23. Tonight

bowie tonight

Tonight” is David Bowie’s 16th studio album and was originally released on 1 September 1984.

After the incredible commercial success of both the “Let’s Dance” album and the “Serious Moonlight” world tour, Bowie was under some pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up album. Soon after the tour completion, Bowie hit the studio (Le Studio, Quebec) with much of the same band from the “Let’s Dance” sessions and recorded the oddity that is “Tonight”.

There were a few key changes to the “Let’s Dance” personnel. Nile Rodgers was replaced as producer by Derek Bramble who in turn was replaced during the sessions by Hugh Padgham (well known for his previous work with The Police). Rumour has it Bowie wasn’t happy with how the album was progressing under Bramble and grew tiresome of being asked to sing extra takes when the first one was perfectly OK.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was also gone (he left Bowie acrimoniously before the “Serious Moonlight” tour), replaced on guitar with Derek Bramble and the return of Carlos Alomar. In attendance also was Iggy Pop, who’s writing would feature so predominantly on the album, although he only officially sang co-vocals on the one track.

With most musicians the same, “Tonight” has a similar feel and sound to the monster album that was “Let’s Dance”, which of course was Bowie’s intent. Unfortunately, one gets the distinct feeling that Bowie was more concerned with simply getting something “out there” for the masses to consume, rather than working on an artistic masterpiece as was his norm. Remarkably, he only wrote four new songs for the whole album (the other five tracks were covers) with two of the new tracks co-written with Iggy Pop. In fact Iggy Pop with five writing credits has almost as many writing contributions as Bowie himself.

Of the three EMI 80’s solo albums, “Tonight” is my personal favourite for the simple reason it has a number of tracks that are so much better than found elsewhere in the trilogy, although this album certainly suffers from a few “weaker” moments.

The album opens with “Loving The Alien“, which is an absolutely beautiful, stunning track, one if his best moments of the whole 80’s period. On the subject of religious hypocrisy and conflict, it’s classic Bowie in that the orchestration is eerie, catchy, beautiful and mournful all at the same time. I distinctly remember when I put this album on the turntable for the very first time in my bedroom all those years ago thinking, wow this is going to be a totally amazing album. Sadly, this is the standout best song until we hit the last track. Which is a little frustrating because you can’t but help think what if Bowie only put in the same energies into every track on the album. This was released as the 3rd single off the album and featured one of the very best videos he’s made (and he’s made lots of good ones) full of religious and alien juxtaposition imagery. It’s a must watch. Music Video.

loving the alien

Next comes a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down“, off his excellent “New Values” album. Bowie transforms the song into an almost reggae piece, likely a Hugh Padgham influence. There are worse covers on this album, but this version doesn’t quite work. The problem with Bowie doing Iggy is that what makes Iggy work is his raw energy and without that, one is often left with just the skin and bones of the song. I often wish Bowie had covered instead “The Endless Sea” off the same album, as it would have suited Bowie a lot more.

God Only Knows” is an iconic Beach Boys song, so to cover such a beast is thwart with danger. Bowie sings it well enough in his best lower register, but the overall arrangement here is dreadful and the song just sounds grand in that pretending, karaoke kinda of way. I don’t believe he’s ever performed this live, so maybe he thought once was probably enough.

Side 1 ends with the title track “Tonight“, a cover of his co-written song with Iggy Pop off the brilliant “Lust For Life” album. Remember what I said earlier about sucking the raw energy out of an Iggy song, well this version leaves behind nothing but a dried up old pip. The original is a wonderfully powerful piece, the last moments spent with a girl dying from a drug overdose, the opening spoken section critical to frame everything. Tina Turner, who sings a barely noticeably duet with Bowie here, refused to include the opening section and the remaining reggae plod of a song is just a shell of the brilliant original. This was the second single off the album and even with Tina Turner on board, couldn’t make the top 50 in the UK. Music Video Live With Tina Turner.

tonight single

So great start, not such a good finish to Side 1.

Side 2 starts with yet another Iggy Pop “Lust For Life” cover, “Neighborhood Threat“. Same rule applies here, with the original so much better but at least this version isn’t weighed down by a dodgy reggae based arrangement. Bowie himself said recording this with the band he had at the time was a mistake. Enough said.

Blue Jean” does pick things up considerably. The only other new track (along with “Loving The Alien”) written solely by Bowie for this album, it’s a fun, catchy and almost “glam-like” in its sound. It certainly isn’t a great song, but it does have that “something” which makes it sparkle upon listening. The opening single off the album, it had a fabulous 20 minute music video “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean” (directed by Julian Temple with whom Bowie would work on “Absolute Beginners”) which is absolutely hilarious. With Bowie playing the part of the nerdy guy trying to get the glamorous girl and also the part of the drugged out rock star Lord Byron, it really is worth watching.   Jazzin’ For Blue Jean Video.

blue jean single

The next track “Tumble and Twirl” is a new track co-written with Iggy Pop and is one of the album highlights. The band really works well here and the almost Latino vibe sounds great, suiting the song which depicts their experiences when visiting Indonesia. It actually has “energy” and a sense that everyone is enjoying themselves here.

The same can’t be said for yet another cover, the Leiber/Stoller standard “I Keep Forgettin’“, although on reflection it’s probably the best cover performance on the album. It’s just not particularly rememberable (pun of course fully intended).

Thankfully the album ends on a high, the truly excellent “Dancing With The Big Boys“, co-written for the album with Iggy Pop and Carlos Alomar. It again highlights just how much better this album could have been with more moments such as these. Featuring the band bashing out a big, loud rhythm and with Bowie and Pop co-singing their panicky concerns for society, Bowie once said this track was the sound he was after with the album and one he hoped to perfect on the next album (he unfortunately failed there). This would have been a far better single than the tragic “Tonight”, but what would I know.

Having just completed a huge world tour in 1983, Bowie wouldn’t tour this album. Instead he next focused on a number of film related projects such as “When The Wind Blows”, “Absolute Beginners” and “Labyrinth”. As such, many of the tracks have never been performed live by Bowie, although thankfully “Loving The Alien” is not among them.

So overall, the album was a mixed bag with some excellent tracks, some OK and some dreadful. It was a hit album though at the time, reaching No 1 in the UK and 11 in the US. But considering the amazing quality of Bowie’s albums to date, it was certainly a concerning dip in the overall quality with both “Let’s Dance” and now “Tonight” not up to the usual Bowie-Universe standard in terms of quality and originality.  Sadly, worse was to come until things picked up with the introduction of the Tin Machine experiment, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Loving The Alien, Tumble and Twirl, Dancing With The Big Boys

28. Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down is David Bowie’s 17th studio album and was originally released on 20 April 1987.

It had been three relatively long years since his last album, “Tonight“, which while commercially successful and a No 1, left the critics generally unimpressed. In between, he had released a number of singles and contributed on a number of soundtracks, most notably “Absolute Beginners” (with the title song arguably his best work throughout the entire 1983-1987 period) and “Labyrinth“.

However by 1987, David Bowie was in a difficult place artistically. He’s last two albums “Let’s Dance” and “Tonight” were both commercially very successful and all the middle-aged Phil Collins fans with their bulging wallets were really getting into this version of David Bowie. EMI, his record label, were also loving the revenues coming from albums that were enjoying high chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, enjoying commercial success in almost (but not quite) equal measure to Michael Jackson was just not a position that David Bowie was used to or had really coveted previously. But in this post Tony Defries era where the majority of the money he earned actually went into his bank account, meant Bowie for the first time was torn between creating music he enjoyed and excited him creatively, versus writing music he felt his growing fan base would enjoy, would buy in huge quantities and would help to increase his ever impressive fortune.

This conflict resulted in an artistic “writers block” where Bowie struggled in self-doubt and concerns he would potentially fail both commercially and artistically. And in the end, his fears were kinda realised when the resultant album “Never Let Me Down” only reaching No. 6 in the UK charts, 34 on the US Billboard and enjoyed only mixed, generally lukewarm reviews by music critics.

Things had seemed so optimistic beforehand.  He had just produced and co-wrote the criminally underrated “Blah Blah Blah” album for Iggy Pop, his mate who had featured so predominately in his previous EMI albums.  An album if true be told, was superior to everything he had recorded since the Scary Monsters album.

His also featured heavily on the credits of “Never Let Me Down”, writing or co-writing all the material bar the obligatory Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang“, a level of output he hadn’t managed in his previous two albums. He also played instruments on the new album in the form of “guitar, keyboards, Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, harmonica and tambourine”, something he had left to his impressive array of session musicians on the previous two albums. The collection of session musicians on this album is impressive, based mainly of those who worked on his previous EMI albums, with the notable inclusion of multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay and the famed Peter Frampton on guitar.

So it looked initially liked he really cared about this album and perhaps a new masterpiece was on its way.

But the end result was entirely mediocre with a collection of songs that were simply substandard to the Bowie we had come to expect and with an 80’s era production that has not aged particularly well. The music can be labelled “Soft Rock” or “Pop”, so if you like Phil Collins, Hall & Oakes, Huey Lewis and the News, etc. you might think this album positively rocks. But those with fond memories of Scary Monsters being recorded in the same decade, the comparison couldn’t be more stark or disappointing.

The opening track and lead-off single from the album “Day In Day Out” forebodes what’s to come. A plodding, drum overdose song that lacks any of the hooks associated with classic Bowie. Even Molly Meldrum gave the song and associated video (which featured the plight of homelessness in the US with some controversial “R” rated scenes) a negative review on Countdown, unheard of previously. Molly saying bad things about Bowie, WTF !! Music Video.

day in day out

The next track “Time Will Crawl” and second single is the clear highlight of the album. With imaginous lyrics around the theme of the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s a great song that the heavy production doesn’t quite bury. Bowie also sounds great on this, with an eerie performance that captures the mood of the song perfectly. As a indication of how much this song stands out from the rest of the album, Bowie even selected a version of this track on his “iSelectBowie” compilation album. Music Video.

time will crawl

Next comes “Beat Of Your Drum“, a nice little song with catchy verse and chorus, with just a hint of uneasiness, but again spoilt somewhat by the overall ploddy production. The potential of this being a much better album is there, but that magical element so typical of Bowie’s better work is simply missing here.

About his long time personal assistant Coco Schwab, the title track and third single “Never Let Me Down” comes next and is again a rather nice song, with perhaps his best, tinder vocal performance on the album. But it’s not exciting, original, confronting, atmospheric or spine-tingling, which is what we usually expect from Bowie. Bowie doesn’t usually just do nice, you get the point. Music Video.

never let me down single

Zeroes” continues the trend of having some promise as a song and has that hint of nostalgia that Bowie was after but it just doesn’t get there. The tune has the usual plodding drum back beat, the guitar solo is uninspiring and the vocal mix just doesn’t do Bowie justice.

The last track on side one (yes, I originally got this as a record, my last Bowie record for many a year with CDs being the media of choice from here on in) is “Glass Spider” and is my second favourite track on the album, if only for the opening. The spoken opening sequence reminds me a tad of the start to the “Diamond Dogs” album and manages to take you to that other place. But yet again the final product doesn’t quite deliver and the mythological imaginary of spidery webs is broken by the unadventurous Frampton guitar and that damn thumping 80’s era drum sound.

Although the first side can only be best described as somewhat mediocre by Bowie standards, it’s unfortunately the better of the two sides. Things only go downhill once you flip the album over…

Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” can be politely described as not being very good or more accurately, bloody awful. A crunchy, repetitive beat with annoyingly high pitched instrumentation and lame lyrics is broken by a so-called “rap” sequence by Mickey Rouke (yes, that Mickey Rouke). It doesn’t work.

New York’s In Love” is a forgettable track with a tune I couldn’t hum even if I was offered a large some of money. It’s about…, I have no idea and sadly with this album, I really have not interest in finding out. It’s a nothing song.

87 and Cry” has a heavy drum beat and squealing guitar that makes it sound just like other songs on the album. That’s not a complement by the way. It’s again a nothing sort of song that just doesn’t have much to hold your interest. It’s aged as much as the title of the song would suggest. But we haven’t got to the low point yet…

Too Dizzy” is so bad that Bowie himself insistent that the song be removed from all subsequent re-issues of the album. In that respect, it’s a bit of a rarity these days but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time looking for it. It has all the key elements (boring drum beat, messy instrumentation and bland lyrics) that characterises this album. An instantly forgettable song.

Bang Bang” closes off the album and is the clear best track on this forgettable second side of the album. A cover of the Iggy Pop song from his equally forgettable “Party” album, it at least has a structure and vibe that will have you tapping your feet. But when you compare it to other closing tracks on Bowie albums such as “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Lady Grinning Soul”, well you get my point. Things just don’t really compare here.

Over the years, I’ve really really tried to “get into” this album as it holds a lot of nostalgia for me. For a start, my parents bought me the limited “blue” coloured vinyl version of the album as a surprise present, which remains unplayed but treasured to this day.

I also enjoyed one of the best weeks of my life when I spent a week commuting from Canberra to Sydney to see all 8 of Bowie’s “Glass Spider” shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. I couldn’t get time off work as I didn’t have the leave, so left work at 4pm each day, drove to Sydney, watched the show and then drove back to be in bed by 3am to do it all again the next day. Although the “Glass Spider” tour was critically panned, I loved it. It was David Bowie live for crying out loud and he was amazing !! Best of all, some of the shows were recorded for the video release, so what a perfect souvenir of the time. Video of Sydney Glass Spider shows.

But alas, I have never enjoyed this album anything like most of his others and in my humble opinion, remains the nadir of his creative output. If you were to graph the quality of Bowie’s albums, you would plot “Never Let Me Down” humbly on Planet Earth and many of his masterpieces in the stratosphere or indeed in outer space and beyond.

Bowie himself has been quite disparaging of the album over the years and once stated “Never Let Me Down had good songs that I mistreated. I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wish there had been someone around who could have told me”.

Interestingly and perhaps most telling of all, I don’t believe Bowie ever performed any of the songs from the album again after the accompanying “Glass Spiders” tour.

After the tour and after spectacularly burning the whole Glass Spider live set following the last show in New Zealand, Bowie recognised the need for a drastic change in direction. If he was to keep his legacy and keep his artistic integrity, he had to say goodbye to his current commercial considerations, say goodbye to his Phil Collins fan base and start creating records that again said up yours to the music establishment.

And boy, did Tin Machine achieve all that and a lot more. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Time Will Crawl.

 

glass spider tour