Boys Keep Swinging

July 27, 2011

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.

Look Back In Anger

July 22, 2011

Look Back In Anger.
Look Back In Anger (Visconti 2017 remix).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1983).
Look Back In Anger (remake, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (broadcast, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1995).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1996).
Look Back In Anger (live, 2002).

“Look Back In Anger” reflects Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; each is the clouded mirror of the other. Like “Man,” “Anger” is the record of a visitation, one that, in “Anger”‘s case, ends with a death (or at least a proposed one). If Lodger and Scary Monsters are Bowie finally considering the prospect of decline and tearing himself up, sampling and dispersing himself, “Look Back In Anger” is at the heart of these records. It’s a dry, weird farewell to a muse, decades before Bowie (apparently) stopped recording and performing.

Bowie had written the lyric of “Man Who Sold the World” as he sat in a studio reception room, under pressure to get a vocal on tape so the album would be finished. With no time to second guess or overwrite, Bowie seemed to transcribe lines straight out of mind: it was a pop lyric as dream journal. Writing “Man” triggered something, it freed Bowie from the stiltedness and strain of much of his late ’60s work, and reconnected him to what he had first touched with “Space Oddity.” It was, in retrospect, the start of Bowie’s mature songwriting—in the months after he wrote “Man” suddenly came “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” “Life on Mars,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Moonage Daydream.” “Man” was the key that fit the lock.

So on the far end of a decade that Bowie, in part, had authored was “Anger,” which sets the stage for the even grander renunciation of “Ashes to Ashes.” In “Man” the singer passes someone on the stair. They’ve already met, or they will one day. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” the other marvels. “Look Back in Anger” is, perhaps, when he died; it’s the same encounter, as seen from another perspective; it’s the second meeting of the two at a later time. It’s funny, too: an archangel appears and no one pays him any mind. So he flicks through a magazine and waits, bored, for whatever cataclysm he’s come to presage or deliver.

Bowie’s best lyrics can seem like fragments of overheard conversations with himself. The verse and refrain of “Anger” are some of the strangest, though they’re in simple and clear language:

“You know who I am,” he said.
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings, closed his eyes and moved his lips.
“It’s time we should be going.”

It’s recitative: no rhymes, no rhythms, a disjunct melody. The pacing is also off: there’s a two-bar gap between the first and second lines, enough time to make you wonder if “you know who I am” is the only line in the verse, then there’s a sudden tumble of words. Bowie’s performance hangs between the sublime and the ludicrous. As with “Station to Station,” Bowie is the only rock singer who could sing lines like these with a straight face and not, somehow, seem like a buffoon. He sounds like he’s trying to do the voice of Yahweh, then croaks out “angel” (an echo back to “Golden Years”) and “going.”

The eight-bar refrain is a statement: Bowie placed it within quotation marks on the LP lyric sheet. But who says it? Only the angel has spoken so far. If the chorus is his, then the refrain commands the singer to assess the ruins of his life before departing it. Look back in anger—see how much you’ve wasted, look what never came to be. But the refrain could equally be the narrator’s fervent response, the words of someone who’s long awaited death, who seems to have craved it since birth. The title phrase becomes a dark joke, a dying man indignant at ever having been alive.*

Fittingly, the refrain’s a duet. Tony Visconti’s backing vocals open the chorus: plaintive, narrow in range, sounding like John Lennon’s sped-up backing vocals on Sgt. Pepper tracks like “She’s Leaving Home.” Then in the fourth bar Bowie sweeps on stage, almost an octave higher than Visconti. Bowie’s part is a long fall to earth. He sings the title line as a descending triplet (“look-back-in“, G#-F#-E) then strangles out “anger,” which again falls over three notes; he breaks the pattern with the upward push of “driven by the” (or “see it in my“) that sags on its last note (“night” or “eyes”), and he ends the chorus with another descending triplet, now an octave lower than his arrival (“till-you-come“), coming to a stop on the root note, F#.

That’s all the song is, really, barring the four-bar bridge (“no one seemed to hear him“) that passes in a flash, and Carlos Alomar’s 16-bar guitar solo (see below). “Anger,” in E major, follows a basic progression of E/D/A/F#m/C/G, used for both verse and chorus, while the bridge is simply the last two chords of the sequence severed from the original progression.

“Anger,” cerebral and odd, could’ve expired on the heights but it’s invigorated by a strong, propulsive rhythm track—Sean Mayes pounding the bass end of his piano, Alomar’s guitar darting and jabbing around Dennis Davis’ drumming (George Murray’s bass seems to have gone missing, though, a victim of one of the muddier mixes on the album).

When Bowie asked him for a guitar break to fill a chorus, Alomar, weary of the lead guitar acrobatics that defined much of Bowie’s’70s records, instead thought “if I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo,” as he told David Buckley, adding that his inspiration was Lennon’s rhythm work on Beatles’ records. Another influence or, more directly, challenge was Nile Rodgers, who by late ’78 was making his name with Chic. Alomar and Rodgers were the same age and had been friends as teenagers in New York, and both had cut their teeth in session work and journeyman R&B bands. Rodgers’ guitar style—building riffs out of a set of syncopated chords with shortened tones, as he tended to only strum three strings at a time (see here)—echoed Alomar’s, and “Anger” can seem like Alomar translating Rodgers, or going him one better: Alomar’s solo is a volley between two contrasted, but fairly similar, lightning-fast riffs. Again, a pairing in a song full of them.

Davis doesn’t drive the track as much as he ferments it: ringing the bell on his ride cymbal throughout, playing a rolling fill that matches Bowie’s sudden run of words. He annexes whatever spaces he finds open, using every type of fill imaginable, hi-hat, snare, toms. Davis kicks off the track a beat before the rest of the band, similar to how he had punched in “What in the World.”

Eno’s contributions are smears of sound, giving the track an ominous, gauzy backdrop. Sifting through Mountain Studios’ brass collection, Eno had found a huntsman’s horn (called “horse trumpet” on the sleeve) and a French horn that he renamed the “Eroica horn,” referencing the horn’s prominence in Beethoven’s 3rd.** Each horn is so processed and distorted they could as well be guitars or synthesizers. There’s also a theremin (a real one, or a simulation?), first appearing at 2:30 in the video linked above, just after the final refrain ends.

Bowie and David Mallet filmed a promo for the song in 1979, where Bowie, in an artist’s loft, paints himself as an angel and then, reverse-Dorian Gray style, transforms into a grotesque with paint- and clay-encrusted skin. In the final shot, Bowie drags himself up the stairs and crawls under his bed. It’s as though he’s been made leprous by his art, and he’s sickened by himself.

It’s one resolution, at least—the song itself offers none. The narrative just stops, as there’s no second verse after the bridge where the angel, bored, seemed indifferent to how the encounter played out. Bowie’s singing, however, adds a last piece of drama, as the final refrain finds him breaking the descending vocal pattern, instead willing himself to push upward: look BACK in AN-ger! Feel it in my VOICE! with the final “till you come” a slow, final surrender.

“Anger,” one of Bowie’s major songs of the late ’70s, never got the attention it merited, so it’s similar to “Man Who Sold the World” in that regard (though it never had a revival like Nirvana gave the latter). Released as a single only in the US and Canada, it went nowhere.

Bowie went back to it in 1988, revising “Anger” for a series of concerts and, soon afterward, he cut a new version of the song, extending it over seven minutes. The attempt seems to have been to make the song more epic but it just seems longer, with Bowie not altering the vocal line in any substantive way, leaving Erdal Kizilcay on drums and bass to add some flash, though his metronomic drumming suffers when compared with Davis’ exuberant performance. The revised “Anger” is also the first appearance on a Bowie record of Reeves Gabrels, and it previews Gabrels’ work with Bowie over the next decade—Gabrels offers a mix of go-for-broke adventurism and a lack of restraint.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single in the US and Canada in August 1979 (RCA PB 11724, c/w “Repetition,” didn’t chart). The 1988 studio remake first appeared on the Ryko CD issue of Lodger in 1991; it’s currently out of print. Played during the 1983 tour, in 1988, the mid-’90s tours and in 2002, including a BBC Radio 2 special on 18 September 2002 (eventually issued on An Evening With David Bowie).

* Of course the title is also referencing John Osbourne‘s classic 1957 play, though as one commenter said, the lyric of “Repetition” is far more a reference to Osbourne’s work than “Anger” is.

** Especially the French horn’s “mistaken” early theme recapitulation in the first movement (around 5:40 in Bernstein’s performance of it here).

Top: Alan Denney, “Michael Ferreira Funeral,” Stoke Newington, December 1978.

Fantastic Voyage

July 6, 2011

Fantastic Voyage.
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2003).
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2004).
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2006).

David Bowie will likely never tour again, may never even sing live again. If so, the last song that he ever performed on stage was “Fantastic Voyage,” a neglected song from a neglected record. It’s a fitting choice. “Fantastic Voyage,” though sequenced as Lodger‘s lead-off track, could have easily served as its closer, and it also works as Bowie’s final statement, a cranky humanist manifesto.

In “Voyage” there’s a striking change of tone from the other Berlin records or Station to Station: Bowie’s no longer at a remove. He’s on the ground, restored to humanity, admitting his powerlessness, reduced to observing and making asides. He sounds both warmer (the slow, generous phrasing of the opening lines) and less calculating; he lets scattered, volatile emotions overrun his song.

Bowie had once seemed to welcome the apocalypse, as it held the potential for transformation. Now in “Fantastic Voyage” he seems older and generally pissed off (“think of us as fatherless scum“), with such delusions drummed out of him. He’s grasped a peasant realism: we are largely governed by killers and fools, our lives hang on their arbitrary mercies.

What apparently roused Bowie out of himself was the renewed threat of nuclear war (’79, the year of Afghanistan, was in retrospect the start of the final innings of Cold War madness—the MX missiles, Reagan’s “we begin bombing in five minutes” joke, the Korean airliner downing, etc.) So “Fantastic Voyage” was the harbinger of the run of early ’80s Cold War answer records, youth against homicidal statesmen: The Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day,” XTC’s “Living Through Another Cuba,” Prince’s “1999,” the Fixx’s “Stand or Fall,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” Even “99 Luftballoons.”*

Bowie’s lyric is ironic from its opening lines: “We never get old” is normally a lovers’ wish in a song, but here it’s the fact that we might die, horribly, en masse. There’s something akilter in Bowie’s singing as well—the formality, even stilted delivery, of certain lines (“dig-ni-ty is val-u-a-ble“). As the song builds it sways from resignation to anger to resignation, never losing its sense of absurdity. It’s a criminal world, it’s a very modern world.** The backing vocals (Bowie and Tony Visconti) try to rouse the singer (“They wipe out an entire race! It won’t be forgotten!”) but all he can do in the end is write a few lines down, make a pop song out of it.

And an odd pop song at that (while it’s in the same key and uses nearly the same chord sequence as “Boys Keep Swinging,” the latter seems much more conventional). While “Voyage” is basically two verses and two choruses, the verses barely scan and hardly rhyme, while the chorus soon goes off the rails. Bowie begins with a bouncy refrain (“We’re—/learning to live with somebody’s depression”) but then seems to give up, repeating the line and making it a dry joke, then meandering, discarding the opening melody while the song stalls, harmonically: the band stays on an A major chord for the rest of the chorus. Bowie and the backing vocals overlap, spur each other on, until a final release of tension—the piano, bass and drums speeding up while Bowie, after a slow ascent of nearly an octave, holds the last note for two bars.

The song is held together by Sean Mayes’ piano and George Murray’s bass: Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis’ drums (whose fills are often panned right to left) are supporting players. “Voyage” has a three-mandolin arrangement that Visconti wrote one night over a bottle of Tequila (Bowie had to send his driver around Montreux looking for mandolins to borrow). The mandolins, played by Visconti, House and Adrian Belew, were each tracked three times, making nine mandolins in all. Perversely (deliberately?) the final arrangement is all but buried in the mix, its intricacies only audible in headphones.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as the B-side of its twin song “Boys Keep Swinging” in April 1979. Played during Bowie’s tours of 2003-2004 and in the final (to date) Bowie performance at the Black Ball in NYC on 9 November 2006. (I believe a duet with Alicia Keys on “Changes” was the last song Bowie did.)

* It seemed for a moment that the world was unraveling in 1979. Two great calypso records of the following year—Mighty Sparrow’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Explainer’s “Table Turning“—document the near-simultaneous falls, by coup or assassination, of Idi Amin, Park Chung-Hee in South Korea, Eric Gairy in Grenada, Bokassa in the CAE, the Shah, Somoza in Nicaragua. Explainer: The table turning, sir/Now the oppressor/is the oppressed one. Yet there was no sense that the new rulers would be any better. Sparrow: The Shah have a short time to live/Because the Ayotollah don’t forgive/When you see church ruling state/with pure vengeance and hate/situation must be explosive!

** “Criminal World” was a 1977 single by Metro that Bowie would cover on Let’s Dance, so it’s possible he’s already name-checking it here.

Top: John le Carré and Alec Guinness on the set of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979.

Off to the UK, so that’s all for a while. Other potential summer reading: some of my old thoughts on three fine songs: “After You’ve Gone,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Body and Soul.”

Red Money

July 1, 2011

Red Money.

The last track on Bowie’s last record of the Seventies, “Red Money” is freighted with symbolism, so much that it seems like a snare Bowie laid for would-be interpreters. It’s obviously (way too obviously) Bowie closing down the Eno, Iggy Pop and Berlin era, coming full circle by recycling the music of “Sister Midnight,” the opening track on Pop’s The Idiot (and so the first piece of music from the era), while in “Red Money”‘s refrain he sings “project cancelled!”

Uncut asked Bowie in 2001 about whether this indicated “the curtain being drawn on the Eno triptych.” Bowie replied, “Not at all. Mere whimsy.” (Tony Visconti, asked the same question, said he had no idea. “Ask David.“)

One should never underestimate how much of Bowie’s seemingly calculated moves were mere whimsy. Still “Red Money” fits with the themes Bowie was developing in Lodger, and which would further play out in Scary Monsters—fears of being reduced to an influence, impending obsolescence, a weariness with songwriting and performing, a broadening of perspective beyond the hermetic theater of the mind to (possibly) the greater world. “I am what I play,” Bowie sang in “D.J.”: “Red Money” is, literally, Bowie covering himself, making a palimpsest of a track, erasing Iggy Pop from the song that Bowie gave him.

“Sister Midnight” was a summoning, “Red Money” is a dismissal. Pop had coolly invoked the muse, raged into an Oedipal dream. Bowie offers men “who aren’t men” stranded in diseased, surreal landscapes, collecting blood money, aborting their missions. Bowie once told an interviewer the image of “the small red box” (“I couldn’t give it away/and I knew I must not drop it”) symbolized responsibility for him, with “Red Money” being in part Bowie’s resignation letter. Still, that could have been yet another red herring.

Visconti said that none of the Alomar/Murray/Davis band recut their performances for “Red Money,” so the reworking is essentially a Bowie solo track, with Bowie (and likely Adrian Belew) responsible for the new guitar dubs and the clattering electronic percussion. Bowie sings the title line in four-part harmony with himself, closes the decade down by singing “it’s up to you and me,” his voice drowning in guitars.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC.

Top: Lalla Ward regards her future ex-husband with faint amusement, Paris, 1979.

Impending break

I’ll be on vacation for much of July, heading off to Scotland and London. It’s a good time for it, as I need a break from this beast; I had intended to finish Lodger before I left, but what can you do. So after the next entry (coming early next week), there won’t be any new posts until July 20 or so. See everyone then.


June 28, 2011

D.J. (live, 1995).

The disc jockey created rock & roll, or so it seemed to the kids; he unearthed it, cast it out into the air. So the first rock & roll songs celebrated DJs, courted them (their labels were content to bribe them). “Roll Over Beethoven” opens with “I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local deejay,” which Chuck Berry delivers as one percussive line, releasing all the tension on “deejay.” Sam Cooke in “Having a Party” is cooler, making a few requests, acknowledging the DJ as part of the party. DJs were absent lovers, accidental liberators.

For the punks, though, the DJ was a stooge, a coward, a philistine. Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” was the prosecutor’s brief: the DJ is a bought fool, the radio is as barren as they want to make your life. Rappers, frustrated by only the blandest hip-hop getting airplay (Public Enemy: “Radio stations, I question their blackness/they call themselves black but we’ll see if they play this!”), kept up the charge. Time, consolidation and technology did the rest, turning the DJ into an interchangeable cog, then an archaism.*

Bowie’s “D.J” comes during the transition. The DJ here is an unemployed shut-in whose girl’s left him (she’s out dancing—what’s it matter, he says) yet he still has listeners who believe in him. It might not be true—he may have lost his job as a DJ, and now he’s just spinning records at home—but it’s all he’s got. It’s the deflating of a once-public figure, Dan Dare lying down. He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer.

Ian Mathers, in his 2004 revisit to Lodger, made a good point that “DJ” is neither celebrating DJ culture nor condemning it, the music and the activity is merely a framework to hang the song upon. “DJ” is a horror story about a human being reduced to nothing more than work.” Still, I wouldn’t go that far: “D.J.” (“David Jones” too, of course) is also a man defined by his records wondering if he’s been reduced to them. If all you are is what you play, when you play dross and nonsense, what does that make you? It’s the idle thoughts of a man whose life has played out in a series of LP cover photographs, the most recent of which found him battered and thrashed on the ground, as if he’d been mugged in a public bathroom.

Bowie’s promo video for the song, directed by David Mallet, seems to offer a way out, with shots of Bowie as studio exile, alone with his records, intercut with Bowie suddenly in the public, walking alone through Earl’s Court Road. Men and women kiss him, he dances with strangers, he seems alive and amazingly fragile. There’s an electricity to these shots and a sense of menace (the man who confronts him at 1:09 looks like he’s asking for his wallet)—this is a year before John Lennon was shot. The video ends with Bowie pulling down the blinds (a tribute to the end of Lean’s Great Expectations) of his cave and escaping, but Bowie in the crowd can seem just as isolated, his face occasionally becoming a mask.**

While “D.J.” was released as Lodger‘s second single, it doesn’t seem like a hit, as it’s an odd A minor composition that seems self-sabotaged in places. It barely charted. While George Murray is hell-bent on turning it into a disco song, with a propulsive, popping bassline (Blur’s “Girls and Boys” starts here), Dennis Davis’ drums are sunk in the mix and Carlos Alomar offers yet another catchy riff demoted to a supporting role. Simon House’s violin crops up, mimicking Bowie’s vocal in the first verse, while Bowie’s Chamberlin sometimes duets with the violin, then replaces it. It features another of Adrian Belew’s forced improvisation guitar solos (see “Red Sails”) that was cobbled together from various takes. The result, as Belew later said, sounds like you’re scanning the radio and picking up pieces of guitar solos here and there along the dial.

All seems to be going to plan—there’s a verse, a catchy chorus, a verse, a guitar solo. Then, instead of riding things out with repeats of the chorus, Bowie suddenly throws in a 16-bar coda to derail it: the chorus never returns. It’s as much a joke (Bowie sings “time flies when you’re having fun” as slowly as he can, filling four bars with it) as it’s disturbing; it’s the final collapse of the DJ figure, who’s reduced to chanting “I’ve got believers.” As the track fades out, the backing singers emphasize the last two syllables: leave us, leave us.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. Released as a single in June 1979 (RCA BOW 3 c/w “Repetition”, UK #29). Performed only during the 1995 tour.

* The very ’90s movie Pump Up the Volume seems like the last time a DJ (in this case Christian Slater’s shock jock in the making) was any sort of radical figure.

** “D.J.”‘s promo film also helped establish a cardinal rule of early MTV: at some point in a video, glass must be broken.

Top: John Blower, “London, 1979.”


June 23, 2011

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.

Red Sails

June 20, 2011

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.”


June 16, 2011


“Yassassin” is a motley of alleged Turkish music, reggae and funk. The funk is kept at a distance; it’s courtesy of George Murray, who plays a crafty bassline that front-loads each bar, leaving spaces for the chorus singers to fill. The song itself is simply a vamp between E7 and F7, similar to “Fame,” whose opening riff turns up in fragments here.

The reggae took more work, as Murray, Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis weren’t familiar with it (no surprise, as reggae was far more popular in the ’70s with white British musicians than it was with black American musicians). So it’s actually Tony Visconti playing the standard “Jamaican ‘up-chop’ rhythm guitar” throughout the track. Visconti also said he and Bowie had to coach Davis in how to play reggae, putting the kick drum, rather than the typical snare, on the second and fourth beats.*

Bowie, inspired by the Turkish workers that he had seen in Neuköln (Bowie saw “yassassin,” a phrase meaning “long life,” scribbled on a wall), set his lyric from the point of view of a migrant worker from the provinces (he’s still got vitality, walking “proud and lustful” though his woman is “afeared”). The worker’s trying to keep his head down, avoiding confrontation. He’s quietly full of scorn for his adopted land of sun and steel, but he accepts that it’s his future, the only life he’s going to have. The main “Turkish” strands in “Yassassin” are Alomar’s game attempts at imitating a bouzouki, Simon House’s violin (House mainly does fills in the verses, bridges verses and choruses with a few bars, then gets the outro to play out) and the proud and lustful chorus refrain, sung by everyone in the studio, which opens with an octave jump (“Yas-SAS-in”) and then compresses, in its third and fourth repeats, to a seventh, then a fifth interval. It’s a deflating pride, a grudging compromise.

While Bowie’s vocal seems inspired by Arabic singers in places (he gamely tries to ululate on “resonant world” in the first verse), on the whole it’s as abstracted and stylized a vocal as “African Night Flight.” The rhythms are exacting and controlled, from Bowie’s staggered phrasing in the chorus (each phrase starting on one note (“I’m not a”) and then slightly expanding in range (“MOO-dy guy”)) to the undertow of his later verses (“if there’s someone in charrge, then listen to meeee“) that’s deepened by House’s violin. Still, any search for authenticity here is pointless, as “Yassassin” owes as much to Bowie’s Fiddler On the Roof-esque “Revolutionary Song” as it does any actual Turkish music. It’s a hothouse plant.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. An edited version was released as a single in July 1979 in Turkey and Holland (it’s not clear what the Turks made of it). While Bowie said he was considering reviving “Yassassin” for his Outside tour in 1995, it remains yet another Lodger song never performed live.

* A story to take with a grain of salt: Davis had been playing Bowie’s reggae version of “What In the World” throughout the 1978 tour without any apparent difficulty.

Top: The Thatchers prepare to move house. Soon Mrs. T. will introduce herself to the new neighborhood: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth…,” 4 May 1979.

African Night Flight

June 13, 2011

African Night Flight.

Leaving Antibes by air, I calmly light another cigarette in an Air France jet, and let another bright and glorious day alleviate a constant gnawing anxiety I have about landing in Africa.

Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa, 1974.

Brian Eno, in Bowie’s “Berlin” records, served as something like “fifth business,” a phrase that the novelist Robertson Davies coined to describe a stage role that was “neither hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which [was] none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement.” On Low‘s first side, for instance, Eno was a provoker and random accompanist, throwing in a whirring synth line, suggesting a fractured melody or left-field production choice. Only on the instrumental sides of Low and “Heroes” was Eno a direct collaborator with Bowie, writing vocal and melody lines, designing arrangements.

Lodger, which would be Eno’s last work with Bowie for nearly two decades, found Eno in a more confrontational mood. There were signs of strain: Bowie, as usual, was tiring of a collaborator while Eno also recognized that the partnership had run its course. He had the Talking Heads to experiment with now, while Before and After Science had marked the end of his interest in “standard” rock songs. Eno tellingly didn’t show up for Lodger‘s overdub/vocal sessions, where he typically would have done much of his work.

Still, with Bowie, Eno staked a great deal in his last throw. He tried to undermine what had been the basis of Bowie’s album-making process since Young Americans: Bowie and his band first jamming in the studio and getting basic rhythm tracks down on tape, with Bowie giving his musicians great leeway in coming up with riffs, grooves, basslines. Eno wanted to shake this up. Before the jams began, he had musicians draw Oblique Strategies cards (one led to players swapping roles on “Boys Keep Swinging”); he wrote eight of his “favorite” chords on a chalkboard, then had everyone play whatever chord he indicated with a pointer. Bowie’s band spent nearly a day on a random-chord jam session that yielded nothing of use.

While Bowie supported what he later called Eno’s “art pranks,” he freely admitted that they were alienating. It didn’t help that in Mountain Studios the control room was on a different floor; Bowie, Eno and Tony Visconti could monitor the musicians via closed-circuit TV cameras, but the musicians couldn’t see them. It made the likes of Carlos Alomar feel like lab subjects.

“African Night Flight,” an odd song lacking any type of chord structure and with a run of sound effects and chants in place of hooks, is one of Lodger‘s most Eno-influenced tracks. It seems like a test run for Eno’s work on the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and his and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. For “Night Flight,” Eno provided what the LP sleeve termed “cricket menace” (“little crickety sounds that Brian produced from a combination of my drum machine and his ‘briefcase’ synth,” Bowie said in 2001). A John Cage-inspired prepared piano, with Eno placing scissors and other metal objects on and between the piano strings, tolls through the track.

“Night Flight” isn’t as much a song as it is a few strands twined together. There’s a 12-bar “verse” of sorts, where Bowie raps out a word-choked lyric, a four-bar bridge (“his burning eye will see me through”) and two refrains: a  Western chant, “seemed like another day I could fly/into the eye of God on high” and an “African” one, “asanti habari habari/asanti nabana nabana” (this seems to be a melange of African tongues (“habari” is a “greeting between peers” in Kiswahili) and nonsense words (“nabana”)). The track’s rhythm base is a brutalized version of the Dale Hawkins ’50s hit “Suzy Q” played backwards.

Bowie’s vocal has to hold the whole mess together. Bowie’s phrasing is chaotic in the opening verse, where each sung bar has a different melody and stress pattern, while he has a more consistent phrasing in the second, with Bowie dipping (hitting a low F-sharp) in the center of each line (so “mood-FOR,” “take-OFF,” “slum-BER,” steel-LY”) and eventually establishing a rhythm that becomes the refrain: “valuable loved one LEFT UNNAMED” scans the same as “seems like another day I COULD FLY.” (Any attempted coherence in the second verse is threatened by increasingly wild, hollered vocal overdubs.)

The lyric’s primary inspiration came from two trips Bowie had made to Kenya in late 1978 and early 1979. In Mombasa Bowie had found a band of German pilots drinking in the bars.* These expatriates, some of whom were WWII-era Luftwaffe veterans, fascinated him, as they were aliens in (to Bowie) an alien environment, their lives an extended present tense, their histories unknown, as were their purposes. They would fly their Cessnas out into the bush for various reasons—smuggling contraband, arming rebels, killing rebels—and would get drunk in the meantime. “Night Flight” seems in part from their perspective, with memories of the West mingling with scattershot “African” imagery.

Whether “African Night Flight” works depends on your taste for experimentation, as the track seems intended to irritate as much as anything. I’ve been fascinated by it as often as I’ve jumped the needle over it. One of the last avant-garde Bowie/Eno collaborations, “Night Flight” can’t escape feeling like an advanced compositional exercise undertaken by two gifted students; it’s an “African” song that owes more to experimental novels like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa** than it does to actual Kenyan music.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. Never performed live.

* German pilots remain in East Africa today. A group of flyers based in Mombasa flew missions into Somalia during the war in 1992 (“The young, blond lieutenant of classic German looks, and his 45 fellow airmen of Air Transport Wing 63, based in Hohn, Germany, also have brought along a set of porcelain dinnerware, stainless steel coolers to keep their fruit juices well chilled and cases of German beer.”), while in 2002 German pilots were running al Qaeda surveillance operations out of Mombasa.

** Alphabetical Africa consists of 52 chapters: the first and last are “A,” the second and 51st are “B,” and so on. Abish‘s parameters are that each chapter can only contain words that either begin with the chapter title letter or with letters that have come before it. So the novel begins: Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes and Alva, allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement. At the book’s midpoint, the two “Z” chapters, the entire English language is available. After that, chapter by chapter, the letters disappear in reverse order, with language and narrative disintegrating in turn.

Top: John Atherton, “Children, Tourist and a Traditional-Style House at a Reconstructed Zulu Village,” South Africa, 1979.

Move On

June 8, 2011

Move On.

Lodger is the last and arguably the most neglected of Bowie’s ’70s records. “A certified nonclassic,” Robert Christgau once called it. Bowie and Tony Visconti both have said they regret how it was recorded and mixed, while its performers, like Carlos Alomar, have described its production as being frustrating at times, with Brian Eno’s attempts to upend the sessions more irritating than inspiring.

Lodger‘s forcible inclusion in a so-called trilogy with Low and “Heroes” hasn’t helped its reputation,* as it has little in common with those records and so winds up being the Godfather III of the lot. While its cast of characters—Visconti, Eno, Alomar & crew—is mostly the same as the other “Berlin” records, Lodger mainly was recorded in a cramped, overheated studio in Switzerland, rather than in a haunted French castle or in walking distance of the Berlin Wall. And where “Heroes” and Low had been cut fast, in under two months, Lodger was a more leisurely affair: the backing tracks were cut in September 1978, while vocals and overdubs weren’t finished until March of the following year.

However, considered on its own terms, as a transition LP overflowing with ideas, some fine, some kooky, Lodger has its rewards; the songwriting is still inspired, the playing is strong and there’s a sense of what-the-hell adventurism to it all—“African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” are some of the weirdest things Bowie had ever recorded. And beneath the official narrative of the record, of Bowie as world traveler, sampling various “ethnic” musics with little vérité (it’s the sort of album where the white musicians had to teach the black ones how to play reggae), lies a more acute one: when you become an influence, does that make you obsolete?

Lodger is Bowie, at age 32, trying to come to terms with being “David Bowie,” inspiration to a horde of new bands. There’s a line from Updike’s Rabbit, Run that applies: the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up. Bowie, touring throughout 1978 and sampling the new scenes in London and New York, could see the kids coming, and it unnerved him as much as it flattered him. His past was being disassembled and used for parts: the Cuddly Toys took Ziggy Stardust, as did Bauhaus, who also drew from Man Who Sold the World; the soon-to-form Duran Duran would feast on Young Americans, while Gary Numan seemed to have stolen a set of “Heroes” outtakes. (Numan in particular rubbed Bowie the wrong way, with Bowie allegedly having Numan kicked off a TV show that the two were slated to appear on together).

Bowie’s reaction was inspired: if he was fated to be an influence, then he would draw upon himself as well. He would take his share of the Bowie estate and reinvest it. Jon Savage called Lodger “self-plagiarism,” but it’s more Bowie self-sampling (“I am a DJ, I am what I play“), rewriting old lines, recasting players. So Bowie reused “Sister Midnight”‘s backing track, sang over the vocal chorus of “All the Young Dudes” played backwards, made three different songs out of the same chord progression. He camped up his recent inspirations (“Red Sails” is Neu! on holiday), slipped out a latter-day glam anthem while no one was looking. He even called a song “Repetition.”

“Move On” is a travelogue whose lyric was inspired by Bowie’s recent journeys to Kenya (on vacation with his son), Japan and Australia; it’s also a record of a man fearful of being trapped in the past and, more pressingly, himself and so he pushes onward, without a plan, and with only vague fantasies to guide him. “Feeling like a shadow, drifting like a leaf,” Bowie sings as the song winds out; a new territory exacts a harsh cost.

The song, in D major, consists of a verse, two choruses and a bridge, along with a hybrid instrumental section that’s half a verse plus a full chorus (a quick A-C-G progression usually serves as the scene-changer). The 18-bar verse, which opens the song, is restrained in tone, with Bowie keeping to a three-note range at first and always closing phrases on the root note, D (on “feel,” “move,” “train”, etc.). Carlos Alomar plays a simple riff that fills each vocal pause, while Dennis Davis provides a rumbling counterpoint on toms (he keeps the pattern going throughout the track), with fills at the verse’s midpoint and close.

A working title for Lodger was Planned Accidents; “Move On” was an inspired one. Bowie had been sitting listening to some old tapes and accidentally played “All the Young Dudes” backwards. He was taken by the odd, strangled melody that resulted, and had Alomar write out the “inverted” chord changes and had the band learn to play it. Then Bowie crafted a vocal that would push against the new flow. Visconti, in his autobiography, described its recording: David and I flipped the new version’s tape over and played it backwards, and sang the melody of “All the Young Dudes” forwards—I know I’ve lost most of you—and that became “Move On.”

So Bowie’s vocal, which is caged in the verse, meanders through the choruses (which, starting with “somewhere someone’s calling me,” is the inverted chord sequence of C/F/G/A minor/D/B minor)—he sings the vocal over seven phrases, each of which differs in length and in notes. The bridge (“Africa is sleepy people”) is equally roaming and random, with a lyric lacking rhymes and which scans oddly. It suggests a song that’s gone out of phase, with bars of 2/4 time (on “matted” and “place like”) further unsettling things. George Murray’s bass, kept low in the mix, is the track’s secret melodist.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC; it was the B-side of “Ashes to Ashes,” September 1980. It’s never been performed live, the same as nearly half the Lodger tracks.

* Bowie, not critics, is to blame here, as he was calling Lodger part of a “triptych” soon after it was released. Eno also referred to the records as being a trilogy around the same time.

Top: Ted Bobosh, “Market Day, Western Kenya,” 1978.