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 majestic 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.

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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.

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Sondheim Meets Springsteen: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis

prefabKitchenware/CBS Records, released 14th March 1988

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1988

9/10

Prefab go Pop. There are big-name guest spots (Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend), gospel choirs, an orchestra and Deacon Blue’s producer. The lengthy recording period and increased budget certainly paid off; synths and strings glisten, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sound like they’re singing in the room with you and one can hear every nuance of Neil Conti’s tasty drumming.

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby could only find the time to oversee four out of the ten tracks; of these, only ‘Knock On Wood’ sounds like trademark TD. Apparently, once McAloon learned that Dolby would be unavailable for much of the recording, he flirted with the idea of using a different producer for each song. The notion was quickly abandoned but it reinforced the idea that this would be Paddy’s most collaborative project so far.

At the time of its release, Paddy publicly declared that he hated the sound of records being made in the late ’80s and in response seems to have looked for songwriting inspiration from pre-rock’n’roll forms – Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter, Broadway musicals (he also later said that he was slightly obsessed by Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album around this time).

Paddy had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano. Consequently, his melodies are daring and original, but there’s arguably a fair degree of musical ‘schmaltz’ in the arrangements too, particularly on ‘Hey Manhattan’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, but it’s Stephen Sondheim schmaltz rather than Disney schmaltz. The wonderful ‘Nightingales’ sounds like the score from some kind of futuristic Broadway musical.

prefab stevieCBS obviously had high hopes for the album and their faith was paid off in the shape of a hit single, ‘King of Rock & Roll’, and one near-hit, ‘Cars And Girls’, though one wonders how McAloon views those now – I’ll wager with a degree of sheepishness. But I remember being extremely excited to see the video for ‘Cars And Girls’ popping up on ‘The Chart Show’.

Listening back after all this time, it’s From Langley‘s minor, more understated tracks that really stand the test of time. ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘Enchanted’ could have come from Steve McQueen. The former features a simple, unusually direct lyric from Paddy over a surreal, subtle pot-pourri of percussion and synth effects from Dolby. One wonders what McAloon’s demo sounded like. It’s slight and simple but no worse for that.

‘Nancy’ is gorgeous, a ‘Brief Encounter’esque tale of unrequited romance in the workplace, possibly inspired by McAloon’s relationship with his fellow Sprout (it doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine the word ‘Wendy’ in place of ‘Nancy’). ‘I Remember That’ sees McAloon in full-on crooner mode, emoting over MOR strings and weirdly-stilted gospel backing vocals. Paddy pokes fun at Springsteen’s obsessions on ‘Cars And Girls’, but then hilariously attempts a four-on-the-floor, Springsteenish rocker ‘The Golden Calf’ which doesn’t quite come off.

It’s hard to overstate the weirdness of the closing ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, a collision of slick Steely Dan drums, wonky Farfisa organ, distinctly-unfunky vocals from the Andrae Crouch singers and some amusing cocktail guitar from McAloon. It unnerves in a way I’m sure was intended, coming over like a Ken Loach tale told in Broadway-musical style. For better or worse, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the Prefab output.

So, an important, big-selling album for Prefab (reaching number 5 in the UK album charts) and another hugely impressive chunk of songwriting from McAloon. He was in a bullish mood, talking to the media about chart placings and competing with Michael Jackson and Prince, and his purple patch led to an even more cogent and powerful piece of work in the extraordinary Jordan The Comeback.