Classic Album: Lodger – David Bowie

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The final instalment of the spuriously named ‘Berlin trilogy, Lodger often gets short shrift. Critical response at the time was muted; Rolling Stone called it ‘a footnote to “Heroes’’ while Jon Savage , astute as ever, pondered in Melody Maker, ‘’will the 80’s really be this boring?’ But is Lodger a worthy basis for such despairing projections? True, it doesn’t possess the same chiselled aesthetic identity of its two predecessors, Low and “Heroes” (both 1977). The revelatory fusion of European synthetic textures with warm–blooded American R & B seems more hazy and instinct here. Gone is the iconoclastic division of side one into lyric songs and side two into instrumentals (roughly speaking). Even the cover art, Bowie shot by Brian Duffy on low resolution, limbs splayed and bandaged seems jarring; a violent contortion of the poses Bowie and his cohort, Iggy Pop struck on “Heroes” and The Idiot(1977) respectively.

Lodger was conceived during and after a huge world tour in ’78. The same year he starred in Just A Gigolo, an ill-fated David Hemmings film (‘my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one,’ Bowie later quipped). Indeed, this year was the only year from 1971-80 that Bowie wouldn’t release a studio album and the break in his alarming prolificacy suggests a loss of momentum. Similarly, his relationship with Brian Eno, co-pilot on his previous two outings, was tapering off. Guitarist Adrian Belew, who had been plucked from Frank Zappa’s band for the tour and Lodger, remembers that ‘there wasn’t the same kind of spark between them you’d imagine there being during “Heroes”.’ Eno’s working methods, notably his ‘oblique strategies’ which involved issuing random instructions were deployed more rigorously than before and flummoxed the musicians (particularly Bowie’s rhythm guitarist and de facto musical director, Carlos Alomar). The unorthodox approach that yielded such pioneering results previously seems to have found its limits here and been ultimately compromised by the diminished simpatico between the two chief architects.

So Lodger sounds as its title suggests, ‘neither nor there, slightly faceless’ (Savage again) art-rock which is neither as arty as its forebears nor as rocking as 1980’s commercial triumph, Scary Monsters. That album saw Bowie wrestling the mainstream back from the pretenders to his crown, spawning massive hits in Ashes To Ashes and Fashion. Lodger, with its conventional song structures and David Mallet-directed promos, is just an uneasy transitional step towards that album?

Well, no. Lodger effervesces with an idiosyncratic governing principle of its own. There is a schematic division of sorts with side A acting as a globe-trotting suite and the second side functioning as a probing trawl through Western civilization. This produces in Bowie’s words ‘a lovely cross–section of references and cultures.’ Opener Fantastic Voyage addresses the threat of nuclear war with hymnal fervour. The spare arrangement featuring mandolins sounds vast due to Bowie’s commanding vocal (a trick learnt from his masterful reading of Wild Is the Wind from ‘76’s Station To Station). From clipped restraint to stentorian histrionics, Bowie’s singing is a revelation throughout Lodger. African Night Flight deals with marooned German soldiers in the African desert. The ethno-exotica of the backing track compresses the musical map of Eno’s experiments with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (recorded shortly after Lodger but delayed for release until ’81 due to legal wrangles over samples).

Move On’s scattershot travelogue is both poignant autobiography and satire, a world weary yet defiant self-swipe from pop’s most peripatetic dilettante. It reverses the melody of Bowie-penned Mott The Hoople hit, All The Young Dudes and his own vocals on an old Revox tape machine; one’s own past is a ‘foreign country‘, to be mined for material too. This is ‘avant-AOR’, a niche also occupied by the same year’s ‘career suicide’ classic, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk; rock’s elder statesmen throwing their musical cards in the air.  Geo-political conflict takes the form of a Turkish reggae hybrid on Yassassin and then there’s Red Sails, a swashbuckling caper whose questing throb duplicates the motorik grooves of Neu.

Much of it is a harbinger of the world music that would characterize a significant part of the subsequent decade as would the theme of travel itself, albeit in a more frivolous, jet-setting manner (see The Human League’s The Things That Dream Are Made Of from ‘81’s Dare). On the second side of Lodger, Bowie focuses on western civilization. Goethe once said that there ‘are none more enslaved than those that think they are free’ and on DJ, Bowie sings like a captive , not just of the nocturnal grind, but of culture itself; ’I am a DJ , I am what I play’.1980’s Fashion dealt with the ’grim determination’ of the era’s ‘bright young things’. DJ’s smudging of disco’s ‘lights and evening faces’ with punk’s ‘easy realism’ is a more squalid take on a similar theme.

By 1979, punk’s narrowly defined dogma had given way to the more expansive post-punk which retained its sharp edges but offered a more multi-faceted approach. In this respect, Lodger seems definitively post-punk. Both Boys Keep Swinging and Repetition were covered by the new vanguard of musicians ensuring he had effortlessly straddled the old/new wave divide. Repetition’s domestic violence narrative was covered by feminists, The Au Pairs while The Associates take on Boys, airy where the original was airless, cheekily arrived just weeks after Bowie’s.

Boys Keep Swinging deconstructs masculinity while celebrating it.  Eno’s musical chairs placed Alomar as the drummer and Dennis Davis as the bassist. Despite Tony Visconti’s claims that he replaced Davis’ playing with his own, the thrill of controlled anarchy prevails as Belew’s atonal fretwork navigates its way through the song’s punk-drunk R & B. The video rendered overt the theme of gender-as-performance by featuring a trio of Bowies in drag smearing their make-up and removing their wigs. Bowie had befriended transsexual performer Romy Haag in Berlin and this is probably another case of genius stealing (Annie Lennox would re-enact it on The Euryhthmics’ 1982 video Love Is A Stranger). Lodger represents Bowie’s farewell to gender –bending. He would rarely be this subversive again. But then again, neither would pop culture.

The set closes with Red Money, a paean to emotional responsibility set to the backing track of Iggy collaboration, Sister Midnight (from The Idiot). More serious ideas executed with Duchampian nerve. There’s a feeling of ruthless self-analysis here as if the album’s twin themes of travel and social commentary have a corollary ‘inner’ journey. His persona acts as a prism to the wider culture; Red Money’s assertion that ‘such responsibility is up to you and me’ addresses both Bowie’s own excesses and those of the decade that was drawing to a close.

So from its opening track onwards, Lodger tackles worldly concerns with philanthropic zeal. It paves the way for Scary Monsters’ potent blend of slick novelty and oracular angst. That album’s Ashes To Ashes expressed a desire for ‘an axe to break the ice’ but the thawing really starts with the ‘Berlin’ triptych. Perhaps Lodger is the most straightforward expression of that; the former ‘amoral’ aesthete enlivened by liberal indignation.

Listen closely and a layered work emerges. By the time the project had moved from Montreux’s Mountain Studios to New York’s Record Plant, Bowie claimed to Uncut in 2001 that ‘not enough care was taken with the mixing’. If Lodger has one fatal flaw, it is the album’s sonic hermetic fug and not the songs or performances. It obscures the surfeit of musical riches on offer, from torrid new wave disco to world music innovations. As Ziggy Stardust celebrates 40 years with yet another upgrade on June 4th, surely a corrective remix for Lodger is long overdue?

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