23 February 2008

Scary Monsters

Ahh, Scary Monsters, how long have I been listening to you? Since eighth, maybe seventh grade. I can remember being in Ski Club, going up the mountain in the lift with John Cayton, singing "Scream Like a Baby." Sing to me Muse, and let me explicate and complicate your brilliance.

First of all, beginnings of albums don't get much more grabbing than this. It starts with the refreshing pop and hiss of what sounds like a cold can being opened and ends with the mad carnivalian loop of Robert Fripp's piercing distorted guitar, being told to "Shut Up!" by David Bowie twice, yelling until his voice gets strangled in his own throat. To see this musical idea being payed a respectful homage, see "mr. self destrtuct," opening track of the Nine Inch Nails 1994 masterpiece the downward spiral(which often pays homage to "Up the Hill Backwards" b-side "Crystal Japan" in its unforgettable "a warm place") and opening track "Menlo Park" from last year's debut album La Fin Absolue du Monde, by Funeral Crashers. Bowie's voice on this song is a yell, all the way through. This marks the first time Bowie yells through a song in his entire career. The lyrics make it justified. Angst about being "barred from the event," talk of being "insulted by these fascists; it's so degrading," the more restrained bridge where he mentions how it would "make all the papers" if he "put a bullet in [his] brain." The bass line is sublimely simple, the drums an awkward catch, and the guitar is a nightmare of cold colors that inspires as much as it frightens. Bowie announces his new presence at the smoggy dawn of the eighties as a man divorced from his wife, from drugs, and from his debauched lifestyle of the seventies in a ragged howl that embodies the pain of new beginnings and the rawness of new tender skin in contact with a hostile environment. The Japanese girl singing/speaking just nails the fifth star in to place.

"Up the Hill Backwards" is an immediate juxtaposition. Fast strumming acoustic guitars, thumping punctuating bass drum kicks, more hiss, air release sounds open the song. It suddenly takes a perpendicular turn into a simple four-four up and down verse with what sounds like a subtle chorus behind Bowie's much calmer unforgettable stanzas. "More idols than realities. I'm okay, you're so-so." Finally, the song collapses into an anguished innovative solo by Robert Fripp backed by a funky slap bass plunking away and the drum set falling to pieces while simultaneously somehow keeping time in a way that is almost impossible to put a finger on (which, now that I think of it, is similar to what happens on track two on that spiral album by mr. trent reznor; golly-gee-wow; he did admit to using Scary Monsters as a blueprint for his album).

The title track: what's not to love? More of that guitar work that sounds like a big spider running along shards of broken glass in an abandoned industrial building. It is direct. It is the kind of song you love to sing along to. It has wierd, intriguing lyrics about a girl who is hard to fix with a feeling. The song builds up to a wordless, chanting "oh-oh" ending that, when alone in a car, you shout, very loud, along to while becoming unaware of your gaining speed. It is the perfect song to get exhausted to before being dropped into the lap of one of the most perfect and haunting songs ever written...

"Ashes to Ashes." The song that symbolically buries the character-portraying, coke-snorting, space-opera Bowie of the seventies, the decade he owned. (Gee, that underwater piano sounds kind of like that part at the end of that monster hit by Nine In...okay, I'll drop it). Any song that contains gargling as means of solo should automatically be considered great. When it builds layer upon layer of both cold and warm synthesizer tones until you are completely enfolded in it, being lifted in a color, a fog, a force from outer space, it should be considered really great. When it introduces numerous shifts of vocal delivery without ever losing the main groove of the song, remaining completely accessible amongst its sophistication, including murmuring echoes of lines that never leave your head like the plaintive "I've never done good things. I've never done bad things. I've never done anything out of the blue, whoa-oo-ohoh. I need an axe to break the ice, because I want to come dwon right now," it should be considered one of the greatest songs ever written. Then add the slightly creepy (As opposed ot super creeps) metasong refrain at the end, "My mama said to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom ," where Bowie effectively says it is time to find out what being myself and being transparent in my own songs can be like, to see if I can face the thousands of people and the bright lights as David Jones, rather than the drugged up Thin White Duke, or the eyepatched Halloween Jack, or any one of those performance enhancing masks, and you are left with a song that exists at a level of song whether the person listening can recognize that what he is hearing is possibly the greatest song ever written. At thatpoint, we have to allow for subjectivity. There are a lot of great songs and sometimes people just can't hear it in one of them based on personal resonance and experience and other unexplainable phenomena and have to turn to another one of the greatest songs ever written to feel what someone like me feels when listening to "Ashes to Ashes." I'm not even getting into the other lyrics in the song, or the video.

"Fashion." Again, the guitar. What the fuck? Why is this the only Bowie album with Fripp? Then that cold, air hissing effect with the rhythm. That opening metronomic cold chirping sound. That delectable, funky lick Carlos Alomar plays through much of the song. The collapsing two-note bass synthesizer part that is the basis of the whole song and which speaks directly to your groove thing (if you have one; some people claim not to have groove thing--I think these people are just afraid of their groove thing, mortified that if they use their groove thing in public, they will look the opposite of groovy and doable, they will look in fact like a complete fucking idiot--I feel endlessly sorry for these people). Hand-claps! Come on! Hand-claps, a complete change in direction to end the song, a "doh doh doh doh doh fa fa fa fa fashion" part that looks stupid written down, but is the essence of sublime pop music in its audible manifestation. Sometimes, I just have to stop and say, "David! Your song is brilliant, infectious, catchy, lovely enough! Do you have to keep making it better? Let some other music compete! What am I supposed to listen to for the rest of my life when I've gotten sick of you?" I can't begin to describe how obsessed I was with this song in high school. Much more obsessed than I was with fashion, which I had enough interest in to put a lot of thought into what I was wearing and to sketch my own clothes ideas in class when not writing poetry, lyrics, someone elses lyrics, or maybe paying attention. I even had my own rip-off a cappella song based on it which some people were always demanding I do again, again. Let me just admit, I have no fucking idea what this song is about. "Listen to me Don't Listen to me Talk to me Don't talk to me Dance with me Don't dance with me No Beep Beep" is probably what I should have put under my senior picture in those nostalgia quick sand pit yearbooks. I think it might be a metaphor for the rise of fascist governments and tyrannic despots, continuing one of the themes established in his overture, the compelling seriousness of which is otherwise completely forgotten in the midst of this song. It might also just be what it says it is-- a song about how trends in music and fashion are unpredictable, often distasteful, localized, and ephemeral, which would be an ironic foreshadowing of just how awful the rest of the eighties were going to be for Bowie, as he completely conformed to the sounds and fashions of the decade. (A decade whose artistic height, if we were not to include 1980 as part of the eighties, a year zero in effect, would be Labyrinth, cannot be considered a very good decade). Seeing Bowie perform this song, making his hand say beep-beep at us, on his fiftieth birthday was a high moment of my life.

"Why do you only want tomorrow, with its promise of something hard to do?" Bowie earnestly entreats his subject at the start of "Teenage Wildlife," a song so beautiful, epic, and affecting that it became the name of the most important Bowie fan community and non-Bowie-owned website. Several people I have met and cared about to some degree have only arrived in my life due to my friend's immersion and involvement in this website throughout his own teenage wild life. This song is so good I am reluctant to even write about it. I'm afraid to "put my mouth all over it," as one of Hemingway's characters would say. On this song, Bowie develops yet another singing voice, in a career full of more singing voices than perhaps any other. He sounds like a wounded cowardly lion overcoming its cowardice to confront the injury and injurer at hand. As on other songs, he is backed up by a chorus of other singers, an effect that never loses its magic. It soun"Same old thing, in brand new drag," he sings, immediately continuing the theme from the previous song and the motif about the naïvete and danger of the masses established in the first. "As ugly as a teenage millionaire," The song is narrative, captivating in its detail. When the song breaks down in the middle and a plinky piano simply accentuates Bowie's voice with single high notes as he sings, "You fall to the ground like a leaf from a tree, look up one time at the vast blue sky, scream out aloud as they shoot you down, 'Oh no, I'm not a piece of teenage wildlife," I know I am in the centerpiece of the album, a song simultaneously of poignancy and tenderness as well as histrionic bravado, a song I love, helplessly, despite any of faults a snooty critic might want to point out from his learned armchair. Either Bowie, Visconti, or Fripp knows this song requires something different than the usual Fripp style, and instead we have a more traditional solo, but one that is beautiful, nonetheless. Chuck Hammer, Carlos Alomar, adn Robert Fripp are the guitar equivalent of the holy trinity. As the solo builds, other guitars join in and the guitars counterpoint one another in different tones and textures. As the song returns to a place or verbal prominence, a subtle saxophone underscores the language. This song's tragic narrative prepares us for the story of Sam, subject of the monster track seven.

"But he jumped into the furnace singing old songs we loved," the dramatic, harrowing "Scream Like a Baby" concludes. It is quite a different place than its opening line, "Well I wouldn't buy no merchandise, And I wouldn't go to war," a line that immediately establishes a distinctive tone and voice that tells us this song is not sung by Bowie, but some man Bowie is channeling. It is a short story condensed to just a few powerful images. The second stanza mirrors the first, beginning with that colloquial "Well," like Seamus Heaney's "So" beginning the horrors of his translation of Beowulf. "Well they came down hard on the faggots And they came down hard on the street," Bowie continues, "He was thrown into the wagon, Blindfolded, chains, and they stomped on us, And took away our clothes and things, and filled us full of strange drugs." At the end of the stanza, he intones, "Now I'm learning to be a part of soci..s-society," drawing out the sibilantic hiss as he shows how uneasy the idea is for him to accept. The song is the perfect artistic depiction of a country in which the ruling class's norms and ideals are enforced, violently. It is a nightmare, one from which many parts of the world cannot awaken.

Historically, I have maintained that "Kingdom Come" is my least favorite song on the album. It is a cover song and Bowie takes his wounded lion bit to its fullest expression. When I was younger, it was too much for me. I skipped it most times I listened to the album. Today, I have listened to the song five times. You could consider it the "It Ain't Easy" of Scary Monsters. It is a song that one can appreciate as one gets older. After slaving for the minimum wage and just above it at many dumb jobs, often--but not alway--under the eye of one tyrannical, unhappy bitch or another, the emotional refrain of "I won't be breaking no rocks" is a sentiment with which I can get down.

"Because You're Young" has the right idea. It is the penultimate song on an album full of proto-industrial intensity and dramatic , paranoid fever. Therefore, it should take this form to its limit. It almost gets there, but its chorus provides too much comfort in its melody. It is a very good song. On an album of five star songs, it is a four star song. Boo-hoo. It still rocks and is always worth listening to. It opens with a serious, palm-muted, reverb-enhanced two chord power-chord progression, a musical motif that never gets old. Gavin Rossdale took this motif to its fullest capacity. Much of Razorblade Suitcase, his band's best album, is built on these kind of chord progressions. Nick Cave's dark "Stranger Than Kindess" is driven by such a motif. Joy Division's "Day of the Lords" is, too; it was the first song I loved by them. There are countless good, solid rock songs built on the idea. Take G, go up to B. Take D, go down to B Flat, A to F, etcetera. Does the organ work? I don't know. I'm inclined to say, "Not really." This song and the final song are two very slight
drawbacks to an album that is almost perfect.

The final song is a reprise of the first song. As a unified, thematic album, this cyclical return works. It's an idea Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds do better on Let Love In. "Do You Love Me (Part 1)" is the perfect driving, mood setting open to the album and its yin counterpart at track ten, closing the album, "Do You Love Me (Part Two)" releases you into the dark mists of night and the complexities of your own secret heart. Blixa Bargeld's bass voice doing the bass line "doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo" and the ambient guitar playing have a lot to do with this success. To even things out, "Jangling Jack" is far worse than anything on Scary Monsters. But I digress. The idea of returning, ripping all the awesome out, and doing a resigned version with slightly different lyrics is a good one, but it somehow doesn't satisfy like a different ending might have, something like earlier masterpieces "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" and "The Bewlay Brothers." Then again, songs like that don't just materialize because you want them to. Bowie cannot be blamed if he couldn't get any more genius out of himself than he already had by the end of making this album. I like the reprise. I think it works. I don't want to dwell on it. It's the difference between ending your album with "I Remember Nothing" or ending your album with "Decades." In the reductionistic terms of the five star evaluation, a stupid concept that I can't escape from, it is the diifference between a four and a half star album and a five star album.

If you have the ryko version, your cd goes into some terrible recordings of Space Oddity , Panic in Detroit, and Alabama Song. Turn it off. Fortunately, ryko found it in their hearts to include "Crystal Japan." A nice song, but only really notable because mr. tr turned it from a sake advertisement into an instrumental visit from an angel while you are in hell.

Similar to picking which one of Bowie's album is the best, picking which Bowie album has the best guitar work on it is nearly impossible. Mick Ronson's solos on Aladdin Sane and some of Ziggy Stardust are brilliant. They never get old, as Bowie insists is the case with him (or the narrator of his song) on track three of his last album Reality. Every time I hear the shrieking, wailing, uncapped madness of Ronson's Les Paul on "Time" and "Panic in Detroit," or the way his sweet, singing, reaching ecstasy on "The Prettiest Star" saves the song from mediocrity, I think along the lines of those Connery-loving Bond fans: the first was the best. But then, inevitably, I get lost in the frenetic carving of "Stay," on stationtostation, and think that maybe Earl Slick is underrated. This idea gets bolstered listening to recent albums heathen and Reality and especially when meeting Earl Slick at the Mudd Puddle here in New Paltz; the man is tall, angular, clad in perfect black clothes, smells good, humble, has hair like Morpheus, and makes one feel that he is exactly what a guitar player ought to be. Regardless of your feelings on blues or the eighties, you cannot deny that the tube-vamped untouchable mastery Stevie Ray Vaughan displays on Let's Dance is incredible. His Fender Stratocaster becomes the archetypal guitar in his godly hands. I would be willing to posit that his guitar playing is superior to the songwriting on that album. It is one of the only reasons to continue listening to that album past the age of fifteen. Had that been a better album, maybe we would place Stevie Ray Vaughan higher in the canon of Bowie's guitar players. Then again, maybe a Texan blues master is just too incongruous with our idea of the androgynous, space visitor-rock star. In the nineties, Reeves Gabrels arrives. After slapping Bowie out of his numb eighties cliché betrayal of his talent during his lowest point, on the Glass Spider tour during the wretched Never Let Me Down era, and putting him through an ego checking two album stint as "just one of the guys in the band" in the spotty Tin Machine project, Reeves Gabrels rises to power on the awesome Outside, the concise, loud, fun Earthling, and the "not with a bang, not with a bang, but with a whimper" 'hours...' (which, in its EP form, would run "Thursday's Child," "Something in the Air," "Survive," "If I'm Dreaming My Life," and "Seven,"--in other words, cut the entire second half--and would still not rank up there). What he does is so freakish and wild, so mind-altering, and so virtuosic, that I tend to say he is my favorite. The thing with Gabrels, as with Fripp, is that he does what he does really well, but usually can't do anything else. Gabrels has absolutely no place on an album as straight-forward and rocking as heathen and it is a damn good thing he wasn't on it. You can see Bowie was working towards heathen on 'hours...', but the songs weren't there, the back-up singers were cliché, Gail Ann Dorsey (who l love) wasn't the right bassist for the job, he wasn't in the right space with the right producer, and Reeves Gabrels, while making track four the best on the album, has no place to be himself on that album, while Bowie is tryingtoo hard to be himself, a self that doesn't exist anymore. The album is a pathetic look backwards on a career spent forging into brave new worlds almost every step of the way. Bowie undermines Bowie by trying too hard to be Bowie. That, and the songs were written for a fucking computer game. Come on. All right. Let's move on. Back to Gabrels. On track two of Earthling, Bowie challenged Gabrels to play a solo on just one string of his guitar. What follows is one of the most exhilirating moments of the album, of guitar work in Bowie's catalog, and maybe in guitar history. If I don't have time to take a shower, I just listen to "Looking for Satellites;" the solo is so beautiful, colorful, and ecstatic, I somehow feel clean after listening to it. Shaving to it was a favorite past-time in my adolescence. The song exists for that guitar playing. The lyrics are a collage that might be meaningless: "Nowhere/TV/Shampoo/Come Back/Boy's Own/Slim Tie/Showdown/Can't Stop" makes up most of the song. The interverses are little more than variations on the "something in our skies. something in our blood" parts of "The Heart's FIlthy Lesson." The song exists for Gabrels's transcendent, alien guitar playing. With a guitarist that good and that weird, you might feel obligated to use him on every song, maybe even songs that don't really need him. This may be why Gabrels really lasted for about three albums, why Ronson might be the true greatest guitar player Bowie ever had, and why Fripp is the perfect middle ground between the alien, innovative strangeness of Gabrels and the ability to serve a song that Ronson exemplifies. Certainly, when one listens to Scary Monsters, one can entertain the notion that maybe Robert Fripp, Eno-collaborator and lead guitarist of prog-rock monster (and inverted Dark Tower monster) King Crimson, was the greatest guitar player to ever play on a Bowie album.

People often erroneously attribute the porduction of the Berlin Trilogy to Eno. While Eno's contribution to those albums cannot be overestimated, the producer was the same producer Bowie worked with through most of the seventies, Tony Visconti. Perhaps more important even than guitar player is producer of an album. Scary Monsters was the last album produced by Tony Visconti until heathen. I don't think I need to say anymore than that.


modernaged said...

First off, happy belated birthday. I feel like shit for missing it.

Now: Oh. My. God.

Thank you, thank you for this incredibly (veryveryvery) in depth look at Scary Monsters. I haven't listened to Bowie in a long time now, but Hearts Filthy Lesson came on shuffle the other day and I almost tore the walls down. Amazing.

I think I'm going to break the A Place to Bury Strangers cycle and give Scary Monsters a spin later in honor of this dissection.

While listening to Let Love In the other night, I planned another (totally unwritten) short story based on Red Right Hand.

KLA* said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, belated as they may be, and taking the time to read a post of this length on a subject as ultimately unimportant as this one is. "Red Right Hand" always inspires.

pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease start writing your stories. I know you are supposed to be a writer just listening to you talk. Sometimes I wish I had a tape recorder running when we converse.

Like that recent comment you made about JP. You have to write shit like that down. That way, when you base a character on someone like JP, you can use that line and everyone can punctured by its concise, awful truth, praise you as a writer, and keep buying your books for more lines like that.

frankie teardrop said...

"strength in your stride and hope in your squeaky clean eyes..."

'teenage wildlife' is easily among a top five bowie songs, for the record. holy shit, that song elates me to unforseen heights each and every time i listen to it. more appropriate of the 'to be listened to at maximum volume' tag.