How David Bowie utilised all-star musicians on ‘Scary Monsters’

In addition to his natural talent, David Bowie, the ultimate chameleon of the music industry, remained relevant because of two key aspects. The first was his constantly expanding musical taste, given that Bowie always had an ear for the most exciting contemporary sounds. The second point, and arguably most important, is that he drew upon the talents of others to compose one of the most varied oeuvres the mainstream has ever heard.

Whilst Bowie had help from a host of people in his time, ranging from The Spiders from Mars in his glam era to Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan on Let’s Dance, one of his most accomplished albums that features a particularly stellar cast is Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). A hit record, not only did it affirm that Bowie was going nowhere for the new decade, but it signalled yet another metamorphosis. This process culminated in him being certified as a global star following the release of Let’s Dance three years later.

The album came at the perfect time for David Bowie. He had just enjoyed one of the most artistically fruitful periods of his career with the Berlin Trilogy, the albums he released between 1977 and 1979: Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. However, despite being critically acclaimed and widely influential, they were not a commercially successful batch. Accordingly, Bowie sought to make a more marketable record with Scary Monsters, and in true style, that is what he did.

Bowie would later say: “By the time of Scary Monsters the kind of music that I was doing was becoming very acceptable … it was definitely the sound of the early eighties.”

Co-produced by David Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, Scary Monsters was recorded between February and April 1980 at New York City’s Power Station, with final sessions at London’s Good Earth Studios. It was a real coming together of trusted artists for Bowie, as most of the personnel featured on the record had previously worked with him. Incorporating elements of post-punk, art rock and new wave, it was a perfect mesh for the emerging zeitgeist of the new decade. Famously, its lead single ‘Ashes to Ashes’ also saw Bowie return to the character of Major Tom, who first appeared in 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’.

In February 1980, Bowie travelled to the Power Station to begin recording Scary Monsters. Returning from the Berlin Trilogy was Tony Visconti, who was told by his old friend that the new record would be more commercial than his recent efforts. Things had slightly changed for the pair, though. Brian Eno, the former Roxy Music whizz who collaborated with them on all of the Berlin Trilogy, had left the fold, as he believed that things with Bowie had “petered out” on 1979’s Lodger.

Demonstrating how much Bowie relied on trusted musicians for Scary Monsters, drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murray, and rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had all played on every album in the Berlin Trilogy, also returned. This familiarity and skill gave Bowie the required ballast to build a hit album on top. It was the fifth and final Bowie record to boast this lineup, whose tenure started on 1976’s Station to Station. Only Alomar would remain after Scary Monsters.

Guitarist Adrian Belew, who featured on Lodger and was the source of a feud between Bowie and Frank Zappa due to the former poaching him, claimed to Bowie biographer David Buckley that he received an advance to play on the sessions. Accordingly, he was surprised that the record was made without him.

Instead of Belew, King Crimson guitar hero Robert Fripp, who added a distinctive edge to “Heroes”, was re-enlisted, alongside newcomer and ‘Guitarchitecture’ pioneer Chuck Hammer, a textural genius on the six-string. Both ended up instilling Scary Monsters with a cerebral and constantly pulsating edge, crafting sonics that allowed Bowie to move ever closer to his ultimate creative vision. Displaying this point, Fripp added his searing guitar to ‘Fashion’ and other numbers, really making them tick. As for Hammer, he provided his futuristic guitar synthesiser to the equally forward-thinking ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Adding another welcome element to the new album was E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, who was concurrently working on another classic album at the same studio – Bruce Springsteen’s The River. Elsewhere, art-rock master Andy Clark provided synthesiser on the tracks ‘Fashion’, ‘Scream Like a Baby’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Because You’re Young’, which not only gave the album an exciting feel but added a tangible atmosphere that even over 40 year’ later elicits a physical response due to their incisive quality.

The sessions at the Power Station took place over two and a half weeks, with an additional week used for overdubs. During this period, ‘It’s No Game (No. 2)’ was the only track completely finished, with the remaining songs instrumental. At one point, Carlos Alomar suggested they cover Television leader Tom Verlaine’s ‘Kingdom Come’, the highlight of his 1979 solo album. Bowie agreed, and Verlaine was then invited to play lead guitar, but ironically, they didn’t end up using his work, with Robert Fripp eventually appearing on the recording. Later, Visconti would recall: “I don’t think we ever used a note of his playing, if we even recorded him.”

After the Power Station sessions, instead of improvising his lyrics and music as he had done so many times in the past, Bowie opted for a different artistic route. This time, he wanted to take his time composing and developing the words and music. Visconti told Nicholas Pegg: “Instead of immediately writing finished melodies and lyrics, David begged to take a long break to think it all out, so we adjourned until two months later in London.”

The sessions resumed in April 1980 at Good Earth Studios, and all the vocals were recorded there, including the Japanese narration for ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ by actor Michi Hirota. Clark and Fripp also provided additional overdubs.

Not finished there, Bowie had one last trick up his sleeve regarding the all-star personnel on the album. He enlisted The Who’s guitarist and creative director, Pete Townshend, for ‘Because You’re Young’. Reportedly, Townshend was grappling with a host of personal issues at the time and arrived at the studio in a foul mood. When he asked what Bowie and Visconti wanted from him, they said, “Pete Townshend chords”. However, his work was placed low in the final mix, so presumably, his efforts could have been better.

Another moment the other musicians helped Bowie bring to life was on the title track, which emerged from a 1975 composition named ‘Running Scared’. A manifestation of how Bowie stayed relevant using the talent of others, the rhythm section looked to the work of Joy Division to create the glacial post-punk angle. The repetitive rhythm section was then lifted by Fripp’s dynamic guitar playing, which ranks among some of the finest found in Bowie’s oeuvre.

‘Fashion’ was also bettered by the works of others. A song noted for its resemblance to Bowie’s 1975 single ‘Golden Years’, it has a funk and reggae angle and evolved out of a reggae “spoof” Clark triggered on his synthesiser, again augmented by the squealing guitar of Robert Fripp. Elsewhere, ‘Teenage Wildlife’ evokes images of R&B hit-makers The Ronnettes, with Bittan’s piano adding a nostalgic twist that takes the listener back to that era.

Scary Monsters is an excellent album and another exhibit of David Bowie’s genius. With the extra personnel credited to the project, the collective paved the way for the global superstar. It remains one of his finest efforts.

Every musician credited on Scary Monsters:
David Bowie – vocals, synthesisers, mellotron, electric piano, piano, synth-bass, sound effects, backing vocals, saxophone
Dennis Davis – drums
George Murray – bass
Carlos Alomar – lead and rhythm guitars
Chuck Hammer – guitar synthesiser on ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Teenage Wildlife’
Robert Fripp – guitar on ‘Fashion’, ‘It’s No Game’, ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, ‘Kingdom Come’, ‘Up the Hill Backwards’, and ‘Teenage Wildlife’
Roy Bittan – piano on ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, and ‘Up the Hill Backwards’
Andy Clark – synthesiser on ‘Fashion’, ‘Scream Like a Baby’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Because You’re Young’
Pete Townshend – guitar on ‘Because You’re Young’
Tony Visconti – acoustic guitar on ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ and ‘Up the Hill Backwards’, backing vocals
Lynn Maitland – backing vocals
Chris Porter – backing vocals
Michi Hirota – voice on ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’

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