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Boys Keep Swinging: Behind David Bowie’s Critique Of Male Privilege
Warner Music
In Depth

Boys Keep Swinging: Behind David Bowie’s Critique Of Male Privilege

One of many David Bowie songs to challenge assumptions about gender, Boys Keep Swinging was an art-pop triumph when it was released in 1979.

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“I find it intensely offensive to see women treated as chattel or appendages,” David Bowie told his wife, Iman, when she interviewed him for Bust magazine in the year 2000. “I cannot think of a situation where a woman could not do an equal if not better job than a man.” A little over 20 years before having that conversation, Bowie had used the song Boys Keep Swinging to critique the sorts of gender bias he derided. Released as the lead single from Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger, the song was packaged as a jaunty celebration of the birthrights of the male sex – but, as anyone who paid attention soon realised, that was not its purpose at all.

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The backstory: “I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female”

At the start of the 70s, Bowie had set out to upend gender roles and sexual “norms” with an almost single-minded determination. On the front of his third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, he appeared wearing what he would term a “man’s dress”, draping himself across a chaise longue in what has gone down as one of the best David Bowie album covers of all time. For the following year’s Hunky Dory, he stared out of the rear sleeve looking for all the world like a boho Lauren Bacall. By the time he announced to Melody Maker magazine, in early 1972, “I’m gay and always have been,” he was helping to bring into the mainstream a conversation about gender fluidity that continues to this day.

As Bowie recorded Lodger, this predilection for challenging gender stereotypes found a new outlet through the art-rock experiments he was continuing to undertake with Brian Eno, with whom he’d already rewritten the rock rulebook on the Low and “Heroes” albums. The result was a little over three minutes of avant-pop titled Boys Keep Swinging – a song that Bowie told New York City radio station WNEW-FM was “ultra-chauvinist overkill” done “strictly tongue in cheek”.

The recording: “It was like a freight train coming through my mind”

Initial recording sessions for Boys Keep Swinging took place in September 1978, at Mountain Studios, in Bowie’s recently adopted hometown of Montreux, Switzerland. It was here that Bowie and his band laid down the backing tracks for Lodger’s ten songs, in a series of sessions that would produce more pop-minded material than could be found on his recent albums, without curbing his instinct for taking creative risks.

Fittingly, for an album recorded under the working title Planned Accidents, Brian Eno redeployed the Oblique Strategies cards he’d first presented to Bowie and band during the Low and “Heroes” sessions. One such card, bearing the directive “Use Unqualified People”, proved crucial to achieving Bowie’s aim of having his band play Boys Keep Swinging as if they were “young kids in the basement just discovering their instruments”.

Asking his core rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis to switch to instruments they weren’t proficient in, Bowie led the group – Alomar now on drums, Davis on bass and Murray on keyboards – through the song, with Simon House adding what producer Tony Visconti would term “mad” John Cale-like violin saws, fed through “a fierce chorus effect”.

With the basic track captured, guitarist Adrian Belew, drafted in for the Lodger sessions, was asked to add guitar to the recording. Without being allowed to hear the song beforehand, he played along as Eno pointed to specific chords on a chart affixed to the wall. “It was like a freight train coming through my mind,” Belew told Bowie biographer Paul Trynka. “I just had to cling on.” Having taught himself to play Robert Fripp’s solo on the song “Heroes” before arriving at the studio, Belew was shocked to find out that Fripp’s performance had been a composite, pieced together from three separate takes; the screaming, atonal guitar solo that Belew played through Boys Keep Swinging’s final minute and 17 seconds would also be edited together from multiple run-throughs.

While assessing the tapes in New York’s Record Plant studio, where, in March 1979, Bowie and Visconti decamped to add vocals and overdubs, the pair deemed Davis’ left-handed playing of Murray’s right-handed instrument a tad too loose, leading Visconti to replace Davis’ performance with what he would call “an over-the-top bass part… in the spirit of The Man Who Sold The World”. Murray’s keyboards would also be stripped from the mix. It was at The Record Plant that Bowie recorded his vocals, singing in a warm, triumphant voice of being born into an allegedly blessed sex: “Luck just kissed you hello/When you’re a boy.”

“This is written after you, in the spirit of you,” he later told Adrian Belew. “I think he saw me as a naïve person who just enjoyed life,” the guitarist would explain to Uncut magazine. “I was thrilled with that.”

The release: “It was a nice destructive thing to do – quite anarchistic”

Released as Lodger’s lead single, on 27 April 1979, Boys Keep Swinging was backed with Fantastic Voyage, the album’s opening cut, both songs largely sharing the same chord progression as each other. Vaulting its way to No.7 in the UK, the song gave Bowie his first Top 10 hit since Low’s Sound And Vision. Yet for anyone who missed the irony in his lyrics, Bowie ensured that Boys Keep Swinging’s visuals drove the message home.

The first of a string of innovative Bowie promo videos directed by David Mallet (Ashes To Ashes and Let’s Dance would be among those that followed), the Boys Keep Swinging clip opened with Bowie, sporting coiffed hair, suit and skinny tie – as if the new-wave cousin to his onetime Young Americans soulboy self – glorying in living a life that’s “a pop of the cherry”.

Wearing a uniform, getting a girl, being the envy of others – it all seems so easy. Yet the deadpan looks on the faces of his female backing trio upend all bravado: this isn’t the natural order of things at all. After all, that’s Bowie himself playing each of the three singers: a gum-chewing townie, a catwalk-ready fashionista and an elderly retiree with a walking stick. By the time he approaches the camera as each in turn, ripping off his wig and smearing his lipstick – or, in the case of his elderly character, blowing a disdainful kiss – the message is clear: gender isn’t preordained; it’s a construct.

“That was a well-known drag-act finale gesture which I appropriated,” Bowie said of his closing action, underscoring his commentary on gender as role-play. “I really liked the idea of screwing up make-up after all the meticulous work that had gone into it. It was a nice destructive thing to do – quite anarchistic.”

More anarchy followed when Bowie performed Boys Keep Swinging during two high-profile TV appearances. On The Kenny Everett Show, in a clip also directed by David Mallet and filmed on the same day as the song’s official promo shoot, Bowie followed his performance with a skit in which the show’s host, comedian and DJ Kenny Everett, lambasted his guest for being a “lily-livered mincer” while himself appearing dressed as a businessman whose open-backed suit revealed ladies’ lingerie underneath. For Saturday Night Live, Bowie’s head was superimposed onto a marionette’s hyperactive body, further emphasising how our physical form can be altered at will; though the network censors, fearing the queer connotations of the lyric “Other boys check you out”, muted Bowie’s vocals for that one line, they somehow missed the oversized phallus that bounced up and down over the waistband of his puppet-body’s trousers at the end of the performance.

The legacy: “I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of a gender”

As a critique on male privilege, Boys Keep Swinging arguably chimes even more with the post-#MeToo era than it did when it was released. In 2017 the song was given an overhaul by Tony Visconti, who, after discussing the idea with Bowie “many times” since Lodger’s release, had finally revisited the album’s master tapes and created an entirely new mix which he felt improved upon the one he’d been able to put together at The Record Plant, a facility he’d once described as being “not as versatile or well-equipped” as other studios of the era.

Not that Boys Keep Swinging had been lacking for admirers. Indeed, as soon as Bowie’s version hit the airwaves, the song was immediately covered by Scottish post-punk group The Associates, who used their taut, mannered version to gain some attention by causing a fracas over copyright infringement (it worked: the band scored a record deal). In 1997, Blur hijacked the song’s chorus melody and “work it out” lyric for M.O.R., from their self-titled fifth album; 13 years later, New Romantic pioneers and long-term Bowie fans Duran Duran covered the song for the Bowie tribute album We Were So Turned On.

Asked by Iman if he felt “being young and female” had “a similar glory” to the one he sang about in Boys Keep Swinging, Bowie was quick to refute any such reading of his lyrics. “The glory in that song was ironic,” he asserted. “I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of a gender.”

But was it “better” to be male or female?

“That is, in my opinion, an absurd question.”

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