When the Wheels Came Off: David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’
David Bowie entered the ’80s on a commercial hot streak, scoring a transatlantic hit with 1980′s ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ before blowing the lid clean off with 1983′s ‘Let’s Dance,’ a worldwide smash that proved he was perfectly capable of distilling his artier instincts down into aggressively radio-friendly fare.
That kind of success has a tendency to corrupt even the savviest artists, though, and the following year, fans caught a glimpse of the confusion that followed in the wake of ‘Let’s Dance.’ Concerned that he’d lose his expanded pop audience if he didn’t return with a new album quickly, he released ‘Tonight’ in the fall of ’84 — even though, as he later admitted, he hadn’t had enough time to get an LP’s worth of material together.
“I suppose the most obvious thing,” Bowie conceded, “is that there’s not the usual amount of writing on it from me. I wanted to keep my hand in, so to speak, and go back in the studio — but I didn’t really feel as if I had enough new things of my own because of the tour. I can’t write on tour, and there wasn’t really enough preparation afterwards to write anything that I felt was really worth putting down, and I didn’t want to put out things that ‘would do’ so there are two or three that I felt were good things to do and the other stuff.”
In some ways, he added, ‘Tonight’ was an excuse for a reunion with his old friend Iggy Pop. “What I suppose I really wanted to do was to work with Iggy again, that’s something I’ve not done for a long time. And Iggy wanted us to do something together,” he mused. “I think more than anything else I write the musical side of the new songs; we worked very much the way that we did on ‘Lust for Life’ and ‘The Idiot,’ and I often gave him a few anchor images that I wanted him to play off and he would take them away and start free-associating and I would then put that together in a way that I could sing. Rather than write straightforward songs, he would do collective imagery, and we’d rearrange things from there.”
Aside from writing with Pop again, Bowie said ‘Tonight’ “gave me a chance, like ‘Pin-Ups’ did a few years ago, to do some covers that I always wanted to do. ‘God Only Knows’ I first did — or tried to do — with Ava Cherry and that crowd the Astronettes when I tried to develop them into a group. Nothing came of that! I still have the tapes, though. It sounded such a good idea at the time and I never had the chance to do it with anybody else again, so I thought I’d do it myself…it might be a bit saccharine, I suppose.”
Bowie’s relative lack of engagement was further reflected in his decision to restrict most of his tracks to vocal performances. “I very much left everybody else to it. I must say, I just came in with the songs and the ideas and how they should be played and then watched them put it all together. It was great! I didn’t work very hard in those terms,” he admitted. “I feel very guilty about it! I did five or six pieces of writing and I sing a lot … It was nice not to be involved in that way.”
As Bowie became less involved with his music, so did his audience. Although ‘Tonight’ certainly performed respectably, peaking just outside the Billboard Top 10 and going platinum along the way, the sales were largely boosted by post-’Let’s Dance’ afterglow — and while many critics stopped short of calling ‘Tonight’ a turkey, the reaction on the whole was fairly lukewarm. In the year that brought movie audiences ‘Conan the Destroyer’ and ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,’ Bowie added another retread sequel to the pile — pleasant enough in its way, but lacking the creative spark that fueled his best work, and nothing close to essential.
Asked to consider his next move, Bowie responded, “I’ve come to the realisation that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing half the time, that the majority of the stuff that I do is totally intuitive, totally about where I am physically and mentally at any moment in time and I have a far harder time than anybody else explaining it and analyzing it. That’s the territory of the artist anyway: to be quite at sea with what he does, and working toward not being intuitive about it and being far more methodical and academic about it.”
He did, however, hint at more experimental sounds looming on the horizon. “I think this’ll be the last album where I’m involved in this kind of thing. There’s a particular sound I’m after that I haven’t really got yet and I probably won’t drop this search until I get it. I’ll either crack it on the next album or just retire from it. I think I got quite close to it on ‘Dancing with the Big Boys,’ which got somewhere near where I wanted it to be. I think I should be a bit more adventurous. That was quite an adventurous bit of writing in the sense that we didn’t look for any standards. I got very musical over the last couple of years; I stayed away from experimentation. It’s not helpful sometimes, although it’s a good discipline. I really got into that: trying to write musically and develop things the way people used to write in the ‘50s,but in ‘Big Boys’ Iggy and I just broke away from all of that for the one track. That came nearer to the sound I was looking for than anything. I’d like to try maybe one more set of pieces like that.”
If he operated at a remove during the ‘Tonight’ sessions, he definitely gave the follow-up more thought; in fact, he later claimed that he organized his next release, 1987′s ‘Never Let Me Down,’ around the idea that “I knew that I wanted something I could tour with on a very ground roots level. I wanted something that would work well with a small band, because I wanted a lot of performers on stage other than just the band. So it had to logistically be a five piece band kind of music. I wrote small but energetically.”
Of course, that “ground roots” claim is undermined by Bowie’s (then mildly controversial) decision to sign a tour sponsorship deal with Pepsi in order to fund an elaborate three-stage setup. But touring logistics were the least of his worries with the new record, which was attacked early and often for being a soulless capitulation to mainstream musical trends — a criticism Bowie deflected by arguing, “I don’t think that I’ve actually strayed any closer to the mainstream, I just think that nowadays my music is the mainstream; it has become the mainstream. I’d like to think of it that way. The stuff that I’m doing on the new album isn’t so very different melodically, or musically inherently from ‘Aladdin Sane’ or the harder rocking stuff on the ‘Heroes’ album or ‘Scary Monsters,’ so it just seems as though music has changed into the kind of thing I was doing. I’m just doing the same kind of thing, really. I think ‘Let’s Dance’ was probably the most commercial. But I don’t think this one was intended to be inherently commercial. Otherwise I’d have been doing another ‘Let’s Dance.’”
As far as quite a few critics and fans were concerned, another ‘Let’s Dance’ would have been preferable to ‘Never Let Me Down,’ which incorporated a number of disparate lyrical themes (the homeless, global politics, lusting after young girls) behind garishly modern production that, while rooted in the rock combo aesthetic Bowie was after, incorporated far too much of the synth-dispensed gloss that helped give the ’80s a bad name. The overall effect was enough to smother most of what Bowie envisioned as an homage to his songwriting heroes — an album whose songs, in his opinion, included hints of Smokey Robinson, Prince, and Neil Young, among others.
“I didn’t try and make any kind of logical glue for it,” he explained in a 1987 interview. “It’s a hodgepodge of writing styles. I wanted to incorporate all the styles I use when I write, and change my voice for different tracks. I wanted to have color in that way. Shape, like a painting.”
Ultimately, with a little bit of hindsight, Bowie conceded that this period was something of a low point for him. “I thought it was great material that got simmered down to product level,” Bowie suggested when asked about ‘Tonight’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’ during a 1989 interview. “I really should have not done it quite so studio-ly. I think some of it was a waste of really good songs. You should hear the demos from those albums. It’s night and day by comparison with the finished tracks. There’s stuff on the two albums since ‘Let’s Dance’ that I could really kick myself about. When I listen to those demos it’s, ‘How did it turn out like that?’ You should hear ‘Loving The Alien’ on demo. It’s wonderful on demo, I promise you. But on the album, it’s… not as wonderful. What am I meant to say?”
And by this point, he’d been through enough career ups and downs to know that they usually didn’t last for long anyway. “I’ve lost audiences many times over the years and they’ve come back again for another reason, or another,” he laughed. “I’ve sort of got that mutual agreement with them. If it’s not going well, they stay away, and if they like what I’m doing, they come back again. Which is fair enough, really.”
But even if he wasn’t worried about sales or reviews, following ‘Tonight’ and ‘Never Let Me Down,’ Bowie knew he needed a change of pace, which he found by teaming up with Reeves Gabrels, Hunt Sales and Tony Sales to form the squalling, short-lived collective known as Tin Machine. Of course, even as that project jump-started Bowie’s muse, it drew a fair bit of its own criticism — but that’s another story.