Review Summary: They say "David, what shall I do, they wait for me in hallways" and I say "Don't ask me, I don't know any hallways."
By 1980 David Bowie had travelled a lot of musical ground, from mod to folk to glam to rock to plastic soul to electro ambient. This constant change challenged the accepted notion that to be meaningful, to be authentic, relied on immutability – that you had to “be” a folk singer or “be” a soul singer. Bowie showed that meaning is rooted in the fluidity
of identity. It is not what is inside that is important, the bare bones hidden by flesh; what matters is the outside, the portrayal, the disguise, the image, the clothes and hairstyle, the accent and vernacular. Think of how you behave at work, how you behave with your girlfriend, how you behave with your friends. All are subtly different, presenting a version of yourself according to your audience. Which is the “real” you?
However, Scary Monsters
seeks to shed the layers, exuviate the skins cluttering our existence. And to do so Bowie has to confront the past, dousing it with fuel and striking a match, whether it be his marriage (his divorce had just come through), his youth (he was now in his early 30s) or his career (the new decade signalling a new beginning). As the drugs leave his body, as the multi-faceted personae (such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke) leave his psyche, he wipes off the clown’s make-up to see what lurks underneath. The answer it seems is not much, a husk, a burnt out shell. This album is Bowie’s funeral, his epitaph, his ashes to ashes indeed.
It makes for a disconcerting listen, every song etched in paranoia and flat out weirdness. The raucous opener 'It’s No Game (pt 1)' has a woman gutturaling in Japanese, as Bowie yowls to the moon like a demented hyena over a clanking industrial backdrop. The disorientation is underscored by the caterwauling of Robert Fripp’s cantankerous guitar before cutting out with screams of “SHUT UP! SHUT U…” Scary Monsters
is undoubtedly a personal triumph for Fripp, his guitar splattered all over these songs, careening around like a drunk driver. But that doesn’t mean it’s a conventional rock album. Not at all. If anything, it’s a new romantic album, with the preening synthesisers of 'Ashes to Ashes' presaging leading lights such as Japan and Visage. If anything it’s a goth album, with 'Scary Monsters and Super Creeps' a starting point for the direction of bands such as Bauhaus. If anything it’s a jazz funk album, with 'Fashion' a reference for Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement
. If anything it’s a gospel album, with 'Up The Hill Backwards' and 'Kingdom Come'…etc.
Amidst this melange of styles it is indelibly Bowie’s schizophrenic vocals that take centre stage, screaming manically ('It’s No Game Pt 1'), falsettoing and octave shifting ('Ashes to Ashes'), robotic and slurred ('Fashion'), like some kind of Dickensian Fagin ('Scary Monsters and Super Creeps') or disintegrating into deliberate non-singing ('Teenage Wildlife'). The album contains the most successful single of his career 'Ashes to Ashes', which typically for this backwards looking record revisits a character featured in his first hit single 'Space Oddity'. It is a peculiarly stacked Bowie-esque composition, just like its predecessor, all pre-choruses, bridges and post-choruses, before its revelatory coda of “my mother told me, to get things done, better not mess with major tom.” It’s a true testament to his songwriting abilities, that such a lumpy, wooden melody – try humming it - comes alive only through his arrangement and vocal inflexions.
This is Bowie’s most personal album detailing a breaking down, a disconnect, with the outer world. These issues, the loss of autonomy, don’t stand in isolation but are forever crossing over from the personal to the social. With the spectre of Orwell’s 1984 rapidly approaching, Scary Monsters
sketches out a blurring of the individual and the state, lives lived in the shadow of a looming dystopia concerned only with the harnessing and processing of its resources. This authoritarian world has no place for childhood innocence, the last lines as bleak and jarring as anything that has gone before:
“Children around the world put camel shi
t on the walls, they’re making carpets on treadmills, or garbage shifting. And it’s no game.”