Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps was released that same September. Produced by Bowie and Visconti, David’s first album of the new decade was preceded by his first UK #1 single, Ashes to Ashes, which resurrected and ruminated on the fate of the Major Tom character from Space Oddity. Scary Monsters… produced more than one of the iconic clips of the impending first decade of MTV as Ashes to Ashes was followed onto the airwaves by Fashion. Further singles included the title cut and Up The Hill Backwards, establishing Scary Monsters… as a milestone balancing act of artistic ambition and commercial success—one that showcased the return of Fripp on guitar, guest turns including Pete Townshend and the last appearance of the 1976-1980 Bowie rhythm section of Alomar, Davis and bassist George Murray.
As with Lodger, Bowie did not tour behind Scary Monsters… . The relative quiet of his 1981 was punctuated by the October release of Under Pressure, a surprise global smash written and recorded with Queen in Switzerland and ultimately included on Queen’s Hot Space album the following year. The song would become Bowie’s second #1 single in the UK, hitting the top spot in three countries total and cracking the top 10 in nine more.
1982 saw Bowie turning his focus to various film projects: playing the male lead in The Hunger, the role of Celliers in in the acclaimed WW2 drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and writing the theme song for Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Another greatest hits compilation, ChangesTwoBowie, was released during this year.
Let’s Dance shattered the silence in April 1983. Bowie’s first release for EMI, Let’s Dance would in short order become the most commercially successful album of his career—selling some 7 million copies worldwide as its title track went to #1 in more than half a dozen countries, followed by two more global top 10 hits with Modern Love and the Bowie version of China Girl, co-composed with Iggy Pop, whose version was originally released on 1977’s The Idiot. Produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring the late Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar atop rhythms provided by the likes of Bernard Edwards, Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson, Let’s Dance was much more than a global hit—the repercussions of its melding of rich fluid blues/rock guitar, rock solid funk grooves and irresistible vocal hooks were instantly evident on the likes of Duran Duran, and are still being felt as recently as the new millennial proliferation of acts like The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem.
The release of Let’s Dance was followed a month later by Bowie’s triumphant return to the stage with the Serious Moonlight tour. Serious Moonlight exceeded all expectations and established Bowie as a global stadium headliner. Every date sold out, including multiple-night stands at the likes of New York’s Madison Square Garden and the UK’s Milton Keynes Bowl, with single engagements moving in excess of 50, 80 even 100,000 tickets at stadiums and fairgrounds in the U.S., Europe, New Zealand and beyond. By the time the tour wound down in Hong Kong that December, Serious Moonlight had sold over 2.5 million tickets across 15 countries. A few months before that tour finale’, RCA released Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture Album that October, capturing the energy of Ziggy and the Spiders during their last show. Shortly thereafter, the movie, originally filmed in 1973, was also released.
The upbeat romanticism introduced on Let’s Dance extended to Tonight (1984), though the single Loving the Alien seems eerily prophetic in retrospect, given the coming escalation of Islamic/Christian tensions. That same year, Bowie was one of the first recipients of MTV’s Video Vanguard honor. In 1985, a moving appearance at Live Aid (where he dedicated “Heroes” to his young son), a duet single with Mick Jagger, a third consecutive hit album in Never Let Me Down (1987) and the accompanying Glass Spider tour (with lead guitar by Peter Frampton) all maintained the momentum of the Bowie juggernaut.
In 1988, however, in a thoroughly unexpected left turn, Bowie abruptly switched off the solo star spotlight with the formation of his new band, Tin Machine. Having enlisted the Sales Brothers (Hunt and Tony, sons of Soupy and veteran rhythm section of Todd Rundgren’s Runt as well as Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, to name but a few) and guitar innovator Reeves Gabrels, Bowie was adamant that Tin Machine would be a full-time band, not a superstar solo project. On their two million-selling albums (plus a limited edition live disc), Tin Machine proved their mettle as a modern alternative live act, with a stripped-down guitar-centric sound, all-new material and a few real surprises (a Pixies cover!). Some fans loved it, others were confused, but the arguments were quickly rendered moot as Bowie put Tin Machine on hiatus not long after its 1991 sophomore LP.