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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Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah: 30 Years Old Today

iggy

A&M Records, released 1st October 1986

Produced and mixed by David Bowie and David Richards

8/10

While David Bowie was turning in one of his finest live performances of the 1980s at Live Aid, his good friend Jim Osterberg AKA Iggy Pop was ensconced in LA, writing songs with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Bowie’s use of six Iggy lyrics on the Let’s Dance and Tonight albums had given Osterberg enough royalties to buy some much-needed thinking time after a disastrous run of early ’80s solo albums and the termination of his Arista record contract.

Iggy and Jones came up with nine new songs, three of which – ‘Fire Girl’, ‘Winners And Losers’ and ‘Cry For Love’ – would make it onto Blah-Blah-Blah (though they were clearly inferior to the Bowie/Iggy material). The latter lyric especially had opened up a new vulnerability in Iggy’s writing. He later said: ‘Just expressing that openness frightened me. I didn’t want to admit I was in need of basic affection.’ Yes, Iggy was now singing boy/girl songs – love songs.

Bowie hooked up with Iggy in late 1985 to hear some of the new stuff. He was impressed. He suggested they co-write some more uptempo material and also offered to produce, apparently telling Iggy: ‘I can make this as commercial as hell.’ They disappeared off to David’s holiday home in Mustique with their respective girlfriends, then undertook a lengthy skiing holiday in Gstaad, taking a four-track tape machine with them. Mountain Studios, owned by Queen and scene of the ‘Under Pressure’ recording, was booked for April 1986, and co-producer/tech guru David Richards came onboard for the sessions too.

iggy-and-bowie-1986

Bowie recruited a crack band for Blah-Blah-Blah – Kevin Armstrong played guitar (joined by Steve Jones on one track), fresh from being David’s musical director at Live Aid and doing sessions for Prefab Sprout, Propaganda and Alien Sex Fiend! Gifted Swiss multi-instrumentalist Erdil Kizilcay, who had worked on the Let’s Dance demos and also epic soundtrack single ‘When The Wind Blows’, played (excellent) bass and shared live drums with the Linn machine borrowed from Queen’s Roger Taylor. Bowie played most of the keyboards.

David was apparently workmanlike and professional in the studio, ticking off daily tasks on a notepad with lots of nervous energy. He was focused on helping his friend to the very best of his ability. ‘He’d be chucking down the coffee and fags, and it would be pretty neurotic and manic around him’, said Armstrong. But Bowie was also a typically shrewd people-watcher – he apparently wrote the first verse of ‘Shades’ after watching Iggy give his girlfriend Suchi a gift, turning it around to make the guy the grateful, humble recipient.

Blah-Blah-Blah features Iggy’s best singing on record. He has developed a gloriously dark croon and finally has the right material to showcase it. ‘Winners And Losers’ particularly shows off his improved vocal range. It’s also a very funny album. Bowie and Iggy clearly had a great laugh writing these songs, with some preposterous couplets thrown in, especially on ‘Isolation’ (‘I need some lovin’ like a body needs a soul/I need some lovin’ like a fastball needs control, here I am!’). ‘Baby It Can’t Fail’ features some of the best opening lines in 1980s rock: ‘You have loved me with energy/Backed up hard work and guts!’ Iggy’s committed delivery always prompts a smile.

There’s some excellent, genuinely uplifting material in the shape of ‘Shades’, ‘Isolation’ (with gorgeous Bowie backing vocals) and ‘Hideaway’. The title track is a sample-heavy curio in the style of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ‘Love Missile F1-11‘ (which Bowie later covered) with amusing ‘geeky’ vocal stylings by Iggy and some wilfully-gormless lyrics (‘Shimon Peres, whatcha gonna do?/I’m from Detroit’ etc etc).

‘Little Miss Emperor’ tellingly quotes Allen Ginsberg and features a classic Bowie piano flourish in the ‘Absolute Beginners’/’Life On Mars’ style. Blah-Blah-Blah even spawned Iggy’s first UK singles chart showing (number 10) with ‘Real Wild Child’, a cover of Australian rock’n’roller Johnny O’Keefe’s only hit. Promotional duties led to a very memorable appearance on the regional British kids’ TV show ‘Number 73’ wherein Iggy decided to simulate sexual relations with an oversized teddy bear:

Apparently Richard Branson heard an early pressing of Blah-Blah-Blah and phoned Iggy personally to invite him to Virgin Records. But he eventually went with A&M and delivered a reasonable hit for the company; the album went gold in Canada and made a decent dent in both the UK and US charts.

So is Blah-Blah-Blah the best Bowie-related album of the ’80s? It’s certainly up there. Older Iggy fans may have been shocked by the ‘poppy’ nature of some of the material, but there’s always an edge. The album was also arguably an influence on bands like The Mission, Sisters Of Mercy and Miss World with its monolithic drum programming, deep vocals and anthemic songcraft.

To a certain extent, Bowie tried to repeat the formula on his own decidedly patchy Never Let Me Down album, but the news was better for Iggy; he embarked on a ten-month world tour, laying off the booze and drugs for the entirety. For the band, however, it was a different story – apparently Kevin Armstrong and drummer Gavin Harrison were in a pretty terrible state by the time they got home to London in summer 1987.

But Bowie had done it again – he’d helped kickstart Iggy’s career for the fourth time and delivered probably the commercial apex of his solo work. Blah-Blah-Blah is definitely due a critical reappraisal.

Further reading: ‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka

 ‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps): 35 Years Old Today

bowieRCA Records, released 12th September 1980

10/10

‘Albums of the ’80s’ lists are all the rage these days. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) would easily be in my top five. It might even be in my top one. It’s a timeless, masterful work which, for me, can only ever be consumed in its totality. It’s also the collection that all subsequent Bowie albums have been measured against. I would put it over and above Low, Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory for its sheer consistency.

ScaryMonstersBackCover

Here’s my case for the defence, track by track:

1. It’s No Game (Part 1)

I’ve previously written about this being one of the great ’80s album intros. Vocally, Bowie channels John Lydon and Peter Hammill to deliver a New York/New Wave anti-fascist tirade that ranks among his great performances. Producer Tony Visconti ‘f***s with the fabric of time‘ to create a cavernous, Eventide-drenched mix and guitarist Robert Fripp delivers one of his most unhinged statements. Avant-rock heaven. Adapted from Bowie’s early demo ‘Tired Of My Life‘.

2. Up The Hill Backwards

A brilliant treatise on press intrusion and the wretchedness of celeb culture inspired by Bowie’s ‘dealings’ with the press during his failing marriage, with an ingenious central image of paparazza snapping away at their prey as they shuffle ‘up the hill backwards’. Endlessly catchy with a beautifully-realised unison vocal – the only track in the Bowie canon which doesn’t feature his solo singing.

3. Scary Monsters

Bowie revisits his finest Mockney accent to deliver a bleak, blanked-out, darkly funny tale of semi-stalking. There’s more Phil Spector-style brilliance from Visconti and another Fripp masterclass in balls-out guitar playing. The only minor criticism is that it possibly goes on for about a minute too long.

4. Ashes To Ashes

An instant classic with a very Bowie mix of child-like innocence and creeping malevolence as the hopelessly drug-addicted, world-weary Major Tom drifts off into the ether. Effortlessly superb songcraft with three or four memorable sections, boundary-pushing lyrics (‘Visions of Jap girls in synthesis’!) and a myriad of sweeping hooks.

5. Fashion

The lameness of the style wars is in Bowie’s sights this time as he almost mumbles the ironic verse lyrics over a tough New York disco/funk/rock groove. And there’s more barking mad Fripp soloing. Danceable, amusing, timeless. Originally titled ‘Jamaica’ in demo form.

6. Teenage Wildlife

Initially coming across as slightly lumpy and leaden, the track builds and builds in intensity to deliver a powerful message to Bowie’s ‘mythical younger brother’ about keeping a sense of perspective as one gets older. His patented ‘histrionic’ vocal style is superbly realised and drummer Dennis Davis holds it all together with aplomb. Originally titled ‘It Happens Every Day’ in demo form.

7. Scream Like A Baby

Spooky dystopian fable about a future society’s outlawing of homosexuality and other ‘deviant’ behaviour. Bowie’s ingenious stuttering provoked many a schoolyard titter and the weird vocal doppler effects are perfectly realised. Revamped from the Bowie-written/produced ‘I Am A Laser‘ originally recorded by Ava Cherry/The Astronettes.

=bowie

8. Kingdom Come

A superb cover of a track from Tom Verlaine’s debut album, Phil Spector is the obvious influence again with Davis’s booming, overdubbed tom fills and some anthemic, reverb-drenched backing vocals. Majestic, powerful, intriguing. Verlaine was apparently supposed to play guest guitar throughout the album but bowed out at the eleventh hour.

9. Because You’re Young

An ‘advice’ song to his son, Bowie offers the lessons he has learnt and looks back with great poignancy and not a little sarcasm on his carefree, youthful days. Peter Townshend strums along (apparently he arrived at the studio drunk and ready to party, but was stunned to find Visconti and Bowie sitting quietly at the recording desk like ‘two sober, little old men’!) and Bowie delivers a superb, kaleidoscopic lead/backing vocal combo.

10. It’s No Game (Part Two)

Carlos Alomar’s masterly rhythm guitar anchors this reprise, with Bowie doing his best Iggy croon and offering up images of world poverty, media saturation and dunderheaded political/cultural strategies. We hear the multitrack tape spool off its reels at the very end to close one of the great albums of the ’80s or any other decade.

A big nod to Nicholas Pegg.

No Brown M&Ms: Great Backstage Riders Of The ’80s

brown-milk-chocolate-m-m-1-poundYou know you’ve made it in the music biz when your gig rider raises eyebrows. The rider: a contract drawn up by the promoter stipulating a band’s concert requirements including ‘dressing room extras’ – food, drink and drugs to you and me. And, if the general tenor of the 1980s was extravagance and exuberance, many artists’ backstage demands were no different.

Here are five corkers:

5. Howard Jones

He had barely registered a hit and was only undertaking a modest college tour of the UK, but his backstage demands included ‘eight pounds of brown rice, six large aubergines, three pounds of courgettes, three green peppers, one head of garlic, three pounds of fresh tomatoes, twelve mixed yogurts and twelve bananas.’ He also requested that security not have ‘guns or dogs’, that the dressing room possess a ‘sweet-smelling ambience’ and that he must have ‘physical contact with the audience’. And you thought he was just a slightly vapid though ultimately harmless pop guy…

4. Van Halen

They famously often requested ‘large bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones taken out’ but their legendary 1984 Monsters Of Rock show at Castle Donington also required ‘eight litre bottles of Jack Daniels, eight litre bottles of brandy, eight litre bottles of vodka, 16 cases of domestic beer and a worldwide selection of cheeses’. Those boys knew how to partay. And were also rather fond of continental cheeses.

3. Iggy Pop

Late great musician/writer Ian Carr once described seeing Miles Davis come offstage and collapse into the arms of two specially-placed roadies as soon as he was out of the audience’s sight, but that’s nothing compared to The Iggster’s post-show routine. His rider for a 1983 UK tour stipulated ‘it is absolutely essential at the end of the show that there is a nurse in attendance with two cylinders of oxygen and masks’. I wonder if maybe Iggy wanted the ‘nurse’ for a bit more than ‘oxygen’…

2. David Thomas

The portly Pere Ubu frontman demanded meticulous sandwich preparation for a University of London show in the early ’80s: ‘A sandwich is defined as three pieces each of meat and/or cheese, one-inch thickness of lettuce, a half-inch thickness of onion, mayonnaise, two slices of three-quarters of an inch of tomato, all between two thick slices of wholemeal bread. NO BUTTER. AND I WILL REPEAT: NO BUTTER OR MARGARINE. PERIOD.’ It’s as if punk never happened.

1. Aerosmith

The Bad Boys From Boston didn’t leave anything drug-related to chance when putting together their backstage rider for a particularly blitzed tour in the early ’80s. The stand-out clause read: ‘No snow, no show’! Well, at least they were honest. Allegedly, of course…

A tip of the hat to Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits‘.