Absolute Beginners was released as a single on 3 March 1986, and again on the soundtrack album on 7 April.
Unlike the film, which opened to poor reviews and low box office returns on 18 April, the song was a success, reaching number two on the UK singles chart.
The 7″ vinyl single had an edit which brought the songs length down from 8:03 to 5:36. Absolute Beginners (Dub Mix) was on the b-side.
The full-length song was included on 3″ and 5″ CD singles, and a UK 12″ vinyl single, all of which also contained the 5:40 Dub Mix.
In the US and Canada, a 12″ single contained an exclusive edit lasting 4:46, as well as the full-length version.
The idea of the long version was that he [Julien Temple] wanted to use it over the credits at the end so we had all the percussion and sax for the very end as the credits were rolling. Rather than do a normal version and try to extend it, we decided to do a long version and then obviously shorten it for the single.
The film opened with a shorter version running to 2:18, and ended with an edit lasting 6:56. The soundtrack album also contains an instrumental, titled Absolute Beginners (Refrain), performed by jazz pianist Gil Evans.
Absolute Beginners topped the charts in Finland, Ireland, and Poland. It was a top ten hit in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In the USA it peaked at 53 on the Billboard Hot 100.
On 28 May 2007 a digital download EP was released which collated the full and edited versions, the Dub Mix, and Thats Motivation and Volare from the soundtrack.
Bowies 1984 album Tonight was reissued by Virgin Records in 1995. The compact disc contained three bonus tracks: the 1985 single This Is Not America with the Pat Metheny Group; As The World Falls Down from the Labyrinth soundtrack; and Absolute Beginners.
Absolute Beginners was one of the songs used in Bowies 2015 stage musical Lazarus. It was initially performed by Michael C Hall, Cristin Milioti, Michael Esper, and Sophia Anne Caruso, who also recorded it for the Original Cast Recording album.