“Often copied, Never Equalled.” This was the official line used by RCA to promote Scary Monsters upon it’s release in 1980. It was meant as a good natured, yet not at all subtle dig at the myriad of artists over the years who had tried to be “David Bowie” often just as David Bowie was becoming something else entirely.
Scary Monsters certainly marks another major transitional moment in the life and career of David Bowie, but this time it didn’t come in the form of a new character. This record instead found Bowie harnessing the tremendous creative energy that he’d built up during his work with Brian Eno for “The Berlin Trilogy” of Low, Heroes, and Lodger – and deliberately focusing it toward making a record that would be more commercially successful than any of its direct predecessors. To that end Bowie is credited as the sole composer of almost every song on this record. The one exception is his continued interest in including off-kilter cover songs on his records, this time in the form of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come.”
Of course, there is still plenty of sonic experimentation and character development to be found on Scary Monsters. Most notable in the latter category was the return of Major Tom (!) from “Space Oddity” showing up here in the record’s first single, “Ashes to Ashes.”
In terms of remaining on the cutting edge sound-wise, Bowie relied quite a bit on his talented collaborators. For the opening track “It’s No Game (1)” Bowie reportedly told guitarist Robert 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.” The songs “Ashes to Ashes,” and “Teenage Wildlife” employ the guitar synthesizer. More traditional synthesizers are all over the record as well, helping to cement its role in ensuring New Wave as one of the most important musical trends of the 80s.
As a quick side note, to my mind so many of the best aspects of Post-Punk are still represented on Scary Monsters. Proto-New Wave as it may also be, you just can’t deny the militaristic stomp, gnarly angular guitar lines, and biting lyrics on “Fashion.”
Of course, at this point, Bowie was only a few years away from his most commercially successful record, Let’s Dance, which received very mixed reviews, and would prompt many critics to declare Scary Monsters “Bowie’s last great album.” I personally happen to disagree, but there is no denying that it is quite a singular combination of great pop, and something a bit more challenging, unnerving even.