‘Absolute Beginners’: The Story Of David Bowie’s Last Big Hit

❉ Springsteen impersonations, Vance Packard, and Angie Bowie’s coke dealer… It’s the story of ‘Absolute Beginners’!

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It’s a given in the many Bowie retrospectives that, after the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ there was a gradual decline in The Dame’s critical and commercial fortune, but the objective truth of such matters is rarely so clean cut.

In 1986, although the lustre of Serious Moonlight was waning rather than waxing, David Bowie still had some clout. The previous year, his collaboration with Pat Metheny, jazzy torch song This Is Not America entered the top 20 without the benefit of a promo video – quite an achievement in the image obsessed mid 1980s – and faced with the unenviable challenge of following Queen’s incredible crowd-pleasing set at Live Aid, he delivered one of the most memorable performances of the day, after which the much-mocked Jagger duet Dancing In The Street provided the Main Man with his fifth and final Number One.

Clearly, he was still a bankable performer, and in 1985 to 1986 he found himself juggling various commitments which allowed him to stall EMI’s desperate pleas to make another hit record: The Live Aid gig, an invitation to star in Muppet maestro Jim Henson’s latest fantasia, and some soundtrack commissions, one of which would be coupled with an acting job for Julien Temple, the young savage responsible for ‘The Great Rock N Roll Swindle’.

Since 1982, when Bowie collaborated with Giorgio Moroder for the title track of Paul Schrader’s sensual remake of horror noir ‘Cat People’, Bowie began mining a profitable seam crafting memorable songs for big budget movies, such as the aforementioned This Is Not America, for the Sean Penn-starring conspiracy drama ‘The Falcon And The Snowman’. One of these one-offs would provide Bowie with his last bona fide chart success and a timeless addition to his canon of greatest hits.

Bowie had first collaborated with Temple for a twenty-two minute short film ‘Jazzin’ For Blue Jean’, conceived to support Bowie’s Blue Jean single: A promo within a mini-movie in the tradition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

It afforded Bowie the opportunity to display his comic chops and also send himself up, playing the twin roles of window cleaning wide-boy Vic and narcissistic rock star Screamin’ Lord Byron, thanks to a witty, self-aware script by playwright Terry Johnson, later of ‘Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick’ and ‘Dead Funny’.

After ‘Jazzin’ For Blue Jean’, Bowie was soon drafted in by Temple to play a significant role in Temple’s first major movie, an all-singing, all-dancing big screen adaption of ‘Absolute Beginners’, Colin MacInnes’ classic British novel about a young man trying to make it big in Soho in the 1950s youth explosion, as post-war Britain began to trade off austerity for prosperity in the wake of the beat boom, played out against the background of the racially inflamed Notting Hill riots.

Temple tentatively courted Bowie to play a starring role in the film, and Bowie leaped at the chance to play the slick advertising executive Vendice Partners. The appeal was obvious –Bowie himself had encountered many such characters, all Italian suits, smooth patter and transatlantic twang during his years as a junior designer, mod waif and struggling musician in ‘60s Soho. The character’s name was a corruption of Vance Packard, the author of ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, the book which opened the lid on media manipulation and the seduction of advertising, and it’s worth noting that not only would Bowie would list ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ amongst his 100 favourite books in a 2003 poll, but also Packard’s study influenced much of his formative thinking on image and presentation.

“David was hugely into this, the simultaneous birth of the teenager, and the creation of a market. And like everything he does, there was total commitment.”

Work on the film began in early 1985. Quite early on in the genesis of the film, Bowie was required to perform a musical number in which Partners seduces Colin with all the temptations of fame and glamour that owed more than a little bit to the dazzling production numbers staged by the likes of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed in ‘golden age’ Hollywood musicals. The number was called That’s Motivation, arranged by the legendary Gil Evans, Miles Davis’ collaborator during his ‘symphonic jazz’ period, and Bowie embellished it with every ad-man cliché he could think of (“New! Scintillating! As fresh as tomorrow!”) and ultimately delivered a performance that would have warmed his former manager Ken Pitt’s heart – Bowie as light entertainer, his Anthony Newley ambitions fully realised.

The twanging motif that introduced That’s Motivation provided the trigger for Bowie’s second, and most memorable, contribution to ‘Absolute Beginners’. Temple recalls, “He’d written That’s Motivation, which we needed. And he surprised me with Absolute Beginners. He was surprised by it as well – it just kind of arrived.”

David Bowie was about to craft his last top five hit of his career, and it would not be in support of an album or a major tour – much to his label EMI-USA’s frustration, distraught at seeing his last album ‘Tonight’ and its attendant singles failing to replicate the Let’s Dance effect – but for a domestic film project whose prospects were by no means a given, despite the amount of goodwill and pre-publicity ‘Absolute Beginners’ was achieving via word of mouth in trend-influencing journals such as ‘iD’ and ‘The Face’.

Bowie called up Hugh Stanley Clarke, A&R at his label EMI, for musicians. A top-line band of session musicians was assembled, whose number included synth whizz Thomas Dolby, Elvis Costello sideman Steve Neive, and – joining Bowie for the first time in fifteen years – virtuoso keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Also joining the ranks was Kevin Armstrong, who would work with Bowie intermittently for the next decade.

“David liked to work at top speed. He said he loved the Abbey Road session, which reminded him of ‘Heroes’”.

In the producers’ seat, Bowie opted not to use his recent collaborators – although ‘Tonight’s Arif Mardin would be drafted in for ‘Labyrinth’ sessions shortly afterwards.  Instead, behind the mixing desk were Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, whose previous credits included Teardrop Explodes, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and most notably Madness, being responsible for the lion’s share of the Nutty Boys’ infectious hits that dominated the early 1980s.

In summer 1985, these A-list session musicians converged at Abbey Road Studios, under the shadowy directive that they would be working for ‘Mister X’ – with an EMI associate giving the only clue to their employer’s identity: “He has a glass eye.”

Bowie biographer Paul Trynka notes that Absolute Beginners came together “almost instantaneously”. Like all of Bowie’s most cohesive works, from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ through to ‘Reality’, the title track was developed in the studio in a loosely collective fashion.

“David came in with the song half written”, Kevin Armstrong remembers. “The whole band helped out, whether it was a missing chord or a rhyme for the last verse. Over an afternoon it evolved into the backing track, which we recorded. That’s how Bowie operated – from the germ of an idea, which the group polished up into the master. Once he saw what we could do, he relaxed. We fitted.” Bassist Matthew Seligman was similarly praiseworthy: “David liked to work at top speed. He said he loved the Abbey Road session, which reminded him of ‘Heroes’”.

Essentially, this has been Bowie’s working method for the vast majority of his career. A solid rhythm backing, against which he was free to later overlay with melodies and groove, and the lyrics and vocal arriving late in the day.

It’s not hard to see why the song came together so quickly: The doo-wop inflected “bap-bap-ba-ooh” refrain was a kissin’ cousin of Let’s Dance’s Twist and Shout-inflected intro, and utterly appropriate for the film’s jazz and R&B milieu of late 50s Soho. For the verses and chorus Bowie had concocted a tender ballad not a million miles away from ‘Station To Station’s side-closers Word on a Wing and Wild Is The Wind; a husky, delicate, baritone, half-mumbled but utterly clear in diction, soaring into an epiphany of a chorus, and the platitudes were of the honest, direct and simple protestations of love that Bowie had become more comfortable with since he first began to remove his ‘iceman’ mask with ‘Low’ in 1977.

“Bowie asked me to get him some coke. I rang a friend to see if he had any going – he rang me back an hour later to say he’d managed to find someone who’d helped him out: ‘You will never guess who I’ve got this coke from? Angie Bowie!’ and I said, You’ll never guess who it’s for – David Bowie!’”

It was almost as if he could walk into his studio kitchen, pluck a few tins of ready-made Bowie ingredients off the shelf and pop an instant Bowie classic in the oven. This, in fact, would be a working method that would serve him well from 1993’s ‘Black Tie White Noise’ right up to ‘Blackstar’ – using his back catalogue as a palette, to draw from at will in different permutations, drawing from his own genres in the same way he’d donned and discarded other artists’ vestements in the past.

Lyrically, listening again to Absolute Beginners, one notes that in some respects it’s a rewrite of “Heroes” – its narrator starts from a point of doomed romantic fatalism, one half of two lovers stuck in a hopeless transaction (“I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take”), before seizing on a note of defiant optimism against the odds (“as long as we’re together/the rest can go to hell”) and soaring into a cinematic chorus of widescreen escapism (“If our love song/could fly over mountains”). As a less defeated rewrite of Bowie’s most enduring, ‘in the gutter looking at the stars’ ballad, and yet evoking the youthful hope of first love, how could it possibly fail to strike a chord with any listener not possessed of a heart of stone?

The only note of controversy during these sessions was flagged up by rookie recruit Armstrong, in an incident that acts as an amusing footnote to the dissolute antics of his ‘70s incarnation and the cold war that existed with his ex wife: “The only time I was ever with David Bowie that I saw him do anything with drugs was at that very first day.” Armstrong told biographer Paul Trynka. “I don’t know why he picked me, but he asked me to get him some coke halfway through the day. I rang a friend to see if he had any going – he rang me back an hour later to say he’d managed to find someone who’d helped him out: ‘You will never guess who I’ve got this coke from? Angie Bowie!’ and I said, You’ll never guess who it’s for – David Bowie!’”

Bowie laid down his vocals at a later session, in a session on August 18 1985, at Langer and Winstanley’s Westhouse Studios in Shepherds Bush, which would prove to be one of his finest vocal performances of his entire career. Moody when needed during the verses, soaring and transcendent during the chorus, somewhere in the hot zone between Elvis boom and Sinatra croon, it’s an impeccable performance with Bowie at the peak of his powers.

Engineer Mark Saunders recalls of this session:

The day Bowie was first due to show up at Westside, we were all a bit nervous — Bowie was the biggest star client for Clive and Alan at that point in time. We kept looking out the windows, waiting for a stretch limo to show up and an entire entourage to walk in, but then a black cab showed up and out popped the unaccompanied Bowie. He walked in, announced in what seemed a more cockney voice than I remembered, “Hi, I’m David Bowie,” and shook our hands. He seemed smaller than I imagined he would be in person. A bit later I noticed that the cockney had dissipated somewhat and he also seemed to have grown more upright and taller, too. I thought, “Wow, he really is a chameleon,” and wondered if the earlier exaggerated cockney was his way of reducing his superstar status temporarily to put people at ease on first meeting him.

Amusingly, while laying down his vocals, the Dame indulged in some japes, performing verses in the style of Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Waits and Lou Reed, giggling, “I’m just fucking about now!” To fans’ delight, highlights were shared by Saunders on YouTube shortly after Bowie’s death.

Saunders remembers:

“The impersonations on this YouTube posting were recorded in August ’85, when Bowie came in to do the lead vocal. At the end of the session, he broke into the impersonations and I realized that these might get erased at some point, so I quickly put a cassette in and hit “record.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Absolute Beginners was mixed, mastered and cut down to three discrete edits – a full-length version of 8.01 minutes with reprises and some urgent and impassioned saxophone and percussion breaks adding to the drama, a single mix of 5.35, and a promo mix of 4.46 which later appeared on the 2CD version of ‘Nothing Has Changed’.

The single was released on Virgin on March 3 in an array of formats, and accompanied by a lush promo video with Bowie at his most stylish, in long coat, trilby, and natty tie, wandering along the Embankment area of London, filmed in monochrome, and intercut with footage from the movie. It drew inspiration from the 1959 ‘lonely man’ Strand cigarette advert directed by Carol Reed (referenced by Vendice in the film), with additional echoes of David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ as Bowie sits forlorn and lonely in a café. A pitch perfect pastiche that, when aired in cinemas, doubled as a trailer for the Absolute Beginners movie due to premiere the following month. (Temple’s previous Bowie collaboration, ‘Jazzin’ For Blue Jean’ had been similarly deployed as a supporting feature for ‘The Company of Wolves’).

Absolute Beginners gave David Bowie his biggest hit single in three years, rapidly climbing to Number Two in the UK, held off from the top spot by Diana Ross’ Chain Reaction, and hanging in the Top 10 for a whole month.

The movie ‘Absolute Beginners’ opened as the title song began slipping back down the charts, and due to the egregious amount of advance publicity it had received, Fleet Street’s knives were sharpened. Many of these wounds were self-inflicted, in a sense, as Temple and co. talked up the film before the rushes were in:

“The greybeards who ran cinema were not willing to listen to us young people. The answer was basically: “Fuck off.” Mike Leigh and Ken Loach were the cutting edge of cinema at the time – a musical, with all its’ spectacle, went against the grain. So we talked up the idea in the Face and NME, just to say: “Look, people are interested in this.” That was probably a mistake, because it created this hype that snowballed out of control – Julie Burchill reviewed the film before it had even been made.”

The film has not been judged kindly, with a typical late period Bowie biography dismissing the film as “a grating amalgam of pop video and musical”, before concluding, “In the end, Absolute Beginners was more a commentary on a kind of ‘80s vacuity than on the 1950s’ spirit of adventure and now-ness.”

More recently, and more forgivingly, Tim Worthington summarised the film as “a grand overhyped overlong jumble of a stylistically inconsistent bewilderingly directed Patsy-Kensit-meets-Courtney-Pine-meets-Sade-meets-Smiley-Culture-meets-Lionel-Blair mess, which may be many things but is never, ever boring. On any level”; before going on to say, “It’s never been given a fair critical crack of the whip and is a lot better than you’ve probably been told it is, and in any case, the bizarre story of how it came to be made in the first place, and then bomb so dramatically, is nothing short of a goldmine if you’re interested in the relationship between society, culture and popular culture.” Which is enough to make you want to watch it again, isn’t it?

The success of Absolute Beginners was something of an irritant to Bowie’s label, EMI-USA. The Let’s Dance heyday seemed long gone, and Bowie’s last number one – recorded back to back with Absolute Beginners with similar personnel the previous summer – was Dancing In The Street, the Live Aid beano with alleged bed-hopping pal Mick Jagger.

To EMI’s chagrin, his next two singles would also be in support of movies – Underground from Labyrinth, and When the Wind Blows (another Virgin release) for the animated, nuclear war morality play of the same name. Neither would trouble the charts the way Absolute Beginners did, but they were enough to worry his label that another hit album was overdue and wasn’t it time he stopped mucking about with side-projects? Bowie’s sideman Carlos Alomar recalled, “The man didn’t want to go into the studio to record another album.”

Absolute Beginners would rise from the ashes of Temple’s glorious folly, providing a rare moment of quality on the Glass Spider Tour, where it remained part of the set list as it trudged from Rotterdam to Sydney; cruelly omitted from the Sound + Vision “greatest hits” tour of 1990; then receiving a second bout of favour when revived by Bowie, in his full ‘elder statesman of rock’ pomp in 2000, as a centrepiece of a televised concert at the BBC Paris Cinema Studios, with Bowie embracing the song as if reunited with a long lost love. A few days later, it would receive its ultimate benediction as part of a triumphant headline set at Glastonbury Festival the same summer, by common consent one of Bowie’s finest later period performances. Eventually, it was incorporated into Bowie’s parting gift, the musical ‘Lazarus’.

Bafflingly, the song was omitted from 1990’s hit collection ‘Changesbowie’, which chose to end the story with the then six year old Blue Jean, but that deficit has since been rectified, with both album and single edits sitting pretty on numerous Bowie hits compilations – in 1995, Virgin added it to their reissue of ‘Tonight’, automatically improving the album by 300%.

The song is clearly well loved, as on the day of David Bowie’s death, it was number 20 in that day’s chart of Bowie downloads on iTunes.

That it fell one chart position short of the number one spot is why it’s this writer’s belief that it’s Absolute Beginners, not Let’s Dance, that marked the end of David Bowie’s imperial reign. He would scrape the upper reaches of the charts intermittently – Jump They Say, Little Wonder, Hallo Spaceboy –but he would never scale such chart heights so gracefully again.


❉ An earlier version of this article appeared on Daily Waffle, March 2016.

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