The songs

In the mid-Eighties, David Bowie was an active participant in a series of charitable celebrity initiatives, including the b-side of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, the Live Aid concert on 13 July 1985, and his duet with Mick Jagger on ‘Dancing In The Street’. He also co-wrote and performed ‘When The Wind Blows’, the title track of the Raymond Briggs animation about the fallout from nuclear war.

Never Let Me Down was written and recorded in this era of social conscience, and several of the songs touched upon subjects including poverty, drug abuse, prostitution, and war. This was not unfamiliar territory for Bowie, whose lyrics had been preoccupied with dystopia and social decay since the days of Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, yet his recent pop output had tended to avoid such themes.

I know, I’m rich and famous and out of touch. I supposed the majority of what I was writing about initially came from news coverage and media events. I’m like everyone else, I know what’s going on in the world basically through television and the newspaper – one for the pictures, the other for the truth.
David Bowie
New York Times, 26 April 1987

Never was this more apparent than on the album’s opener, ‘Day-In Day-Out’. Social issues were brought to the fore from its Wildean opening lines “She was born in a handbag/Love left on a doorstep”, and on to its themes of homelessness, poverty, drugs, and being on the wrong side of the law.

‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ is perhaps the clearest antecedent to Tin Machine’s straight-talking reportage from the seamier sides of life, with topical references to the Chernobyl disaster, the crack cocaine epidemic, and – in the mid-song rap with actor Mickey Rourke – Irish political party Sinn Fein.

Again, it reflects back-to-street situations, and how people are trying to get together in the face of so many disasters and catastrophes, socially around them, never knowing if they’re going to survive it themselves. The one thing they have got to cling on to is each other; although it might resolve into something terrible, it’s the only thing that they’ve got. It’s just a little love song coming out of that environment.
David Bowie
Music & Sound Output, June 1987

‘’87 And Cry’ was Bowie’s damning assessment of the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, where capitalism had trumped socialism, and personal wealth was prioritised over the greater good. Bowie had not lived in Britain since 1974, and by the mid-Eighties was residing in Switzerland, his records created across continents and cultures, yet he clearly remained engaged in geopolitics and the changes in his country of origin.

It started off, when I was originally writing it, as a kind of indictment of Thatcher’s England, but then it took on all these surreal qualities of a pushy person eating the energies of others to get to where they wanted and leaving the others behind: ‘It couldn’t be done without dogs.’ It was a Thatcherite statement made through the eyes of a potential socialist, because I always remained a potential socialist–not an active one.
David Bowie
Music & Sound Output, June 1987

It was not all bleakness, however. Bowie also touched upon the optimism and social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, I think. And also all the influences I’ve had in rock. On one song, ‘Zeroes’, I wanted to put in every cliché that was around in the Sixties – ‘letting the love in,’ those kinds of lines. But it was done with affection – it’s not supposed to be a snipe. I just wanted the feeling of that particular period, the very late Sixties.
David Bowie
Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987

The title track, meanwhile, was written for Coco Schwab, Bowie’s loyal assistant who started working for his management company MainMan in 1973, and remained with him until the end.

It’s basically about Coco, more than anybody else… It’s platonic. But there is a romance in it, I guess, inasmuch as it’s hard for two people to feel totally at ease in each other’s company for that period of time and not expect too much from each other. Always being prepared to be there if the other one needs someone, you know? There’s not many people you find in life that you can do that with, or feel that way with.
David Bowie
Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987

‘Too Dizzy’ was included on initial pressings of Never Let Me Down. However, it was removed at Bowie’s request from the 1995 reissue, and from all subsequent editions.

It’s a throwaway! I always thought it was better for Huey Lewis [laughs]! I was unsettled with that song, but it’s on the album anyway. It’s one of the first songs that Erdal Kızılçay and I wrote together, a sort of try-out to see how we sparred together as writers. I thought a real Fifties subject matter was either love or jealousy, so I thought I’d stick with jealousy because it’s a lot more interesting [laughs].
David Bowie
Music & Sound Output, June 1987