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 ten. 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.

=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.

Dreams By The Sea: Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush

kate bushI’m certainly not alone in finding the seaside very evocative of childhood memories and, in turn, musical revelations gone by.

Walking on Slapton Sands in Devon recently, I was taken back to family holidays at St Margaret’s Bay, a little village atop the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the English Channel.

Armed with my Walkman, I’d take off towards the creepy, deserted air-raid shelters, where our boys defended their island from attack, then scramble up the steep chalk track to enjoy the huge expanse of sea in all directions and the French coast in the distance.

The two tracks most redolent of that time – and two which somehow seem to capture something about the English fascination with all things nautical – are Kate Bush’s ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ and Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp’s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (not strictly an ’80s track, being recorded in 1978, but originally appearing on the ‘definitive’ 1985 reissue of Fripp’s Exposure album). They are almost indistinguishable to me and will forever be connected to that coastline and the seaside in general.

Gabriel’s sea song was originally recorded for his 1976 debut album in a bombastic, overblown style, very characteristic of its producer Bob Ezrin. But in 1978, during the Robert Fripp-produced sessions for the second album, he laid down a much gentler, far superior piano/vocal version, to which Fripp later added Frippertronics and a spoken-word segment from his spiritual guide and Gurdjieff-follower JG Bennett (who turned up on David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth too).

kate bush peter gabriel

Bennett’s words set up the themes of the song; Gabriel’s lyric seems to point towards the inhabitants of an island (England?) joining forces (telepathically?) to save themselves from a pending (apocalyptic?) tsunami. In doing so, the islanders taken on mystical, extra-sensory powers.

There are shades of the Genesis track ‘Supper’s Ready’, with its epic tale of good versus evil, and also elements of the research into ESP that Gabriel was apparently doing at the time. For some reason, the lyric also always reminds me of John Carpenter’s movie ‘The Fog’. Something to do with bad things coming out of the sea, I guess. Anyway, it all adds up to make a very affecting piece (below paired up with Fripp’s ‘Water Music’ too).

Bush’s version of the sea song kicks off the extraordinary Ninth Wave suite that takes up the entire second side of her classic 1985 album Hounds Of Love. We are thrust unceremoniously into a psychic association with a female protagonist who finds herself in the middle of the sea after a shipwreck. Echoes of past/present obsessions, loves and losses float to the surface of her mind (including the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast), ostensibly to keep her awake so that she doesn’t drown.

The conclusion of the song cycle suggests that she’s now at peace and in a far more positive state of mind, either in death or safe at shore. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music (and in the same key as ‘Here Comes The Flood’), with Bush truly painting pictures with sound.

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: I Advance Masked/Bewitched

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. 

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for these two giants to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track (which prompted one of the worst videos of the decade) and evocative ‘Hardy Country’, where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing fairly amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way). The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. It’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s. Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. It features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible bass playing from Chris Childs and ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four Sara Lee, pristine mastering and more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures. Fripp also plays one of the most extreme solos of his career while Sara Lee (or is it Chris Childs?) impresses with high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel‘ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ cascading harmonics.

On these two albums (not available on streaming platforms at the time of writing), Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows.

But this is in general an intriguing and somewhat overlooked collaboration calling to mind an era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music – and ‘rock’ was allowed to be intelligent.

Steve Khan talks about his classic 1983 album ‘Casa Loco’

steve khanDrummers and bassists: this album’s for you. And it’s for guitarists/percussionists/fans of great music too.

Put simply, Steve Khan’s hard-to-track-down Casa Loco has enthralled me and a whole generation of jazz and jazz/rock aficionados for over 30 years. The compositions and performances of guitarist/leader Khan, bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan and ex-Weather Report percussionist/vocalist Manolo Badrena are unique and unforgettable.

The album is also totally unclassifiable – a ‘fusion’ band playing a blazing surf-rock cover tune (‘Penetration’)? An unhinged Puerto Rican percussionist singing in quasi-Spanish but sounding remarkably like Sting? Casa Loco is full of such beautiful and unpredictable juxtapositions. And it’s also blessed with Jean-Michel Folon’s eye-catching cover art.

I had previously bought Steve’s 1981 album Eyewitness just on the strength of the Folon cover but was immediately blown away by the all-time-great Jordan/Jackson rhythm section, Khan’s enigmatic, inimitable voicings and Badrena’s inspired percussives. But Casa Loco, the 1983 follow-up, cranked everything up a notch.

Steve Khan, the son of Sinatra/Dean Martin/Doris Day lyricist Sammy Cahn, is one of the most respected guitarists of the ‘fusion’ era. He played on not one but four of the great Steely Dan tunes (‘Peg’, ‘Babylon Sisters’, ‘Gaucho’, ‘Glamour Profession’), contributing to the latter one of the finest guitar solos in the band’s oeuvre, though he has mixed views on the painstaking recording process that led to those landmark pieces.

Check out his great interview with Leo Sidran for more on this and also a good overview of his career in general. But Steve is also one of jazz and fusion’s most erudite and honest figures, revealing (almost) all on his excellent website. He knows where the bodies are buried…

Steve, who recently released a well-received solo album Subtext, spoke with great candour and humour to movingtheriver.com from his New York City base.

Doug Epstein

Doug Epstein

MP: Casa Loco still sounds fantastic over 30 years on – how important was engineer Doug Epstein in the recording process?

SK: On countless levels, Doug Epstein was huge in all of this. At that time, he was the only person, on the technical side of things, who had participated in every single recording of mine. I owe him so much. He was always full of enthusiasm and energy for whatever it might have been that I was doing, and he encouraged me to do more. Knowing the financial difficulties we were having, he was the first one to offer to try to get the executives at Mediasound Studios to give us a break on the recording costs, and everyone there was wonderful to us. Nothing, of course, was ever free, but they tried their best to help. At the recording end of things, Doug was absolutely fearless. I think that most of the problematic issues came from Steve Jordan’s constantly changing, per tune, hybrid kit of drums: a combination of natural drums and Simmons electronic drums. Then there was Manolo’s amazing percussion set-up which included all his natural and supernatural sounds, plus the electronics emanating from the Syn-cussion that he was using back then. To accommodate all of that on 24-tracks, with one track taken for SMPTE code and another one blank just because of the risk, there were really only 22 tracks available. In the end, Doug had to know where each tune was headed in terms of possible overdubs, vocals, etc. He did all of that. But, it has to be noted, that Steve Jordan – where our mixing process was concerned – was hovering over Doug’s shoulder the entire time, and in many ways Steve is totally responsible for being the protector of Anthony’s bass sound and playing, and for his own drums, of course. Steve’s contributions in this regard were indispensable to the overall sound that you have come to know. Steve was present for the mixes on all three of our recordings together. He had a vision and a sound in mind, and he pushed hard for that. In great part, that’s why he has become an excellent producer himself – he has a great ear for these things.

Steve Jordan Photo by Deborah Feingold

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

There’s a big Police influence on Casa Loco. Who brought that into the band?

I would say that Steve Jordan brought that into the band. I don’t think Anthony had ever heard anything by The Police. The fact that Manolo sounds a bit like Sting at times is just a cosmic accident. It’s not intentional at all. And, of course, 90% of the time Manolo is either singing in Spanish or vocalese, or his own form of gibberish! Recently, the great French jazz journalist Frêdèric Goaty wrote a piece for MUZIQ Magazine about his perceptions of the influence of The Police in contemporary music, and he cited all three of our albums as examples.

Regarding Steve Jordan’s famous drum solo on the title track – how the hell did you and Anthony stay in time when he really starts going out?!

Speaking for myself, it wasn’t easy. Anthony and Steve had a way of stretching the rhythmic boundaries in ways that would often confuse me, and I would get turned around. It was always an exercise in feel and concentration. That day, in the studio, my concentration was at its highest level, because there was no way that I was going to screw something up and ruin Steve Jordan’s incredible drum solo! No f***ing way! It remains one of the great moments on any recording of mine. I think that the complexities of that solo section, which is really a simple Latin tumbao, are demonstrated by the fact that Modern Drummer magazine published a transcription of the drum solo, but with the tumbao completely turned around and written out incorrectly! So, even an educated musician can get screwed-up with that one. I remember once when we were playing at Seventh Avenue South here in New York City, Bob Mintzer, one of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever known, came up to me and said, ‘What the f*** are you guys doing? I can’t ever find one!’ If Bob Mintzer felt that way, I guess there isn’t a much higher compliment. But it was never our intention to play anything that was purposely confusing to anyone.

The structure of ‘Some Sharks’ is incredibly intricate with many repeat signs and tags – were all the guys reading charts while recording this?

At that time, I don’t believe there were any formal charts to any of the tunes. We rehearsed hard and long, and we were prepared. The first lead sheets were done afterwards, I believe. I did them for copyright purposes, nothing more. I remember, when doing that, how astonishing it was to see, on paper, the intricacy of the music that we had created by improvising, and just jamming together pieces of music. It’s possible that I had written out ‘Uncle Roy’ beforehand, but maybe not. It’s hard to remember now. My facualties are not what they once were! But, when I listen to what Steve Jordan contributed to that tune with his unique concepts of beat displacement, it’s remarkable, and when you add in Anthony’s perspective, it makes perfect sense as to why the recordings that we made together between 1981-1983 have influenced bassists and drummers all over the world. Anthony and Steve deserve all of that adoration and more.

‘The Suitcase’ hints at a Discipline-era King Crimson influence – is that accurate?

I have never paid any attention to King Crimson’s music at any time. However, thanks to MTV, I did get to hear ‘Elephant Talk’ and I absolutely loved that tune. I love Adrian Belew and only wish that I could create 5% of the sonic textures that he creates. He is totally unique and brilliant. I admire him a lot.

Why is (great British drummer) Steve Ferrone thanked in the album credits?

To tell you the truth, I have no idea! In those days, we thanked people who stopped by the studio while we were recording, just for their good vibes. It’s also possible that Steve Ferrone lent something, a piece of gear, to Steve Jordan. I just can’t remember. We thanked people who didn’t even exist. For example, at one of our sleep-deprived rehearsals, Steve Jordan was trying to say the name Gore Vidal, and somehow it came out as Gordie Voll, and once he said that, I was rolling on the floor laughing – it was just so silly and funny. So Gordie ended up in the ‘special thanks’ section. I thanked a CNN newswoman, Marcia Ladendorff, who I had a crush on. I thanked an actress that I had a crush on too, Roberta Leighton. I thanked Flippy Hussein, who is not a real person – just a goofy name that the great vibraphonist David Friedman made up one day years before. But most of the names mentioned were people who in some way, shape or form contributed something positive, even if only via their encouragement to the music and the effort to keep going forward.

Jaco

Jaco

Is there anything else printable you can tell us about Steve Jordan’s crazy house of music (the Casa Loco or ‘crazy house’ of the album title – Ed.) ?

In all honesty, no! Unless someone wants to burn all their bridges behind them, there is a sacred trust that exists between musicians, especially those who are bandmates, or even just work on a special project together. You don’t talk ‘out of school’ about things that you see and hear, sometimes not even after a person has passed away. Those kinds of stories can be hurtful, and even end-up hurting relatives or loved ones. In those days, each of us was going through something difficult in our personal lives, and our behaviour reflected that. Trying to just get together to rehearse for a few hours a couple of days per week was never easy, but we managed. And Steve Jordan’s loft, his home, was a huge part of that. I can only say that all kinds of hysterical shit used to happen there, including people trying to stop by to hang out with us while we were trying to work. Jaco Pastorius was one of them. He used to phone Jordan all the time and beg us to let him come by. We reached a point where we would never answer the phone and never allow anyone in except for the delivery guy who was bringing by Steve Jordan’s breakfast – at 2pm in the afternoon! Does that give you an idea?! No matter what transpired those days were some of the most fun and productive days of my creative life. I have rehearsal cassettes from those times – I used to listen to them every so often – and the constant laughter on those tapes about absolutely nothing is priceless. It was just so damn funny most of the time and exasperating too, at least for me!

Anthony Jackson photo by David Tan

Anthony Jackson
photo by David Tan

I was astonished to read that the whole album was recorded in just TWO days, quite amazing when you consider the time spent on other albums of the era (Hello Donald and Walter…). How do you explain that? Was it just a case of getting the goods in the shortest possible time with the meter running?

Well, though it is true that the serious content of Casa Loco was recorded during May 21st-22nd 1983 at Mediasound, I didn’t realize that we were going to need a third day just for Manolo Badrena! I actually thought that we could finish a performance of a piece and then he would simply, right then and there, overdub his vocals. I’m speaking about tunes like the title track, ‘Some Sharks’ and ‘The Suitcase’. But what happened really threw me for a loop, because I did not want to spend the money, other than for mixing, to return to the studio just for Manolo. Thinking this way demonstrated my lack of experience and understanding that recording vocals, by anyone, requires a different kind of care and patience. It is something that you have to plan for. I was too worried about spending money for an extra day in the studio! The great lesson in this is always the same: if you begin by being cheap, you will pay for it later! There is, of course, a most wonderful expression for this very thought in Spanish: ‘Lo barato sale caro!’ If you are unwilling to spend money, you will end-up with a lousy or sub-standard sounding recording, and this is something that I never want to be a part of, because you have to live with the results forever. So as the recording unfolded, during ‘Casa Loco’, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Some Sharks’, Manolo actually just sat there and didn’t play a damn thing while Anthony, Steve and I were performing those tunes. At the time, he just motioned wildly to me that he could not hear himself in the headphones. Mediasound had one of the early systems whereby each musician could make his own headphone mix. Each time this happened, we all tried to work harder with Doug to help Manolo get what he wanted and needed. It was so frustrating to have him there and not have him with us making that music. So, in the end, I had to spend the time and money overdubbing him on those tunes. I was furious about this! In sharp contrast to that, if you just listen to what Manolo contributes to ‘Uncle Roy’ – there is not a sound there that was not performed completely live. It is simply brilliant – no one else could have created textures like that. He’s one of the most unique musicians on this earth but not easy to work with. Years later, I learned that it really wasn’t the damn headphones at all; he had been upset that he wasn’t getting paid for the sessions, as if I was pulling a ‘fast one’ on him and secretly hoarding money somewhere. This is, of course, the furthest thing from the truth. We had a number of band meetings during our rehearsals and I clearly explained to everyone that I was paying for the album out of my own pocket, and that after I had recouped my investment in full, if that ever happened, whatever money there was to be had, we would all split it equally four ways. Period! In other words, we were all going to get rich together, or stay exactly as we were, but together. It was certainly my impression that Manolo understood that. Anthony and Steve were on board, as they always were, and I will never ever forget their selflessness when it came to this music. I love them both and I’m deeply indebted to them, forever, no matter what else has happened.

steve khan

According to your website, you paid for recording costs entirely out of your own pocket – have you managed to recoup some of this over the years? I hope so…

We’ve addressed a portion of this during my answers to some of the other questions. But, the answer is: No! Absolutely not! I believe that, back then, my total investment in making Casa Loco was $17,500. That might not sound like much in 2015, but it felt like a fortune to me, having to go into my personal savings to do this. But that’s how much it meant to me. It was the second time that I had done that, Evidence (1980) being the first. And, it would not be the last; I have done this seven more times since! In the end, I was given advances from Trio Records (Japan) and eventually from Antilles Records (USA) that totalled $11,000, and that’s all that I have ever seen come back to me from this recording. In short, as it has been with all of my self-financed recordings, I will never ever again see that money come back to me. Do I regret it? Of course not. I am, and will always be, exceptionally proud of those recordings because everyone who participated gave something of themselves to do it. I don’t forget those people, those players! Never!

Thank you, Steve.