Album Rescue Series: David Bowie ‘Tonight’ by Dr Ian Dixon

You might remember him from such extravagant masquerades as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke; from outrageous publicity stunts such as proclaiming himself Satanist (Sandford, 1996), born again Christian (Leigh, 2014), bisexual, Nazi apologist (Trynka, 2011), even an alien. You might recall his feminine make up, his Kabuki and Kansai suits, his “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo” (Bowie, 1973), his double reinstatement of the Pierrot theme (1967, 1979) or just pacing before a bulldozer surrounded by clerics of varying denominations in Ashes to Ashes (1979). That’s right! The inimitable David Bowie.

In the late 1960s, Bowie’s band, The Konrads, played at weddings, was ignored and booed off stage then, in the 1980s, Bowie played to audiences in the hundreds of thousands for the Serious Moonlight tour. During the 1970s he was hounded by the press for sexual excess and conspicuous public perversion then succumbed to monogamous marital reclusiveness in the 1990s. He has played, sung, written, arranged and produced for mega-stars such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, supported lesser-knowns such as Mott the Hoople and generally championed bands globally for their prog rock adventuring. He’s terrified himself with the constant threat of ‘madness’ as exemplified by his beloved brother Terry’s schizophrenia. He’s slept with more people than you could poke a stick at: everyone from Marianne Faithful to Nico, Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, transsexual Romy Haag and supermodels Winona Williams and his scintillating wife, Iman Bowie.

Above all, Bowie represents the triumph of high art in popular music having firmly wedged himself into the zeitgeist with iconic songs like Space Oddity, Starman, Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Fashion and Let’s Dance while exemplifying the very spirit of rock creativity and its synthesis with art and literature, referencing works from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams to George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie acts on stage and screen (especially noted for his exemplary physical gyrations in the stage play version of The Elephant Man in New York, 1980). He writes music in irreconcilably contrasting styles, even movie soundtracks for Nicolas Roeg’s (see Big Audio Dynamite) confusing extravaganza: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the downbeat realist drama Christiane F. in which he plays himself (as he did in far more capricious vein in Zoolander (2001)). More recently, Bowie performed in The Prestige (2006) alongside Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (Batman, Wolverine and Ziggy Stardust on the same screen! Now that’s a film worth seeing).

This is David Bowie: inexhaustible, inspired, insecure, admirable, charismatic, a man with impeccable manners and a reputation for rapidly writing songs that go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Fame (1976) was apparently penned with John Lennon in less than twenty minutes (Sandford, 1996)). In short, the man is a genius (antiquated modernist term though it be), which prompts the question: how did Tonight (1984) mess it all up so irrevocably?

Tonight, produced by Bowie, Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble followed the unprecedented commercial and artistic success of Let’s Dance: his top selling album in which the production smarts of disco-funk king Nile Rodgers met with the sharp guitar excellence of Stevie Ray Vaughan (before the latter left the tour in a helicopter: disdainful that Bowie had matched his own outrageous egotism (Sandford, 1996)). Bowie’s 16th studio album, Tonight, reached number one on the British charts. Yet, despite its commercial success fans still whisper that the success was merely ‘off the back of’ Let’s Dance, which had skyrocketed Bowie’s fame.

Tonight is the album Bowie biographer Paul Trynka called, “a perfect storm of mediocrity”’ and “leaden white reggae” (2011, p. 408), and Melody Maker (1990) refers to as “rotten”’. The album relinquished Bowie’s former acumen at predicting the market and trailed the reggae wave by some years (Leigh, 2014). Tonight, the album after Bowie’s telepathic ability to predict the market, saw him leave behind the music-fashion predictions that had secured his place at the top of the pops – folk-rock, glam rock, theatrical grunge, techno and ambient, disco-funk, plastic soul and new romanticism. Tonight represented a loss of confidence on Bowie’s part and a switch to mainstream as a source of inspiration rather than underground music, which had serviced the master for over a decade. Where previous fare had included The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno’s ambient music and classical composers such as Gustav Holst, Hanns Eisler and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tonight relied on sources from The Police, Laurie Anderson and The Thompson Twins.

Relying heavily on the 1980s big drum sound, even the dance anthems of Let’s Dance succumb to the tragedy of falling behind, but Tonight brings it home and nails the coffin shut on a decade of unprecedented reinvention and primavera excellence in popular music. 1983 was the year that dedicated Bowie journalist Charles Shaar Murray, “David’s number one cheerleader in the British press”’ (Leigh, 2014, p. 153), stopped documenting his albums. Having said that, this album represents moments of impeccably slick production, excellence culminating in the seamless pop icon Blue Jean. Indeed, Tonight fairly defines the self-conscious interplay of tasteless narcissism and artistic pursuit (that’s a compliment).

However, a closer scrutiny of the individual tracks leaves us wanting for an album worthy of the Bowie oeuvre. The songs combine the would-be sublime with the loud ordinariness of a moribund fad. Tracks such as Loving the Alien mix orchestral strings in the background in a fashion already exhausted by E.L.O. and Bowie chooses to ride the “leaden white reggae” wave headfirst into oblivion (Trynka, 2011, p. 408).

On Tonight, lacklustre guitar riffs by the otherwise stupendous Carlos Alomar remain a sad indictment hung on Bowie. Tonight plummets his hard-won mega-stardom into the absolute mediocrity of an absolute beginner (neither was his reputation rescued by his subsequent album, Never Let me Down, which in Bowie’s own words was “apocryphally awful”: plastic emotion succumbing to pure schmaltz). Perhaps, on track two of Tonight, Bowie was offering himself advice by repeating the affirmation: ‘Don’t look down’, as the resurgence of his monolithic cocaine addiction propelled his personal paranoia to sheer megalomania.

Where are the incisive lyrics so prevalent in Scary Monsters? Where are the sublime melodies which saw seasoned musicians such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Marc Bolan consulting with a 23 year old Bowie in 1970 (Vizard, 1990)? Some say his cocaine addiction all but wiped out his former genius: a phenomenon Bowie likens to having Swiss cheese for a brain: far from decrying this fact, Bowie celebrated it when he appeared on Parkinson (2002) touted as the “Peter Pan of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Bowie’s version of God Only Knows is not only embarrassing, it’s one of the most disingenuous tracks in rock history. The delivery, in the words of biographer Paul Trynka, is akin to a “pub singer punting for wedding and bar mitzvah jobs” (2011, p. 408). In this sad, crooner version of The Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, jaunty epistle, Bowie experiments with his ever deepening vocal delivery: a rumbling, bass register assisted by decades of chain smoking. This quality would be exploited to far greater effect on Heathen (1999) as he had done on Diamond Dogs (1974) and Let’s Dance (1982). On Tonight’s God Only Knows, however, everything from sentimental strings to turgid tempo, the ‘big sound’ rim-shot drums to the super-charged romanticism announces that this was simply a bad choice. With this version (and to his credit), Bowie’s tongue is firmly wedged in his cheek, but the delivery is so cringe-worthy nobody seems to have noticed the irony. The song begins as saccharine-schmaltz with a semi-shouted Sprechgesang quality weaved in for good measure then descends to pure bathos. With God Only Knows, Bowie outdoes the stain on Across the Universe: his previous highpoint of pure awful on Young Americans (1975) (when teaming up with John Lennon on the inspired Fame – an iconic track not even the pretentious 1990 remix could overshadow).

The eponymous track, Tonight, features steel drum and marimba rhythms (supplied by Canadian, Guy St. Onge) and played without the authenticity of Jamaican verve, even though Mr Bowie is ‘familiar’ with Jamaican culture (particularly Jamaican women) since his teen years in South London directly after the Second World War. There are, however, some exemplary backup vocals on this track, which also constitutes a beautiful synchronicity of timbre between himself and Tina Turner (the grandma and grandpa of rock together!).

After the haunting excellence of China Girl on Let’s Dance (even though Bowie ultimately despised his version), Bowie attempts again to resurrect some of the genius performance from Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot on Tonight’s next track Neighbourhood Threat. Regrettably, Bowie fails to achieve the ‘messed-up’ resignation of Iggy (even though Bowie had produced Pop’s album during a period of unmitigated creativity in Berlin: 1975-1977). Bowie himself declared the song ‘disastrous’, mentioning a plethora of different musical styles tried and failed in attempting to resurrect the song. To Bowie’s credit, however, this desperate anthem of street survival, Neighbourhood Threat, contains some perfect scintillation of bass guitar and drum combinations, notably, this time-tested pop music convention kicks the song off immediately. This effectively reinvents the song in a new genre, which is no small feat. In the past, my friends spent many a debauched night playing song-for-song: Bowie-Pop-Bowie and debate the merits of the differing versions (Iggy invariably won!) Neighbourhood Threat oscillates between glossy disco backing singers and three-chord guitar riffs including inspired contrapuntal movements between competing melodies as Bowie peels off: “Will you still place your bets, on the Neighbourhood Threat?

And so we arrive at Blue Jean: the listener sighs, ‘at last!’ as the album really takes off. This song represents all that could have been on this lively, but flawed album. The hit-parade anthem Blue Jean employs a characteristically remote vocal delivery, yet remains a capricious interpretation, sporting lyrics such as: “She’s got a turned up nose”. This is counterbalanced against an impassioned screaming of: “Sometimes I feel like. Dancing with Blue Jean. Somebody send me!” Senseless lyrics though they may be, the subtext of being out of your head in love with someone bad for you fairly drips from the vinyl (yes, vinyl, which dates-stamps this particular critic irrevocably). Indeed, even the deliberately fake, ‘cracked actor’ vocal rift finds its perfect place in this hit tune. The driving double-time beat of the verse leads seamlessly into the middle eight and chorus. The hit retains a genuine improvisational quality floating over the slick arrangement: the superb placement of shrieking, grunting saxophone riffs (played by the man himself) sets off the exemplary guitar solo played lovingly by long-time Bowie axeman, Carlos Alomar.

Wouldn’t it be sublime to leave this album at this point so we won’t even have to mention Tumble and Twirl, with its impulsive 6/8 time signature and gurgling, hyper-romantic Robert Smith-type vocal delivery? The song (and alas most of the album) reminds us of the tragedy of conscious postmodern caprice believing its own hype. Indeed, I Keep Forgetting (Leiber and Stoller’s reworking of Chuck Jackson’s original), and Dancing with the Big Boys makes the listener want to rip the album off the player and put Scary Monsters back on (lest we keep forget that Bowie was once the giant of progressive, edgy popular music). With a decisive rim-shot, the album ends: the big brass nightmare is over and we are left in a welcome abyss, where the absence of noise is somehow meaningful by comparison. Is the album too clean – did he not smoke enough ganja to render effective, dirty reggae (it was, after all, not his drug of choice (Leigh, 2014))? Was it all just a waste of space and vinyl and unsmoked ganja?

Yet I resist the urge to do just that and, as I cogitate the theme of this collection: Album Rescue Series, I must acknowledge that it is the very genius of Bowie’s former glory that raises the bar for the artistic and commercial success of such a venture. Ironically, this means he is judged harshly by fans and critics. Indeed, the album represents a clash between commercialism and artistry. On reflection, the advancement in engineering is exemplary; the sound is clean and seamless to the very edge of technological capacity in the 1980s. We must pay homage to Bowie for venturing even further into new terrain creating a synthesis of reggae and white cynicism, for maintaining a modicum of intelligence within the lyricism. In the notoriously shallow zeitgeist of the 1980s it stands out as experimental (within tight, commercial parameters) and colourful. Perhaps his old buddy Christian Bale should play this album during his scathing (ironic) indictment of 80s pop in American Psycho (2000).

Bowie has, and will always have, extensiveness and inclusiveness in his music – ever increasing range vocally, musically and inter-disciplinary influences: far from a mere follower of the market. We must acknowledge that the contemporaneous market had painted Bowie into a corner. The pressure to emulate the commercial success of Let’s Dance or the artistic excellence of Scary Monsters must have represented extraordinary insecurity for this mega-star. The music on Tonight is crisp, inventive, unique and (largely) unpredictable. Bowie is to be praised for continuing his experimentation with musical styles beyond mega-stardom. Thus, within David Bowie’s musical milieu, Tonight is an album definitely worth playing. Although other Bowie albums might be written off, there is, in Tonight: sweat behind the market positioning; pain behind the commercialism; excellence in the production; and sheer balls in the risk.

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The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. David Bowie ‘Tonight is written by Dr Ian Dixon, our first in a series of guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)

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