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‘Lodger’: How David Bowie Checked In With A Subversive Pop Classic
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‘Lodger’: How David Bowie Checked In With A Subversive Pop Classic

The final part of his ‘Berlin Trilogy’, David Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ album was a postcard from an artist always on the move.

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Released more than 18 months after “Heroes”, Lodger was seen as something of a late arrival in David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”. Though not as bracingly revolutionary as that album – or it’s predecessor, Low, both of which had hit the shelves just seven months apart, in 1977 – its unconventional sound has, however, made for a subversive influence on purveyors of left-field pop. Tony Visconti, producer of all three records, feels Lodger features some of the best David Bowie songs he worked on. “Of the ‘trilogy’, this is probably my favourite,” he said, almost four decades on from Lodger’s original release. “I think the songs are amazing. They sound like Bowie classics and completely hide the fact that we were still experimenting.”

Listen to ‘Lodger’ here.

“‘Lodger’ is really a hodgepodge of styles that create a lovely mix”

Indeed, in the years following its release, the idea that Lodger has less to offer than its predecessors has become as fallible as its nominal placing within the “Berlin Trilogy”. Of the three Bowie records retrospectively grouped together under that banner, Lodger was the only one not to have been recorded, either in part or in full, in the German capital. Rather, on a break between legs on his Isolar II – The 1978 World Tour in September 1978, Bowie and his live band – plus Visconti and audio saboteur Brian Eno, both returning from the Low and “Heroes” sessions – settled into Mountain Studios, in Bowie’s recently adopted home of Montreux, in order to work on what would become his 13th studio album.

Filling the longest gap between new records since Bowie released his self-titled 1969 album, the release of his narration of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf had been an unlikely attempt to educate children about classical music, while the live double-album Stage offered a snapshot of the Isolar II shows as they’d rolled through the US earlier that spring. For his new album proper, however, Bowie sought to marry his avant-garde leanings with an increasingly cosmopolitan world view informed by influences he’d taken in while touring the globe.

“It was me trying to relate to that particular culture”

Though recorded with working titles such as “Planned Accidents” and “Despite Straight Lines” in mind, Lodger’s eventual title captured the peripatetic feel of much of the album’s music. Songs such as Yassassin took its name from “yaşasın”, the Turkish word for “long live”, and featured zigzagging violin lines that draped its funk-reggae backing in distinctly Middle Eastern dressing. Elsewhere, African Night Flight, in part inspired by a trip Bowie had recently taken to Kenya with his son, Duncan, rode the sort of African rhythms Brian Eno would further explore as a producer on Talking Heads’ albums Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, and on his David Byrne collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. With Eno chanting a Swahili greeting and farewell – “Asanti habari habari ha/Asante nabana nabana na” – as if in answer to Bowie’s rapid-fire attempts “to get a word through one of these days”, African Night Flight, in particular, drew a direct line to Fear Of Music’s opening track, I Zimbra, and its collision of Dada poetry and Afrobeat-infused funk.

When questioned by NME over whether he was “misrepresenting some of the cultures” he was drawing upon, Bowie demurred: “I don’t think that by taking a Japanese or an African emblem or motif I try to represent them at all. I would have thought it was pretty transparent that it was me trying to relate to that particular culture; not in my wildest dreams would I think I was trying to represent them.”

If the sound Bowie worked up for Lodger was, in part, an attempt at understanding some of the countries, customs and musical traditions he admired, his band sometimes found themselves scratching their heads over the deliberately destabilising working practices he and Eno brought to the studio.

“He would pick the part with the most mistakes, which when repeated became the song”

Having been present throughout the Low and “Heroes” sessions, during which Eno deployed his Oblique Strategies cards – a deck of cards that gave band members random instructions on how to approach a particular song or session – Bowie’s long-serving rhythm section, guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, once again received seemingly illogical directives while recording Lodger.

“One time Brian asked me something and I was blocked because I didn’t understand what he wanted,” Alomar told Paul Trynka in Starman: The Definitive Biography. “Then one of the cards said something like, ‘Remember those silent moments,’ and another said, ‘Think like a gardener.’ Some kind of eclectic, weird reference. It worked – or let’s say you find yourself accepting it.” During another session, Eno drew “his eight favourite chords in big block letters” on a blackboard, as Visconti later recalled in his autobiography, Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy, and instructed Alomar, Murray and Davis to keep “a funky groove” going while switching to chords that Eno pointed to at random. Some of the results were incorporated into the backing track that propelled Look Back In Anger.

Despite having previously worked with the similarly maverick Frank Zappa, newcomer Adrian Belew wasn’t sure what to make of Bowie and Eno’s methods when he was asked to overdub lead guitar on “about 20 tracks” that had been recorded before his arrival. “They wanted me to go upstairs in the studio, put the headphones on, and start playing,” the guitarist recalled in Dylan Jones’ David Bowie: A Life. Refusing to let Belew hear the recordings beforehand, Bowie and Eno merely gave him a tempo and a time signature to prepare with – no key, no sense of structure – and three goes at each song. “They said they wanted to get my accidental responses… And then they’d take their favourite parts of the guitar tracks and cut them up, and string them into a composite guitar track,” the guitarist said. Writing in his book Life On Tour With Bowie, pianist Sean Mayes noted that Bowie’s edits could be “light-hearted, almost frivolous”: “Often when he chose a section for looping he would pick the part with the most mistakes, which when repeated become an integral part of the song.”

“This is somewhat cynical, but it’s my natural response to disco”

Though Bowie and Eno cheerfully spurned conventional recording methods, Bowie remained a songwriter first and foremost, and Lodger was carried by robust melodies, no matter the approach. With its naggingly catchy chorus – “I am a DJ, I am what I play/I’ve got believers/Believing me” – DJ seemed to have picked itself for release as the album’s second single, offering a bit of flattery to radio broadcasters and club DJs even as the verses pictured them as anxious, exhausted and desperate to please. “This is somewhat cynical, but it’s my natural response to disco,” Bowie told Melody Maker around the time of Lodger’s release. “The DJ is the one having ulcers now… If you have 30 seconds silence, your whole career is over.” Talking to Bowie biographer David Buckley, for the book Strange Fascination, Adrian Belew explained how the song’s final guitar solo was edited together from his three separate takes so that it sounded like “changing channel on the radio and each channel has a different guitar solo on it”.

Marching off with the same chord progression as the album’s opening song, Fantastic Voyage, Lodger’s lead single, Boys Keep Swinging, was recorded after Bowie instructed his band to swap instruments with each other, so that guitarist Carlos Alomar was on drums and drummer Dennis Davis played bass. For its video, Bowie, who’d been crucial to bringing gender fluidity into the mainstream during his Ziggy Stardust era, earlier in the 70s, swapped gender roles throughout, performing as a cocksure frontman and a trio of female backing dancers. But despite the song’s seemingly celebratory chorus line – “Boys always work it out,” later lifted by Blur for the song M.O.R., from their self-titled fifth album – its lyrics took a sardonic look at systemic gender bias. Twenty years later, Bowie explained, “The glory in that song was ironic. 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.”

It was seemingly no accident, then, that Boys Keep Swinging was followed on Lodger by Repetition. A direct comment on power structures and domestic violence, it was one of a number of Lodger songs, DJ and Boys Keep Swinging among them, in which Bowie engaged with socio-political themes on a global level. Though, sonically, the album’s opening song, Fantastic Voyage, provided a relatively gentle entry point – Tony Visconti further easing listeners in with a three-part mandolin arrangement, triple-tracked so as to create the sound of nine mandolins playing at once – its lyrics betrayed anxieties over nuclear war and political leaders who are more than willing to “shoot some of those missiles” at civilians they “think of… as fatherless scum”.

“A clear definition is impossible, even when plotted against its own predecessors”

As Bowie entered a new phase of his career, he would continue to survey the state of the world and offer his comments on modern life – not least in the 1981 single Under Pressure, also recorded in Montreux, with Queen as collaborators. In keeping with Lodger’s itinerant mood, however, song such as Move On – seemingly discovered, as opposed to written, when Bowie accidentally played his hit song All The Young Dudes backwards and then used what he heard as the basis of the new song – returned to themes of restlessness and transformation that Bowie had explored throughout his career. If Changes had opened his Hunky Dory album with a creative manifesto (“Turn and face the strange”), and Station To Station’s title track had offered further avowals of a desire “to keep searching and searching”, the Lodger cut Red Sails found him striding off to pastures new: “The hinterland! The hinterland!/We’re gonna sail to the hinterland!/And it’s far far, far-far-far, far-far-far away…”

Bowie, who vastly preferred sailing to flying, had the Isolar II tour to complete before he could finish work on Lodger. Later taking the Montreux recordings to The Record Plant in New York City, in March 1979, he added his vocals and some instrumental overdubs, and mixed the album with Visconti, though neither Bowie nor Visconti were entirely satisfied with the results. The recording space they’d used in Montreux had been a small upstairs room whose acoustics were marred by the owners’ decision to stick carpet to the wall. A broken air-conditioning unit made for further discomfort for band members who had to keep running out for air in between takes. “It was very dead acoustically and barely adequate,” Visconti later recalled. The New York facilities weren’t much better: “My only regret is that we went to New York to finish this album, and it suffered at the mixing stage because New York studios simply were not as versatile or well-equipped as their European counterparts in those days!”

Conditions may have caused Lodger to suffer upon its release, on 25 May 1979. But though, as Uncut put it almost 30 years later, many greeted the album’s brisk 35 minutes as “the afterthought of the legendary ‘Berlin Trilogy’”, the magazine was right to assert that it “deserves a room of its own in the critical pantheon”. As The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote at the time, the songs’ ability to “confound categories of sensibility and sophistication is so frustrating it’s satisfying”, while Record Mirror concluded, “It’s simply appealing in such an unusual way that a clear definition is impossible, even when plotted against its own predecessors rather than ‘pop music’ in general.”

“Whether that’s the kind of pop that people expect, I don’t know. It’s definitely Bowie pop”

For many still trying to keep up with Bowie’s continual shifts in style, Lodger’s predecessors remained a touchpoint. An array of synth-pop acts had sprung up in the wake of Low and “Heroes” but, as Lodger’s album cover suggested, Bowie was already on to the next thing, his clothes nodding to the casual suits and skinny ties worn by new wave acts such as Blondie and Talking Heads. However, the dishevelled Bowie of the photo – pictured as an accident victim, his bandaged hand the result of a real-life incident in which he had burned himself with coffee on the morning of the photo shoot – could also have reflected how Lodger songs such as Red Money, built on the backing track for Sister Midnight, a song Bowie had recorded for Iggy Pop’s debut solo album, The Idiot, mangled these post-punk sounds along with everything else.

Though Lodger’s sleeve made for one of the best David Bowie album covers, Tony Visconti always felt its sound could have been better presented. With Bowie’s blessing, he revisited the master tapes while creating a new 15-minute mix of songs for the David Bowie Is… exhibition in 2013, and began giving the whole record an overhaul during a break from recording Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Focusing on improving the drum sound and paying more attention to Bowie’s voice, the producer got the green light to continue after Bowie heard Visconti’s initial efforts. Though Bowie wouldn’t live long enough to hear the final thing, the brand-new mix was released in 2017 as part of the A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) box set. “I made better reverbs and echoes, applying subtle alterations to different sections,” Visconti revealed in the liner notes to the box set. “I found some extra vocal parts we could have, should have added in the mixes long ago. I’ll leave it up to the listener to find them.”

As a postcard from an artist always on the move, Lodger deserved the renewed attention. Bowie’s continued quest for new territory would lead him to the following year’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), whose avant-pop excursions the New Romantics would soon bring in from the fringes. In issuing Lodger as his final album of the 70s – the decade he’d done more than any other artist to shape – Bowie made it clear that everything was still up for grabs.

Lodger is really a hodgepodge of styles that create a lovely sort of mix,” he told Rock Australia Magazine in the weeks following its release. “The areas we’ve been working in are so undefined at the moment that I find them hard to analyse, but I think probably a classification you can give the album is that it incorporated just about every style that I’ve ever got involved in, apart from rock… Now whether that’s the kind of pop that people expect, I don’t know. But it’s definitely Bowie pop.”

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