David Bowie’s working titles for Lodger included Planned Accidents and Despite Straight Lines.
David sat there, his eyes bright, sometimes singing a bit – ‘Yassassin’! ‘Red Sails’! – and telling us the instrumental lines he wanted here and there. They all had working titles – ‘This Tangled Web’, ‘Portrait Of The Artist’, etc but none of these survived onto Lodger – and even this title lay unthought of at the time. David was working from the bottom up and would complete the backing here in Switzerland before he wrote any of the lyrics. He did that in New York early the following year after the end of the Far East tour.
Life On Tour With Bowie
The basic backing tracks were recorded quickly with the core trio of Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis, with the other musicians brought in a few days later.
As with Low and “Heroes”, there were few preconceived ideas or songs; the intention was to experiment and improvise, with Brian Eno deploying techniques including the Oblique Strategies card deck he had developed with Peter Schmidt. Unlike the previous two albums, however, this time they were used on the band tracks – there were no instrumentals on Lodger.
This was an album of many experiments that for the most part worked fantastically well. The lyrics came quicker for David this time. Brian was around to see the lyrics and melody come to life and he stayed for some backing vocals. He is singing with David and I on ‘Red Sails’ and ‘African Night Flight’. It was Brian’s idea to paraphrase a Swahili chant he had heard and we did our best to emulate African tribesmen, kind of ala newsreels.
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Eno was allowed greater autonomy than on Bowie’s previous two albums. This led to occasional tensions from the musicians, who began to resent being told to follow instructions.
Another day Eno asked for a blackboard and wrote his eight favourite chords in big block letters. He then said to the rhythm section of Carlos, Dennis and George, ‘Okay, I’d like you to play a funky groove’, and he held a teacher’s pointer in his hand with a demeanour not unlike a professor from Oxford.
‘I will point to a chord and you will change over to that chord after four beats.’
This was not on the face of it Brian’s finest idea and I could see the rhythm section exchanging irritable looks as if to say ‘what an asshole’.
This fruitless jam took up two hours of 24-track tape. David wasn’t so sure about it but instructed me to fool around with the jam and edit the best pieces together. ‘Tony just try and construct a backing track.’ With that everyone left for the day and I eventually got something vaguely usable but not spectacular enough to work with.
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Despite this misstep, Alomar was not completely opposed to Eno’s methods of stimulating creativity, and at times found them beneficial.
One time Brian asked me something and I was blocked because I didn’t understand what he wanted. Then one of the cards said something like, ‘Remember those silent moments,’ and then another said, ‘Think like a gardener.’ Some kind of eclectic, weird reference. It worked – or let’s say you find yourself accepting it. I would have chosen other things to play – but in hindsight it was fun.
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Lead guitarist Adrian Belew had previously worked with Frank Zappa, and had toured with Bowie in the Isolar II band. He was in the studio for just a handful of days. His playing was as impactful as Robert Fripp’s work on “Heroes”, which had been recorded in a similarly brief time.
The original idea with Planned Accidents was that they said there were about twenty tracks they’d already worked on, and they wanted me to go upstairs in the studio, put the headphones on, and start playing. And I said, ‘Playing what?’ And they said, ‘No, you just start playing. You play what you like.’ I asked if I could hear the songs first and they said no. I was just given a tempo and time signature. They said they wanted to get my accidental responses. And I said, ‘What key?’ And they said, ‘No … Just go upstairs, put the headphones on, and play along to the song.’ And they allowed me to do that twice for each song, no more. And then they’d take their favourite parts of the guitar tracks and cut them up, and string them into a composite guitar track. So all those guitar parts you hear on Lodger are things I made up on the spot to a song I’d never heard before. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘DJ’, ‘Red Sails’ – all made up on the spot. The guitar parts were meant to sound accidental and I think they kinda do. The whole thing took two days.
When I eventually heard the finished album, I recognised some of the songs but my parts were a complete surprise to me. It’s a great record though, as it goes far afield, and there are so many different types of material on it. David gave me great encouragement and let me do what I wanted to do, within a framework of course! He used to say to me, ‘Just go wild, be as wild as you like. That’s why you’re here, and that’s what I want you to add to the band.’ And when we played ‘Stay’ or ‘Station To Station’ onstage, as I was embarking on these huge guitar solos, he would never do anything but stand there, still, grinning from ear to ear.
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On Lodger‘s biggest hit single, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, the rhythm section musicians swapped instruments, with mixed results. Carlos Alomar switched from guitar to drums, Bowie played guitar, and Dennis Davis attempted a bass guitar part.
David and Brian wrote a set of chord changes in the key of D that were really sweet. We tried it three different ways and two versions survived. One became ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and the other became ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, with everyone swapping instruments (a further experiment). Drummer Dennis Davis was left-handed, and struggled to play George Murray’s right-handed Fender bass. It didn’t make the cut (it probably would’ve if we found a left-handed bass for him). When David, Adrian and I reconvened in New York a couple of months later I played the bass part on the recording.
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As the sessions progressed, Visconti created rough mixes which were dubbed onto tape reels for he and Bowie to take away, analyse and edit. These would often be incorporated back into the multi-tracks.
The next day they would be back with the spliced tapes, often loops, then these edited versions would be reproduced by splicing and looping the multi-track and copying it. I’m not sure now which tracks of this album contain loops but an obvious example from before is ‘Blackout’ where the whole song is built on two basic structures over which the vocals create three distinct sections.
This method of writing seems to work because David has such a strong sense of tune. He has a way of producing vocal lines which spring from the roots of the music, something which I noticed on tour when he recreated each song every night often varying the vocal line as if the songs were alive and growing. David was very keen on spontaneity. He liked everything to be recorded in one or two takes, mistakes and all. Often when he chose a section for looping he would pick the part with the most mistakes, which when repeated became an integral part of the song. Sometimes the approach would be light-hearted, almost frivolous.
Life On Tour With Bowie