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, Adrian Belew: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Sean Mayes: piano
Dennis Davis: drums
Stan Harrison: saxophone
Simon House: violin
Brian Eno: synthesizers, guitar treatments, vocals
Tony Visconti: vocals

The first half of David Bowie’s Lodger album was preoccupied with travel, cultural clashes, and a wilful sense of unsettlement. It ended with ‘Red Sails’, where Bowie and his fellow travellers took to the seas in search of the hinterland.

Here we took a German new-music feel and put against it the idea of a contemporary English mercenary-cum-swashbuckling Errol Flynn, and put him in the China Sea. We have a lovely cross-reference of cultures. I honestly don’t know what it’s about.
David Bowie
Melody Maker, 19 May 1979

Bowie and Brian Eno were openly influenced by Neu! and Harmonia, bands which featured guitarist Michael Rother. Harmonia’s 1975 song ‘Monza (Rauf Und Runter)’ appears to be the template followed closely on ‘Red Sails’ – the backing of the two songs are virtually identical in places, with Bowie’s band replicating the motorik drumbeats and synth washes.

‘Red Sails’ is in the style of a Red Chinese propaganda song (pentatonic scale all the way with a saxophone doubling the vocal) as played in the style of Neu!, a German contemporary band.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Bowie later admitted the influences, and explained that the lead guitarist on Lodger, Adrian Belew, was unfamiliar with the German groups, but played something not dissimilar based only on Bowie’s suggestions.

That drum and guitar sound, that especially, is quite a dream. The moments of difference though, they came from Adrian not being played Neu!; he’d never heard them. So I told him the atmosphere I wanted and he came up with the same conclusions that Neu! came up with, which was fine by me. That Neu! sound is fantastic.
David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980

In the studio

The backing tracks for the Lodger songs – as with much of Low and “Heroes” before – were recorded without lyrics or topline melodies having been written.

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.
Sean Mayes
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’.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Lead guitarist Adrian Belew 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.

Originally the Lodger LP was to be called Planned Accidents. When I arrived, they [Bowie and Eno] had about 20 tracks already done: bass, drums, rhythm guitar, but no vocals. They said, ‘Adrian, we’re not going to let you hear these songs. We want you to go into the studio and play accidentally – whatever occurs to you’.

The control room was downstairs and the recording area above it. They could see me on closed circuit TV but I couldn’t see them. I would just suddenly hear ‘1,2,3,4…’ in the headphones and a track would start. I was just to play whatever came to mind. I didn’t even know what keys the songs were in or anything.

The one particular song I remember where I lucked out on was ‘Red Sails’, ’cos I started the guitar feeding back and it was right in key. Anyway, they would let me do this maybe two or three times an by then I might know something about the song, so it was over. I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. They would take the ideas that I’d had and make some sense out of them.

Adrian Belew
International Musician, June 1990

Belew’s lead guitar on ‘Red Sails’ was a composite made up of multiple recordings, which Bowie switched between during the mixing stage.

Some of Adrian Belew’s solos were made of a composite of at least three separate takes; in a radical way, David was certain of which three tracks he wanted to alternatively switch to but he found the conventional buttons on the recording console too slow to respond. A clever technician in the studio, Andre, built a little switching box with three toggle switches in no time at all. It took David some time to get used to it, but you can hear the effect on the guitar solo of ‘Red Sails’ and ‘DJ’ very well. The tell tale jumps in pitch and style give it away.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Live performances

David Bowie performed ‘Red Sails’ occasionally during the Serious Moonlight Tour.

It was first played at the tour’s opening night, on 18 May 1983 at the Vorst Nationaal in Belgium, although it had also been performed during rehearsals in Texas and at warm-up shows in Vorst.

Bowie’s final performance of ‘Red Sails’ was on 3 December 1983 at the National Stadium in Singapore.

The 12 September 1983 concert at Vancouver’s 11,000-seater Pacific National Exhibition Coliseum was recorded and filmed, with David Mallet directing the latter.

The film of the event was released on VHS and laserdisc in 1984. It included the majority of the concert, although ‘Red Sails’, ‘Star’, ‘Stay’, ‘The Jean Genie’, and ‘Modern Love’ were omitted due to time constraints.

Previous song: ‘Yassassin’
Next song: ‘DJ’