In the studio

‘Absolute Beginners’ emerged from a demo session for ‘That’s Motivation’.

In early 1985 I was given a tip-off by a friend of mine called Hugh Stanley Clarke at EMI who said I should turn up at Abbey Road with a guitar to meet a mystery artist and that I’d never regret it. So that’s what I did and that turned out to be the demos for the Absolute Beginners sessions. David didn’t turn up with the song fully formed, and I would go so far to say I should have by rights had a co-writing credit on the song.

We started work on the song ‘That’s Motivation’, which he did with Gil Evans on the soundtrack. And that’s what we were there to demo ostensibly. Because we were so fast there was time left at the end of the session, and Bowie said, ‘Look, I’ve got this half an idea for another song. Can we try and throw it together?’ I sat with him with a piece of paper and an acoustic guitar and helped him work it out. I think that’s probably what led to the ten-year on-off association because I think at that point he realised I could work with him in some way. After working on the demo sessions, David phoned me and said he’d been asked to do this big charity thing with [Bob] Geldof, and did I want to be involved?

Kevin Armstrong
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

While also working on the Absolute Beginners film and soundtrack, Bowie was starring in the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth. Shooting began on 15 April 1985 at Elstree Studios.

On the day of the ‘Absolute Beginners’ demo in Abbey Road he was also filming Labyrinth in the same building. But there was no sense in which he was distracted. He had great focus; he always gave whatever he was doing all of his attention.
Kevin Armstrong
Uncut, November 2018

In addition to helping work up ‘Absolute Beginners’ into a fairly finished state, Armstrong also nominated his sister Janet to sing on the final recording.

David then mentioned that ‘When we do it for real I want a girl singer who sounds like a shop girl.’ So I told him that my sister sang a bit and worked in Dorothy Perkins. He didn’t even hesitate, he just went, ‘Right, get her in.’ And that was it. Janet rolled up to the actual session and sang it.
Kevin Armstrong
Uncut, November 2018

Once the demo songs were finished, Bowie took them to producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.

We first met at the St James’s Club. He asked us to go round, me and Alan. He had already done a demo of ‘Absolute Beginners’. The lift went up, straight into this apartment. And there he was. He had a bar there, so we had a beer and listened to the demo. The song was so good, it was like a gift really. They’d done the demo at Abbey Road Studios, and, I mean he could have released that. But we worked quite hard on it and extended it and changed a few things, so it was worth doing.
Clive Langer
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

‘Absolute Beginners’ was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in June 1985. The session musicians had been sent letters by EMI inviting them to attend a session for “Mr X”.

He was bright, witty and above all ready to experiment, and he never told anyone what to play. It was always something like: ‘Think green’ or ‘Thing Brazilian’, and not a technical hassle. He used the natural strengths of his musicians. Bowie also worked at the speed of light. He wanted to record a moment, not an idea.
Neil Conti
Loving The Alien, Christopher Sandford

Bass guitarist Matthew Seligman confirmed the swiftness of the recording.

David liked to work at top speed. He said he loved the Abbey Road session, which reminded him of “Heroes”.
Matthew Seligman
Loving The Alien, Christopher Sandford

Also on the session was Rick Wakeman, who had previously worked with Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’ and Hunky Dory.

I think he must’ve been at the very fag end of any involvement with drugs. But he said to me, ‘Could you get me some coke?’ So I phoned somebody up from the payphone in the hall and told them to bring some to Abbey Road. The guy phoned me back going, ‘You’ll never guess where I scored it from – Angie Bowie!’ I went, ‘You’ll never guess who it’s for – David Bowie!’ Stupidly, I told David my guy had got the stuff off Angie, which immediately caused some alarm. Looking back, I can’t believe I told him that.
Kevin Armstrong
Uncut, November 2018

Bowie’s vocals were recorded at London’s Westside Studios in August 1985, with Langer and Winstanley producing.

We had a great laugh in the studio one time when we got him to sing ‘Absolute Beginners’ as if he were different people, like Iggy or Lennon. He was a great mimic. His best was Anthony Newley, because obviously at the beginning of his career he really sounded like him.
Clive Langer
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Bowie’s impressions were recorded by the studio’s sound engineer Mark Saunders, who uploaded them to YouTube in January 2016.

RIP David Bowie. The impersonations on this YouTube posting were recorded in August ’85, when Bowie came in to do the lead vocal. At the end of the session, he broke into the impersonations and I realized 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 but unfortunately that wasn’t being recorded.

I was lucky enough to work with Bowie in 1985 at Westside Studios in London. My bosses, producer team 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 Westside, 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…

I think that Bowie probably wrote these lyrics quickly for the Springsteen impersonation which is first. I have no memory of us sitting around waiting for him to rewrite so it was probably done very quickly. If so, that’s pretty impressive! The imagery is definitely very Bruce.

Mark Saunders