Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: February-April 1980
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: 12 September 1980 (UK), 15 September 1980 (US)
Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps
Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95)
No Trendy Réchauffé (Live Birmingham 95)
Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Chuck Hammer: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Roy Bittan: piano
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
Tony Visconti, Lynn Maitland, Chris Porter: backing vocals
‘Teenage Wildlife’ opens the second side of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps. It is commonly believed to be a poisoned arrow aimed at the new wave of late Seventies post-punk pop acts who were influenced by Bowie.
I definitely set out to write an archetype, yeah. I’ve always been impressed with that kind of song, and I’ve from time to time attempted to write those kinds of songs. I think this is one of the more successful.
I guess it would be addressed to a mythical teenage brother, if I had one. Or maybe it’s addressed to my latter-day adolescent self, I’m not sure. Trying to correct all those things that one thinks one’s done wrong, you know.
And trying to approach a young mind that is not forearmed to the hypocrisies that he will encounter and the stubbornness to change that people have, and to accept change and to flow with it, rather than become reactionary and fight against it, which produces the terrible conflicts that we find around us.
The David Bowie Interview promo album
At nearly seven minutes, ‘Teenage Wildlife’ is the longest song on Scary Monsters. Its production and arrangement were elaborate and intricate, with Robert Fripp’s guitar parts recalling his work on “Heroes”.
So it’s late morning and I’m thinking: ‘New song and a fresh approach. I know, I’m going to do a Ronnie Spector. Oh yes I am. Ersatz, just for one day.’
And I did and here it is. Bless. I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two ‘Modern Loves’ for it any time. It’s also one that I find fulfilling to sing onstage. It has some nice interesting sections to it that can trip you up, always a good kind of obstacle to contend with live.
Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self.
The guitars on this track form a splintery little duel between the great Robert Fripp and my long-time friend Carlos Alomar.
The song is commonly held to be targeted at the New Romantics, the new wave of British synth pop acts and followers that emerged in the late 1970s in London and Birmingham, England. The key acts of the era – although their main success post-dated Scary Monsters – included the Human League, Duran Duran, Visage, and Spandau Ballet, all of whom were influenced by the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music.
A key venue for the New Romantics was the Blitz Club in London’s Covent Garden, from where he recruited his co-stars in the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video. The Blitz was a wine bar which on Tuesday nights became one of London’s most fashionable and glamorous nights. Another night that Bowie frequented while in London was the nightclub Hell.
Upon the album’s release, Bowie denied that ‘Teenage Wildlife’ was directed at anyone specifically.
I guess … no, if I had my kind of mythical younger brother, I think it might have been addressed to him. It’s for somebody who’s not mentally armed.
To cope with what?
The shell shock of actually trying to assert yourself in society and your newly found values… I guess the younger brother is my adolescent self.
And who are the “midwives to history” who put on “their bloody robes”?
(Laughs) I have my own personal bloody midwives. We all have them. Mine shall remain nameless. For the sake of the song they’re symbolic; they’re the ones who would not have you be fulfilled.
You still seem to be quite concerned with giving advice to younger people.
I think that more and more that advice is given to myself; I often play questions and answer time with myself, however momentarily. I don’t seriously think I could offer anybody else any advice at all. It would be about as profound as (chuckles) Alfred E. Neuman. It’s just not my thing, maaann.
Obvious questions which I suppose I’m obliged to ask – what do you think of Gary Numan and John Foxx and all the other little Diamond Dog clones?
I only have opinions on them because I’ve been asked about them; I never had any before. I’ve already been asked once about Numan over the last month.
Foxx – I think he gives himself a wider berth; I think there’s more diversity in what he does and could do.
Numan? I really don’t know. I think what he did – that element of ‘Saviour Machine’ – type things – I think he encapsulated that whole feeling excellently. He really did a good job on that kind of stereotype, but I think therein lies his own particular confinement. I don’t know where he intends going or what he intends doing, but I think he has confined himself terrifically. But that’s his problem, isn’t it?
What Numan did he did excellently but in repetition, in the same information coming over again and again, once you’ve heard one piece.
NME, 13 September 1980
Bowie was 33 years old at the time of Scary Monsters, and was able to observe the new wave of British pop performers with a mixture of intrigue and detachment. He appears to have had mixed feelings about some of them. He watched the Human League perform more than once in 1979, and spoke approvingly about them; conversely, while filming Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve television special in September 1979, he requested the removal of Gary Numan from the studio.
There was a little side room, which I stood at the back of, well out of the way, behind Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, and a reasonable group of other people whom I didn’t recognise. I was very intimidated by the whole thing. I’d only been famous myself for a short time so I was still completely in awe of famous people.
Bowie started performing his track [‘Space Oddity’] and then suddenly everything stopped. A whispered discussion with Mallet followed and then Mallet came over, took me to one side, and said that Bowie had seen me, and it would be better if I left. So I was thrown out – which, apart from being extremely embarrassing, was really quite sad because I was a huge Bowie fan. Then, a few days after that, I was taken off the Christmas Special [sic] as well and I ended up on a normal Kenny Everett show a couple of months later.
Praying To The Aliens
With lines including “Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view/As ugly as a teenage millionaire pretending it’s a whizz kid world”, many of the new crop of pop acts recognised themselves in the lyrics of ‘Teenage Wildlife’. Numan, despite his experience on Will Kenny Everette Make It To 1980?, was flattered by the song.
I was quite proud about it at the time, to be honest. Even though I’d fallen out with him it still made me feel, Wahey! I’m in a Bowie song. That’s cool.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley