Besides being one of my favorite artist for nearly as long as I have liked music, David Bowie is one of the few who re-creates his image and sound with nearly every release. So when I heard that Bowie was working on a follow up to Lets Dance, I wondered where could he go that he had not already been. After all, he had become one of the ’80s biggest pop stars and remained a leader in the MTV obsessed world of image making. Most people would have just rehashed a similar formula and called it a day.
I remember first seeing and hearing the lead single from Tonight, his 16th album. The song “Blue Jean” was vaguely retro sounding and featured Bowie in blue and white makeup, like some sort 3D Photoshop statue. It was a startling look with the sheen of high fashion and just a hint of Bowie looks of the past (Ashes to Ashes). The video for “Blue Jean” inspired an award-winning short film based around the song’s obsessed fan concept.
That song would be only one of two written by Bowie for Tonight. Among the albums many collaborators was Iggy Pop who wrote much of the new material (some with Bowie). Bowie never played any instruments during the albums recording, concentrating on singing instead while hired studio musicians toiled in the background. There were a few notable remakes, like the Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows”, but Tonight was the sound of Let’s Dance trying to find a new groove.
Bowie had always looked to black musical styles for inspiration and Tonight was no different. Instead of the post disco of Let’s Dance, Tonight had reggae overtones. “Don’t Look Down” and to a smaller extent the title song with Tina Turner all had a weird yet stylish restraint to them as if they were made in the pre revolutionary ’60s. Other hints of the ’60s abound as in the chorus of “Tumble and Twirl”. Nowhere was the ’50s and ’60s influence stronger than on “I Keep Forgettin'”. Bits of the old progressive Bowie were present also. The entertaining aggression of “Neighborhood Threat” or Dancing With the “Big Boys” really livened up Tonight and seemed somewhat out-of-place.
You could almost see where Bowie’s musical direction was headed. Even though this might have been one of my least favorite eras for his music, his popularity continued to soar thanks to a few post Tonight projects like “Dancing In the Street” with Mick Jagger. While that famous collaboration was no indicator of how much his music would change because other projects like Absolute Beginners and the one-off song “This is Not America” suggested he was moving towards lounge or retro style crooning.
Bowie’s stylistic changes during this time were about as difficult guessing the weather. Following his involvement in films like Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners, Bowie got back to basic with Never Let Me Down in 1987.
Tonight would be seen as a disappointment by many of Bowie’s newer fans but more importantly it would be to Bowie himself. With so many hands in the recording process, it could have been worse, but actually ended up an enjoyable record despite its disjointed styles and themes.
As one of the first new albums I purchased in college, it would be the first in a long list of sacrifices I made for music at the expense of food and supplies. That’s usually what I think about whenever I hear songs from this album (only “Blue Jean” has stood the test of time on the radio). In the end it was a sacrifice worth making, even if some hard-core Bowie fans might not have thought so.