September 16, 2014

The Bowie Project: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)

DavidBowieScaryMonstersCoverI was asked recently if I’ve abandoned this project. No, of course not! Though I can see why you might think that, given that it’s taken me a good few months to get round to this review. Shall we?

The album opens with It’s No Game (Part One), the most immediately striking thing about this song being the oddly random wittering Japanese lady. I do very much like the song that’s underneath though, it has a very solid, persistent rhythm, and harmonically and melodically it all holds together very well. Not entirely sure about the vocals, it’s one of those instances where Bowie chooses to scream rather than sing, which never sits 100% right on me. The song is reprised at the end of the album, so we shall return.

Next up is Up The Hill Backwards, for which the lead vocals have been entirely dispensed with, leaving the result that the song seems to be being sung by a distant chorus. I was greatly surprised by this the first time I heard it, I don’t think I’ve heard this technique being used before! As far as the song itself is concerned, I’m not overly enamoured. I wonder if the gimmickiness of the vocals makes it hard for me to hear anything else.

And then we come to the title track, which is a real grower, and magnificently quintessentially 80s. Gated drums, weird industrial noises throughout, and a peculiar and slightly unsettling treatment to the vocals. It’s got another one of those avant-garde guitar solos that Bowie goes in for, the ones that sound like there’s a kitten playing on the fretboard. Suits the context, I suppose.

And then one of Bowie’s greatest songs of all time, Ashes To Ashes which I am sure you are familiar with. I love the mature, delicate instrumentation in this song, the vocals delivered with just the right balance of passion and technicality, and the layers upon layers of lyrical quality.

You’re probably also familiar with Fashion, with its prominent drums and bass line, the crunchy guitars, the “beep beep”, and the general feeling of roboticity. Do I like the song? I’m fairly ambivalent, I must admit. It’s not without its appeal.

I do, however, really like Teenage Wildlife. Given that Bowie had supposedly long since left his glam rock period behind, this song is a fine example of the genre, with delicious croonious vocallage. My one complaint is that it rises to the most perfect, spectacular climax at about 3 minutes and this would have been a great place to finish the song, yet it goes on for another 4 minutes. It actually goes around in circles, hitting a second climax at 5:30 which is pretty much a replica of the first. Great lead guitar on this song though, it soars beautifully and suits the song well.

Scream Like A Baby is probably the song on this album that I am most likely to skip. It doesn’t get off to an awful start, but as soon as the first chorus hits, it doesn’t take long for it to start grating on me. For some reason, this particular lyric combined with Bowie’s vibrato just rubs me up the wrong way. I can’t wait for it to be over. There’s also an utterly unnecessary bridge where the vocal is doubled, and one of them speeds up while the other slows down, and it just seems pretentious and self-regarding. And once you’ve recovered from that, a really inappropriate keychange that doesn’t help in the slightest.

Speaking of vibrato, Bowie really overdoes it on Kingdom Come, yet for some reason I don’t find myself hating it as much as I should. Still, I do find myself wondering, while listening to this album, whether maybe Bowie should have spent a bit less time trying to sound like someone else. The song itself is fairly dull, but it’s actually a cover of a song by Tom Verlaine, of whom I’ve never been a big fan.

Now, Because You’re Young has an utterly amazing intro that sounds like something by Magazine or some other post-punk great. There’s a guitar riff and a shimmery wibbly synth that just bounce between themselves majestically, and a brilliant funky bassline. The rest of the song also has plenty of great moments, but it’s just generally not quite as stellar as that introduction. The transition into the chorus is very peculiar, it sounds like the drummer doesn’t know what he’s doing, and just panics briefly and plays nothing. Interestingly, Pete Townshend plays guitar on this song. For what it’s worth.

And finally, It’s No Game (Part Two). Basically the same song as opened the album, but without crazy Japanese lady, and the whole song is delivered in a much more restrained fashion, both vocally and instrumentally. One comparison that I can’t help noticing is how Bowie’s vocals, combined with the beautiful backing vocals in the chorus, really reminds me of Rufus Wainwright when he was at his peak. I can’t help feeling that the vocal delivery in (Part One) suits the lyrics better, but this more controlled version just seems to sit on me much smoothlier.

Hits from this album: Ashes To Ashes and Fashion are both very well-known songs.

My favourite song from this album: While I love Ashes To Ashes, I feel it behooves me to give attention to the great album tracks, so Teenage Wildlife steals it.

Next up: Let’s Dance.


4 thoughts on “The Bowie Project: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)

  1. Wow, it feels like you’ve been at this project for ages and ages and you’re only up to 1980! You’re only 1/4 of the way through his career.

    I’m looking forward to Let’s Dance – the first one I can remember coming out.

    Gammidgy on September 17, 2014

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