1986 was a year that did great big inescapable hype like very few others. Over and above all other promised sensations and next big things that turned out to not quite match their lofty implied claims, there were three especially prominent hints of greatness to come that caused everyone with a shred of excitability to stop practising their Phil Cool faces while glugging Citrus Spring for a moment and get a bit, well, excited. Publishing tycoon Eddy Shah promised a revolution in print media with Today, a newspaper that proudly splashed out full-colour daily content but seemingly forgot to put any actual news in it, with the cyan ink usually being half a centimetre off to the left anyway. Sigue Sigue Sputnik toted the sound of the future, which turned out to be sped-up rockabilly with someone playing Jet Pac in the background while dressed as unsavoury ‘friends’ Pete Beale expressed reservations about in early episodes of EastEnders. And then there was Absolute Beginners.
In fairness, some of the talking up of Absolute Beginners was both reasonable and understandable. Colin Macinnes’ timelessly resonant novel of London life in the age of the teenager had been widely adjudged to be unfilmable, but in came Palace Pictures, Virgin Films and Goldcrest Films, who between them knew full well how to take an unconventional idea for a movie and make it into an at worst modest critical and commercial hit (or at the very least how to make Robin Of Sherwood), and director Julien Temple, who had graduated from early disjointed but fascinating punk films to effective and acclaimed pop videos – notably Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, a long-form comedy caper promo for David Bowie’s Tonight album. Bowie was slated to appear in the film alongside a number of exciting names from the current pop charts, authentic jazz legends and even the odd sixties pop icon. Even the timing for revisiting this period of cultural history – given how far it was infiltrating fashion and design and even top ten hits in the early eighties – seemed perfect.
In fact, it’s worth emphasising that some of this hype was warranted even just on musical terms alone, and the hints of the soundtrack that emerged ahead of the movie seemed to hold plenty of promise. Ray Davies’ Quiet Life wasn’t a hit, but received rapturous reviews hailing it as one of his best compositions since The Kinks’ heyday. Even with the band’s critical and commercial standing in freefall, The Style Council’s Have You Ever Had It Blue? was a hit, with tons of airplay and a creditable top twenty placing. David Bowie’s Absolute Beginners itself – one of the best songs of his entire career – climbed to Number Two, only kept off the top by Diana Ross’ unstoppable Chain Reaction. It’s also worth bearing in mind next time someone pipes up with the ‘BOWIE WAS A FASCISTS!!’ drivel that its chart prowess was aided by a video in which – in keeping with the themes of the film – he sets fire to and then stamps on a newspaper with a racist front page headline. Even the soundtrack album itself was getting enthusiastic reviews. The hype kept on building, though – something that Palace Pictures’ Stephen Woolley now regretfully admits he intentionally did nothing to discourage – and what felt like a promising and interesting movie was suddenly being touted as capable of saving the entire British film industry, leading to as Nicholas Pegg notes in The Complete David Bowie a backlash before the film had even started, not least with Julie Burchill gleefully filing an op-ed on why nobody should go and see a film she had not seen a single frame of. Needless to say, it didn’t save the British film industry, and this was of course all entirely Absolute Beginners‘ fault, rather than the years of overbudgeted pompous pretentious bleak highbrow drivel that had already kept audiences away in their droves. It’s not clear why anyone expected Absolute Beginners to be the next Chariots Of Fire, but they did, and that was only going to end one way.
As to why audiences didn’t take to Absolute Beginners, though… well, that’s a bit more difficult to figure out. All the misplaced hype in the world can’t stop something genuinely good from breaking through, and Absolute Beginners was genuinely good, but clearly not quite good enough. There were other likely complications, mainly arising from the film being forged in specific moment of fashion, and films take a long time to make and release while fashion moves on quickly and relentlessly. Around the time that the hype first began to build, Live Aid moved the worldwide audience’s focus back towards what would soon come to be known as ‘Classic Rock’, leaving a movie immersed in attempts to do something stylish and new badly adrift of popular sensibilities. Added to this, the neo-jazz scene that it drew close inspiration from may have been all the rage while the film was in pre-production, but was easily mockable and even its most ardent adherents would have to admit that it didn’t really go anywhere, and by the time the film came out it was about as out of step with fashion as, well, Robert Elms looking at some neon chrome cocktail glasses and going aaaaaaah. Stylistically, it was the musical and cinematic equivalent of that contemporaneous Tango advert where two blokes in Absolute Beginners-friendly clobber had a pinball-playing showdown in a cafe to the incongruous strains of Apache by The Shadows, and the effort that Tango subsequently had to put into reviving their commercial fortunes is the stuff of advertising legend. Absolute Beginners came and went – ironically for a film that had been the subject of so much attention ahead of its release – without anyone really noticing. It ended up saddled with an undeserved and wholly unwarranted reputation as one of the worst films ever made; as Nicholas Pegg wryly noted, Oscars are routinely doled out to much worse films than Absolute Beginners.
For a long while, Absolute Beginners the song was effectively filed alongside Underground, This Is Not America, When The Wind Blows and all of the movie-related singles David Bowie did in the mid eighties that rarely even made it on to compilations, and his other two contributions to the soundtrack remained ignored by all but the most obsessively hardcore of fans. Even the film itself dropped out of circulation for several years, not even surfacing on television until the early nineties. There were some cinemagoers who did notice, though, including one or two who were fascinated by the world it evoked and loved the singles released from it but were too young to get into see a ’15’-rated film in 1986 and so would have to wait a very long time to actually see it, and in the meantime all they had to go on was that soundtrack album. But you can hear more about my background with Absolute Beginners, and why I will relentlessly argue to anyone who will listen that it’s actually a flawed but brilliant movie, in an edition of the Betamax Video Club podcast here.
Ironically, that very same soundtrack album has been out of circulation for many years while the film itself has actually started to enjoy a degree of critical rehabilitation. Now it’s available in full and making its debut on CD – a 1986 pressing on the format had omitted several tracks, as was seemingly standard practice at the time – with a cover based on the original quad artwork poster rather than the never quite right-feeling montage of Patsy Kensit and Eddie O’Connell on a moped in front of a darkened London skyline, and is thoroughly deserving of the sort of attention that has so far eluded it on account of the film having the temerity to underperform at the box office. That said, it really does need to be considered as a soundtrack album first and foremost. It’s not Low, Diamond Life or All Mod Cons. Neither is it Modernism: A New Decade, Hours… or whichever Sade album it was that provoked Chris Morris into that rant about how her ultimate ambition was to have an album that contained absolutely no music whatsoever but so much production that nobody noticed. It’s not even Live Wood, or indeed More Wood. It’s a collection of songs composed to punctuate and emphasise certain scenes in a film, and as such it’s hardly likely to sit well with the current vogue for chin-stroking listen-alongs to universally designated ‘classic’ ‘albums’. It’s not without its own problems too, not least the fact that it uses its four biggest tracks as the first four tracks, which was doubtless a shrewd selling point at the time but is pretty much the exact opposite of that now. Yet there’s a surprising cohesion to its contents, due in no small part to the involvement of jazz legend Gil Evans as the overall musical supervisor, and there isn’t a single dull track on it. No, really, and if that means speaking up for probably the two most widely dismissed inclusions, well, then it’s time for a choreographed punch-up across advertising hoarding-lit Soho streets.
Nobody will really need much persuading when it comes to Absolute Beginners itself, especially as it’s presented here in the rarely heard full version, but the other two David Bowie contributions have been widely ignored by even his most obsessive fans, to the extent that they have barely been available in any form from the deletion of this album right up until they recently turned up on one of those exhaustive career-spanning boxsets. That’s Motivation – the backing for a song and dance routine in which, in a phrase I will openly admit to borrowing from writer Stephen O’Brien, Bowie is somehow larger than life even when dwarfed by a giant typewriter – isn’t one of his more inspired or engaging moments but it’s certainly on a par with the better tracks from Tonight and Never Let Me Down, even if it does suffer from the same blaring overblown production as the latter; if it helps convince you, it’s actually directly quoted in the intro to the full-length Absolute Beginners. His cover of Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu) is admittedly harder to make a case for, but it’s a pleasant enough rendition designed to give his character an authentic flavour, and in any case, it’s indescribably preferable to the ghastly shouting that The Gypsy Kings did to it only a couple of years later. If Volare had been a b-side rather than hidden away on an overlooked film soundtrack, you can bet your best pose in front of a giant clock face there would be endless very, very long thinkpieces on how this deceptively simplistic excursion into self-consciously knowing somethingorother confirmed that he was a much cleverer artistic genius than you thought blah bleh blah blah blaaaaaaaaah blah all over the place.
Many listeners will probably already be familiar with Have You Ever Had It Blue? and possibly even Quiet Life, but there are a whole host of other names who were big at the time but have since fallen almost entirely off the radar, to the extent that in some cases their contributions have never appeared anywhere else but on this album. Sade’s Killer Blow is a show-stopping part-improvised sting of smokey barroom jazz that will astonish anyone whose knowledge of the band’s – no, not ‘her’, they were and remain a full collaborative outfit – work goes no further than Lenny Henry singing Lathe Operator. Tenpole Tudor’s raucous rockabilly rabble-rouser Ted Ain’t Dead feels a good deal more fun and catchy than it does in the intentionally musically and visually cacophonous performance in the film, and hugely touted sophisticated jazz outfit Working Week – whose astonishingly good 1984 single Venceremos (We Will Win) came accompanied by an equally impressive Julien Temple video – bring a touch of samba to Rodrigo Bay. The biggest surprise of all however is Having It All by Eighth Wonder; history has failed to record that they were originally a serious sixties-influenced outfit who did videos based on Girl On A Motorcycle and gigged with the likes of The James Taylor Quartet and Boys Wonder, and that Patsy Kensit was originally cast in the movie after being spotted singing with them. That Pet Shop Boys collaboration has as good as nothing to do with anything else that they ever recorded, a point heavily reinforced by this moody and subdued finger-snapping slinky number, with an impressive breathy yet ruthless vocal. There’s also Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good), an alarmingly convincing pastiche of pre-Beatles pop written by Nick Lowe and performed in the movie by showbiz impresario Harry Charms’ new protege Baby Boom, but since the vocals were actually handled by former Minipop Jonas Hurst it’s perhaps advisable to move rapidly on. The eighties was of course a time of baffling insistence on inflicting horrendous modern ‘improvements’ on Miles Davis’ So What – which in artistic terms is a little like thinking what the Sistine Chapel Ceiling needs is a few more Fido Didos – but Smiley Culture’s murky South London Dancehall overhaul of the music-redefining 1959 jazz milestone is so likeable, and with such eyebrow-raising lyrics about his own experiences of racism, that it’s hard not to give it a free pass.
On the more traditional soundtrack and indeed traditionally jazzy side, Madness producer Clive Langer nods towards the band’s vision of Multicultural London on Napoli, while Jerry Dammers’ scene-shifting ‘angry flute’-replete Riot City – from the climactic fight sequence – could almost be authentic beatnik-aping film music from an authentic beatnik-aping late fifties film; throw this into an actual Bernard Hermann score somewhere and it’s a fair bet that few people would notice. Veteran piano hammerer Slim Gaillard – who not long afterwards made a similar cameo appearance in the deeply Absolute Beginners-inflected ITV comedy drama How To Be Cool – stomps along to Selling Out in fine style, and there’s also some authentic ska from Laurel Aitken’s reworking of his 1969 favourite Landlords And Tenants and World Music from the mysterious Ekow Abban, who also played a small role in the film. Meanwhile, fresh from helping out with everyone else’s brass, percussion and piano arrangements, Gil Evans weighs in with reworkings of Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle (The Rough And The Smooth) as used in the wild opening hurtle through Soho’s streets and Better Git In Your Soul (The Hot And The Cold), his own composition Va Va Voom, and interpretations of Napoli and Absolute Beginners, the latter in particular emphasising just what a remarkable composition it is by virtue of its ability to withstand an impressionistic jazz makeover at a much slower tempo. Staggeringly, two of Evans’ contributions were omitted from the original CD, posing the question of whether those digital early adopters really ought to have been quite so smug after all.
If one criticism could be levelled at the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, it’s that it’s drenched in that horribly over-equalised trebly eighties production and mastering that could make even unedited field recordings of battling nose flute ensembles trying to drown each other out with entirely different melodies sound like a Yamaha Portasound demo tune issuing across a branch of Tandy. There’s a section of Killer Blow where some impressive fretless bass improvisation comes across more or less as the sound of somebody twanging an elastic band, it’s difficult to say for certain – and not in a good way – whether the strings and brass on Quiet Life are real or synthesised, and Slim Gaillard appears to have fallen piano first into the theme tune from a late eighties LWT Saturday Night Light Entertainment show. That’s a criticism that could be levelled at pretty much anything recorded and released around that time, though, and in some senses it actually gives everything more of a sense of cohesion. In any cases, it’s pretty much the sonic equivalent of the various flaws that make anyone who loves Absolute Beginners love it all the more.
Presented in the original double-album format, this excellent reissue of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack is a long overdue reminder of just how cohesive it is on purely musical terms anyway; on face value it’s a collection of disparate tracks and styles that shouldn’t really complement each other, but they share a sense of the same stylised overambitious artistic vision and somehow end up hanging together better than certain other award-winning soundtracks of the eighties that could be mentioned. It’s also well worth highlighting the excellent sleevenotes by Michael Mulligan, which give a short but detailed background on each track, even when – particularly in the case of Ekow Abban – there’s not really much information on the artist available to work with. It’s doubtful that anyone watching Asbolute Beginners would ever have expected to read fascinating anecdotes about Ted Ain’t Dead of all things, but – much like the film itself – here they are regardless and there’s not much that the ‘tastemakers’ can do about it.
Despite what revisionists obsessed with their clean linear narrative of rock history may have to tell you, it took a long time for Absolute Beginners the song to be recognised as one of the highpoints of David Bowie’s career. It’s taken even longer for anyone to recognise that there is a lot more worth investigating on the soundtrack – much of it, let’s be honest, more interesting than Bowie’s other two contributions – and for the soundtrack album itself to be recognised as anything other than a kitschy curio seemingly hanging around forever in charity shops or used as ‘set dressing’ in eighties-set dramas where nobody could be bothered to do any research beyond vaguely taking note of what year they may possibly have been set in. It may not be able to capture that dashed disappointment of realising back in 1986 that you weren’t going to be able to get in to see it and you’d just have to read that review of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Flaunt It in Today for the umpteenth time, but neither did the film manage to capture the razzle-dazzle that so many of its harshest critics back in 1986 had decided in their own heads that it should. Instead, Absolute Beginners found its own vision, and it’s that vision that informed this immensely enjoyable soundtrack album. In short, if you like one, you should like both. Though to be honest you should already like both anyway.
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You can find much more about the less celebrated aspects of David Bowie’s career in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me talking about my love of Absolute Beginners – and other David Bowie/Julien Temple collaborations – on Betamax Video Club here.
I take an often surprising trip through The World Of David Bowie – including an inevitable stop-off at Absolute Beginners – here.
© Tim Worthington.
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