“More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales, as far as records go, by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I really wish to make,” David Bowie told Rolling Stone when Scary Monsters was released in 1980. In some ways, it was one of the most avant-garde, convention-defying records of his career: The first voice we hear on it is actress Michi Hirota’s, shouting in Japanese; a lot of its lyrics suggest the “cutup” technique that Bowie had learned from William S. Burroughs; and it’s shot through with dissonance and bursts of unexpected noise. “There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out,” Bowie noted at the time. “One tries as much as possible to put oneself on the line artistically.”
Even so, Scary Monsters worked just fine as pop music. It was a substantial hit, reaching Number One in the U.K. Both “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” were staples of MTV’s early years. (It probably didn’t hurt that MTV VJ Alan Hunter had appeared in the “Fashion” video.) It also featured a murderers’ row of phenomenal musicians, including Bowie’s late-Seventies rhythm section of drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray, Pete Townshend and E Street Band pianist/Station to Station vet Roy Bittan.
The album’s signature sound, though, is Robert Fripp’s squalling lead guitar – most impressively, the corrosive blurts that streak through the funky “Fashion.” That song, like “Fame” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” was one of Bowie’s last-minute brainstorms; it had been an abandoned track called “Jamaica” until he turned up with a completed lyric just as Tony Visconti was starting to mix the record. Scary Monsters, Fripp said, represented “Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously. Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously – the city certainly has that effect. So his return to a degree of involvement with New York, I think, is very healthy.”
In a sense, Scary Monsters opened the Eighties looking back on the Seventies. The album scavenged and recast bits of unreleased Bowie compositions spanning his entire career: “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance, was a reworked version of “I Am a Laser,” which he’d written in 1973 for the Astronettes (a soul trio featuring then-girlfriend Ava Cherry). The Pierrot outfit and makeup he wore on its cover and in the “Ashes to Ashes” video recalled his early days as a mime. (“The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot, and I, the performer, am the message,” he’d quipped to Rolling Stone back in 1971.) Bowie also took a shot at the generation of artists who’d come up in his shadow – “Same old thing in brand-new drag,” he snapped at the “New Wave boys” on “Teenage Wildlife.”
Scary Monsters‘ masterstroke is its most self-referential song: “Ashes to Ashes,” which alluded to “Space Oddity” with the line “We know Major Tom’s a junkie,” and reminded listeners just how much Bowie had grown and changed in the intervening decade. In 1980, there were millions of new fans for him to reach and transform as well.
“My introduction to David Bowie was watching ‘Ashes to Ashes’ on MTV,” Marilyn Manson told Rolling Stone. “I was confused and captivated.”