Jon Savage • Melody Maker • 27 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 modern 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 personalised
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
Inside, Lodger contains plenty of Bowiedotes – journalistic
(some would say voyeuristic) observations converted into music and
dance and absolutely no instrumentals. The synthesised 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
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
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.
expect another "Heroes".
Projection: will the Eighties really be