In the studio

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

The sessions for the basic backing tracks lasted for two and a half weeks, followed by another week of overdubs. After this, ‘It’s No Game’ was the only one song that had been fully written. 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 (1977–1982) book

The backing tracks for both versions of ‘It’s No Game’ were the same, but were rendered quite differently after overdubs were added.

This was actually the same exact backing track and a great example of how mixing and different overdubs can change the nature of a track completely. The opener version was a fiery affair, but as a closer it was now gentle and let the listener down easy.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

Bowie and Tony Visconti often spoke about wanting each new album to be their Sgt Pepper. Visconti later spoke of its similarity to an earlier Beatles album, with the sound of the studio in ‘It’s No Game’ recalling 1966’s ‘Taxman’.

It really was starting to shape up as a kind of Sgt Pepper with each track developing its own persona. Initially they were all wordless songs, with the exception of ‘It’s No Game’…

I must’ve been asked what the sounds are at the beginning of this track and opening of the album a hundred times. I thought it would sound great if the album started with the sound of tape rolling. I mic’d my Lyrec 24-track tape deck in stereo and recorded the sound of me rewinding the tape briefly, then pressing the play button. It directly cuts in to Dennis Davis waving a soccer fan’s ratchet over his head and his count-in. The 910 Harmonizer is back with a vengeance on this track, as is evident on the ratchet and the first snare drum beat.

Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

The sound of the tape machine, with the reel spinning freely, also closed ‘It’s No Game (No. 2)’, making it the first and last sounds on the album.

The backing track for ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ was the product of careful editing, particularly Dennis Davis’s drum part.

I made it a point for Dennis’s drum fills to sound spectacular and I had to do that with many edits on the two-track mix down tape. David and I would work hours and hours on a mix, to get the balance and all the EFX making a jolly good eargasm. Then we would commit the whole song to the mix down. When we were absolutely certain we had a stunning mix, I’d go back and remix every drum fill, especially raising the toms much higher and adding EFX to them. I would cut them out, name each fill on their strip of tape and wear them around my neck like a tailor’s tape measure. Then I would cut the fills back into the main mix. This was tedious and tricky. These drum fills are very obvious on ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’. I recall there were over ten edits for that song. You could see them as the tape was rewound at high speed.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Overdubs for Scary Monsters were recorded at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in central London from May 1980. They included Robert Fripp’s jaggedly atonal lead guitar lines on ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’.

We needed more muscle on these tracks and we were blessed to have musicians Pete Townshend and Robert Fripp living locally. They added British guitar zest to the New York potpourri of musical styles…

Robert Fripp needed longer to give us lots of different parts and sounds for the six songs he played on. He brought a bag of pedals with him. I plugged his output directly into a channel on the Trident TSM. We spent the entire day flying around ideas, spending more time on ‘Fashion’ and ‘It’s No Game’, but all of Fripp’s brilliant contributions made it to the final mixes.

Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Bowie and Visconti performed backing vocals together on ‘It’s No Game’, with Visconti taking the higher notes. The producer also played acoustic guitar on the song.

[Bowie was] very specific about backing vocals on some of the songs. We paired together for ‘It’s No Game’, the only time on the album…

I played the fast acoustic guitars on ‘It’s No Game’ and ‘Scary Monsters’, plus the sparse Japanese inspired percussion on ‘Ashes To Ashes’.

Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Stealing the show, however, were the lead vocals. The Japanese spoken word parts were by Japanese actor Michi Hirota, who was starring in The King And I in London’s West End. It took several attempts to record, before Bowie encouraged her to abandon all inhibitions.

Michi Hirota brought a special talent to a song one sunny afternoon. She was an actress in the musical The King And I, playing at the Palladium starring Yul Brynner, just down the road from us. A friend of David’s, a Japanese language professor [Hisahi Miura], translated ‘It’s No Game’ into Japanese, for David to sing. He tried and tried, squeezing some words here and stretching some there, but our collective knowledge of Japanese was useless to figure out how to sing it. Michi was summoned to the studio to unravel the puzzle. (By the way, she is one of the Geisha girls on the cover of the Sparks album Kimono My House.) Michi had the same problem as David, but she knew why. The professor had made a literal translation, not a poetic translation. He was sent only the English text, not the melody. David loved the way Michi was reading aloud in Japanese. Instead of her coaching him to do it, he asked if she could do it instead. She initially spoke in a soft, demure manner. But the lyrics were rather blunt and upsetting. David asked her to emote with more aggression. Michi rose to the occasion but didn’t quite get there. David had a brainstorm. He told her to say the words like a Samurai from a Kurosawa film – SAY IT LIKE A MAN! She got it! Afterwards she came back into the control room, her cheeks flushed with empowerment. Later David matched her prose, singing in what he called ‘Bowie Histrionics’.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Bowie intended the guest vocals to be a counterpoint to Western impressions of how Japanese women were traditionally portrayed.

The Japanese lyrics to the first ‘It’s No Game’ are exactly the same as the others, although ‘Part 1’ sees a more sort of animal approach on my part. Also, repeating me parrot fashion but in Japanese is a young Japanese girl friend of mine who says the lyric in such a way as to give the lie to the whole very sexist idea of how Japanese girls are so very prim. She’s like a Samurai the way she hammers it out. It’s no longer the little Geisha girl kind of thing, which really pisses me off because they’re just not like that at all.
David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980

With them completed, Bowie added his own vocals. These were no less histrionic, reaching levels he had not touched since “Heroes” three years before.

‘It’s No Game’ was done at Good Earth – it’s David screaming his head off, isn’t it? I think Michi Hirota was a friend of Tony’s. There’s a line in ‘Ashes To Ashes’ about Japanese girls, isn’t there? I think he just wanted to get a Japanese girl in.
Chris Porter, engineer
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The release

‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ was the opening song on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps, which was released in the UK on 12 September 1980, and three days later in the US.

‘Ashes To Ashes’ was released as a single in America in August 1980, with ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ on the b-side.

In October 1980, ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ was issued as a single in Japan, with ‘Fashion’ on the b-side.

The 2012 book Speed Of Life was published by Genesis Publications in a limited edition of 2,000 copies signed by Bowie and photographer Masayoshi Sukita. It came with a 7″ vinyl picture disc single combining ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’ and ‘It’s No Game (No. 2)’ for the first time.

Previous album: Lodger
Next song: ‘Up The Hill Backwards’