Take One: David Bowie – 1986 Single ‘Absolute Beginners’ – ‘Eyes Completely Open’

by | Nov 13, 2016 | 0 comments

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is a 7” jewel composed by
David Bowie, recorded and released in March of 1986. ‘Absolute Beginners’ was
the theme song to the Julien Temple directed film of the same name to which
Bowie agreed to compose he title track. The song was a commercial success for
Bowie reaching number 2 in the UK, but not doing as well in the US where the corresponding
film was also released without notice. The version of the single playing in the
‘rock room’ today features the 5:35 edit version on the ‘A’ side and the (Dub
Mix) instrumental edit on the B’ Side. 
There exists a full 8:03 version with corresponding music video and percussion breakdown which is linked here for your enjoyment and I wil use as the basis of this rock rant.
The single was released in between Bowie’s 1984 LP Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down. His criminally underrated 80’s output is
thankfully represented by this celebratory and memorable track. The era in
which this song was released was the period of big over the top saccharine and
often forgettable rock ballads. Typical of Bowie, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was perfectly
contemporary while also remaining completely original all the while tipping its aural
chapeau to past times.

The production values of the 1980’s were not always kind
to Bowie and his fellow sonic craftsman, yet with ‘Absolute Beginners’ as proof,
Bowie could deftly draw out the best and most useful elements of any tools and aesthetics
available to him while colliding them with his own creative ideals.

Oddly enough, ‘Absolute Beginners’ adheres the current
values of its creation but also reflects back to the black and white memories
of Temple’s 1950’s based film. The video depicts ‘Dick Tracy’, Bowie walking
the classic darkened streets of post-war Britain. The melody of the song is
shifty, questioning apprehensively while stating emphatically. The song elicits
the freshness of a new love for old lovers.

While a youthful expressiveness is
tangible throughout, Bowie traces the hopefulness in a lacy regret and touch of
the grandiose when comparing the current love to the expressiveness of the arts.

The full version of the single opens with a stringy ethnic
guitar groove supported by steady and sonically enhances drums.This sneaky
introduction only appears once in the song yet sets an intriguing premise. Somewhat detached from the rest of the body of
the track the lick ushers in the major framework of the song. The edited
version does not have this critical prelude.

Tribal and sensual women dance in
and out of frame as the intro dissipates and the central melody catches. Substantial
and chorused, ‘Bop, bop badoo’ vocals explode and blur the line between the
early choral groups Bowie admired and this modern re imagining by Bowie. 

vocal spot will remain the touch stone for the song’s duration as the chorus continuously
finds a soft landing in its groovy midst’s. The vocal axis keeps the film noir theme in the frame while coloring with current brushes. The song races ahead in D major with shimmering acoustic
guitars and ringing synthesized dressings. Bowie’s lyrics are sweetly crooned,
pulling back against the churning backing track. His vocals are gentle and
plaintive, yet with underling seriousness.  Carla Bruni joins and duets with Bowie on the
second set of verses lending a deeper emotional sharing to the cinematic
quality of the track, while becoming a discussion between both principal ‘beginners.’
Buoyant swells of special guest Rick Wakeman’s piano are drizzled over each
Bowie verse line. A spindrift of the piano conjoined with tasteful and wistful
synth strokes dress the respective verses in a misty anticipation.
The procrastinated glory of the chorus is finally reached after over two minutes
where it opens and reveals Bowie adorned in some of his most stunning vocals, ‘If
our love song, could fly over mountains, could laugh at the ocean, just like
the films. There’s no reason to feel all the hard times, to lay down the hard
lines it’s absolutely true’. The restraint of the constructed verses is released for the chorus,
the anticipation removed while Bowie levitates. The meter of the lines, the
depth of Bowie’s voice and the soaring instrumentation is stirring. The collaboration
of melodic signposts equate to a stunning emotional experience.
The second set of verses follows and the return to the ‘Bop’
vocals comes with a horny saxophone punctuation. When the the second rendition of
the chorus is revisited, the chorus melody continues on wordlessly from the chorus
refrain as this time the saxophone appears in golden reflection and echoes the
powerful melody with multiple variations on the theme. The song increases its elevation as
each ring around the chord changes tightens until finally dropping out and
allowing for a percussion breakdown and respite from the magically spun melody lines.
As has been the case for the song, there is a restrained power that threatens
to reveal itself to the listener but never quite does. Hence the strength of
the song, just as you are prepared for release the swirling collusion of licks
and lines pulls you back into the swell.
The rattling percussion breakdown spits us back into the ‘Bop bop
badoo’ choral reminding us of where we came from. A complete immersion in this
song is reflected here and by the content of the lyrics. The simplicity of a smile, the
confidence to tell the rest to ‘go to hell and the resulting seed of doubts
from the decisions made are blown away by the grandeur of the music. The collaboration of verse and sound keeps the emotional content fresh. The reason this track
deserves a full attentiveness is that it remains a simple pop song but with deeper
motives and underlying importance.
Bowie would continue to perform this song on his 1987, 2000
and 2002 tours. His excellent bass player Gail Ann Dorsey would join him for
the joint vocals in what would result as memorable live versions on the 2002
tour. The available version performed in 2000 for the BBC, in the ‘rock room’sopinion is the definitive live version. Special note should be taken in regards
to Bowie piano player Mike Garson who is stellar in his performance on the
black and whites. 
While not full of secret meanings,  guitar fireworks or ‘experimental’ sonic and
voice, Bowie’s 1986 single ‘Absolute Beginners’ holds unique place in the Bowie
catalog due to its unabashed emotion, stunning vocals  and cinematic qualities. The track retains at
its core an explainable alchemy, which in the end, could be said for any of
the compositions in the expansive Bowie canon.


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