1980s – part two

David Bowie’s second album of the 1980s was the international smash Let’s Dance. It was produced by Nile Rodgers, who was struggling with his own addictions.

Bowie later revealed that “I slipped around Let’s Dance, which some would say was not my best album.” Its success came at a cost to the singer, whose main substance problems at the time were with alcohol. He was, however, also still using cocaine with increasing frequency.

I was not in great shape to accept success at any level. So it could not have come at a worse time for me. I was still fighting desperately to stop the drug thing, which was intermittent by then, but kept coming back. I told everyone that I was no longer an addict – including myself – because it was only occasional. But of course those occasions got closer and closer together. I would have a great spree for a few weeks, then stop and turn back to alcohol. It’s an absurd situation because you say, oh, I’ve kicked everything – but you’re a virtual alcoholic.

Drink is the most depressing of all addictions because it takes you so far up and throws you back down. And so as a writer and an artist I really didn’t have much to hang on to any more. And it has been a very, very slow process of coming back again. And I dare say it isn’t over. I dare say that none of our searches are really over.

David Bowie
Arena, May/June 1993

The release of Let’s Dance was followed by the triumphant Serious Moonlight world tour, which took in 96 shows in 15 countries over a seven-month period.

Serious Moonlight was Bowie’s first tour for five years, and there were strict rules about drug-taking within the band. This put him at odds with guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was dropped from the line-up shortly before the first show.

Embed from Getty Images

While on tour Bowie began each day with two hours of aerobics and shadow boxing. He was in good health, although his heavy smoking habit meant he was unable to reach the higher notes in songs such as ‘Life On Mars?’, necessitating their transposition to a lower key. Furthermore, although despite the tour’s no-drugs rule, more than one of the musicians later claimed that Bowie lapsed at aftershow parties.

The problems begin when you try to intellectualise. Especially when you’ve just done a gram of cocaine.
David Bowie
NME, 16 April 1983

The mid to late 1980s are commonly considered a time when Bowie’s artistic muse deserted him, and he resorted to treading water musically. Several of his albums certainly lacked the experimental edge and restless creativity which had made his 1970s works so full of vitality.

The title track of Let’s Dance’s follow-up, Tonight, was co-written with Iggy Pop, and originally recorded on Pop’s 1977 album Lust For Life. Bowie’s version, meanwhile, was a duet with Tina Turner set to a reggae backing.

Another major change was the omission of Pop’s opening monologue, which depicted a lover dying of a heroin overdose: “I saw my baby, she was turning blue/I knew that soon her young life was through/And so I got down on my knees, down by her bed/And these are the words to her I said”.

That was such an idiosyncratic thing of Jimmy’s that it seemed not part of my vocabulary. There was that consideration, and I was also doing it with Tina – she’s the other voice on it – and I didn’t want to inflict it on her either. It’s not necessarily something that she would particularly agree to sing or be part of. I guess we changed the whole sentiment around. It still has that same barren feeling, though, but it’s out of that specific area that I’m not at home in. I can’t say that it’s Iggy’s world, but it’s far more of Iggy’s observation than mine.
David Bowie
NME, 29 September 1984

While Bowie’s mid-80s albums were too often musically unengaging, he did release a stone-cold classic in 1986: the standalone single ‘Absolute Beginners’, the title theme of Julien Temple’s film adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel.

The backing track for the song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in June 1985. Among the session musicians was guitarist Kevin Armstrong, who the following month played with Bowie at Live Aid, later became the fifth member of Tin Machine, and worked on 1.Outside.

The only time I ever was with David Bowie that I saw him do anything with drugs was at that very first day. I don’t know why he picked me, but he asked me to get him some coke halfway through the day. I rang a friend to see if he had any going – he rang me back an hour later to say he’d managed to find someone who helped him out: “You will never guess who I’ve got this coke from? Angie Bowie!” And I said, “You’ll never guess who it’s for – David Bowie!”
Kevin Armstrong
Starman: The Definitive Biography, Paul Trynka

Armstrong naïvely thought Bowie would be amused by the connection, and told him: “My mate is getting this coke from Angie!” The guitarist was not prepared for the look of horror he received, or Bowie’s reply: “No, not that fucking witch! I hope she doesn’t know how it’s for?” “No, no, I never told my friend,” Armstrong lied.

Which was not true of course. So I nearly had my marching orders there and then. We went on to work together for ten years so it’s probably all right. And I never came across any reference to drugs from him ever again.
Kevin Armstrong
Starman: The Definitive Biography, Paul Trynka

Bowie’s cocaine use was, by this time, recreational rather than compulsive. Other vices, less illicit, were also present at the ‘Absolute Beginners’ session, namely Bowie’s beloved cigarettes and coffee.

He was on sixty to eighty fags [cigarettes] a day. He’d have a coffee machine and some Cuba Gold coffee delivered wherever he was and it would be constantly on the brew. Seriously, he’d be chucking down the coffee and fags – and it would always be pretty neurotic and manic around him. Also, it was my first experience of being in the orbit of someone so hugely famous – there’s a kind of electrical crackle around them anyway.
Kevin Armstrong
Starman: The Definitive Biography, Paul Trynka

The follow-up to Tonight was Never Let Me Down, commonly considered to be Bowie’s creative nadir. In 2001 he described it in passing as “a drug album”, although he elaborated no further. During the Glass Spider Tour that followed, as with Serious Moonlight, there were rumours that he was using cocaine once again.

Having experienced drugs, the work is never the same again. Station To Station was a drug album. Low and “Heroes” were not. Never Let Me Down was. It’s all contradictory.
David Bowie
The Guardian, 18 July 2001

Bowie’s creative rebirth began with Tin Machine, the uncompromising rock band he formed in 1988. He was joined on guitar by Reeves Gabrels, and on bass and drums by Tony and Hunt Sales, the brothers who had played on Lust For Life and Iggy Pop’s 1977 tour with Bowie.

Tin Machine’s eponymous debut album was released in early 1989. Although the band polarised fans and critics, it gave Bowie the opportunity to experiment artistically once again.

Q: Did you take any drugs while you were making the album?

Hunt Sales: A lot of LSD, right?

Bowie: Lox, Salmon and Danish (laughs). No, we didn’t take drugs. We’ve all been around the block and we all have different perspectives than those we had 10 years ago as to what we want to do with our lives. We’ve watched ourselves screw up our lives in the past and – why waste the time – we just want to do what we’re doing and enjoy it for what it is.

Tony Sales: We know better now. We weren’t in the pursuit of destroying ourselves while we were recording. Our forum of hanging out was not at a dealer’s house or at the bar.

Bowie: We were hanging out in the parking lot! Sitting on comfortable chairs.

Q magazine, June 1989