David Bowie in Absolute Beginners

David Bowie (1947 – 2016)

On Monday morning, soon after I’d arrived at the office, I was asked by a colleague whether I felt sad about David Bowie’s death. “No,” I replied, “not sad, but I was shocked.”

It’s true. The news was a surprise – it seemed far too early for him to go – and as Lauren Laverne pointed out during the BBC’s half-hour tribute programme on Monday evening, Bowie was so much a part of our lives that he’s stitched into the cultural identity of this country.

I was four years old when Ziggy Stardust made his appearance so missed out on the dramatic impact he had on the music scene. To my shame (perhaps?) my formative years were spent soaking up the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein and, to a lesser extent, Glen Miller – the preferred music choices of my parents.

I started listening to the Top 40 relatively late and only really became aware of  of Bowie when Dancing in the Street was released in’85. Bowie, for me, was one of many artists who were part of the charts. I didn’t understand what his contribution had been up until that point and – as ridiculous as this might be to read – I didn’t afford him that much adulation after it either.

I recognise how many others who knew his oeuvre a good deal better than me were touched by his artistry and saddened by his death. Sometimes its difficult to be in amongst the maelstrom of saddness that descends (especially on Twitter) when news like this breaks. But as I was thinking about Bowie and why I didn’t especially feel sad about his departure, I started to think of any other contributions the man had made to the music I listen to, just in case I was doing myself a bit of a disservice.

My mind leapt to Absolute Beginners – a terrible musical film released in 1986 at a point in time when things were looking a little grim for the British film industry. The film featured Bowie in the cast (apparently, a condition of him contributing to the soundtrack) alongside Patsy Kensit and Steven Berkoff. It was the soundtrack that caught my attention a few years after, not especially because of Bowie’s contribution, but more Style Council’s Have You Ever Had It Blue? 

That got me revisiting the Absolute Beginner‘s tracklisting in search of some of the other numbers I remember falling for in’86. Ray Davies Quiet Life was a classic modern-day musical theatre number dressed up in pseudo pop that helped reunite me with the musical past I’d abandoned two years before. Similarly, Slim Gaillard’s fast-paced foot-tapping Selling Out with its exhilerating saxophone riff was the first time I’d heard vibes. Thirty years later is still stirs my imagination – it is potent video montage material. Just overlook the middle eight – a nauseating musical excursion to the 1980s which does slightly marr the whole thing for me.

But what really came as a surprise was finding that Bowie had recorded a version of Volare for the soundtrack. I don’t hold this up as a shining example of Bowie’s output or a particularly satisfying setting of Italy’s third-place song for the 1958 Eurovision. But, what I do rather like is the way, quite unexpectedly, two worlds have unexpectedly collided. Sure, Volare has been recorded by a great many artists making it one of the most successful Eurovision songs of all time, so perhaps its not a surprise Bowie put his stamp on it.

Bowie’s Volare (above) is a musical crime. It’s cheesy, his voice is distant in the mix and the overall tone tramples on the song’s original beauty (the same could be said of the Gypsy Kings version too). Maybe that was the point. But it makes me chuckle to think that someone as great as Bowie has a link to something as throwaway as Eurovision. And it also makes me chuckle that its Eurovision which prompts me to reflect on Bowie’s untimely death.


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