25 September 2010

David Bowie: Retrospective on "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)"

Any artistic creation, whether a song or a poem or a book, goes from good to great when it transcends its own medium, exists beyond its intentions, and survives the test time to touch one generation after another. This could and should be said about the music of David Bowie (born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, UK, 8 January 1947). As the three-hundredth post dawned upon me, I knew that this one had to be special to me; it did not take me long to admonish myself when I realized I had yet to dedicate a post to Bowie. And when I listened through his entire catalogue once again, again it was “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (12 September 1980) that reached out to me more so than any other album. More so than any other album ever recorded, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” was able to juggle the inaccessible with accessibility, the unspoken with the recorded, and the surreal world of fantasy with the realities of the world that created it. In short, it is a unique gem in musical history that should be admired.

The release of this album was a journey of years, which started in 1967 with the release of his eponymous debut; essentially, the album is a pop album within the music hall tradition. But with the sophomore album, “Space Oddity” (1969), Bowie would start experimenting like no other artist before. “The Man Who Sold the World” (1970), “Hunky Dory” (1971), and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972) solidified his place in rock history; by this time he had exerted his influence all over rock, “progressive rock,” and glam rock, not to mention the upcoming punk and post-punk movements would always go back to these albums as references. And the glamorous glam kept coming: “Aladdin Sane” and “Pin Ups” (both in 1973), and “Diamond Dogs” (1974). But the following year, Bowie would take another direction with “Young Americans” (1975) and “Station to Station” (1976); he started to look towards funk, soul, and blue-eye soul for new references to mix up in his ever-growing catalogue. Such changes normally destroy other artists and bands, but not Bowie – change has continued to make him a better and stronger artist, while all the time creating, controlling, and outliving controversies. (Madonna surely took a few pages out of Bowie’s playbook.)

Then there was the “Berlin Trilogy”: “Low” (1977), “”Heroes”” (1977), and “Lodgers” (1979). Welcome to the world of krautrock and Brian Eno, Bowie takes his biggest leap to date, which would send shockwaves through the punk, post-punk, and new wave scenes. Though commercially the trilogy has been defined as lackluster, again Bowie managed to influence an entire generation of new musicians. And it is the midst of closing the chapter on the “Berlin Trilogy” that Bowie composes and records “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” (Could The Cure have decided to record “Trilogy” in Berlin because of this?)

Bowie returned to his character Major Tom for the first single from the album, “Ashes to Ashes.” And just as Bowie is prone to continually reinvent himself, he reinvents Major Tom. He is no longer the man we remember from, “This is Major Tom to ground control, I’m stepping through the door and I’m floating in a most peculiar way and the stars look very different today” (“Major Tom”). No longer is he the happily floating-out-of-existence astronaut. That would be to passé for the then punk and post-punk era that faces the political and dark realities of the world. He may still be floating high, but it has nothing to do with space: “Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie, strung out in heaven’s high hitting an all-time low.”

As for the video (link – from the officialdavidbowie YouTube Channel), Bowie would set a new standard. From an eerie Pierrot (like the clown in Placebo's song) to sitting in a padded room, the vivid colors, the very postmodern “fractured” narrative structure and pastiche does not just compliment the song, but brings it into a another level. In the pre-MTV world, Bowie created a video where the visuals arrest your senses, not the music. (Is it any wonder that Billy Idol would work with co-director David Mallet for his first major MTV-era video, “Eyes Without a Face,” which shares so many stylistic characteristics with “Ashes for Ashes” video?)

Bowie would release the iconic “Fashion” next (link – from the officialdavidbowie YouTube Channel), followed by the titular track, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” and “Up the Hill Backwards.” “Fashion” in this single becomes a very powerful metaphor. The song is about the fascism of fashion, but also for political fascism as well; take this verse: “There’s a brand new talk, but it’s not very clear, that people from good homes are talking this year. It’s loud and tasteless, and I’ve heard it before.” The circular nature of fashion, you’ve seen (“heard”) it before. But it is gibberish and tasteless, like most of the mainstream that conforms to the lowest common denominator. And just as “fashion” mandates that everyone carries on in the same mindlessness, so does fascism – where both individuality and individualism are frown upon, where what you are even allowed to say is dictated for you.

So with a little bit of reinvention, political and social criticism, and artistic (cinematic) posturing, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” already has the making of a great album. The rest of the album is just as amazing. “It’s No Game (Part 1)” (the opening track) rears in with cold, in your face guitar arrangements, while Bowie sings “Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution, no more free steps to heaven. It’s no game.” At one point or another, every major post-post punk band has ripped off “Up the Hill Backwards” (whether they are conscious of it – or willing to admit it – or not). The titular track is as harrowing as its title implies and would also be the blue print for many a song, including in the upcoming industrial scene – I see where Reznor got a few of his ideas. There is also “Scream Like a Baby” – Bowie’s political magnum opus: “Well they came down hard on the faggots, and they came down hard on the streets, and they came down harder on Sam, and we all knew he was beat. Thrown into the wagon, blindfolded, chains and they stomped on us…” Later, “He just sat in the backseat, swearing he’d seek revenge, but he jumped into the furnace singing old songs we loved.” The texture and sound of Bowie’s voice/vocals change consistently: sometimes nearly inaudible (you must keep quiet in a fascism!) and sometimes the piercing voice of defiance. Of course, Bowie was writing during the times of the Berlin Wall and the divided Europe, which may explain the genesis and meaning of the song, but today’s audience should not overlook his tale of political imprisonment, because one never knows.

Any youngster listening to “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” today may not think it as cutting edge as it was… actually to today’s audience it is quite accessible, but not because it was intended to be so – and this is the evidence of just how influential Bowie is; the future conformed to “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” and not the other way around. This album is iconic, this album defines everything Bowie did to this point, and so much of what would come from other artists hereafter. Just look at who he has influenced (not a complete list!): Arcade Fire, Bauhaus, Blur, Marc Bolan (T.Rex), Duran Duran, Hello Operator, Joy Division, New York Dolls, Madonna, Morrissey, Gary Numan, Psychedelic Furs, Placebo, Iggy Pop, Pulp, Lou Reed, Radiohead, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Semi Precious Weapons, Robert Smith (The Cure), (The London) Suede, Tears for Fears, and TV on the Radio. And think of the countless that do not even realize that Bowie influenced them, as they have been influenced by others who owe a great debt to Bowie, like Bauhaus or Duran Duran or some other iconic band.

The next time you are reading through one of those lists that list the most iconic, influential artists, if Bowie is not on the top, it is a sham. And if “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” is not ranked as one of the greatest and most important albums ever recorded, it is not just a sham, it is shameful. David Bowie is the most underrated and under-appreciate artist of all times, arguably the last true great visionary of modern “rock” music, and is the most influential “rock” musician of all time. “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” alone guaranteed that position, and any Bowie fan would agree. And if you are not familiar with Bowie’s music, this is perfect starting point.

Track Listing:
1. It’s No Game (Part 1)
2. Up the Hill Backwards
3. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
4. Ashes to Ashes
5. Fashion
6. Teenage Wildlife
7. Scream Like a Baby
8. Kingdom Come
9. Because You’re Young
10. It’s No Game (Part 2)
11. Space Oddity – reissue bonus
12. Panic in Detroit – reissue bonus
13. Crystal Japan – reissue bonus
14. Alabama Song – reissue bonus

Keep up with David Bowie at his homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

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