January 27, 2012

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.”