In 2007 I wrote an appraisal of Bowie’s album Never Let Me Down, which was then twenty years old. Since I have been following in fascination the erudite and broad-ranging horological review of every work Bowie has produced, in Chris O’Leary’s award-winning website, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, I thought I should resurrect this old piece just in time for Pushing ..’s alighting on the strange moment when Bowie released that album.
Never Let Me Down has gained a solid reputation for being a creative nadir helped partly by Bowie’s on-the-record expressions of disappointment in its production quality. It is really one of the most perversely important works he made. It’s a document of jumping the shark by a man who was painfully aware of the artistic aridity that had followed his mid-eighties superstar cash-in enterprise and was desperate to reinvent it all. The rock ‘n’ roll suicide is one of Bowie’s enduring acts of performance – he’d created an extension of psyche, Ziggy Stardust, only to dramatically expunge the character. A few years later he annihilated the ‘American’ figure of the Duke, his strategy for dealing with the destructiveness of lurid, drug-infested fame in the seventies. He would go on to perform all the old songs one last time (a broken promise) on the Sound+Vision tour. This album, subject of the following article, isn’t pretty. The lyrics are poor: Bad-enigmatic streams of unconsciousness, woeful fantasy story-telling, and even a pulpy blast of sexist machismo. The cover art is cheap-looking. The ill-advised ‘theatrical’ tour that followed its release was a pinnacle of grand meaninglessness, a multi-layered wrapper of energetic dancing and spider-based set design for material performed by a cheesy band. Nonetheless, Bowie delivered a work of its time in this statement of commoditised, alienated anxiety.
This is an impressionistic review of Never Let Me Down. Bowie was, in 1987, locked fast within a huge financial machine and he was its controller operating from within the head of a giant robotic spider. He wrote songs of moral and political decay with the socially aware vantage of a millionaire rock star in Switzerland, shot through with lingering images of hope and desperate love, possibly as a suite to be performed with narrative dance. Or maybe that idea came later for the Glass Spider tour which was the incongruous vehicle for the album’s promotion.
The production being both bombastic and indistinct is horrible. Every song suffocates under over-wrought, too-loud soloing. A large, superfluous crew doodles all over the work. Carlos Alomar, best rhythm guitarist ever in Bowie’s band, is barely audible under the clanging and splatting of Erdal Kizilcay’s drumming and all the extraneous, stabbing synths.
On occasions the mixing of rebel-rock songs and manically busy backing results in good effects – the duelling leads of guitar and trumpet in Time Will Crawl, the same song’s strange vocal skipping lightly across a haunting piano riff, and Zeroes’ fusion of sitar and disco rhythms are a few moments of pop-art shudders recalling the neurotic post-punk pop that he pioneered with Eno and others a decade earlier. The buried grooves are often satisfyingly muscular and aggressive but the artistic energies here are massively depleted.
Never Let Me Down remains a favourite album among many Bowie fans, being regarded by some as a classic of sorts. It is notorious for being the record that, in its original release, bore the almost inarguably worst song of Bowie’s career: Too Dizzy. That lyric’s gritty tale was about what Bowie would do if he caught his girlfriend looking at another man. Thankfully, for all concerned, since 1999 Never Let Me Down can be enjoyed without the distasteful sound of Too Dizzy. Bowie himself insisted that it be removed from the remastered re-release.
I can remember watching a televised press conference in 1987. Bowie was performing a few songs from the forthcoming new album with a small band. It sounded and looked good. Then, Bowie took questions from the press. ‘What is the symbolism of the spider in your work, David?’ asked one journalist.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders
and now this
The song, Glass Spider, contains images of baby spiders being born to a giant mother spider who lives in a vast natural structure of some kind. She deserts the young who have to make their own ways across deadly terrain.
Bowie seems to have decided this is a concept album, a bit like Ziggy, set in the world five years on that Ziggy sang about, when the pressures and fears of modern life are threatening to crush the human spirit. And the cause of all this strife is the abandoning mother in the form of a gigantic spider.
The spider is a mother figure in my work, said Bowie to the journalist. And he did a stagey little laugh and rocked back on his heels while comically shaking his hand at the wrist. He hooted briefly: “Woo -”
David Bowie in 1987 had some ideas for songs and concepts for stage but their execution was hampered by the fractured nature of his being at that time: A businessman with enormous pressures like never before; an artist with a legacy of pioneering drug-rock, glam futurism, posturing pan-sexuality and arch, neo-romantic lyric-writing. Never Let Me Down was to be his paean to the lost promise of decadent highness. Somehow it became the output of a desk with all faders pushed up, long after the band had gone, and the studio air ceased to be excited by the mild exertions of complacent, rich musicians.
Listening to it again, I am struck by the desperate edge in Bowie’s vocals. He was facing the prospect of a global tour with grim determination. His return to a production style informed by pop, with extra blues rock heaviness, mimicked the sound of young LA rock ‘n’ roll in the late eighties. Much of that music was vacuous and cash-rich.
The spectres of his time in LA were rising up.
Is the spider made of glass to point up the symbolism of the mother as a vessel and machine of production?
On the last night of the Glass Spider tour, the enormous fibreglass spider stage set cracked and erupted. Millions of living glass spiders, each little creature the size and shape of a clear pebble with long, clickety legs, poured out and the entire audience was crushed under the massive weight and perished.
Bowie has not sported a mullet since 1987. A coincidence?