David Bowie’s New Wave and Pop Era
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) produced the number one hit “Ashes to Ashes”, featuring the textural work of guitar-synthesist Chuck Hammer and revisiting the character of Major Tom from “Space Oddity”. The song gave international exposure to the underground New Romantic movement when Bowie visited the London club “Blitz”—the main New Romantic hangout—to recruit several of the regulars (including Steve Strange of the band Visage) to act in the accompanying video, renowned as one of the most innovative of all time. While Scary Monsters utilised principles established by the Berlin albums, it was considered by critics to be far more direct musically and lyrically. The album’s hard rock edge included conspicuous guitar contributions from Robert Fripp, Pete Townshend and Chuck Hammer. As “Ashes to Ashes” hit number one on the UK charts, Bowie opened a three-month run on Broadway on 24 September, starring in The Elephant Man. The same year, he made a cameo appearance in the German film Christiane F., a real-life story of teenage drug addiction in 1970s Berlin. TheChristiane F. soundtrack album, which featured Bowie’s music prominently, was released a few months later.
Bowie paired with Queen in 1981 for a one-off single release, “Under Pressure”. The duet was a hit, becoming Bowie’s third UK number one single. Bowie was given the lead role in the BBC’s 1982 televised adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal. Coinciding with its transmission, a five-track EP of songs from the play, recorded earlier in Berlin, was released as David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. In March 1982, the month before Paul Schrader’s film Cat People came out, Bowie’s title song, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, was released as a single, becoming a minor US hit and entering the UK top 30.
Bowie reached a new peak of popularity and commercial success in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Co-produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the album went platinum in both the UK and the US. Its three singles became top twenty hits in both countries, where its title track reached number one. “Modern Love” and “China Girl” made number two in the UK, accompanied by a pair of acclaimed promotional videos that, as described by biographer David Buckley, “were totally absorbing and activated key archetypes in the pop world. ‘Let’s Dance’, with its little narrative surrounding the young Aborigine couple, targeted ‘youth’, and ‘China Girl’, with its nude (and later partially censored) beach lovemaking scene (a homage to the film From Here to Eternity), was sufficiently sexually provocative to guarantee heavy rotation on MTV. Stevie Ray Vaughan was guest guitarist playing solo on “Let’s Dance”, although the video depicts Bowie miming this part. By 1983, Bowie had emerged as one of the most important video artists of the day.Let’s Dance was followed by the Serious Moonlight Tour, during which Bowie was accompanied by guitarist Earl Slick and backing vocalists Frank and George Simms. The world tour lasted six months and was extremely popular.”
Tonight (1984), another dance-oriented album, found Bowie collaborating with Tina Turner and, once again, Iggy Pop. It included a number of cover songs, among them the 1966 Beach Boys hit “God Only Knows”. The album bore the transatlantic top ten hit “Blue Jean”, itself the inspiration for a short film that won Bowie a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video, “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”. Bowie performed at Wembley in 1985 for Live Aid, a multi-venue benefit concert for Ethiopian famine relief. During the event, the video for a fundraising single was premièred, Bowie’s duet with Mick Jagger. “Dancing in the Street” quickly went to number one on release. The same year, Bowie worked with the Pat Metheny Group to record “This Is Not America” for the soundtrack of The Falcon and the Snowman. Released as a single, the song became a top 40 hit in the UK and US.
Bowie was given a role in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners. It was poorly received by critics, but Bowie’s theme song rose to number two in the UK charts. He also appeared as Jareth, the Goblin King, in the 1986 Jim Henson filmLabyrinth, for which he wrote five songs. His final solo album of the decade was 1987’s Never Let Me Down, where he ditched the light sound of his previous two albums, instead offering harder rock with an industrial/techno dance edge. Peaking at number six in the UK, the album yielded the hits “Day-In, Day-Out” (his 60th single), “Time Will Crawl”, and “Never Let Me Down”. Bowie later described it as his “nadir”, calling it “an awful album”. Supporting Never Let Me Down, and preceded by nine promotional press shows, the 86-concert Glass Spider Tour commenced on 30 May. Bowie’s backing band included Peter Frampton on lead guitar. Critics maligned the tour as overproduced, saying it pandered to the current stadium rock trends in its special effects and dancing