Absolute Beginners

The story behind David Bowie's song 'Absolute Beginners'
David Bowie Absolute Beginners 1986 single cover


Album: Absolute Beginners

Released: 15 March 1986

Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, London, June 1985 / Westside Studios, London, August 1985

Length: 8:03 (album version), 5:36 (single version)

Production: David Bowie, Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer

Musicians: David Bowie (vocals), Rick Wakeman (piano), Kevin Armstrong (guitar), Matthew Seligman (bass), Neil Conti (drums), Luis Jardim (percussion), Mac Gollehon (trumpet), Don Weller, Gary Barnacle, Paul “Shilts” Weimar, Willie Garnett, Andy MacKintosh, Gordon Murphy (saxophones), Steve Nieve (keyboards), Janet Armstrong (backing vocals)


The story behind ‘Absolute Beginners’

‘Absolute Beginners’ was written and recorded by David Bowie as the theme song to the 1986 film of the same name (itself an adaptation of the book Absolute Beginners).

Bowie had previously worked with the film’s director, Julien Temple, in 1984 on the Jazzin’ for Blue Jean short film, and landed both the supporting role of Vendice Partners, and the deal to record the theme tune.

The sessions at Shepherds Bush, London, were set up in a novel way, with a group of session musicians working with Thomas Dolby at Abbey Road all receiving a letter inviting them to work on a session with “Mr X”. The invite turned out to be from Bowie, who had approached producers Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer with the demo of ‘Absolute Beginners’. Former Prefab Sprout guitarist Kevin Armstrong, for whom this was the beginning of a sporadic ten-year working relationship, explained that Bowie “came in with the song ‘Absolute Beginners’ half written. The whole band helped out, whether it was a missing chord or a rhyme for the last verse. Over an afternoon it evolved into the backing track, which we recorded. That’s how Bowie operated – from the germ of an idea, which the group polished up into the master. Once he saw what we could do, he relaxed. We fitted.”

The sessions were completed rapidly. “David liked to work at top speed,” recalled ex-Soft Boys and Thompson Twins bassist Matthew Seligman. “He said he loved the Abbey Road session, which reminded him of “Heroes”.” Laid down during the same sessions were Bowie’s other contributions to the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, ‘Volare’ and ‘That’s  Motivation’. The sessions also featured Rick Wakeman on piano, who had previously performed on Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity‘ single and Hunky Dory album.

“Absolute Beginners was such a big anthemic song, I just remembered feeling like, ‘Well, that’s it really. That’s as good as it gets’.” said the song’s producer Clive Langer in a recent interview. “But we then went straight into a China Crisis album and that got me back into reality. To work with Bowie was great. I got on quite well with him so we hung out a bit socially.”

Despite the speed of the recording, the song was delayed due to the problems completing the film. Virgin wanted to release the song to tie in with the film’s opening. Shortly after the sessions wrapped, Mick Jagger flew in to record the charity cover of ‘Dancing in the Street’ with Bowie, which used many of the same musicians.

Although the film was not a commercial success, the song became one of Bowie’s most successful 1980s singles in the UK, reaching No. 2 in the charts. It was less successful in the US, peaking at No. 53 on the Billboard Hot 100. Bowie performed it live on his Glass Spider and Heathen tours.


The video for ‘Absolute Beginners’

Julien Temple’s video, shot in monochrome on Westminster Bridge and the Thames Embankment, is a pastiche of the 1950s “You’re never alone with a Strand” cigarette commercial. Cutting a dash in trench-coat and fedora, Bowie runs out of “Zebra” cigarettes and makes for the nearest cigarette machine, only to find his movements shadowed by a dancer decked out in zebra-striped make up.



‘Absolute Beginners’ Lyrics

I’ve nothing much to offer
There’s nothing much to take
I’m an absolute beginner
But I’m absolutely sane
As long as we’re together
The rest can go to hell
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
With eyes completely open
But nervous all the same

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

Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can’t shake
Oh, we’re absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you’re still smiling
There’s nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we’re absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We’re certain to succeed

If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Sail over heartaches
Just like the films
If there’s reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It’s absolutely true


‘Absolute Beginners’ Artwork

Chalkie Davies photographed Bowie on Westminster Bridge during a break whilst filming the video for the song.

He recalls: “Filming for the music video ran late and we didn’t get David until 11:55pm. This gave us exactly five minutes to do the shoot as the street lights by Westminster Bridge would go off at midnight. On seeing the contact sheets there was one frame of David with a huge smile. His publicist said he’d never approve it as he never smiled on his covers. But when David saw the contacts he loved the shot so much that he broke with tradition.”

Contacts sheets of David Bowie photographed by Chalkie Davies for the 'Absolute Beginners' single cover

Contacts sheets of David Bowie photographed by Chalkie Davies for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ single cover

David Bowie photographed by Chalkie Davies for the 'Absolute Beginners' single cover sheet

The chosen image


‘Absolute Beginners’ Chart Positions

Chart Peak position
Australia 5
Austria 2
Canada 45
Germany 7
Ireland 1
Netherlands 8
Norway 4
Sweden 5
Switzerland 3
UK 2
USA 53