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

Advertisements

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.