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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Say it very quietly but there was a time when the record buying public rather deserted David Bowie. Of course, after his sad passing, everybody said they were always a fan and had loved everything he ever released, but there was a period from the mid 80s until almost the close of the century when his sales figures, outside reissues, was decidedly patchy.

In fact, some of his most interesting work seemed to be saved for inclusions on soundtracks, a handful of which did sell well as singles; some of which barely scraped onto anyone's playlist. This latest Fab Five looks at five of his most interesting soundtrack inclusions of this period.

Now so we get the rules right for this one, these are records he recorded for soundtracks not his already famous tracks used for great effect in films (think "Starman" in "The Martian" - it wouldn't count).

What seems to be the case is that Bowie used these as opportunities to collaborate with other artists and producers he had not previously worked with as a means to extending and expanding his musical techniques. This chameleon-like progression is of course the underlying theme of his career and why he is so rightly venerated and enjoyed.

I find myself rarely drawn to either 1984's "Tonight" or "Never Let Me Down" from 3 years later, when I fancy a Bowie interlude. There are one or two good moments naturally, but they can often be satisfied by a romp through one of many compilations. Interestingly, around this time and beyond, Bowie was scratching his acting itch far more and appeared in a variety of films from his character lead as The Goblin King in "Labyrinth" - none of the selections will be coming from there - to cameos in movies such as "Into The Night" and not all can be classified as his finest hours. But one of his most high profile parts was one for which he begged the director - his turn as advertising magnate Vendice Partners in the ill-fated British production of "Absolute Beginners".

Bowie agreed with director Julien Temple that he would participate in the soundtrack if he could have the part. So on screen we see him, sporting an alarming buzzcut and executing a tap-dance across a giant typewriter while singing "That's Motivation" and even more incongruously, you can also hear the strains of his crooned version of "Volare".

As I have said before, I found the film much more enjoyable recently than the critics at the time purported it to be, with only the very evident lack of chemistry between the two young leads (Patsy Kensit being one) really hampering the film. it also had a little bit of a feel of being a tapestry of set-pieces which is actually true as the film was created on an ongoing hand-to mouth basis as it secured more funding. It is flawed but visually exciting and certainly a brave attempt at pouring some technicolour into the normally more small scale British film industry of the 1980s.

The title track "Absolute Beginners" is however a masterpiece and its accompanying video based on an old press advertisement (notorious for its lack of success) for a cigarette "You're never alone with a Strand" has all the charisma that you desperately want the film to have. Bowie puts on his best balladeering croon and then launches upon an epic and dramatic seven minute journey of romance and heartbreak tinged with nostalgia. Layers of instrumentation and backing vocals are then punctured by an often overlooked wailing sax solo that brings everything to a shuddering crescendo.

Bowie worked with Langer and Winstanley as producers who had made their names with Madness, Dexys and Elvis Costello and so had a flair for wistful nostalgic pop. They had an excellent understanding of what would be rather disparagingly called Sophisti-pop and this was one of its best exemplars. Indeed later in 2000, during his excellent performance at Glastonbury, Bowie introduces "Absolute Beginners" as one of his best songs from the 80s and it is the moment that this setlist which had been a little cautious really caught fire. He has great affection for the record and rightly so.

Unlike the film, it really is flawless.

Another well-known collaboration came for the soundtrack "The Falcon & The Snowman" which was a much more well-received Cold War thriller about two young Americans selling espionage secrets to the Soviets. It is a quite gripping and dark thriller which has a noir-is, remote feel that is perfectly helped by the stylings of the soundtrack composers. The Pat Metheny Group.

Jazz-fusion is not everyone's cup of tea as it is normally improvised and can therefore be quite free form but Pat Metheny was long admired as a very subtle practitioner. He had started to win Grammys for his work but still managed to create a much more melodic and accessible soundscape. So, he was invited to create a soundtrack that could be Cold War austere but also reflect the Latin location of quite a bit of its action.

The main track "This Is Not America" is another Bowie classic. It has a tragic and plaintive quality that is kept clipped and confined by the rhythms laid down by Metheny and his group. It is another heartbreaking performance.

The single version should appear familiar to most Bowie fans but less well known is that actually the track already existed called "Chris" for the soundtrack. The version we know has added drums and lyrics that Bowie wrote for it to capture the claustrophobia of the world of espionage. It is a wonderful and complex piece of music in its own right.

After the mid 80s lull came the eccentricity of Tin Machine and I haven't seen much of that particular output popping up in the course of their Bowie encomia. So at the start of the early 90s, he decided to go back to working with Nile Rodgers with whom he had had his last worldwide success with "Let's Dance" back in 1983. This would result in the "Black Tie White Noise" album which I have always thought deserved more credit. It is much funkier and quirkier than their previous collaboration and has that strangeness that makes so much of his work unique.

However, before they settled down to make the album, Bowie recorded a song called "Real Cool World" for the film "Cool World". This was a part live-action part animation film by Ralph Bakshi starring a real life and animated Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger as a animated sex siren called Holli Would.

Sounds intriguing?

It wasn't really... though a more recent viewing made it feel a little more valiant than its initial reception would have you believe. It is both convoluted and aimless to be honest.

The title track "Real Cool World" though is really quite exciting and was his first new solo work for six years - not that that particular milestone had many people parting with their hard-earned in celebration (I confess I did and am rather proud of the fact). It has a much darker vocal delivery the its title might suggest but it's tick-tock vocal hook over a skittering rhythm track made for a a very fresh sound from the Thin White Duke that was indicative of the film's unusual dystopian universe, although even now the sax break feels something of a throwback.

This was a prolific period for Bowie because while he produced "Real Cool World" and then "Black Tie White Noise" with the excellent "Jump They Say" as lead single, he met Hanif Kureishi who was in the process of producing "The Buddha Of Suburbia" for the BBC. Kureishi had attended Bromley Technical College ten years after Bowie had (Peter Frampton's father was an art teacher there) and they established a mutual friendship based on their South London shared experiences. Bowie agreed to write the soundtrack to the series - although in the end only the title song appeared in the show, the rest of the soundtrack was reworked. He would re-record "Strangers When We Meet" for his "Outside" album.

"The Buddha Of Suburbia" feels like a special song to Bowie - very evidently autobiographical. One of the novel's main characters, stepbrother, Charlie Kay, has much in common with Bowie's 70s adventures. The record itself has nods to "Space Oddity" and "All The Mad Men" and is refreshing antidote to his more experimental work he was trying out in the course of his regular releases.

It also marked a further collaboration as Lenny Kravitz was brought in to deliver the guitar solo. Another welcome enhancement as he keeps trying out contuinual experimentation. The album however, sank without trace sadly.

Finally, my favourite lone soundtrack piece is "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" which most of you will recognise from the "Let's Dance" album but that is just a tepid remake of the much more masterful track he recorded with legendary producer, Giorgio Moroder, the year before in 1982. It offers a much tighter and darker performance.

Bowie starred in 'Cat People' with Catherine Deneuve and it was not a tremendous success but the title track is tight and suspenseful. It musically broods, threatening to break loose at any time, until it finally does.

However, Quentin Tarantino noted this because, although it came from a different soundtrack he used it to even greater effect in the build-up to the climax of "Inglorious Basterds" where the full potency of the track is brought to life for the final conflagration in the Paris theatre. I think it is not only one of the best tracks he put down for a movie but also one of the best uses of one of his pre-existing songs.

This is icy menace etched in vinyl.

With the exception of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" and perhaps "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" there are not that many defining performances in Bowie's film career. Yet the music he was able to produce for a variety of different soundtracks show his real understanding of the cinematic experience. A shout out here for both "When The Wind Blows" which is another moving and atmospheric piece that would easily be number six and "Forbidden Colours" by Sylvian & Sakamoto which is the best song by a country mile from a soundtrack to a film he is in, but didn't perform.

He manages to capture all the range of emotions necessary - remote, exciting even whimsical - whilst still allowing him the option of experimenting in styles, in production and in collaboration.

There is undoubtedly a great album to come (are you listening Record Store Day?) of his soundtrack work and it can undeniably hold its own in the portfolio of wonderful music he produced - all the more so because much of it comes from a period when his regular releases were not necessarily firing the imagination of even the strong devoted - whatever they may say now.

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Jun 21, 2020

Brilliant, Tony. I've long admired Absolute but hadn't heard the long version or seen that great video. Also love This Is Not America, but knew nothing of Chris. Now I'm digging into the others. Thanks for the head's up. My Bowie knowledge is patchy but I did start off fairly well - I was one of but a handful of people who bought his "Can't Help Thinking About Me" single on it's original release!

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