“Once upon a time you gave us a freak for freaks. Now and forever more, in our missing you, and this is a good thing, you have brought out the freak in everyone…One man’s freak is another man’s free”
Tilda Swinton: Letter to Dave
The title track of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) lifts the lid on a restless and troubled mind. A place of outcasts, weirdos, freaks that cast long shadows; the song becomes a horror movie populated by people pushed to extremes, wounded, broken and flawed, just like us. A sister song to “Up The Hill Backwards”, “Scary Monsters” now shows the uptight, self-righteous citizen gone off the rails; placing Bowie the artist as a super-freak, a hero of difference. As a self-made oddity he forges his own sinister bend, willingly turned to face the strange and find it reflected in his mind’s eye. [This post is an extract from my new book on Bowie’s year of fear 1980 – Silhouettes And Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)]
The song opens with a furious march of percussion, sounds collapse and fall rhythmically, as the juddering drum kit is kicked down the stairs by Visconti’s production. Using an EMS ‘Wasp” synthesizer he programmed a descending bass line which was triggered by the snare drum, with the toms and kick drum; sometimes bleeding into the triggering process, piling on the sense of organized chaos. “Scary Monsters” galloping rhythm picks up the pace, fleeing the scene of a horrible crime and accelerates away, never looking back. Robert Fripp’s meticulous tangle of guitar notes scatter up the fretboard trying not to trip over himself, before leaping into the chorus with huge dog-whistle string bends pushing at levels of human hearing. Fripp’s guitar seems to embolden Bowie’s voice—or is it the other way around—two beasts barking to threaten volume in place of almost-bites.
The casual freakery of the song speaks to the breaking point of human frailty. Reflecting our own weaknesses and inner deviance exposed, we are forced to empathize with the human potential for weirdness, showing all of us as different from an exaggerated ‘norm’. Speaking in a television interview with Tim Rice on Friday Night, Saturday Morning in 1980, Bowie explained his curiosity: “I have an eclectic thing about freaks and isolationist and alienated people and collect them” These assorted oddities would jump out for him as archetypes of both physical and spiritual deformities. In his teens feasting on the 1961 book by Frank Edwards, Strange People: Unusual Humans Who Have Baffled The World, Bowie recounts the story of the paw paw blowtorch man, a black person who entered a hospital claiming he couldn’t lie down or else the bedsheets would burst into flames, they duly were ablaze and he fled into the night, never to be seen again.
Bowie explained away the album’s title as a slogan gleaned from a Kellogs cereal packet. The seemingly banal packaging promised each child the gift of scary monsters etc. Bowie referred to the more specific counterpoint of “Supermen and Nosferatus” , an interesting turn of phrase, moving towards good and evil, heroes and vampires, gods on earth and unholy abominations when reality often merges the two. After Nietzsche, the American Superman of DC Comics gave young children a force of pure good to believe, along with his superpowers it was his moral integrity that made him a figure of strength. While figures of pure horror such as Nosferatu, the eponymous villain of the first vampire movie staged in silent German expressionist film with long shadows and stark lighting effects. Although such figures are drawn from folk legends of Eastern Europe, residing more in a fear of the ‘other’ or foreigner, rather than a supernatural being, the vampyre was a censorious bogeyman loosely aligned to nationalism.
At the human level the characters of early horror cinema stand as ciphers for making the traumatic realities of death, decay, deformity — and our capacity for evil — more digestible for the human consciousness. With plastic surgery just in its infancy the terrible deformities and injuries experienced by soldiers on all sides of the first world war, echoed the brute reality on the screen, breaking the ice between the everyday person and people forced to wear masks, false limbs or sit in wheelchairs just to fit in with the everyday world.
A further influence that reflects the Scary Monsters concept would be Bowie’s interest in the 1932 film Freaks. Glenn Hendler finds the film’s writer/director author Tod Browning name-checked in “Diamond Dogs”. Submerged alongside the freaks in muddy, underwater vocals Bowie describes a silicone hump, ten-inch (leg) stump, and crawling about on one knee. A cult film since the 1960s Freaks depicts a group of circus freaks, played by people with real life deformities, disabilities and gender differences. They are set against the “big people”, human people with special abilities such as Hercules the weightlifter and Cleopatra the great beauty; alongside this it is their “normality” that sets them apart; allows them to feel superior among the freaks. The “big people” are the villains of the piece, figures of cruelty and exploitation against the freaks as “decent circus folk” (Hendler 2021)
After discovering a betrayal and murder plot by the “big people” of the circus, the freaks enact a terrible revenge on Cleopatra turning her into a duck creature as the freaks all chant “one of us”. Hendler notes that the freaks are more human, standing-up to thwart human acts of wrongdoing and cruelty, begging the question who should we, the audience, identify with? Far from being exploitative, the film echoes the humanistic message of The Elephant Man that inner qualities can trump shallow external appearances. It also raises the question of Bowie’s own interest and sympathy with outsider and excluded freaks, crossing the brittle line of beauty.
A comparison between The Elephant Man and the Hunchback of Notre Dame was suggested to Bowie: “I think in all cases of monster and man, whether the monster be a legitimate monster or one perceived as being a monster by the society within which he is contained, there’s always that element of love lost, or love unrequited, never to be gained.” Avoiding the Disneyfied angle of easy acceptance and understanding Bowie shines a light on the knowing conceit that in our fears and prejudices we generate our own monsters, using these narratives to explain away our shared humanity with other good and bad people who do terrible things.
Debra Rae Cohen noted Bowie’s continued use of “stylized postures (tropes ballooned to a human scale) as a means of objectifying horror.” (1980) This speaks to the characters that inhabit the songs of Scary Monsters; fraction of the many thwarted and desperate individuals that inhabit our societies — the minority that disturb and upset the balance of the majority. Across Bowie’s music we witness drug-casualties, dictators, hubristic stars, victims of abuse — merged into aspects of complex individuals, he maneuvers himself into the mold of dodgy, persuasive figures, like a silvery knife run smooth across the throat. This had its parallel in Bowie’s rock star universe of drug dealers, unscrupulous managers and lawyers, fans or collaborators who betrayed his confidence and turned imitators. Like many musicians Bowie form and dissolve partnerships as trust ebbed and waned, at his most fraught period in the late 1970s he would refer to such people as “leeches” — they were all after his money — taking pieces of him apart — vampires of human flesh.
Bowie was a fan of Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train, a deep dive into cultural phenomenon of rock and roll. When reading about Sly Stone’s legacy to his fans Bowie might well have been reading about himself (as Ziggy). This was the balancing act of the artist who continues to plow the same furrow and makes himself one with his audience giving them exactly what they want and in a “shadowy ideal” making himself one with them, as Bowie had with Ziggy in a confirmation of the new norm. But in breaking away from their expectations (and his own) the artist was in the knife-edge position of taking a genuine step into the creative unknown (towards art-as-life) and shedding followers like a dead skin who in their sudden estrangement now lived under broken the spell of their initial fascination as the artist had separated from himself (Marcus 2015).
Bowie was a man constantly fighting definition, inviting others who felt like outsiders to gravitate towards him. In many respects it was Ziggy not Bowie who brought these lost and uncertain people into a united front, repeating the words of their leper messiah. They came from all over but chiefly the drab provincial towns of middle England where Bowie gigs were lit up by the “exquisite creatures” of his most devoted fans. John O’Connell notes that books like Camus’ The Outsider brought the dizzying free will of existentialism home to the young suburbanites like Bowie: “It legitimized clever, driven teenagers’ sense of uniqueness; of being able to understand, as others could not, the absurdity at the heart of everything.” Bowie exploited this outsider status throughout his career, working within and without the mainstream, legitimizing it for his fanbase —encouraging them to look in the mirror and there find their own hero— they were loners, together.
Even after the cut-off with the death of Ziggy, they shadowed Bowie’s switch to zoot suits as his hair turned into wedge of flame: “Bowie lookalikes, self- consciously cool under gangster hats which concealed (at least until the doors were opened) hair rinsed a luminous vermilion, orange, or scarlet streaked with gold and silver.” (Hebdige 1979). Where Bowie had begun with a call to arms: “turn face the strange” — which Peter Doggett noted many of us heard as “trying to face the strain”, these fans became their own super freaks; young youth carrying its own weight where Bowie was to become the “patron saint of misfits” his goal was to see others free in themselves, he had liberated himself. “His big thing was challenging people to explore to the full what they might be — I’ve done it, so now it’s your turn!” (Fossett 2016)
Simon Critchley found that for many Bowie fans, his appearance singing “Starman” on Top of the Pops [a British music TV program] in Britain in 1972 was a defining moment. “It was this huge show, and there was this moment where he’s got his arm draped around his guitarist’s shoulders, and he’s got this androgynous look. And he says, ‘I have to find someone so I picked on you,’ and he looks at the camera. And I thought, as a twelve-year-old, he was talking to me! To me—and just me.” In this watershed performance everyone, felt, and somehow knew, Bowie was speaking to, for and with them, made to feel special and, uniquely, strangely alive
At the other end of the song spectrum was the anti-ballad “Rock And Roll Suicide” that ends Ziggy Stardust and many of the live shows of that era, unless it was the rollicking closer of “Suffragette City” or “White Light, White Heat”. With the line “Gimme your hands”, the physical was transcended. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys speaks to the power of poetry as an incantation that manifests in the creative hand of the author reaching out in communion with the reader towards a deeper connection beyond flesh. This also evokes the Jesus Christ Superstar element of the Ziggy character, those who would follow him, to be blessed at touching the hem of his garment whn from the stage he offers the communion of acceptance and majestic brilliance. The great strength of Bowie was in encouraging sheer individuality, for each to pursue their own dreams and goals, not simply those that would bring them approval and the mirage of success in the eyes of others.
This sense of shared wonder and each person’s possibility of brilliance was a collective sensibility within the ‘we’ of Bowie fans. Bowie calls for his listener to “turn on” with him, wake up, breathe deep, for each their own way to live to your fullest and not to leave life undone—advice that Bowie himself would wrestle with for much of his life. Where the message really hit home was his call that “You’re not alone” and the repeated lyric chanted at the end reflecting the listeners back to themself as they sang along and the words became their own kind of wonderful. “Drawn into an extraordinary intimacy of total fantasy” For Simon Critchley it was a love story that lasted a lifetime, with the records and their personas enjoying a life far beyond their creator.