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Tonight (1984, album #76) updated

On the occasion of Tina Turner’s death I was looking back over past blog entires and noticed that the video I linked to my discussion of the album Tonight had broken. That provided me an opportunity to update the entry and add a new link, which is the audio of the album’s version of the title track, which Turner sings with Bowie.

I’m actually quite pleased with what I wrote already back in 2019, so I don’t have a whole lot to add here, other than to reiterate a few points you’ll see I made below. My overall point is that while today, Tonight is largely viewed as one of Bowie’s weakest albums, it contains some pretty good music including three fairly well known songs: “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean,” and “Tonight.” In recent weeks, I chose Stella Wembly’s cover of “Loving the Alien” as a cover of the week, which is a small sign of the song’s staying power. While the video I posted yesterday was of a French TV show from 1999, a segment of the show featured people on the street singing, “Blue Jean,” which by then was already 15 years old. Again, album delivered an enduring song.

The song, “Tonight” is getting some renewed interest with the passing of Tina Turner, but it’s another one that never really went away. I recall hearing an episode of The Prairie Home Companion weeks after Bowie’s death in 2016 featuring the players performing Bowie songs. The show closed with, “Tonight.” Actually, the song is (or at least seems to me) associated as much with Turner as Bowie, and Iggy Pop recorded it before either of them. I don’t think those who dislike the album, Tonight, dislike it because of the song, “Tonight.”

Anyway, everything else I want to say about the album I already wrote. Take a look below.

Here’s what I wrote in August, 2019:

I feel defensive about, “Tonight.”  The album has taken a beating since Bowie’s death, often ending up last on retrospective rankings of his studio releases.  Even before then, some of Bowie’s most enthusiastic fans, such as his chronicler, Chris O’Leary called it, “terrible”— “Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself“ (see O’Leary’s review of, “God Only Knows” on his excellent blog, “Pushing Ahead of the Dame”).  Yet I don’t, and never did feel that type of animosity about the album.  In fact, I like it. 

I was not yet a true fan when, “Tonight” originally came out, but I remember a “Rolling Stone” cover story featuring an interview with Bowie promoting the album.  Around that time Bowie released a short movie (played on MTV) centered around the song, “Blue Jean,” which was one of the singles from the album.  “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” was an event.  Later, Bowie made much of his partnership with Tina Turner, who performed with him on the title track and later covered it herself.  The two appeared in a Pepsi commercial together.  “Loving the Alien,” possibly the most enduring song from the album, got its own video and would become a Bowie staple.  In short, the album, “Tonight” was treated as kind of a big deal, at least at the time.

Even then, though, I have a vague recollection of reading a review that characterized, “Tonight,” which largely consists of covers, as a minor work, between “Let’s Dance,” and whatever big new thing Bowie was plotting next.  Had that next thing been a work of staggering genius, “Tonight” would probably be viewed in a different light today, probably remembered for those three aforementioned songs with the rest more or less forgotten.  By comparison, think of, “Let’s Dance.”  That album, too, had three big songs— the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl” (which, like many of the songs on, “Tonight,” had originally been recorded by Iggy Pop).  “Criminal World” and “Shake It” on the other hand, never make any “best of” albums.  

But what came next was, “Never Let Me Down,” the album that received the worst critical reception of any to that point in Bowie’s career.  “Tonight,” has since come to be viewed either as part of a downward spiral, or actually his all-time worst.  

I didn’t know any of this when I started listening to Bowie.  Though, “Tonight” was new, it was all new to me in the mid-late 1980s.  I remember, in high school, discussing the album with a friend.  We agreed that it was Bowie’s “smoothest” album, whatever that meant.  As I recall, we were discussing what was his best album— which is to say, “Tonight” was in the conversation.  Sure, I was in high school at the time, and I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like, “Tonight.” The point is that I did like it.  I still play it once in a while.  I appreciate that Bowie’s cover of, “God Only Knows,” is corny and overwrought, but I admit that I still kind of like that too.

Better still, my particular edition of, “Tonight” is one of the few Bowie reissues that makes good use of bonus tracks, which in this case includes the excellent, “Absolute Beginners” and the even better, “This is Not America.”  So this edition contains six Bowie songs that I particularly like.  And while these songs are not, in the aggregate as good as the songs on, “Station to Station,” they constitute the same number of songs that appear on that entire album.  And, “Tonight” contains five more songs on top of those (six more on my edition, counting an additional bonus track).  

So why is, “Tonight” trashed today?  No doubt, “Never Let Me Down,” has something to do with it.  So too did Bowie’s own retrospective assessment of the album (which was not good).  The album loses points due to its inclusion of several covers. It has occurred to me that there’s some irony in an album that includes such an Iggy Pop influence is one of Bowie’s cheeriest in tone.  There’s also the revisionist stance of several fans and commentators who just don’t like most of what Bowie did in the 1980s because it was commercially successful.  From this perspective, “Let’s Dance” was an overt sellout.  All the reviews of subsequent albums as, “Bowie’s best since ‘Scary Monsters’” pointedly skip over, “Let’s Dance.”  So, by this thinking, if “Let’s Dance” was offensive, “Tonight” is an insult.  “Let’s Dance” was a sad overreach from a rock star trying to sell a product rather than make art— “Tonight” was a failed attempt to capitalize on that impurity.  On top of all that, some of the songs really aren’t that good.  Underlying all of this is a sense of opportunity cost— Bowie’s voice was near its peak.  He commanded the attention of the world.  Had he simply maintained his 14-year winning streak, the successor to, “Let’s Dance” could have been something truly special.

None of this amounts to a mortal sin.  I agree that, “Tonight” is far from Bowie’s best album, but it is arguably the last of his albums from what I think of as his “greatest hits” period.    Among Bowie’s vast output, some of his work is necessarily better than others, but most, including “Tonight” have qualities that are more than redeeming.  

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