Boys Keep Swinging

Boys Keep Swinging.
Boys Keep Swinging (The Kenny Everett Show, 1979).
Boys Keep Swinging (w/ Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, Saturday Night Live, 1979).
Boys Keep Swinging (White Room, 1995).
Boys Keep Swinging (live, 1995).

“Boys Keep Swinging” is Bowie taking on the Village People, with an irony far beyond the double-entendres of “YMCA” or “In the Navy.” There’s never a knowing aside, never a line sung with a wink: Bowie sells his pitch in his “Golden Years” croon, with a joyful bellow on “luck just kissed you HELLO!” while he gives the crude line “life is a pop of the cherry” some grandeur.

The whole piece is dedicated to camaraderie, with the backing singers taking over on the refrains as Bowie’s vocal sinks into the bassline, while the lead and supporting voices collide on a line like “you’ll get your share!” Bowie’s tone is beyond detachment or parody: the lyric and performance could be an extraterrestrial’s baffled report on human gender roles. If you are a male of the species you can wear a uniform! You can buy a home of your own!

Yet “Boys” isn’t really that far apart from “In the Navy,” with its lustily-chanted chorus, its barely-hidden gay anthemic qualities, its goofy delight in the cartoon masculine. It calls back to Bowie’s early “childhood” songs (“Uncle Arthur,” “When I’m Five”) in that the lyric’s perspective seems like a boy’s cracked idea of what manhood is, with lines suggesting adulthood is like joining a Scout troop: Uncage the colors! Unfurl the flag! From there it’s an easy path to another of the song’s buried themes, which is that traditional “manhood” can resemble a fascist cult, while a dedication to the ultra-masculine echoes an obsession with “feminine” pursuits like fashion (Bowie would go further with this in “Fashion,” where being in vogue is akin to goose-stepping).*

As with “Look Back In Anger,” there’s a sense of Bowie recrossing old ground here. The “Berlin” records are relatively chaste—love and sex, when they appear at all, are compromised, violent, alienated acts. There’s nothing with the swagger of “Suffragette City” or “Queen Bitch” on the Berlin albums, certainly nothing as salacious as “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Suddenly, in the last hours of the Eno partnership, Bowie returned to the spirit of glam, though lacing it with a harsher irony than before (“Rebel Rebel,” by contrast, has an open spirit that’s missing here) and inventing the New Romantics in the process. (Bowie decision to finally release his disco remake of “John” in late 1979 may have been inspired by the success of “Boys.”)

In David Mallet’s promo film for “Boys,” Bowie appeared in drag as his three backing singers. His rubbing-the-lipstick-off gesture was a steal from Romy Haag: it was a classic finale move by drag queens (Bowie loved the “anarchic” feel of destroying makeup that had taken hours to apply). Bowie’s mimetic talent, his ability to create a character in a few gestures, are amazing in this video, as each of his three women is distinct: the brassy Sixties belter; the faded, elegant dowager (modeled on his former co-star Marlene Dietrich); and his skeletal high society vampire. The latter is especially frightening; when Bowie rips off his Rebekah Brooks wig, he looks like a demon.

“Boys Keep Swinging” was one of the last songs completed for Lodger. It had a hard birth, though Adrian Belew recalled Bowie coming up with the lyric and vocal in a week during the overdub sessions.

During early takes of the rhythm track, Bowie, frustrated by what he called a “too professional” sound (Bowie wanted to sound like “young kids in the basement [were] just discovering their instruments,” Carlos Alomar said), was inspired by one of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards (“Use Unqualified People”) and had the band switch instruments, a trick used during Lust For Life (“Fall in Love With Me”). Alomar competently played drums and Dennis Davis not-so-competently played bass, requiring Tony Visconti to redo the bassline during mixing. Visconti used the opportunity to play a hyperactive line that echoed his work on The Man Who Sold the World (it’s possibly inspired by the main riff of the Beach Boys’ “You’re So Good To Me.”). It became one of the track’s main hooks. George Murray was assigned to keyboards but was apparently erased from the final track, as he’s not credited on the LP sleeve.

“Boys” is the same chord progression as “Fantastic Voyage,”** and while at a far brisker tempo, its structure is basically the same as “Voyage”—two verses and two choruses, the latter extended while stalling, harmonically, on the A chord (starting with “we’ll get by I suppose” in “Voyage” and the last “when you’re a boy” in “Boys”). The drone in the background, led by Simon House’s violin, is, yet again, an echo of “Waiting For the Man,” here by way of “Heroes.”

Its lyric wrapped up early on, “Boys” cedes its remaining 90 seconds to a gonzo Adrian Belew guitar solo, again compiled by Visconti and Bowie from various takes (the only clue Belew was given about the song was that Alomar was playing drums). Belew recalled Bowie buttering him up during the session, saying that “Boys Keep Swinging” had wound up being a homage to Belew, as he was boyish and was a “world-is-your-oyster kind of guy,” Belew recalled in an interview with David Buckley. It’s Belew’s most inspired performance on the record, so flattery works.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single (RCA BOW 2 c/w “Fantastic Voyage,” #7, UK) in April 1979. Covered by the Associates in 1980 and Susanna Hoffs a decade later. Blur ripped “Boys” off so much on “M.O.R.” that they were forced to credit Bowie and Eno as co-songwriters.

* The chorus has a taste of the Shirelles’ “Boys,” whose cover by the Beatles is an inadvertent early gender-challenging song, with the affable croaker Ringo singing blissfully: “I’m talkin’ ’bout boys! Yeah yeah boys! What a bundle of joy!”

** Visconti has said there was a third song using this progression cut during the Lodger sessions, but it was scrapped. According to the sheet music, the two Lodger songs don’t quite have the same progression—in the verses, “Boys” has a Bb where “Voyage” has a G minor.

Top: Val Denham, ca. 1978.

38 Responses to Boys Keep Swinging

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    Great single! Very inspired all round really. Hard to believe it’s almost directly related chord wise to Fantastic Voyage. Leave it to Bowie to be totally exuberant and ironic at the same time. The video is excellent – a great way to end the seventies. Unless of course it was the remake of Space Oddity or the John remake – can’t remember and to lazy to look it up….

  2. Gnomemansland says:

    if only the whole LP had been this good – still one great track more than most of us manage….

  3. Gnomemansland says:

    on the Kenny show is there just a little bit of a Ferry piss take going on ?

  4. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Excellent track, with an incendiary solo by Adrian Belew at the end. The video works particularly well too – you can see why the ironic dismantling of tropes of masculinity would have inspired the late lamented Billy Mackenzie of The Associates to do a cheeky cover version.

    Note also the cryptic comment etched into the run-off groove of this single – “Your bicameral mind” is on the A-side, and “Mind your bicameral” on the B-Side. It’s a reference to a book that Bowie was reading at the time by the psychologist Julian Jaynes entitled “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (1976). Jaynes’ book examined how cognitive functions were divided between two separate hemispheres of the brain in prehistoric times.

    • Gnomemansland says:

      Never noticed the run out groove inscription – just been looking at ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. Really interesting stuff – thanks for highlighting this.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Another great thing about vinyl – run off groove etchings!

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I was thinking of this when the oldies were discussing the merits of vinyl but I thought I’d wait until the Boys Keep Swinging entry. You beat me to it. There were a lot of little messages around this time, but the only one I remember is ‘Mind your Bicameral’. “Your Bicameral’ was my original choice for a user name for this site but I chickened out.

  5. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    The best song on Lodger, it’s a joy to listen to. Impossible not to sing along. As to the lyrics…

    You point out the camp qualities, as well as the mockery of obsession with masculinity, but personally I think you’re missing an important element here: each of Bowie’s lines is, on some level, true. I think the key lines are those at the very beginning:

    “Heaven loves you, the clouds part for you, nothing stands in your way, when you’re a boy!”

    and the very end:

    “You’ll get your share, when you’re a boy!”

    The whole song seems to present boyhood as a prestigious but very exclusive club, which imparts tremendous benefits on those lucky enough to be allowed in. “Sow your oats, make your fortune, get a girl!”

    To me the whole lyric is a very real, very effective critique of male privilege. I’ve always seen it as a feminist song. Not sure how much Bowie was interested in or knew about feminism, but 1979 was a peak year for second wave, wasn’t it? The ERA was on its way to being passed, and that was all over the news, so maybe he’d have picked up on it. What do you think, Chris?

    • col1234 says:

      no you’re quite right–there is a very sharp, and accurate, dig at male privilege in the lyric as well (but again, viewed in the context of other things—gay culture and, IMO, the sort of neo-fascism DB will dig into further on Scary Monsters) The Susannah Hoffs cover, while it’s not great as music, is interesting as it tilts the song at a different angle when a woman sings it–there’s a sense of longing and wry bitterness.

    • Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

      Yes, I’d always read the song as being a critique of male privilege too. Not least because it is immediately followed on the album by ‘Repetition’, which comes across as a conscious attempt to show the effects of this imbalance of power from a female perspective.

    • sekaer says:

      To me what makes it so clever is that it’s like a parody within a parody, bowie projecting himself into a gay fantasia on being a straight boy, so it’s less a feminist critique of masculinity than a double edged tribute to and piss take on masculine privilege from a straight man playing tribute to and satirizing the gay subculture he was so indebted to his whole career

      • Gb says:

        Kind of late to the party, but I’m with sekaer….I feel it’s less of a call out on male privilege and more of taking a piss out of the Boy’s Club notion of masculinity….ridiculizing it more than claiming it as an absolute truth.

  6. MrBelm says:

    Belew would go on to perform “Boys Keep Swinging” with his own band, GaGa. I saw them open for the League of Gentlemen in New York (July 22, 1980, Irving Plaza), and he had his keyboard player Christy Bly sing the song for an extra dose of irony.

    In between sets at that gig, I saw Belew in the hallway talking to David Byrne. I overheard Byrne ask him if he wanted to “drop by the studio.” Yup, it was his invitation to participate in the Remain in Light sessions.

    A year later, while interviewing Belew during the tour of the reformed “Discipline” King Crimson, he mentioned that shortly after Byrne’s invitation, Fripp asked him to join King Crimson. Quite the productive evening.

  7. diamond dog says:

    One of Bowie’s best songs funny n incisive and a superb tune to boot one hell of a classic pop song. I do wonder why it was not chosen for the 83 tour ? The kenny everett appearance was very memorable and the video as clever as the song …amazing.

  8. stuartgardner says:

    Did Bowie or anyone from his camp ever respond to the fact that the line, “Other boys check you out” was censored by the network from his 15 December 1979 Saturday Night Live performance? I still find that positively incredible, all these years later. First, it’s hard to imagine a more innocuous line! It’s SO utterly inoffensive that I never even read it as gay, but as simply meaning that guys pay attention to each other since, as you put it, the song is “dedicated to camaraderie.” Second, the network wasn’t bothered in the least by the line, “Life is a pop of the cherry,” which unlike the line they struck is unambiguously sexual (and heterosexual).
    About the video’s dame with the cane, she’s always been my favorite of the three. And yes, Bowie worked with Marlene Dietrich, but is this character actually modeled after her? Because I’ve always seen her as Bette Davis.

    • I, too, have found the SNL bleeping odd- Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly were saying far more overt things on tv by this time- in the daytime, no less! I think, frankly, if it had been someone other than Bowie it would have gone through. It doesn’t help that he was backed by two well-known NYC drag queens. Still, a little over five years later SNL would get its first (and only, so far) openly gay male cast member.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Christopher, who was that?
        I expect you’re right. If anyone other than the man who had gone down on Mick Ronson’s guitar had sung that innocent little line it would have aired, but some nervous Nellie in a suit had his trigger finger hovering over the delay button.
        I still hope to one day learn how Bowie reacted on discovering that it didn’t.  I’ve wondered about that since the night those three amazing numbers first aired.
        Home video was still new then and I had no VCR, but I did have a pitiful reel to reel audio tape recorder with a microphone which plugged into it on a cord, and I had this contraption set up on my living room floor that evening with the microphone as near the television speaker as I could get it.
        A couple of friends, fellow Bowie fans, had anticipated the show all week like myself, and were over to watch it.  We all agreed to be silent while Bowie was on for the sake of my recording.
        Just as Martin Short was introducing Bowie’s first number, my cat Caldicott walked into the room and sat next to the microphone.  Everyone exchanged nervous glances
        Bowie got as far as “We passed upon…” when Caldicott meowed.  I flew off the sofa, grabbed him and flung him into the next room without a thought.  My pal Larry Carlile clapped a hand over his mouth in a failed attempt to stifle a laugh, and ran out of the room.  
        Today I have beautiful video of Bowie’s performances that night on DVD and I’ve ripped the audio to CD and mp3, but years of listening to that reel of tape cause me to hear my cat’s meow and Larry’s laugh every time.

      • col1234 says:

        Terry Sweeney. Who the notorious asshole Chevy Chase ridiculed and harassed during Chase’s week hosting SNL in ’85.

        see here:

      • stuartgardner says:

        Damn it — Of course I meant Martin Sheen, not Short, and to put a period after “Everyone exchanged nervous glances.” And now I don’t find “reply” buttons where it seems I should… WordPress is a lab experiment and I’m being secretly observed, I’m certain.
        Yeah, the dread Chase. Even as a teen I absolutely loathed the thought of that goose egg.

  9. brianwilsonscarrot says:

    beg your pardon for going slightly off topic, but where is the header pic for this entry from? very striking.

  10. brianwilsonscarrot says:

    or perhaps you cited it at the bottom of the post and i scrolled right past

    my b dawg

  11. Momus says:

    Boys Keep Swinging has a lot in common with Roxy Music’s Trash single. They’re both attempts by acts associated with the Glam early 70s to show New Wave audiences that they were able to make short, snappy, fun, boisterous, stylish and ironic singles. They seemed to be designed to show that the artists weren’t what the punks called “boring old farts”, but rather the architects of New Wave’s energy and attitude. As if to say — to an age whose slogan was “No More Heroes!” — “We’re not icons, we’re iconoclasts like you!”

    Other similarities: both singles came out early in 1979, they both premiered on the Kenny Everett Video Show (their official videos were both co-produced by the show, I think), both featured new and energetic bassists (in Bowie’s case it was his drummer, in Roxy’s a spiky-haired teenager called Gary Tibbs), both had a New Wave big beat and rather eccentric “gypsy” instrumentation (violin for Bowie, kazoo for Roxy).

    The difference is that Boys Keep Swinging was a number 7 hit; Trash barely scraped the Top 40.

    • robthomas says:

      great observations, Momus. Have you any thoughts on how 80s acts that started off edgy (Spandau, Human League, Dep Mode) quickly became pap? (i.e. an inverse version of what you describe above). thanks.

  12. Anonymous says:

    There was an article in Classic Rock mag (this year I think 2012) with Brian Robertson (ex Thin Lizzy/Wild Horses) who recalled being asked and playing on the Kenny Everett Show version of BK Swinging. Basically he was saying “how do you follow that!” of Adrian Belew’s amazing solo

  13. Leigh Walton says:

    Watch the camera placement and Bowie’s hands on the line “uncage the colors / unfurl the flag” – pretty clear what is about to be unfurled.

    • robthomas says:

      my thoughts, too. Trent D’Arby uses the same image in a dodgy ‘sex song’ on ‘The Hardline…’

  14. After watching the Kenny Everett clip (that sketch- holy cow), I would love to see a discussion one of these days on Bowie’s always-idiosyncratic dance moves.

  15. Rufus Oculus says:

    I always saw the lady with the stick as Lotte Kenya but can see Bette Davis as a better bet (pun there). Interesting that the title includes the rather archaic word swinging as in swings both ways when the song appears to be a swipe at alpha males. Perhaps a dig at those ultra males who are not always what they seem

  16. Greg says:

    I don’t think there is any doubt that bowie is doing a post-stroke Bette Davis. It’s absolutely spot-on.

  17. […] dans le clip réalisé par David Mallet, de « Boys Keep Swinging », Bowie incarne lui-même à merveille ses 3 choristes (des […]

  18. […] dans le clip réalisé par David Mallet, de « Boys Keep Swinging », Bowie incarne lui-même à merveille ses 3 choristes (des […]

  19. […] time in the gender-bending Berlin clubs: he appears as himself, but also his own back-up singers: a drag triplette of a gum-chewing beehived sixties diva, a severe and tightly-sequinned Marlene Dietrich bombshell, […]

  20. add2add6 says:

    I wish I could recall the source of the interview with David about some of the final guitar solos heard in Boys Keep Swinging being his own work. Anyone here know where that was discussed? You can kind of hear the edit over the last elongated A chord – the guitar feedback takes on a different quality and, suddenly, the notes get WAY higher and the tremolo bar is being played with a denser severity than Adrian’s usual surf/Van Halen divebomb strategies. Not to mention that the last twenty seconds of the solos have David’s melodicism to them.

  21. WYWWH says:

    RE: the song being about male privilege, I recently read an old interview from Bowie from Busted magazine where he responds to a question about the song:

    Busted: In “When You’re a Boy” you sang about the glory of being young and male. Do you think there is a similar glory to being young and female?

    DB: The glory in that song was ironic. I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of a gender.

    Busted: Is it better to be one or the other?

    DB: That is, in my opinion, an absurd question.

    He also shies away from labeling himself a feminist, but knowing Bowie, that is hardly surprising considering he ran away from labels and movements, whatever they stood for, like his house was on fire.

  22. leonoutside says:

    The wipe of the mouth, with the back of the wrist, is directly detailed by John Fowles, in Mantissa, part 2, where Dr. A Delfie’s guitar wielding satanic double ganger, screams about “instant value judgements, violent sexual prejudice. To say nothing of trying to hide behind the roles and language of a milieu to which you do not belong”…oh belt up…(echoes too of Up The Hill Backwards, at start of Glass Spider show)

  23. […] for another perspective, it’s worth reading the critique in Pushing Ahead of the Dame (not a source I’m always in sync with). Watching the video again in the light of that critique […]

  24. […] least, that’s how I always saw it before reading the critique in Pushing Ahead of the Dame. Re-watching the video in the light of that critique reminded me that Bowie was an accomplished […]

  25. […] least, that’s how I always saw it before reading the critique in Pushing Ahead of the Dame. Re-watching the video in the light of that critique reminded me that Bowie was an accomplished […]

%d bloggers like this: