Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: David Bowie – Tonight

post-punk monk theme week - battle of the mid 80s horn sections
David Bowie grabbed the proverbial brass ring with his top selling “Let’s Dance” album of 1983. He was attempting to shift units and obtain a payday after disentangling from Mainman Management commensurate with reputation as a rock star. It worked. I would guess, in excess of his highest expectations. And when you’re at the top where else is there to go? That’s right…you add a horn section!

David Bowie : Tonight [1984]

david bowie - tonight cover art

Virgin | US | CD | 1995 | CDVUS 97

David Bowie: Tonight – US – DLX RM CD [1995]

  1. Loving The Alien
  2. Don’t Look Down
  3. God Only Knows
  4. Tonight
  5. Neighborhood Threat
  6. Blue Jean
  7. Tumble + Twirl
  8. I Keep Forgetting
  9. Dancing With The Big Boys

It opened without any horns on the first track. In the battle-weary Bowie-fan context of 1985, “Loving The Alien” was received with hosannas in some quarters; including mine. Almost. In the rear-view mirror of history it only served to show how far Bowie had plummeted. Realistically, it was a serviceable David Bowie concept for a song that made actually sense in his post “Stationtostation” era that was given a terrible arrangement, production, and performance. And it was as good as it got on this album.

On the next track the horns were there. “Don’t Look Down” was a Bowie cover of a song from Iggy Pop’s “New Values” album of 1979, which I still need to get. It had to be better than the middle class cod-reggae stylings erected around the song here. Let it not be said that reggae and David Bowie didn’t get on like a house on fire… that crushed the sleeping inhabitants who were asphyxiated already by the smoke by the time the ceiling collapsed and fell on them! Pulverizing the already dead bodies. The twee jazz horns here only served to irritate me.

But that was Picasso next to the nadir of the album. Possibly Bowie’s entire career. Another cover; this time of The Beach Boy’s “God Only Known” given all of the baritone vibrato gravitas he could possible muster before the horns joined in the mayhem on the dire middle eight where they sounded as if they had been pried out of a Doc Severinson Tonight Show Band performance. This left Bowie to circle ’round afterward for the ghastly vocal coup de grace where he combined his penchant for Anthony Newley phrasing with a histrionic delivery that left even the garish and astringent Newley very much in the shade.

After that even another reggae cover of Iggy Pop’s now-Bowdlerized snuff-rock opus “Tonight” [stripped of its cold-eyed dignity] from “Lust For Life” couldn’t help but sound like an uptick. Of course, this was a perfect occasion to bring in Tina Turner for a duet that did her no favors as she sang in union, an octave higher, with Bowie the whole song. Ms. Turner, ever the pro, was game for anything, but the Pepsi ad she made with Bowie a few years later comes out looking the winner here.

david bowie - blue jean cover artThe only other song here that Bowie wrote without Iggy Pop’s help was the lightweight 60s pop throwback of “Blue Jean.” The squealing Clarence Clemmons-style sax solo on this one was hyperbolic in the extreme and the only aspect of the song that wasn’t trying too hard was the almost deadpan BVs by Curtis King and George Simms. The faux-Latin calypso [complete with thunderthumb bass by Carmine Rojas] of “Tumble + Twirl” was another black mark against the tatters of this album. The perfunctory air of it all led to many of these songs stopping abruptly, as if Bowie though “yeah, that’s done!” Unfortunately, “Tumble + Twirl” had not one but two maladroit vocal trills even as it stumbled towards a 4:58 length that seemed too far by half.

The final track was the obnoxious “Dancing With The Big Boys.” Complete with downpitched BVs that served to remind one of happier times where Bowie had thrown the the varispeed I Ching hexagram as on “Fame.” The shrill horns blared brashly on this hyperkinetic album closer that at least had the good sense not to exceed a 3:30 running time. The album couldn’t have ended soon enough.

THE BOTTOM LINE: As much as I hate and despise “Let’s Dance,” it nevertheless is a work of gravity next to its emaciated follow up. And the brain-fog of “Never Let Me Down Again” at least has the occasional good idea that floated to the top of things; obscured as they were by the dozens of bad ideas crowding the surface of Bowie’s Sea of Futility. So in a nutshell, what I am trying to say is that “Tonight” is David Bowie’s worst album. I’ve listened to it too many times for this exercise and will never do it again. Bereft of ideas and inspiration, Bowie flailed wildly here. I didn’t even mention the excruciating call and response of marimbas and Simmons drums in the execrable “I Keep Forgetting!” Were it not for the only great song Bowie recorded in the 80s [“This Is Not America”] having been included on my copy as a bonus track, I would happily divest myself of this album.


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25 Responses to Battle Of The Mid-80s Horn Sections: David Bowie – Tonight

  1. RobC says:

    This is absolutely the worst Bowie album of all…the only saving grace is the masterpiece that is Loving The Alien (one of my favourite Bowie songs), Blue Jean & This Is Not America (another personal fave & Japan bonus track) & Absolute Beginners – in fact the Japanese remastered version is the way to go as it also includes the full length Absolute Beginners & As The World Falls Down and This Is Not America.

    There are virtually no redeeming qualities here outside of those songs. Dancing With The Big Boys is tolerable at best (and did get quite a bit of airplay on KROQ back in the day)

    Bowie is also unfairly maligned for the Never Let Me Down album – I enjoy this album and don’t agree with the criticism. I also enjoy Let’s Dance and consider it a part of the golden run starting with Space Oddity (not a fave album to be honest – also not a fan of PinUps)

    Sad thing really is Bowie never really recovered commercially (ie, chart wise) after Tonight despite making some brilliant albums over the next 30 years or so.


  2. Echorich says:

    There is really nothing I can say that’s positive about Tonight after Loving the Alien ends. Maybe it should have been a bridge single (which would never have worked in the US) awaiting some further “inspiration” from Bowie. Tonight is desperate, and it’s a failure. It is the work you shove out after the album before set the bar way higher than you ever expected (in sales and popularity – not art) and put expectations in an unattainable part of the sky. Trashing three of his darker and more personal songs was bold. Don’t Look Down is almost ecstatic in Iggy’s hands. As for Tonight, I wonder which two or three words Bowie wrote to get a lyrics credit? I will never understand Bowie’s statement that he moved away from the heroin related aspects of the song because it wasn’t part of his vocabulary – well maybe by 1985 it wasn’t. Neighborhood Threat is one of my favorite Iggy Pop songs. I have always had two personal wishes regarding Neighborhood Threat. One was that Magazine would have covered it early in their career, as it feels like it would have fit well on Secondhand Daylight. The other was that Roxy Music would have styled it into a work of wonder, shiny but still dark and desperate.


  3. Tim says:

    I never had really anything invested in Bowie’s 1970’s output, it just did not show up on anyone’s radar in our household and so I never heard it. My introduction to him was really the 1980’s stuff and, while I would never say that any given album from that period is awesomeness followed by awesomeness followed by even more awesomeness I do think quite a lot of it is just fine as pop songs.

    His early/mid 80’s work presages the fate of a lot of people who were huger than him at this point, their output devolved to albums that really should be 3-6 song ep’s.

    For me, take what I consider to be the better moments of the Let’s Dance and Tonight albums and throw in Absolute Beginners and you have a perfectly servicable lp to listen to. Again, never delved deep into the 1970’s stuff. In the 80’s, did he write a lot of well crafted disposable pop music? Yup.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with Tim on this. I love “Blue Jean” and still enjoy “Loving the Alien,” and concur on his idea to just fuse the best stuff from this (which I’ve just enumerated), “Absolute Beginners,” and the highlights of “Let’s Dance” and you’ve got what I think could be a great album (albeit a poor follow-up to Scary Monsters, and like many I wish Bowie had in that “space” for a while).

    As for “God Only Knows” — Bowie has a history of doing inept covers (even of songs he wrote with or for others! — and I offer absolutely no defence of it. That song just makes even more plain how bad the production and arrangements on this whole EP are. The entire thing reeks of record company pressure for a fast but cheap follow-up to cash in with few actual new songs having been written in the interim. At least the LD tour was good, albeit hard to completely enjoy (as all stadium shows are).

    Suffice to say that the horns weren’t even remotely the biggest problem here. If it had been me I would have picked the “Cracked Actor” boot (now a “proper” live album) of his reworked Soul tour. There, the introduction of horns were a huge part of all-new arrangements in anticipation of what was to come, and worked a treat!


  5. Ade.W says:

    Mid 80s horn sections, hmm! well at the time I don’t think we thought too much was wrong, it just was probably natural progression for some artist. Why not ? there had been some great success in the early 80s, “Chant no1” “favourite Shirts”” etc , oh and of course Wham!. And then Beggar & co popping up on U-vox,(slightly less successful) but as we now know the seeds of sophisti-pop are well and truly sown.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Ade.W – Gott Im Himmel!! How did I not immediately think of the awe-inspiring “Chant No. 1?!?!” Spandau Ballet’s absolute finest hour?! A song I have heard hundreds of times to breathless excitement each and every time I’ve listened to it. I chide myself!!


  6. SimonH says:

    Love This is Not America, also in this house Icehouse own Loving the Alien!


  7. I … I like Never Let Me Down. There I said it. It was actually the first new (as it was released) Bowie album I purchased. Of course I had Let’s Dance and at that point I had a copy of Man Who Sold The World. I was very well aware of the singles released up to the Never Let Me Down album, including the ones from Tonight. I even purchased (and still own) the VHS of “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean” so my relationship with the album is probably different than that of most Bowie fans. Actually, I still don’t have this album, and am not sure I have even heard it all the way through at any point. I have every Bowie release from Never Let Me Down onward, and from Let’s Dance backward I have about 50%.

    Absolute Beginners? Holy crap what an album. Actually, that whole movie is fantastic. Yes, Absolute Beginners is a great song but have you heard That’s Motivation and his rendition of Volare? They are great! Bowie could get slick like nobody else. After Tonight he did the films Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth, both films with great soundtrack contributions by Bowie. Then came Never Let Me Down, which is yes, uneven, but enjoyable.

    But back to Tonight.

    I suppose I need to listen to the album as a whole. Alright, I know I need to acquire it, I mean, I am a David Bowie fan. I’m not unaware that this is probably his worst album (reserving final judgement until I have all of them). Maybe I’ll head over to Amazon Music and give it a listen today.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      postpostmoderndad – Welcome to the comments! Nice to see you here [love that avatar]. Well, at a certain point, going gaga over the “Hours” album in the late 90s, I finally crossed that line in the sand and bought copies of “Let’s Dance,” “Tonight,” and “Never Let Me Down.” Which I’d avoided like the plague since release. Just to grasp the totality of his canon. He’s a major artist and hearing even the stuff I didn’t like added context, I thought.

      Actually, a friend bought me a copy of the original pressing of “Never Let Me Down” which was ideal as I got the “real” version with “Too Dizzy” on it. A song that’s not so bad that Bowie should have removed it on all subsequent copies. I mean, there are LOTS of similarly bad songs he could have also pulled, but then you could probably issue a “Best Of Bowie 80s” on a single disc that might have everything above par minus the [considerable] chaff.

      The thing with Bowie was that his last half of the 70s was so supreme, with a mixture of art and commerce in rare balance that was unbeatable [though admittedly, it failed to dent the US charts, he had hits in the UK from that era]. His retreat from bold ideas and innovative creative synthesis into mere pop music [not even the best pop I could have heard, either] was such artistic backpedaling that I never accepted the results. That said, I still have not heard the “Labyrinth” OST, which Bowie scholars battle over whether it was Bowie LP canon or merely a handful of tracks on a movie soundtrack.


      • For as big as he was in the 80s, the fact he only put out 3 actual albums in that decade (I have Labyrinth in my “soundtrack” section but Buddah Of Suburbia in with Bowie’s albums proper) is mind-boggling. I mean, sure, Tin Machine came out in 89 and I *DO* file that output in with Bowie’s albums it is an outlier. Yes, a single disc Best Of Bowie In The 80s would probably feature half soundtrack stuff, and I would probably be alright with that. I still have the original Never Let Me Down, thankfully, and the track that was subbed in for “Too Dizzy” I have on a b-side of a 12 inch single, so I don’t feel the need to repurchase the album any time soon, leaving me free to (eventually) fill in the holes of my collection. What I like about his 70s and 90s output was that even when it fell flat he was trying for something, reaching, stretching himself creatively. In the 80s he just wrote songs. Those late 70s singles are fantastic. I love those. Whenever I put some Bowie on a playlist those are the first ones to be added.

        Oh, man, I could talk about Bowie for … hours…


        • postpunkmonk says:

          postpostmoderndad – Are you in any hurry to hear the “Never Let Me Down Again” redux version? I can’t get behind it, personally. Not the least reason is that it comes with a costly boxed set I don;t plan on buying. I have every Bowie album from canon. I’m not buying all of the posthumous cash-grabs; by and large. I have the Nassau and “Cracked Actor” live sets. Prince stuff from The Vault, however, is pretty mandatory! I will happily buy that as long as the quality control remains as consistent as it has been.


          • Oh, yes, let’s not start in on Prince.

            I really REALLY want to get those box sets but can’t justify the prices. It’s like the Sound + Vision boxes. I bought the first one but wasn’t about to pick up the 2nd one for the 4 songs that were different. Alright, a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.

            As for the live recordings, I’m no longer interested in buying those as I have enough… er… sets… at this point I just want copies of the concerts of his I have attended.


            • Tim says:

              I was just telling my wife the other night about how the main character in Absolute Beginners has a refrigerator that has been emptied out and is used as his clothes wardrobe. The things that stick with you.
              Agree with you on the other Bowie tracks, I didn’t mention them because I was trying to stick to realms that intersected more with singles.


      • So I went (online through Amazon Music) and listened to Tonight and yes, it’s his worst album. Holy shit, it’s BAD. I mean, that 2nd song, the smooth jazz reggae thing? “God Only Knows”? Yes, some of this stuff you pointed out but I mean, it didn’t prepare me for listening to it. And the final track just keeps going and going, it’s literally half a song with extra production tacked on just to make it longer. “Tumble And Twirl” is so busy you can’t find the song and … ok, I’ll stop. Wow.

        Liked by 1 person

        • postpunkmonk says:

          postpostmoderndad – You can’t say I didn’t warn you. I guess the serious money that “Let’s Dance” engendered skewed Bowie’s judgement as he tried for more. Financially, he had been over a barrel for a decade so I understand why he made “Let’s Dance.” But I don’t have to like it. And the second guessing that resulted in “Tonight” was just incredibly sloppy. An artistic body blow that took Bowie decades to fully recover from.


          • Decades? Oh, I don’t know about that. He started to recover (STARTED) with Never Let Me Down, then went and did Tin Machine when he really needed to reinvigorate himself, and was successful there, and while Black Tie, White Noise isn’t the equal to his 70s work, it’s pretty good and Outside saw him fully back to his (typically hit or miss) creative stride. So I say *A* decade, not “decades” (that’s just my humble but correct opinion).


  8. ocadultchild says:

    Agreed, “God Only Knows” is atrocious. Even a genius can lose their way at some point. If anybody deserved to cash in on success after paving the way for most every New Wave band of the late 70s and early 80s, it was Bowie. “Let’s Dance” was the gateway to many people discovering him and his amazing back catalogue. But that kind of massive success can be intimidating even to legends. Notwithstanding the “Phil Collins years” of dreck that followed, I would argue that “Cat People”, “This Is Not America”, “Under Pressure”, “Absolute Beginners”, “When The World Falls Down”, “Like A Rolling Stone” (not released until the 90s) and the newly remixed “Zeroes” are 80s creations that stand up against his best work.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      ocaadultchild – “Cat People [v. 1]” and “This Is Not America” are the two there that were unimpeachably great for me, but to that I’d add one you passed on…”Time Will Crawl.” “Like A Rolling Stone” was a great vocal performance but Ronson’s genius hook took it over the top. I’ve not heard “Zeroes [v.2]” as the buy-in cost was more than I cared to spend. I was never fully convinced by “Absolute Beginners.” I actually liked Tin Machine but that was another thing.


      • ocadultchild says:

        I remember liking “Time Will Crawl” when it came out, especially the horns. But it’s not one that stands out for me, maybe produced differently it would still hold my attention. Check out Youtube for the Zeroes remix, would be interested in your thoughts…


  9. Echorich says:

    Zeroes still doesn’t work for me. It has always felt like Bowie retreading a wheel he’s already ridden. It’s not Changes or Heroes and it has a nagging Stadium Anthem feel that turns me off.


  10. “This left Bowie to circle ’round afterward for the ghastly vocal coup de grace where he combined his penchant for Anthony Newley phrasing with a histrionic delivery that left even the garish and astringent Newley very much in the shade”. Very good. Hilarious in fact. The song is grotesque no doubt. I secretly love this album. Not a secret actually. NLMD too.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      the press music reviews – I will admit that the ability to craft sentences like that one are why I blog. Just a little of that every week or so and the whole enterprise redeems itself. As for grotesquery, that had always been a Bowie artistic stonghold, so even in failure, the performance was almost a win for him. On sheer nerve.

      Liked by 1 person

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