Boys Keep Swinging

The story behind David Bowie's 1979 single 'Boys Keep Swinging'
Boys Keep Swinging by David Bowie 1979 UK 7" single cover


Album: Lodger

Written by: David Bowie, Brian Eno

Released: 27 April 1979

Recorded: Mountain Studios, Montreux, September 1978; Record Plant Studios, New York, March 1979

Length: 3:17

Production: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Musicians: David Bowie (lead vocals, guitar), Adrian Belew (guitar), Dennis Davis (bass guitar), Tony Visconti (bass guitar), Carlos Alomar (drums), Brian Eno (piano), Simon House  (violin)


The story behind ‘Boys Keep Swinging’

‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is a song which lyrically blurs the lines between genders, and musically delivers three minutes of sleazy garage pop, helped by the fact that the musicians swapped instruments when recording the song. Bowie wanted to recreate the sound of “young kids in the basement just discovering their instruments”, so guitarist Carlos Alomar played drums, while drummer Dennis Davis attempted to play the bass part. However, his efforts were deemed to be a little too amateurish, so were later replaced by an overdub by producer Tony Visconti.

“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.” he recalls. “I played an over-the-top bass part on the song, in the spirit of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.”

Guitarist Adrian Belew contributes a guitar solo that sounds as if it’s been flown in from another dimension. He explains: “What I do is, say, use four tracks for a recorded solo and then I cut them up, knock up a little four-point mixer clipping the solos in and out. I give myself arbitrary numbers of bars in which they can play within a particular area, and go backwards and forwards from one track to another. The effect is somewhat histrionic.”

Belew later said that after Bowie had recorded his vocals in New York, “He played it to me and said, ‘This is written after you, in the spirit of you.’ I think he saw me as a naive person who just enjoyed life, I was thrilled with that.”

The song reached number 7 in the UK charts, but RCA America, put off by the gender-bending video and sexually ambiguous lyrics, decided not to release it as a single in the US, putting out ‘Look Back In Anger‘ instead.


The video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’

The first of his many collaborations with director David Mallet, the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’  is remembered for the fact that Bowie performs the choruses in drag, using three different outfits and prancing along a catwalk, each time removing his wig and smearing his make-up.

Mallet was directing Thames Television’s The Kenny Everett Video Show when Bowie appeared to perform ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the 23 April 1979 episode. Bowie decided to hire Mallet to make the promo video for the song, which was recorded back-to-back with the Everett performance.

During the drag sections Bowie smears his make-up in the style that he’d observed at Romy Haag’s Berlin nightclub. “That was a well-known drag act finale gesture which I appropriated,” he said. “I really liked the idea of screwing up [the] make-up after all the meticulous work that had gone into it. It was a nice destructive thing to do – quite anarchistic.”

After the video was shown on BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ in the UK, the single – which had been selling more than respectfully up until that point – dropped like a veritable stone.



‘Boys Keep Swinging’ Lyrics

Heaven loves ya
The clouds part for ya
Nothing stands in your way
When you’re a boy

Clothes always fit ya
Life is a pop of the cherry
When you’re a boy

When you’re a boy
You can wear a uniform
When you’re a boy
Other boys check you out
You get a girl
These are your favourite things
When you’re a boy

Boys keep swinging
Boys always work it out

Uncage the colours
Unfurl the flag
Luck just kissed you hello
When you’re a boy

They’ll never clone ya
You’re always first on the line
When you’re a boy

When you’re a boy
You can buy a home of your own
When you’re a boy
Learn to drive and everything
You’ll get your share
When you’re a boy

Boys keep swinging
Boys always work it out


‘Boys Keep Swinging’ Artwork

The artwork for the single, with the exception of the German and Japanese releases, used the same photo as appeared on the cover of the Lodger album. Read the story behind the image.