In 1980, David Bowie followed up the critically beloved but sales deprived Berlin trilogy of experimental rock albums with a set of tunes meant to jump-start his career again. I’m not sure what the label executives were hoping for, but the result feels like a hulking, mutated cousin of what came before it.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is one of the wildest, weirdest albums of Bowie’s career, ripping violently between hysterical pop and defiantly experimental impulses.
The chaotic experience of going through this album from end to end is like a series of controlled explosions, ripping in their own space but organized as a whole.
No matter what else happens in the periphery, there’s a core 21 minutes of pure ecstasy in this album, beginning with the title track and running from the starstruck Ashes to Ashes, through the rabid funk of Fashion, into the careening Teenage Wildlife. Each track detonates under its own power, fracturing multiple Bowie eras, recalling past heights while creating its own spin. The album centerpiece, nearly seven minute epic Teenage Wildlife, is a spiritual sequel to “Heroes” that manages to double its forebear’s energy, becoming perhaps the most heart-pounding song Bowie ever recorded. I know I can’t stop jumping around while it rockets toward its fist-pumping finale.
Scary Monsters is the noisy, apocalyptic singularity at the end of the 1970s, capping off the biggest decade of David Bowie’s career in spectacular fashion. It looks toward the pop eruption about to come, but its feet are planted firmly in the fertile experimentation of his most adventurous work. It’s by no means perfect, but it works that balancing act between accessibility and confrontational exploration better than anything else Bowie recorded.
I attempted to reframe the conversation about Scary Monsters on my epic ranking of every David Bowie album, placing it much higher than most critics. You can decide for yourself and listen to the whole thing streaming:
There’s really nothing quite like this in Bowie’s entire career. Scary Monsters is far less celebrated now, but it’s every bit as important as the best albums that came before it. Buy the soon-to-be-reissued vinyl if you’re into that, like I am. Otherwise, it’s already part of the A New Career In A New Town box set, along with remastered versions of Low, “Heroes”, Lodger (two versions!), and loads of extras. It’s even streaming on Spotify.