Red Sails

Red Sails.
Red Sails (rehearsal, w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Red Sails (live, 1983).

Bowie’s “Berlin” records are an extended tribute to the great German bands Neu! and Harmonia, with Klaus Dinger’s motorik* drumbeat and Michael Rother’s precise, delay-tinged guitar the distant parents of the trilogy’s overall sound. Eno had worked with Harmonia the summer before Low was recorded, while Rother was slated to appear on “Heroes” until Bowie, apparently, changed his mind and went for Robert Fripp.

So “Red Sails,” which closes Lodger‘s first side as well as its “travel”-theme suite of songs, is a last payment on the debt. A cracked, extravagant parody of the Neu!/Harmonia sound, as several readers have noted, it’s a near-plagiarism of Harmonia’s “Monza (Rauf und Runter).” “African Night Flight’s” wandering expatriate German pilots are here turned into sailors, apparently lost in time and space. Bowie said he was inspired by the idea of English mercenaries adrift in the China Sea, a random collage of imagery, and on a basic level the lyric is just Bowie playing with a few fragments and phrases—red sails, action, thunder ocean, get around—over and over again, assembling and scrambling them.

Bowie’s vocals on Lodger can be aggressively experimental, and at times he seems like he’s aiming for deliberately “bad” singing—he strains to hit notes, wobbles in tone. It’s a deconstruction of his trademark vocals: gone is the commanding baritone of “Station to Station,” the soaring, octave-leaping confidence of “Life On Mars.” Instead, Lodger is sung by a man trying to derange his voice any chance he gets: the clipped rapping on “African Night Flight,” the would-be muezzin calls on “Yassassin,” the blood-drained near-monotone on “Repetition.”

Nothing quite prepares you for “Red Sails,” though, with its rambling trellises of disjunct vocal melodies, Bowie hitting (or missing) notes seemingly picked at random for him (it seems like Bowie had heard some Lene Lovich before going in the booth), with various squawks, mutters and Beatle shouts (the “oooh!s” after the third refrain (1:35)), as background noise. The opening verse is a set of long, looping phrases, while the second verse (“do you remember we another person”), where Bowie trips up to a run of high As and Cs, seems like a parody of traditional Japanese singing; there’s a juddering series of fourths (“RED-sail-AC-tion SOME re-AC-tion”) breaking in midway through the song, and a hazy “red sail” refrain where the vocal tracks are going out of phase. The sudden calm of “life stands still and stares,” all whole or half notes and very Eno-esque, seems to break the fever at last, but it’s only the prelude before the ode to the hinterland.

Structurally, “Red Sails” is nearly as random. While its three 8-bar G major verses are generally similar (though the third, “action boy seen living under neon,” develops into a new direction), they’re broken up by various guitar breaks and refrains; the latter, while similar harmonically (mainly D to E progressions), never have the same lyrics or vocal lines twice. So the bombastic “Thunder Ocean!,” is followed by “red sails! and a mast so TAw-aw-awh-aw-wALL,” where the Village People seem to have come in for backup vocals, then it’s a volleying set of “red sails!” and “thunder oceans!” The song culminates in “the hinter-land, the HINTER-land” chant—a band of colonial troops pushing upcountry and soon reduced to a bestial state.

Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis are, yet again, the last sane men in the room, with Davis, who dominates the fade-in, offering some Dinger-style fills, while Alomar sneaks in a riff that could’ve been the song’s main hook (after the first refrain). The variable is Adrian Belew, who came to the Lodger sessions some time after recording had started. Taking a cue from Robert Fripp’s improvisational work on “Heroes,” Bowie, Tony Visconti and Eno used a similar tactic, not letting Belew hear any of the tracks before he soloed on them, not even giving him a key or chords as clues. So Belew, alone in the studio and being monitored by closed-circuit cameras, ripped out the solos for “DJ,” Boys Keep Swinging” and “Red Sails” in three takes each. He was cut off just as he was growing familiar with each song.

Belew’s various solos were then dissected, with Bowie and Visconti taking the shards they thought fit a particular section and dubbing them in. The result, like the tremolo-laden, joyous Belew patchworks in “Red Sails,” was somehow perfect—the solos sound as if they were crafted beforehand, but keep their sense of barely-controlled energy. It’s waves of thought being voiced on strings.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. Bowie revived it for his 1983 tour, where he tried to domesticate “Red Sails,” slowing its tempo and adding a brass section. It didn’t really gel, and he soon cut it from the set list. The guitar work (even Stevie Ray Vaughan in rehearsals) generally was a shadow of Belew’s inspired performance.

* The best definition I’ve seen of what “motorik” exactly is—4/4 time, with snare on 2 & 4; continual eighth notes on hi-hat, with the bass drum exactly mirroring the latter except on the beats where the snare hits—was offered by Dominique Leone on this ILM thread from a while ago.

Top: Erik Van Straten, “Amsterdam, 1979.”

16 Responses to Red Sails

  1. MrBelm says:

    I interviewed Adrian Belew years ago, when he was touring for his first solo album, Lone Rhino. I asked him about working on Lodger, and in particular Red Sails. He told me about being isolated from the tracks until it was time to solo; “I didn’t know what was coming, so I started with a long sustained tremolo D. Once I head a bit of the track I bent things around until I was in the same key.”

  2. MrBelm says:

    Also, Alomar’s “Red Sails” solo during the Serious Moonlight tour was a colossal disappointment. The bar had been set so high by Belew that no one else could compare.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I was sure there was a discussion about Micheal Rother under Heroes or Low. I’ve just checked through and it seems that I imagined it. Wasn’t it the case that Bowie thought the Rother turned him down, while Rother thought the same about Bowie? It was much later that they both realised that there must have been someone in between feeding them false information. Apologies if it’s already been covered. And even more apologies if I’ve just made that up from nowhere.

    • Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

      Yes, Rother said in an interview with ‘The Quietus’ in 2009 that he held Bowie’s entourage responsible for the co-operation not happening:

      “Oh, you don’t know the story? Well, there’s some mystery about what happened in ’77. For many years I believed that David Bowie had changed his mind. Which was what someone from his team told me. David and I had discussed details about the music, etc., instruments I should bring along. We were both very excited about that. But then someone else called me and said ‘I have to tell you that David changed his mind, you don’t have to come to Berlin after all.’ So that’s what I believed. I was busy with my solo career at that time, my first solo album was suddenly taking off, and I started recording my second solo album the same year.

      So I didn’t cry for a long time. I was just puzzled because I thought that didn’t sound like what we’d been talking about, but who knows? It took about 20 something years until I stumbled upon interviews David Bowie gave where he said ‘I invited Michael to record with me but unfortunately he turned me down.’

      My guess at what happened is that people in his team where a bit anxious – sales were going down because his experimental approach to music wasn’t commercial enough, his fans wanted a continuation of the Ziggy Stardust era. It’s so strange to me that 20 or 30 years later his three Berlin albums are considered to be his best by many fans and critics.

      But at the time it was different. The sales were dropping considerably and maybe it was decided that David Bowie would make better pop music without another German guy as inspiration on his team. It was strange 20 something years later to hear him tell a very different story. But it’s no use now crying about the fact that Heroes was made without my guitar and without my input. But who knows, maybe I would’ve destroyed the album.”

      From: The Quietus

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    Maybe Bowie should give the backing tracks to Rother and see what he does with them? Probably too late for all that. It took me a long time to ‘get’ Red Sails from when I first heard it as a teenager until I heard the krautrock bands. Once I knew about the motorick beat suddenly I could really hear it in Red Sails and the penny dropped. Great track to sing along with drunk by the way.

    In an interview I read with Belew a few years ago he mentioned that when he received his copy Lodger he played it and really didn’t like it. Then after a few plays it grew on him until he really got it. He said that it represents Bowie’s great gift to the world – avant pop.

    Sounds cool to me.

  5. diamond dog says:

    it worth sitting through a couple of duds to reach this fantastic tune , I love it and I feel it should have opened the album. Belew is on supreme form and the backing band take this to another level. Like a drunken Brel song goosestepping into europe , easily one of the strongest in the collection. I even like the way this is produced it lays waste to some of the half baked material on Lodger. I loved seeing him perform this in 83 it was a genuine treat , miming climbing up a mast if recall? At the time as the sun started to set in a field in milton keynes in pastal shades it suited the show.
    I’ve always disliked the running order red sails as opener ,african night flight ,fantastic voyage yassasin ,dj, repetition, move on , red money look back , boys keep swinging flows better for me though destroys the travel trio.
    Play at maximum volume drunk ….

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Hard to believe that the 83 tour was only 4 years after Lodger. Still, it’s Bowie we are talking about. I like the 83 live version actually. Although I was aware of Bowie since 79 ( DJ was the first song I heard when i was 10 – saw the video on a day time kids show believe it or not) It wasn’t until my older sister took me to see Bowie in 83 that I became a fan.

  6. diamond dog says:

    Although sneered at now the serious moonlight tour was a true ‘event’ and a real spectacle I saw him at the overspill gigs at milton keynes and it was like being with GOD in a field ..his presence touched everyone in that field. He did not disappoint and the setlist was excellent.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Yeah I totally agree – the set list was great and the band shit hot. He was able to strut his stuff from the previous 13 years in a direct and powerful way that touched a lot of people. I have no problem with Bowie’s more commercial stuff, even though I don’t like all of it, because if the people attracted to that music then listen to his other music they are introduced to so much and really broaden their horizons. That’s something he did for me I realised years later.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        There’s no better way to lure someone into art rock than via Bowie. “Oh, you like Let’s Dance? Here, check out “Ashes to Ashes”, it’s a great pop song.” “Did you like Scary Monsters? It’s a great album. You should listen to Station to Station, it has some great dance music on it.” After that, it’s the first side of “Heroes”, and before you know it they’re an art rock fan. “Haha! Fooled you!”

  7. Sailor says:

    I don’t think Red Sails’ lyrics are as random as you make them out to be.

    For me, it’s Bowie’s most open song about homosexuality.

    Basic idea: Red sails refer to the, with “the man wearing the red bandana [taking] the female part”.

    Red sail action wake up in the wrong town
    -> gay scene

    Boy, I really get around
    -> Bowie having fun

    a mast so tall
    -> uh

    The Hinterland, the Hinterland, we’re gonna sail to the Hinterland.
    -> “Hintern” is german for “butt”

    Nuff said?

    • ash says:

      Action boy seen living under neon
      Struggle with a foreign tongue
      Red sails make him strong
      Action make him sail along
      Life stands still and stares

  8. Brilliant sax player, that Stan.

  9. todd says:

    Jaunty little number, swishy and very bowie, love, love is lost, remix, very sad, his death, very sad, good songs though, many happy hours spent, bowie fan for 40 year’s, 45 years, gee whizz, todd

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