Mark Saunders was working as an Assistant Engineer at London’s Westside Studios in 1985. Here he tells the story of when David Bowie recorded ‘Absolute Beginners‘ and ‘Dancing In the Street’, and how he left the tape running as Bowie goofed around, impersonating everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Iggy Pop…
“I was lucky enough to work with Bowie in 1985 at Westside Studios in London. My bosses, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners, Elvis Costello, Bush) were producing the soundtrack for the movie Absolute Beginners, for which Bowie was acting and writing songs (it was a better soundtrack than it was a movie!) and I was graduating from assistant engineer to engineer at that time.
The day Bowie was first due to show up at West Side, we were all a bit nervous — Bowie was the biggest star client for Clive and Alan at that point in time. We kept looking out the windows, waiting for a stretch limo to show up and an entire entourage to walk in, but then a black cab showed up and out popped the unaccompanied Bowie. He walked in, announced in what seemed a more cockney voice than I remembered, “Hi, I’m David Bowie,” and shook our hands. He seemed smaller than I imagined he would be in person. A bit later I noticed that the cockney had dissipated somewhat and he also seemed to have grown more upright and taller, too. I thought, “Wow, he really is a chameleon,” and wondered if the earlier exaggerated cockney was his way of reducing his superstar status temporarily to put people at ease on first meeting him.
When the band was recording the backing tracks, Bowie would sing a ‘rough’ vocal along with them and every one could have been the master — he had an amazing voice. But with every song, when he came to sing the vocal for real, he would sing one line at a time, stop, listen to it and then do the next. He would often have a Walkman with him and check how he’d sung the line on his demo before continuing. I thought this was very odd considering what a great voice he had.
One day in June, we recorded ‘Absolute Beginners’, the title track of the soundtrack. It was an awesome session. The band was great — mostly musicians who’d been playing with Thomas Dolby, plus Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello’s brilliant keyboard player) — and the song was epic, perfect for a closing titles movie song. But in the mid-afternoon a rumour circulated that Mick Jagger was coming to the studio — something to do with the upcoming Live Aid concert. We assumed that we’d record a message from Mick and Dave asking people to donate money, but a while later that afternoon a percussionist and two female backing singers showed up and said, “We are here for the Bowie/Jagger session,” at which point Clive, Alan and I looked at each other with “What the fuck!” looks on our faces. Bowie hadn’t mentioned a thing about this to the band or us.
Around 6 pm, I think, David announced that we were to stop working on ‘Absolute Beginners’ because at 7 pm Mick Jagger was coming to the studio and they were going to record the Martha and the Vandellas hit song ‘Dancing in the Street’ for Live Aid — and they would only have three hours to finish it, because he and Jagger would be going straight off to shoot the video for the song, which would have to be finished before sunrise! No pressure! The band had equal measures of panic and excitement on their faces, as did, I’m sure, the rest of us, especially the studio maintenance guy, who quickly realised that this session would be the largest number of musicians and singers all performing at the same time in the studio’s history — and he realised we didn’t have enough microphone cables. He went off and spent the next hour furiously soldering extra microphone cables together. Bowie handed a cassette of the original version to the band and they took it into the live room, huddled round a boom box, and started figuring out their parts.
The recording of the movie soundtrack had been going on and off for weeks or months and up until this day no movie people except the director, Julien Temple, had ever bothered to show up at the recording sessions to check on how the music was coming along. But with the rumour that Jagger was coming in to the studio, movie people started showing up — like, movie producers with their kids! By the time Jagger walked in, there were around fifteen people — aside from Clive, Alan and me — in the studio control room. Jagger looked a bit shocked when he walked in and saw the crowd. I thought he might throw a fit and have everyone kicked out (as one might expect a big rock star to) but he was totally cool with it and just got on with the job at hand.
The band was still working on different sections of the song, so there was a lot of stopping and starting, and it was as if Mick was wired to the sound because he could be in the middle of a serious conversation and when the band started playing he’d immediately start dancing and when the band stopped, he would, too. Not a full-blown Mick Jagger-on-stage kinda dance, but an on-the-spot dance that would enable him to continue his serious conversation. I thought this was awesome — like, he’s the real deal; music is in his blood and he just can’t even help himself!
The drummer was the brilliant Neil Conti, and I remember him really helping keep the band focused and nailing the track. Everybody played together live, and in one booth, Bowie, Jagger and two backing singers sang along, too. They did two takes and the second one was deemed the master, but both were fabulous takes with great vocal performances. The vocals were re-sung afterwards purely because there was no separation between the vocal mics. In other words, David’s vocal could be heard on Mick’s mic and vice versa, which would have compromised the mixing process somewhat. Jagger did two vocal takes and we used all of one take except one word from the other. Clive Langer was the one who suggested that maybe the one word from the other take might be better — by this point he’d had a few glasses of wine to calm his nerves — and I remember Jagger looking a bit surprised because there wasn’t a lot in it between the two takes. Afterwards I caught Clive’s eye and he gave me “I can’t believe I just did that!” look.
I don’t know if he’s always like this in the studio, but Mick gave a performance on the mic like he was performing to a packed Madison Square Garden. Maybe it was because of the extra people in the control room, I don’t know, but for me, who was sitting at the mixing board directly in front of Jagger — which is only about ten feet away with just a big plate glass window between us — this was an incredible “can you fucking believe this” moment! This was one year and one day after I started working in a recording studio, for God’s sake!
Bowie did his trusty line-by-line technique, pretty much nailing each line with one take, and I was sweating at the controls because the three-hour deadline was approaching and some of the vocal lines were really close together. If I’d put the tape machine into record a hair too early, I could have erased part of Bowie’s previous line. Not something I wanted to do with David Bowie in front of me and Mick Jagger standing over my shoulder! It was a high-pressure three hours, but bloody fantastic. When ‘Dancing in the Street’ was released, it was one of my first engineering credits on a record.
During the recording of Dancing In The Street, both of them, plus backing singers and the entire band, were playing together live (which is not always the case). They performed the song twice and nailed it. The vocals were then redone because of the lack of separation between the singers’ microphones. Later on brass was added and the song was mixed by the great Bob Clearmountain – in NY. Well, after the initial session, I took home a cassette of the song in its raw state with no overdubs or mixing and I remember it sounding really fantastic.
During the recording of the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack, the film was simultaneously in production and a lot of the time, Bowie was acting on the film set from very early morning until the evening and then coming to the studio at night to record vocals. I was really impressed that someone of his level of fame would still put themselves through that pressure when they clearly would never need to. Bowie was always very respectful to the producers and me and very smart about getting what he wanted in terms of sound and performance from both the musicians and us. You never felt that he was using a big rock star “Hey, I’m David Bowie and I want it done my way” tactic; he always gently steered the direction to what he wanted whilst letting everyone have a say and try things their own way first. It seems pretty obvious that this is a better way to go to keep the creativity flowing, but I’ve worked with other big artists who definitely don’t get that point!
I was really impressed with the bass player Matthew Seligman’s performance when we were laying down the backing tracks for the song ‘Absolute Beginners’. It was inspired, brave and incredibly musical, and he played some lines that were more like lead guitar lines than regular bass lines. After everyone came in the control room to listen back to the overall take and it was given the thumbs-up as a keeper, Alan Winstanley said, “OK, let’s redo the bass, then.” This is quite common practice, especially back in the squeaky clean ‘80s when everything had to be really tight and precise — in the pop world, anyway. The bass and other instruments would be re-recorded to be “locked in” with the drum take, often to the detriment of the feel of the track, in my opinion.
Anyway, when Alan uttered those words there seemed to be audible gasps in the room from Clive Langer, the musicians, and probably me, and a deflated look on Matthew’s face — because I think we all knew the bass performance was really special. David calmly looked at Alan and said, “Sure, you can redo the bass, but whatever you do, please don’t lose Matthew’s first take.” The bass was never redone!
The impersonations on this YouTube posting were recorded at a later date, when Bowie came in to do the lead vocal. At the end of the session, he broke into the impersonations and I realised that these might get erased at some point, so I quickly put a cassette in and hit record. I wish we could hear the other side of the dialogue between Bowie and Clive and Alan, but unfortunately that wasn’t being recorded.”