Released: 18 May 1979
David Bowie: vocals
Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums
Simon House: violin
Roger Powell: synthesizer
The penultimate song on David Bowie’s Lodger album, ‘Repetition’ was written about domestic violence.
This is about wife beating – something you are faced with in the American newspapers all the time. I think my voice sounds rather like it did five years ago. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ could quite easily have turned up on Hunky Dory. This album seems to contain things from lots of different areas of my career.
Melody Maker, 19 May 1979
‘Repetition’ is a bleak story about Johnny, a married man with children, whose frustration and dissatisfaction with his life is manifest in physical violence against his wife: “I guess the bruises won’t show if she wears long sleeves/But the space in her eyes shows through”. It is sung mostly in a monotone, to emphasise the bleakness of the subject matter.
The song was recorded with the working title ‘Emphasis On Repetition’. This was likely to have been inspired by Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, one of which read “Emphasise repetitions”.
By virtue of the instrument’s classical baggage, Simon House’s violin touches a vein of pure Goth on this recording. There’s a numbness to the whole rhythm section that I try to duplicate with a deadpan vocal, as though I’m reading a report rather than witnessing the event. I used to find this quite easy to accomplish.
I decided to write something on the deeply disturbing subject of wife abuse in the manner of a short-form drama.
I had known more instances of this behaviour than I would have preferred to have been made aware of and could not for the life of me imagine how someone could hit a woman, not only once but many, many times.
In 1997 Bowie said of the Earthling song ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’: “That’s fairly self-explanatory. It’s all wrapped up in one of those stereotypical ‘Johnny’ songs: Johnny does this, Johnny does that – in this particular one he’s hauled up as the most mundane, philistine elements of what everybody hates about America.”
Aside from a passing mention in 1967’s ‘Join The Gang’, the name Johnny only appears in two Bowie songs: ‘Repetition’ and ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’.
Interestingly, Bowie began performing ‘Repetition’ live after recording ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, suggesting that the Earthling song prompted the revival.
In the UK, France, and Spain, the b-side was ‘Repetition’, while in the other countries it was ‘Fantastic Voyage’.
The song was not a commercial success, peaking at number 29 on the UK chart, and 106 on the US Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart.
‘Yassassin’ was issued as a single in July 1979 in Turkey and the Netherlands. In Turkey the b-side was ‘Red Money’, while in the Netherlands it was ‘Repetition’.
In August 1979 ‘DJ’ was released as a single in Australia, with ‘Repetition’ on the b-side.
‘Look Back In Anger’ was a single in the USA and Canada, also in August 1979, and again coupled with ‘Repetition’.
‘Repetition’ was first played live in November 1996 for the BBC Radio 1 show ChangesNowBowie. The performance was broadcast on David Bowie’s 50th birthday, 8 January 1997, and issued on compact disc and vinyl as ChangesNowBowie on 18 April 2020, as part of the annual Record Store Day.
‘Repetition’ was performed again in January 1997 during rehearsals at New York’s Madison Square Garden ahead of Bowie’s 50th birthday show. A backstage performance from 9 January was recorded for inclusion in the pay-per-view broadcast of the concert.
A performance of ‘Repetition’ recorded during the Earthling Tour rehearsals in Hartford, Connecticut, was recorded and uploaded to YouTube in April 2020, accompanied by a video of Bowie directed by Tim Pope.
The song was revived in 1999 during the Hours Tour. Another BBC recording was made on 25 October 1999 at London’s Maida Vale Studios, for the Mark Radcliffe show.
Bowie’s final live performance of ‘Repetition’ was on 7 December 1999 at Store Vega in Copenhagen, Denmark.