Never Let Me Down represents, perhaps, the lowest ebb of David Bowie’s career. Artistically at least. The man, the myth, the literal savior of humanity with God-given ass, had established himself as an ever-changing force of nature; pushing the boundaries of music in both what could be achieved sonically, and altering pre-established identities. From Major Tom to the iconic Ziggy Stardust, lightning-ridden Aladdin Sane to the short-lived rogue of Halloween Jack. The late ‘70s gave us Bowie in his ‘Berlin period’ and the early 1980s proved that he could bounce back, time and time again. Bowie had mastered art pop, glam rock, soul, funk and everything inbetween.
Unfortunately, to critics and diehard fans alike, the late ‘80s brought about a kind of stagnation for the British-born rockstar. Tonight, Bowie’s 1984 album, was really a sign of things to come. It sold well commercially, home to the seven-minute, secular ‘Loving the Alien’, and pop-rock masterpiece of ‘Blue Jean’. Unfortunately, it was pretty much panned by critics for not being all that new; a bit bland, generic, and just not Bowie.
Sadly, the same thing happened three years later when, in 1987, Bowie released Never Let Me Down unto the world; embodying a sound largely mainstream; with synth-scored pop and the kind of rock arenas were built for. A large part of this was due to Bowie recording the album in preparation for his upcoming Glass Spider Tour (the name deriving from a song on the album) – a mesmerizing spectacle of live entertainment and theatre in equal parts; all performed under a 60-foot replica glass spider. The tour, however, was too panned artistically. Though Bowie was set on using all the technology available to him, he has admitted since that the late ‘80s were a time when he found himself making music more for other people, as opposed to himself. When asked in one interview as to the kind of people who attended his legendary Glass Spider shows, he remarked that he did indeed question why these people were watching him – they weren’t his normal people. And this only led him to wonder why he was there himself.
Nevertheless, I do feel that ‘87s Never Let Me Down gets a bad name when, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad. True, for a Bowie album, it doesn’t quite reach the highs of …Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Heroes or Let’s Dance – the album that reenergized his career in the first place (not that Let’s Dance’s predecessor was received terribly – but Let’s Dance did go on to become Bowie’s best-selling LP). Never Let Me Down certainly finds itself entangled in its own pretentiousness at times; with long, spoken intros, unnecessary ambience and choruses quite clearly made to sound and, importantly to Bowie, look incredible when performed live. Bowie addressed a lot of these when he went back to the studio years later to completely record the album again, from start to finish. In hindsight, this little tidbit probably tells you how little Bowie thought of the ultimate record (the finished reproduction, in case you’re interested, was released in 2018 as Never Let Me Down 2018, and came as part of the Loving the Alien (1983-1988) boxset). Some tracks mayhave not been given the right treatment or the studio time they deserved; but that doesn’t mean they’re complete failures – sonically or artistically.
Never Let Me Down opens with ‘Day-In Day-Out’, a track more in the style of R&B than typical pop/art rock of the album. It’s not a bad song by any means, it’s just not a strong opener at all – it would be a pretty good deep cut – possibly a single at best – on the album, but placing it on the top spot, the listener’s first real impression of it, is a bold move. And, catchy as it is, probably not the right one. It doesn’t showcase what sound lies ahead for the listener, it drags on a touch too long and it isn’t all that memorable. Bowie does deal with the problem of homelessness in the song’s contents, however, which is a welcome addition to the list of reasons why Bowie was a f**king nice guy. It’s not all that skippable, but to name it one of the album’s ‘highlights’ would be a touch too far.
‘Time Will Crawl’ was named Bowie’s favourite of the album, and it’s not hard to see why. Though the track generally chugs along in the same structure for four minutes, it’s so hopelessly bleak whilst remaining punchy in its backbeat and packing a simplistic yet contagious chorus. Directly inspired by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster, it retreads much of the same ground as early ‘70s Bowie – detailing apocalyptic dystopia and nuclear wastes. And though much of this album was slated for trying to recapture that passing concept, ‘Time Will Crawl’ was singled out for that in a positive way. It’s generally seen as one of Bowie’s best (and few, to many) ‘80s songs, and I have to agree. Something about it really pulls you in, whilst remaining so full of casual despair; Bowie’s voice uttering a kind of world-ending indifference. It’s songs like this that remind me to always pick through an entire album, start-to-finish, however dismissed it may be. And, upon rifling through the whole record for this review, I’m reminded of just how stand-out this song really is – I mean it really stands above the usual caliber of Never Let Me Down.
‘Beat of Your Drum’ features some of Bowie’s most sinister lyrics. Lyrically, it’s not all that different from something like ‘Blue Jean’, or ‘Drive-In Saturday’. Namely, itt’s about sex. With a chorus like, ‘I’d like to beat on your drum, I like the smell of your flesh…’, it’s not exactly subtle. But that doesn’t really matter given the stomping, definitively-‘80s nature of it, and its contrast to slower, more dragging verses. According to Bowie, the track is supposedly a ‘reflection on younger girls…’, a Lolita-type thing – which, in that light, is a tad more concerning. Nevertheless, it remains a highlight of the album; even if it doesn’t nearly reach the previous (nor future) heights of Bowie.
The title track is an ode to Bowie’s personal assistant at the time – though purely platonic, of course– and became his last Top 40 in the US until 2015’s ‘Lazarus’. It was rated as, much like ‘Time Will Crawl’, one of the few gems of Never Let Me Down, and I can see why. The track shrugs off the unnecessary pomp and dystopian imagery in favour of a simpler backbeat based in funk and Bowie pop; reminiscent of ‘Absolute Beginners’, in a way. I couldn’t personally say I found it to be one of my favourites, but nevertheless it does add a certain depth and complexity to the album that’s easy to ignore.
‘Zeroes’ is definitely one of Never Let Me Down’s best moments. In tribute to the music of the 1960s, it carries a sense of hopefulness that’s much needed given the oft-dark tone of the album as a whole. It treads the line of a typical love story; though Bowie has said it’s also meant to explain that the image of rock isn’t all it’s made to be (similar to, say, Hunky Dory’s ‘Changes’, or ‘Cracked Actor’). The chorus chugs away, and the chord structure is just pure Bowie. ‘Zeroes’ in name. ‘Heroes’ in nature.
If the album itself was preparing for a supporting Glass Spider Tour, than the song, ‘Glass Spider’, was most definitely written and recorded in mind for a mystifying live debut. It’s easy to see why critics ripped into Bowie for being grandiose in all the wrong places; ‘Glass Spider’ has a two-minute spoken introduction akin to something out of Tolkien’s back catalogue. But I have to admit, I can lose myself in the cheesy, cyber-fantasy of this one – maybe it’s just my inner nerd talking, but Bowie paints a really fantastic image in this track; of an enormous glass spider that drapes skeletons in would-be altars and abandons its young that wail come the night. The rest of the track is a playfully infectious – if repetitive – plea from the spider’s young, chanting that the ‘water’s all gone, mummy come back, ‘cause the water’s all gone!’. It’s actually quite haunting at times; invoking images in the consumer’s mind of a Kevin Costner-style future; where frightened, shimmering glass arachnids wander the desolate plains. Maybe it is Bowie getting carried away here – the song is certainly used to full effect on its tour – but I can’t find fault with it, regardless.
Virtual sigh. I’ve really tried to big up this album; and I do mean everything I say; or more, type. I do think this album gets more stick than it deserves, and that it’s home to many overlooked moments of musical wonder – despite what fans, critics and even Bowie, at points, have said. But it’s tracks like ‘Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)’ that completely demolish my argument and throw the debris in my face. It’s certainly a contender for one of the worst songs Bowie has ever done; if only in how bland it is than actually being bad. Distinguishing the verses from the chorus proves a nigh-Sisyphean task, given that it all sounds the same and soon you stop caring; preferring for that big stony ball to just come right back down. And preferably hit you. Okay, okay, too far. But the track really is just stagnant water – and very out of place given the ‘80s, Mad Max, Diamond Dogs-style mayhem of the album’s previous one. Actor Mickey Rourke even comes in to deliver us a handy, incoherent rap halfway through. Bowie actually wanted this track to be a potential single early on in the album’s production, but EMI said no. For once here, I have to go with the record company over the artist.
Never Let Me Down’s next stop is ‘New York’s In Love’. And, yeah, it’s alright. It’s certainly better than its predecessor, with a punchier backbeat and enough synth and guitar fusion to hammer home when the track was made. But it’s not much more than a decent piece of filler. It’s Bowie taking shot at the vanity and hollow nature of big cities such as the Big Apple, which feels kind of ironic given how theatrically pompous Bowie was proving to be at this point. I have no problem with that – as I’ve stated before, I can lose myself in it, and how not serious Bowie likely desired it to be – but nevertheless, I think it’s a valid point to make.
The album continues this mediocre, bordering on the pretty good, trend with ‘’87 And Cry’, a song seemingly with Thatcher-era Britain in mind. It’s easy to lose the lyrics in the track’s fairly mundane rhythm, but there’s some driving guitar from Peter Frampton which serves to redeem it somewhat. It’s not terrible. It’s not great. But the album’s closer, interestingly enough, is a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Bang Bang’, and from the get-go it’s obvious how well Bowie Bowifies it. To be fair, the original version (featured on Iggy Pop’s 1981 record, Party), sounds pretty close to something his friend would do anyway, but nevertheless, our starman’s vocals fit it really well. Bowie chose this song to close – and not an original composition – because he felt most people never really listened to some of Pop’s best songs, and so this was a way to get it out there more. Unfortunately, of course, in the album’s ultimate artistic demise (which did lead to sales dropping off not long after release) it probably did the opposite. It’s a decent track, it must be said, but like Never Let Me Down’s opener, a woeful choice for where it is.
Bowie said he was leaning toward a more ‘guitar-oriented’ sound on this one, and it somewhat shows, with Peter Frampton delivering some neat solos throughout. But even they feel kind of overshadowed by whatever the f**k else Bowie deems necessary to throw in. And almost certainly to appear grand, and theatrical, while toeing the line of mainstream, too. At points, Never Let Me Down really feels, well, let down by the dichotomy Bowie is having to face; being the musical shapeshifter he is, constantly one-upping himself, while pleasing longtime fans and those eager to fill the arenas. Most of all, though, Never Let Me Down just feels a tad rushed, slapped together, and generally bland compared to what’s come before. I side with the critics there. I probably prefer this album to ‘84’s Tonight, but given Bowie’s legendary 1970s, and the likes of Scary Monsters… and Let’s Dance, this one is definitely a step down.
Regardless, though, I do think there is some hidden treasure in this sunken galleon of a Bowie record. ‘Time Will Crawl’ is probably one of the man’s best, period, and tracks such as ‘Beat of Your Drum’, ‘Zeroes’ and ‘Glass Spider’ remain decent attempts at synth-rockers. I certainly recommend this to any fan of tHe eIghTieS, as well as anyone following Bowie. He’s made a lot of albums, and it can be easy to outright ignore a few of them; especially when this one is often met with a look of sheer indifference. But try it out. See if it fits – you may fall in love.