In the studio

Tonight was recorded at Le Studio in Morin Heights, Canada in May and June 1984.

It was rushed. The process wasn’t rushed; we actually took our time recording the thing; Let’s Dance was done in three weeks, Tonight took five weeks or something, which for me is a really long time. I like to work fast in the studio. There wasn’t much of my writing on it ’cause I can’t write on tour and I hadn’t assembled anything to put out. But I thought it a kind of violent effort at a kind of Pinups.
David Bowie
Musician, August 1987

With Nile Rodgers out of the frame, Bowie turned instead to Derek Bramble, the former Heatwave member who had left the funk/disco band in 1982 at the age of 20 to move into production. Bramble, who had recently worked with soul singer David Grant, was suggested to Bowie by the singer’s British publicist Bernard Doherty.

He called me. He had just done the Serious Moonlight album [sic], he’d done that with Nile, and they were looking for a young, hip producer. My name came up and he came searching for me and asked me if I wanted to produce his record.

I said yes, and that was it. I had no idea, he just came searching for me. I thought my manager was actually playing a trick on me, but when it came to pass he wanted me to do it, and I went and did it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Derek Bramble, 2012
soulinterviews.com

Bowie’s original choice to engineer Tonight had been Bob Clearmountain, who had worked on Let’s Dance. Clearmountain was unavailable due to recording commitments with Bruce Springsteen, but instead recommended Hugh Padgham.

Padgham was a successful producer who had enjoyed success with Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, XTC, and the Police. He accepted the lesser role of engineer in order to work with Bowie.

The studio was to be Le Studio in Quebec, Canada. This was a residential studio just outside of a ski resort town called Morin Heights, about 100 miles north of Montreal. I was familiar with the studio already as I had mixed the Police’s album Synchronicity there but was surprised that David had chosen it as it really was in the middle of nowhere and I don’t think he had been there before. Perhaps he didn’t choose it. Perhaps the record label chose it to make sure David couldn’t be tempted by the sins of the city!
Hugh Padgham, January 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

As he had on Let’s Dance, Bowie made demo recordings of several songs before entering the studio. This surprised his long-term collaborator Carlos Alomar, who told Musician magazine in December 1984: “Ot was the first time in the eleven years that I’ve been with the damn man that he’s brought in anything.”

Some of Bowie’s demos were given the working titles ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’. ‘1’ became ‘Loving The Alien’, the album’s opening song and third single. The other two numbered demos remained unfinished.

They were really just jams. David had some riffs on a tape, in his head, and the band would jam on them and we’d make a bit of a song out of it. But they were quite raunchy songs. At one point, David asked me what my least favourite song out of the eleven or twelve we had was, and I said ‘Blue Jean’. I thought it was a bit lightweight. I would have rather had ‘2’ in its place. I couldn’t tell you why he didn’t put them on the album. But I would have loved to have finished them.
Hugh Padgham
Musician, December 1984

Tonight was recorded on two 24-track tape machines synced together.

The recording process started with me recording the backing tracks onto one of the 24 track machines. After that I would mix the 22 odd tracks from that tape down to six or seven onto what was called a slave reel on the other 24 track recorder. In that way, not only did it open up many more tracks for overdubs, vocals, horns, etc but it also meant that the original tape (with the drums/band) never got played again until the mixing which totally preserved the sound quality on that reel. You could actually make as many ‘slave’ reels as you wanted as long as you were careful to keep all the reels of tape in sync with each other. I had a slave reel for the horns, I had a slave reel for all the lead vocals and backing vocals, I had a slave reel for guitars and percussion . All the important tracks on the slave reels would then be mixed to the ‘master’ second reel which would end up being played in the final mix down with the original ‘band’ reel. Hence 48 track mixing. All this was quite a faff compared to nowadays where, in the digital domain, you can literally have as many tracks as you like ad infinitum, at any time.
Hugh Padgham, January 2018
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Once the backing tracks were recorded, a succession of overdubs followed, including percussion, saxophones, backing vocals, and Arif Mardin’s string arrangements. As on Let’s Dance, Bowie played no instruments on Tonight.

I very much left everybody else to it. I must say, I just came in with the songs and the ideas and how they should be played and then watched them put it all together. It was great!

I didn’t work very hard in those terms. I feel very guilty about it! I did five or six pieces of writing and I sing a lot, and Hugh Padgham and Derek put the sound together between them. It was nice not to be involved in that way…

I’ve got to a point that I really wanted to get to where it’s really an organic sound, and it’s mainly saxophones. I think there’s only two lead guitar solos on it. No synthesisers to speak of, though there are probably a couple of twing sounds or something. It’s really got the band sound that I wanted, the horn sound.

David Bowie
NME, 29 September 1984