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.