Bowie had finally hit the big time with his predecessor Let's Dance, both commercially and financially. Having gained a new audience of adoring fans, Bowie realised he had no choice but to retain them through releasing new music as soon as possible. However, having just finished touring for Let's Dance a tired Bowie was struggling to overcome writer's block.
What followed was an album that featured just two original compositions for the album by Bowie alone. Five songs involved his longtime friend Iggy Pop (who, unlike Bowie, had fallen on hard times), three of those Pop-involved songs are covers, and two songs are covers of songs by other artists. Bowie himself would thusly describe the album as a rough sequel to his 1973 Cover Album Pin Ups in an interview.
Like Let's Dance before it, Tonight was a considerable commercial success for Bowie, topping the charts in the UK and the Netherlands, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard 200, and going double-platinum in Canada, platinum in the United States, and gold in the UK, France, New Zealand, and Spain.
Tonight was supported by three singles: "Blue Jean", Bowie's cover of the Title Track (originally an Iggy Pop song), and "Loving the Alien". The first of these three was accompanied by Jazzin' for Blue Jean, a 21-minute Direct to Video short film directed by Julian Temple in which Loser Protagonist Vic (played by Bowie) falsely claims that he personally knows legendary and eccentric rock musician Screaming Lord Byron (also played by Bowie and a sort-of self-parody) to impress her and goes to absurd lengths to try and hold the lie together when she challenges his claims.
- "Loving the Alien" (7:11)
- "Don't Look Down"note (4:11)
- "God Only Knows"note (3:08)
- "Tonight"note (3:46)
- "Neighborhood Threat"note (3:12)
- "Blue Jean" (3:11)
- "Tumble and Twirl"note (5:00)
- "I Keep Forgettin'"note (2:34)
- "Dancing with the Big Boys"note (3:34)
Tropin' for Blue Jean.
- Adam Westing: Screaming Lord Byron is essentially Bowie parodying his image from the first half of the '70s, being a cartoonishly eccentric style-over-substance rock musician with severe neuroses and an affinity for bizarre costumes & make-up and ridiculously sexual stage performances. At the end of the film, Vic relentlessly lambasts Byron, among other things stating that "your record sleeves are better than your albums!" Note that Vic and Byron are both played by Bowie himself.
- Album Filler: A common criticism of the album, given that more than half of it is made up of song covers, and of the four songs that are original compositions, half of those are co-written by Iggy Pop and ended up fairly naff by Bowie standards. Bowie himself agreed with this critique of the album, with the two songs he wrote by himself ("Loving the Alien" and "Blue Jean") being the only ones featured in live performances (all the way up to his final tour in 2003-2004).
- Concept Video: Jazzin' for Blue Jean is a Short Film depicting the comic tale of a Celebrity Lie that features Bowie in two roles.
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: Bowie's cover of "Tonight" omits the spoken introduction, which establishes that the narrator is singing to his girlfriend, who's dying of a heroin overdose. As a result, the song becomes a bog-standard love song. Bowie stated that the reasons for this alteration were because he felt the introduction was an "idiosyncrasy" of Iggy Pop that didn't fit his own vocabulary, and because he thought the original song's dark context would've made Tina Turner, with whom he sang on the song, uncomfortable.
- Cover Version: Roughly half the songs on the album are covers. In order, you hear Bowie perform Iggy Pop's "Don't Look Down" (from New Values), The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" (from Pet Sounds), the Title Track, originally an Iggy Pop song that Bowie had co-written (from Lust for Life), Iggy Pop's "Neighborhood Threat" (also from Lust for Life), and Chuck Jackson's "I Keep Forgettin'" (an R&B standard written by Leiber and Stoller).
- Design Student's Orgasm: The album cover features an elaborate painting done up to look like an abstract stained-glass window, typing in perfectly with the opening track and its critique of religious dogma.
- Epic Rocking: "Loving the Alien" is just over seven minutes long.
- Endearingly Dorky: Jazzin' for Blue Jean, a 20-minute long-form video, is based around the Talky Bookends story of Vic, a lovestruck-but-clumsy man who tells a Celebrity Lie to the woman of his dreams and now has to find a way to personally introduce elegant, supercool rock star Screamin' Lord Byron to her. Bowie plays both men, and Vic doesn't get the girl in the end for all his trouble — which Bowie doesn't think is fair.
- Face on the Cover: David Bowie, done as a painting with his head deep blue (though some scans and prints make it closer to purple) and his hair bright yellow.
- Lighter and Softer: Even more so than Let's Dance.
- Longest Song Goes First: The album opens with the 7:11 "Loving the Alien".
- Packaged as Other Medium: The album cover is done up to resemble a stained-glass window.
- Performance Video: Besides the Jazzin' For Blue Jean mini-movie, David also created this kind of video for "Blue Jean" specifically for MTV airplay (the mini-movie was a direct-to-video release). The performance video version is also featured on a TV screen in Jazzin' For Blue Jean, where it's established to be footage of the character Screamin' Lord Byron.
- Real Life Writes the Plot:
- "Tumble and Twirl" was based on Bowie's exploits vacationing in Bali; he would later have his ashes scattered there after his death in 2016.
- The lines "this dot marks your location" and "your family is a football team" in "Dancing with the Big Boys" were inspired by Bowie & Pop's "lengthy, irritating stay" in a New York hotel. Specifically, the former line came from the hotel's fire escape map, while the latter came from the cooperation observed among an immigrant family staying at the place.
- Rearrange the Song: Roughly two decades after the album's release, Bowie would perform an acoustic rearrangement of "Loving the Alien" during his 2003-2004 A Reality Tour, stating that this new version was closer to how he felt the song should've sounded in the first place.
- Record Producer: David Bowie, Derek Bramble, and Hugh Padgham, the latter of whom came on board at the last minute.
- Religion Rant Song: "Loving the Alien" is a "Hate the Leaders" one, condemning dogmatic believers who use scripture for their own personal ends, among other things comparing the Arab–Israeli Conflict to the Crusades in a manner that is critical of both.
- Reggae: "Don't Look Down" and the Title Track utilize elements of this.
- Rule of Three: Three of the album's tracks are covers of Iggy Pop songs from the late '70s.
- Title Track: "Tonight", the only such instance where a Bowie title track was a cover of somebody else's song.
- Uncanny Valley Makeup: David Bowie as Screaming Lord Byron during his performance of "Blue Jean" in the mini-movie Jazzin' For Blue Jean is given such a makeup job that could be described as making him look like a living painting.
- Yellow/Purple Contrast: Bowie's purple/blue face on the front cover pops out against both his butter-blonde hair and the predominantly yellow background.