"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut Ultimate Music Guide SEPTEMBER 2011 - by David Quantick
DAVID BOWIE: LODGER
Moving on: a restless, unanchored Bowie completes his Berlin trilogy, from the safety of Montreux and New York.
"In the event that this fantastic voyage / Should turn to erosion and we never get old..." That's one. Then there's, "You KNOW who I am, he said / The speaker was an angel..." And of course, "Heaven loues ya! The stars part for ya!" One more - "I'm home! Lost my job! Incurably ill!" If there's an album with more great opening lines, well, you can find it. Lodger, the Bowie record that's so underrated you can hear the wheels bringing it round to be finally overrated, is one of those great David Bowie runts - Pin Ups, Hours..., The Buddha Of Suburbia - overshadowed by both predecessor and successor, marred in some historically insignificant way, but worth returning to time and again.
Lodger was not David Bowie's biggest hit of the 1970s. Following not just the jaw-dropping Low and "Heroes" but also the water-treading Stage, it was trailed by possibly Bowie's best single that didn't do as well as it should have, Boys Keep Swinging. More of that pop of the cherry later. I remember Lodger coming out; with a ton of new wave records to buy in 1979, I finally went into Boots to get a marked- down copy in their sale. As she handed me my thin vinyl gatefold LP, the lady behind the counter said something to the effect that David Bowie had "blown it". I'm not sure if Boots staff in 1970s East Devon were given to using expressions like "blown it", but she wasn't alone in this view. After years of "art Bowie", consumers were now going, "You're a bit weird. We get it."
And then there was Boys Keep Swinging. These days Boys Keep Swinging just seems like "Classic Bowie"; a homoerotic lyric, a thumping chorus and a general air of campness which occupies the enormous middle ground between John, I'm Only Dancing and The Laughing Gnome. It's one of Bowie's occasional funny records, genuinely witty incredibly sharp and - in this case - accompanied by an almost career-ending video.
These days nobody would be offended by a short film of a man dressed as three different women, walking down a catwalk and smearing lipstick off their face. Right? We love all that nowadays! No way is pop video just a misogynist catalogue of pop stars drinking champagne and watching women in bikinis lap-dance in helicopters. But in those days, when the Boys Keep Swinging promo film - directed by David Mallet, who later sensibly just videoed real ladies - was shown on Top Of The Pops, the record went down in the charts. And famously, Tubeway Army's Are Friends Electric? went up, all the way to Number 1. It was seen at the time as a sign that Bowie was over, while his copyists were about to thrive.
So Boys Keep Swinging flopped (well, it made Number 7 but it should have gone higher), as did its brilliant, Talking Heads-imitating follow-up, D.J. ("I've got a girl out there, I suppose," sings Bowie in his best blankly strangulated David Byrne, "I think she's dancing / What do I know?"). Lodger came out to adequate chart success, the 1970s Bowie album that most people didn't own. Which is of course an enormous pity. Hailed at the time as "the third record in the Berlin trilogy" - "Berlin" here of course meaning "Switzerland" and "New York" - it featured Bowie and Brian Eno at the end of their ideas partnership until the 1990s (Bowie would later equate Eno with the pop artist Richard Hamilton, but also add in the The Buddha Of Suburbia sleeve-notes, "Brian 'he singe lik a litul gerl ha ha'" so it's not all gravy with them). Perhaps reflecting this, there is a tiredness in Tony Visconti's original production, which may also explain the sheer heft of follow-up Scary Monsters; here you long for songs like Red Money (the lyrical rewrite of Iggy Pop and Bowie's Sister Midnight ) or the later remixed Look Back In Anger to have a bit of thunder to them. Unsurprisingly, it's the unrock songs here that sound the best - the etiolated Turkish reggae of Yassassin - a song so fine that Bowie played it on his own Radio 1 Star Special that year - or the Bush Of Ghosts-preceding ethno-clutter of African Night Flight (featuring Eno's "cricket menace", a sound he's described as "musical MSG", improving every song it's used on).
Most of the band were fed up with Eno's experimentation, being asked to play chords from a blackboard like they were at school and swapping instruments on Boys Keep Swinging (it works, although some bits were redubbed). There were experiments in recycling. Move On, brilliantly, is All The Young Dudes backwards (see YouTube - keywords Move On Bowie Backwards for proof), while Fantastic Voyage echoes Bowie's My Way/Life On Mars melodic trick by having the exact same chords as Boys Keep Swinging (whose B-side it is on 45). And the vague concept of an LP about the fractured nature of Bowie's life as traveller - reflected in the album's title, as well as Move On, African Night Flight and others - rather peters out, unless D.J. is about a mobile disco.
But Lodger is a unique record, full of extraordinary songs. Fantastic Voyage is a brilliant opening track, every line of which is a slogan for the times (and "We'll get by, I suppose," is a very Bowie-esque counter to the grand emotional drama of "Heroes"). Red Sails is as camp as a row of pink tents (Pink Tents would actually be a better title, in some ways) . And then there's Repetition. Singing in his blankest, most distanced voice, Bowie describes Johnny, an embittered Eisenhower male who hits his wife because he didn't get the life he wanted. Feminist, political, and entirely in tune with the music of 1979, Repetition was almost instantly covered by post-punk band The Au Pairs and musically is partly the template for most of Bowie's 1990s music (he revisited the character of Johnny for his favourite encore song, 1996's I'm Afraid Of Americans).
Lodger's initial flaw seemed to be its lack of coherence; at a time when Bowie had released album after album cut to very specific cloths - Superstardom! The apocalypse ! Plastic soul! Liking Neu!! - Lodger's themes of alienation are a bit vague. These days, as our identities unravel and change every day, as we spread ourselves almost literally too thin on the internet and the global village becomes more like an overcrowded global swimming pool, they're spot on.
Tracks: Fantastic Voyage / African Night Flight / Move On / Yassassin / Red Sails / D.J. / Look Back In Anger / Boys Keep Swinging / Repetition / Red Money
Released: May 18, 1979
Produced by: David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Recorded at: Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland and Record Plant studios, New York
Personnel: David Bowie (vocals, backing vocals, piano, guitar, synth, Chamberlain); Carlos Alomar (guitar, drums); Dennis Davis (percussion, bass); George Murray (bass); Sean Mayes (piano); Simon House (violin, mandolin); Adrian Belew (guitar, mandolin); Tony Visconti (backing vocals, guitar, mandolin, bass); Brian Eno (synths, ambient drone, prepared piano, cricket menace, guitar treatments, horse trumpet, eroica horn, piano, backing vocals); Roger Powell (synth); Stan (saxophone)
Highest Chart Position: UK: 4 US: 20