In the studio

Being settled into New York for longer than a month period, the influx of the general paranoia, high jet-set fashion and abject poverty all had a lot to do with the input that went into Scary Monsters. I had been living something that vacillates between a European to Far East existence for the last four and a half years.
David Bowie
13 Heures – Spécial David Bowie, 22 October 1980

David Bowie had asked Tony Visconti to hurry to New York, with the promise of hearing some newly-written music.

Upon his arrival, the producer was bemused and disappointed to discover that Bowie had in fact barely written anything, and was expecting – as they had done on previous albums – to use the studio for experimentation without preconceptions.

Normally I would’ve said, okay, let’s just roll up our sleeves and start the slow process of creating something from nothing. But this time I was incensed – I was almost furious.

‘I could have come over in a week or so’s time after you and the band had worked some things out.’ There was nastiness in my voice, which was out of character for me, and particularly for me towards David whom I loved working with. The east to west jet lag made me feel even worse than usual.

David looked at me hesitantly and said, ‘Tony, why don’t you just go back to the hotel and rest until tomorrow. I’ll come and see you later if we finish up early enough.’

Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Visconti broke down and told Bowie that his marriage was almost over. Bowie gave him a day to decide whether to leave the sessions and return to London, or to remain in New York and work. After discussing the situation with his wife, Visconti chose to remain in America.

My mood changed dramatically. Much of this team had been together since Low and I could hear magic taking place as the band ran through some ideas with David. [Studio engineer] Larry Alexander and I started to shape the sound, the combined experience of a very solid-sounding American engineer and myself, British trained and full of sonically and musically diverse suggestions. I immersed myself in the music with David and the band whipping the ‘head arrangements’ together. Lo and behold David admitted to having one finished song, something he’d started when he was 16 years old. He had not played it to me in all the time I’d known him; it was to become ‘It’s No Game’, the opener and closer of the album.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

The Power Station

David Bowie began recording Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in mid-February 1980, at the Power Station on 44 West 53rd Street in Manhattan.

The owner, Tony Bongiovi – a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi – had built the studio after working at Motown and analysing how their equipment and space gave them the classic sound.

We had booked the Power Station, a studio that had not been open very long but already had a reputation for being the finest in the world. It was designed and owned by Tony Bongiovi, a cousin of Jon Bon Jovi, a wiz-kid who figured out the exact dimensions of Motown Studios’ echo chamber just from listening to their records. He had done this by calculating the amount of reverb decay on their recordings. He sent a letter to Motown describing his findings and asked for a job. He was hired – they could use a smart kid like him. Once he worked at their studios he realized that they had many more secrets; they had a Pultec tube (valve) equalizer permanently installed in each input and each output of their 24-track machines, a total of 48 Pultecs in each control room. The sound of a microphone or tape track passing through a Pultec is very sweet, full and pleasing. Most really well-equipped studios might have as many as six Pultecs, and you have to choose carefully what six elements you are going to use them for: vocals, drums, bass, guitars. Plus they’re very expensive, and there is only a limited supply in the world. This studio had 48 Pultecs! Every track of the tape had a Pultec to pass through— the analogue sound of wet dreams.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Bongiovi’s efforts to recreate the Motown studio on Manhattan’s west side proved alluring to Visconti, who worked with in-house engineer Larry Alexander.

The sessions for the basic backing tracks lasted for two and a half weeks, followed by another week of overdubs. After this, the music for only one song – ‘It’s No Game’ was complete (the two versions on the album were different mixes of the same track). The remainder of the recordings were instrumentals, with Bowie having little or no idea of lyrics or melodies.

We left the Power Station with some beautifully dense backing tracks. Only one song had a melody and lyrics, ‘It’s No Game’. David said he’d written it when he was sixteen. Every other song had only a working title. With a fond farewell to Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis we wrapped up operations in New York.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book