by Jon Savage / Melody Maker
27th May 1979
Another year, another record. Like Burroughs, David Jones, rootless, looks for unconventional commitment: Burroughs found it in junk, control-systems and predatory homosexuality; Jones found it in a record contract and self-obsessive stardom. One LP a year, no questions asked. A bit of time to write another chapter, a few more Bowiedotes; along the way, he sells millions of records. Usually, it’s deserved. The superstructure of analysis erected over this, actively encouraged by the ‘artist’ – newspaper stories about his ‘art’ are safer than anything else – is fun for train journeys, but can’t be taken too seriously.
Lodger is a nice enough pop record, beautifully played, produced and crafted, and slightly faceless. Is Bowie that interesting?
After unsuccessful commitments to mod and then hippie youth cult, Bowie put his foot on the accelerator and started to reflect styles so fast that he helped define them: by 1974 he’d hustled himself a place in a modem Olympus – pop superstardom.
As modem deities-cum-icons, pop stars live out exaggerated bits of us, parts of our lives amplified which we can then buy in 7 and 12 inch formats. Bowie was that bit in us that didn’t want to be what we were – arty, pretentious, posing like crazy – until he went to Los Angeles and found out it was realer than he was.
Since then, the role-playing has become less overt, muted in favour of a more literary approach to popstardom: the role of Renaissance Man, multimedia adept, with a dash of the Garbos. This keeps people interested in what happens next; ff they’re really into it, they look at what he’s reflecting and thus what he’s helping to shape. Your reviewer thinks this game is quite fun, up to the point where Bowie’s ‘legend’ becomes top-heavy and obstructive.
So Bowie returns to RCA, rewarded by a personalized catalogue number, with what – playing the significance game – he likes to see as the final part of the Low / “Heroes” trilogy. Mmmm. The new album appears as a piece of self-plagiarism unmatched since The Seeds: his last eight or so albums are cut up, played backwards and then reassembled. It’s a credit to his craft that the end result is still fresh.
Everyone I’ve talked to hates the cover; I rather like it. It’s silly (but when did that ever matter?) like a glossy, exciting advertisement for mouthwash. The lettering isn’t very well done, but that’s a minor detail: a part of that child-like autistic edge of unease that Bowie likes to keep. The poses at which the cover, shot mimetically, hints are explained inside: a carefully kept baby, a mortuary corpse, a shrouded Christ, a carefully killed Che Guevara. This might be making a point; it might also be a little self-amplifying.
Inside, Lodger contains plenty of Bowiedotes – journalistic (some would say voyeuristic) observations converted into music and dance and absolutely no instrumentals. The synthesized explorations which reached such a powerful, subconscious peak on side two of “Heroes” have ceased (just as the genre is getting done to death), to be replaced by ten more conventional song-structures, dominated in turn by Bowie’s voice, Carlos Alomar’s guitar and Simon House’s violin, and within which any exploration is firmly kept. Superficially, the result is a mix of Station to Station and the first side of Low – avant-AOR.
Illustrating the musical move towards some broader, if not global fusion that Bowie appeared to be aiming for (with the same band) in the curious Earl’s Court concert, last summer, most of the songs plunder the world for their material. Some are expressed acutely, with an actor’s insight (‘African Night Flight’ – the fragmented. speech and thought of a European burnt up by African sun), others more romantically and superficially than anything else (‘Move On’ and ‘Red Sails’ fairly straight Neu), apparently rifling exotica. We turn the world into transient three-minute pop songs! ‘Yassassin’ escapes a similar fate, that of a Turkish delight ad, through an audacious mix of the ‘Fame’ riff with some stunning violin from House.
Turning to disco youth cult: ‘DJ’ is an amusing and sharp look at the fear of instant obsolescence that runs through all media. You could apply the lyric to Bowie, and he’s sharp enough to know that.
The single, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, nicks the bass riff from The Beach Boys’ ‘You’re So Good To Me’ in a vaguely homoerotic, Ladybird look at male adolescence. Boys are blue, yes, but what about girls? It’s better in place on the album.
The album’s only flash – either spontaneous or else so thoroughly practised that it appears spontaneous in comparison with the careful, occasionally stilted face of the rest of the album – is ‘Repetition’, an understated, circular little song about wife-beating. Built around an eerie rising guitar figure, sickening bass and subliminal synth mumbles, it features one of Bowie’s best vocals – dipped, precise, narrative rather than operatic.
Even when playing at superstars, it was always hard to escape the sense of Bowie as tourist. Even on the more emotional pieces on Low and “Heroes”, it was always at least ambiguous where Bowie stood. Was his investigation of those various states a criticism or celebration?
The influence his precedent as ‘artist’ has set is spreading like some unavoidable and unpleasant disease among inept imitators – the outdated model of the artist as separate from and superior to the rest of society, sort of divinely chosen.
The inclusion of ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Red Money’ on the album shows that, publicly at least, he’s worried about this: sandwiching the more overtly narrative cuts are two songs, apparently personal, dealing with responsibility and adjustment to imminent collapse. On ‘Fantastic Voyage’, in his nearest approximation to ‘Word On A Wing’, yet, Bowie croons: ‘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’. ‘Red Money’ swipes the ‘Sister Midnight’ riff and tune wholesale, adding a slightly different production and new words: ‘Can you hear it fall/Such responsibility/It’s up to you and me.’
So far, so tentative: are we to ‘believe’ it? Is it not mere commitment chic? I’m not sure that it matters; even if it is a clever reflection, the ideas of responsibility, of a more realistic adjustment to the outside world, are raised. From the self-absorption of his superstar period to the romantic, pessimistic yet spiritual tone of “Heroes”, these latest realisations occur as part of a classic cycle.
Dealers: Bowie has a huge following, expect heavy sales on this return to a more conventional style.
Consumers: don’t expect another “Heroes”.
Projection: will the eighties really be this boring?