Chilly Down

January 19, 2012

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.