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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Red Sails

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Closing side A of Lodger, a side that deals with travelling through different places, cultures and states of mind, is this track called 'Red Sails'. This time, Bowie pays tribute to one of his biggest influences at the time: German electronic bands. Kraftwerk is the band that Bowie popularized the most, but here he takes the opportunity to introduce a couple of others. The melody (and much of the rhythm and sound) of 'Red Sails' is nicked in whole from Harmonia's 'Monza', a record that also deals with movement from place to place. Bowie, however, elaborates more on this theme.

Feel a bit roughed up, feel a bit frightened
Nearly pin it down some time
Red sail action wake up in the wrong town
Boy, I really get around

Bowie assumes the character of a sailor, a metaphor that will remain with him from now on. He talks about this life of uncertainty and danger, reminding us of similar portrayals in tracks like 'Sweet Thing'. But unlike the latter, where this description was accompanied by a strong sense of meaninglessness, here the vibe is devil-may-care and happy. Bowie has come to terms with this sort of vagabond life, and finds meaning in it once again.

Thunder ocean
Thunder ocean
Red sails take me, make me sail along

Our sailor's ship has red sails. Who else had red sails? Well, Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman tells the story of a ship with blood-red sails that was cursed to roam the oceans forever, allowed to come ashore only once every seven years. Considering the German influence on this record, it is possible that Bowie is invoking that old myth to describe himself as someone destined to roam forever and ever.

Red sails, and a mast so tall
Red sail
Red sail

The drums now set a motorik rhythm, which is beat-for-beat the rhythm of Neu's 'Fur Immer' (forever). Apart from giving props to this premier German electronic band that influenced him no less than Kraftwerk did, it also strengthens the feeling of a never-ending travel. It isn't completely electro, though: Adrian Belew's guitar begins to wail, and its combination with the drums and synth takes us into the soundscape that was Bowie's trademark ever since 'Station to Station'. The drums push relentlessly forward in a repetitive motion, the synths sound like waves breaking against the ship, but the guitar goes wild and represents the free spirit of the expedition. It's the same sound that accompanied Bowie's crisis years, except that now it sounds like fun.

Do you remember we another person
Green and black and red and so scared
Graffiti on the wall keep us all in tune
Bringing us all back home

Bowie reminds us of a time when we were all closed in our own little worlds, alienated from and afraid of people of other cultures and races. We are another person now, a person who wants to explore the world, meet other people and bridge the cultural gap.

Red sails
Thunder ocean
Red sails
Sailor can't dance like you

When Bowie was that kind of person who was alienated from others he used to dream of finding a different kind of life on Mars, and saw life on Earth as "sailors fighting in the dancehall" – that is, populated with beings that are essentially strangers to each other and whose relationships are essentially violent. Now that he accepts that being a sailor is where it's at, he realizes that the sailors in the dancehall actually spend most of their time dancing and having fun. Most of their fights are not violent but competitive, to see who is the best dancer.

Ahh, red sail
Red sail action
Red sail
Some reaction

Action boy seen living under neon
Struggling with the foreign tongue
Red sails make him strong
Action make him sail along
Life stands still and stares

Bowie embraces a life of action. The pale, vampiric, living-under-neon image he was associated with doesn't appeal to him anymore. Around that time he started to work out more, get some Sun and present a healthy exterior. In the past he adopted a passive onlooker stance and watched life, trying to decipher its secrets. Now he lets life stand and watch him as he moves gingerly from one place to the other, struggling with the foreign tongues but keeping on.

The hinterland, the hinterland
We're gonna sail to the hinterland
It's far far, far far far, far far far away
It's a far far, far far fa, da da da, da da da

Being a sailor doesn't mean that you spend all your life on the move. Occasionally you dock and spend some time in one place, discovering its secrets and pleasures. However, Bowie is not interested in going deep into the land and exploring it for long. He'll get to know the hinterland, and then move on.

The resolution is made, then. Throughout the seventies, Bowie was wavering between two options. In 'Changes', at the beginning of the decade, he set out for a life of constant change, moving from one identity to the other. But in his mid-decade albums he began to doubt this lifestyle, and you could hear a craving for some stability coming out of the songs. Now he is comfortable with it. He will go on changing, adopting new identities and living them out for a while, and then set sail to find another identity.

Aside from the music, what makes 'Red Sails' work is Bowie's singing, which goes through several emotions and takes us on a journey. It's an exuberant performance that rivals the one he gives in 'Changes'. The latter opened the decade with posing new ethics, excited to see what they would bring. The former closes a decade in which he worked out all the problems in these ethics and managed to consolidate them as his credo, and is now celebrating that success. What will the next decade bring?

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