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.