In the studio

The backing track for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ was recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in September 1978, during the sessions for the Lodger album.

The song was based around a set of chords devised by David Bowie and Brian Eno. From this three songs emerged: ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Fantastic Voyage’, and a third song which remained incomplete. According to Tony Visconti, “We almost ventured into recording the entire album with these chord changes.”

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).
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

The two songs follow an almost identical chord sequence, although a B flat chord in ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ was amended to a G minor on ‘Fantastic Voyage’. The different tempos, production and melodies were enough to make the songs sound quite different from one another.

This song’s chord structure [Fantastic Voyage] appeared on the album Lodger in two forms. First, as it appears here and then further in as ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ (they were men’s dresses, I tell you). Both the tempo and top-line melody are rewritten.

I did this again on the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). It proved nothing.

David Bowie
Mail Online

The Lodger sessions were among Bowie’s most experimental, with Brian Eno playing a key role in encouraging new ways of playing. One method was Oblique Strategies, the deck of cards he co-created which were intended to stimulate creativity.

During the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ session, one of the cards – “Use Unqualified People” – led to the band swapping instruments. Carlos Alomar took to the drums, while Dennis Davis moved to bass guitar. Only electric violinist Sean Mayes was left to his usual instrument. “It’s really a mad violinist going through a fierce chorus effect,” was Visconti’s assessment of the part.

A keyboard part by George Murray was apparently left out of the final mix, and Davis’s bass was later re-recorded by Visconti.

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.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Bowie took a six-month break once the backing tracks for the album were complete, before he, Visconti and guitarist Adrian Belew met again to record overdubs.

Bowie was a very charismatic person to be around. Musically, he gave me complete freedom to go wild and have lots of ideas. Recording Lodger in Lake Geneva, David and Brian Eno played me some tapes, wanting my initial reaction to certain music. Eno had a chart of favourite chords on the wall. He’d point to a chord and you’d just go along and improvise. He and David were great advocates of getting you to do things you never realised you could. You wouldn’t even hear the songs – no tempo, no key – and it immediately threw you into a different space. It was one giant brainstorm. I had a go at playing “Heroes” and remember walking in on David and Brian and they were just laughing. Nobody told me the original was made of various guitar parts spliced together. They thought it was hilarious I’d been able to play all those composites live! In New York, David was doing vocals for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. He played me it and said: “This is written after you, in the spirit of you.” I think he saw me as a naïve person who just enjoyed life. I was thrilled with that.
Adrian Belew
Uncut, March 2008

David Bowie's handwritten lyrics for Boys Keep Swinging

These sessions took place in March 1979 at the Record Plant Studios in New York City. Among the overdubs were Bowie’s vocals and Visconti’s bass guitar part.

I replaced the bass on ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, the experimental track where the band switched instruments. Carlos Alomar played the drums quite well, but Dennis Davis, who is left-handed, never played a satisfactory bass part on George Murray’s right-handed bass. I played an over-the-top bass part on the song, in the spirit of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy