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Week 50 | Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps (1980)

Here it is, my favorite album.  My own words cannot do it justice.  It’s connection to me is so primal as to be beyond easy explanation.  I just like it…a lot.  All that said, here is my best effort at explaining why:

I like “Scary Monsters” (to keep things easy, I’m going to drop the “…and Super Creeps” for the rest of this commentary) because I like the way it sounds.  At the end of the day, that’s what I like about Bowie music.  As a general matter, I often find his lyrics to be intriguing, his presentation to be compelling and even the packaging of his albums to be at the very least interesting.  But at the end of the day what I really like is how the music sounds.  There is no other music anywhere I like the sound of more than this.  For me, there is no weakness to any of it.  All the songs seem perfectly placed, and I don’t get tired of any of them.  Bowie’s voice is at its apex and, unlike “‘Heroes’” and “Low” which contain several instrumentals, he makes the most of it with ten mostly loud, aggressive songs.  

Most of Bowie’s albums are sequenced in a purposeful order.  This quality is on full display with “Scary Monsters,” which begins and ends with versions of “It’s No Game.”    Bowie screams out the opening version.  His desperate, angry vocals are countered by Japanese words articulated by a strong-sounding female vocalist.  Both she, and Bowie’s anger, are missing from the closing version of the song.  The trip through the album had been a struggle, and by the end Bowie had given up.  So the journey is one of defiance and defeat.  Rarely one for optimism, Bowie is arguably at his most fatalistic on this album.

What is he struggling against?  In “Ashes to Ashes,” he’s struggling against addiction.  In “Teenage Wildlife,” his most self-referential song, he’s struggling against being pigeonholed as a pop star (which I didn’t really think was an issue in 1980, but anyway…)  In “Scream Like a Baby,’ he’s struggling against societal norms, which is basically what he’s also struggling against in “Fashion.”  “Kingdom Come” is a song about being in a hard-labor prison camp.  As for “Up the Hill Backwards,” the title says it all.  

Bowie’s surrender at the end of the album is, of course, an act.  It isn’t that he literally gave up and threw in a weak closing.  He is meant to sound resigned.  But the last version of “It’s No Game” really did mark the end of a remarkable run that began eleven years earlier with the album now known as “Space Oddity.”  From that point on, or maybe more accurately from “Hunky Dory” in 1971, Bowie’s evolution was gradual, with one album hinting at what would come next.  “Queen Bitch” is on “Hunky Dory” but sounds like it would have been more at home on “Ziggy Stardust.”  “1984” is a disco song on “Diamond Dogs,” foreshadowing “Young Americans.”  These links would continue right up through “Scary Monsters,” which is not generally thought of as the culmination of the Berlin Trilogy, but it sounds today like a natural progression reaching its conclusion.  It is the last of Bowie’s new wave albums, which he began making before anyone used the term, “new wave.” 

So, just as “the same old thing in brand new drag” came “sweeping into view,” Bowie took the next three years off and returned with the radically different, “Let’s Dance” in 1983.  But Bowie as patron icon of misfit youths retired after “Scary Monsters” (true, after a brief stint of trying to come off as “normal” in the mid-80s, he’d return from time to time of being consciously weird, but the effect is different coming from a middle aged man).   

The other sign that “Scary Monsters” is a milestone in Bowie’s career is that by the early 1990s (maybe even earlier), most if not all of his subsequent albums were usually called his best “since Scary Monsters.”  This repeated (and repeated) assertion was meant to acknowledge how good “Scary Monsters” is, but also was meant as a jab at the highly successful “Let’s Dance” and a way of ignoring whatever was Bowie’s last album, though it too had been dubbed “his best since Scary Monsters.”  

Today, “Scary Monsters” is less a clear demarcation point than it was in Bowie’s lifetime in part because there will be no new Bowie albums.  The last possible “best since ‘Scary Monsters,’” was “Blackstar,” but no new truly new, complete studio albums will ever again be released.  Also, in the wake of his death, several of Bowie’s post-“Scary Monster” albums have gotten a second look.  Most significantly, the reputation of “Let’s Dance” has enjoyed a renaissance.  The bitterness of Bowie “selling out” is well on its way to fading out of memory, so the implied snub at what might be Bowie’s most famous record has less and less resonance.   

For me, “Scary Monsters” is simply his best album and my favorite.

Of course calling something “the best” invites comparisons.  If I had to actually rank order Bowie albums, I’d probably do it differently from day to day, though I’d be pretty consistent ranking this number one and (probably not surprisingly) “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” number two.  Why that order?  “Ziggy” is great too, but for a supposed concept album, its inclusion of “Soul Love” and “It Ain’t Easy” makes little sense.  I like both of those songs, but they don’t seem quite at home.  Most of Bowie’s other albums have weaknesses- “Hunky Dory” has “Kooks” and “Fill Your Heart,” “Low” and “Heroes” have the instrumentals, “Blackstar” has “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” “Outside” has the segues.  I don’t hate any of those songs (I don’t hate the segues, either), but in the shadows of the truly great songs that surround them, they are imperfections.  Maybe the only two other Bowie albums without imperfections are “Station to Station” and “Heathen.”   But with only six songs, “Station to Station” has 40% less to love than “Scary Monsters.”  “Heathen”has no fatal flaws but also didn’t really include any genuine hits— today, even a casual Bowie fan probably knows “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” and probably can’t articulate the words “scary monsters” without employing an exaggerated Cockney accent, but I’m guessing most of those casual fans would have trouble naming a song from “Heathen” (excellent though it is).   

Staying on this tangent, here are my top ten Bowie albums at this particular moment.  I am logging them in here in part with a thought of doing the same thing a few months from now to see how different the list looks: (1) Scary Monsters; (2) Ziggy Stardust; (3) Station to Station; (4) Diamond Dogs; (5) 1. Outside; (6) Heathen; (7) Hunky Dory; (8) Blackstar; (9) Heroes; (10) Aladdin Sane.  There.  #10 was the toughest.  Would I really take “Aladdin Sane” over “Low” or “Lodger” or  “Let’s Dance?”  If I was forced to choose would I really forgo any compilation albums or live albums?  Am I ignoring my own rules by not even considering albums that Bowie was involved with, like “Lust for Life,” on which he isn’t the main performer?  Well, on this day, that’s my list.  And what’s not in doubt is that “Scary Monsters” is number one.    

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