‘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.
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.
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.
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.