The Buddha of Suburbia

The Buddha of Suburbia.
The Buddha of Suburbia (“rock” mix).

Rarely now do we artists tell us much of ourselves. We are without history, interest or spiritual life. Our thoughts are often scattered and banal. Those occasional strands that have some merit are often stunted if not still-born. Although I get the sense that all art is somewhat autobiographical it seems increasingly hard for the artist to relinquish his solipsistic subjectivity.

David Bowie, liner notes to the original Buddha of Suburbia.

The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Black Tie White Noise, though it sold in the UK (hitting #1 and producing a Top Ten single), failed to “reestablish” Bowie as a commercial presence, which is just as well, as Bowie had been greatly ambivalent about being reestablished. The record stiffed in the US, in part because Bowie’s American label, Savage, collapsed a month after its release and filed for bankruptcy six months later. In a fine turn, Savage partially blamed its collapse on the performance of an album whose sales were hurt by its collapse; they would later sue Bowie and BMG for $100 million.*

BTWN‘s respectable, mediocre performance was an ideal outcome for Bowie. He had shown that he still could sell records, but he’d also deftly avoided being roped into touring for a year to promote the album (he’d been far more relentless in pushing Tin Machine II). And for once in his late career, he was able to push on quickly, to build upon the strengths of a previous work rather than discarding it and starting yet again from scratch. He’d established a beachhead; now he was moving inland.

It began with an arranged conversation. The author Hanif Kureishi interviewed Bowie in February 1993, and at the close of their talk Kureishi mentioned he was adapting his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a miniseries for the BBC, and asked Bowie if the production could use some period songs like “Fill Your Heart” and “Time.” Bowie agreed. Working up the nerve, Kureishi then asked if Bowie felt like contributing any original material. Bowie asked to see the tapes of Buddha, and a couple of months later, Kureishi and the series’ director Roger Michell were in Switzerland, listening to Bowie’s score.

There were two stages of Bowie’s involvement in the BBC’s Buddha. First, he composed incidental music for the series.** These were generally a series of motifs—combinations of guitar, synthesizer, trumpet, percussion, sitar—roughly a minute in length each, which Bowie tweaked based on responses from Kureishi and Michell. Kureishi found the whole business surreal: watching rough cuts of his fairly autobiographical Buddha playing on a TV monitor while the idol of his adolescence workedthe mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers.”

Roughly a month later, Bowie went back to these motifs and, relying on his usual studio jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, began tinkering with the pieces, extending them into six- or eight-minute loops, isolating what he considered “dangerous or attractive elements” and adding overdubs and occasional vocals. After a week’s recording and another fortnight of mixing, he had a new 50-minute album.

Released in November 1993 to little notice, listed as a soundtrack album and not as a new Bowie release, distributed only in the UK and Europe and eclipsed, sales-wise, by the near-simultaneous issue of the compilation The Singles Collection, The Buddha of Suburbia was a non-existent album, a ghost record, and it was Bowie’s best album in over a decade. If there is a latter-day “great” Bowie album, it’s this one; Buddha is only now beginning to get the recognition that it always had deserved.

Buddhas in Bromley

I am considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie found a fellow traveler in Kureishi. Seven years Bowie’s junior, Kureishi had grown up in the same London suburb, Bromley, had attended the same school, Bromley Tech, and had followed the same trajectory as Bowie: escape to London, a professional life in the arts. Kureishi started out as a dogsbody at the Royal Court Theatre and eventually became its writer in residence and a playwright, then in the Eighties moved into making films, scripting two directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, used his Bromley adolescence as its backdrop. Like Kureishi, the novel’s protagonist, Karim “Creamy” Amir, is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Spending his youth trying to escape the curse of lower-middle-class suburban life, Karim finally slips free of it, first via his father’s abandonment of his family and subsequent move to South Kensington, and then via his own success as an actor (paralleling Kureishi, Karim goes from avant-garde theater into television). One of the best novels of the Nineties, Buddha balances a minstrels’ gallery of characters (including Changez, an Indian national brought to Britain for an arranged marriage, who is obsessed with Harold Robbins and Arthur Conan Doyle; Pyke, a sexual adventurer and Svengali stage director; the would-be Marxist revolutionary Terry, who makes a living playing a cop on a TV series; and the Buddha himself, Karim’s father Haroon, a Muslim bureaucrat who becomes a Buddhist guru to earnest suburban Londoners) with acridly funny and astute observations on class, identity and pretensions (artistic, political, spiritual, sexual).

Bowie…had attended our school several years before, and there, in a group photograph in the dining hall, was his face. Boys were often found on their knees before this icon, praying to be made into pop stars and from a release from a lifetime as a motor mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance firm, or a junior architect…We had a combination of miserable expectations and wild hopes. Myself, I only had wild hopes.

Kureishi, Buddha.

When I knew I was going to be a writer, it completely changed my life because it made the present unimportant. Whatever was happening to me, the racism, the drag of being in such a violent school, were made unimportant because I lived in the future.

Kureishi, interview.

Kureishi had used Bowie as a symbolic figure from his earliest work (Bowie recordings are in his second play, 1980′s The Mother Country) and Bowie naturally figures in his novel, both as an actual cultural reference as well as an element in one of the book’s major characters, Charlie Kay (later Charlie Hero), a Bromley-born musician who molts from a would-be Ziggy Stardust local muso into a punk and ends the novel as a NYC-based rock star, a thinly-veiled Billy Idol (another Bromley kid made good).

Bowie, who had driven through his early childhood neighborhood of Brixton in 1991 and had a moment of bewildered nostalgia there, found in Kureishi’s novel and scripts a central observation that rang true to him: that the curse of a would-be artist who grows up middle-class in the suburbs is a restless and self-compromised ambition, the constant need to better yourself chased by the fear of being found out. The novel takes a generous view of this: its characters who thrive are those who manage to transform themselves in some way, like Karim, Charlie, Haroon and his lover Eva, who goes from suburban mystic hanger-on to upper-class home decorator. Even Changez winds up in a Peckham commune, happily raising his wife’s child by another man. Those who perish or wither, like Karim’s would-be fundamentalist uncle Anwar and his drunk, “respectable” aunt Jean, are those unable to discard the past.

Karim, on Thatcher: She can’t win: she’s too suburban.

Eva: We live in a suburban country.

Buddha, end of episode 4.

The rub is that this drive of self-betterment and self-transformation, this multi-colored suburban counterculture, ultimately twins with the impetus that drove Thatcherism—both novel and series end on the night of the general election in May 1979, with the main characters celebrating their new selves in an expensive Soho restaurant whose patrons are cheering the returns.

And although written in the Eighties by a man who was far from a Thatcherite, Buddha isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a bittersweet family history: showing how the ferment generated by the hippies, the communes, the suburban mystics and the Bromley punks was just part of a greater pattern, and that the economic “liberation” of Thatcher’s era wasn’t as much a reaction to them as it was a fellow radical movement, and the most successful of all. The revolution happened after all, but it was a suburban one. Kureishi’s novel and Bowie’s musical take on it are both documents from the aftermath, the notes of two survivors on the opposite shore, wondering how they had made the passage, now finding it hard to recognize the country that they had grown up in.

I felt the pleasure of pleasing others, especially as this was accompanied by money-power. I was paying for them; they were grateful; they had to be; and they could no longer see me as a failure…it was as if I’d discovered something I was good at.

Buddha.

Stockpile of residue

In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.

Buddha.

Working on Buddha triggered something in Bowie: an introspection, a need to sort through the past. Film and book were a loving recreation of Seventies Bromley and Beckenham (e.g., Karim and Haroon stop off at the Three Tuns, where Bowie had run an Arts Lab in 1969 (see “Cygnet Committee”), and where, in the novel, Kevin Ayers is playing a dreary set, “whispering into a microphone [while] two French girls with him kept falling over the stage“). Bowie likely also found analogues of himself and people he’d known (he’d had his share of encounters with Sixties avant-garde theater) in the characters: Charlie’s magpie-like musical thievery, Haroon’s suburban mysticism, Eva’s ambition, Karim’s self-absorption and his openness to new experiences.

So for his Buddha songs, Bowie drew from what he called a “personal memory stock” of Seventies images, ranging from his teenage years in Bromley through late Seventies Berlin. He made Buddha a secret, abstract autobiography, perhaps the only one he’ll ever do.*** His songs not only directly quote from his previous work (especially the theme song, see below) but in total offered an impressionist retrospective of his past musical life, revisiting jazz, Eno’s ambient works, Philip Glass, glam, R&B, funk. Not as museum pieces or pastiches, but far more indirectly: most of the tracks on Buddha are answer songs to hazily-remembered past works, reinterpretations of the past, kept alive and contemporary, with Bowie using cues and moods from his old work and churning them up in the service of the future.

Bromley in the Buddha

Bowie’s title song was the only recording from the Buddha album that was actually used in the series: it played over the end credits of each episode (except ep. 3, which closes with an orgy scored to Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”).

So unsurprisingly, of the Buddha songs, the title track is the one that most directly relates to the past; it’s the easiest of the set, a rewriting of and homage to Bowie’s turn-of-the-Seventies “Beckenham” songs: the guitar break from “Space Oddity” turns up (and the string of suspended, diminished and augmented acoustic guitar chords that undergird the song are very Oddity), as does the “zane zane zane” coda chorus of “All the Madmen,” while the melancholy flavor of its verses—Bowie’s voice, octave-tracked at times, circling within a cage of acoustic guitar, bass and synthesizer—calls back to the likes of “Bewlay Brothers” and “After All.”

His two-verse lyric keeps to the rough outline of Kureishi’s narrative (the book is divided into “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” sections). The opening stanza is suburban misfit angst, sung from the perspective of a figure who’s both Karim and a self-recalled Bowie: compare “Elvis is English and climbs the hills” with Bowie’s proclamation to Kureishi in their interview: “I knew at thirteen that I wanted to be the English Elvis.” (And Bowie also lived “near the railway lines,” which figure in his early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.“) There’s a tension in the character, who’s both pushing for experience (“full of blood, loving life and all it’s got to give“) and has a middle-class kid’s terror of being different, of failing, of being shown up. The second verse finds the kid in the city at last, changing himself (or at least his clothes), liberating himself while still, in his heart, praying in suburbia for escape.

There’s tension and doubling in the song as well, with Bowie shifting from being a melancholy custodian of his folk years in the verses (the subtle arpeggiated guitars; the sweet, yearning top melodies) to a garish figure in the choruses, a revival of Anthony Newley and provincial showbiz (“down on my KNEEEES in Suh-bur-bee-yah!“). He’s reconciling two sides of his Sixties. The two solos are also different editions of Bowie: the would-be jazz saxophonist from Bromley takes the first solo, while the power-chording glam idol gets the second. (Bowie had Lenny Kravitz play lead guitar on a harsher, inferior “rock” mix of “Buddha.” Kravitz’s soloing is proficient, perfectly-played and soulless, top-rate simulacrum-music from one of the Nineties’ most pointless artists.)

Lovely and wistful, a shadowy collision of influences, “Buddha” was a minor hit in the UK and served its chorus role in the series well. But it was just the opening act for what Bowie would attempt on the Buddha album, much of which would make the “Buddha” song seem oppressively literal. As Bowie wrote in his liner notes manifesto, “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Kravitz’s overdubs were recorded ca. July-September 1993, poss. at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California). Released as a single in November 1993 (Arista/BMG 74321 177052, c/w “Dead Against It” and “South Horizon,” #35 UK)—the first track on the CD single is a mix of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix,” both of which were included on the Buddha soundtrack. The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995 (weirdly enough, there was a vinyl pressing made for Brazil in 1994). The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993 and since has been released on VHS/DVD.

* Savage, in its suit, claimed that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses BMG, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million that it allegedly owed to Savage. In September 1993, a cash-poor Savage said it had to return to Bowie the rights to BTWN. (Savage had laid off its entire staff on May 27, barely a month after the album’s release.) The case was dismissed and was finally put in the grave in July 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time.

** Bowie “was amazed at how little the BBC paid. Nobody had ever paid him so little in his whole life.” It’s unclear whether Bowie composed the two “punk” songs that Charlie Hero performs in the series, but if so (and I think he did), they’re pretty sharp parodies of the Sex Pistols and serve as Bowie’s belated nose-tweaking of punk. (More on this in future entries.)

*** While I’m skeptical he’ll record again, I think Bowie has at least one book in him, and hope he publishes it.

Top: Naveen Andrews as Karim in Buddha; first edition of Kureishi’s novel; original Buddha CD; “Buddha” CD single.

45 Responses to The Buddha of Suburbia

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Lovely as usual. Do we know whether Bowie did indeed play those solos or did Kizilcay take a turn?

  2. MC says:

    Great intro to a great, sorely underappreciated album, Bowie’s best of the 90′s, for me. I remember shelling out $45 Canadian for it on import, encouraged by the reviews in the UK music press, and it did not disappoint. It has a few clunkers on it, and the “rock mix” of the title track is a singularly poor finale, but it’s a wonderful listening experience all the way through, pure bliss. Better than BTWN, it suggests what a Low made by a happy, contented family man would sound like. Really looking forward to the next several entries.

  3. Really excited to read about the following albums, starting at Buddha and rolling on through Earthling. While I enjoy a few gems from 80s Bowie & Black Tie White Noise, here’s the point where things got truly interesting again, with more than a handful of standout tracks on each release.

    These were also the first new Bowie records I bought while in middle school, having devoured the early releases through the Sound and Vision catalog. As a disaffected teen, the darker, introspective material on Buddha as well as the aggression and atmosphere of Outside hit the spot in a big way…

  4. David B says:

    Not sure I’ve ever heard the album but here’s a little known fact. HK didn’t initially want to adapt his novel. A uni friend of mine was commissioned to do it, and encouraged to make free with the material (at one point, he told me, he gave the protagonist an acid trip). When Kureishi read the adaptation, he hated it so much that he decided to do it himself. Anyway, without my nameless friend’s intervention (he was writing for ‘Casualty’ last time I heard from him), this Bowie soundtrack wouldn’t exist.

    • col1234 says:

      I think HK mentioned that in the essay I linked to—something about reading in the script a scene in a chip shop that made him so angry he felt the need to write it himself.

      but yes, the small miracle of this album is how easily it could not have happened: HK not adapting his book, HK not interviewing Bowie, Bowie not being interested in the book, not going beyond doing the score, etc.

  5. gcreptile says:

    I keep recalling what you said about ‘Black Tie White Noise’, about superstars disconnected from the real world, not able to address the world’s problems in anything but cheap slogans like ‘We are the world’. It seems that Bowie really had to claw his way back into ‘regular life’ to say something meaningful again. From wiping the slate clean with Tin Machine, interaction with, and commenting on his successors (Scott Walker, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails) to revisiting his own youth with this album. It worked – though my favorite later album is still ‘Heathen’, but I will give ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ a try. I’ve neglected it. The title track is pretty good, and, wow, pretty strong comment on Lenny Kravitz.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Regarding the comment on Kravitz…I must agree, that is pretty harsh. “Pointless”? A rather sweeping condemnation, I must say. :(

      If I may be perfectly frank, it gets rather irritating when people repeatedly make snide, dismissive comments above artists you admire and respect (in my case Yes, Pearl Jam, and sometimes Kravitz). Yes, I realize everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion, that’s fair enough (and you’ll certainly get mine below). But it kind of gets to the point where I often wonder if there’s some kind of agenda at work. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid and it’s no more than a case of thoughtlessly regurgitated party-line rhetoric.

      Or…maybe I’m just taking it all a bit too personally? Or maybe I’ve got an inferiority complex? Now, there’s a radical thought! :D

      • gcreptile says:

        Lenny Kravitz is something of an anachronism though, being the only black rock’n’roller of note in the past 20 years. I also heard that his recording method is still very ‘old-school’, i.e. mostly analogue. But in my opinion, that makes him special even if he’s not groundbreaking.

    • Maj says:

      Not a Lenny Kravitz fan but yeah, a bit too strong a comment. This guy is responsible for Are You Gonna Go My Way and let’s just say I’ve got a soft spot for this one. Won’t say where.
      It was a bit uncalled for but hey, I find Oasis pretty pointless…we all have someone like that that others love…Chris has a right. ;)

  6. I often forget ‘Pallas Athena’ is on BTWN and not on Buddha, as the song fits more in the vibe of “Sex and the Church,” “Bleed Like a Craze, Dad,” etc. It’s a nice track which would have worked quite nicely here…

  7. david says:

    “Down on my knees in suburbia, Down on myself in every way….”
    If there are any singular embodiment in the Bowie cannon that could categorize the wanderlust of myself and the lost generation between the 60s and the 70′s, its these words, The desperate striving to be more, to be elevated from the oppressive mire of the meager and mundane. Not since Teenage Wildlife, had he touched so innately the very foundation that had connected us all, because the intervening years had felt like a betrayal of his past selves, the provincial boy had made good-at the cost of the reflections of our hopes, our aspirations -Fame, success had marked him as someone who became every travesty he had railed against. It took the anonymity of a BBC dramatized soundtrack to depressurize and exorcize the Millionaire superstar, yuppie persona, bringing the arc back to the fringes that began with Baal full circle. For me, it was the resurrection of Bowie as the artist, that it took the recognition in Kureshi’s wonderful book, to evoke what had been his own hunger pains made it all the more welcome.

    Were coming to the point that I’ve been longing for you to get to, and you have already surpassed my expectation with another extraordinary summation,

  8. Patrick says:

    I must admit while it doesn’t sound that bad now, as you mention, the “literalness ” of the theme track when I heard it way back when the series was first broadcast rather put me off hearing any more. The album has always been an unknown quantity that I’ve never checked out (though in the last couple of years realised it’s well rated by some) but rather than seeking them out on YT myself. I’m looking forward to the tracks appearing here.

  9. TW Duke says:

    Am I the only one??? I just don’t care for this, never have, never will. I’m used to liking Bowie music that others don’t like, but I generally like most everything, so it’s weird to have something like BOS that others appreciate, but does absolutely nothing for me.

    The film, the book, the song, the album — just all “meh…” to me. I know as a mega-fan I’m supposed to like it (“Bowie’s forgotten masterpiece”, “the lost Bowie album”) but it has never done anything for me, and I’d rather listen to “Tonight”.

    • AlonInSeine says:

      Hear hear !!!
      The main problem with TBOS is that it sounds like a laboratory experiment – sterile, soulless, it lacks bite and excitement. Tonight rules !!!! (well, mmm…., at least Tonight has Loving The Alien).

      • Maj says:

        YES! Sterile! That was what I get with this album too. I don’t mind it too much but still, it does put a certain barrier between me and the album.

      • Pierre says:

        Look this way, then most of pop music is sterile, a sterile album would be Hours…

      • Maj says:

        Some of it is, but not all of it. Different ears hear things differently etc. But bringing up Hours is a good point because for me this album and Buddha are on about the same level. Only I’ve listened to Hours at least twice as many times as to Buddha. I like them both. I know Hours is not as popular among Bowie fans but it was one of the first Bowie albums I bought, on a cassette, and it was a pretty good introduction into Bowie’s world (just like Buddha the song it’s reminiscent of early 70′s DB stuff). So while I don’t love it as much as I did 10 years ago when I was starting with Bowie, I still have a soft spot for it.

        Sorry…I digressed a bit. :)

    • Gnomemansland says:

      Well I wouldn’t go as far as listening to Tonight but agree Buddha really isn’t a lost masterpiece. The title track is good indeed very good but as for the rest well – there’s some very tired drum machine patterns and generally hand me down music on there.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        I must confess to being far more inclined to put on Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine II for pure listening pleasure than The Buddha Of Suburbia. But not Tonight, though! I still rank that one dead last in the Bowie discography.

  10. Joe the Lion says:

    Chris – re. a book by Bowie: I was at the screening of Cracked Actor at the ICA a couple of months back (part of a BowieFest film retrospective) and Alan Yentob said in the Q&A that Bowie was working on a book about ‘a thousand objects’.

    I bought Buddha of Suburbia the day it came out, from the now defunct Our Price record shop. It was on fairly prominent display, but I have a feeling that was because the store manager was a fan. The CD insert had a form to fill in if you wanted to be kept informed about news, tours and new releases. I stupidly cut it off and sent it instead of photocopying it, rather than keep the insert intact. I’m still annoyed about that. The single was limited edition with holographic CD artwork.

    I recently got the series on DVD and watched it for the first time since it was shown – it holds up pretty well. I bought the book with a voucher I won at school for English, but still haven’t read it 20 years later. It’s just moved up the list.

    I’m so glad we’ve reached this point in Bowie’s career.

  11. Momus says:

    “A major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.“

    This statement gets a strong “disagree” from me, though I suppose it hinges somewhat on the qualifier “straightforward”. I think Bowie music loses its way precisely when he falls back into lazy haphazard imagery — “skies” and “eyes” and “cries” and “dies” — unsupported by the splint-narratives of (say) the Ziggy, Nathan Adler or 1984 sagas.

    The thing about narrative is that it brings with it a much more textural lexis, a set of images that are much more specific and fresh. Narrative is a kind of I-Ching, jogging you away from habit. Sure, sure, sure, the absence of too-specific narrative can sometimes encourage listeners to get creative and fill the vacuum by injecting their own stories. But we do that all the more readily when there’s at least the illusion of a continuous story and consistent characters — and that’s what Kureishi provides here.

    Elsewhere in the notes Bowie seems to admit this, describing “the narrative & 70’s memories providing a textural backdrop in my imagination” and saying that “a hazy rootlessness… leads me often to re-complicate much of my composition writing”.

    I wonder if contrasting his own, semi-Buddhistic “hazy rootlessness” with “British constraint of insularity” was Bowie’s way to send out a veiled rebuke to Britpop, by this point all-conquering, and specifically Morrissey, with whom he’d recently fallen out? Did Bowie start to see that, in abandoning Britain — or indeed any kind of local and specific backdrop — he’d started an impoverishment in his own writing? Was the Buddha record a delve back into the time when he, too, made “Britpop” about recognisable, local characters and scenes (ie his work from 1967-1972) rather than relying on self-mythologisation, drugs, formalism, spectacle, pastiche, charisma?

  12. Bagolut says:

    I prefer Tonight too. By far. South Horizon is nice. The rest is awful.

  13. Diamond Duke says:

    Y’know, to be perfectly, 100% honest…I’ve never ever really been able to warm up to the album of The Buddha Of Suburbia much. (I have yet to see the mini-series. One of these days I’ll get around to it. It definitely sounds interesting.) I know that everybody calls it the great “lost” David Bowie album of the ’90s, but I personally think a lot of this comes down to people putting it up on a pedestal because of its obscurity (if that makes any sense). Underrated? Underappreciated? Sure, just like much of Bowie’s later work is. But let’s face it, the album is just as easy to overrate. Much of the material on the album (much of it instrumental) feels very incidental and doesn’t really possess much in the way of emotional or visceral impact (in the way that, say, the admittedly stylistically similar second halves of Low and “Heroes” do). Buddha strikes me as being more of a transitional work, a bit of connective tissue between Black Tie White Noise before it and Outside and Earthling after it, than it does a substantial musical piece in its own right. The song Buddha Of Suburbia itself is certainly a thing of beauty, a beautiful and movingly quasi-autobiographical song which manages to transcend whatever self-referential qualities Bowie gives it (the Space Oddity guitar break, the closing chant from After All). Strangers When We Meet is also an excellent song, but I prefer the later version from Outside (more on that later). Dead Against It is appealing light, breezy electronic pop. However, most of The Buddha Of Suburbia just kind of goes right through me and doesn’t really make much of an impression. But hey! That’s just my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth (if anything)… ;)

    Incidentally, does anybody remember the theme song from the American situation comedy WKRP In Cincinnati (1978-82)? Just thought I’d mention it… :D

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Diamond Duke is right: compared to the fleshed-out — emotionally and otherwise — version on “Outside,” the “Strangers When We Meet” on BOS is a demo (and might be!).

      • Maj says:

        funnily enough when I first heard this version of Strangers – w/o knowing it was the one on the Buddha album – I did actually think it was a demo.

  14. michael says:

    A recent Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library had one of Kureishi’s notebooks/diaries on display, open to two pages describing the visit to Bowie in Switzerland to discuss the music for BoS. His handwriting was not the best, but the gist seemed to be that both parties were quite nervous and Kureishi thought the initial music Bowie played him was a bit crap. Presumably he changed his mind (you couldn’t read further).

    Another fine entry, nailing in particular the pointless- and soulless-ness of Kravitz and his contribution to a fine song.

  15. i love the liner notes to that album…the clear way he explains how *south horizons* was put together with mike garson only given tempo and key,but no other information to play to…i love that piece..it gains more and more appeal over the years…if there was ever a lost classic of an album,this is surely it.

  16. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I completely agree about the book in Bowie and sincerely hope he does that rather than record again. (I suspect he’s got several unfinished efforts scattered about the house but lacks either the patience to see it through or the nerve to expose himself to the outside world.) In 1990 I was in London packing to leave the UK for good and happened upon Hanif Kureishi signing copies of his book. I had a long flight ahead of me so I went in and bought it. I read the book on the plane and loved it. It reminded me of growing up with Bowie, who I’d completely lost touch with by this point. I remember thinking this was what he should have done after Let’s Dance.
    Also agree with Momus about the narrative thing. It was when DB was struggling with the discipline of a narrative and the constraints of his inner suburbanite that he was most interesting.
    As for this song, I think it is simultaneously a forgotten masterpiece and an irrelevance. If you’re the kind of person who can’t wait for the latest installment from Chris then you’re likely to find it every bit as crucial as Ashes to Ashes. But I doubt that it’s a song that resonates much beyond these pages.

  17. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I can attest that this album was impossible to track down in Australia in those pre-Amazon days. I had to have my in-laws bring me back a copy from a trip to Europe, and even then they searched high and low. It was worth the wait though – finally a new Bowie album that lived up to the obligatory “best thing since Scary Monsters’ claim.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Sky-Possessing Spider – Music journalists have had a key on their typewriters [and then keyboards] ever since 1983 that when pressed, spat out the phrase “best thing since Scary Monsters” and it should have been worn out upon this albums’ release. It’s the only one that takes me all the way up to Bowieland’s top floor, in spite of really enjoying 60% of BTWN, and pretty much all of “Earthling” through “Reality.” As good as those albums are, [and "Heathen" really is beginning to approach the top floor] they are tempered somehow, with one foot still on the earth. BOS, for all of its cheapness and haste actually enthralls me like I used to expect from a Bowie album.

  18. Pierre says:

    This album showed how wonderful his music could have been afterward if he’d let go of his showbizz posture.
    This album is my favorite, I bought it when I started a new life in Paris. It got me through the first winter in Paris as I knew no one. I still have the cassette. Untitled #1 is pure bliss. The whole thing is like a dream.

  19. Maj says:

    Great write-up, Chris!

    I read the book LONG before I finally was able to listen to the album (and I still haven’t watched the series). I only was able to buy the album when it was reissued 5 years ago. Therefore I haven’t lived with it for as long and as intensely as with the rest of Bowie’s 90′s output. Since it’s a soundtrack album, there are a wee bit too many instrumentals on it for my personal taste, but yep, definitely not a bad album. It actually features one of my all time favourite Bowie songs – Strangers When We Meet – but I prefer the Outside version. More on that song later…

    I’d love to read the book again, in the original language this time, with this album in headphones. I definitely should do that sometime. It will be interesting going through it on this blog, because I’m more familiar with the songs than with the songs from the ’84 to ’91 period but not as well as with the rest of Bowie’s discography.

    Buddha is a great Bowie guitar-lead song, I love all the references etc… but it IS a bit too literal, even for me. Don’t know what else to say about this good song. Good song is good. ;)

    Interesting about Bowie and narrative form. I wonder how much of that is an actual need to free himself artistically and how much of that is him being too lazy to follow through with a narrative – perhaps a bit of both…and one influencing the other. How many inventions happened because someone finally got bored with/could not do something properly the way it’s “supposed to be done”.

    And finally…suburbs. The mythical places of many a British song (the Beatles songbook, Pet Shop Boys, and obviously Bowie), being key in the punk rock culture etc. I say mythical because I didn’t grow up in the suburbs…I see them in American films, I hear about them in songs but I never “lived” them. I sort of wish I did. You have no idea how complacent one becomes when living in a city centre.

  20. Gee, do you think we should, uhm, buy them? says:

    Great work, these are turning into regular essays.

    Do you think you’ll even do Bowie’s compositions for The Nomad Soul?

    • col1234 says:

      the video game stuff? of course–actually looking forward to those in a perverse way.

      the recent entries have been monsters, due to the Scott Walker stuff and having to incorporate the making of “Buddha’ in this one—should be much more manageable-sized entries in Dec.

  21. Jacques de Molay says:

    Good stuff feat. some kind of nostalgia. The average Bowie poppy tune. I find Lenny’s chorus is highly predictable.

  22. Remco says:

    First of all I’d like to express my relief at finally being out of the dark ages. I know some of you think otherwise but from this point on it’s pretty much all good in my book (yes, I actually like hours…, well most of it).
    Having said that, this album is still uncharted territory for me, I’ve heard it a couple of times but I’ve never really listened to it. It’s the soundtrack thing, I guess, and the godawful album cover (surely the most unappealing cover on any Bowie album) but, like other commenters here, I never listen to it. I am actually looking forward to discovering it song by song though, because I think there might be some undiscovered gems there. The title track certainly is.

    Also, Lenny isn’t that bad. I was a big fan back in the day and I still have a certain fondness for his first three albums. Not the most original of artists, I’ll grant you that, but he made some decent tunes.

  23. fantailfan says:

    Reading this review, and having grown up in a city, and being of that generation that did not have the Internet (or ‘home’ computers), and being a huge fan of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, I think I should pick this one up. It might fit right in there after all.

  24. roobin101 says:

    I’m not sure why it’s just occurred to me but if we are to give up on “straightforward narrative” perhaps we should relegate it to the future, hmm?

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