Released: 9 June 1986
David Bowie: vocals
Albert Collins, Nicky Moroch: guitar
Robbie Buchanan: keyboards, synthesizer, programming
Richard Tee: piano, Hammond organ
Bob Gay: saxophone
Will Lee: bass guitar
Steve Ferrone: drums
Cissy Houston, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton, Eunice Peterson, Rennele Stafford, Daphne Rubin-Vega, A Marie Foster, Beverly Ferguson, Garcia Alston, James Glenn, Marc Stevens, Marcus Miller, Mary Davis Canty: vocals
‘Underground’ was the lead single taken from the Labyrinth soundtrack, and the theme song to the 1986 film.
It was one of five songs written and recorded by Bowie for the soundtrack, and was also incorporated into the slower ‘Opening Titles Including Underground’.
In the studio
‘Underground’ was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Arif Mardin was the song’s producer and arranger, and had previously worked with Bowie on the Tonight album.
An all-star cast of musicians was assembled for the session, including blues guitarist Albert Collins and singers Chaka Khan, Cissy Houston, and Luther Vandross.
Robbie Buchanan played bass, and was responsible for programming and production on the song.
When I finished doing the bass he said how much he loved it at the end. It was a complicated bass and I was like ‘phew’, because if he didn’t like it, what was I going to do? I’d put my heart into that.
Those are great background [vocals] – that was an unbelievable session. I remember Chaka [Khan] being there, and Luther [Vandross]. Whitney’s mum [Cissy Houston] was there and I’d worked with Whitney a lot; I’d played on all her early ballads from the first album. Chaka can bring the house down with that kind of music, and so could Luther – they’re all gospel singers really. It was fantastic – a party, but not like with drinking and all that stuff, just a great atmosphere. It was one of the best background sessions I’ve ever seen and I’ve done a thousand of them. There were people there who were historically great singers that are session singers in New York too.
We didn’t do it [to reflect ‘Let’s Dance’]; Arif might have mixed it thinking like that – he would always cover his bases – but when we were recording it we recorded it as a new song. But these things creep into your mind, whether you’re conscious of them or not – ‘This’ll be great for David…’ but you might’ve got that idea because you heard ‘Let’s Dance’.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Steve Barron directed the promotional video for ‘Underground’, which included characters from Labyrinth including Hoggle and the Junk Lady, plus Bowie’s former personas Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, and elements from the Diamond Dogs artwork and the Bowie films The Man Who Fell To Earth, Just A Gigolo, and Into The Night.
Bowie was later disparaging towards the video, citing his lack of involvement and interest.
I’ve found that the videos I put into other people’s hands have always been a mistake. Because of my lack of interest, I didn’t get that involved with things like ‘Underground’ which I did for Labyrinth. I just left it up, and the result is just not my kind of video. I was a bit lax there. I didn’t feel involved.
Music & Sound Output, June 1987
The single reached number six in New Zealand, one place ahead of its peak in Finland and the Netherlands. It also reached number 10 in Belgium, and was a top 30 hit in Australia, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and USA.
‘Underground’ was issued in three formats in the UK. The 7″ single featured a 4:25 edit, and a 5:40 ‘instrumental’ (which featured the backing singers) on the b-side.
The 12″ Club Single led with an Extended Dance Mix lasting 7:51, followed by ‘Underground’ (Dub) and a full-length ‘Underground’ (Instrumental) on the b-side.
There was also a picture disc containing the 7″ edit and the full 5:54 instrumental.
In 2007 a digital EP was issued containing the single edit, Extended Dance Mix, Instrumental (5:54), and ‘Underground’ (Dub).