Tuesday 6 May 2014

David BOWIE: Tonight

(#301: 6 October 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: Loving The Alien/Don’t Look Now/God Only Knows/Tonight/Neighbourhood Threat/Blue Jean/Tumble And Twirl/I Keep Forgettin’/Dancing With The Big Boys

As the eighties progressed, it gradually became clear that the old games wouldn’t work any more. In particular, the old album-a-year way of doing things was becoming unwieldy and impractical for major acts. By 1983 or thereabouts, the practical thing to do was to tour a hugely successful album, usually worldwide. What was not practical was coming off a tour, spent and exhausted, and being expected to write and record a whole new set of songs immediately thereafter – and then tour those. Along with the other detours on offer, this meant that “sequels” to big hits tended to become rushed, superficial, underwritten and unsatisfactory, leading to a near-immediate but long-term decline in the act’s overall popularity. The reason why True, Colour By Numbers and Into The Gap are here, and Parade, Waking Up With The House On Fire and Here’s To Future Days are not, has everything to do with this.

But Tonight, bafflingly, is here. Listening to its very meagre thirty-five or so minutes, it is difficult to believe that this was the most popular album in Britain, even if only for one week. Its popularity was strictly temporary; it went gold (probably more to do with the number of copies shipped to record shops than with anything else), whereas Let’s Dance went platinum, and the record stayed on the chart for just nineteen weeks, compared with its predecessor’s fifty-six weeks. You may remember that I called Let’s Dance “one of the laziest and most contemptuous records ever released by a major rock performer,” but Tonight makes it sound like Swordfishtrombones.

The album is, without a doubt and by some stretch, the worst of the three hundred and one records to which Lena and I have listened so far in this tale. 101 Strings, Star Sound and the soundalike budget hits collections were what they were and no more. Even the three George Mitchell Minstrels records and the Fame soundtracks had their (admittedly very remote) saving graces. I do not know whether Bowie intended Tonight to pretend to be something more significant than it was, but it is clear that the record owes its place here to a few thousand people buying it blindly – as if “Blue Jean,” a song described at the time by music writer Chris Burkham as an “aural hernia” and which Bowie himself described as being conceived as secondary to its video, hadn’t already been a warning. Then they bothered to sit down and listen to it – and it is arguable that Bowie’s career (despite this not being his final TPL entry) never satisfactorily recovered from the resultant trauma.

If only he had gone with his initial instincts and released a stopgap live album (which he intended to call Serious Moonlight). There were demos, few of which were worked upon until they became songs. Instead there were four new songs – two written by Bowie alone, the other two co-written with Iggy Pop – with three older Iggy covers and two other cover versions which beggar belief and raise the question of just how securely Bowie understood pop music. He subsequently attempted to justify the record as a “violent” sequel to Pinups, but (a) that was wishful or revisionist thinking, and (b) Pinups was never that strong a record to begin with. There isn’t really the sense, listening through Tonight, that Bowie is even bothering to listen to himself, let alone commit to making a good or merely listenable record. And in terms of being exhausted, Bowie had been off touring for fully five months before recording the album, which took longer (five weeks) than Let’s Dance (three weeks) had done. But a decade earlier, Elton John had written (with Bernie Taupin) and laid down the basic tracks for Caribou in nine days, wedged in between two huge tours, and while the resultant record was not one of his classics, it still managed to yield “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”

There is nothing on Tonight to compare with the latter, especially not “Loving The Alien.” Needled at comments that Nile Rodgers had more or less saved him, Bowie opted to go it alone and retreated to Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec. The involvement of Hugh Padgham raises an immediate questioning eyebrow, and it has to be said that, despite Padgham’s disappointment with what Bowie had planned for the record – “Blue Jean” was one of his least favourite of Bowie’s demos – his recurrent appearances in the context of big, bombastic and perhaps complacent albums have to be noted. Hence “Loving The Alien,” with its overlong intro and outro, and its marimbas, sounds like “Wrapped Around Your Finger” (when it doesn’t sound like an unholy mish-mash of “O Superman,” “Ashes To Ashes,” “Angel Fingers” and “China Girl”). Bowie also brought in one Derek Bramble, then most recently the bassist of Heatwave, on the strength of some demos he had produced for Jaki Graham. Bramble played some bass and synthesiser, and did his best to organise the random mess of non-ideas that Bowie was carrying (with Padgham acting as engineer). But it soon became clear that Bramble had no real experience of producing, and he left the sessions fairly early on, leaving it to Padgham to clean everything up.

In Padgham’s case this appears to have meant, in dramatic contrast to Nile Rodgers’ use of space and air, a blundering maximalist approach, filling up the treble-heavy spaces with everything he can find, including entirely inapposite gated drums and the migraine-inducing “Borneo Horns” (essentially the same horn section heard on Let’s Dance, but far more reined in, as though tied to its paddock). Padgham sounds afraid of silence, and in the case of songs like “Tumble And Twirl,” despite the efforts of uncredited bassist Mark King, we are really not far away from the slapstick cod-exotica of “Illegal Alien.”

Speaking of which, “Loving The Alien” was evidently intended to be this album’s big showstopper, but its structure and performance are muddled and vague. Bowie considers what the “no religion” of “Modern Love” might actually mean, but comes to no useful conclusion; he speaks of Templars and Saracens but of 1984 has nothing more to say than: “Thinking of a different time/Palestine a modern problem,” which observation I am sure did not keep Edward Said awake at night.

But no, he wonders, what if it’s…all been a lie? What if Jesus was…gasp…a brother from another planet? And as his ridiculous Newley-isms draw the listener further and further away from him, it gradually dawns on the listener, as it perhaps had been doing since the days of “Space Oddity,” that…damn…Bowie believes all this Erich von Daniken/Astonishing Tales gobbledegook, that he derives all of his supposed power and influence from the repackaging of fifties comics and sci-fi pulp, that he might be a less deep thinker than, say, Jack Kirby. In the case of this listener, one’s face freezes over as it tends to do when otherwise sentient, grown adults suddenly start frothing at the mouth over Doctor Who or Watchmen. The song structure aims for the global epic – you can hear Bowie trying; the way his voice splits in two at the word “sky” in both “break the sky in two”s - but fizzes out as the dampest of squibs, as it dribbles to no satisfactory ending other than a trademark “soulful” guitar solo from, I presume, the returning Carlos Alomar. Arif Mardin’s string arrangement tries to cement East/West fusion, but really the Massive Attack of 2003 would do this sort of thing so much better.

Worse, much worse, is to come. Iggy co-wrote and recorded “Don’t Look Down” on his five-year-old New Values album, but where he saw dazed, drugged decadence wherever he stepped, or fell, Bowie suddenly decides that UB40 are the way forward, and we get the flimsiest of eighties pop-reggae constructs (if anything, Tonight’s production sounds decidedly cheap, a Hot Hits retread of its predecessor).

One could suppose that with five co-writing credits out of nine songs, Bowie was simply trying to do Iggy a favour – the man himself appears to have been around and available for most of the five weeks, more so than his cameo basso profundo appearance on “Dancing With The Big Boys” would suggest. But what a comedown from “What In The World”! “Tonight” – in its original 1977 form (on Lust For Life) a searing and harrowing account of coming home and finding one’s lover dead from a drug overdose – is thrown away as contemptuously as “Criminal World” was. He apparently excised the opening spoken dialogue for fear it might upset guest co-vocalist Tina Turner, thereby turning it into another harmless Lionel Richie cod-reggae romp – but Turner, unlike Bowie, sounds as though she really means what she’s singing, as if she can see right through the gloss to the song’s rotting heart. And it is highly patronising to suggest that Turner might be inimical to such depictions of evil; listen to her reading of Paul Brady’s “Steel Claw” on her own contemporaneous Private Dancer, where, if anything, she takes the rage and decay further (and Private Dancer, a #2 album, is in every way Tonight’s superior; focused, angry and compassionate, and the cover versions are better chosen and more deeply felt, as is evident in the remarkable closing one-two punch of “Help!” and…yes…Bowie’s own “1984.” She had more things to say about Bowie and 1984 than the 1984 Bowie did).

Meanwhile, “Neighbourhood Threat,” a second exhumation from Lust For Life, is terrible “heavy” AoR which reduces Iggy to the level of Kenny Loggins. Of their two “new” collaborations, the escapades and frolics charted in “Tumble And Twirl” remain strictly at a Hope and Crosby level – one waits for Iggy to stroll on in a tuxedo and exclaim, “Hey, pallie!” at Bowie (and Bowie’s own attire, as documented on the album sleeve, is embarrassing, that is when he’s not trying to be Gilbert and George, or Valentino. Sometimes he looks like a vexed Roman emperor; in one shot he resembles the singer of “Dance Me Up.” In at least two others, he does a good impression of the world’s most stupid man, while in yet another, resembling a schoolboy in collarless, loose shirt, pinstripe jacket and William Brown hair, he manages to make a carnation look like a packet of McDonald’s fries. Unearth a used copy of the CD and see for yourself). Meanwhile, the closing “Dancing With The Big Boys,” with its random, meaningless streams of Christ knows what, sounds like Eoghan Quigg auditioning for High School Musical and its parping horns gave me a headache.

Elsewhere, there is “Blue Jean,” a non-song seemingly written in less time than it took to record (Julien Temple’s video, shot in a fifth floor ballroom above the old Derry and Toms department store in Kensington High Street, is highly watchable until the song starts) in which Bowie (badly) impersonates Patrick McGoohan (“She’s got a turned-up NOSE?”) and altoist Stan Harrison screams “Let me OUT!” Bowie is never less convincing than when he’s trying to be Mr Joe Briefcase normal.

This leaves the other two cover versions. His “I Keep Forgettin’” is preposterous, forsaking the tuned percussive disturbances and bar line irruptions of Chuck Jackson’s 1963 original (which predicates Tricky’s “Ponderosa” by more than three decades) for a Rocky Sharpe and the Replays pseudo-fifties rave-up (actually it could be an outtake from Grease). It is abysmal, however harmonically interesting Alomar’s guitar chording attempts to make it.

But his “God Only Knows” goes beyond, or below, abysmal. I don’t know what was in his head when he thought he could do this song and I suspect neither did he. It doesn’t help that he gets the song’s two verses in the wrong order, thereby rendering the song meaningless. He begins as a kind of Peter Cook send-up of Scott Walker, but soon the nauseous Newley-isms (“StAAAAAArs above yew!”) make themselves all too known. Before long he tries to turn the song into an Al Green love song-cum-blessing but quickly becomes overblown and hammy. He is accompanied by a choir, orchestra, saxophone and guitar straight out of the average 1967 Engelbert Humperdinck recording session. It not only reminds me of how undervalued Andy Williams’ reading was, and is, but also nails what is so wretched about this record; lacking enough decent new material, and without the apparent will to make something out of the scraps that he did have, his recourse was to try falling back into the past. His “God Only Knows,” however, makes one wonder whether Bowie ever understood pop music, or whether he really believed that throwing out any old shit would maintain his popularity. He does not appear on TPL again with new material until 1993 – and it was clear that most of Tonight’s problems had not been addressed at all.