Ranking the songs of David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’ in order of greatness
After the seventies had allowed David Bowie to become the chameleon of rock we all know him to be, travelling through a range of personas, styles and personal struggles that most people wouldn’t be able to fit into a whole career in just 10 years. It meant by the time the new decade was approaching, Bowie was once again ready for a new chapter in his life. The opening words in that chapter read Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
After his more recent Berlin trilogy, Bowie was now more concerned with writing in a more defined structure rather than indulging his artistic wants. This was made more easily achieved after it was confirmed Brian Eno, known for his spontaneity in the studio, would not be joining Bowie on the record. However, Tony Visconti did rejoin to invigorate some Starman magic.
The album is largely seen as Bowie’s jump into the mainstream. While Ziggy Stardust had provided wide success and mass appeal, the concept, and those that followed, were still largely avant-garde. This was Bowie trying to turn his attention to the chart and many of the songs featured in the 10-track album were written with the alluring promise of shiny platinum discs glinting in the background.
That doesn’t mean that Bowie necessarily toned him or his artistic vision down, however. It just meant that more so than ever there was a clear divide between the singles of the album and the deep cuts. Released on September 12th 1980, we thought the LPs 40th anniversary was as good as time as any to put the record in a more appropriate order and rank the songs on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) from worst to best.
Ranking David Bowie’s songs on Scary Monsters:
10. ‘Because You’re Young’
When there are only 10 tracks on a David Bowie album then you can be well assured that every one of them is a stand-up piece of music. So while ‘Because You’re Young’ is dead last on our list, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t top another.
Though it does feature some extra rock power in the form of The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend, who does his best windmilling power chords, the track seemingly pales in comparison to the rest of the record and just feels a little middle of the road. For Bowie, that’s tantamount to saying it killed a puppy, hence our ranking.
9. ‘Scream Like A Baby’
A song about a political prison in the future is about as classic Bowie as the Starman ever gets. It sees the protagonist alongside the narrator stuck without anywhere to go, though it is set in the future the tense of the song is in the past or as Bowie describes it, “future nostalgia… A past look at something that hasn’t happened yet.”
The song was actually composed in 1973 and reworked for Scary Monsters. It’s one of the hybrid moments of the record as it blends rock ‘n’ roll with the new wave synth sound that was soon going to dominate the decade. Once again, Bowie is leading the way.
8. ‘Kingdom Come’
We normally wouldn’t include a cover so high up on our list when ranking an album but Bowie does covers better than anyone else. It means this cover of Tom Verlaine’s ‘Kingdom Come’ is one of the finer versions of the song you’ll ever hear.
It’s a powerful remodelling of the song and proved that Bowie, despite heading in yet another new direction, still had rock ‘n’ roll at his heart and passion in his voice. It’s one of the better covers he ever took on but not his best.
7. ‘It’s No Game Pt. 2’
The Dr, Jekyll to the Mr. Hyde of the upcoming song, ‘It’s No Game’ bookends the album and offers up a real vision of Bowie in 1980. A little caught between his future and his past on these two tracks we see Bowie struggle to reconcile his new sound with his back catalogue.
Part 2 is a lot calmer than the first iteration of the song, it feels a lot more subdued perhaps even resigned to its fate. As the first part will tell us, the song sees Bowie pleading for change but by the end of the album, he seems a little spent.
6. ‘It’s No Game Pt. 1’
It would be difficult to keep these two halves of the same whole apart in the rankings but it would be equally wrong to put ‘It’s No Game Pt. 1’, the album opener, below the album’s closer. The vocal melody may have been nabbed form an old composition of Bowie’s form 1970 but the vision was future-proof.
As Bowie is keen to make a statement on “a particular kind of sexist attitude” that affects Japanese girls and women, he employed Michi Hirota to lead the vocals. It adds a huge effect to the song and also allows Bowie to scream the English translation of the lyrics and add further fuel to the fire. When you lay over that a Robert Fripp riff that could melt walls, you have a real cracker.
5. ‘Up The Hill Backwards’
The fourth and final single to be released form Scary Monsters, ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ was one of the most unconventional releases form the record. Unlike the three which had come before it, ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ was Bowie flexing his artistic muscle.
By the time the song was released, it had already been available on the album for six months. It led to the single stalling at number 32 in the charts but didn’t stop it becoming a deep cut favourite. Written about his divorce from Angie Bowie, the song muses about the double-edged sword of fame and celebrity. It’s a Bowie classic in waiting.
4. ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’
The title track for the album is easily one of Bowie’s best. The third single from the album was released a few months after the album arrived. It’s on this song that the crux of the album really lays. As well as featuring the snorting dragon of Robert Fripp’s guitar it also came complete with synthesised drums as Bowie kept his feet in the past and future.
The song itself focuses on a woman’s descent into madness and with Bowie’s vocal feeling particularly imposing, the track has a dystopian quality that is hard to achieve without sounding cheap. The song thunders ahead and brings a certain closeness that can feel both encompassing and then claustrophobic. It’s a vision enacted by Bowie which shows off his always advantageous artistry.
Quite possibly one of Bowie’s most famous songs, and often regarded as one of his best, ‘Fashion’ has been littered across our airwaves since its release. It was the last track to be recorded for the Scary Monsters sessions and is imbued with all the peacocking-glory of the decade to come. With this release, Bowie would make a statement for the new age.
Many people suggested that this song was Bowie making a point about the new totalitarianism of the disco dancefloor, something he saw intently in the New Romantic movement. Bowie later clarified that he was trying to “move on a little from that Ray Davies concept of fashion, to suggest more of a gritted-teeth determination and an unsuredness about why one’s doing it”.
2. ‘Teenage Wildlife’
Bowie’s midlife crisis can be seen on ‘Teenage Wildlife’ but the track also had another meaning. It sees Bowie throw barbs at the new wave of artists who had been filling the charts, in place of his own efforts, it must be said. In particular, he was rather perturbed by Gary Numan’s rise to prominence and his label of the “new Bowie”.
“A broken-nosed mogul are you,” Bowie sings in the track, with many suggesting the song is a simple yet direct attack on the electronic music pioneer. “One of the new-wave boys/Same old thing in brand-new drag/Comes sweeping into view/As ugly as a teenage millionaire.” It’s easily one of Bowie’s best and is largely overlooked. Not today!
1. ‘Ashes to Ashes’
The lead single from Scary Monsters will almost certainly go down in history as one of Bowie’s best. The lyrics see Bowie reprise the character of Major Tom in a brand new decade and in a new darker sphere. Bowie described the song as “very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that.”
The song contains a whole posse of secret messages and hidden lyrics meaning that it is one of Bowie’s fans’ greatest loves. Full of self-referntial moments and clever lyrics, the track is balanced by hard-edged funk bass and art rock credentials, flecked with new wave.