I am very happy to present Bowie vs. Numan: A Fan’s Critical Review written by dear friend and 80s music devotee Mark Ryan. You may remember Mark for his part in my “The Secret Life of Numanoids” series. It’s always a good thing to showcase other “voices” so that a blog doesn’t become stale and boring. I thank Mark so much for bringing his unique point of view to Rave and Roll.
My name is Mark Ryan and I am a longtime friend of Miss Parker’s. It was my suggestion that I do the following review. I grew up listening to David Bowie, and later on Gary Numan. Music was always in my house, and to this day, I have continued this legacy with my own children.
David Bowie – Tonight
In the 1970s, David Bowie was the lynchpin of the music industry. Described as “influential” and “ahead of his time,” Bowie produced classic album after classic album. He was always one step ahead in the fashion stakes and surprisingly, the press liked him! Even when he was receiving bad press Bowie, to his credit, found a way to use it to his advantage.
Bowie started the 1980s clean and off drugs, releasing 2 albums in 3 years along with one world tour in 1983. After the world tour was finished, in 1984 he announced a new album called Tonight that was going to be co-produced by Hugh Padgham & Derek Bramble along with himself.
Tonight was released on 1 September 1984 and reached Number 1 in the UK and Number 11 in the USA charts, respectively.
Tonight starts out with “Loving the Alien” and is in my opinion, and without doubt, the best song of the album. However, listening closer, it should have been acoustic without the marimba and string arrangement, which makes it sluggish at times. We carry on with “Don’t Look Down'” which is an old Iggy Pop number (a familiar theme on the album). Bowie does a poor imitation of reggae (which I strongly dislike). This, in my opinion, was a big mistake.
Next up is The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” with a full string arrangement. This is “Bowie doing a Bowie impressionist doing Bowie.” It’s a decent cover version, but far too lush and very under-produced. It’s a great selection for a Karaoke Night, and not much else.
Side One finishes with “Tonight” which is a duet with Tina Turner and without doubt is the worst song I have ever heard. It’s best to ignore this one.
Side Two starts out with “Neighborhood Threat” and again is an old Iggy Pop song. The track is great with roaring guitars and very good production. To me. this is the Bowie of old (almost).
“Blue Jean” is next, released as a single that reached number 6. “Jazzin for Blue Jean” is an awful recording, but inspired by his early years and was accompanied by a cool video. It’s basically Bowie doing his worst crooner act. This is followed by “Tumble & Twist” which again was an old Iggy Pop song, reggae-like, and spoiled by over-production of marimbas. However, Bowie’s vocals are very good here.
“I Keep Forgettin” is backed by a great drum & horn section, lasting two and a half minutes. I really enjoy this song. The album finishes with “Dancing With the Big Boys” that’s listed as a duet and yes, you guessed it, is an old Iggy Pop number. Despite that, it really rocks and has a decent production value; however, the synthesizer actually spoils the song.
Tonight promised a lot and failed on all accounts. It’s Bowie’s worst album and the listener can sense he was losing his touch (but not motivation). I question why he chose that particular production team. Derek Bramble was a disco head, and known for his bass lines; one can feel his influence in the reggae numbers. Hugh Padgham was well known as a “Drum Guy,” so again it’s plain to see where his influence came from. Hugh was famous for producing Genesis and Kate Bush, who both made great albums; unfortunately, this was not one of them.
Tonight was basically a David Bowie & Iggy Pop album with only 2 new songs written by Bowie. I listened to this album in 1984, and again recently and in-depth, and my view is the same. Only buy/download if you are obsessed by Bowie. It’s not for the casual fan, as it lacks the depth, flexibility and courage found in other Bowie albums. Another thing that I find irritating/disappointing is that Bowie only sings on this album and plays no instruments. It leaves me wondering, “Why?”
Gary Numan – Telekon
Gary Numan burst onto the music scene in 1979. There was something about him that got people hooked back then, and who are still hooked to this very day. I first heard him in late 1978 when I was given a demo to listen to. How that person had the demo escapes me; but, at the time, I played in a band as the drummer and always loved music, especially drum/percussion sound. As I listened to the demo, there something that was special, augmented by guitar and bass, which did not overpower his voice; instead, it went with his voice. So, imagine my surprise when I heard Numan had dropped the heavy guitars in favour of the world famous Moog synthesizer.
After two Number One albums in 1979, one in a band and one solo, and a sold-out world tour, Gary started to write his next album. How do you follow up after being so successful and not having the greatest of relationships with the press? Not an easy task; however, Gary just did that with Telekon, which was released on 5 September 1980 and reached Number 1 in the UK.
The album starts off with “This Wreckage.” This song seems to be written about his own personal choices in life, along with an atheist theme. I feel it was a poor choice for a single, because the only good part in the song is the Japanese vocal half way through. When I played it in my house, my dad disliked this song immensely (“He talks bad about God?” “Youngsters, eh?”).
Next is “The Aircrash Bureau,” and wow what a song! It consists of a beautiful arrangement, super bass solo at the start, and roaring synths; even the vocal gets you hooked. This song had “single” material written all over it, a vastly underrated song.
“Telekon,” the theme song, is next. In 1980 I disliked this song so much I would never play it because it has a piano solo on it which I feel gets lost in the mix. However, after all these years, it has grown on me.
“Remind Me to Smile” is the next track, written about his relationship with the press (horrible bunch of people), and his ever-adoring fans. It was an obvious single with such scathing lyrics as “Fame/I need new reasons/This is detention/It’s not fun at all.”
As Telekon progresses, you can see how Numan was evolving into a great songwriter. The last song on Side One is a ballad called “Sleep by Windows,” which is augmented by roaring and dark keyboards and 2 bass guitars side-by-side. However, the song’s highlight is the drumming–just masterful work.
Side Two starts with “I Am an Agent,” in which the synths and guitars combine masterfully with each other. This is a truly great song, and when I hear it live, it really gets me going.
“I Dream of Wires” is a futuristic song. Again, I love the drumming on this song that coincides with great guitar work and even the use of a whistle, but it all works so well.
“Remember I Was Vapour” is next. It’s obvious Numan uses a drum machine, as well as a drummer; however, it’s very “tinny,” under-produced, and is a disappointment. On the plus side, Numan has a great keyboard solo on it.
“Please Push No More” is a slush ballad–a very personal song with lovely piano work by Denis Haines. This song is the album’s highlight for me.
The final song on Telekon is “The Joy Circuit” in which Gary uses the violin as an extra musician’s weapon. This really works very well; it’s a great song, and a nice way to finish the album.
Telekon is a superb album, for both Numanoids and the casual fan, with terrific production and superb arrangements. Gary Numan makes full use of what he has and he really develops his style throughout this album. In my opinion, it’s better than “The Pleasure Principle,” an album that was ground-breaking in itself.
Numan was so awesome at this time, he also wrote two Top 5 hits. Telekon is the “must-have” album for a collection. It’s a shame he didn’t reach the same heights with another album until the release of Pure in 2000.
~ Mark Ryan ~
David Bowie – “Tonight” via YouTube user heno1x
Gary Numan – “Telekon” via YouTube user GaryNumanAlbums