1980s – part one

Although the peak years of David Bowie’s drug addiction were behind him by the dawn of the 1980s, he continued to use recreationally for some time. It would be close to the end of the decade before he fully embraced sobriety.

I got out of the picture, and he was still not completely better until well into the ’80s. He was still wrestling with his demons.
Angie Bowie
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

The album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) was started in New York in February 1980, and completed in London in the early summer.

The later overdub sessions included guest appearances by guitarists Robert Fripp and Pete Townshend.

‘Townshend is coming to the studio today,’ announced David apprehensively. I had read how much Pete Townshend had been drinking and he was still busting up hotel rooms so I was apprehensive too. When he arrived he seemed to be in a foul, laconic mood. David asked if there was anything we could get for him and he asked for a bottle of wine. I asked if he wanted red or white and he snarled back, ‘There’s no such thing as white wine!’ Whoops. I was hoping he wouldn’t hurl the empty bottle through my studio window. He sort of settled in and asked what we wanted him to do on this track. David looked at me kind of puzzled and asked, ‘Chords?’ Townshend asked, ‘What kind of chords?’ I think both David and I were a little afraid to state the obvious, but I finally offered, ‘Er, Pete Townshend chords.’ Townshend shrugged, ‘Oh, windmills’, and did a perfect windmill on his guitar, traditionally grazing his right-hand knuckles. Within 30 minutes the chords were laid on the track, the bottle of red wine was drained and Townshend exited onto Dean Street.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Townshend may have been drunk during his session, but Bowie later said he himself was mostly drug-free during the recordings.

Looking back, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters were all virtually drug-free… I wont say they were completely drug-free because I was still climbing out of it, but it wasn’t anything like the kind of drug situations that I was going through, starting with Diamond Dogs and Station To Station. I think probably my best work came out of the late ’70s period when there was virtually no drugs…
David Bowie
NME, 20 March 1993

Ten years after giving that NME interview, Bowie claimed to have taken no drugs at all during the Scary Monsters sessions.

I don’t know if drugs helped my work. I don’t buy into the theory you have to be stoned to create. I think Low, “Heroes” and Scary Monsters… were my best and they were all drug-free.
David Bowie
Q magazine, October 2003

His new state of mind was reflected in the album’s biggest hit, lead single ‘Ashes To Ashes’. In reintroducing Major Tom after 11 years, Bowie simultaneously bookended the 1970s, his most creatively and commercially successful decade, and wiped the slate clean for a new era of music.

The song depicted Major Tom adrift in space, high on heroin, and hoping to return once again to Earth. The connection to Bowie’s own struggles with addiction were not hard to discern. The original lyrics included the discarded lines “He needs help from me and you” and “I can’t clean up my act”.

The sub-text of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is quite obviously the nursery rhyme appeal of it and for me it’s a story of corruption. It’s also about as subversive as one can get in popular music terms inasmuch as I would love to get a record played by the BBC containing the word “junkie”. I thought that was quite successful (grins). There’s not much you can do these days; we’re all such a blasé, world weary lot (laughs)…

I really don’t think there’s anything more insidiously perverse about the thing at all. It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It’s about space men becoming junkies (laughs).

David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980

David Bowie's handwritten lyrics for Ashes To Ashes

The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he finds solace only in some kind of heroin type drug, actually being that the cosmic space itself was feeding him with an addiction. And he wants now to return to the womb from whence he came.
David Bowie, 1980
The David Bowie Interview promo album

Bowie released no studio album in 1981, but did record the UK chart-topping single ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen. The song was recorded at the band’s Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, in July 1981, and completed in New York in September.

The basic track was recorded over two days. The first session – by some accounts lasting 24 hours – was mainly improvisational, and fuelled by copious amounts of cocaine and wine. “There was so much blow,” recalled Queen’s producer Reinhold Mack.