Thirty years on, still no one is quite sure where to place Lodger. In a way, that’s appropriate: as the title suggests, it’s a record that doesn’t quite belong anywhere. In fact, the only way to really appreciate Lodger is to remove it from the trilogy which, arguably, doesn’t even exist in the first place. The whole ‘Berlin Triptych’ idea was in many ways a deliberately pretentious marketing gimmick that Bowie cooked up after the fact, probably because he had no other notion of how to sell such an offbeat and disjointed collection of songs as Lodger to the public.
—Ben Graham, “30-Years On: David Bowie’s Lodger Comes In From The Cold,” The Quietus,” 2009
Like Ben Graham, I had a hard time getting my head around Lodger. Sometimes I listened to it and thought it was the worst piece of crap David Bowie ever inflicted on the listening public. Then there were times when it tickled my funny bone and piqued my curiosity. Lodger felt like the thing on the top shelf that’s just out of your reach—there was definitely something there, but I couldn’t quite get to it.
Ben wrote this piece in 2009, which means he formed his opinion based on either the original release or the 1999 digital remaster, as did I. Therein lies the rub:
Reviewers criticised Lodger‘s original mix for many years, calling it “over-cluttered” and “over-produced”. Regarding the mix, Visconti stated: “My only regret is that we went to New York to finish [the] 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.” Bowie also expressed disappointment in the mix, citing distractions in his personal life at the time and the overall feeling he and Visconti had that the record did not come together as easily as its two predecessors. Bowie and Visconti began discussing the possibility of remixing Lodger during the sessions for Bowie’s 24th studio album The Next Day (2013) for a possible deluxe edition reissue, with the latter explaining: “[It’s] an important record to both of us. David agrees it never sounded the way we wanted.”
During the sessions for Bowie’s final album Blackstar in 2015, Visconti secretly began remixing Lodger. He presented the new mixes to Bowie, who approved of them before his death. (Wikipedia).
I heard about the remix and didn’t exactly jump at the chance to listen to it. “Geez, they already had two shots to get it right, so how much of a difference can it make?”
All the difference in the world! Tony Visconti’s efforts amounted to a thorough spring cleaning—he removed the clutter, cleared out the cobwebs and put everything in its proper place in the soundfield. The formerly muddy vocals and dull instrumentation now sparkled with clarity, the rhythms gained more presence and the underlying playfulness of the sessions shone through.
Visconti’s magic did wonders for the sound, but it’s important to remember that Lodger is a product of experimentation, non-standard recording processes and a fair amount of reassembly in the post-production stage. Making frequent use of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards to ignite some lateral thinking, the assembled musicians tried all kinds of different approaches, like reversing the chord sequence of old songs, swapping instruments and recycling chord patterns while changing the melody and tempo. According to biographer Nicholas Pegg (The Complete David Bowie), when guitarist Adrian Belew was brought in to add some finishing touches, Bowie and Visconti told him, “We’re not going to let you hear these songs. We want you to go into the studio and play accidentally—whatever occurs to you.” At that stage of the process, the tracks had no vocals or even a hummed melody; Bowie added lyrics and vocals late in the game. Not exactly a by-the-book approach, but while some of the experiments needed more time in the lab and the diverse array of sounds and textures may take some getting used to, Lodger has an undeniable aura of excitement, as in “What are these crazy motherfuckers going to do next?”
That excitement is amplified by a pattern that becomes quite noticeable if you listen to the album in one sitting: Lodger has exceptionally strong forward movement due to exceedingly brief introductions. Six of the ten songs feature intros ranging from a half-second to seven seconds; two other tracks extend the intro to eleven and fifteen seconds, pretty close to the standard rule of ten-to-twelve seconds or four bars. The two tracks that break the mold are experimental pieces that contain “foreign sounds,” so the extended intros on those tracks (twenty-five and thirty-two seconds, respectively) serve to help listeners reorient themselves. While at times it may feel like you’re constantly trying to process the last song before the next kicks into high gear, I find the transitional speed rather exhilarating—somewhat like the feeling I used to experience when the cab dropped me off at the hotel in Manhattan and suddenly New York was whirling all around me.
Various critics and biographers have taken stabs at interpreting Lodger, with mixed success. Many of the so-called professionals who have weighed in on Bowie have an annoying tendency to deify the guy, resulting in outlandish claims and distorted interpretations of his work. The most common slice of misinformation attached to Lodger is the claim that it’s a concept album with “travel” serving as the theme of side one and “Western civilization” as the theme of side two.
The latter claim is easily dismissed unless you consider DJs and conversations with angels essential components of Western civilization. Pegg states that the travel theme is a “perennial motif” of the so-called Berlin Trilogy, which hardly qualifies as a revelation. Any musician who released three studio albums and one live album while touring with Iggy Pop, recording the narration to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and taking his kid on a trip to Kenya—all within a three-year period—obviously spent a good chunk of his time on the road. While side one does have more to do with travel and cross-cultural experiences than side two, the implication of thematic intent was shot to hell by the artist’s comment on side one’s “Red Sails” during an interview with Melody Maker: “I honestly don’t know what it’s about.”
Here’s a revelation: authors, poets, playwrights and songwriters often write about their life experiences. In Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976–2016, Chris O’Leary offered up a relevant quote from the songwriter himself: “I don’t live anywhere, really. I travel 100% of the time,” further noting, “The more I travel, the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable. All my traveling is done on the basis of wanting to get my ideas for writing from real events rather than from going back to a system from whence it came.”
Lodger is about David Bowie’s varied life experiences and thought patterns during a period when he lived the life of a perpetual lodger. Instead of choosing to view his cross-cultural experiences solely through the lens of his own culture (like the Americans who visit France and whine about how “nobody” speaks English), he used his travels to learn about how people in different cultures experience reality. His wanderings also gave him the opportunity to reflect on the state of the human race with greater detachment from his “system” of origin.
Though I think the whole travel/Western civilization angle is bullshit, the idea that Lodger is a concept album cannot be dismissed out of hand. Bowie wrote all the lyrics in a limited time frame at the end of the creation process, so it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that his thoughts might have coalesced into a coherent theme. On that basis, I intend to present what I think is a far stronger argument for concept album status at the end of my analysis of the album’s opening track. While I admit I lack the official credentials of the experts who have peddled the side-splitting theme, I have one important qualification they lack: I don’t deify anyone. Not Coltrane, not Lennon, not Richard Thompson and not David Bowie.
There is no need to put David Bowie on a pedestal or try to turn him into some kind of super-being; if anything, it makes his work seem more inaccessible. Charlotte O’Sullivan picked up on that truth in her review of the estate-approved documentary Moonage Daydream: “How do you make David Bowie boring? By treating him like an oracle . . . I know people who’ve met Bowie. They say he was happy wearing dingy T-shirts and doing the crossword. Alas, Morgen (director) doesn’t seem interested in the Bowie who was down to earth.”
If you view Lodger through that down-to-earth perspective and listen to the 2017 remaster, you may discover that the album is more than an “offbeat and disjointed collection of songs.” Lodger is one of David Bowie’s most fascinating and oddly enjoyable works.
Dennis Davis opens the proceedings with a three-second riff of descending drum tones, Bowie sings the first word of “Fantastic Voyage” at the four-second mark and we’re off to the races!
Well, kinda sorta off to the races.
“Fantastic Voyage” is a disarming opener, a mid-tempo piece that Bowie described as “having a strong feel of the ’50s variety show to it.” Later in that interview he adds, “Thinking about it, Guy Mitchell would have done this song proud.” Guy Mitchell was a second-tier crooner similar to Julius La Rosa who had a few hits in his USA homeland but was much more popular in the UK and Australia. You can listen to this clip from a British variety show to form your own opinion, but I can hear a stylistic similarity in Bowie’s vocal in the verses, where he adopts some of the features of the crooning approach.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Guy Mitchell performing a song that involves larger issues, especially one that deals with the difficult voyage through life in a world forever hovering on the brink of self-destruction.
In the event that this fantastic voyage
Should turn to erosion and we never get old
Remember it’s true, dignity is valuable
But our lives are valuable too
I’m sure that someone convinced of Bowie’s alleged oracular talents will read those lyrics and cry out, “David Bowie predicted global warming!” Flights of fancy aside, what Bowie was really talking about was the pervading fear of the people who lived through the Cold War—that one miscalculation by one unhinged leader could end the fantastic voyage for everyone, once and for all:
We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression
And I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression
We’ll get by, I suppose
It’s a very modern world, but nobody’s perfect
It’s a moving world, but that’s no reason
Shoot some of those missiles
Think of us as fatherless scum
It won’t be forgotten
‘Cause we’ll never say anything nice again, will we?
As Bowie saw it, the danger was exacerbated by the feeling that there isn’t a goddamned thing an average person can do to prevent armageddon: “One feels constantly that so many things are out of our own control and it’s just this infuriating thing that you don’t want to have their depression ruling your life or dictating how you will wake up each morning.” Hence the depressing helplessness of “We’ll get by, I suppose.” And though Bowie was no fortune teller, the embrace of impotence lives on to this day in our acceptance of sub-par leadership and the less-than-urgent response to climate change.
In the second verse-chorus set, Bowie bemoans the influence of the media in stoking our fears (“wrong words”) and aggravating depressive tendencies. He also exposes a different form of helplessness—the sad belief that if you shine the light of journalism on atrocities like genocides (“write it down”) the world will awaken to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and put a stop to it.
It didn’t stop Rwanda; it didn’t stop Bosnia; it’s still happening today.
And the wrong words make you listen
In this criminal world
Remember it’s true, loyalty is valuable
But our lives are valuable too
We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression
And I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression
We’ll get by I suppose
But any sudden movement I’ve got to write it down
They wipe out an entire race and I’ve got to write it down
But I’m still getting educated but I’ve got to write it down
And it won’t be forgotten
‘Cause I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I?
I’ve read a couple of interpretations arguing that the song isn’t completely a downer because Bowie writes about positive qualities like “dignity” and “loyalty.” Such an interpretation fails to take into account the subsequent line: “But our lives are valuable, too.” I think what he was trying to point out is that those allegedly admirable qualities can also become problematic—wars have been fought over perceived slights to a nation’s dignity and loyalty to psychopaths like Hitler and Stalin resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. Is it really worth sacrificing a life to defend one’s dignity or prove one’s loyalty?
Given the context, the “50s variety show music” forms an ironic background—the perfect music to accompany a blinders-on, “We’ll get by, I suppose” orientation towards life. The variety show effect is achieved through a combination of Bowie’s dramatic crooning, Brian Eno’s ambient drone (mimicking the glossy strings that often backed up a crooner), three triple-tracked mandolins and Sean Mayes’ piano bar performance. The rhythmic change on the core “depression” lines marks those lines as the centerpiece of the composition, a dampened version of a “special bulletin” interrupting another night of watching the telly to get by.
If you peruse the full track listing of Lodger, it becomes obvious that “Fantastic Voyage” is the only song that could have opened the album because it establishes the prevailing world-view in operation at that time, which in turn influences the meaning of the more character-based compositions that follow. If you interpret the actions of the eclectic cast of characters who appear on the album as “attempts to get by in this fucked-up world of ours,” their sometimes bizarre behaviors might seem a bit more comprehensible. I would therefore argue that if Lodger is a concept album, the concept is just that: the ineffective coping strategies people employ in a vain attempt to deal with a fear-drenched world that is out of their control and bent on self-destruction. The implied moral of the story is “we’ve got to stop this ‘getting-by’ bullshit before it’s too late.”
“African Night Flight” draws mixed reactions from critics and fans alike. Ben Graham called it, “A strange, blurred snapshot of a song,” emphasizing Brian Eno’s heavy involvement in the arrangement. Chris O’Leary confirms that involvement on his Bowie-dedicated blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame: David Bowie, Song by Song and also questions Eno’s motives: “‘African Night Flight,’ an odd song lacking any type of chord structure and with a run of sound effects and chants in place of hooks, is one of Lodger‘s most Eno-influenced tracks. It seems like a test run for Eno’s work on the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and his and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” He concludes:
Whether “African Night Flight” works depends on your taste for experimentation, as the track seems intended to irritate as much as anything. I’ve been fascinated by it as often as I’ve jumped the needle over it. One of the last avant-garde Bowie/Eno collaborations, “Night Flight” can’t escape feeling like an advanced compositional exercise undertaken by two gifted students; it’s an “African” song that owes more to experimental novels like Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa** than it does to actual Kenyan music.
O’Leary’s insights sync pretty well with my views. I’m offended that anyone would assert or hint that this is “African music.” Putting aside the fact that lumping the diverse musical traditions of an entire continent under one label is downright offensive, at least three of the people who worked on the song claimed that the base rhythm is “Suzie Q” played backward. Since “Suzie Q” was written by a white guy from Louisiana, any “African” influence is in the form of African-American blues. Eno’s primary contribution involved “prepared piano,” a technique that involves placing objects on or between the piano strings that gained credibility through the work of the white American composer John Cage back in the 40s.
African music my ass.
Despite that big list of negatives, I rather like the piece . . . I think. Whenever I hear the intro to “African Night Flight,” I start to giggle. I continue giggling pretty much throughout the whole song. The music feels like an unfolding joke with Bowie providing a series of punch lines in an award-worthy performance as a neurotic German bush pilot suffering from an extended anxiety attack who has a hard time coping with anything and everything. I’ll stop right there and hand over the controls to the legendary Clarence “Frogman” Henry,” who will close this section with his biggest hit, “(I Don’t Know Why), But I Do.”
Bowie’s vocal on “Move On” comes in a split-second after the C# opening chord, in sync with a desire to move the fuck on. The boys had a lot of fun with this one, both in the studio and in post-production. The hijinks began when Bowie accidentally played Mott the Hoople’s version of “All the Young Dudes” backward and asked guitarist Carlos Alomar to transcribe the backward chords. After tinkering around with the new sequence a bit, they completed the basic backing track but hit a wall when they tried to add backing vocals. Visconti suggested playing the already-backward track backward to reconnect with the original melody. The revised backing vocals follow the melody in the original’s chorus.
Got all that?
That’s a lot of work for a song that really isn’t all that interesting, musically or lyrically. The value of the song lies in its connection to the coping theme: “moving on” is too often our go-to choice “when the chips are down.” It’s much easier to run away from our problems than try to deal with them.
Tony Visconti described “Yassassin” as a successful experiment that combined reggae with Turkish music, immediately triggering a “Hold on there, pardner!” from yours truly. I turned to O’Leary for verification and the opening words of his piece on the song told me that my bullshit detector was in perfect working order: “‘Yassassin’ is a motley of alleged Turkish music, reggae and funk.”
No, it wasn’t the omission of funk that lent a foul odor to Visconti’s assertion, but the implication that a group of musicians trained in Western musical traditions thoroughly understood the complexity of Turkish music. While they did stumble upon a makam that matches the Phrygian mode of Western music (clearly heard in the chord pattern and in Simon House’s violin contributions), it’s obvious that the musicians lacked even a passing knowledge of the Turkish octave and its complex tonal divisions. The fact that they didn’t bother to introduce an easily accessible oud into the piece confirms their status as mere pikers.
Here’s the deal. If you try to argue that “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” qualify as “world music,” you’ll find yourself on extremely shaky ground. If you put such claims aside and think of them as theatrical presentations designed to create a certain mood—somewhat like the “foreign” music used in B-grade movies and old television shows—both pieces turn out to be rather enjoyable (though “Yassassin” goes on a bit too long).
David Bowie was a master of theatrical presentation, and his vocal, combined with the insightful lyrics, makes for a compelling dramatic performance. The song’s origins date back to his relatively brief time in Berlin, where he developed a certain empathy for the Turkish immigrants stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid in the Neuköln section of West Berlin (as reflected in the instrumental piece of the same name on “Heroes”). Here Bowie takes the role of one of those immigrants, making it easier for listeners to experience the empathetic connection.
I live in a part of France where about twenty percent of the population consists of immigrants, mostly from the Muslim countries in North Africa that were formerly French colonies. Politically, the area “leans to the right, or hard right” (The Economist). That combination has instilled a certain character trait in our immigrant population that I would summarize as “always trying to justify your existence.” Apparently the same is true of the Turks in Germany:
I’m not a moody guy
I walk without a sound
Just a working man, no judge of men
But such a life I’ve never known
We came from the farmlands
To live in the city
We walked proud and lustful
In this resonant world
You want to fight
But I don’t want to leave
Or drift away
I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had it a lot easier when I emigrated to France. I’m white. I speak the language. I have family in Paris and Nice. I had a director-level job. The only problem I ran into was that the French thought I smiled too much. If you’re an immigrant from a predominantly Muslim country, you have much more to cope with in addition to typical transition anxiety. The majority of people you encounter simply don’t want you to be there, no matter how hard you work or how educated you are. You always find yourself in a subservient position, continually trying to prove your worth—a state of affairs that must be emotionally exhausting. “Yassassin” may not qualify as a Turkish-Jamaican composition, but Bowie’s empathy for immigrants and the shit they have to go through makes it a pretty powerful piece of music.
“Red Sails” ends side one, and when Bowie said, “I honestly don’t know what it’s about,” he wasn’t kidding! I tried making a connection to the ancient ballad “Red Sails in the Sunset” but came up empty. In reading the background information on the song, it seems he was more concerned with the sound than the lyrics, delighted that Adrian Belew managed to create guitar tones that resembled the sonic qualities of the German band Neu! despite never having heard of them. I only wish Bowie had paid half as much attention to the lyrics. The only bit of interest there is Bowie’s use of the color red, which we’ll cover in the equally red closing track.
The Bowie-Eno-Alomar composition “D.J.” opens side two, a track that clearly benefitted from the 2017 remaster and a supplemental remix by Visconti that appears on A New Career in a New Town. The big difference is that the rhythms pack more punch, a much-needed correction that unmasks the song’s essential DNA of “hot dance number.”
It’s also a great character sketch of a guy whose coping mechanisms have been strained to the max. The lyricist provided a comprehensive explanation of the song’s origins and the character’s motivations in an interview with WNEW-FM New York referenced on The Bowie Bible:
It was just a sort of a kind of pastiche thing that one thinks up in a disco, really. You look at the DJ and wonder what he does, or why he became a DJ. This sort of lone creative spirit up there in the box. It was very much the dance floor DJ as opposed to a radio DJ. And I figured this one as being a reluctant viewer, he’s sort of a little bit angry that he got thrown out of his other job, and his greatest and most thrilling experience in life is being able to watch his ex-boss dance on the floor beneath him, and he can control the speed and the tempo of the music.
It’s obvious that the DJ views his new job as a comedown. In the first verse he describes his feelings in an unflattering comparison to comic book hero Dan Dare, the ultimate man of action: “Feel like Dan Dare lies down.” Later in the song he expresses intense bitterness regarding his new occupation:
One more weekend of lights and evening faces
Fast food, living nostalgia
Humble pie or bitter fruit
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can’t turn around no, can’t turn around no, ooh . . .
Adrian Belew’s guitar work qualifies as a standout performance, but he confessed to Uncut that it wasn’t all his doing: “For ‘DJ’, I ran through it three times, discovering new things all the time, trying different sounds and entirely different approaches. Then they took all the best bits and spliced them together. When you listen to that record, you realise there’s no way I can make those changes.” To my ears, some of Belew’s repurposed riffs and Bowie’s contributions on a Chamberlin give the impression of “bending reality” as if the DJ is viewing his crumbling life in a fun house mirror. The only steady presence in the song comes from the rhythm section of Bowie (piano), Davis (drums) and George Murray (bass)—but while it makes for a great dance song, I’m reasonably sure that the constant beat constantly reminds the DJ of his fall from grace.
“Look Back in Anger” is the most frustrating piece on the album. It has nothing to do with the music, which KICKS ASS. Dennis Davis sounds like he spent a lot of time in the weight room to pull this one off, delivering a muscular drum performance par excellence. Carlos Alomar decided to avoid the Guitar Hero approach, opting to emulate John Lennon’s rhythm guitar style in a high-speed, rough-texture performance that raises the excitement level to the max. Brian Eno adds to the sonic diversity with synth, huntsman horn and French horn, (which he labeled an “Eroica horn,” as if anyone gives a shit that he knows his Beethoven). The sound is well-balanced and the excitement level is off-the-chart.
Then there are the fucking lyrics. To interpret the song, you first have to figure out who’s saying what, and that ain’t easy. I think there are three personages in the song: the narrator, the angel and some guy. I started with the assumption that Bowie took the role of both narrator and angel and that Visconti plays the guy who sings one line over and over (“I’ve been waiting so long”). I think the first verse is all narrator, who quotes the angel twice when describing the scene:
“You know who I am,” he said
The speaker was an angel
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings
Closed his eyes and moved his lips
“It’s time we should be going”
The guy believes that the appearance of the frumpy angel is the greatest thing since sliced bread, hence, “I’ve been waiting so long.” I think the angel then tells the guy to “Look back in anger, driven by the night, till you come.” Now I’m confused. Since the guy’s all packed and ready to go and the angel already told him “It’s time we should be going,” why the delay implied by “till you come?” Everything then proceeds to fall apart in the next verse:
No one seemed to hear him
So he leafed through a magazine
And, yawning, rubbed the sleep away
Very sane he seemed to me
Which him? The angel or the guy? Since the angel clearly said “You know who I am” and the guy responded “I’ve been waiting so long,” how can “no one seem to hear him” make any sense at all? And if they’re both ready to split, why would either personage bother to pick up a magazine?
I’m going to take some liberties here and add a new closing line for the song: “Fuck it.” And yes, that’s me talking, not some narrator, not some angel and not some guy. “Look Back in Anger” could have been one of the best songs on the album, but the lyrics don’t fit with either of the concept album theories. Truly a missed opportunity here.
My theory as to why “Boys Keep Swinging” caused something of a hoo-hah upon its release has to do with a combination of extreme gender identification anxiety and a collective refusal to believe that David Bowie could actually write a song without oodles of hidden meaning. This one is so easy to interpret that I almost forgive him for putting me through hell in “Look Back in Anger.”
Boys are born to privilege. Everybody knows that. Triple duh!
It should have been fairly obvious by 1979 that Bowie didn’t place much value on traditional gender norms, so it’s astonishing that he had to defend himself from accusations that “Boys Keep Swinging” celebrates masculinity. Rather than scream at his accusers and call them “fucking idiots,” Bowie’s responses were non-defensive, intelligent and insightful:
“The idea of ‘Boys’ was to write an ultra-chauvinist overkill song, and do it strictly tongue in cheek. I find it very amusing.” (WNEW-FM interview, 1979, via The Bowie Bible)
Iman: In “When You’re a Boy” you sang about the glory of being young and male. Do you think there is a similar glory to being young and female?
Bowie: 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 colonization of a gender.
Iman: Is it better to be one or the other?
Bowie: That is, in my opinion, an absurd question.
(Interview using questions submitted by fans and asked by his wife Iman in the 200o fall edition of Bust via The Bowie Bible)
The list of male privileges in the song is extensive, and all had the ring of truth in 1979. The clouds did part more easily for boys. Boys could pop all the cherries they wanted to pop with little consequence. Boys were always first in line for jobs and government appointments. They could buy homes; women often needed co-signers for many financial transactions. Some of those privileges have weakened and even disappeared over time (and with a great deal of effort), but we still live in a male-dominated world—and many men today are freaking out about the possibility of losing their remaining privileges. “Boys Keep Swinging” is hardly a relic of a time long ago; its exposure of the sheer absurdity of gender inequality has relevance in our stubbornly imbalanced world.
On the musical side, Bowie wasn’t happy with the initial efforts so he had the band members switch instruments: Davis turned over the drum kit to Alomar, George Murray moved to keyboards and Davis handled the bass. Only Alomar’s contribution made it to the finals, but while his drumming is adequate, he’s no Dennis Davis. Visconti’s substitute bass part is pretty solid and both he and Bowie shine on the vocals. “Boys Keep Swinging” uses virtually the same chords as “Fantastic Voyage,” substituting the G minor chord on that song for a B flat, but the similarities pretty much end there. The final result captures the essential tongue-in-cheek nature of the piece, so while the instrument switching was a dumb fucking idea, the potential damage was limited in the mixing stage.
Bowie stays on point with the brutal honesty of “Repetition.” The working title was “Emphasis on Repetition,” possibly inspired by an Oblique Strategies card. The baseline music is largely repetitious, dominated by a recurring A major-B major pattern and a generally steady beat. Bowie’s vocal is scarcely melodic; his tone mirrors the monotone of someone reciting a set of dry statistics. Other than a few diversions from the chordal and rhythmic patterns and some ornamental instrumental touches, “Repetition” stays true to its title.
It’s important to note that repetition is not merely a musical methodology but an integral part of the song’s theme. The story involves a man who resorts to the completely inadequate but all too common strategy that some men employ to cope with a less-than-ideal existence—beat the hell out of the wife. In that context, “repetition” reflects a sad reality: the beatings are repeated and repeated and repeated until the wife finds some means of escape or winds up in the hospital or the morgue. Bowie insightfully points out that many of the men who beat their wives do so in part because they feel like victims in the unfair game of life. Long-standing traditions (religious and otherwise) have given them the right to take their frustrations out on a woman:
He’ll get home around seven’
Cause the chevy’s real old
And he could have had a Cadillac
If the school had taught him right
And he could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse
He could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse
And the food is on the table
But the food is cold
(Don’t hit her)
“Can’t you even cook?
What’s the good of me working when you can’t damn cook?”
Well Johnny is a man
And he’s bigger than her
I guess the bruises won’t show
If she wears long sleeves
Johnny is the typical abuser, forever passing the blame and refusing to accept responsibility for his actions. I can hear him telling the cops, “She made me do it.”
It took a lot of guts to even put this song on the album and even more to release it as a B-side single in three different combinations. I can’t think of any subject with as little commercial appeal as the story of a wife-beater, and predictably, “Repetition” failed to set the charts on fire. Nonetheless, I have to express my admiration for David Bowie for choosing to tackle a difficult subject that is rarely discussed in polite company.
From a musical perspective, “Red Money” is the ultimate nothingburger, a close-to-carbon copy of “Sister Midnight” from Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced album The Idiot. The real interest lies in the lyrics and their possible connection to an overriding theme.
In referring to “Red Money,” Bowie told Melody Maker that “This song, I think, is about responsibility. Red boxes keep cropping up in my paintings, and they represent responsibility there.”
I found the explanation somewhat puzzling, so I launched my own experiment. Over dinner with the family, I asked the other three adults in the room to play a word association game. After a few warmups (spring, Robert DeNiro, skyscrapers), I tossed out the word “red.” The responses included: Cincinnati, communists, valentines, blood, heart, Boston, ambulance, alarm, carpet, fire, line, Christmas, apple, dwarf, Cardinals, cherries, brigade, lipstick, peppers, card, diamonds, flags, alerts, tape, Niners, letter, cabbage, sunburns, rooster, meat, baron, measles, Miss Scarlet, Lucille Ball, rubies, herring, sunsets, ribbon, zone, shame, blush and lingerie. No one mentioned “responsibility” or anything close to it. I went back to “Red Sails” and searched for a responsibility connection there—nada. I’m now more than ready to give up and classify “red = responsibility” as a Bowie-only equation.
I’ll take a stab at interpreting the song, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the dangers that lie ahead. Chris O’Leary wrote, “‘Red Money’ is freighted with symbolism, so much that it seems like a snare Bowie laid for would-be interpreters.” His own take on the song is viable and worth reading in full, but he chose to avoid much contact with the responsibility theme, labeling it a possible “red herring.” Call me a dumb blonde for continuing to pursue that line of questioning, but hey, I just reviewed Tubthumper and firmly believe in its credo: “I get knocked down but I get up again/You’re never going to keep me down.”
The first thing I noticed is a likely reference to “Fantastic Voyage” in the opening verse: “Like a nervous disease (and it’s been there all along)/It will tumble down from the sky/(and it’s been there all along).” That sounds like the ever-present fear of nuclear war Bowie identified as a key component of the modern psyche in the opening track.
The second verse is where things get interesting. It opens with the line “Reet petite and how’d you do,” a phrase that translates to “I’m doing fantastic—how about you?” which in turn reflects the standard “We’ll get by, I suppose” response to impending doom. Bowie then introduces the possibility that we all share some responsibility for the state of the world by creating a scene where the narrator is handed a red box. The reaction is painfully predictable:
Then I got the small red box
And I didn’t know what to do
‘Cause my fingers could not grope
And I could not give it away
And I knew I must not drop it
Stop it, take it away
Of course the narrator couldn’t give it away—no one wants the hot potato of responsibility. Few people want to even consider the possibility that the situation isn’t out of our control and there may be something we can do to forestall self-destruction. Bowie dismissed the “Project canceled/Tumbling central” lines as “whimsy,” but even if you drop those two phrases, the verse captures the deep reluctance to leave behind the comfort of “getting by” and take some form of responsible action.
The next obstacle arrives with the chorus:
Can you hear it fall
Can you hear it well
Can you hear it at all
Translating “red money” to “responsible money” leaves us with an untantalizing bit of nonsense. In financial terms, “red” means “shit, my credit card is maxed out and I can’t pay the rent.” Did Bowie pull off a metaphor shift here or is he just using the common vernacular instead of a custom-made symbol? The only wild guess I can come up with is that every atomic country’s investment in nuclear weapons is made possible by deficit spending and as Deep Throat suggested in Watergate, we need to “follow the money” if we want to change things. That’s a REALLY BIG STRETCH with no firm evidence to support it, so forget I said anything.
The closing lines of the song and album do form a crystal clear endorsement of collective acceptance of responsibility for getting us out of the mess:
It’s up to you and me
While I wish those lines were tied to something more tangible than the enduring mystery of red money, Bowie’s decision to go full circle back to “Fantastic Voyage” indicates that he did have thematic intent when shaping Lodger. That theme centers around the existential choice we face in many situations: to accept or avoid responsibility. With that in mind, I’ll end this review by going full circle as well with an excerpt from Ben Graham’s closing comments in his reassessment of Lodger:
And responsibility, in the end, is the real theme of Lodger: taking us back to the opening track’s worries over the fate of the entire planet resting in the hands of one flawed, capricious human being, through to ‘Repetition’s’ description of how we pass on our pain to those closest to us, full of self-pitying victimhood yet unaware we’ve become the aggressor. From the crippling banality of ‘DJ’- a man with the ears of millions of believers, yet nothing to say- to the cocooned self-absorption of ‘Boys Keep Swinging,’ and the damp squib of a judgment day portrayed in ‘Look Back in Anger.’ The last words on the album are “Such responsibility- it’s up to you and me.”
It’s this sense of responsibility – both individual and collective – that finally separates Lodger from the so-called Berlin albums. Low was, in Bowie’s own words, “Isn’t it great to be on your own, let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck em all”, a celebration of self-pity. “Heroes” saw the individual begin to fight back, but still from a passive-aggressive, me-against-the-world standpoint. It’s only with Lodger that Bowie realises that to survive in any meaningful sense, he has to engage with society, and with the rest of the human race.