In the studio
David Bowie initially assembled more than 40 pieces of instrumental music for the television series which, along with the theme song, were completed at the start of summer 1993.
Two months after Bowie had agreed to work on the TV show’s soundtrack, Hanif Kureishi and scriptwriter/director Roger Michell were invited to hear the works in progress.
The two men visited Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, where Bowie had recorded the albums Lodger and Never Let Me Down, as well as the Queen collaboration ‘Under Pressure’.
How could we not feel intimidated? What could schoolboys like us say to the greatest and most famous, who had written over 300 songs, including ‘Rebel-Rebel’? (In the pub in Bromley High Street we played his records on the juke-box constantly, kids at different tables suddenly yelling, as one, during conversation ‘Suffragette City, oh yeah!’) Now we were sitting a few paces from Lake Geneva; yards away, in the other direction, was the house in which Stravinski composed ‘The Rite of Spring’. And in the studio the familiar pictures of The Buddha ran on the monitor suspended over the mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers. All this, not to launch space ships, but to make sweet music!
At the end we sighed. Relief was palpable. Bowie saw, though, that some of the music altered the mood of the scene. Repeatedly he re-wrote, adjusted cues and thought about how composing music for films is different to writing songs. Later he produced an excellent album called The Buddha of Suburbia, developing ideas he’d begun on the film.
They were heady, enjoyable days. The series was, in the end, broadcast as we’d made it. Typically, the BBC did, the day before transmission – although they’d had the tapes for months – attempt to censor it a little, but their nerve held.
With the soundtrack complete, Bowie set about reworking and expanding several of the musical ideas for a full album.
This collection of music bears little resemblance to the small instrumentation of the BBC play of Buddha. That project was manoeuvred and focused primarily by Roger Mitchell the Director, who guided me around the usual pitfalls of over arranging against small ensemble theatre.
However, left to my own devices these same pieces just took on a life of their own in the studio, the narrative and 70s memories providing a textural backdrop in my imagination that manifested as a truly exciting work situation. In short, I took the TV play motifs and restructured them completely except, that is, for the theme song.
The Buddha Of Suburbia sleeve notes
The Buddha Of Suburbia was recorded over a six-day period in August 1993 – an unusually short time even by Bowie’s often-prolific standards.
Co-producing with Bowie was David Richards, the in-house producer at Mountain Studios. The sessions typically ran from 10am to 8pm.
Something happened for that album. There wasn’t a big budget, David explained the story before we started. It was a challenge, it was a small budget, but David just said, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it,’ and everything worked.
Starman, Paul Trynka
Several of the album’s tracks were improvised in the studio. Others had been previously demoed – notably ‘Strangers When We Meet’, which Bowie had attempted to record with Reeves Gabrels during the Black Tie White Noise sessions, and which would be recorded again for 1.Outside.
Overall the pace of work was frenetic, taking only six days to write and record ‘though a full fifteen days to mix, owing in part to some technical breakdowns – nothing serious but enough to put our team out by five or six days.
I’ll tell a little of the working methods: I took each theme or motif from the play and initially stretched or lengthened it to a five or six minute duration. By means of time-code I experimented with various rhythmic elements, drums, percussion, temple blocks, et al until I found a sense of companionship to the primary motif. Then, having noted which musical key I was in and having counted the number of bars, I would often pull down the faders leaving just the percussive element with no harmonic informations to refer to. Working in layers I would then build up reinforcements in the key of the composition totally blind so to speak. When all faders were pushed up again a number of clashes would make themselves evident. The more dangerous or attractive ones would then be isolated and repeated at varying intervals so giving the impression of forethought.
On two pieces, ‘The Mysteries’ and ‘Ian Fish’, the original tape was slowed down, opening up the thick texture dramatically and then Erdal would play the thematic information against it.
The Buddha Of Suburbia sleeve notes
Among the list of words Bowie associated with the album is “Pink Floyd”. If you listen to “Bleed Like a Craze Dad” There is a four note guitar lick that is reminiscent of the four note lick that lays the foundation for Pink Floyd’s “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” from the “Wish You Were Here” album. In fact if you take notes 1-2-3-4 from the Floyd song and play them in the order 3-4-1-2, you get the Bowie lick. Wondering if anyone else noticed?