On Second Thought: David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’

Originally published 7/12/05 at Stylus, this is one of my more self-indulgent pieces, but I like it anyway. Perhaps because I still like this album.

For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it. 

I wish I could play you “Neighborhood Threat,” the song smack dab in the middle of Tonight, with an unknown singing instead of David Bowie. You might be surprised by it, perhaps noting what a taut, tense song it is, with great, effective backing vocals, full of menace, brimming with energy. But since you know it’s Bowie, and especially since you know it’s from his seriously hated-on Tonight, you dis/miss it fairly out of hand: “Oh, it’s from that album with ‘Blue Jean,’ that album’s terrible.” But to paraphrase the tagline of MTV’s series Diary, you may think you know Tonight, an album rich in textures with some fine singing—yes, I said “fine singing”—from Mr. Bowie, as opposed to what many have said. But you have no idea. 

This isn’t Bowie’s most-hated album—that’s unquestionably its follow-up, 1987’sNever Let Me Down—but it’s a strong number two in the “intensely disliked Bowie albums” sweepstakes. This isn’t a flawless album by any means, either; the cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” is, shall we say, ill advised (though it does feature a lovely string arrangement). It’s not that it’s so bad, really, but more that it’s so utterly out of time on a 1984 album, in arrangement, in Bowie’s vocals (which are in fact not some of his best, a bit all over the proverbial map, intentional for sure but no more better for that fact). It’s followed by the album’s title track, one of four (out of nine) songs co-written by Iggy Pop, with whom Bowie had recently re-established his friendship. “Tonight” is done as a duet with Tina Turner, then on the cusp of one of the most magnificent comebacks in pop history. The song, however, is a mishmash, with a vaguely reggae-ish beat, some seemingly random marimbas in the bridge, and horns there for the sake of being there, apparently. And Tina sounds as if she’s singing at gunpoint. 

I’ve always felt that one of the chief reasons Tonight gets so much flak is because, coming off his greatest commercial triumph (ever, at least in the U.S.), Bowie switched gears (again), ditching Nile Rodgers (who produced Let’s Dance, a fine album not without its own low points, mind you) and ensconcing Derek Bramble and Hugh Padgham behind the boards (the latter later to gain fame working with Phil Collins and Sting). What resulted, in part, is a much—and there’s no other way to say this—whiter album than Let’s Dance. For many, “Let’s Dance” in particular was a return to the sound of “Fame” and “Young Americans,” Bowie triumphantly scaling the white-boy soul mountain. “Blue Jean,” Tonight’s first single, is most definitely no “Let’s Dance,” nor “Modern Love” for that matter. No one’s likely to mistake “Loving the Alien” nor “Dancing with the Big Boys” as productions by the Chic Organization, either. 

As for “Blue Jean,” likely the only song you (and most everyone else) remember from the album, I’ll say this: it’s a ridiculous one-off, a silly faux-‘50s faux-rocker with some great sax and some of the sillier lyrics of a career rich in them. It still sounds great on the radio; the best big dumb pop songs always do. It’s as “totally ‘80s” as retro gets, too. Released in any other decade, it would have withered and died, but in the ‘80s, well, Bowie could get away with it, and did. It was his last top 10 single in the U.S. 

The album opens with one of the most downright pretty songs in the David Bowie catalog, “Loving the Alien,” which Alfred Soto says is “a nice tune with uncharacteristically great lyrics, but he edges into Bryan Ferry territory (Ferry circa Boys & Girls, when he refused to enunciate syllables, ugh), and the production swamps him.” Soto’s right and he’s wrong. The lyrics are rather great, as evidenced by the song’s first two verses:

Watching them come and go
The templars and the Saracens
They’re traveling the holy land
Opening telegrams 

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror blind

Yes, Bowie does slide into “Ferry territory” here, but I hear that as a plus, as it fits perfectly with the song’s music, so gorgeously evocative (thanks in no small part to the xylophone). Thanks as well to the song’s proto-ambient keyboard washes (courtesy of Arif Mardin!), “Alien” sets a mood that doesn’t let go long after the song’s finished playing. The musical ascension to the song’s choruses as well is climactic, and fulfilling once we’re there, and the way the song closes, so suddenly, on that single guitar riff is perfect. Contrary to what Soto thinks, I find that the production complements Bowie’s lyrics and voice superbly. 

“Don’t Look Down” features some lovely crooning from Bowie and a loving reference to Rudy Valentino, along with a well-suited, loping beat, while the odd (and Borneo-tastic—what gives?) “Tumble and Twirl” (another co-write with Iggy) is a pleasant enough goof that goes on a bit too long, and a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “I Keep Forgetting” is inoffensive if random. It’s Tonight’s pair of rockers, however, that leave the most lasting impression. 

“Neighborhood Threat” made an impression on me from the first time I heard it. Mind you, when Tonight was released, I was 13, and hadn’t heard the likes of Lownor Scary Monsters (or, for that matter, Ziggy Stardust). Nonetheless, this “Threat” was one I took seriously. Seething with potential menace, featuring one of Bowie’s more ragged and fearless vocals (check the way he lets loose as the song vamps its way out, the way he stretches out his second-to-last “neighborhoooooood threat” at the 2:59 mark) augmented by a stabbing guitar lick and keyboards (both staccato notes and chords) which hold it all together like an egg wash on pastry, this sounded utterly amazing late at night (I first heard it on my local album rock station—imagine such a station playing such a song these days!), but sounds just as fine by the light of day. And that Oompa Loompas-on-drugs “ee-ee-ah-ah-oh-oh” in the song’s bridge sucked me in for good. The threat in “Neighborhood Threat” is palpable. 

Of another nature entirely is the album-closing Iggy Pop collabo “Dancing with the Big Boys,” which they co-wrote with lead guitarist Carlos Alomar and sing together as well. Seemingly pointless—at least, I certainly can’t discern one—“Big Boys” is a string of non-sequiturs strung together without rhyme or reason.

Something’s going on in society
You chew your fingers and stare at the floor
One wrong word and you’re out of sync
Talking bout a hands on policy
Death to the trees
They weren’t bad, they weren’t brave
Nothing is embarrassing
There are too many people, too much belief
Where there’s trouble there’s poetry
Your family is a football team
This dot marks your location
Loneliness in a free society
This can be embarrassing

Apart from chants of “big boys” and “dancing with the big boys,” those are the complete lyrics of the song. “Your family is a football team” in particular has always stuck with me. I mean, really, what the fuck, guys? There’s random non-sequiturs and then there’s that. You’d think you could explain it away with drug use, but I think Bowie, at least, was clean by ’84. The snare drum and cymbals turn on a dime, though, and musically, this one of the more straightforwardly interesting cuts on Tonight (nice horn charts, too). Few fail the way Bowie can, but few can make the oddest songs, like “Big Boys,” work the way he can, either.

Tonight is not a great album. It is, however, a good album, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a much better album than you think it is, or may have been led to believe. Bowie’s made some subpar records, but this isn’t one of them—and frankly, even its failures are boring, because, well, it’s an ‘80s Bowie album, from a decade in which he was wildly inconsistent, but also never dull. And remember: your family is a football team. 

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About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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