was astounding, it was an album that would appeal to a wider audience. One other change from previous albums, was Bowie’s reliance on help from musicians who were helping record the album. 

Unlike previous albums, Brian Eno didn’t work with Bowie on the album. Previously, he’d collaborated with Bowie on the Berlin trilogy, and played a big part in the sound and success of these albums. Two familiar faces made a return, was Roy Bittan who played piano in Bruce Springsteen’s band, and who’d played on Station To Station, Bowie’s 1976 album. The other was Robert Fripp, who’d played guitar on Heroes, the second of the Berlin trilogy. Meanwhile, two guest artists helped record the album, Pete Townsend played guitar on Because You’re Young and Chuck Hammer, who previously, had played guitar-synth with Lou Reed, played on two tracks. One of these track was Ashes To Ashes, where his guitar-synth playing was at the heart of the track.

On the release of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), it was critically acclaimed, with critics saying it was his best album in years. When it was released, it gave Bowie his first number one album in the UK since Diamond Dogs in 1974. The album was a big success in the US, reaching number twelve in the US Pop charts, and in the process, helping to rebuild his reputation there. Since the album’s release, it’s often cited as one of Bowie most best and most accessible albums. After Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), every new Bowie album was compared with it, either being not as good, comparable with or better than his 1980 classic album. However, what is it that makes this album so good? 

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) opens It’s No Game (No. 1), a track begins with various background noises and Michi Hiroto spoken word vocal in Japanese accompanied by loud screeching guitars. Bowie’s vocal is similarly loud, as he roars at the top of his voice. However, it’s the magical wall of noise created by guitars and drums that grabs your attention. Guitar solos emerge soaring, screaming and screeching, then disappear, only to reappear later. Meanwhile Bowie sings while a hugely powerful arrangement unfolds. Overall, the sound is slightly harsher than you’d expect from a Bowie album, and towards the end the track takes a slightly chaotic turn. This doesn’t detract from what is a powerful and impressive track, including a passionate vocal from Bowie, accompanied by some hugely talented musicians.

After such a powerful opening track, it’s more of the same at the start of Up the Hill Backwards. An acoustic guitar, guitars and drums combine producing a similarly powerful sound. After that, the track changes totally, it’s less powerful, but not quite subtle. Instead, Bowie’s vocal accompanied by drums and guitar. His vocal is much more subdued, almost weaker and thinner. Just as you’re getting used to this quieter part of the track, it’s all change again. Guitars soar high, chiming and screeching, as drums pound powerfully. From there until the track’s end, it’s another demonstration of power from Bowie’s band, with guitar and drums driving the track along. Impressive as the arrangement may be, Bowie’s vocal is slightly weak, but some intelligent lyrics make up for the vocal’s weakness.

The title track, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) sees Bowie adopting a mockney accent long before anyone had ever invented the term. The track begins with Robert Fripp’s magnificent, crystalline, soaring, guitar solo. His playing is outstanding throughout the track, one of the track’s highlights. Likewise, Bowie’s vocal is much better, even with the mockney accent. It’s strong and full of character. Behind him, the arrangement is dominated by guitars and drums punctuating the track. Backing vocals fill in when Bowie’s vocal drops out. The tempo is fast, the sound joyous, and the lyrics descriptive. Bowie and Visconti’s arrangement and production is perfect. This is easily the best of the first three tracks, and it’s no wonder the track was released as a single. Strangely, it only reached number twenty in the UK single’s charts.

My favorite track from the album has always been Ashes To Ashes, which sees Bowie reincarnate Major Tom from his earlier hit single Space Oddity. The song was created around the guitar-synth part played by Chuck Hammer, and feature’s one of Bowie’s best vocals on the album. It’s that guitar-synth, bass and drums that plays the familiar opening to the song. Although his voice is quite different to what it sounding like on Space Oddity, Bowie sings the lyrics perfectly. He’s like an actor going into character as he sings, delivering the lyrics with emotion and charisma. Like his vocal, the arrangement is one of the best on the album. Much of that is thanks to Chuck Hammer’s guitar-synth playing, although George Murray’s bass playing is excellent, it’s funky and spacious, while Roy Bittan’s piano playing adds to the atmospheric arrangement. Ashes To Ashes may be thirty-one years old but still sounds as good today as it did in 1980. The track has a timeless quality, thanks to the arrangement, Bowie’s vocal and the reappearance of Major Tom in the lyrics.

Fashion is another of the singles taken from the album, and seems to be the soundtrack to every fashion show since 1980. Turn on the television and there’s a fashion show on, you can bet that The Thin White Duke will be singing Fashion. It begins with a short sweeping, echoey sound, before it bursts proudly into life, a combination of guitars, drum and synth. Bowie’s voice is deep and loud, as he joins what is a fuller, funky sounding arrangement. Like other tracks, guitars play a huge part in the track. They’re loud, soaring and chiming, screaming, while drums pound with regularity in accompaniment. A synth plays during the track, adding a moderne sound to the arrangement, while a bass sits at the bottom of mix. It adds a touch of funk to the proceedings. This is track that was just was both popular on radio and clubs, and like Ashes To Ashes has a timeless quality. Much of that is down to Bowie and Visconti’s arrangement. Between them, they produced a track that back then, was in keeping with the New Wave music of the time. Whereas much of that music sounds dated, because of the instruments and new technology used on them, this retains a contemporary feel. Overall, Fashion is an outstanding track on the album, and is one of the album’s highlights.

Teenage Widlife features some of Bowie’s most cutting and personal lyrics as he cocks a snook at certain New Wave artists popular in 1980, but now long forgotten. If you listen to the track closely, you’ll hear similarities with Heroes, his 1977 hit single. The track opens with guitars playing, another melodic solo emerging. Straight away, the track sounds like Heroes. When Bowie sings, his voice has a haughty sound, laden with character, as it rises and falls, highlighting specific lyrics. Drums sit in the background, as the guitars and Bowie take centre-stage. In some ways, they almost steal the show, as the playing is so good. Backing vocal accompany and compliment his vocal, which like the previous two tracks, is excellent. By now, the arrangement has really grown, and is dominated by guitars, with drums increasingly playing a more prominent role. At the end of the track you can’t fail to be impressed by what’s a hugely melodic track, with a powerful arrangement and a great vocal and lyrics from Bowie.

Scream Like A Baby is a song about a political prisoner, and being imprisoned for your beliefs. With a song about such an important issue, comes a dramatic, almost overwhelming introduction. Straight away, drums are pounded, guitars almost growl at the start of the track. After that, Bowie gives one of most passionate vocals, as behind him, the arrangement isn’t as melodic, and hooks are scarce. It’s a very different track, that sometimes sounds nearly discordant, as drum crash and Bowie’s vocal gyrates. Even the guitar playing isn’t as good as on previous tracks. Sadly, Scream Like A Baby is a disappointing, well meaning, track, that is at odds with the rest of the album.

Thankfully, it’s a return to form from Bowie on Kingdom Come. The track has a much more melodic, pleasing sound. Guitars and drums open the track, with the guitars repetitive, layer upon layer of guitars are unleashed. Like the last track, Bowie’s vocal is strong and passionate, but unlike the last track, he doesn’t indulge in the vocal gymnastics of the previous track. However, he uses the backing vocalists well, to sing call and response. Bowie sings Tom Verlaine’s lyrics well, although they’re a fairly bleak portrayal of life, and sound more like a portrayal of the afterlife and hell. One thing that’s apparent here is the harsher sound I mentioned earlier. It’s much more noticeable here, and the track doesn’t have as polished a sound as you’d expect. Although harsh sounding, it’s a hugely passionate performance from Bowie and his band, of a track originally made famous by Television.

Pete Townsend plays guitar on Because You’reYoung and contributes towards one of the best arrangements and tracks on the album. Guitars open the track, the sound quickly growing much fuller, the tempo quickening. Bowie meanwhile, proceeds to give an outstanding performance, full of presence and character. Around him, the arrangement unfolding is highly melodic, with hooks aplenty. Chiming and driving guitars, synths and rhythm section produce a bold, dramatic and melodic sound. Here, Bowie’s lyrics are somewhat bleak as he looks back at life, remembering the hurt, dreams and scars while offering advice to another generation. Regardless of this, Because You’re Young is a great song, because of the arrangement and an impassioned performance from The Thin White Duke.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) closes with It’s No Game (No. 2). It starts brightly and melodically, a combination of guitars and rhythm section before Bowie sings. His voice is strong and clear, as he takes care with his phrasing. Guitars punctuate the track, as if indulging in call and response. Unlike It’s No Game (No. 1), this track is much more melodic, less chaotic and much more enjoyable. Later, a piano plays, adding to the track’s drama, and adding another dimension to the arrangement. Guitars chime, the bass plods along and drums are to the fore, pounding and reverberating slightly. Here, Bowie’s lyrics are political, commenting on world events, revolutions and unrest, and like other lyrics on the album, his worldview isn’t exactly positive. Instead, during the albums, he seems pessimistic, rather than optimistic. There’s a false ending on the track, and for nearly half a minute, you hear various sound effects. These seem to reflect the events portrayed during the song. Overall, it’s a good track to end the album, with Bowie in fine voice, and his band as tight and polished as ever.

I find it hard to believe that it’s thirty-one years since the release of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). It doesn’t seem that long ago, that I sat poring over the my vinyl copy of the album, as I listened to the album. By then, I was a big fan of Bowie’s music, and have remained one ever since. I’ve been meaning to do an article on his music for some time, and after hearing a couple of songs from the album on my Ipod, decided this was the time to do so. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is still one of my favorite Bowie albums, and was very different to what he recorded immediately before this. The critically acclaimed, though not as commercially successful, Berlin trilogy preceded this album, and after that, many fans welcomed the change in sound. Although most of the tracks on the album are really good, my two favorites have always been Ashes To Ashes and Fashion, two of the singles from the album. Each has a timeless quality, and retain a contemporary sound. That can be said for much of the album which still sounds fresh and has aged well. Funnily enough, the music of many of the New Wave artists around then, hasn’t aged so well. What people didn’t realize then, was that Bowie was about to enter one of his most successful periods, and his next album Let’s Dance saw his popularity soar, and he acquired another generation of fans. However, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was the start of his new and hugely successful period, and for many people, myself included, the album brings back really good memories. Standout Tracks: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Ashes To Ashes, Fashion and Because You’re Young.


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