Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

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Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
DavidBowieScaryMonstersCover.jpg
Studio album by
Released12 September 1980
RecordedFebruary–April 1980
Studio
Genre
Length45:37
LabelRCA
Producer
David Bowie chronology
Lodger
(1979)
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
(1980)
The Best of Bowie
(1980)
Singles from Scary Monsters
(and Super Creeps)
  1. "Ashes to Ashes"
    Released: 12 August 1980
  2. "Fashion" / "Scream Like a Baby"
    Released: 24 October 1980
  3. "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" / "Because You're Young"
    Released: 2 January 1981
  4. "Up the Hill Backwards"
    Released: March 1981

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), also known simply as Scary Monsters,[a] is the 14th studio album by English musician David Bowie, released on 12 September 1980 by RCA Records. Co-produced by Tony Visconti, it was Bowie's final studio album on the label and his first following the "Berlin Trilogy", which consisted of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger (1977–1979). Though considered very significant in artistic terms, the trilogy had proven less successful commercially. With Scary Monsters, Bowie achieved what biographer David Buckley called "the perfect balance" of creativity and mainstream success.

Upon release, the album garnered critical acclaim and peaked at No. 1 and went Platinum in the UK while successfully restoring Bowie's commercial standing in the US. Scary Monsters would later be referred to by commentators as Bowie's "last great album" and a benchmark for later releases. The album has been reissued multiple times and was remastered in 2017 as part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) box set.

Background[edit]

From 1976 to 1979, Bowie recorded what came to be known as the "Berlin Trilogy", which consisted of Low, "Heroes" (both 1977) and Lodger (1979). The trilogy was made in collaboration with musician Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti.[1] The trilogy was highly influential; Low was seen as a precursor to post-rock and post-punk,[2][3] influencing artists such as Joy Division and the Human League,[4] while Lodger's use of world music is credited for inspiring artists such as Talking Heads and Paul Simon.[5]

Though considered very significant in artistic terms, the trilogy had proven less successful commercially.[6] Lodger's commercial performance was hindered by artists who were influenced by the earlier Berlin releases, such as Gary Numan.[7][8] Numan, a huge fan of Bowie's, was antagonised by Bowie's fans as a mere copycat of Bowie's. Bowie himself criticised Numan, which led to a feud between the two artists for many years. According to biographer David Buckley, Numan's fame indirectly led to Bowie taking a more commercial direction for his next record.[9]

Recording and production[edit]

There was a certain degree of optimism making [Scary Monsters] because I'd worked through some of my problems, I felt very positive about the future, and I think I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted album.[10]

– David Bowie, 1999

In February 1980, Bowie traveled to the Power Station in New York City to begin recording his next album.[10] Returning from the "Berlin Trilogy" was Visconti, who was immediately told by Bowie that this was going to be a more commercial record than his previous releases.[10][11] Not returning was Brian Eno, who ended his collaboration with Bowie after Lodger, stating he felt the "Berlin Trilogy" had "petered out" by that record.[12] The core lineup of Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray returned for the sessions, although this would be the fifth and final Bowie album to feature this lineup who had been together since Station to Station (1976); only Alomar would continue working with Bowie hereafter.[10][13] Guitarist Adrian Belew, who played on Lodger, claimed to have received advanced payment to play on the sessions and was surprised to find the record made without him.[14] Instead, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who played on "Heroes", was brought back, along with newcomer Chuck Hammer, who was hired by Bowie after hearing Hammer play with Lou Reed the year before.[10] According to NME editors Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray, Hammer added multiple textural layers deploying guitar synth and Fripp brought back the same distinctive sound he lent "Heroes".[15] Returning from the Station to Station sessions was pianist Roy Bittan, who was recording Bruce Springsteen's The River (1980) concurrently in the same studio.[10][15] Visconti recalled a moment in the studio's lounge where Davis turned to Springsteen and asked "What band are you in?".[10]

An older man from the side, holding a guitar with an amp to his left under a purple spotlight
The sessions saw the return of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp (pictured in 2007), who previously played on "Heroes".

Initial sessions at the Power Station took place over two and a half weeks, with an additional week used for overdubs. During this time, only "It's No Game (No. 2)" was completed in its entirety. The remaining tracks were solely instrumental.[10] During the sessions, Alomar suggested recording a cover of Tom Verlaine's "Kingdom Come". Bowie felt the track was the standout on Verlaine's 1979 eponymous solo album, stating "It just happens to fit into the scattered scheme of things".[16] His first cover on a studio album since Station to Station,[17] Bowie asked Verlaine to play lead guitar on the track. Verlaine accepted, but upon his arrival at the studio, he tried out numerous guitar amps in order to "get the right sound" while Bowie and Visconti left him alone. Visconti recalled, "I don't think we ever used a note of his playing, if we even recorded him." Instead Fripp ended up playing lead guitar.[16] Also recorded during these sessions was an instrumental titled "Crystal Japan". It was originally intended to be the album's closing track, but was dropped in favour of a reprise of "It's No Game". It was instead released as a single in Japan and made its first appearance in a 1980 Japanese television commercial for the Shōchū drink Crystal Jun Rock.[18][19]

Instead of improvising lyrics and music as he had with prior releases, Bowie informed Visconti he wanted to take time composing and developing the lyrics and melodies;[20] Visconti recalled, "Instead of immediately writing finished melodies and lyrics, David begged to take a long break to think it all out, so we adjourned until two months later in London."[10] Buckley writes that what he presented Visconti were "some of the most innovative melodies of his career."[20] According to biographer Nicholas Pegg, some of the handwritten lyrics were included in the 2013 David Bowie Is exhibition.[21] Many of the tracks had working titles early on. In a cassette dated March 1980 in Visconti's archive, some of the tracks included "People Are Turning to Gold" (later became "Ashes to Ashes"), "It Happens Everyday" (later became "Teenage Wildlife") and "Jamaica" (became "Fashion" late in the album's development).[20] Also at this point, "Up the Hill Backwards" was known as "Cameras in Brooklyn" and "Scream Like a Baby" was known as "I Am a Laser", which was originally written in 1973, recorded by the Astronettes (made up of Bowie collaborators Ava Cherry and Geoff MacCormack) at Olympic Studios the same year.[22] Pegg writes that there was a track called "Is There Life After Marriage?" that was recorded and left unfinished during the sessions.[23] An instrumental cover of "I Feel Free" by Cream was also recorded and left unfinished, although it was later brought back for 1993's Black Tie White Noise.[24] According to Pegg, the lyrics for the title track were written as a response to a promotional campaign for Kellogg's Corn flakes cereal, which offered novelty toys of "Scary Monsters and Super Heroes".[25]

The sessions resumed in April 1980 at Good Earth Studios in London, Visconti's own studio at the time.[26] Here, all vocals were recorded,[25] including the Japanese narration provided by actress Michi Hirota for "It's No Game (No. 1)".[27] Additional instrumental overdubs were provided by Fripp and keyboardist Andy Clark, along with a guest appearance by the Who guitarist Pete Townshend on "Because You're Young".[25] Townshend, who was dealing with numerous personal issues at the time, arrived at the studio in a bad mood and upon requesting what they wanted, Bowie and Visconti replied "Pete Townshend chords". His contributions were ultimately placed low in the mix.[28]

Bowie continued to develop songs using non-traditional methods: for "Ashes to Ashes", he referenced an experimental Guitarchitecture track from Hammer as the descending modulating chordal and rhythmic structure. For "Teenage Wildlife" he asked Hammer to record his tracks in discrete separate sections, stopping to alter the guitar textures between each section. During the recording, Bowie and Hammer referred to the two-octave higher Eventide Harmonizer part as the piglets and later down the track as the return of the piglets. For "It's No Game (No. 1)" He challenged guitarist Fripp to "imagine he was playing a guitar duel with B.B. King where he had to out-B.B. B.B., but do it in his own way."[29] "We were doing either 'Up the Hill Backwards' or 'It's No Game', and I said, 'Any suggestions?'" Fripp recalled. "And David replied, "Ritchie Blackmore!" Because David isn't really a guitarist, he couldn't give me more of a ground plan than that, but I knew what he meant."[30]

Style and themes[edit]

"Ashes to Ashes" is built around a guitar synth theme by Chuck Hammer and revisited the character of Major Tom from Bowie's early hit "Space Oddity".[31]

Notwithstanding the lush textures of "Ashes to Ashes", Bowie's sound on the album was described by critics as being harsher—and his worldview more desperate—than anything he had released since Diamond Dogs (1974).[15] This was exemplified by such tracks as "It's No Game (No. 1)", the hard-rocking opener featuring lead female vocals in Japanese; the careering title track with its prominent percussion effects and Bowie's south London accent; "Fashion", which seemed to draw parallels between style and politics; and "Scream Like a Baby", a tale of political imprisonment.[15]

In "Teenage Wildlife", against a musical backdrop that owed much to his song "'Heroes'", Bowie was variously thought to be taking aim squarely at new wave artists such as Gary Numan,[32] or reflecting on his younger self.[15]

Artwork and packaging[edit]

The rear sleeve contained references to four of Bowie's earlier albums.

The cover artwork of Scary Monsters is a large scale collage by artist Edward Bell featuring Bowie in the Pierrot costume worn in the "Ashes to Ashes" music video, along with photographs taken by photographer Brian Duffy. Duffy was reportedly upset the final artwork as he felt the cartoon demeaned his photographs. The original LP's rear sleeve referred to four earlier albums, namely the immediately preceding "Berlin Trilogy" and 1973's Aladdin Sane, the latter also having been designed and photographed by Duffy. The cover images from Low, "Heroes" and Lodger—the last showing Bowie's torso superimposed on the figure from Aladdin Sane's inside gatefold picture—were portrayed in small whitewashed frames to the left of the tracklisting. The lettering used was a reworking of Gerald Scarfe's lettering for Pink Floyd's The Wall, and would be replicated on many album covers following its release.[33][34] These images were not reproduced on the Rykodisc reissue in 1992, but were restored for EMI/Virgin's 1999 remastered edition. The original framed album artwork was featured in the David Bowie Is touring museum exhibit.[35]

Release[edit]

The lead single, "Ashes to Ashes", was released in edited form by RCA Records on 8 August 1980, with the catalogue number RCA BOW 6 and the Lodger track "Move On" as the B-side.[36] It was issued in three different sleeves, the first 100,000 copies including one of four sets of stamps, all featuring Bowie in the Pierrot outfit he wore in the music video for the song.[37] The song was promoted with a music video – at ₤250,000, it was the most expensive music video ever made up to that point.[38] Directed by David Mallet, who directed all of Lodger's music videos,[39] the video depicts Bowie in a Pierot costume designed by his former collaborator Natasha Korniloff.[40] The single and video are both regarded as one of Bowie's finest,[38] with Pegg stating that it kickstarted the New Romantic movement.[37] The single debuted at No. 4 on the UK Singles Chart and, after premiering the music video on the BBC television programme Top of the Pops, the single shot to No. 1, becoming Bowie's fastest-selling single and dethroning ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All". It was Bowie's second No. 1 single in the UK, after a reissue of "Space Oddity".[38][40][37] However, the US release, featuring "It's No Game (No. 1)" as the B-side, fared worse, peaking at No. 79 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart and No. 101 on the Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart.[41]

Scary Monsters was released by RCA on 12 September 1980, with the catalogue number RCA BOW LP 2.[42] It was promoted by RCA with the promo line "Often Copied, Never Equalled", seen as a direct reference to the new wave acts Bowie had inspired over the years.[43] The album was a major commercial success, peaking at No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, his first since Diamond Dogs (1974), and remained on the chart for 32 weeks, his longest since Aladdin Sane (1973).[34][44] Despite the flop of "Ashes to Ashes", the album successfully restored Bowie's commercial standing in the US,[15] peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and remained on the chart for 27 weeks.[45] Buckley writes that with Scary Monsters, Bowie achieved "the perfect balance" of creativity and mainstream success.[43]

The second single, "Fashion", was released in edited form on 24 October 1980, with the catalogue number RCA BOW 7 and the album track "Scream Like a Baby" as the B-side.[46][47] The single was another commercial success, peaking at No. 5 in the UK and No. 70 in the US.[48] Like the first single, it was promoted by a music video again directed by Mallet. The video depicts Bowie and his backing musicians as "gum-chewing tough guys", interspersed with shots of dancers rehearsing and New Romantic followers. Like "Ashes to Ashes", the video was highly praised, with Record Mirror voting both as the best music videos of 1980.[48] The title track was released as the third single, again in edited form,[49] on 2 January 1981, with the catalogue number RCA BOW 8 and the album track "Because You're Young" as the B-side.[47] The single continued Bowie's commercial success in the UK, peaking at No. 20.[46] The fourth and final single, "Up the Hill Backwards", was released in March 1981, with the catalogue number RCA BOW 9 and the non-album Japanese single "Crystal Japan" as the B-side.[47] It peaked at No. 32 in the UK, performing the worst out of all the singles.[46]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic5/5 stars[50]
Blender5/5 stars[51]
Chicago Tribune3.5/4 stars[52]
Christgau's Record GuideB+[53]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music4/5 stars[54]
Q5/5 stars[55]
Record Mirror7/5 stars[56]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide4.5/5 stars[57]
Smash Hits9/10[58]
Spin4/5 stars[59]

Scary Monsters received universal praise from music critics.[34] Record Mirror awarded it a rating of seven stars out of five;[56] the same publication voted Bowie the best male singer of 1980, as did the Daily Mirror.[34] Melody Maker called it "an eerily impressive stride into the '80s",[60] while Billboard correctly predicted that it "should be the most accessible and commercially successful Bowie LP in years".[61]

Retrospectively, the album continues to receive acclaim. Jon Dolan of Spin writes that although the 1980s were a less-than-stellar decade for the artist creatively, he began the decade strong with Scary Monsters, praising Bowie's vocal performance and singling "Ashes to Ashes" as "gorgeous".[59] Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic praised the album for its culmination of Bowie's 1970s works. He continues: "While the music isn't far removed from the post-punk of the early '80s, it does sound fresh, hip, and contemporary, which is something Bowie lost over the course of the '80s."[50] Eduardo Rivadavia of Ultimate Classic Rock praised the record's "risk-taking creativity", writing that the artist's decision to take time writing lyrics resulted in some of the best lyrics and vocal performance of his career. Rivadavia ultimately called the album of Bowie's "very best career efforts."[62] Peter Doggett describes Scary Monsters as one of Bowie's "most valuable statements", writing that it "annull[ed] audience expectations" and launched a "warning for those who might dare to follow in his footsteps."[63]

Reviewing the album's remaster for the 2017 box set A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982), Chris Gerard of PopMatters highlighted Bowie's vocal performance on the record as among his best, further complimenting the songs' arrangements and harmonies as "jaw-droppingly brilliant as anything you’ll find in the realm of rock 'n' roll."[64] Analysing the album for its 40th anniversary in 2020, Ryan Leas of Stereogum describes Scary Monsters as "the less-heralded classic of Bowie's career", complimenting the way Bowie was able to mesh the different eras of Bowie's career up to that point into a creative whole. Leas concluded: "[Scary Monsters] was the album that best-captured everything Bowie was about — and it will always be the conduit through which everything traveled, all of his old selves folded in and carried forward through the rest of his life.[65]

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

Despite the worldwide megastardom and commercial success that Bowie would achieve in coming years, most notably with his next studio album Let's Dance in 1983, many commentators consider Scary Monsters to be "his last great album",[50][65] the "benchmark" for each new release.[32] Well-regarded later efforts such as Outside,[66] Earthling,[67] Heathen and Reality were cited as "the best album since Scary Monsters."[68] In the latest edition of his musical biography of the singer, Strange Fascination, David Buckley suggested that "Bowie should pre-emptively sticker up his next album 'Best Since Scary Monsters' and have done with it".[69]

Scary Monsters has frequently appeared on several lists of the greatest albums of all time by multiple publications. In 2000, Q ranked Scary Monsters at number 30 on its list of the "100 Greatest British Albums Ever".[70] In 2002, Pitchfork placed it at number 93 on its list of the top 100 albums of the 1980s.[71] In 2012, Slant Magazine listed the album at number 27 on its list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s, saying "Bowie bridles the experimentation of his Berlin trilogy and channels those synth flourishes and off-kilter guitar licks into one of the decade's quirkiest pop albums."[72] In 2013, NME ranked the album at number 381 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.[73] In 2018, Pitchfork placed it at number 53 on its revised list of the 200 best albums of the 1980s.[74] In 2020, Rolling Stone placed it at number 443 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.[75]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one
No.TitleLyricsLength
1."It's No Game (No. 1)"Bowie, trans. Hisahi Miura4:20
2."Up the Hill Backwards" 3:15
3."Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" 5:12
4."Ashes to Ashes" 4:25
5."Fashion" 4:49
Side two
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1."Teenage Wildlife" 6:56
2."Scream Like a Baby" 3:35
3."Kingdom Come"Tom Verlaine3:45
4."Because You're Young" 4:54
5."It's No Game (No. 2)" 4:22

Reissues[edit]

The album has been rereleased five times to date on compact disc. It was first released on CD by RCA Records in the mid-1980s. A second CD release, in 1992 by Rykodisc and EMI, contained four bonus tracks.[76] A 1999 CD release by EMI/Virgin, with no bonus tracks, featured 24-bit digitally-remastered sound.[77] The album was rereleased in 2003 by EMI as a Super Audio CD, again with no bonus tracks.[78] In 2017, the album was remastered for the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) box set released by Parlophone.[79] It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, as part of this compilation and then separately the following year.[64][80]

1992 reissue bonus tracks
No.TitleLyricsMusicLength
11."Space Oddity" (Single B-side, rerecorded acoustic version, 1979)  4:47
12."Panic in Detroit" (Rerecorded version, 1979, previously unreleased)  3:00
13."Crystal Japan" (Japanese single A-side, 1980)instrumental 3:08
14."Alabama Song" (UK single A-side, recorded 1978)Bertolt Brecht, trans. Elisabeth HauptmannKurt Weill3:51

Personnel[edit]

Albums credits per the liner notes and biographer Nicholas Pegg.[10][81]

Production
  • David Bowie, Tony Visconti – production and engineering
  • Larry Alexander, Jeff Hendrickson – engineering assistance
  • Peter Mew, Nigel Reeve – mastering

Charts and certifications[edit]


Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Although the album is commonly referred to as Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), in keeping with the song title, and the album title as written on the front and back covers of the LP is Scary Monsters . . . . . and Super Creeps, the album is identified simply as Scary Monsters on the LP spine and disc label.

References[edit]

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Sources[edit]

External links[edit]