Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners.
Absolute Beginners (single edit).
Absolute Beginners (dub mix).
Absolute Beginners (live, 1987).
Absolute Beginners (broadcast, 2000).
Absolute Beginners (live, 2002).

I recall reading somewhere (a commenter on Popular, most likely) a DJ taken by the response he got whenever he played “Absolute Beginners,” especially towards the end of an evening. It’s the Bowie song that people forget they love, he said.

If “Ashes to Ashes” kills off world-altering Bowie, “Absolute Beginners” finishes world-popular Bowie. Very nearly a UK #1 (held off by Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction” and a Cliff Richard/Young Ones duet), “Beginners” is the end of Bowie’s days in mainstream pop, with only one more solo appearance in the UK Top 10 to come in this survey. While some of its chart success was due to Absolute Beginners hype (which explains in part why “Beginners” died such a death in the US, only reaching #53, as the film flopped there), “Beginners” was loved too, as it was one of Bowie’s most open, most heartfelt-seeming songs, even if he occasionally sounded like Neil Diamond on the chorus (especially on “hard lines”).

Having recently looked up pop hits of my childhood in the late Seventies-early Eighties (as memory-triggers for this new project), I was struck by how many of them had been “adult” pop songs, for lack of a better word—songs about commitment, missed chances, regrets, sacrifices, sneaking around, feeling used up but still keeping at it. Some were saccharine and self-deceiving, some were home truths. “Still the One,” “Reminiscing,” “Against All Odds,” “Secret Lovers,”“Oh Sherrie,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “Glory Days,” “Solid,” “Still the Same,” “Don’t Answer Me,” and so on. At some point, by the turn of the century, country music had annexed most of these songs, leaving today’s pop charts far more ruthlessly dedicated to the pleasures and preoccupations of youth (with many exceptions of course, Beyoncé being the first that comes to mind).

This outcome would’ve been fine for me as a kid, because I always hated when some ballad about being lost in middle-aged love knocked off an important song like “Rock Me Amadeus” in the charts. But as dreary as I thought them, the songs were a collective undercurrent, giving warnings that life in the years ahead would have different pleasures, different worries, than those I was consumed with then. It was perhaps the last time the pop charts were a generational dialogue, even if both sides weren’t particularly interested in listening to each other.

This is a long way of saying that “Absolute Beginners” falls into this decaying line of adult pop—it’s not a song for young people, though Bowie casts himself as a beginner in love. His nearly-improvised lyric, marked by slant rhymes (“ocean/reason” or “offer/beginner”), is subtly an extended pledge of love as one long equivocation. Even at his most heartfelt, Bowie’s still hedging something.

A heartbroken man is trying out love once more. He’s been down so long that it feels like it’s the first time again, and he’s so intoxicated by the promise that he feels as though he can start over from scratch. But he can’t, and he knows it—his eyes are open, his feet are on the ground, he’s unfortunately sane. The first verse closes with “I absolutely love you/but we’re absolute beginners“: it’s a declaration undermined with a quick caveat. If I don’t know anything about love anymore, then I don’t know if this will work.

There’s wariness in the chorus as well, despite the unbounded joy of the vocal melody and the soaring sentiments about flying over mountains and laughing at oceans (though recall that Bowie’s not talking about love here but its commercial vehicles—songs and films). Where the first chorus finds Bowie reassuring his love, saying that there’s no reason to dwell on the past, to be pessimistic, by the chorus repeat he’s come back down. If there are reasons to be afraid, if you are worried you’re making another mistake, then you may well be right. And you realize Bowie’s been playing with the word “absolute” the whole time. “Absolute” as an adjective means an unconditional fact, as in a pledge of “absolute” love, but the word also means to be completely independent, to be utterly whole. Two absolute beginners may be awful lovers, for they’re complete in themselves and need nothing else added.

“Beginners” was a throwback to the type of studio improvisation that had created the likes of “Heroes,” which suggests again that Bowie in his declining years needed to will himself into a state of determined, frenzied creativity before he could produce top-flight work. This arguably had been the case with Station to Station or Low too, but now it was ten years on from those records. Bowie was rich, unchallenged and at a loss of where to go. Then, in a pick-up session for an inconsequential film soundtrack, he managed a late lucky strike.

The song came out of a demo session for “That’s Motivation,” which Bowie cut with a band assembled by EMI A&R head Hugh Stanley Clarke, including Attractions’ keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Matthew Seligman (who’d worked with the Soft Boys and Thomas Dolby), drummer Neil Conti and guitarist Kevin Armstrong (Prefab Sprout), with Rick Wakeman subsequently doing piano overdubs.* Each musician only had been told they were supporting a “Mr. X” at Abbey Road. (Most of them knew who “X” was before they arrived, though. Conti had been given the tip that his employer “had a glass eye.”)

Quickly dispatching the “Motivation” demo (with which “Beginners” shares an opening guitar line), Bowie and the band had time left on the clock, so they began working on another piece Bowie was considering for the film. Fueled by a mix of cigarettes, Cuba Gold coffee and cocaine,** Bowie sketched out a few chords and lyric phrases, then led the band through the song as he was writing it. Building the song eight bars at a time, scribbling out the lyric in bursts, Bowie took cues from his players’ suggestions—a key change; an exuberant bassline courtesy of a beside-himself Seligman.

Playing the role of Eno to his new charges, Bowie offered suggestions like “think green” or “sound Brazilian.” According to Sandford’s bio, Bowie also kept the mood light with a few pantomimes, like filming an empty glass on the recording console or hanging a painting on the studio wall.

“Beginners” is structurally fairly standard. While solidly in D major, an early Amaj7 chord in place of an A adds a bit of tension (on “nothing”) as do a few later diversions—for instance, a C major subs for what should be a C# minor (on “I’m absolutely,” so brightening that declaration). Where the track’s most radical in its embrace of stasis, in its easy but steady momentum. Its two verses are far too long for a typical pop single: they’re 40 bars, each over a minute long, so even on the single edit the chorus doesn’t appear until two minutes into the track. And what a chorus, though: one of the great octave-spanning Bowie melodies, a worthy heir to “Lady Grinning Soul” and the second bridge on “Under Pressure.”

However, despite this, “Beginners” doesn’t seem to drag. If anything, there’s a sense of having enough room to spare—take the way Bowie will take his time on every phrase, often languidly singing a three-beat line over four bars. The song’s fluid, able to be extended and shortened at will without sacrificing its feel, as long as you cut to the meaty chorus ever so often. So there’s a five-minute single edit, the eight-minute “master” version on the soundtrack LP (and used for the video), the two-minute cut for Absolute Beginners‘ opening credits, the six-minute cut for the end titles. “Beginners” was easily extended by Don Weller’s saxophone solo and a Luis Jardem percussion breakdown;  it was just as easily compressed to a single verse/chorus.

When Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were producing the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, heard Bowie’s studio demo of “Beginners,” they were flummoxed, as they had no idea how to improve it. “We’ve been handed this one on a plate,” Langer recalled saying in the elevator afterwards (as per Buckley’s bio).

The main addition was fulfilling Bowie’s request for a backing singer “who sounds like a shopgirl.” Langer and Winstanley found the 22-year-old Janet Armstrong, whose vocal on “Absolute Beginners” was her first-ever professional studio session. (It’s yet another play on the title, as Bowie is duetting with a literal absolute beginner). Bowie’s lead vocal was cut during a freewheeling session in which he imitated Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bruce Springsteen—the tapes, sadly, haven’t been bootlegged.

“Beginners” (the instrumental “dub” mix, issued as the B-side, is a nice way to hear the intricacies of the backing track) is a collection of small pleasures—the way Nieve’s keyboards can sound like an accordion; Wakeman’s wry musings that become, during the chorus, a lovely embellishment on the vocal melody; the baritone-sax heavy horn section, which eventually takes up the “bom-bom-bahOOOH” vocal hook; the Jardim percussion break, capped off with what sounds like an analog attempt to match the Fairlight tom samples on Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice” theme; Bowie and Armstrong’s last “true,” which they hold aloft as long as they can, then slowly bring it down to earth.

The song felt valedictory, like a last gift, and it was. “Beginners” marks the end of Bowie as a mass property (it’s arguably the most recent song that the average person knows of his), his final hour in the center. Now he begins a long journey that will lead him back to where he had started: on the margins.

Recorded June 1985 at Abbey Road Studios, London (with overdubs later in the year). Released March 1986 as Virgin VS 838 (#2 UK, #53 US). Performed during the Glass Spider tour, live for the BBC in 2000 (during this performance, Bowie raises his eyes to the sky while he sings “I absolutely love you,” and then mouths “thank you”—it seems like a prayer, but perhaps he was only acknowledging a vocal fan in the nosebleed seats) and as a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey on the Heathen tour of 2002.

* Wakeman added what he described as the “classical piano/ Rachmaninoff type stuff” in a much later mixing session, where he and Bowie (who had been neighbors in Switzerland) spent a few hours reminiscing.

**An apparent late-in-the-day indulgence, as it’s one of the last reported times Bowie used it.

Top: Michael Schmidt, from the Waffenruhe (“ceasefire”) series, Berlin, 1985-86.

35 Responses to Absolute Beginners

  1. David says:

    Great piece. Love the cocaine and Rick Wakeman details. Bowie played AB early in his 2000 Glastonbury set, the first time I saw him: between ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and it went down a storm, proving your point about it being the last example of ‘world popular’ Bowie. 2000 was the last year that people were able to jump the fences at Glasto, which, combined with locals being allowed in free on Sunday evening, probably means that he was playing to the largest Glastonbury audience ever. There’s a bit more about his set on page 200 of my novel about that year’s festival, which is called, surprisingly, ‘Festival’. Out of print but easy to find.

  2. jopasso says:

    In my Top-20 indeed.
    The song contains that melancholic air that makes it even better.
    Love his “wtf” face in the video, when notices he has no cigarettes left.

    • col1234 says:

      yeah the whole video is weirdly a fantasia about DB wanting cigarettes, and not being able to get them, to the point where he starts fantasizing about a Zebra pack come to life in the form of an Eighties model in body-paint.

    • Maj says:

      Since I haven’t watched the video in ages I forgot abt that. Hilarious indeed.

  3. Jasper says:

    I love this song, it is one of those songs I like having on repeat for a long time, a flawless pop song. I know very few pop songs can hold up over 8 min. And as a bonus it makes my girlfriend dance around the flat.

    The two other songs from the movie don’t have a pretty life outside the film. I still like and dislike the film, but it is visually striking and it does have some great scenes, favorites being the cool Sade, Ray Davis doing Quiet Life and Bowie on the typewriter being old school musical, although I detest musicals. It is of it’s time where some sort of plastic cool was king.

    I still like the Film Noir style Absolute Beginners Video, I had forgotten that the scenes from the movie was that present, I don’t think they do a big favor to the video but they are off course there to sell the movie. And i still find the girl in the music video hot lol.

    I just heard Carla Bruni cover of the song for the first time, I understand what she is trying to do but she makes it feel long and somewhat boring. Her version is down to 5.30 min.

    Thanks for another great dissection of a Bowie song

  4. Brian J says:

    This is my favorite track of his from the 80’s. There might be a lot of people out there who feel this track is schmaltzy, but screw ‘em.

  5. Maj says:

    So Bowie wrote his best post-Scary Monsters 80’s song on cocaine. why am I not surprised. not the best advert for clean living, huh? :)
    well, I absolutely (pun intended) love this song. But I didn’t know it until I got my hands on the Bowie at the Beeb set…by that time I knew all of his 70’s & 90’s material & I was completely blown away by This is Not America but especially Absolute Beginners…I couldn’t believe this sort of song would come from what I’d known to be from old-timey fans as the dark period. :)
    The film is not worthy of this song, the rest of the soundtrack (Motivation incl.) is in a completely different league…the league of plodding.
    Now I can’t be sure abt post-Iman songs but I think this might be the closest Bowie got to a conventional love song up until then. Yes, the whole thing is not exactly…oh we’re so in love & we will be forever after but it’s not a just for one day affair either. It’s realistic & romantic (but not tragically romantic) at the same time, if that makes sense.
    Bowie has written quite a lot matchy matchy songs (lyrics fitting the mood of the music) and while I have a thing for happy sounding pop songs with dark lyrics, if you do matchy matchy pop, do it like this, please. octave-leaping choruses with words like “mountains” and “ocean”? fine with me.

    • rob thomas says:

      Agreed- the Bowie at Beeb version is a killer. Haven’t come across col1234’s comments on that recording yet, but would love to, as I think it’s a superlative session: interesting arrangements and sounds unbelievably good through car speakers…

  6. LondonLee says:

    That “BOM BOM BA-OOOH” should be really silly but it’s just grand and melts me every time. Like “Heroes” this connects on a whole other emotional level than a lot of his other songs.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Wow! Just a brilliant write up really, totally on the money – great writing. As for the song? Total genius really. Just watched the you tube link then and I’d forgotten just how long this song is for a single – doesn’t seem like it when you listen to it. Bowie’s phrasing, the timbre of his voice and the brilliance of the melody and arrangement are just a total joy. The video is very complementary to the song – great noir atmosphere and brings even more emotional import to the song. That Bowie could write such a glorious song smack bang in the middle of his less inspired period is really heartwarming – thanks David.

  8. MC says:

    This song never did much for me, but listening to it while reading the piece, damned if chills didn’t run up my spine at the chorus. Reappraisal time!
    Thank you for another great piece

  9. Gnomemansland says:

    You are right AB sounds a lot better than one remembers it, positively perking up my Friday. BTW great write up as always wouldn’t it be funny though if you were making up all the stuff about chord changes from C to C sharp and so on – I’m sure you are not of course

    • col1234 says:

      oh good Lord, that would require way too much ingenuity on my part. I’m far from an expert on musical theory, too so if i’m ever off, someone please school me.

  10. diamond dog says:

    The promo was a pastiche of the advert for strand cigarettes which had the catch phrase your never alone with a strand. This song is a wonderful piece a highlight of his career. Its a pity the movie does not quite live up to it but its not as bad as the reviews expressed. Great article like the bowie sniffing the old marchin powder.

  11. David L says:

    “If “Ashes to Ashes” kills off world-altering Bowie, “Absolute Beginners” finishes world-popular Bowie.”

    Great line, great piece. Great song, probably his best of the 80s. It feels as if it was his response to the critics who were savaging his last album — as if to say, Oh yeah? then shove this up your —!

    I haven’t seen the movie, but judging by this video, it looks like AB is about a bunch of people smashing Britain to pieces. Am I right? Lots of smashing going on.

    (And there’s that glimpse of Ray Davies from the Quiet Life video — man, does he look like John Cazale as Fredo, or what? )

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Have to agree with everyone here; this is one that slipped under the radar The second one after Baal. I’ve always ‘kind of liked’ it without paying too much attention. Perhaps it’s because it didn’t come from an album. It’s good enough to have been on Station to Station and pop music doesn’t get better than that in my book.
    I remember the review in the NME dismissing it because it sounded like Bowie. Who else would be criticised for sounding like himself?I’ve always thought that because the quality of his ‘world-changing’ era work was so astonishingly high, the bar was always set much higher for Bowie than for others. And the fall from grace seemed far more dramatic; he was only falling to where the rest were.
    That ’87 live footage is shockingly bad though. I’m so glad that tour passed me by.

  13. m@yahoo.com says:

    I’ll grant that it’s pretty great, and that it’s probably his best track of the 80s, but for me it’s still quite a few notches below Bowie’s best. It’s no Sweet Thing or Station To Station, it’s not Heroes. In Bowie’s best material there’s an ambiguous tension that is lacking here, somehow.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Completely agree with you about the lack of tension but don’t you think that’s more to do with the playing or the production rather than the song itself? There’s nothing wrong with either but you’re right that the ‘tension’ isn’t there.

  14. Gnomemansland says:

    One of the reasons critics perhaps were not so keen on it it at the time was perhaps because it sounded rather 80s whereas the film is set in the late 1950s. The tracks underpinning musical structure is arguably quite 50s but the production makes it sound very 80s. They could have got Phil Spector in……..

  15. ofer says:

    well… it’s a nice track, but not much more to my ears, and not his best from that era. i guess one reason i can’t really relate to it is it’s “the most recent song that the average person knows of his”, and that means i knew the song before i knew bowie had something to offer me. it’s one of those late night VH1 tracks, like “lets dance” and “china girl”, one you can learn to like after knowing what the guy is all about but still mixes perfectly with culture club videos. at the time, watching videos like this one on VH1, i knew bowie was admired by many but i just couldn’t figure out why. the first time my ears really opened to him is when they started playing “ashes to ashes”, which also had a very 1980 sound but was clearly very different from all the other videos. it clearly felt like that one had something to say. what i’m trying to say, i guess, is AB is very much a product of its time, in a manner which can’t be applied to the truly great bowie tunes. also, unlike “loving the alien” and “modern love”, i just don’t feel like the lyrics give it an extra kick – one must stretch his sub-textual sensibilities in order to find the meet here. it just doesn’t give me that rush.

    that said, interesting to read and listen at the same time, and have that phantom sense of suddenly hearing epicness for a moment or so, in a place where you actually don’t hear it at all.

  16. timspeaker says:

    The article rightly asserts that AB is in the pantheon of Great (with a capital G) pop songs by our man DB. I’ve always been a huge fan of it, and I do love the cover by Carla Bruni as well. Definitely an under-the-radar classic.

    Brings up a good question: what would be the Top 25 Best Bowie Songs of the Lost Decade? AB would certainly be in the conversation for the top spot, perhaps just behind Teenage Wildlife, Ashes To Ashes, and Modern Love I would think.

    Your superb word-smithery and insight are brilliant as usual. Here’s hoping you can keep up the high quality through the 90’s.

    • col1234 says:

      I’ll most likely do another “chapter end” summary after Never Let Me Down, which will be as good a place as any to argue over the Lost Decade’s canon..

    • David L says:

      The “Lost Decade” begins in 1981, after “Scary Monsters” — at least for me. ;)

  17. diamond dog says:

    I think there is some genuine emotion on this song I remember hearing say ‘ love you’ as being odd to hear the usually detached Bowie connecting at last with emotions it has a certain touching truth in there.

  18. mike says:

    The song felt valedictory, like a last gift, and it was. “Beginners” marks the end of Bowie as a mass property (it’s arguably the most recent song that the average person knows of his), his final hour in the center. Now he begins a long journey that will lead him back to where he had started: on the margins.

    YES! Well said (as usual).

    • Carl H says:

      Here in Sweden nobody knows this song. The last remembered “mass appeal” Bowie song seem to be is Dancing in the Streets, for most people who lived at the time it’s seen as one of the highlights of his career.

  19. Frankie says:

    Thanks for the great piece with its nifty details of research. I remember the first time I heard this song on the radio, I was completely floored by how effective it was at being genuinely emotional, in a genre that only few others like the mentioned Neil Diamond can pull off convincingly, without sounding too corny (or too much like Arnold Corns). The song conveyed the unexpected impression that Bowie was interested in crafting a lasting piece of music once again. Perhaps putting his heart into one or two songs for a soundtrack afforded him the discipline to focus and hone instead of passing something off slap dash with the hopes there’s enough hints of genius to magically hold it together more or less. I still think its a great song. It transcends its place as a soundtrack. By the way, I enjoyed and recalled some of your songs from your 70s childhood that were a bit more adult-contemporary-themed in nature. A few years back I went through a similar process of revisiting songs from the 70s that never left me since I was a kid. The melodic If You Leave Me Now by Chicago fits that slot in my early years of listening to A.M. radio not to mention the ponderous All By Myself by Eric Carmen and the searing Love Hurts by Nazareth. Ah, what love lost! But I digress.

  20. swanstep says:

    Good essay. From memory this track first appears at the very end of the film. The film had a lot of problems, but it sent you out on a very high note indeed, almost ready to forgive it its mis-steps. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

    I guess I’d say too, that world-wide, Bowie’s contrib. from 1. Outside to the Lost Highway s/track, I’m Deranged (which opens and closes the film) has pretty high awareness. The average college kid these days is much much more likely to know ID than AB.

  21. Diamond Duke says:

    I’ve always really loved this song. In fact, it’s my favorite David Bowie song from the ’80s (and mind you, when I say ’80s, I mean the post-Scary Monsters, post-Baal ’80s!), and I’ve always found it genuinely emotionally affecting. That vocal hook always gets me, as well. I actually don’t have the Absolute Beginners soundtrack CD yet, which means I don’t own either That’s Motivation, Volare or the full-length version of the title track yet (on CD anyway). But I do know the full-length version from the Best Of Bowie DVD. To be perfectly honest, I think they should have kept that cool intro on the single version…

    I read a funny story from Paul Trynka’s Starman bio. Apparently, session guitarist Kevin Armstrong (who would later augment the live Tin Machine lineup in the late ’80s) was actually the one who procured the cocaine used at the session…and came this close to being canned when he revealed that he obtained the powder from none other than a certain former Mary Angela Barnett! He managed to hold on to his gig by the skin of his teeth by lying and saying he didn’t reveal who the cocaine was for!

    Personally, I’m grateful that Bowie eventually kicked the white stuff for good, as well as cigarettes. Neither of them did much good for his vocal range. For example, his singing on Young Americans (1975) was wonderfully expressive, but you will notice how sandpaper-dry his voice sounds. Also, notice how much range he got back between the recording of ‘…hours’ and Heathen, since he quit smoking in the early 2000’s! Not that it’s really mattered that much during the last couple years, sadly, beyond the obvious health benefits. (Unless he actually has been doing some recording…)

  22. philT says:

    yeah, good track again – i actually quite like the AB soundtrack now. it certainly seems to me that this one song seems to be the template for a lot of his recent material – same style of languid delivery in the verses, slightly bombastic backing, etc.

  23. princeasbo says:

    I was in the UK when the Absolute Beginners film came out and a more perfect example of the hot house effect a weekly music press engenders I can’t think of. Chris, I’d get hold of NMEs/Sounds/Melody Makers from around the time for more background/context.

    It was seen as an event partly because the young director, Julian Temple, had punk cred, the title had already been a hit for the Jam (Paul Weller’s Style Council has a great song on the soundtrack), and the Colin MacInnes book on which the movie was based was a Brit Cult youth classic. In a way, a self-fulfilling prophesy of youth empowerment.

    I think the idea of a “musical” was seen as something of a novelty as well.

    See http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/absolute-beginners-the-musical-v2386-1986/ for more info.

    BTW, MacInnes’ City of Spades and Mr Love & Justice, the other two of the author’s London Novels trilogy, are also worthwhile reads.

  24. princeasbo says:

    I should have read further (e.g. That’s Motivation), I was surprised you hadn’t discussed the movie and the books; not surprised I was wrong!

  25. NeilC says:

    Just to clarify a few things –
    1. The band for Abbey Rd was put together by Andy Ferguson, Thomas Dolby’s manager., who also worked for EMI at the time.
    2. Kevin Armstrong was never a member of Prefab Sprout (he toured with us as a guest).
    3. It’s absolute rubbish that Bowie was doing cocaine in the studio. He was very calm, happy and healthy, if a little overweight.

    Cheers, Neil Conti.

  26. rob thomas says:

    I love it that this thread ends with a Prefab Sprout-er commenting on DB’s weight- ah, the hidden corners of the internet…

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