In Defence of David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’

The general critical consensus is that Tonight represents the nadir of David Bowie’s career, the only true stinker in his discography.

It’s been described as a quickie cash-in on the Let’s Dance formula, a concession to his new ‘Phil Collins’ audience and a charity album for Iggy Pop. Only three years after its release, Bowie himself was virtually disowning it.

But it’s a fascinating, occasionally superb collection by arguably the greatest album artist in rock history. David tries out a lot of styles and gets away with most of them. And it could have been a lot worse.

So I’m putting it squarely alongside Heathen, Black Tie White Noise, David Bowie, both the Tin Machine studio albums, hours… and several others in the prodigious second tier of DB albums.

In the summer of 1984, Uncle David was competing with the shiny British New Pop acts of the era – Duran, Wham!, Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Frankie, Bananarama – and to some extent beating them at their own game: Tonight went straight in at number one in the UK album chart.

But writer Nicholas Pegg made an interesting point about its sound in his superb ‘Complete David Bowie’: David was apparently more taken with the ‘straight’, poppier artists of the era than the edgier acts such as Bronski Beat, The Smiths, The Cure, Marc Almond etc etc.

Tonight took five weeks to record, two weeks longer than Let’s Dance. It was tracked in Quebec, Canada during May 1984, only a few months after the end of the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour.

Lenny Pickett’s Borneo Horns were retained from the live dates and there were some holdovers from the Let’s Dance sessions: Omar Hakim on drums, Carmine Rojas on bass, Sammy Figueroa on percussion.

But Nile Rodgers wasn’t asked back to co-produce (it’s oft forgotten that David was also a great producer). It was a decision that apparently baffled and disappointed Rodgers. Instead, ex-Heatwave bassist Derek Bramble was brought in on the strength of his work with Lynx, David Grant and Jaki Graham.

He probably hoped he would be the new Nile, but it wasn’t to be. He played some great bass, guitar and synths on the basic tracks but was given the boot only a few weeks into the project. Police/XTC/Peter Gabriel/Genesis man Hugh Padgham – initially only employed as the engineer – was asked to finish off the album as co-producer.

Hugh has since expressed dismay at the choice of songs, saying that a few new Iggy/Bowie compositions were left unfinished (perhaps later used for Blah-Blah-Blah) because Bowie ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to finish them.

It’s hard to disagree – if ‘God Only Knows’, the title track and ‘I Keep Forgettin’ had been replaced by some new tunes, Tonight could have been a corker.

But it ain’t bad. And the critics all pretty much loved it at the time. It may have been a huge shock if you were brought up on Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, but I came in around Scary Monsters. It seemed a natural progression.

Mick Haggerty’s sleeve design splits opinion too – it’s either a witty Gilbert & George pastiche or a garish bit of mid-’80s tastelessness. Judge for yourself. Oh, and get the 1990 Rykodisc version of Tonight if you can find it rather than the 1999 EMI remaster.

Here’s a quick track-by-track rundown.

1. ‘Loving The Alien’

You can read my full analysis of the song here.

2. ‘Don’t Look Down’

Interesting reggaefied cover of a track from Iggy’s album New Values. Featuring a sublime David vocal, some excellent Bramble bass and a gorgeous horn/synth arrangement embedded in the mix, reminiscent of Gil Evans’ soundworld. Play loud.

3. ‘God Only Knows’

A great David vocal though very curious MOR arrangement of this Brian Wilson composition. Cavernous drums, soaring strings and acoustic guitar high in the mix. Fascinating though only really defensible if viewed as a kind of Scott Walker homage.

4. ‘Tonight’

Shorn of the shock heroin-overdose intro heard on the original from Iggy’s Lust For Life album. But it’s hard to defend this rushed, underwhelming filler which flopped as Bowie’s 1984 Christmas single. Even Omar sounds out-of-sorts on this. But let’s cut them some slack – David helped save Tina’s career. According to her, David dragged the bigwigs of Capitol Records out to see her perform live in New York against their wishes, prompting them to re-sign her.

5. ‘Neighbourhood Threat’

This perky techno-rocker, also originally from Lust For Life, features a fine vocal from David in ‘cyborg’ mode and brilliant drumming from Omar. It works very well but sounds unlike anything else on Tonight. Weirdly, Bowie dismissed it in 1987, saying ‘it wasn’t the right band to do that song. It sounded so tight and compromised.’

6. ‘Blue Jean’

A brief, harmless bit of ‘sexist rock’n’roll’ in Bowie’s words, a portrait of a woman he fancied in a magazine ad. Padgham works his magic on Omar’s drums, there’s some window-shaking sax from Lenny Pickett and Bowie borrows Iggy’s baritone. The first single from the album, it reached UK #6 and US #8 and featured a watchable but very silly long-form video directed by Julien Temple, shown in UK cinemas as support feature to ‘A Company Of Wolves’.

7. ‘Tumble And Twirl’

Another album highlight, co-written by David and Iggy, it’s an effective slice of tropical swing/funk with Mark King’s (uncredited) bass in Stanley Clarke mode, Guy St Onge’s cheery marimba, some sparkling 12-string guitar from Alomar and funny ‘muzak’ bridge with soothing backing vocals. Also some amusing lyrics inspired by Iggy and David’s vacation in Java.

8. ‘I Keep Forgettin’’

The album’s low point, where its ‘happy’, summery, positive feel comes truly unstuck. Electric drums fizz unpleasantly, David hams it up to little effect and the arrangements are more Pebble Mill than Muscle Shoals.

9. ‘Dancing With The Big Boys’

Another Iggy/Bowie co-write, the album closes with a tasty piece of one-chord, horn-based techno-rock flash. A funny lyric that seems to be about American military might: ‘Your family is a football team’. Iggy is very audible on vocals. Arthur Baker also put together an ear-bleeding 12” remix which is worth a listen.

Further reading: ‘Strange Fascination’ by David Buckley

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka


8 thoughts on “In Defence of David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’

  1. I don’t agree with anyone, Bowie included, when the work he did from 1983 through 1985 is criticised. You can only beat or compete with what is put in front of you. And in this period, that was the likes of Duran Duran et al. He looked good, was fit, and dressed well, sang brilliantly and made interesting videos, sometimes in exotic locations. Just like, now let’s see…..many of the leading bands of the day! He knew what he was doing, so it was a conscious effort to produce music and videos that fitted the time. The ability to change and to lead were central to who he was.

    Tonight should not be dismissed by anyone and Loving the Alien is a classic.

    Darren C

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I listened to this again only the other day and I still rather like it, I have the sleeve art on the wall in a frame, so that pretty much says what I think of it. The difficulty with Bowie is that he is always compared to Bowie but as Darren Cooper says, you have to look at what else was going on in music at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I never understood the hate for Tonight. The only thing I don’t like about it is the Beach Boys cover but other than that it’s one of the best albums of 1984 in my book. I was very surprised in the early days of the internet when I read all the trash talking about this album when I spent my childhood and early teenage years listening to it. It was my first Bowie album, I was 5 years old and my mother played it often. It’s a very special thing for me. I’ve spent so much time defending it in the Bowie fandom it’s crazy. Thank you so much for this. I recommend the album to anyone who loves 80s pop music. It’s great.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This album has aged well. The 1999 and 2018 remasters sound glorious. The sound is muscular and organic, and by 1984, when drum-machines and keyboards were already ruling the land (not always tastefully), this album sounded like a small, yet important, nod to traditional rock played live in the studio by accomplished musicians.
    I also think the salsa and latin jazz experiments were successful. Blue Jean, Don’t Look Down (a cover, I know), Dancing with the Big Boys and Tumble and Twirl are better than most of the filler of Let’s Dance, and Loving the Alien is an absolute classic. My only complaints are the cover of God Only Knows (B-side material at best) and Tina’s vocals being wrongly mixed!! (oh, shame!).
    This album is better seen as a fun, harmless epilogue to the Serious Moonlight tour. I think it was hated in retrospect because it was seen as the first step towards the mediocrity that resulted in NLMD/GS tour.
    3 solid stars out of 5.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good call, a ‘live band’ take on what was going on at the time. How easy it would have been for David to hook up with some smart-alec techno whizkid (remind you of anyone?!) and make a kind of ‘Low Part 2’ in ’84/’85. I think the quality of the musicianship is what keeps Tonight sounding very fresh, though I’m sure Bowie would hate that assessment…

      Liked by 1 person

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