In the studio

The backing tracks for the Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps were recorded in early 1980 at the Power Station in New York City.

Overdubs were added from May 1980 at producer Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios, on Dean Street in London’s Soho. They included David Bowie’s lead and backing vocals, as well as Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, as heard on ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’, ‘Up The Hill Backwards’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, and ‘Kingdom Come’.

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

Visconti also played acoustic guitar on the title track.

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

The album mixes were a quantum leap for David and I. It was definitely more our Revolver than our Sgt Pepper. I pulled out every trick I knew and invented some new ones for David’s vocals and backing vocals. The ‘Scary Monsters’ backing vocals sounded like a demonic choir singing through the blades of a helicopter.

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

The descending notes in the introduction were programmed by Visconti on an EDP Wasp, a low-budget dual digital oscillator synthesizer with a flat keyboard, memorable for its black-and-yellow colour scheme.

I adore this track. The ‘barking dog’ in the intro, the solo and the ending come from a little flat plastic keyboard that was made by EMS, the same manufacturer as Brian Eno’s Synthi briefcase keyboard. It was called The Wasp. I programmed a descending bass line and fed the snare drum into the trigger circuit of the keyboard. Sometimes the kick drum and tom-toms that bled into the snare drum track also triggered the sequence. George Murray played a conventional bass part back in New York, but we made it pulsate by putting it into a Kepex gate and we had Dennis Davis’s steady eighth-note kick drum pattern trigger the bass. David sang all the backing vocals on this track.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

Visconti’s account of Bowie singing all the vocals is contradicted by studio engineer Chris Porter, who sang on several songs on the album – including, he claims, ‘Scary Monsters’.

I sang backing vocals. I’m on ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Fashion’, and on handclaps. When I’d been doing building work I’d sing along with the radio, so Tony knew I could sing a bit. They needed backing vocals and Tony would have said, ‘Oh come on, we’ll do them.’ Lynn Maitland was a proper backing singer, but as I recall it David, Tony and I did our backing vocals and then we added Lynn afterwards, to add a bit of female colour.
Chris Porter, engineer
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

In 2009 Visconti played an extract a rough mix of ‘Scary Monsters’ during an interview on New York Public Radio’s New Sounds. The mix featured just the rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis, plus Bowie’s guide vocals.

Visconti described the band as “Manhattan-based funk musicians, and we told them to play like a British punk group.” The extract is most notable for the different lyrics in the chorus:

Live performances

David Bowie did not tour the Scary Monsters album, but the title track was first performed during the Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983. A recording from 12 September can be heard on the live album Serious Moonlight (Live ’83).

It was played again in almost all dates on the Glass Spider Tour four years later. Bowie’s performance from 30 August is available on Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87). The ’83 and ’87 albums were both included in the 2018 box set Loving The Alien (1983-1988).

It was revived for the Outside Tour in 1995, for some dates of which it was performed with Nine Inch Nails. A recording from 13 December is on the 2020 album No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95).

‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ was last performed on the Earthling Tour in 1997. Bowie’s final performance of it was on 7 December 1997 at San Francisco’s Kezar Pavilion.

He also sang it on Saturday Night Live on US TV on 8 February 1997. The version was later issued on the album Saturday Night Live – 25 Years Volume 1.

On 16 October 1997 Bowie and Reeves Gabrels performed an acoustic version of ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ on Chicago radio station WRXT, in a country music style.

The song was one of those performed during Bowie’s Phoenix Festival appearance from 20 July 1997. The complete set was released as the 2021 live album Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).

Previous song: ‘Up The Hill Backwards’
Next song: ‘Ashes To Ashes’
Published: |