Featuring Seinfeld bass and coked-up Spitting Image puppets
Welcome back to You’re The Worst, the series where we re-examine some of the lowest, lamest and most laughable albums ever made. This week it’s the turn of one of pop’s most revered artists, David Bowie.
“Surely Bowie didn’t release a bad album, did he?” I hear you think*. Yes, you’re right, he didn’t release a bad album – he actually released many. Let’s list them now.
His self-titled LP from 1967 is extremely annoying (lots of lyrics about dancing in fields of rhubarb… think Syd Barrett but more punchable). And while I personally love it, a fair number of people think his 1976 effort Station to Station is a bit wanky (he was on so much coke that he claimed not to even remember recording it). Then you’ve got a whole series of whoopsies from the 1990s and 2000s like Reality, Earthling and Hours. And let’s not even get started on his alternative rock “supergroup” Tin Machine.
But how do we choose which of these festering corpses is the worst, and therefore worthy of our exhumation? Well, since Bowie is indeed a legend, let’s give him the courtesy of selecting his own low-light: “My nadir was Never Let Me Down,” he said back in 1995. “It was such an awful album. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it.”
So, there you have it: Never Let Me Down is Bowie’s worst album. You can finish reading this column and get an early night’s sleep.
WAIT, STOP! I almost forgot that we should actually listen to this album before making our conclusions. Because – and stay with me on this – what if Bowie was wrong? What if Never Let Me Down actually didn’t let him down and was in fact a good album?
So let’s drop the needle (okay, I don’t have it on vinyl, so I’ll just click ‘play’) and hear for ourselves.
First impressions are that Don’t Let Me Down sounds very ’80s. Gated drums. Trashy synths. That kind of slappy metallic bass they used on Seinfeld. Now, for some people this would be enough to say “no thank you” and switch off. I get that: when I was younger this style of production would have irritated me more than sandpaper underpants. But either I’ve mellowed with age, or else all the microplastics in the drinking water are killing my brain cells, because I quite like it now. It’s cheesy, silly and brash – exactly as pop music should be.
The production therefore isn’t the problem, and nor is the music itself. It’s catchy, the structures make sense, and you’ve even got Peter Frampton guitar solos. The opener, ‘Day-In Day-Out’, is particularly good and I’m surprised it didn’t get radio play. As for the rest, I’d say it falls into that category of stuff you’d never listen to if it wasn’t by David Bowie, but because it is, you give it a go.
Where there are issues, though, is with some of the lyrics, which are weaker than a Mormon mocktail. “Time will crawl until our feet grow small,” squeaks Bowie, before adding that, “our tails will fall off”. Elsewhere he tells a story about a glass spider whose babies cry, “Mummy come back, because the water’s all gone.” Yuck.
And then, out of nowhere, you have Mickey Rourke rapping on a track called ‘Shining Start (Making My Love)’. This triggers a flood of hows, whys, whens, whos and whats as the brain refuses to accept it as fact. But it happened. And we must live with this.
Before we get to some conclusions, let’s put the album in context, because Bowie wasn’t the only legend of the ’60s and ’70s who struggled in the ’80s. Mick Jagger went solo and looked like a coked-up Spitting Image puppet. Bob Dylan dressed like a trucker on a comedown and then became a Christian. And John Lennon got shot.
However, for Bowie the nadir was particularly negative, because he’d actually done some good stuff earlier in the decade. Scary Monsters was a top release, while ‘Let’s Dance’ was perhaps his biggest hit. We even got to see what his cock looked like under a thin layer of fabric in Labyrinth (surprise – it looked like a cock).
So, is Never Let Me Down worse than efforts by Jagger, Dylan et al? No, it’s not. And despite what Bowie himself said, it’s not even his worst album; I’ll award that to Reality, based entirely on an album cover that makes Bowie look like a space paedophile. But Never Let Me Down is distinctly average, and ultimately forgettable. Aside from that Rourke rap, which I wish I could forget, but cannot.
The search for the worst continues. See you** next time.
* Yes, I can hear your thoughts.
** Yes, I can see you.
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