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Music

Story Behind The Song: 40 years of David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’

@TomTaylorFO

Throughout David Bowie’s collaboration with the producer Tony Visconti, the duo always wanted to sit down and sweat over every single element of an album the way that The Beatles had done before them. Visconti recalls that before every record they made together they would pronounce, “Let’s make this our Sgt. Pepper’s! We’re gonna take nine months and we’re gonna do everything we want to do.” But for one reason or another the pair never quite found the time, as Visconti adds that Heroes was recorded in “just four weeks.”

However, with Scary Monster (And Super Creeps), they managed to catch a break in the calendar and, thanks to the success Bowie enjoyed in the 1970s, the resources were there to finally make their own painstaking epic, “this was our Sgt. Pepper’s,” Visconti proudly proclaims and adds that it was his favourite Bowie album.

And frankly who can blame him, the record is an absolute triumph that features some of Bowie’s biggest ever hits in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’, as well as a soaring sleeper (and a personal favourite) ‘Teenage Wildlife’. From top to bottom, the record captures what Bowie was all about; a menagerie of weird and wonderful influences coming together to produce a blistering cacophony of unrivalled creative sound. It is very noteworthy, however, that one track on the record shares the titular name of the album that received more sweat than any other. 

The song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ tracks a heroine’s descent into some darkened psychological oblivion orchestrated by an obscure male protagonist. Perhaps it is a paranoid allegory for the relationship between an addict and the gripping manipulation of a given substance or perhaps it is merely Bowie delving into some dystopian wilderness of wicked fantasy. Alas, with Robert Fripp’s swirling guitar and thunderously futuristic production, the song is a wild example of Bowie’s unfettered artistry. 

Part of the beauty of Bowie’s daring artistry is that it came from all corners. He collated influences from anywhere and everywhere and ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ is the perfect paradigm for that. The song itself might seem on the surface like something akin to the sonic equivalent of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Bend Sinister, but at its heart is an old Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad campaign.

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It was from the blandest cereal on the market that the title for the song and album was taken. The twist was that the cereal went with the slogan “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” but Bowie’s lurid whims had him thinking of a cunning way to subvert that notion. Rather than pit villains and heroes against each other, Bowie delved into the psychology of a perpetrator, explaining that the song is about “a criminal with a conscience who talks about how he corrupted a fine young mind.”

In this alley shrouded song, Bowie, Fripp and Visconti tried to conjure the notion of a criminal London underbelly in the mix. Thus, Fripp used a Wasp Synthesiser to create a bassline that was meant to mimic the sound of a barking street dog and Bowie upped the accent of his vocal take in a practice that he referred to as a “Londonism”. 

All of this culminates in a song that seems almost bottomless, both in terms of the whirling guise of sound produced, and the many multifaceted elements of the narrative that bounce about within it. It’s certainly busy, which is perhaps indicative of the time that Bowie had on his hands on this rare occasion, but like the streets of South London it is never banal. In fact, it is a song that defines the wild depth within Bowie’s work—he created an oeuvre where others merely created songs.