INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo NOVEMBER 2017 - by Mark Paytress
Recorded in a concrete bunker in Montreux by an itinerant David Bowie, fleeing his past, Lodger was always the forgotten third of the 'Berlin Trilogy'.
Now, following a Dame-endorsed remix by Tony Visconti, its mercurial power has been rediscovered.
David Bowie always had a problem with Lodger. "We both felt the mix sounded thin and muddy," says producer Tony Visconti, sitting in an airy office at Warner Brothers' Kensington HQ.
"David and I always said we'd remix it one day. But like a thousand other projects, it never manifested."
In spring 2015, during a lull while the pair worked on Blackstar, Visconti picked his moment. "I'd had all the master tapes transferred when I did that mash-up for the V&A exhibition [David Bowie Is..., 2013]. So I said to David, Let me get started on this. Let's see if it's even possible..."
Over a period of two or three weeks, Visconti opened up the multitracks for the five songs on the first side of Lodger and set to work. He knew exactly where to start. "David and I were proud of our drum sound," Visconti says. "It was always the first thing we made sure we got right. So I made the toms fuller, the snare really cracking, the kick drum thumping where it should be - right out front. From there I built up each track.
"I was convinced I nailed it," he continues. "Nowadays, the EQ is so forensic that you can go in there, find anything, and bring it out."
Back in the producer's small New York studio, late spring 2015, Bowie was preparing to record some vocal overdubs. "I said, Can I play you something first?" Visconti recalls. "As soon as he heard the tom fills at the start of Fantastic Voyage, a big smile broke out on his face. Then the special effects that were never there before. The reverb on his vocal. The guitar sound. He was so happy."
The old friends sat listening to the new mixes for half an hour. Bowie gave it his blessing. "Go ahead and finish this," he said. After nearly four decades in the wilderness, Lodger, the runt of the 'Berlin Trilogy' litter, was about to come in from the cold.
Of all of Bowie's major albums, Lodger is the most troublesome, elusive and, in its own way, enigmatic. It's the one every biographer skips over, the 'Berlin' album that wasn't recorded in edgy, war-scarred Berlin at all but in a carpeted concert-and-studio complex situated between Lake Geneva, the French Alps and abundant vineyards.
"Montreux is very unsexy," says Visconti of the Swiss Riviera resort where, during August and September 1978, much of LLodger was taped. "There was nothing going on. None of the big rock stars living there, like Freddie Mercury and Rick Wakeman, hung out. Everyone had their own chateau or mansion.
"Dennis [Davis, Bowie's drummer] would always go out and jam with a local band. In Montreux, he ended up jamming with a cocktail pianist in the lobby of the hotel."
Bowie had been a Swiss resident since 1976, when he bought a twenty-room chateau in Blonay, a hillside village overlooking Lake Geneva just a short drive from Montreux. He was there for tax reasons, and to convalesce after the perilous, coke-driven existence in Los Angeles detailed in the previous piece. Mostly, he wasn't in Montreux at all. Funtime has meant Berlin, city of extremes.
There he'd mixed Low and recorded "Heroes". The latter's title track told a tale of star-crossed lovers conducting an affair beside the Wall, yet "Heroes" had been mixed at Mountain Studios, that businesslike complex in Montreux. One year on, in August 1978, the Berlin three of Bowie, Visconti and - synth in his briefcase, Oblique Strategies cards in his pocket - Brian Eno, were back. Only this time, they were there to record.
Bowie had promised a third and final part of "a triptych" - a term more familiar to art historians - ever since doing PR for "Heroes" late in 1977. But Montreux was hardly Berlin, with its mahogany interiors still stained with the darkest history. Neither was it Château d'Hérouville, the residential studio near Paris, where decayed grandeur, the ghost of Chopin stalking the corridors and a diet of rabbit and potatoes, all fed into the making of Low.
Mountain Studios was part of the Montreux Casino building, immortalised on Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water after the place burned down during a Frank Zappa concert in 1971. Reopening in 1975, the venue continued to host the Montreux Jazz Festival. More recent visitors to the studio, co-owned by US easy listening golden girl Anita Kerr, included Yes and ELP.
"It was a concrete bunker!" says Adrian Belew, lead guitarist on the sessions. "The first floor was the control room, where David, Brian and Tony would sit. They had a one-way television screen hooked up to the recording room, which was the room above, which you'd get to by walking up some concrete stairs. They could see you but you couldn't see them."
Visconti was horrified. "We'd come from [making "Heroes" in] Hansa in Berlin, where you had five musicians playing in a room meant for a hundred musicians. This place was never meant to have seven musicians! The real purpose of Mountain Studios was to record live concerts downstairs in the big hall."
Not this time. c, intended as Bowie's most ambitious project yet, was bashed into shape in an anonymous space that was barely bigger than a generous lounge. "We were dying!" says the producer. "The room was claustrophobic and the air-conditioner couldn't keep up with all the exhaling we were doing. Once we got a take, everyone scrambled for the doors. They didn't even wanna hear the playback."
Outside, everything was all Swiss cool: effortless, classy, colourless. Inside, the ersatz Alpine lodger and his team of outré rock explorers toiled in a climate more typical of the rainforest.
Once again, Bowie was on the turn. The sessions took place between the first and second legs of a massive, arena-filling world tour. After almost two years in the wilderness, on March 29, 1978, Bowie unveiled the new show at the San Diego Sports Arena. Someseventy-seven dates later, the tour was set to close in Tokyo on December 12.
Still tanned after a recent safari trip to Kenya, Bowie was upbeat for the early shows. Gone was the haughty mystique of the '76 Thin White Duke persona. His band was big and bendable. The engine-room was his regular R&B core of Carlos Alomar (guitar/musical director), Dennis Davis (drums) and George Murray (bass). They were joined by keyyboard/synth players Roger Powell and Sean Mayes, plus Simon House (electric violin) and a new young guitar virtuoso poached from Frank Zappa's band, Adrian Belew. The material was built around the sophisticated cool of the Low/"Heroes" material, spiced with a smattering of '70s hits and breaking out for a surprisingly nostalgic, crowd-pleasing batch of songs from Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie was welcomed back like rock royalty. RCA's PR campaign slogan for "Heroes" had been, "There's Old Wave. There's New Wave. And There's David Bowie..." Now, it seemed, from the fringes of rock to its chest-beating heart, Bowie was legitimate and fêted across a range of musical landscapes.
He had expanded his world in a more literal sense too, especially since breaking his no-fly rule in spring 1977 while a low-key passenger on Iggy Pop's North Atlantic Idiot tour. "He was doing his bucket list during the making of Lodger," says Visconti. "He had gone to Africa [Kenya], he was an itinerant, travelling all over the world. He was enjoying himself."
There were other, less pleasant reasons why Bowie kept on the move for much of 1978. "He was going through an acrimonious divorce," the producer continues. "Between Low and Lodger, he'd gone through five managers and all the relationships ended badly. He was in quite a state, like, 'What do I do next?'"
Bowie began the summer break from touring by spending much of his time with son Zowie ("Children are enjoyable little things," he'd recently told Lisa Robinson). When he hit the studio, Bowie did what he always did during the Berlin era. He'd discuss ideas in the control room with Visconti and Eno, and sketch out chords or sequences on guitar or piano in the studio for Carlos Alomar. The guitarist then routined these fragments with what he calls "the D.A.M. Trio" - Davis, Alomar and Murray, the rhythm section who'd worked with Bowie since 1974's Young Americans sessions. "It was a workshop," says Alomar. "David would come back after an hour and we'd already jammed up three songs. It was like giving him a Chinese menu. He'd say, 'I'll have one from Column A and two from Column B!' Then I'd put everything together into one seamless piece."
"There were no songs on the table," Visconti confirms. "There never were. The experimentation is obvious on Low, alarmingly so. On "Heroes", it's a little less obvious. We were still pushing boundaries for Lodger. But they became such pretty pop songs that you'd never think there was a point at the beginning where we didn't know what the fuck we were doing. It took a little longer to get to the stage where David wrote songs. It wasn't all that easy."
"There was always a methodology and it was this," Alomar explains. "A: Songwriting. B: Arrangement. C: Production. It's consistent on all three [Berlin] albums, though sometimes we'd get it a little mixed up. But there'd always come a time when [David, Tony and Brian] would kinda take over..."
It was a surprise endorsement and one that meant a lot to Bowie, a long-time Walker enthusiast, at a time when critical support was inconsistent. Although "Heroes" was acclaimed, Low had received a bashing when it kicked off the cycle back in January 1977. Now, eighteen months later, Bowie had a surprise of his own, too...
In the weeks before starting work on Lodger, Bowie and Eno exchanged a few ideas. The methodology, it seemed, would be an intensification of what Bowie called the "art pranks" they'd used on the previous two titles - often inspired by a card pulled from the Oblique Strategies pack. (Sense Of Doubt, on "Heroes", for example, was inspired by two conflicting cards, one stating "Emphasise differences", another suggesting to make things the same.) Naturally, the provisional album title was Planned Accidents.
Only this time, there'd be no soundscapes of the impressionistic, synthesizer-led kind that dominated the Low and "Heroes" second sides. This division had been a neat reflection of cultural juxtapositions: East/West, rock/experimental, David/Brian, pop/art. "The original plan was to record more ambient music for the B-side," Visconti says. "But David was on a roll. He didn't wanna go there."
Perhaps he'd been encouraged by Alabama Song, recorded at Visconti's Good Earth Studio in Soho on July 2, the day after the Earls Court show closed the first leg of the tour. "David wanted that to sound more like a circus," says Alomar of the hasty, tour memento session. "He didn't want a regular arrangement. So when he heard it and said it was great I was really proud." It was not a personal favourite, though. "Honestly, I think it's only great because it was twisted. But that was what he was looking for."
Alomar adds a second twist. It was, he says, "those crazy things I learned with Brian Eno, all that changing things around", that helped inspire him to create the song's fragmented arrangement. With the natural balance of the hard/soft side put out to pasture, Bowie and Eno both worked with the raw rock-based material roughed up by the D.A.M. Trio. Each night, they'd leave with a bunch of tapes, returning the next day having identified snatches of rhythms for loops and loopy ideas for song construction.
Adrian Belew arrived in Montreux around the same time as the other overdub musicians, Simon House and Sean Mayes. The D.A.M. Trio were still working up backing tracks before they returned to New York a few days later. The guitarist recalls much mirth and a unity of focus at the console.
"On my arrival, David and Brian said, 'We want you to go upstairs, put the headphones on and when you hear the drumsticks count in, start playing.' I laughed and said, Can I hear the song first? 'Nope, you don't get to hear the song first.' I said, Can you tell me what key it's in? 'Nope.'
"They just wanted my first impulsive reactions to each song. Later, they'd pick out their favourite moments and composite them together to make one guitar track." That's how the extraordinary lines and solos in Red Sails, D.J. and Boys Keep Swinging came about. "Curious way to make a record, huh?" says Belew.
It was Belew's impression that Brian Eno was "probably the prime mover, the one who was brought in to make things happen that wouldn't ordinarily happen." A couple of stray titles in Visconti's production notes from the early days of the sessions, Eno's Jungle Box and Pope Brian add weight to the theory.
With half a dozen musicians now vying for space in the upstairs studio, Eno took the 'Planned Accidents' idea to new heights o absurdity. In his posthumous memoir, Mayes remembers him writing names of chords on bits of card, pinning them to a wall then pointing at them randomly with a baton expecting the musicians to follow. This, apparently, went on for a couple of hours. It didn't go down well with the players and, says Visconti, came to nothing.
Bowie, always more visceral, had his ow ways to get what he was looking for. One day, the D.A.M. Trio were playing just too well. "Our methodology was perfection," Alomar recalls. "That was the problem. I couldn't get that lack of syncopation from George and Dennis because they were so locked. They couldn't play like fourteen-year-old kids playing in a garage would. And that's what David wanted."
Bowie stopped the band. "'You know what? This sucks! Carlos can you play drums?' I said, Hell no. He said, 'Good, play drums. Dennis, What don't you play?' I don't play bass good. 'OK, play bass.'"
The result, with George Murray on keyboards, was Boys Keep Swinging. Insistent like "Heroes", hamfisted like punk, the song was - unlike Eno's 'back to school' method - the perfectly imperfect planned accident.
Bowie and Eno's 'Boffin & King' working relationship was breaking up. The session dynamics changed. Eno later claimed that Lodger started out "extremely promisingly and quite revolutionary". Study the composer credits closely and it seems he was right. Move On, Yassassin, Repetition and Red Money, all likely recorded later in the sessions and with little or no Eno involvement, are generally less ambitious than the six that bear his name. Perhaps Bowie was deflated by the disagreements that Eno later admitted had taken place. Certainly, had Lodger been released as one of those vogueish sixsong mini-albums, it would have met a quite different reaction. "I could tell that the partnership had run its natural course on that album," Visconti confirms. "It was pretty obvious to me." But before things properly soured, Eno - who'd arrived in Montreux buoyed by his acclaimed production work with Devo and Talking Heads, two of '78s most cutting-edge bands - clearly left an indelible mark on Lodger.
"Oh, he did a lot on this album," Visconti acknowledges. African Night Flight is almost all Brian and he sings backup. And he had a lot to do with Red Sails. It was great having the three of us sing together on that."
Further co-writer credits on Boys Keep Swinging and Fantastic Voyage (one upbeat, one downbeat, both based on the same chord sequence), D.J. and the juggernaut that is Look Back In Anger, tell their own story.
Carlos Alomar reckoned Bowie had been "more subdued" than usual in Montreux. Visconti once admitted he'd had an "ominous feeling" about Lodger, adding that he felt Bowie's heart wasn't fully in it. When Bowie and Visconti reconvened, at the Record Plant, New York in March 1979, Bowie had booked one week to record all the lead vocals, a few overdubs with Adrian Belew and synth man Roger Powell (who at one point was asked to play a part "like bodies falling behind doors"), and mix everything.
If he was distracted, it was understandable. Having recently completed his world tour, and seen his latest film Just A Gigolo take a hammering from the critics, the prospect of revisiting a seven-month-old bunch of tapes, often inspired but disorderly, couldn't have filled him with joy. Every song needed lyrics and vocals. The entire album required some kind mixing-desk miracle.
"We were assigned Studio D," Visconti grumbles. The main room was booked out to Kiss. "There was absolutely no mixing equipment there, maybe two limiters, and we were on a tight deadline. It was make or break. We had to do it; we had no choice." After the hasty (and generally impressive) vocals and the hastier mix, the producer hoped the album - now titled Lodger after Roman Polanski's unsettling, paranoia-wracked 1976 film The Tenant - could be saved in mastering. Sequencing Lodger to start with Fantastic Voyage, the most despairing song on the set, the one that spoke openly of depression, was a clue. "David was tired of the journey," Alomar maintains. The sleeve, which portrayed a clapped-out Bowie on a postcard addressed to himself c/o his record company, was iconoclastic to the point of ruinous. Bowie did no meaningful interviews to promote the record. Even the title sounded lifeless. It's not difficult to see why Lodger became the album that got away.
Back in the Warner brothers office, the newly mixed and mastered Lodger has just finished playing. It's hugely impressive, like a secret gift that had been buried under the floorboards for nigh-on forty years. Visconti is smiling. Lodger is the third and final part of the Eno Trilogy rather than anthing to do with Berlin, he explains. More prosaically, he adds, "It just ended up as an album full of great songs."
The first thing you notice is the voice. "With a great singer like David Bowie, there's no point in burying the voice in the mix so, starting with Fantastic Voyage, I brought it forward and put a nicer EQ on it to give more depth and presence," says Visconti. And those nine overdubbed mandolins on this classic, always under-rated opener now sound like a string section.
The cluttered sound that bothered audiences first time round clutters no longer. For example: "The backing track for African Night Flight, with all those looped African chants and animal noises, was originally made by editing, like, six pieces of tape together. It was a terrible way to mix a track." Now, the producer says, thanks to Pro-Tools, those razorblade edits have gone. No need for a lyric shet to decipher Bowie's rapid-fire monologue on this one either.
Now crystal-clear, with super-enriched vocals and drums, Lodger 2017 also crackles with smaller enhancements. More pronounced backing vocals on Move On. More Arabic-style vocals as Yassassin fades. A vastly improved Red Sails, now sounding much closer to the Chinese propaganda song that Bowie originally intended. ("We should have sung it in Mandarin!" says the producer.)
D.J. kicks harder and Simon House's violin is more to the fore. "All the support musicians were meant to be heard," says Visconti. For Boys Keep Swinging, the producer, who'd dubbed a more stable bass part on it at the New York sessions, gives the drums more consistency, filling in some of those dropped beats. He also found some discarded backing vocals, repeated "Boys keep swinging" lines, but didn't see the point of editing them back in. Repetition remains as small and mean as a song about wife-beating was meant to be.
The album closes, poignantly, with Red Money, a rewrite of Sister Midnight, a Bowie-Pop-Alomar co-write for Iggy Pop's The Idiot and the song that ignited the Berlin venture. Visconti discovered that the master tape had stretched down the years, which occasionally slows the song down. "It's unavoidable," he says. "But with all the special effects flying around, it makes it more psychedelic."
One song still mystifies the producer. "We loved Look Back In Anger," he says. "I wanted the world to explode when he sang out loud, just like I did in Hansa for "Heroes". I've now used effects to emphasise the emotion of the lyric. But I still can't understand why our 'Waiting so long' backing vocal sounded like us at the start of the song, and like John and Paul on She's Leaving Home by the end!"
Adrian Belew has a theory. "When I first heard Lodger, I played it four or five times and thought, I don't know what I think of this. I'd had exactly the same reaction to Sgt. Pepper, so I knew it was a good thing. Both albums have such an amazing range of material. Lodger was full of all the different things Bowie could do up to that point."
So why the reluctance to sell it to the world? "I think it was to do with those times," says Carlos Alomar. "Sometimes it's better to have a more subtle whisper than a loud voice, especially when everybody else was being so damn loud."