David Bowie: The 1980's and 90's

Let's Dance

Scary Monsters

The 1980's brought Bowie's mega-stardom status to it's highest level. With his relocation to New York City in 1980, Bowie released Scary Monsters, and unlike his Berlin Trilogies, this recording hinted to the Ziggy Stardust era. In fact, a new movement was taking shape in Britain called the New Romantics that started in nightclubs and was characterized by an eccentric, flamboyant fashion, reminiscent of Bowie's first alter ego a decade earlier. The hit single on the Scary Monsters album was "Ashes to Ashes" and brought attention to the New Romantic movement across the globe. The music video, which music videos had only started in the mid 1970's (1981 was the debut for MTV), was one of the most expensive music videos ever produced to this day costing over a half a million dollars.

Let's Dance

Bowie collaborations were frequent as well. As seen in the 1970's with John Lennon and "Fame," and Brian Eno during the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie spent a significant amount of time collaborating with other musicians. In 1981, one of his most famous collaborations was released. "Under Pressure" was a collaboration between Bowie and the band Queen and was a number one hit on Britain. This song was covered and used by various artist since its release such as Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" in 1990.


In 1983, Bowie reach his peak popularity with the release of Let's Dance. It produced three singles that were huge in both the United States and Britain, "Let's Dance." "China Girl," and "Modern Love." The album was, once again, a shift in direction for Bowie with its dance oriented style. With the start of MTV in 1981, Bowie's music, he's theatrical persona, and his backgrounds in other artistic areas made for successful music videos. In fact, by the time Let's Dance was released, Bowie was on the forefront of music video artistry and his video creations were frequently played on the Music Television Channel. With his 1984 release, Tonight, another dance style album, Bowie received a Grammy Award for the "Best Short Form Music Video" with the hit single "Blue Jean."

The successful single "Ashes to Ashes" from Scary Monsters
The successful single "Let's Dance" from Let's Dance

Tin Machine

The debut album by Tin Machine

The latter half of the 80's led to Bowie collaborating more with various artists and releasing another mediocre album. Never Let Me Down, released in 1987, was inspired by the creative energies Bowie had recently put in to producing long-time collaborator Iggy Pop's album Blah, Blah, Blah. Bowie explains that Never Let Me Down was "a reflection" of his earlier albums in that "it covers every style that [he'd] ever written, and all the influences [he'd] had in rock." In all, Bowie was disappointed with the outcome and the album met stagnant sales and lukewarm reviews. Due to the lack of success of Bowie's previous two albums, Bowie didn't record another record under his name until 1993.

At the end of the 1980's, Bowie started a new project, not under his name. Tin Machine was a band instigated by Bowie, that was a collective entity of all four members. The band included Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Tony Sales on Bass, and Tony's brother, Hunt Sales on vocals and drums. As expected Bowie fronted the band on lead vocals and guitar. Tin Machine was a creative project for Bowie, and he did not intend the band to have huge commercial success. The band arranged to create their first album in Switzerland, and came into the studio with no preconceived compositions. Each day they would collaborate, and as a band, write an entire song from scratch. The album Tin Machine was a hard-hitting rock and roll album and failed to chart. Their first tour was fairly successful at first however, but had a difficult time keeping it's initial momentum. Fan and critics were reluctant to give Tin Machine hundred precent of their enthusiasm with Bowie being only a band member.

Following their first tour, the band decided to take another shot and create a second entitled Tin Machine II. However, this recording process was frequently interrupted. Bowie had an obligation through his record company to go on a seven month tour for many of his earlier hit singes to promote a recent box set release entitled Sound + Vision, named after a single from the album Low. Due to this, his band members had to continue recording without him. This gave opportunity to drummer, Hunt Sales, to sing lead vocals on a few tunes. Guitarist Gabrels even had to track Bowie down on tour to get certain things done to complete the album. The album was not much of a commercial success, in fact, the band wasn't considered much of a commercial success. However, Bowie later reminisced with Rolling Stone Magazine that the band was a artistic success. After the release of the album, the band mutually decided that it was time to do other things and the band disbanded. Bowie told Rolling Stone Magazine "We did make a big effort at the beginning to try and change people's minds, but we gave up after awhile."

Tin Machine II UK Cover
Tin Machine II US Cover

The Early 90's

In 1990, Bowie met supermodel Iman Abdulmajid. It had been ten years after his divorce with Angie, and upon meeting the Somali born supermodel, Bowie describes it love at first sight. The following year the two were married, and as a way to creatively express this occasion in Bowie's life he released is 18th studio album, Black Tie White Noise. The album incorporated many of his earlier influences and, after the lack of commercial success with his previous projects, Black Tie White Noise reached number one on the UK charts. The song "Jump They Say" was the most popular single from the album. Even though this album was a return to the dance style that Bowie found success with in the 80's, Black Tie White Noise still incorporated new elements and experimentation. There were both jazz and hip-hop influences with the inclusion of trumpeter Lester Bowie, no relation, and David Bowie playing saxophone. Both acoustic instruments were hooked through electronic synthesizers to create a more modern sound. The producer of the album Nile Rodgers found Bowie's saxophone playing challenging and said,

I think David would be the first to admit that he's not a saxophonist in the traditional sense. I mean, you wouldn't call him up to do gigs. He uses his playing as an artistic tool. He's a painter. He hears an idea, and he goes with it. But he absolutely knows where he's going, because he damn well plays the same thing over and over again until I say, 'Well, I guess he hears that.' It's what you might call accidentally deliberate.
Bowie and Iman on their wedding day

In 1995 Bowie and Brian Eno teamed up again to create 1. Outside, another experimental art album of Bowie's. In a similar fashion to the music created by Tin Machine, Bowie and Eno went into the studio with no preconceived concepts or compositions. Instead, the album was mostly improvised. The improvisations were unconventional as well. Eno would make flash cards for the other musicians in the studio that would describe a character or situation such as "you are a disgruntled member of a South African rock band" or perform from the perspective that you are in a plane flying over a city or country side. Bowie would improvise lyrics during these improvised sessions that were based on a fictional character and storyline about a futurist art crime phenomenon, where people would murder and mutate bodies as an artistic expression. A very morbid concept that Bowie took one step further and use a computer program to randomly cutup and resemble the words from this story to create his lyrics for the album 1. Outside. Surprisingly, this album received favorable criticism and charted in the top 10 in the UK. Bowie went on tour to promote the album with the alternative rock band Nine Inch Nails. Lead singer of Nine Inch Nails told Entertainment Weekly in 2014 that Bowie confessed that "[he] made a very difficult album and [was] probably going to bum everyone out." Sure enough, Nine Inch Nails fans left by the dozens when Bowie performed the disjointed lyrics and improvised music from the album 1. Outside. Even to the alternative rock fans of Nine Inch Nails, Bowie's performances of 1. Outside was unaccessible.

The opening track "Leon Takes Us Outside" from the experimental album 1. Outside

Recognized Talents

On January 17th, 1996, David Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year, Bowie released Earthling which was very successful charting in both Top 40 hit singles in the UK and US. There were many singles from this album including "Telling Lies," "Little Wonder," "Dead Man Walking." to name a few. The album incorporated a new electronic sound that Bowie had not yet incorporated into his music call "Drum and Bass," which is defined as uptempo dance music, or rave music, that emerged in England in the early 1990s. On the "Drum and Bass" sound Bowie describes the process:

Unlike most drum and bass things, we didn't just take parts from other people's records and sample them. On the snare drum stuff, Zac [Alford] went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute. That's very much how we treat the album. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way.

This album was also self produced by Bowie, which he had not done since his 1974 release Diamond Dog. Following the release of Earthling, Bowie received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1998, Earthling was nominated for two Grammy Awards in the categories "Best Alternative Music Performance" and "Best Male Rock Vocal Performance." However, Bowie did not win in these categories. In face, Bowie's Grammies had only amounted to one award with the "Blue Jean" music video from the album Tonight in the "Best Video, Short Form" category. However, this one Grammy Award would not be Bowie's last.

The late 90's found Bowie developing more of his entrepreneurial side with the "Bowie Bond," a celebrity bond based on the current and future revenue of 25 albums that Bowie recorded before 1990. Some of these recordings include EPs and soundtrack singles that were not released as a studio album under his name. He also started an internet service called BowieNet. This business venture lasted till 2006.

Not an actual "Bowie Bond"
"Telling Lies" from Earthling

In 1999, Bowie released his last album before the turn of the century. Entitled Hours, this Bowie release was one of his least successful albums of his career with the album not reaching the US Top 40 charts. Hours was an escape from Bowie's electronic phase with the album featuring mostly acoustic instruments. This album was also one of the first albums that was made accessible to listeners with the ability to download from the internet.