On the face of it, 1981 was the quietest year of Bowie’s career so far. Having spent the last ten years redefining the rock landscape, there was no new album nor was there another world tour in support of the critically and commercially successful Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album of the previous year. For Bowie, 41 years ago, things were seemingly coming to an end, but things were also opening up.
Bowie had, through the latter half of 1980, taken to the stage in the guise of John Merrick the Elephant Man, famously performing to New York’s packed Booth Theatre and three empty front row seats on the night of John Lennon’s murder, before completing the triumphant Broadway run on 3 January 1981 to wide critical acclaim. It’s hard to speculate what impact the tragic loss of a friend had on Bowie and his outlook for the coming year, but clearly time was needed to re-evaluate.
It was around this time a certain rancour began to permeate his relationship with RCA. It’s true he had becoming increasingly disenchanted with the record label, and his contract was entering its final months, so too was his non-relationship with his management company Mainman, and head honcho Tony Defries, which had soured horribly by the mid-70s.
Bowie had decided to wait it out. His marriage to Angie had formally ended in divorce, and rather than enduring a creative hangover after the mesmerising 1970s, Bowie was now free to make his next artistic move and explore other avenues of creativity this year; work with Tony Visconti again, record at Hansa in Berlin, divert his attention by acting in a play, record soundtrack work and a noteworthy (yet unlikely) number one hit single collaboration. The interstitial space of 1981 turns out to be one of revaluation before launching into what everyone knows as his most commercially successful popstar phase: 1983’s Let’s Dance and mega-successful Serious Moonlight tour.
The year started with the release of the first and one of the best David Bowie books related to the analysis of the music; Bowie: An Illustrated Record by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray. Published in January 1981, the NME writers thoughtfully examine every aspect of Bowie’s provocative and enlightening music over his recording career up until 1980. The writing is engaging and the information is accurate. A critical study of his recorded work, the book includes stunning colour and black and white photos throughout, as well as excellent reproductions of album and single sleeves. It also drills down into collaborative work with the likes of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, Mick Ronson and Dana Gillespie, as well as referencing rare and collectable items like Bowie Now, and a guide to priceless bootlegs such as The Thin White Duke. Bowie even looked over the manuscript back in the day and corrected assorted factual inaccuracies that cropped up along the way. Not to imply his participation was authorised or endorsed in any way, the opinions expressed are all that of the authors. While countless books have since well and truly updated the Bowie discography (best of all is Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie), this illustrated record remains an excellent reference point and a personal treasure.
Bowie starred as himself in a German film about the teenage heroin addicted Bowie fan Christiane F. (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo), miming to the Stage version of Station to Station and generally looking extremely cool and otherworldly. Due to his Elephant Man performance commitments, the concert scene was filmed in 1980 in a New York club made to look like a Berlin nightclub. The accompanying soundtrack album featured a top-drawer selection of Bowie songs from the mid-late 70s and was released in April 1981 on RCA.
He had left New York earlier in the year and settled back into Mountain Studios in Montreux Switzerland, when in July he got together with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder to record the theme song for the Paul Schrader-directed horror movie Cat People. The track, co-written with Moroder, was a minor hit in the UK and US and turned out to be one of the finest Bowie moments of the decade. This wonderful career-high performance by our hero begins with a ambient build up and a baritone croon: “See these eyes of green…”, a near Velvet Underground Venus in Furs steal, “I could stare for a thousand years”, before warming into a refrain, “And I’ve been Putting Out Fire…”, then launching into the exhilarating octave-straddling, “WITH GASOLIIIINE!!!” as the track blasts in.
It worked well as the opener for the Moroder-composed original soundtrack album and was resurrected to extraordinary effect for a key scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 WWII epic Inglorious Bastards. As good as this is, the recording would become a casualty of Bowie’s drive to continually push forward as it was almost immediately eclipsed by the fine but lesser re-recorded version featuring a then-unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan for Let’s Dance. This superb Moroder detour did however open the door for his next collaboration, this time with Queen on the iconic Under Pressure. Also recorded in July 1981, and again at Mountain Studios, the track became a worldwide sensation upon release in October, reaching No.1 on the UK charts, and Bowie’s best showing in the US since Golden Years.
As chance would have it, Queen were spending much of their time writing and recording the underrated Hot Space (1982) album, and one night while sitting on the eastern end of Lake Geneva hanging with Bowie, they adjourned back to the small studio together. A welcome distraction for a band who were encountering their very own musical differences at the time, the musicians picked up their instruments and Bowie provided backup vocals to an album track called Cool Cat before jamming out a few Cream covers with the band. “We had fun kicking around a few fragments of songs we all knew,” Brian May remembered. “But then we decided it would be great to create something new on the spur of the moment.”
Originally titled ‘People On Streets’, Bowie took the creative lead, eventually suggesting they go into the vocal booth to sing how they feel the melody should proceed. “Bowie also insisted that he and Freddie Mercury shouldn’t hear what the other had sung, swapping verses blind, which helped give the song its cut-and-paste feel”.
The track was essentially recorded as a demo, with Bowie and Mercury taking it back to the Power Station Studios in New York for overdubs and mixing a few weeks later. The Bowie guest vocal on the rather indiscriminate disco number Cool Cat did not end up being used on the album, in fact his parts were officially removed at Bowie’s behest. While Under Pressure would go on to be a staple of Queen’s setlists (it ended up as the closing track on Hot Space), Bowie did not perform it live until the 1992 memorial concert for Mercury (the dreaded Lord’s Prayer gig), as a duet with Annie Lennox and the surviving members of Queen.
The misconception is Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was the end of the Tony Visconti era and Lodger was the end of the Berlin trilogy (actually mostly recorded at the aforementioned Montreux), but rarely receiving a mention is what he did next: Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. Having already covered Brecht’s Alabama Song on the 1978 world tour, then recording it as the B-side the reworked Space Oddity single of 1979, Bowie was offered and immediately accepted the lead role playing the anti-hero Baal in an unusual BBC TV play.
Something of a passion project for Bowie, filming commenced in August in London and the accompanying soundtrack, financed by Bowie, consisted of five tracks from the production all recorded at Berlin’s Hansa Ton Studios in September applying the same recording techniques as “Heroes”, and using a proper 15-piece German pit band of old guys. The result is ornate and lush; the lovely standout Remembering Marie A is an exquisite moment on the EP. Baal was a bold project for the artist, however it is well worth a revisit featuring some of the finest singing of Bowie’s career and was the last studio collaboration for many years with producer Tony Visconti.
The year finished with the release of the random compilation album ChangesTwoBowie, in November, something of a companion piece to the faultless ChangesOneBowie from 1976. Bowie was reportedly displeased with the release of this off-kilter mixtape assembled by RCA without his involvement, but there’s nothing wrong with the material contained within. In fact it includes some of his best ever 70s moments, and every single song is a classic (except, of course, John I’m Only Dancing (Again)) although the whole project seems a rather cynical exercise in squeezing a bit more cash out of a huge fanbase at a time when the artist’s stocks were high and was on the move to EMI. He did, however, agree to film a video for Station to Station’s masterful closing track Wild is the Wind which was released as a single by RCA in November to promote this sorta-hits compilation. The video is a good one with an impressive 50s jazz style monochrome video directed by David Mallet (Ashes to Ashes and many many more with DB), and the single was a hit in the UK. Mallet also made a similar one for Baal’s The Drowned Girl and both performances feature Bowie and friends, including Tony Visconti apparently on upright bass and his long-time assistant Coco Schwab on acoustic guitar.
Bowie – 1981 mp3
- Station to Station (live) – Christiane F. (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo): Original Soundtrack
- Cat People (Putting Out Fire) – Cat People: Original Soundtrack
- Cool Cat (Bowie vocal) – Hot Space – Queen
- Under Pressure – Hot Space – Queen
- Baal’s Hymn (Der Choral vom großen Baal) – Baal EP
- Remembering Marie A. (Erinnerung an die Marie A.) – Baal EP
- Wild is the Wind – Changestwobowie