Repetition

Repetition.
Repetition (broadcast, 1997).
Repetition (live, 1999).

By 1979, Bowie had been composing for 15 years and none of his songs had any “social relevance.” While Bowie constantly explored themes like identity, power, sex, paranoia, depression, isolation, lunacy and so on, he avoided direct commentary on societal flaws.* Until “Repetition,” a brutal little song about domestic violence that he stowed away on Lodger‘s second side.**

So, something new under the sun. It’s a sign, perhaps, of Bowie maturing and starting to consider the world beyond his own, or, more cynically, it’s an indication that Bowie’s imaginative reserves were being depleted and he was increasingly forced to live off the land. Still, “Repetition” is far from didactic—its condemnation comes via Bowie coldly narrating the actions of its main character, Johnny, a failed businessman, a sociopathic bully who beats his wife and who’s convinced that another, better life was open to him.

Johnny feels trapped and his victims in turn have no escape from him, so his song is a piece of confinement, of ceaseless, back-and-forth limited movement, like a man pacing in a room. “Repetition” is a series of verses that are built on constant shifts between A and B major, every other bar. George Murray plays the same two-note bassline throughout, also moving between A and B, while Dennis Davis’ kick drum thumps on every beat except in the interim bars between verses (Simon House’s violin is dubbed in one gap, but for the most part, the breaks are similar to the verses). A key change to A minor after the last verse only further dims things.

Bowie’s vocal is often detached (he tends to hold on one note for long phrases (“and he looks straight through you when you” is all on E, “ask him how the kids are” is all on F, etc.)), complementing the lyric’s cold observation. The verse’s rhythm is exact: a short phrase on the B major bar (“cause the,” “and he’s“, “I guess the” etc.), a longer one on the A (“Chevy’s really old,” “bigger than her,” “bruises won’t show“). Yet there’s nuance despite this set pattern. Take the slightly mocking way Bowie sings “blue silk blouse,” a descending trio of notes, which suggests how minor and pathetic Johnny’s fantasies truly are, or the growing tension in Bowie’s voice as the verses go on.

The only time Bowie breaks his narration is a near-spoken “don’t hit her,” which seems like a long-delayed response to Lou Reed’s deadpan “you better hit her” in the VU’s “There She Goes Again.” The line appears in the space between Johnny arriving home to find the food cold, and the off-stage beatings: it’s an aside, buried in the mix, and there’s no anger in Bowie’s voice, just resignation and empty disgust.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. A version was recorded in New York for Radio One’s ChangesNowBowie (a retrospective pegged to Bowie’s 50th birthday) in January 1997, with the then-standard crew of Mike Garson, Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford. Also performed live in 1999 (one set was taped by the BBC on 25 October 1999). Essential cover: The Au Pairs, 1981.

* The lone exception I can think of is the dreadful “God Knows I’m Good,” off Space Oddity.

** There’s a bit of black humor to its sequencing, as “Repetition” directly follows “Boys Keep Swinging,” giving that title another, gruesome meaning.

Top: “Iranian Women Shouting at US Embassy,” Tehran, 21 November 1979.

30 Responses to Repetition

  1. Remco says:

    Really, really amazing song, definitely one of the showstoppers, and you’ve certainly done it justice with this post. Great observation about the Velvet Underground reference.

  2. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    One other “socially relevant” song you forgot – “Running Gun Blues”. My guess is you’ve blocked it from your memory.

  3. Jeremy Earl says:

    Well Repetition is certainly a better song than Running Gun Blues that’s for sure. Unlike the Tin Machine social commentary songs, for instance, Repetition works really well. It’s just such a weird arrangement. Bowie took great pains to avoid a chorus it seems. Great bass sound too. It gets my vote.

  4. col1234 says:

    oh yes, I forgot that masterpiece.

    Listening to “repetition” again–correct me if i’m off, but there’s two bass tracks, the duh-DUH, duh-DUH two-note line in the left speaker and a more steady bassline that’s really buried in the mix. Or is the one-two line actually a distorted guitar (Alomar)?

    • Remco says:

      I hadn’t really noticed the buried bass before but it’s defenitely there and it’s quite a nice bassline. The one-two line could be a bass but it does sound a bit funny so it might as well be a mistreated guitar. Maybe they tuned it down, slowed it down or used an Octaver like Jack White did on ‘7 Nation Army’.

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        I think the one two line is a bass because it sounds almost exactly like a lot of Tina Weymouth’s bass lines on Fear of Music ( on one or two songs in particular – can’t remember which ones) on which Eno treated her bass so that it sounded more like a horn. I could be wide of the mark though…

  5. ethan says:

    Never even noticed the significance of the sequencing. Jesus.

    I always think of “Repetition” as Look Back in Anger (the play more than the song, though the song works too) but sympathetic to the woman rather than the man. Johnny is almost exactly Jimmy.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I always thought Bowie was using the domestic abuse theme (and the idea of “repetition” itself) as some kind of extended metaphor and a comment on his own career.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I was always unconvinced about this song ,it seems forced and out of character (was it the detachment of the duke). I’m not convinced it sheds any light on domestic abuse or of its sentiment ,its is vague and non commital I never liked its placing and I feel the album limps to an unsteady close. but your article has made me appreciate it a bit more. The music is grating and seems to be an exercise in stretching the listener with annoying screetching. Scary monsters has similar social commentary like its no game but the performance and music are so good I can forgive the clumsy sentiments.

  8. Marion Brent says:

    Repetition was never a favourite of mine, I felt the foray into social commentary was a bit ham-handed and an error. But having listened to it a few times recently, I think it’s more interesting than that. For a start, I’m not sure that it really is social commentary. For the first time in a while it’s got a recognisably American setting, with its Chevys and Cadillacs (although Bowie gets it slightly wrong – an American would say “overhead” not “overheads” I think). This kind of chevy-driving blue-collar white American thing is pretty bizarre for Bowie to latch onto, it’s almost exotic coming from him, as if he’s borrowing not so much from real life, but from an old movie or a Springsteen song or something. Secondly, if this is social commentary it’s pretty conventional stuff. The working man coming home to a cold dinner and biffing the wife is the biggest cliché you can come up with if you wanted to write about wife-beating, it’s just too obvious. It seems Bowie is doing the same thing here as he’s done with Move On and quite a few other songs on this album. He’s used flat clichés, but has then contrasted them with art rock experimentation, and finally some kind of existential payoff at the end that breaks the cliché – in Move On it’s “feeling like a shadow” etc., here it’s the “space in her eyes” (I like the repetition where the wife-beater “looks straight through you” while the wife’s “space in her eyes show through”). Another odd thing in this song is the perspective. Although there is some off-stage commentary (‘don’t hit her”, and whoever it is, maybe a work colleague, who’s asking him how the kids are), the perspective is basically that of the perpetrator and the victim remains a cypher. There’s even possibly a trace of sympathy for the wife-beater, as he muses on how his life might have turned out if he hadn’t fucked it up…

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’m glad you included a link to the Au Pairs ‘essential cover’. That’s probably the first time you’ve needed to use that term. It’s interesting to note the lack of covers of Bowie songs and the first decent one – that Bowie is not directly involved with – is a cover of perhaps the least Bowielike song so far.

    I always found the American setting for this song a little incongruous, especially given how little time he was spending in America at this time. There’s a definite secondhand hand feel to the narrative, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not done well.

    A bit off topic, but on the subject of ‘Good Knows I’m Good’ there is an interview somewhere – I think with his ex-wife – that mentions how proud he was of that song at the time he wrote it. Perhaps he always had an urge to write this kind of thing.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Bowie is a difficult artist to cover, partly because he writes so much “in-character”, I think Talking Heads is similar (and Byrne certainly learned some tricks from Bowie).

      You are, however, forgetting Nirvana’s version of “The Man Who Sold The World”. The only time I’ve heard an artist really make a Bowie song their own.

  10. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    My biggest problem with “Repetition” is that it follows “Boys Keep Swinging”, Bowie’s brilliant send-up of male privilege, and “DJ”, Bowie’s brilliant send-up of himself.. “Repetition” is an obvious let-down. It certainly is an interesting song, though. I wouldn’t call it bad.

  11. diamond dog says:

    I have probs with placing of repetition my ideal order is on a reply to the red sails article. The album finshes with rather weak tracks. I think talking heads did obviously take from Bowie ,they were arty and very funky and I would hazard became far more interesting than bowie. They had a superb run of albums speaking in tongues is a classic and remain in light one of my fav lps of alltime. I think they rightly stole the mantle during the mid 80,s.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Talking Heads is fantastic, and I agree – Byrne, Weymouth and co. in the ’80s were carrying on in the best tradition of Bowie’s late ’70s work while he took some questionable detours. Remain In Light obviously shares some similarities with Lodger, but I think the real comparison is between Station to Station and the only other album I’ve ever heard like it, Fear Of Music. Put them on back to back sometime – funky disco-rock with lyrical themes of paranoia (“Station to Station”, “Life During Wartime”), finding terror in the mundane (“TVC15”, “Air”), social isolation (“Stay”, “Cities”), search for peace and redemption (“Word on a Wing”, “Heaven”), and drugs (“Station to Station” and, er, “Drugs”).

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Good points, I’d never considered that before. Byrne and Bowie certainly seemed cut from the same cloth. For some reason this discussion has made me consider whether Byrne’s big suit outfit on the Speaking in Tongues tour (that spawned the Stop Making Sense film) was a parody of Bowie’s suits on the Serious Moonlight Tour?

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Fear of Music came out just a few weeks after Lodger (I think!) and Bowie’s effort didn’t get much time on my turntable after that. I always thought of Lodger as having more in common with ‘Songs about Buildings and Food’ than later Talking Heads stuff.

  12. Carl says:

    “Repetition” reminds me alot of Lou Reeds “Endless Cycle” http://youtu.be/VFulWX-sD_g

    Also Suicide – Frankie Teardrop http://youtu.be/_5wJQkvSoOQ (albeit quite different theme in that one).

  13. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    I heard the Au Pairs version of ‘Repetition’ first, and assumed that they’d written it until I heard ‘Lodger’ for the first time a couple of years afterwards. Not least because of Lesley Woods’ sardonic vocal, I think the Au Pairs inhabit the narrative much more convincingly – it still sounds everything like an Au Pairs song, and nothing like a Bowie song.

    Mind you, considering Bowie’s ill-judged flirtation with half-baked right-wing symbolism in the mid-70s, it’s amazing that Bowie could have penned a tune that a feminist group would wish to cover only a few years later.

    Living in the West Berlin district of Schöneberg must have been a major reality check. At the time, the district was the centre of the city’s alternative community and also of Berlin’s women’s movement. Having lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, including in Schöneberg for a while, I well remember the lively feminist discussions that would spring up in bars that Bowie is known to have attended in and around Nollendorfplatz, and also in the “Andere Ufer”, the gay and lesbian bar which Bowie frequented on the Hauptstraße,

    ‘Repetition’ may not be his best song, but it is a sign that Bowie was getting his head straight at the end of the seventies. Whether that makes for better art is of course a different question.

  14. I hate to belabor what might be a half-baked hypothesis, but I feel Repetition is more evidence that Lodger is a take-down of both a cliche-driven and provincial mindset and of the impossibility of an outsider (or lodger) to truly understand or interpret other cultures (which has made music genres from folk to world music often smug and pretentious). Repetition isn’t genuine social critique- it it the American stop on the World Tour, and the cliches of American machismo/brutality (and the art-snob dismissal of American “social” songs being hopelessly banal) are being exained, reflected, and ultimately mocked here. When you factor in Boys Keep Singing and DJ into the mix, Lodger is really Bowie’s “ironic” album from top to bottom. I don’t think Repetition is any different- is there a song on Lodger where Bowie DOESN’T have tongue in cheek?

  15. Rufus Oculus says:

    I love the Au Pairs version and their debut album Playing with a DIfferent Sex is well worth seeking for a still relevant take on sexual politics. Whilst talking covers I must cast my votes for Lulu’s version of Watch that Man and Neil Hannon’s baroque reading of Life on Mars?

  16. Michael says:

    Bowie’s narration is also broken when he takes on Johnny’s voice for the “can’t you even cook, what’s the use of me working when you can’t damn cook” line.

  17. BenJ says:

    Bowie’s deliberately flat, terse narration in this song reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s story “Knox.” Sample passage:

    Charlie Knox is a man who.
    Refuses to ask the necessary questions.
    And even if he could, he wouldn’t. But he can’t.

    I don’t know if Bowie ever read the story or if it’s just a bit of tonal sympathy.

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