Why you haven’t heard it
We likely all know David Bowie, but tend to know him through his hit songs more than his full albums. Most casual Bowie fans might know “Ashes to Ashes,” but since Scary Monsters didn’t produce another hit single at that level, the full work isn’t as well-known today as it should be. As time passed, his singles rose to prominence, but the albums not so much.
It’s also nestled between two more monumental projects—Berlin Trilogy, which spawned “Heroes,” and the commercially successful Let’s Dance. Scary Monsters is also thematically in between—people looking for experimental Bowie look before this album, while people looking for dance hits look after.
Why it might be tough to get through
What’s great about Bowie’s singles is their mix of strangeness and experimentalism, but also their commercial viability. We know a Bowie single because it’s quirky. But that can get tiring over a full album, especially when one considers that his singles—a benchmark for quirky pop music—tend to be a bit less out-there than his deep cuts.
The opening is jarring: Bowie yowling, Japanese vocals, jagged music. After that, the album settles into tame 70s-rock, so if you get past the initial shock, the rest is normal
Bowie—so, still far from normal, but good.
Why you should listen to it anyways
Critics sometimes call Scary Monsters Bowie’s last great album. It flawlessly straddles the border between 70s glam and 80s new wave—in fact, the album is often viewed as Bowie proclaiming his dominance as the original freak over a new generation of artists. It has grandiose anthems like “Teenage Wildlife” that’s the stadium-rock end-goal of earlier tunes like “Changes” or “Heroes,” but also features the coming synth-onslaught of the 80s in “Ashes to Ashes.”
This is Bowie at his peak, but also accessible. His Berlin Trilogy is too avant-garde for some; his later 80s albums are polished pop. This is rough and tumble, irregular and all over the place. He takes everything he had been doing through the 70s and improves on it, taking it one step further.
-“Ashes to Ashes” revives the character of Major Tom, who appeared in Bowie’s first hit single, 1969s “Space Oddity.” Major Tom also appears in “Blackstar”, from the 2016 album of the same name—his final work.
-After working with minimalist composer Brian Eno for the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie reunited with long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie on and off from 1969 to 2016. Also, Pete Townshend of The Who plays guitar on “Because You’re Young.”
-Bowie is dressed as Pierrot on the front cover, the sad clown figure from pantomime theatre and commedia dell’arte. Bowie had a long interest in theatre—he was an experienced mime and dancer, and starred in a Broadway play.
-“Well how come you only want tomorrow/ With its promise of something hard to do” from the song “Teenage Wildlife.”
-“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie/ Strung out in heaven’s high/ Hitting an all-time low” from the song “Ashes to Ashes.”