By 1980, things were no longer looking hunky-dory. With a cocaine addiction and marriage behind him, it was inevitable that David Bowie‘s public persona would lose the starry eyes of its early incarnations. Gone was the Nietzschean, space-wunderkind of youth, the strutting, multicolored peacock of pop artists. He’d gone weird for a time, visiting Berlin, making strange sounds and dreaming about ‘heroes.’ But even spacemen grow up, and when Bowie returned from his voyage into ambient and experimental realms, he brought a certain world-weariness with him to the recording studio.
Scary Monsters, almost perfunctorily labeled his last great album for a time, echoes with howls from a man against a wall. Alienation from the world, his fans, his fans-turned-artists, and, of course, himself, makes this certainly one of Bowie’s most angry releases. But as with earlier incarnations, Bowie the artist and Bowie the pop musician have equal authority over his work, crafting some of his most popular songs in an altogether distinctive album.
Start at the beginning, where cheerful Japanese answers Bowie’s strained vocals. “It’s No Game” has guitars to match his voice—all twisted squalls lurching through a paranoid inner world. Lyrics about insulting fascists abound, and throughout each track, there are implications the Thought Police are gaining ground, much to the songwriter’s chagrin. Here, he almost sounds ready to give up the good fight: “Put a bullet into my brain,” he growls, “and it makes all the papers.” The album is bookended by this and “It’s No Game II,” a version that’s more tempered and leaves Bowie sounding worn out, and maybe reluctantly acquiescing.
It’s no wonder, considering the panic and emotion he goes through in the center of the album. “Scary Monsters” keeps up a paranoid atmosphere, where Robert Fripp’s guitar work squeals as you picture spidery, Nosferatu fingers reaching for the girl left “stupid in the street” who can’t socialize. Though it’s Bowie who says he’s running, you’re left to question who the vampire is here: “She asked me to stay and I stole her room / She asked for my love and I gave her a dangerous mind.” It should be noted that his vocals, when not sounding tortured, tend to have an almost mechanical inflection adding to the creepiness of this song.
The next two songs are probably the most well-known from the album: “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion.” They’ll both end up on repeat, though they’re very different kinds of songs. “Ashes,” often speculated to be Bowie’s drug confessional, is a wash of trippy, plunking effects, with the lyrics whispered behind Bowie’s singing. “Ashes to ashes / funk to funky / We know Major Tom’s a junky / strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low” seems to speak more to Bowie’s past than his recent drug addictions. Glam’s most-celebrated chameleon has a wax gallery of personas, all of them worshipped throughout the 1970s. In “Ashes,” Bowie seems to be saying goodbye to all of them: “My mother said, to get things done / you better not mess with Major Tom.” He’s moving on here, and, appropriately, Scary Monsters is recognized as a fusing together of his disparate styles and sonic experiments leading up to 1980.
“Fashion” heads off in a different direction altogether. It’s more a straightforward dance song, with a killer beat and funk-filled bass line. The imagery that comes to mind is an army of metrosexual robots, dapper, hip, and completely brainless: “We are the goon squad and we’re comin’ to town – beep beep!” Despite the dark lyrics, it’s irresistibly catchy, and perfect for any dance party.
The last standout song is “Teenage Wildlife,” almost an open letter to the aspiring pop cretins following in Bowie’s footsteps. Flocks of lonely teenagers and make-up-wearing rock Lotharios have prayed at the shrine of Bowie since his rise to stardom. Now estranged from his glittering costumes, Bowie has little in common with these starry-eyed performers, seeking advise on how to be rich, famous and well-loved: “A broken-nose mogul are you / One of the new wave boys / Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view / ugly as a teenage millionaire.” It’s a coming to terms with the wonderland he’d been floating through most of his young adulthood. But as fun as the fame and spotlight have been, it’s hard not to be sick of fans hanging on to his every word – with famous fans now trying to pen words like his. Bowie was earning his freedom here, asserting that he’s a man and an artist, but not “a piece of teenage wildlife” to be hunted, trapped, and prodded to perform.
The ’80s would be a quagmire for his career, and the ’90s, though he’d receive more attention, were uneven as well. Yet in the ’00s, albums like Heathen and Reality proved he still had an eclectic range in him, on up through the triumph of The Next Day and, ultimately, Blackstar. Bowie’s public remained relatively quiet following Scary Monsters, when he closed the door on his wild, fanciful menagerie of space aliens and cracked actors. But he closed it with a bang, and it holds up remarkably well even decades after its release.