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When Major Tom Went Post-Punk: David Bowie’s Scary Monsters

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There’s a few clichés in rock journalism: that Bob Dylan’s leftovers are better than most artist’s bests, that the Grateful Dead’s Dark Star is a long song and, biggest of all, that David Bowie is the chameleon of rock, because he’s shifted and changed so much over the years.

David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)

In a sense, it’s true: Bowie has refined his looks over the years. If one really feels the need, they can break his career up into several, bite-sized digestible chunks: his Ziggy Stardust period, his Tin Machine period, his mainstream rock crooner period, not to mention a dozen or so more. But the problem with that is how marginalizing it is to his music, which when he was really good, has constantly evolving and changing throughout his most creative period.

After all, he wasn’t always revered in rock circles. After playing in various bands throughout the mid 1960s, Bowie’s solo career started with him trying to hack it in folk circles before he capitalized on the space race with Space Oddity, the iconic song about getting lost in space (even if it’s full of trite rhymes like “Ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on”). That song, the best track off his second album, was a hit for Bowie, but what’s often overlooked is what happened next: nothing else from his second album charted, and neither did anything from the next one, either.

It wasn’t really until 1970’s Hunky Dory that his sound started to gel, especially on the hooky pop gem Changes and the crunchy-guitar driven Queen Bitch. He’d continue to refine this sound on his commercial breakthrough Ziggy Stardust and never really left it, even as he flirted with soul, progressive rock and ambient music: all throughout this decade, his albums were good for at least one really good guitar-driven rocker, even the often-overlooked Pin Ups.

So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his creative song swan, the album that capped his most productive period, is dominated by snarling guitars. And make no mistake: Scary Monsters is a great guitar album, with some of the best playing to come out of the late 70s.

Stylistically, Scary Monsters is something of Bowie’s post-punk record. Put it’s raging guitars, screamed lyrics and Tom Verlaine cover right next to a Mission of Burma album and nobody’s really going to bat an eye. It’s got a harder sound than anything Bowie had done in years. The experimentation of his Berlin trilogy – the exotic instruments, slick instrumental tracks, and deconstructed song structures – has been left behind.

This isn’t to say it’s free from tricks. Right from the get-go, it’s got everything from the sound of a needle dropping to frantic Japanese lyrics to Bowie screaming “SHUT UP!” as both Carlos Alomar and Robert Fripp’s guitars careen out of control. And we’re not even five minutes in!

Indeed that opening track sets the tone for this record: it’s Bowie looking back on his career, discarding what he’s finished with and moving on to new things. “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading,” sings Bowie. Is that a shot at a music press who insisted his best years were behind him? Or is it a sly reference to his Thin White Duke era?

Throughout this record, there’s a feeling of paranoia and anxiety. It goes from talk of suicide (“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers”) to madness  (“When I looked in her eyes, they were blue but nobody home”) to alienation (“I really can’t remember last time I saw the light of day”). Even a cover of Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come adds to this mood: “Sun keeps beating down on me, wall’s a mile high / Up in the tower they’re watching me, hoping I’m gonna die.” Without a doubt, this is Bowie’s darkest album.

The most memorable track here, and the one that everybody’s familiar with, is his kiss-off to his most famous character: Major Tom. In Ashes to Ashes, Bowie asks listeners if they “remember that guy from space” and spills details about himself, about drug abuse and trying to stay clean. For a guy often seen as hiding behind characters, it’s a startlingly direct song: more than anything else on the album, this is a song about how fucked Bowie had become. It’s easy to forget, but before decamping to Berlin, Bowie had developed both serious cocaine and alcohol addictions.

If Ashes to Ashes was his dismissal of a decade of problems, his re-recording of Space Oddity was the capstone to a decade of success. A track that didn’t make the album proper – it wound up as a B-Side and a bonus track on the Rykodisc reissue – his revisiting of his first hit is more fully fleshed out than the original. It’s more confidently delivered, the work of someone who knows exactly what he can do and how to get it done, and is utterly lacking in the little flourishes that distinguish the original.

The album ends on another version of the title track, It’s No Game. But where the opener is frantic, urgent and driving, the closing track is restrained. The music’s kept in check, the Japanese lyrics translated to English. It’s as if Bowie’s exhausted, his statement made.

Taken as a whole, Scary Monsters can be a little much. But while it’s edgiest album, it’s also one of Bowie’s most powerful: this is him at full power, looking back at a decade’s worth of work, ten of the most creative, productive and successful years in rock. Bowie took a break after this album, waiting three years to release Let’s Dance, and he’s yet to recover the momentum he had here (another rock cliché: every new Bowie album for the past two decades has been his best since Scary Monsters).

But that’s kind of missing the point, too. I wrote above about how Bowie’s career has been divided into sections and chunks. Sure, he changed characters, but the only time he actually stopped something was here. There’s only two Bowie eras: the one that came before Scary Monsters and the one that happened after it.

Originally published at Flashfact.org during July 2012

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Written by M.

April 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. I love David Bowie.

    Jana

    April 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm


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