Fears of a Clown

by Charles Shaar Murray / NME

1980

Scary Monsters‘ is the realist’s Bowie album . . . this is a time in which an intelligent person does well to be afraid”

……Learning to live with somebody’s depression: the man in the clown suit stops running, finds self in back-against-wall situation, attempts to deal with same. ‘Scary Monsters‘ depicts David Bowie unpacking after his ‘Lodger‘ phase, rationalizing (or not, as the case may be) the current contents of his suitcase and taking stock of his surroundings.

……Or, put it another way, ‘Scary Monsters‘ is the 1980 long-playing David Bowie record, the latest installment in rock’s longest and loudest internal dialogue.

……Bowie has had what is by far the most interesting career of anybody in his field over the last ten years: no-one else has contracted so many modern diseases and displayed such a variegated set of symptoms. His art (and we can call it that, since the term is now sufficiently neutralized to carry no value judgments whatsoever) is a useful one; his snapshots are taken from angles sufficiently unlike those selected by others to enable him to use the devices they pioneered without plagiarizing their work, and he leaves enough debris in his wake for younger artists to make their names by tidying up after him.

……Here there be monsters: fears both large and trivial, a few breaks and gaps in that old closed circuit, a few good noises and a tangled, verbose approach to songwriting.

……With 1977’s ‘Low‘, Bowie broke the mirror and smashed the increasingly cumbersome songwriting mechanism that he had been constructing and developing since the ‘David Bowie 1969‘ album. In 1980 Major Tom’s is revealed as fraudulent and illusory (just as Bowie’s ‘escape’ via withdrawal on ‘Low‘ was) and the latter-day Bowie ‘soun’ (a grinding, dissonant, treacherous, chilling noise where standard rock tonalities are twisted until their messages are changed) reaches its apogee.

……Desperate measures for desperate times: The first version begins with a selection of mechanical noises (someone launching a boat with an outboard motor? Enlightment awaited w/bated breath) and Bowie already at the end of his tether. As he sings the lyrics in English, his manner becoming increasingly overwrought, Michi Hirota spits and snarls a Japanese translation around him in a manner as sulphurous as degrading, “To be insulted be these fascists is so degrading, “Bowie announces, ‘It’s No Game (#1). The tracks ends with a sublimely perverse Fripp guitar loop, repeated almost insultingly as Bowie screams, “Shut up!” to no avail until the whole thing cuts off.

……The closing version implies-disquietingly-a far more tranquil acceptance of the nearness of defeat.

……Bowie does not recommend passivity, but he extends little hope of victory, discussing “The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom / and the possibilities it seems to offer” on ‘Up The Hill Backwards‘ with a sardonic, repeated refrain “It’s got nothing to with you / if you can grasp it,” after a harsh Bo Diddley intro harking back to ‘Panic In Detroit‘.

……Ashes To Ashes‘ is book-ended by two of the album’s most striking pieces: ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps‘ is Bowie’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ‘Fashion‘ eerily echoes ‘Fame‘.

……The title track first: Bowie uses his Bewaly Brothers cockney voice to rehearse the plight of the song’s heroine with a casual, off-hand cruelty. That synthesized drum sound premiered on ‘Low’ bounces in and out like post-mutant Spectrosound and Bowie uses a synth-processed vocal to give the chorus a peculiarly nasty sibilance. Wait till Grace Jones gets hold of this one: “She’d opened strange doors that we’d never open again / She began to wail, jealousies scream / waiting at the lights, know what I mean?”

……Ashes To Ashes‘ reintroduces the ‘It’s No Game (#1)‘ device of the ‘Other’ voice parroting the lyrics and, to cop a line from ‘Game’ , it “draw(s) the blinds on yesterday and it’s all so much scarier.” The literal-mindedness with which Bowie dismantles as many aspects of his myth as he can reach is oddly cheering.

……In ‘Fashion‘, Bowie re-explores anti-disco, and will probably get another disco hit for his pains. The song takes the ‘reactionary’ attitude to fashion (i.e. that it is something imposed from outside and above), but it’s got a fine, direct lyric (and a good grind, you can twitch to it), closing off another avenue of escape right from the opening synth pulse-like the whine of tormented animal-which introduces Fripp’s clenched sawtooth guitar.

……Over on the second side, Bowie permits one of his characters to address him by his real name. A retroactive memo to self, ‘Teenage Wildlife‘ is impeccably scatching:”. . . As ugly as a teenage millionaire / pretending in a whiz kid world / And you’ll take me aside / and say/ David what shall I do / then wait for me in the hallway / and I’ll say don’t ask me I don’t know any hallways.”

……On the run again, Bowie announces that he feels like “a group of one”: a confession, not a boast. At a time when unity is strength is what we need, the ‘glamour’ of the outsider is hollower than ever, but Bowie doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of the choice. The song recaptures something of the dreamy drift of Heroes’, and Fripp’s guitar is ridiculously romantic, but speeded up to a nagging pitch of intensity.

……Logically enough, the plight of the political prisoner and the social/sexual outlaw is explored on ‘Scream Like A Baby‘: Bowie plays cheif Broom to the McMurphy of the song’s hero, Sam, who “sat in the back seat swearing he’d seek revenge / but he jumped into the furnace singing old songs we loved” while Bowie himself closes his eyes and “I’m learning to be a part of society.” There is an extremely effective use of overdubbed varispeed vocals on the crucial section of the lyrics, technofans: watch out for this technique on your favorite artist’s next effort.

……Salvation is the carrot which always remains the same distance from your nose however fast and hard you run: Bowie interprets Tom Verlaine’s ‘Kingdom Come‘ with as awful, wracked intensity that he only brings to very few other moments on the album (notably the first version of ‘It’s No Game (#1), and afterwards even a cameo guitar intro from the inimitable Pete Townshend seems anticlimactic. An absolute trademark Townshend lick kicks ‘Because You’re Young‘ into gear as love “back to front and no sides” turns into another blind alley. Superficially related to ‘Boys Keep Swinging‘ but without even the Petit Guignol irony that left the listener cheering Bowie on as he demolished the masculine stereotype, we find Young Love hallowed out and desperate, and leading straight into an understated ‘It’s No Game (#2)‘ stripped of the clutter, the blabber’n’smoke and the Japanese trappings.

……Scary Monsters‘ is shorn of all hope, yet it represents a call to arms. It is an album which presupposes defeat, yet it is unashmadely and unequivocally confrontional (can this be the modern negative positivism that we’ve heard about?). There are “no free steps to heaven”, yet it’s time to roll. The album is harsh, strained, inelegant, cluttered, verbose, elliptical, yet Bowie communicates with an honesty and directness that suggests that an informed pessimism can be more inspiring-in real terms-than any obtuse optimistic fantasy.

……Scary Monsters‘ is the realist’s Bowie album. John Cale may have said ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ First, but Bowie says it best. This is a time in which an intelligent person does well to be afraid. To know fear but not be conquered by it is the response that is needed now . . . even from a man in a clown suit.

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