Dave Amitri on Scary Monsters and Super Creeps
While the rest of you have been compiling your best of 2021 and trying to avoid Last Christmas by Wham I’ve been listening to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. My final Bowie album of the year.
Released in September 1980 just as many of his musical disciples were hitting their stride. Adam and The Ants were about to go full dressing up box with Kings of the Wild Frontier, The Associates had just released The Affectionate Punch, Visage were readying their eponymous album for release (more on them later) while Japan would release Gentlemen Take Polaroids in November 1980. All these bands and more had listened and watched and taken influence musically and visually from Bowie and now here they were releasing albums alongside him. What would Bowie come up with? His 12th album in under 10 years, 10 years of wildly varying styles and sounds that delighted, inspired, baffled and frustrated the music buying public in equal measure now competing with those he influenced.
There was a real hope that I could sign off on a 100% stone cold classic, where all the stars aligned and I could declare myself fully indoctrinated into the David Bowie fanclub. So with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and some relief that my self imposed Bowiethon was coming to an end I dropped the needle (pressed play on Spotify), sat back in my favourite armchair (the drivers seat of my car on my journey to work) and once again immersed myself in a Bowie album (listened when I could between work and life)….
The cover image was instantly recognisable and the track listing favourable, four songs I knew, two of which were massively popular. This would be blast.
It’s No Game (Pt 1) kicks off with a sound effects intro that has hints of Depeche Mode and a 1,2,3,4 gear change into some spoken Japanese words that instantly put me in mind of the spoken French in Visage’s Fade To Gray. Then some guitar I recognise as Robert Fripp (get me) and then it’s all about Bowies vocal histrionics which take him from a Dave Grohl scream to the very edge of his range and back again. It’s a heady, exhilarating start as Fripp’s guitar takes centre stage in between all the vocal shenanigans.
Up The Hill Backwards next. Imagine a song that starts with Dave Edmund’s Queen Of Hearts, Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away and Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy all mixed up to make the intro then drops into a rather monotone lyrical delivery over a marching drum sound reminiscent of Arcade Fire before switching back again to the mix of the intro. Yep, that’s Up The Hill Backwards. Not one of my favourites and a surprising choice for a single but very, very Bowie.
Scary Monsters and Super Creeps follows and Bowie’s lyrical acrobatics are at the fore again and it reminds me of The Psychedelic Furs Pretty In Pink in sound and vocal. Maybe a hint of Human League’s Sound Of The Crowd in the outro. There’s also the first flash of something in the whole feel of the song that increases over the next couple of tracks. We’ve arrived at the sound of the Blitz Kids….
Ashes To Ashes is so familiar to everyone there’s little I can say that can possibly bring anything new. It’s a remarkable song and it had that video that was so visually stunning and included an appearance by Steve Strange. One of those “I remember when I first saw it” moments. How could it not be an influence? Hold on to your fancy hats here Bowie lovers but it’s obvious how much Bowie’s look and sound influenced the already formed Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Listen to John Taylor’s bass on Save A Prayer and the bass on Ashes To Ashes. Then of course the look and style of what became known as the New Romantics….
Fashion follows and it’s such a new romantic anthem. Whenever clips are shown of The Blitz or The Rum Runner in one of the endless 80’s music documentaries the chances are the kids are dancing to Fashion. Dressed in tablecloths, bin bags and leather with striking hair and make up moving jerkily to the beat. Bowie and Roxy Music nights defined that era and spawned loads of bands that are oft derided by the same people who cite Bowie as a genius. They were his creation. Without him they would have just played guitars wearing jeans and t shirts. Fashion is an absolute tune by the way. It is however the last song of the New Romantic Genesis Trilogy. Maybe Bowie was bored of influencing a generation but there is no doubt in my mind that he had. What does surprise me is the overlap in 1980. I had it fixed in my head for some reason that Visage, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran had been created and followed this version of Bowie entirely. Visage and Spandau released their first hits in 1980 and Duran Duran early in 1981. A really quick turn around but the influence is too obvious to ignore. Either way the whole melting pot was an incredibly exciting period for pop music and as I’ve said. It’s all down to Bowie…
Teenage Wildlife follows and to my ears is a middle of the road song that could have come from the mid seventies or the mid eighties. Bowie’s ever more desperate attempts to lift it with ever more vocal cartwheels and some hair guitar solos fail to lift it for me. Sorry…
Scream Like A Baby is another flat song that you can’t believe is from the same album as Fashion. Theatrical Bowie comes up from the footlights again before the daleks join in for a Dr Who interlude. I’m lost. You tell me what I’m supposed to hear here…
Kingdom Come is a funny little song. I’ve mentioned a few times how much Dr Robert from The Blow Monkeys must have been influenced by Bowie’s vocals. This actually sounds like Bowie is trying to mimic Dr Robert (I realise this is an analogy rendered impossible by time) such is the exaggerated vibrato in his vocal. It’s lifted by Fripp’s guitar and some interesting backing vocals but for me fails to scale the earlier heights.
Because You’re Young starts like a scene from Scooby Doo as Scooby and Shaggy try to avoid this weeks monster. It then veers of into some Stranglers keyboards and Bowie trying to build some drama. It has a decent chorus and I like the idea of Bowie going full Tarzan at the end but again, for me, it just doesn’t match the earlier part of the album.
It’s No Game (Pt.2) closes the album. It’s clear there was something profound going on in comparison to (Pt 1). It’s calmer and more considered but instantly forgettable. The last song of my Bowie odyssey and I’m none the wiser. “Children round the world put camel shit on the walls. They’re making carpets on treadmils or garbage sorting”. Seems like an apt way to close.
Oh David Bowie you scamp. Scary Monsters like so many before offers so much yet remains completely baffling to me. Maybe it’s me, maybe my narrow musical mind schooled on hooks and hits can’t see or hear what others do. Like a child staring at a Picasso enjoying the pretty colours but unable to see the depth. Then I look at Spotify and the numbers perhaps support my view. Ashes To Ashes 52 million plays , Scary Monsters 14 million, Fashion 12 million, the rest in the low millions (still millions though Dave). Scary Monsters and Super Creeps has some of the highest Bowie highs and a couple of the lowest lows. I really, really wanted to love it but it encapsulates the over riding feeling of this whole exercise in one record. Not the ending I was hoping for but when I come to write an epilogue for this project I’ll be able to appreciate it for those highs and accept the lows as part of the overall Bowie legend.