Underground

Underground (opening titles, film).
Underground (single edit, video).
Underground (soundtrack).
Underground (extended dance mix).

“Underground” is dressed to be epic, with a set of soul royalty for its backing singers: Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Cissy Houston, Fonzi Thornton (Chic, plus Roxy Music’s Avalon), Eunice Peterson (a great R&B session singer, working with Aretha Franklin, among others), Renelle Stafford (another legend—she’s on Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion”) and members of the Radio Choir of the New Hope Baptist Church. And its lead guitarist is the master bluesman Albert Collins.

Unfortunately, the song’s not good enough to justify their presence, and the guest players fail to transport it anywhere. It doesn’t help that Arif Mardin often drowns them in the mix. Nor was the song good enough for the public, as it turned out: “Underground” completely flopped in the US, not even cracking the Billboard 100, and had a mediocre charting in the UK. Bowie has never performed it on stage, and his only promotional effort for it was Steve Barron’s elaborate video, with puppets, animation sequences (budgets for these apparently shot up after a-Ha’s “Take On Me”) and a Doctor Who regeneration style-montage of past Bowie incarnations.

There’s no great mystery why “Underground” failed: it’s a draggy, overproduced song that squanders its resources. Take how long it takes to get to the big payoff—the call-and-response refrain—and then, after finally unveiling the chorus, Bowie trudges all the way back to the start and repeats the entire song again: a sax solo, another verse, another pre-chorus, another bridge. It’s almost two minutes before we get back to the refrain.

And even the chorus (which kicks off with a key change to C major, from the original G)—which finds Bowie in good, rough voice (“DADDY DADDY get me OUTTA HERE!”) and Richard Tee enlivening things with romping juke-joint piano—isn’t as electrifying as it wants to be. Something feels missing. Again, some of it’s due to the production—the “choir” chorus, a set of fantastic pro singers, is often a faceless blob, placed low and back in the mix, hanging like a leaden cloud. So when Bowie’s parrying against the chorus and rallying them, their responses seem off, distant, detached. Compare the wild, luxurious warmth of Vandross and Robin Clark’s singing on “Young Americans,” the way that they buffet and sway Bowie, how they make him fight to keep command of the song. There’s none of that drama in “Underground,” there’s no dialogue. Only at the end of the coda, when a few of the female singers start jazzing up the melody (“wanna live UN-DER-GROUND!!“) is there finally a spark, and it’s quickly snuffed out by the fadeout.

Bowie’s foray into gospel pop wasn’t just an attempt at reviving the Young Americans magic—the sound was trendy in the mid-Eighties, with choirs carted in for show-stoppers like Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” or the Rattle and Hum version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” For those tracks, the choir was the loud, warm community that welcomes the solitary, questing singer and bears him up. So give Bowie some credit: his gospel choir instead gleefully sings about a delusory world, one that well could be a purgatory or hell. The choir blindly supports the singer in his actions, though he doesn’t know what he wants himself: they’re blissful enablers. He’s tempted to disappear into a world of imagination, or could even be contemplating suicide, and he’s lost and bewildered—hence his occasional screams for help (dutifully repeated by the choir). But is he asking to get out of the world, or is he already trapped in his illusions?

While his lyric is dreadful in places (“too much protection/no love injection“? was this outsourced to Sammy Hagar?), Bowie sings much of it with confidence and precision—he’s dedicated to keeping the unwieldy piece on the tracks, going falsetto at times to goose things up. But he doesn’t sell the “tough” line in the verse—“don’t tell me the truth hurts, little girl…/’cos it hurts like hell.” It’s not only nonsensical (truth hurts? no it really hurts, baby) but Bowie’s slurred, huffed-out phrase makes him come off as a petulant teenager. Maybe that was the intention. It doesn’t help that he’s rhyming off of “it’s not always swell.”

So while “Underground” is fine for a singalong end titles theme, what a great squandered opportunity. This is the return of Luther Vandross, now an R&B superstar, into Bowie’s orbit? This is the only time Chaka Khan ever appears on a Bowie record? This is how you use the Iceman—confine him low in one channel, have him noodle over half a verse against a wall of synthesizers, then give him a solo in the coda where he spends his time fighting to be heard? It’s bizarre that Bowie/Mardin assembled all of these icons but made the principal players in the final mix the session keyboardist Robbie Buchanan, the drum programming of Steve Ferrone and Bob Gay on generic saxophone. I’m surprised they didn’t hire Miles Davis and then swap out most of his trumpet lines for Fairlight dubs.

Recorded ca. late 1985. For Labyrinth, there were two takes of “Underground” used—a slower-tempo choir-free cut for the opening credits, with the song married to Trevor Jones’ score (which sounds like incidental music for a lesser hour of the Olympic Games telecast), and the six-minute uptempo “master” version for the end titles. An edit of the latter was issued as a single on 23 June 1986 (EMI America 216, #21 UK); there was also an eight-minute dance mix, which is far and away the best use of the choir. Three years later, another song would marry a gospel choir chorus to synth basslines and ricocheting beats, and who knows, its author was possibly influenced by “Underground.” But she did it with a bit more style.

Top: Jamel Shabazz, “Brooklyn, 1985.”

20 Responses to Underground

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    In 1985 Scritti Politti revealed the possibilities of MIDI and Fairlight technology on “Cupid & Psyche ’85,” an album that still challenges notions of superficiality in eighties pop music. It took a few months for its influence to show but soon it would become the sound of black pop for the next five years.

    Hiring C&P ’85’s producer looked like a wise choice for Bowie. Arif Mardin not only brought a lifetime of putting divas in the best light, he was also one of the few sixties producers who understood the subtleties of the new technology. Despite a well-syncopated synth bass and Bowie using his clenched-teeth voice to suave effect, the results sound like stale Patrick Leonard-produced Madonna (who would use a black choir to much more devastating effect on “Like a Prayer” three years later).

    • col1234 says:

      yes, agreed. which is why it’s just so weird why Mardin (if it is him, maybe DB monkeyed with the mix after he left) doesn’t use some of the best voices in contemporary soul to better effect here.

  2. diamond dog says:

    Mmmm gotta say of that I think you have been unfair to underground as I think its by far and away the best thing on the soundtrack. The production is very much of its time and Madonna must have used it as a blueprint for like a prayer as its almost the same. Like a prayer is a better song but the framework is similiar. Madonna’s production is slightly better and fared better in the charts because of her star on the rise and a great promo vid and a little bit of controversy. I would much rather have this than much of black tie white noise I’m surprised you did not like the structure I like the build up to the chorus. Bowie had ruined his carreer with the tonight album so this stood no chance in the usa I remember it getting a fair bit of airplay and article space.

  3. Sigmata Martyr says:

    It is so odd that that caliber of backing vocals could be reduced to sounding like Muppets. If it had been fresh sounding and punchy it might have garnered more attention. All the songs from this movie have an overproduction haze over them ( and I say that as someone who really likes them ) Within you, Chilly Down and ATWFD sound so 80s, maybe the fear might have been Underground sounding too retro in comparison. All the loose ends and problems of marketing this movie seem to have bled into this song – it’s for kids! it’s for adults! it’s for teens! it’s a promo! it’s a single! it’s Bowie! it’s Muppets! it’s it’s it’s…

  4. Gnomemansland says:

    Ah yes “Cupid & Psyche ’85,” a reminder that Bowie wasn’t the only one making bombastic and yet anodyne music in the 1980s.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    Not my favorite track from the Labyrinth O.S.T., but still hardly an outright bad effort. I think your assessment is perhaps a just a tad harsh. Yes, the chorus takes a while to arrive (although when it does, it’s a way-cool doozy – “Daddy, daddy, get me out of here!” indeed!), but I don’t think there’s anything really inherently wrong with the structure. Yeah, okay, a case can be made that it’s overstuffed, but I think that’s infinitely preferable to dumbing down and keeping things overly simple. (Y’know, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” and all that…)

    As an attempt to recapture the gospel-soul vibe of the “Philly Dogs”/Young Americans era – filtered through a more mainstream ’80s Let’s Dance-type sensibility – it’s not exactly a rousing success. You’re right, the production could have made much better use of the vocal choir, and the final product feels more generic than it should be given the talent on hand. In fact, as much as I have reservations about Nile Rodgers’ filing down of Bowie’s rough edges on Let’s Dance – and Black Tie White Noise much later on – I can’t help but think Rodgers would have done a better job than Arif Mardin! But I can’t really say I didn’t like the song itself. In fact, I think there’s something marvelously sneaky – and quite characteristically Bowie – in coupling a lyric about withdrawal and alienation with a rousing, valedictory gospel arrangement.

    The video? I dunno. I thought it was okay, I guess. The rapid-fire montage of Bowie’s past personae was admittedly clever…

    • prankster36 says:

      Yes to this. I *do* think the gospel chorus elevates the song, even if I’m now learning that it was a ridiculously overqualified group shoved into the background. I won’t deny it’s got that annoying 80s overproduction dragging down the verses, though.

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    BTW, really looking forward to Never Let Me Down! I’m polishing up my best Patrick Bateman impression in order to review the tracks in character (a la the Huey Lewis, Genesis and Whitney Houston chapters in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel)!

  7. Maj says:

    I had no idea Chaka Khan sang on this.
    I never viewed this as anything more than a song from a kids film. But I agree, it’s just off, and over-produced. It’s not the worst from the Labyrinth bunch but it suffers from all that was wrong with the 80’s pop.
    I never even listen to the lyrics…so no comment on those…

  8. PH says:

    I always found this song rather disturbing and creepy, and I loved it all the more for these qualities.With every other gospel-tinged song going round the feel is always uplifting and celebratory, which of course they’re meant to be,because as gospel, by definition, they’re odes to how wonderful Jesus is and all that stuff. But as you point out, this song deliberately subverts traditional gospel with the singer sounding lost and afraid, and the chorus echoing that sense of apprehension with shrieks that are lost in the mix. Their voices kind of drift up like disembodied spirits.
    Are they buried “underground” perhaps? Or possibly even echoing up from hell?? Whatever the case, it’s pretty heavy stuff for what’s meant to be a kid’s song in a kid’s film. When this single originally came out in 1986 I was going through a personally hellish time of my own, and I immediately made a connection with the sense of unease, just on a gut level.Even if I hadn’t analyzed too closely what it seemed to be getting at. In a way you’ve kind of confirmed my instinctive interpretation of this track. But once again I think you have given a pretty good song rather short shrift. Personally I would take it a hundred times over the songs you have quoted as comparisons: The schmaltzy MOR of Foreigner -eurgh-! The typical bombast of U2. And as for Madonna, well the less said the better.

  9. Pierce says:

    Yes good call. Very average and forgettable track. Bring on NLMD.

  10. Jeremy says:

    It hurts like hell! Indeed….

  11. Remco says:

    Yes, the production is awful, especially the synth bass, which is a work of pure evil. The mix is all wrong and the words are awkward.

    Still. I really like this song. It has some great vocals and it makes me smile every time I hear it. I’d choose it over anything by Madonna any day.

  12. Jasper says:

    I don’t think this song is as bad as you say, but it’s a lot worse than I recalled, it was many years since I last listened to the album or saw the movie. But sadly the whole album is much worse than I recalled, besides As The World Falls Down, that songs sill holds up really well.

    When the album came out I really liked it and also the movie, I even have the 12″ singles and played them a lot lol. I still like the movie, it is a fun and a well made movies for kids, Jim Henson was really brilliant and Bowie is great in his role. But listening to the album again was disappointing, and in general I’ll rate it below Tonight, but then again it is a soundtrack, and within the movie the songs work fine. In general a lot of soundtracks have a tough life outside movies, especially when the music is made for the movie, if you can pick and choose from existing work it is off course different, you might just end up with Christiane F, the best Bowie compilation in my mind.

    The Labyrinth album might be the one he made that sounds most like what I think of when I think of 80’s pop music, (overproduced and to much keyboards) but then again maybe Never Let Me Down sounds just as 80’s just in a more rock/pop way, I’m really curious to find out if i still think Never Let Me Down is the worst Bowie album ever after we go thru it on this blog. My girlfriend found that Lp on the street not long ago, I decided not to play it until it is on this blog ;-)

    There is a making of Labyrinth on youtube, a bit superficial but still fun to watch for someone who likes the movie, it’s called Inside the Labyrinth.

  13. david says:

    For all its failings, I thought the opening line was very telling :’No one can blame you, for walking away.’ It struck me that Bowie was in conflict, declaring his reason for this new, mainstream approach, whilst wishing to return to the fringes.

  14. majid says:

    like it…:-)

  15. It’s certainly overproduced, but I quite like the slow-build structure (though the song does wear out its welcome) and the melody buried underneath, including the call-and-response. Never knew it was Vandross et al.

  16. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Underground is one of my favourite singles by Bowie. I remember being severely annoyed that ‘Friends Will Be Friends’ by Queen beat it in the UK top 40, but that probably tells us more about Bowies credibility than the single. I also recall it reaching #12 in a different chart compilation and couldn’t reconcile the difference between 21 and 12 … but I was in the glory stages of my obession then … I’m alright noooooooooooooow!

  17. A similar question was asked on a previous entry regarding guest musicians, but I think it bears repeating since I was blown away to learn of the caliber of backing singer on the track. How, exactly, does this work? How do they get paid? I can’t imagine a record company would want to pay huge amounts of money for a celebrity backup singer, but then I don’t know why they would do it for free, either. (Vandross might have, actually – even though by the 80s he had arguably surpassed Bowie critically and commercially, he always was gracious in acknowledging how Bowie gave him his big break). Is there an equivalent to union scale? This just fascinates me.

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