Chilly Down

Chilly Down (film).
Chilly Down (soundtrack).

So here we intersect with a parallel world—two universes are briefly in sync. I’m talking about the cults of Bowie and of Labyrinth, the 1986 Jim Henson film in which Bowie starred as the Goblin King, Jareth, and for which he wrote five songs. To make an overly broad assumption, for the average Bowie fan or pop music fan, Labyrinth is an odd, dismissible footnote in Bowie’s career. For the Labyrinth fan, however, Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth is the best thing that he ever did—for some, it’s the only thing that they know Bowie did. (Take a recent Digital Spy reader’s survey of the Top 10 Bowie songs of all time: “Magic Dance” made the cut. Labyrinth fans are legion.)

Henson originally conceived Jareth as a puppet, but then rethought the character as a charismatic human actor “with musical talent.” Bowie soon came to mind (the other top candidates were Michael Jackson and Sting). Meeting Bowie in New York during the Serious Moonlight tour, Henson offered him the role, showing Bowie some of Brian Froud’s sketches for the proposed film, and giving him a tape of The Dark Crystal, Henson’s first foray into more “adult” fantasy. Once Bowie received the Terry Jones-penned script for Labyrinth, which he enjoyed for its “inane insanity,” Bowie was game.

So from April to September 1985 Bowie spent long weeks in Elstree Studios making a film in which his co-stars were an infant, a cast of puppets (the first days of Bowie’s shooting were mostly a loss, as Bowie kept looking offstage whenever a puppeteer spoke his lines) and a 14-year-old actress with whom he had the best on-screen chemistry of his career (Jennifer Connelly, to Marc Spitz: “I was just this side of getting it. Getting who David Bowie was. He was really sweet. I liked him very much.” And Bowie compared her at the time to the young Elizabeth Taylor). When Iggy Pop turned up in London to play Bowie some of his new songs, he was bemused to find Bowie spending his days in a Tina Turner fright wig and ridiculously tight trousers (more on the infamous pants in a later entry). And some at Bowie’s label, EMI, were starting to publicly worry about what Bowie was doing.

Think of Bowie’s five Labyrinth songs as a secret mid-Eighties Bowie album. It finds Bowie in his typical scrapper mode, using pieces he had considered for a “proper” album and repurposing them for the soundtrack of a fantasy movie. Bowie reworked old themes, looking for flashes of life, still trying to write himself out of his funk. So a rousing singalong goofy kid’s song (“Magic Dance”) is also a pop trope as old as “Love Potion No. 9″; the ballad “As the World Falls Down” is one of his loveliest, saddest pieces of the era; the brief “Within You” calls back to the Berlin records and even Baal; and the main theme song is a compromised attempt at a Young Americans sequel, complete with the return of Luther Vandross.

Then there’s “Chilly Down.” The context, for those who haven’t seen the film: Connelly, looking for her kidnapped brother, falls into a pit, which is populated by five jabbering puppets, the Fireys. They dance around her, their heads float off and plop down, they rip out their eyeballs, play croquet with their limbs, they maybe attempt to kill her—it’s not quite clear, as it’s a poorly-directed and shot scene, with Connelly lamely wandering around, then decapitating puppets, one by one. (My mother, upon watching this scene in a recent family screening: “well, that’s it for me,” and left the room.) It’s also the worst-looking sequence in the film: where much of Labyrinth has gorgeous sets and matte paintings, this is mostly green-screen antics; it’s as though Henson took The Claws of Axos as his main visual inspiration here.

“Chilly Down” was the first piece Bowie wrote for the film, and its rhythm tracks were cut during the Absolute Beginners/”Dancing in the Street” sessions in late June 1985. (It’s the same lineup: Neil Conti on drums, Matthew Seligman on bass, Kevin Armstrong on guitar.) Bowie cut a guide vocal for the puppet voice artists—Charles Augins, Danny John-Jules, Kevin Clash (Elmo’s voice) and Richard Bodkin*—and Bowie’s voice is still faintly audible at times in the mix.

Creepy voices aside, “Chilly” is a mildly interesting song: you can hear Bowie in places toying with the chorus melody of “Absolute Beginners” (there’s the same descending piano line) while the lyric, about a gang of grubby layabouts with no money who are dedicated to keeping it chill, is something Bowie could’ve written for Iggy Pop to sing (“strut your nasty stuff, wiggle in the middle yeh” or even better, “good times, bad food“). And only Bowie would throw in an out-of-key chord change (a move to E-flat in what’s been a straight A major song) in the middle of a rap written for a puppet.

Recorded ca. June-August 1985, London. Released 27 June 1986 on the Labyrinth OST (EMI America SV-17206) to coincide with the film’s US release. (Oddly enough, the soundtrack came out in the UK at the same time, although the UK didn’t get the film until the following Christmas.)

* According to the soundtrack LP credits and Nicholas Pegg’s guidebook. The Wikipedia entry lists different singers, including Karen Prell and Rob Mills, without attribution.

25 Responses to Chilly Down

  1. MC says:

    The role of Labyrinth in Bowie iconography should not be underestimated; many female Bowie fans I know of arrived at his music through this film (and not necessarily because of the tunes, of course). For myself, it will be interesting listening to these tracks, as the Labyrinth thing largely passed me by. I saw the movie when it came out, but that was a phase when my interest in Bowie had ebbed to pretty much its lowest point; I never even bothered to get the soundtrack. Thus, I heard most of these songs exactly once, at my sole viewing of the film (the exception being Underground, the single, which for me was another ignominious failure). On one listen, Chilly Down actually sounds somewhat better, if rather minor and bizarre. (Shame DB never hosted The Muppet Show, btw.)

  2. Sofa Head says:

    Your mother appears to be a discerning film critic.

  3. Remco says:

    I’m guessing the pants get their own entry?

  4. Brian J says:

    Awww yeah, it’s Labyrinth time. This is how I found out about Bowie, I looked up who the heck was in this movie I remembered for some reason, watched the video to Ashes to Ashes and the SNL performance of The Man Who Sold the World, and have been a fan since.

  5. Remco says:

    As a kid, whenever I got to pick which video to rent this would be the one I’d choose, every time. I taped the songs from the TV and played that tape into oblivion. I can still sing along with all of them even though I hadn’t heard them since I was a kid. It took me almost a decade to get into non-Jareth Bowie.

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    Wow, it has been soooooooooo long since I’ve seen Labyrinth! I remember seeing it once or twice on VHS way back when I was a kid, but never since then. I think it’s probably a tad overdue for a repeat viewing. One of these days, I’ll probably pick up the DVD.

    As far as the soundtrack is concerned (which I recently purchased on CD, having assimilated the entire Bowie catalogue Borg-style since this past spring!), it’s not exactly what I would call the most “essential” listening of Bowie’s career. But there is much to be admired here. As The World Falls Down is a gorgeous ballad, Within You is sinister and sorrowful in equal measure, Underground is a pretty fair gospel-soul approximation. Chilly Down is actually kind of goofy (well, it is a Muppet number), but I suppose it works better in the context of the film. Like I said, it’s been ages since I’ve seen it, so…

    And BTW, speaking of Iggy Pop, do you recognize the (probable) inspiration for the call-and-response of “Don’t got no problems (no problems) / Ain’t got no suitcase (no suitcase) / Ain’t got no clothes to worry about (no clothes to worry about) / Ain’t got no real estate or jewelry or gold mines to hang me up!”?

  7. Sigmata Martyr says:

    MC says:
    January 19, 2012 at 11:05 am
    “The role of Labyrinth in Bowie iconography should not be underestimated; many female Bowie fans I know of arrived at his music through this film (and not necessarily because of the tunes, of course).”

    Hi, this is were I come in! I’ve enjoyed reading your blog so much, and my Bowie fandom was born of this period . I don’t know if Bowie had a plan to seed himself into a younger set of fans or he did it on a whim, but it worked!
    Along with Labyrinth, Changes was quoted at the begining of “The Breakfast Club”, Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose was advised by his mother to dress down a bit for his first day in high school saying “September, when you go to college , you can dress like David Bowie…” every new wave band fell over themselves to namecheck him as an influence. Jennifer Connelly was in Seventeen Magazine as a model during this period frequently and was a source of admiration/envy for being filmed on stage with Duran Duran as a ghost during “Seventh Stranger” Sassy Magazine lured Seventeen subscribers to their new title by mailing a NLMD fold out poster and his Live Aid performance was an effective crash course in getting up to speed with his older songs as well as seeing the british crowd freaking out at each song presenting, him to an american teeny bop kid, as a massive rock star and yet a cultish one.
    Coming to Bowie “backwards” means that some of the stuff that makes older fans want to crawl into the fetal position is the stuff I cut my teeth on and have a real fondness for.

    And back in those pre internet days the movie stills released by the studio were all one had. You could stare at those Jareth pictures in really boring places like magazines in the dentist’s office, or TV Guide and think all manner of impure things…

  8. Jeremy says:

    Not Bowie’s best work, these Labyrinth songs, but you’d have to be dead to not get into the fun. It was actually a great career move for Bowie and netted him heaps of really young fans. My girlfriend, who is 11 years younger than me, was introduced to Bowie in this way and she loves his music to this day.

    Having said that at the time as a 16 year old I was embarrassed by pretty much everything about it! But things change over time and I can appreciate it for what it is – for kids.

  9. snoball says:

    What makes me laugh (re: the pants) is that the contact juggler (the guy who hid behind Bowie and juggled the crystal spheres) is credited with ‘ball manipulation’.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I have to confess to being one of those old wrinklies that has no idea what this is all about. I’ve seen the standard movie-still poster and always assumed it was some kind of cameo in a Muppets spin-off that never really caught on. I had no idea it had fans.
    I got into Bowie because there wasn’t really an option when I was young, it was just what everybody else did, unless you had personal hygiene issues and preferred heavy metal. It must be so different to have joined the Bowie story here.
    None of this makes the song any good though.

  11. ofer says:

    for some reason i find this soundtrack to be of his most inspired moments from that period, and i’m not a huge fan of the movie (it’s sweet, but “lady hawk” and obviously “the princess bride” beat him in his own court). i know, the songs are no epic eternal masterpieces – but the fact that he’s composing for children had somehow made bowie feel more loose and playful then in anything else he’d done in years, and i do feel that the sense of playfulness is seminal to almost everything i truly love about bowie, including his most (seemingly) bleak work. these five songs are alive. they are not trying for something that’s not there. they are not dead serious 80’s shit, they are not pretending to be a statement. they are not a lame attempt at a bob marley hit. i really like them! it’s great soundtrack work, in par with some of the best disney soundtracks. bowie’s vocals sound fresh and accurate and the melodies are just… fun.

  12. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    The film is good, but could have been great. Like so many Bowie films, it needs more Bowie. Flashes of absolute brilliance in it, though – that scene where he takes her to the ball is incredible, as is their final confrontation.

  13. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Our various ages seem to be emerging as a factor here, as do our ‘first contact’ points with Bowie in all his forms. I suppose that’s not surprising given that by the mid-eighties Bowie had succeeded long enough to be both a revered influence and a severe embarassment.

    Given that by the mid 80’s his fans could reasonably stretch from 10yr olds to 60 yr old I suspect we’ll see a real divergence of views as we stroll through the late 80’s and onward.

    As a 41 yr old who first got into him in the early 80’s I’m constantly bemused that Labyrinth is considered a cult film. It doesn’t seem to have the strength to carry that burden … what is there to get excited or culty about? (tight, tights aside). Perhaps it’s an American thing? (he types, rubbing his bowler hat and fingering a cucumber sandwhich)Has it to do with Halloween and dressing up? Are there conventions?

    Anyhoo, as for Chilly Down. I love the ‘Time Will Crawl’ piano riff and the plasticy bass, but its meagre fare.

  14. Alfred says:

    “As The World Falls Down” may be his only successful Bryan Ferry imitation.

  15. diamond dog says:

    Gotta say it was a clever move being in the movie , my son was 8 when he saw the novie at school and loved it, so a new generation will (introduced continually. I have the soundtrack and chilly down is the least playable of the tracks and to me has gotta be an iggy pop outtake ? In the context of the movie its a foot tapper but very very weak not sure Bowie ever got to grips with reggae. Let’s face it the star of the show is the baby who out acts all the others in this. Bowie is fairly funny in this film and its a very memorable outfit with him hiding the hamster down the front of those strides.

  16. Maj says:

    I saw Labyrinth only once….as a teenager (I own it on DVD…should rwatch sometime :) ), and I remember finding it a bit creepy, in a pedophile sort of way. :)
    When I saw this entry in my inbox I honestly didn’t know where to place the song title…I do have the soundtrack but I never listen to the whole thing (as is the norm in case of Bowie’s 80’s albums). And from the film I only remember As the World Falls Down & Underground. Underground is a good kids song, a bit on the annoying side & ATWFD is a sweet little pop song which I really like, unashamedly so.
    Chilly Down though….no recollection of it whatsoever. Now that I listened to it it’s not much better…in the recollection department, but it sounds like a slightly fun kids song…heard much worse in this genre.

    Labyrinth fandom indeed is quite something. I’ve noticed for many young Bowie fans…through to people in their mid-30’s this film is a cult thing. The cult is not unlike that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

    Here is a fun short parody/homage video indie singer Amanda Palmer & friends made, which is inspired by the film…with the writer Neil Gaiman hilariously cameoing as Jareth:

  17. Really glad I found this post. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Pierre says:

    weirdest Bowie song definitely.

  19. I guess I’m an outlier or perhaps a bridge between worlds, because I am a Bowie fan, a Muppets fan, and a Star Wars fan (Star Wars connection to follow). I have always been disappointed that Bowie never did The Muppet Show – it would have been immensely interesting – so this is the next best thing. (Labyrinth was produced by George Lucas and I was a member of the Star Wars Fan Club at the time. Somewhere I still have the fan club newsletter with Lucas, Henson, and Bowie sitting together in director’s chairs). Anyway, this was before I became a full-on devotee of Bowie, but it holds fond memories for me.
    Unfortunately, this is the worst song in the movie.

    • s.t. says:

      I never liked that scene in the film, but divorced from its context I’ll take Chilly Down over any song on NLMD (with the possible exception of Time Will Crawl).

  20. prankster36 says:

    I, too, got into Bowie via this movie (I’m a dude, for the record, and I was 9 when the movie came out, though I didn’t see it until home video). The Elizabeth Taylor/Jennifer Connelly comparison made me do a double take, because I had an animated argument with a co-worker of mine over our respective generations’ epitome of female beauty, and these were the two women we cited.

    Definitely correct that the scene is really poorly done (it stands out in what I’d argue is still otherwise a very solid kid’s movie) but listening to it now, detached from its awkward visuals and narrative that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, damned if it isn’t catchy as hell. Love the ominous chord that starts every stanza of the verses, and the sense of barely restrained chaos, appropriate for a Muppet song.

  21. Stu says:

    Probably the only David Bowie song sung by a Cat…

  22. s.t. says:

    Just noticed how much the groove in this song sounds like Laurie Anderson’s “Language is a Virus.”

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