Sunday, December 4, 2022


I previously said “Station to Station” (1975) was my favourite David Bowie album [link], but the album I have the T-shirt for is “Scary Monsters... and Super Creeps” (1980), which closed the “classic” Bowie period of the 1970s, before he reinvented himself as “himself” for “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

“Scary Monsters” begins and ends with two versions of the same song, “It’s No Game”, the first sung as a wail against an oncoming onslaught, the second much calmer, as if having accepted a new status quo. Initially feeling like a set-up for an album with an anti-fascist theme, most clearly in the lyrics to “Fashion”, “It’s No Game” launches you into what becomes almost a definitive Bowie statement on recurrent themes of alienation, madness and misunderstanding, before taking on a new confidence with the next album.

What I had not expected was for “It’s No Game” to have dated from the start of Bowie’s “classic” era. A new box set, “Divine Symmetry”, was released in November 2022 to act as a complement to 1971’s “Hunky Dory” album, showing the process that led to “Life on Mars”, “Oh You Pretty Things” and “Changes”, while including songs that remained as demos or were only performed live. One of these, “Tired of My Life”, starts as a folk-like song more reminiscent of Bowie’s previous album “The Man Who Sold the World”, but you start recognising the chord progression, and then the middle section: “Pull the curtains on yesterday and it seems so much later / Put a bullet in my brain and I'll make all the papers.” 

The verses around it may have changed, and the remaining lines polished further, but hearing “It’s No Game” in “Tired of My Life” is inescapable, just as listening to “King of the City” will lead you to start singing “Ashes to Ashes” along with it. I shouldn’t have expected something like this to have been done – if you bought the remised reissue of the Beatles album known as “The White Album” that came with an extra CD of demo songs, you will know that John Lennon’s “Child of Nature” had its lyrics rewritten to become “Jealous Guy” – but there is something about hearing David Bowie essentially recycling old material years after writing, and not just when plans don’t work out, such as a musical version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” being repurposed into 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” album. 

Even if these recordings were known, or even released previously, grouping them together to display an artist’s creative process confirms the adage about how much of it is perspiration over inspiration. Add in “Scream Like a Baby”, reusing the music composed by Bowie for “I Am a Laser”, a 1973 song he wrote for backing group The Astronettes, and Bowie’s covering of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come”, and half of the ten tracks for “Scary Monsters” existed before the album’s production began, which departed from Bowie’s usual process by having backing tracks recorded before lyrics were written, instead of pre-written demos or Brian Eno-led improvisation.

This exposure to Bowie’s musical processes will continue, but it will come at the expense of the mystique that the works were intended to create. With the selling of the publishing rights to his back catalogue for $250 million to Warner Chappell Music in January 2022, everything will eventually come out. We remain curious, but we cannot put our fingers in our ears, we will eventually know Bowie inside out.

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