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, 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 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 on the UK album chart on its release. But writer Nicholas Pegg made an interesting point about its sound in his ‘Complete David Bowie’: David was apparently more taken with the ‘straight’, poppier artists of the era than 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 which 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’

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 which came 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. 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 Bramble’s 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

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Story Of A Song: David Bowie’s ‘Loving The Alien’

The lead-off track and third single (UK #19 in May 1985, not released in the US) from 1984’s Tonight album, ‘Loving The Alien’ was arguably Bowie’s most committed piece of writing since Scary Monsters‘ ‘Teenage Wildlife’ four years earlier. Recorded at Quebec’s Le Studio in May 1984, the song was musically rich with a striking set of lyrics and a superb, soaring vocal performance.

Like a good Kubrick movie, it distills down weeks of research to just the crucial components. Bowie was apparently doing a lot of reading about Christianity and the Catholic Church, influenced particularly by Donovan Joyce’s notorious ‘The Jesus Scroll’ which posited that Jesus died in Masada at the age of 80 and wrote a scroll that is currently in Russian hands.

The wider implications of this led Bowie into further thoughts on organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. He told writer Charles Shaar Murray: ‘It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us. My father encouraged me to become interested in other religions. It’s extraordinary considering all the mistranslations in the Bible that our lives are being navigated by this misinformation, and that so many people have died because of it. That’s how the song started out: for some reason, I was very angry…’

Using the bloodshed of The Crusades as its central image, the lyric uses various effective ploys, one of which is an almost Pinteresque juxtaposition of the banal and portentous. While Bowie blithely stated ‘It’s just a song of images’ in the above interview, each line is ripe for analysis.

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re travelling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror-blind

But if you pray
All your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers, they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

You pray til the break of dawn
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

Bananarama it ain’t. Both lyrically and musically, the song stands out a mile on Tonight. But unfortunately these days it’s a difficult listen – despite Bowie’s fantastic vocal, it’s let down by an immense production with huge, gated drums (Omar Hakim’s entrée into rock drumming that arguably got him the gigs with Dire Straits and Sting), muddy bass, an overwrought Arif Mardin string arrangement and ponderous Carlos Alomar guitar solo. More successful are Guy St Onge’s marimba and the sampled Bowie vocals at the top (apparently more influenced by Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein On The Beach‘ than Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ – the kind of detail that was very important to Bowie!).

Regular collaborator David Mallet directed the video, storyboarded – as usual – by Bowie. Though seemingly a fairly disparate series of arresting images, the clip was fairly successful as a surreal assault on religion’s materialistic symbols and commodification of women. It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his ‘Blackstar’ video. Bowie’s cheery grin that accompanies the ‘Opening telegrams/Whoa-oh’ line is a thrillingly weird moment.

Bowie performed ‘Loving The Alien’ throughout the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. Then, in 2002, DJ Scumfrog remixed the track to create a single called ‘The Scumfrog vs Bowie’, a top 10 hit in the UK Dance Chart. A year later Bowie himself resurrected the song, cooking up a stripped-down version in duet with guitarist Gerry Leonard. They dropped the key from E-minor down to C-minor and dispensed with many of the original’s passing chords, arguably dissolving some of its power, but it’s certainly a unique reading.

According to Bowie, the best version of ‘Loving The Alien’ is his original home demo of the song, yet to see the light of day. Let’s hope we get to hear it sometime.

 

 

Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp. Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.

No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Yes, yes, this might be a hard sell for some, though one wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight. He hit the ground running with the superb ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good‘ single, but some would never forgive him for the annoyingly-jaunty ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (though it was originally a downbeat, acoustic protest song in demo form).

nik

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious that Nik was a serious muso (what a horrible ‘80s word). This very talented and rather underrated artist had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, really didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’.

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who went on to produce Rush’s Power Windows.

The Riddle features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads (dare one posit a Gil Evans influence?).

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads, but the silly/funny spoken-word bit and weird prog sections approach the It Bites sound.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich and lyrically well-intentioned if naive. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 (famously nearly taking an embarrassing tumble, see below) but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – possibly a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Ian Faith. Watch this space for Nik’s next move.

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker’s licks. Jazz people loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop people loved him because he could play brilliantly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes. He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl (though it has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…).

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s pop albums like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G. And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band would seem to be diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

thomas dolbyParlophone Odeon Records, released 18th February 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989?

9/10

As a burgeoning ten-year-old pop fan, I was a bit young to be aware of Thomas Morgan Robertson’s famous ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ single and video. But when I went back and properly investigated that period of his career, it seemed Dolby’s ‘techno boffin’ image had blinded people (sorry) to his more subtle, slow-burning and – frankly – better songs such as ‘Airwaves’, ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’ and ‘Weightless’, buried in his fine 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb Wright stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me (yep, we were killing music…) and I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought The Flat Earth several times on various formats.

thomas dolby

Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image on The Flat Earth and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection. He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting. My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album. Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ which features some great (and much imitated) fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ is crying out for a decent cover version (or any cover version…). Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself‘ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording. And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Flat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’). But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a more-than-respectable number 14 in the album chart. But, for some, he will always be too clever for his own good, a gimmick-peddler rather than an artist of substance. I beg to differ. He was all the rage in the States though; The Flat Earth peaked at number 35 and he made a gloriously-naff appearance with Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock at the 1985 Grammy Awards:

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout‘s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell‘s underrated Dog Eat Dog. He relocated to LA, married ex-Dynasty actress Kathleen Beller and moved into the former house of Blade Runner DoP Jordan Cronenweth ‘in the hills above old Hollywood’.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth. Watch this space…