Friday, 23 July 2010

An axe to break the ice

It is a sobering thought for even the most ardent Bowiephile that his last truly satisfying album was released thirty years ago. Thirty years!

But, if ‘Scary Monsters’ does turn out to be the last truly great LP Bowie made (there’s still time, Dave!) it’s a hell of a swansong.

The start of 1980 marked the beginning of a new era for Bowie, not just a decade.

He had left Berlin and was living back in the UK; his longstanding RCA contract was finishing; he was healthy and completely drug-free for the first time in years, and, to his chagrin, he had discovered that, despite eight years of success, he was virtually bankrupt.

‘Scary Monsters’ is Bowie’s first eighties attempt at selling out, a conscious attempt to take the wilfully experimental sound of the Berlin trilogy (‘Low’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Lodger’) and to streamline it into a commercial proposition: less improvisation, less extemporisation, sharper melodies and more considered lyrics, although the record still sounds odd and like nothing else released that year. Whereas it took the slick, bland ‘Lets Dance’ to really sell Bowie as a billion dollar brand across the world, ‘Scary Monsters’ did extremely well – hitting number one on the UK album charts and, for the first time, providing a number one hit single with the superlative ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Full of great tracks, the LP is often seen as a response to the emergence of a new wave of Bowie influenced artists and groups, with the old man (Bowie was 33) of odd, angular electronic pop effortlessly putting Numan, Foxx, Ultravox and all the other pretenders in place, re-establishing himself as the top dog with a flash of his snaggle teeth.

‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a classic single, an amazing melding of art and pop that, as a kid, I was simultaneously excited and frightened by. Everything about it is perfect but, for the record, don’t do this song at karaoke whilst on a works do, people just think you’re unusual.

‘Scary Monsters’ is a long and energetic New Wave workout in which Dave adopts a mannered cockney accent to tell the story of a woman’s descent into madness and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp sprays napalm guitar everywhere.

‘Teenage Wildlife’ is the longest track on the album, an epic power ballad in the vein of ‘Heroes’ with an extremely mannered vocal (based on Ronnie Spector, apparently) and pointed lyrics that seem to spell out David’s distaste for his rivals and his desire to distance himself from the ‘same old thing, in brand new drag’. In 1980, it sounded like a farewell to the pop scene from a jaded and weary man determined not to become a cliché.

Three years later, of course, he was back on sale, peroxided hair piled high, prancing about like a tit and making millions. What can I say? He’s a very contrary fellow.


Reimer said...

'Ashes to Ashes' marked the start of my DB affair. Still nothing quite like it (that glistening, serpentine synth solo at the end...)

'Jump They Say' (1993) was a good single but nothing else since the wonderful 'Baal' EP (1982) I've heard had any real power.

30 years in a well-appointed wilderness, sheesh.

rabbitkrishna said...

Curious, what's your take on Iggy? Stooges are one of my all time favorites.

Unmann-Wittering said...

The Stooges are generally too raw for me but there's no doubt that, in full flow, they're a thing of rock wonder. I like Iggy, but see him more as an embodiment of attitude rather than a musical innovator.

rabbitkrishna said...

You are not kidding about rock wonder. I was lucky to see them recently with the original line up for Raw Power. They literally blew the roof off of the venue. I highly recommend it if they come back to England. I also read a great book Open Up And Bleed, and it covers the work Iggy and Bowie did together.

rabbitkrishna said...

...Also, what do you think about Lou Reed's 'Transformers' and Brian Eno?

Unmann-Wittering said...

I like 'Transformer', but prefer 'Berlin' and infinitely prefer VU to both. Eno has the great talent of looking involved when great music is being made, but I don't rate him much as an artist - although I do quite like 'Warm Jets' and bits of 'Before & After Science'.