How David Bowie returned to orbit and made Scary Monsters

David Bowie
(Image credit: L. Cohen / Getty Images)

By the end of the 1970s, Major Tom had been ‘sitting in a tin can’ for 10 years, his circuits all but dead. Meanwhile, back at ground control, his alter-ego had turned into a succession of slightly more terrestrial sorts: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke. 

Then, just when it seemed that everyone’s favourite rock’n’roll astronaut would remain marooned in space for ever, he re-entered our orbit. First there was the stark ’79 remake of Space Oddity. Next, the following year, came Ashes To Ashes, the hypnotic and funky update and centrepiece of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Not only did both song and album carry David Bowie back to the top of the charts, establishing his 80s artistic reputation, it also served as a powerful look back that mourned, mocked and sampled his own mythology. 

Scary Monsters always felt like some kind of purge,” Bowie told me in 2003. “You think: ‘How do you distance yourself from the thing that you’re within?’ I felt I was on the cusp of something absolutely new. There were no absolutes. Nothing was necessarily true, but everything was true. It was this sense of: ‘Wow, you can borrow the luggage of the past, you can amalgamate it with things that you’ve conceived could be in the future and you can set it in the now.’” 

If that seems like a heady vision for an album, there was some precedent. “David and I had a running joke,” producer Tony Visconti tells Classic Rock. “It was: ‘Let’s make this next record our Sgt. Pepper!’ The Berlin records – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – were all done in five weeks each. You can’t exactly make a Sgt. Pepper in that time frame. On Scary Monsters we decided to give ourselves the luxury to think of every possible thing we could do. That was the premise. And we took ourselves very seriously.” 

Carlos Alomar, Bowie’s guitarist and key collaborator, tells Classic Rock:Scary Monsters was a new awakening. The intention was up-tempo, high-energy songs. It was to hit them right between the eyes."

At the start of the 80s, Bowie was dividing his time between a home in Switzerland and a flat in London. He’d finalised the divorce from his wife Angie, and having spent the previous three years in relative anonymity in Berlin he wanted to plug into a different energy. New York City was, as Alomar says, “the shot of adrenaline that he needed”, so he rented a midtown apartment at 26th & 8th, next door to the guitarist’s. 

“Our building was right behind the Fashion Institute of Technology,” Alomar says. “When they found out that David lived there, oh my god, they would just ring the buzzer night and day.” 

Manhattan at the time still had a late-70s hangover of drugs, crime, experimental art and punk. Bowie, both mentor and friend to bands like Talking Heads, Blondie and Television, loved the “sense of urgency about the place. Wherever I’m writing, that place tends to make itself very known,” he told me. “Either in the atmosphere or sound. New York feels very street.” But the Power Station, where they recorded, was anything but street. 

“Out from the cave of Berlin, David wanted a studio that was bigger-than-life, with all the bells and whistles,” Alomar says. 

“There was nothing like it,” Visconti says. “It was built by a musician/producer. He’d modelled it after Motown’s Hitsville studio, where he’d worked. It was twenty-four-track, and every channel went through a tube amplifier. So we would get these warm, fat sounds, which thrilled us to no end. 

“The other thing, which made us kind of antsy, but in a good way, was that Bruce Springsteen was recording next door,” Visconti continues. “There was no cafeteria, just a small lounge shared by the two studios. So quite often we were having lunch with the E Street Band. And that’s how Roy Bittan, Bruce’s piano player, came to play on Scary Monsters. The Power Station was really a good place to make our Sgt. Pepper album.” 

Yet for such an ambitious endeavour, Bowie initially seemed under-prepared, arriving with song snippets and bits rescued from the past. “I’ve just got some chord changes,” he told Visconti. “You know what I’m like.”

“He only had lyrics for It’s No Game, which was a song he supposedly wrote when he was sixteen,” Visconti recalls. “So we only had one song on the album with a clear lyrical direction. Everything else was sketches with working titles.”

Working “strict hours”, from 11am to 7pm, Bowie and Visconti put the core band of Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray through their paces, developing those sketches into finished tracks, while Bowie improvised vocal ideas. 

“I wanted to make sure that this album had me, George and Dennis being totally forceful,” says Alomar, who was Bowie’s musical director. “I wanted songs with defined beginnings and endings that had signature lines, with complexity. But we also left holes for other players, and for David to shape his melodies. We might present him with five different arrangement ideas. He would accept all our offerings, then choose. When we heard what he liked, he gave you that smile and nodded. When it was wrong, he’d say: ‘Um, it’s okay.’ And that ‘okay’ was the death knell. It meant: “Right, on to the next attempt.” 

Among the first wave of guest musicians brought in to give Scary Monsters its otherworldly vibe was Chuck Hammer, who had been making waves with his guitar synthesiser playing – which he dubbed ‘guitarchitecture’ – in Lou Reed’s band. 

“On my first day,” Hammer recalls, “David called the studio to tell me he was going to be ten minutes late. Which was the opposite of Lou Reed, who could leave you waiting for hours. David was so polite. And he was only five minutes late. He walked in and really put me at ease, telling me how much he loved the tape of demos I’d given him. He was drinking a carton of milk and holding a clipboard, and dressed in a full-length leather coat with wooden Japanese sandals.” 

Hammer’s first order of business was overdubbing on the track that would become Ashes To Ashes, which Visconti remembers by its “working title People Are Turning To Gold”. 

“I love Tony, but he doesn’t know everything about the background of the songs,” says Hammer. “Bowie kept certain things from him. Ashes To Ashes started with a demo tape that I’d given to David of an instrumental piece called Guitargraphy. It had a descending chord structure. He appropriated it for Ashes To Ashes, in a much more brilliant manner than I ever would’ve envisioned it. I have no complaints. David appropriated art from other young artists in a totally positive way. 

"I just started layering on guitar tracks, trying to make it sound like a choir. When I came in the control room, David said: 'That’s really beautiful, Chuck!' It was one of those moments where you knew you were part of something magical. I think the 1980s started with Ashes To Ashes.” 

Ashes To Ashes is, along with “Heroes” and Life On Mars, one of Bowie’s greatest songs, and key to understanding his collage-like creative process. Getting at its true inspiration, Bowie told me: “It really came from Inchworm, by Danny Kaye. It was a song that he sang for the film of Hans Christian Andersen. I loved it as a kid and it’s stayed with me forever. You wouldn’t believe the amount of my songs that have sort of spun off that one song. 

"Ashes To Ashes wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for Inchworm. There’s a nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult."

After five weeks in New York, Bowie and Visconti had captured on tape what sounded like the Sgt. Pepper-style future they’d had envisioned. 

“David was overwhelmed with how great the tracks turned out,” Visconti says. “He wanted to take three months off so he could write proper lyrics. We then reconvened at my studio, Good Earth, in London to record vocals. 

“David had many tools in his vocal tool box. He was just about the best singer I’ve ever worked with. He sings from his soul, from his spirit. My job was to step to the side when he was doing great, but I wasn’t afraid to step in if I felt he could do something better. Sometimes he would challenge me and say: 'Why?' And I’d give my reasons. Then he’d do another take. We were friends since 1967. The reason that we lasted so long together is because he trusted me.” 

With the vocals complete, they brought in King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. His squalling, dissonant blasts coloured seven songs, most notably Fashion and Teenage Wildlife (Fripp called his playing “very out”). 

Visconti: “David and Fripp would kind of grin at each other, as if to say: ‘Let’s dare each other how far out we can go!’ And Fripp was always a joker. He’d crack the most obscure jokes, where it took a second or two for the penny to drop. He was a total joy to work with. He called David ‘Mister B’. One thing you never called Bowie was ‘Dave’. He would never let anyone call him that. But I think he liked Fripp calling him ‘Mister B’.” 

Then there was Pete Townshend, who added power chords to Because You’re Young and brought a darker vibe to the studio. 

“This was in Pete’s drinking days,” says Visconti. “He just dropped by the studio, and then he said: ‘Okay, I’ll play guitar on a song.’ David and I were afraid of him, because he was already slightly drunk. And he said: ‘I’d like a bottle of wine.’ I said: ‘Red or white?’ And he shouted at me: ‘There’s no such thing as white wine!’ So we got him the best bottle of red we could find. 

"He looked at us defiantly, wearing his guitar, and said: ‘What do you want me to play?’ And we obviously wanted him to play his windmill chords, but we were afraid that maybe he thought that was too cliché. Finally, I said: ‘Um, we want you to play Pete Townshend chords.’ ‘Oh, okay!’ Then he spent about forty-five minutes playing windmill chords."

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was released in September 1980, and charted at No.1 the UK and No.12 in the US. Ashes To Ashes and Fashion were not only ubiquitous radio hits, but also video favourites on the newly launched MTV.

Although Bowie had plans to tour the album, with a satellite link to cinemas for select shows, he scrapped the idea after his friend John Lennon was shot dead in New York on December 8. Eerily, the killer, Mark David Chapman, reportedly had a front-row ticket to see Bowie in The Elephant Man, the Broadway play he was starring in, the following night. 

Also, in Chapman’s hotel room police found a program for the play with a circle drawn around Bowie’s name, and a photo of Bowie at the Booth Theatre stage door. 

“We were living next door to each other, and he was just destroyed by John’s death,” Alomar recalls. “Destroyed. You must understand that David was living in New York with his son. He had just gotten to a great place in his life where he was coming back. He felt comfortable walking around the city. And then you find out that your friend, who also felt comfortable walking around, got shot – and you were supposed to be next? I can’t put words in David’s mouth about why he didn’t tour. But in mourning someone dear to him, he had to have considered all precautions and cautions. It was necessary.” 

Three years later, Bowie turned towards the commercial sound of his Let’s Dance album and a decade of increasingly conventional material. Scary Monsters, often called his last great album, seemed to end the experimental chapter of his career, until his mid-90s resurgence. 

When we spoke, Bowie contemplated the idea of how isolation might have affected that change: “I probably reached a peak of a certain kind writing at that time, where it worked for me being sort of pulled back from things in a bemused fashion. But what started off as more of an arty exercise ended up, because of my addictions, with me almost ostracising myself from the rest of whatever society I was in. 

"It became more of a mental health concern. And I think it led to a depression in my writing during the eighties. When I reemerged as being part of something or willing to have more of an affinity with the people around me, and obviously with my marriage, my writing improved beyond belief. From the late eighties into the nineties, and onwards, I really like what I’ve written. I can’t say that about the eighties."

Chuck Hammer, who has gone on to have a successful career doing TV and film soundtracks, says: “David Bowie is like an artistic portal, somebody people have to absorb in order to do any kind of current kind of art, whatever century we’re in. You work your way through the masters to be knowledgeable. David is one of the masters. And Scary Monsters is a masterpiece.” 

Carlos Alomar, now a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, and pre-COVID-19 pandemic was planning a 2020 tour of a show called The Soulfulness Of David Bowie, says: “I’m a collaborator, but I’m also a David Bowie fan. So when Scary Monsters came out, I bought the album and was just as excited as everybody else to hear it: ‘Did my parts make the final cut?’ ‘Oh my god, I forgot I played that riff.’ 

"David always knew that he could throw a million things at me and I’d play my parts and it didn’t matter to me if he used them or not. It heightened my anticipation of receiving David’s new record and finding out if I did well in the overall outcome. To David’s credit, he was a great listener, and had an innate sense of which pieces would fit together, like a jigsaw puzzle. When you put that puzzle together, you end up with Scary Monsters.” 

Scary Monsters is my favourite record we made together,” says Visconti, who produced Bowie’s final two albums The Next Day and Blackstar. “It was the first one where we had the luxury of time on our side. We only signed off on it when we felt it was absolutely finished. It is dense. Not so much the amount of instruments, but everybody was playing complicated parts. 

"It’s like a Swiss watch. If you open up a Swiss watch you see all those tiny little wheels and hammers going. But no matter what’s going on, it has to tell the time in the end. There was so much Swiss watch business going on in those tracks. That’s why I love it. 

"We did everything we could to make our Sgt. Pepper. It’s the culmination of both my career and David’s entire career up to then."

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.