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.”