Lodger album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Brian Eno
Recorded: September 1978, March 1979
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 18 May 1979

Available on:
Lodger

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
Carlos Alomar: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Sean Mayes: piano
Dennis Davis: percussion
Brian Eno: prepared piano, cricket menace, vocals
Tony Visconti: vocals

‘African Night Flight’ is the second song on Lodger, David Bowie’s 13th studio album.

You will, of course, have noted the use of Swahili. Translated, that meant hello, goodbye. That came together because in Kenya, especially in Mombasa, in many of the bars, you will find these German ex-pilots who hang out wearing most of their pilot’s gear. They are always saying they have been there for seventeen years and really must go back to Germany. You’ve got a good idea why they are there in the first place, but they live strange lives flying about in their little Cessnas over the bushland, doing all kinds of strange things.

They’re very mysterious characters, permanently plastered and always talking about when they are going to leave. The song came about because I was wondering exactly what they are and what they are doing and what their profession is and why they fly around. This track is very interesting. What we did was to take the basic idea of ‘Suzie Q’ and play it backwards. Then Brian decided to put prepared piano on it. He put pairs of scissors and all kinds of metal things on the strings of the piano. Then we took out the main band so you just had the piano left. It was a case of starting out with one thing, putting another thing on top of it, and taking away the number you first thought of.

David Bowie
Melody Maker, 19 May 1979

The song was partly inspired by a Kenyan holiday Bowie and his six-year-old son Joe took in October 1977. They stayed at Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park before travelling to Maasai Mara, where they met the Maasai people and other tribe members. Bowie visited the country again in February 1978.

I went there to show my son how animals really live, that they’re not always behind bars, because he’s seen the Berlin Zoo and things like that and that’s about it. I mean, he’s only six and he’s only seen them in zoos. So we got there and he started looking at all the animals and found it was a real country, with real people, it wasn’t just one great big safari.
David Bowie
90 Minutes Live, CBC, 25 November 1977

Bowie discussed the Kenyan trip during a day of interviews held at his New York hotel on 15 November 1977, part of which was released the following year on the RCA promotional album An Evening With David Bowie.

I took a straightforward corny safari. I spent a few hours – with the Masai tribe in Masai Mara, which is western Kenya, just on the border of Tanzania. I went to look at the lifestyle of the people – especially the Masai tribe. They’ve been living their particular way, untouched for at least 800 years. And it took a long time to get permission to get to the village. I had to find a Masai who spoke English who worked in that area, who would get me into the village. It’s very hard to get to see them, and they were very, very wary and cautious of me in the beginning. I intend going back – I haven’t finished there. I had to come here, break up my stay there…

I wanted to understand what I was seeing before I was presumptuous enough to start recording anything. So I wanted to make more stringent investigations. There’s a lot of other tribes there that I didn’t know much about. The Giriama are one of the most musical tribes and I saw them playing which was spectacular.

David Bowie
An Evening With David Bowie, 1978

In the studio

‘African Night Flight’ was recorded under the working title ‘Burning Eyes’. The song was based on a jam of Dale Hawkins’ 1957 swamp-rock classic ‘Susie Q’.

I made lots of alterations and improvements, including a more open mix of ‘African Night Flight’. When I opened the multi-track it all flooded back to me that this was just a short jam on the old rock standard ‘Susie Q’ by Dale Hawkins, it only lasted a minute and a half. Every different verse and chorus is overdubbed on top of that minute and a half, yet the track’s timing is 2:56.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Brian Eno co-wrote ‘African Night Flight’ with David Bowie, and sang backing vocals and played a prepared (manually altered) piano on the recording.

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 a la newsreels.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Eno was also credited with “cricket menace” on the track. In a 1999 interview Bowie explained what that entailed.

Little crickety sounds that Brian produced from a combination of my drum machine (I would, and still do, use one to write with when I’m on my own) and his ‘briefcase’ synth. You can hear them on ‘African Night Flight’.
David Bowie, 1999
Uncut

Lodger remix

Tony Visconti began remixing Lodger during a break in the Blackstar album sessions. He and David Bowie had long been dissatisfied with the original Lodger mix, which they felt was done hurriedly and did now bring the best out of the songs.

‘African Night Flight’ was originally mixed four separate ways, which were manually edited together to form the final master tape. Using 21st century recording technology, Visconti’s remix was a more straightforward affair.

Back in the day we mixed this song four different ways and then spliced all the pieces together on two-track tape. It was tedious and involved a lot of trial and error. There was no need to mix it that way these days. Instead I made those edits on the multi-track, and assembled it in the correct order for linear mixing. [When remixing Lodger] I was able to enhance each section better and get more clarity (and low end) from everything.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

The Lodger remix was included in the 2017 box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982).

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Next song: ‘Move On’