Adam Steiner’s Silhouettes and Shadows is an engaging and fascinating history of the making of David Bowie’s The Secret History of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album.
3:AM Magazine wrote of the book:
“Steiner … takes us on the thrilling, identity-splicing journey with him, and as he does so offers a compelling, vital insight into this key Bowie album with the dexterity and insight of a novelist as well of a skilled biographer.”
In his own words, here is Adam Steiner’s Book Notes music playlist for his book Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps):
DAVID BOWIE – 1980 – YEAR OF FEAR
In 1980 David Bowie released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) an album reflecting the growing social and political turmoil of the new decade. This mix of Bowie and Bowie-adjacent tracks echoes the era written about in my book – Silhouettes and Shadows – The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
TIRED OF MY LIFE (DEMO) – DAVID BOWIE
The original template for “It’s No Game (No. 1)” the opening (and in no. 2 closing track) of Scary Monsters. Recorded around 1970 during the sessions for Hunky Dory and recently released as part of the Divine Symmetry collection of demos, alternative tracks for that album. It speaks to Bowie’s self-referencing power that he would return to ten year-old lyrics and remake them into a new song while retaining its confrontational spirit!
RED MONEY – DAVID BOWIE
Fast-forward through a short decade to 1979 and the much misunderstood Lodger album. A series of “planned accidents” Bowie would revisit the song Sister Midnight originally gifted to Iggy Pop and manage to make it even angrier, punkier and funkier – while showcasing the guitar talents of Adrian Belew (originally the scheduled guitar player for Scary Monsters) he was booked but the call to the studio never came…
SHE’S LOST CONTROL – JOY DIVISION
BABY’S ON FIRE – BRIAN ENO
A dry-run towards the wild guitar sound of Scary Monsters here is ex-King Crimson guitar player for hire Robert Fripp spreading burning shards of white noise across Eno’s warped disco lament. Fripp would bring the same disciplined caustic guitar tones to Bowie songs such as “Fashion”. Witness his self-destructive interruptions to the track’s jaunty beat as he chainsaws his way through the door.
In his scrambled lyric sheets and reference notes to “get on top of” drummer Dennis Davis’s sound, aping Martin Hannet’s space(y) echo and delay drenched production. Bowie and Visconti replicated the pitch-shifting snare sound that manages to become alien and otherworldly beyond the slow-burn decay and glaring neon of late-70s Manchester, reflecting the interchangeability of cities across the world as Bowie bounded back and forth between twin poles of New York and London. The sonic signature echoes through the ‘dog bark’ drum of “Scary Monsters”
REMEMBER – JOHN LENNON
Bowie scholar Leah Kardos would note the proximity of Bowie’s extreme vocals across Scary Monsters to Lennon’s primal scream melancholia that suffused his 1970 Plastic Ono Band album. Bowie would select the song as part of 1979 DJ session at the BBC, commenting: “I think, a really despondent track… erm… he’d left his band, and he was doing his first solo album… I found it rivetingly depressing, I really enjoyed playing it to myself.” By 1980 Lennon had shifted his focus towards a settled and happy family life; where love became his primary focus on the Double Fantasy album in November. Lennon was cruelly murdered by Mark Chapman outside the Dakota building on 8 December of that same year.
SAY HELLO, WAVE GOODBYE – SOFT CELL
Sot Cell are one of many groups who seem to share a reflexive influence with Bowie; straddling history and linear time, this song bears something of the melancholy register of “Teenage Wildlife”. A cool romanticism that is as much about love won and lost, never to be regained, a theme that haunts Bowie again on “Because You’re Young” only 33, Bowie seems to lament the passing of youth as he buries his golden decade of the 1970s.
I DON’T LIKE MONDAYS – THE BOOMTOWN RATS
On the Monday morning of January 29, 1979, 16 year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on the elementary school across the street from her family home. Before giving herself up to the police, she spoke to a reporter on the phone regarding her motive: I just started shooting, that’s it. I just did it for the fun of it. I just don’t like Mondays. I just did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. Nobody likes Mondays.” Though the song’s context of rogue snipers in America passed some listeners by, Bowie often fixated upon the fear of being gunned down on-stage, a sense of paranoia made worse by his mid-70s cocaine use, the fear became real with the death of Lennon.
TEMPORARY SECRETARY – PAUL McCARTNEY
Often wrongly considered the safe, populist side of The Beatles to Lennon’s extremist sonic experiments with Yoko Ono, McCartney, like Bowie managed to work within avant-garde traditions to produce similarly jarring and confrontational music. Though the chanted, nasal lyric can become nauseating; it shows McCartney shaking the listener out of their comfort zone and forcing them to take notice, if not to listen, much like Bowie’s blood curdling lyric on “It’s No Game (No.1)”
CRYSTAL JAPAN – DAVID BOWIE
A sometimes forgotten Bowie classic. Apparently produced in 1980 – though it may have easily been a late-70s experimental outtake, “Crystal Japan” is a haunting gem of icy synths and sing-sighing impressionist singing, a cousin to “Warszawa”, Bowie felt the song was ill-fitting to the upbeat, pop urgency of Scary Monsters (he was right) and so the song languished as the soundtrack for a Japanese TV commercial for Fuji San Roc (something like sake?) and is only rediscovered through RYKO disc reissues and the odd compilation, otherwise given a new lease of life by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who borrowed the core melody for his 1994 song “A Warm Place” creating his own form of tribute to Scary Monsters (his gateway Bowie album).
ASHTRAY HEART – CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND HIS MAGIC BAND
For me, Bowie’s own lyricism is shot through with the same kind of fractured surrealism in Captain Beefheart’s music. This record Doc At The Radar Station is from 1980, years after Troutmask Replica, and a great continuation of that album’s untameable spirit. Like Scary Monsters the band are drilled tight while the lyrics can seem undisciplined – interrupting and arguing against themselves – but contain a deeper, mad logic, finding a new sense beyond literal meaning. I think that is what gives artists like Bowie and Beefheart the edge that cuts against their pop contemporaries.
DOWN IN THE PARK – GARY NUMAN AND THE TUBEWAY ARMY
As recounted in “Teenage Wildlife” Scary Monsters finds Bowie somewhat on the backfoot. Witnessing a new generation of young turks following in his footsteps, breathing down his neck; obssessive fans, copyists and would-be hangers-on. A fan of Ziggy since his teens Numan made his own dark, synth-pop sound taking the warm uniformity of Kraftwerk into a deeper sense of alienation. Unlike Bowie his immediate success was short-lived, crashing and burning into Music World wilderness making Bowie’s words (and warnings) seem prophetic. (see also 1979 Pleasure Principle album – fantastic!)
KINGDOM COME – TOM VERLAINE
I fell in love with Television’s Marquee Moon in my first year of university; even played through a mono speaker it cut through the air and loved Verlaine’s mixture of punky acerbic tone and his transcendent guitar lines, particularly in the solo of the title track. Working back from Bowie’s cover of Kingdom Come to the Verlaine original is an act of excavation. Bowie’s full throated voice really lifts the song up to another level; with Bowie cannily citing Ronnie Spector in his doo-woop drops and falls, lifting us up to heaven just to watch the cursed figure in the song condemned to hell on earth.
LIGHTNING STRIKES – KLAUS NOMI
Inspired by the Bowie writing of Leah Kardos, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on Bowie’s 1979 Saturday Night Live performance. A completely bizarre display of surrealism on primetime US television in which he blasts through three of his best songs flanked on his right by singer Klaus Nomi and drag artist Joey Arias dressed as red and black avenging furies delivering falsetto backing vocals and striking eerie attitudes. Nomi’s electrifying falsetto would see him begin his own pop career before he became one of the earliest musical stars to die from complications due to AIDS in 1983.
MAKING PLANS FOR NIGEL – XTC
An odd choice to some, but I love XTC’s gentle subversion. I find the subtle melancholy of this post-punk grind strangely uplifting. A beautiful song that speaks to the coming resignation of the forgotten classes who would push back in the new age of strife and dissent in the 80s.
ELEPHANT MAN – SUEDE
As pure a Bowie-adjacent band as ever there was – Suede absorbed Bowie’s glam stomp, androgyny and sexual ambiguity. By 1999 Suede were sucked into the great Brit-pop comedown and this track shows the wearing and tearing that became common to many of the 90s British bands that echoed bowie’s own breakdown in the mid-to-late 70s. This song is full of righteous fury of the leper messiah stomping all over his legacy – a trashy rock monster gone beserk.
O SUPERMAN – LAURIE ANDERSON
One of the few songs guaranteed to make me cry, almost from the first chord. Anderson is that weird combination of high-art, jokes and a strong sense of heart. “O Superman” manages to balance satire with modern horrors. Thinking about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis Bowie’s lyric notes voice further concerns about future conflict, while Anderson would look back on the situation with a darkening eye, Voicing an airline hostess she offers “smoking or non-smoking” seating, an offhand reference to the first abortive military rescue attempt of the US hostages in Tehran, when a helicopter and a cargo plane collided in mid-air killing eight servicemen. A shocking event on the domestic front which Anderson referred to as a time of “techno-humiliation” for US military superiority.
GAMES WITH FRONTIERS – PETER GABRIEL
Peter Gabriel’s eponymous third solo album is full of anarchic experimentation, like Brian Eno and Talking Heads’ David Byrne, a continued series of cross-pollinating collaborations that mirrored each other’s musical development. I love Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album and this song is a million miles away from “Salisbury Plain”. Gabriel continues to display a deeper humanism in his songs but every song sparks off the last in mad new directions.
CONCRETE JUNGLE – THE SPECIALS
Bowie would retain an interest in socially-conscious artists like the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and by the time The Specials emerged from the post-punk comingling with ska into Two-Tone he noted a new young voice in music that would soon inform the nascent genre of hip-hop. The Specials are known for Ghost Town but also for having a good time, in spite of the troubles of racism, violence and social deprivation. Songs like “Concrete Jungle” shows them finding their metier, reflecting their home city of Coventry a danceable response to the stranglehold of freshly-hatched Thatcherism.
SPACE ODDITY (1979 VERSION) – DAVID BOWIE
In 1979 Bowie recorded a stripped-back version of “Space Oddity” to feature on Kenny Everett’s new year Show. the minimalist arrangement took the song back to its heart with Bowie on 12-string guitar: “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on I was always surprised as how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.” Returning the song to its heart, Bowie would extend the metaphor of space alienation into his post-addiction reflection on “Ashes To Ashes”
SIDE A ERASERHEAD OST – DAVID LYNCH & ALAN R. SPLET
Adam Steiner writes about music, street-art culture, architecture, poetry, and transgressive fiction. His previous books include Into the Never: Nine Inch Nailsand the Creation of the Downward Spiral and the novel Politics of the Asylum.