The Man Who Fell To Earth

In December 1975, shortly after the completion of Station To Station, David Bowie returned to Cherokee Studios in West Hollywood to begin recording the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth, the Nicolas Roeg film in which he had starred the previous summer.

He had begun writing music for the soundtrack while shooting the film. On the set in New Mexico in the summer of 1975, he was interviewed by Steve Shroyer and John Lifflander from CREEM magazine.

That’ll be the next album, the soundtrack. I’m working on it now, doing some writing. But we won’t record until all the shooting’s finished. I expect the film should be released around March, and we want the album out ahead of that, so I should say maybe January or February.
David Bowie
CREEM, December 1975

Bowie also mentioned the soundtrack on 4 November 1975, during his appearance on the TV show Soul Train. Asked by a member of the audience if he had plans to score any films, Bowie replied: “I’m doing the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth with a friend of mine, Paul Buckmaster.”

Arranger and cellist Paul Buckmaster had worked on the 1969 album David Bowie (Space Oddity). They began working on the tracks at Bowie’s Bel Air home during the Station To Station sessions, recording demos on a TEAC four-track tape machine, and prior to entering the studio had around half a dozen pieces of music.

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Bowie brought back the rhythm section from the previous album – guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. Also attending the studio sessions was pianist J Peter Robinson.

There were a couple of medium tempo rock instrumental pieces, with simple motifs and riffy kind of grooves, with a line-up of David’s rhythm section (Carlos Alomar et al.) plus J Peter Robinson on Rhodes-Fender piano and me on cello and some synth overdubs, using ARP Odyssey and Solina. There were some more slow and spacey cues with synth, Rhodes and cello, and a couple of weirder, atonal cues using synths and percussion. There was a ballad instrumental by David that appears on Low (‘Subterraneans’). It was performed by David, me and J Peter Robinson on various keyboards. There was also a piece I wrote and performed using some beautifully made mbiras (African thumb pianos) I had purchased earlier that year, plus cello, all done by multiple overdubbing. And a song David wrote, played and sang, called ‘Wheels’, which had a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it. The title referred to the alien train from his character Newton’s home world.
Paul Buckmaster
Mojo Classic: 60 Years Of Bowie, 2007

Although no formal agreement had been made with Roeg for Bowie to record the soundtrack, the studio sessions continued regardless. This was partly due to Bowie’s workaholic and capricious nature, which saw him frequently taking on and discarding projects in the mid-1970s.

I presumed – I don’t know why but probably because I was arrogant enough to think it so therefore I acted upon it – that I had been asked to write the music for this film. And I spent two or three months putting bits and pieces of material together. I had no idea that nobody had asked me to write the music for this film; that, in fact, it had been an idea that was bandied about.
David Bowie, 1993
The Man Who Fell To Earth, Criterion edition commentary

Bowie was in poor health at this time, due to his severe cocaine addiction and poor diet. Although the Station To Station recordings had turned out well, the soundtrack sessions were less successful, as producer Harry Maslin recalled.

David was so burned out by the end of Station To Station, he had a hard time doing movie cues. The movie was complete and we had all the videotapes and that was what we were working with. We had about about nine cues down – of the 60 that we needed – and David had a big blow-up with [manager] Michael Lippman.
Harry Maslin
Bowie, Jerry Hopkins

Bowie’s soundtrack went unused due to various reasons. According to Buckmaster, the recordings were simply not finished well enough to be used in the film. There were also reported contractual disputes between Bowie and the film’s producer Michael Deeley.

Firstly, it was not up to the standard composing and performance needed for a good movie; secondly I don’t think it fitted well for the picture; and lastly it wasn’t really what Nic Roeg was looking for. I considered the music to be demo-ish and not final although we were supposed to be making it final. All we produced was something substandard and Nic turned it down on those grounds.
Paul Buckmaster
Original Soundtrack Recording from The Man Who Fell To Earth book

John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas was brought in to deliver the soundtrack. He later described Bowie’s recordings as “haunting and beautiful, with chimes, Japanese bells, and what sounded like electronic winds and waves”.

As for the style of music, I think you’ll find that Bowie doesn’t reject any kind of music. He’s not a musical pseudo-intellectual. He likes Mantovani, for example, which may make some people go into double-think. In actual fact it makes complete sense. Mantovani is brilliant, there’s no getting away from that, and Bowie knows it. I think he was very disappointed by the music for The Man Who Fell to Earth. He spent quite some time writing a score for it, and he wasn’t pleased it wasn’t used in the film. He let us hear it and it was excellent, quite unlike anything else he’s done.
Ricky Gardiner, Low guitarist

Bowie’s soundtrack music was reportedly inspired by the German group Kraftwerk, whose album Radio-Activity had recently been released. He was moving on from Los Angeles, both physically and mentally.

I really can’t remember the details, but there was a great row – not between Nic and I because we kept apart from those areas; I didn’t want to row with Nic – a couple of er, unusual people who were putting the thing together.

I was under the impression that I was going to be writing the music for the film but, when I’d finished five or six pieces. I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people’s… and I just said ‘Shit, you’re not getting any of it.’ I was so furious, I’d put so much work into it.

It turned out for the better and of course it did prompt me in another area – to consider my own instrumental capabilities, which I hadn’t really done very seriously before. The area was one that was suddenly exciting me, one that I never really considered would. And that’s when I got the first inklings of trying to work with Eno at some point.

David Bowie
NME, 13 September 1980

‘Subterraneans’ was the only recording from the soundtrack sessions to be used on the Low album, on which J Peter Robinson and Paul Buckmaster were credited as “Peter and Paul”. Yet Bowie remained frustrated that his original vision had fallen through.

I got angry about it, with no real rational reason. I thought I should be contracted, a stupid, juvenile reason but I kind of walked away from it. But bits of it, things like ‘Subterraneans’ on the Low album, were actually started for the film. So, musically there was some kind of continuum going on there.
David Bowie
Mojo, July 2002

When Low was released in January 1977, Bowie sent Roeg a copy, explaining that the second side was how he had envisaged the soundtrack.

We all had pressures, deadlines. Eventually we brought in John Phillips to do the score. Then six months later David sent me a copy of Low with a note that said: ‘This is what I wanted to do for the soundtrack.’ It would have been a wonderful score.
Nic Roeg, 1993
The Man Who Fell To Earth, Criterion edition commentary