Did we just post two videos? and did we just miss two weeks of Vespa Video Vednesday? Never fear, we didn’t forget you. Today we have another clip from David’s list that just so happens to be one of my favorite songs:
Artist: David Bowie
Song: “Absolute Beginners”
Album: Absolute Beginners film soundtrack (1986)
Scooter(s): Vespa GS
Scooter content: 5 seconds
Jump to the good parts: 2:19, 2:22, 2:36
David Bowie, of course, is a genius. As Jon Langford would put it, he’s the “Chameleon of Rock.” And Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, is definitely one of my favorite books. So what could be better than a film version directed by Great Rock and Roll Swindle director Julien Temple, featuring David Bowie AND Ray Davies (AND Edward Tudor-Pole)!?
Well, the film turned out to be nothing but a marginally entertaining (at best) musical (no!) love story that nearly ignored the book’s rich drama of gentrification, race relations, and the rise of the English teenager. The Fifties setting was overwhelmed by the Eighties set design, and today it looks dated and campy. The soundtrack holds up a little better, featuring songs from Jerry Dammers (of the Specials), the Style Council*, and rare proof that Sade was a promising talent back when she had a last name. Even Ray Davies’ subtle nostalgic song is pretty good. But the gem was this David Bowie track.
Julien Temple directed Bowie’s epic “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video in 1984, and Bowie was chosen to appear in the film as shady advertising magnate Vendice Partners. The single was recorded in June 1985 but delayed to wait for the film’s release. The video is nothing special, a Duran Duran-inspired parody of British “Strand” cigarette commercials with awkwardly-chromakeyed film footage worked in. The scooter footage is minimal, and all from the film (a Vespa GS graces the soundtrack album cover and makes a few appearances in the film).
But, oh, the song is so great. It strikes me as the anti-“Uptown Girl,” showing Billy Joel that Eighties arena pop could actually be fused with doo-wop without disastrous results, and thus proving David Bowie is actually capable of anything. The lyrics are beautifully vague and can make me cry if I’ve had a couple beers and I pretend it’s about whatever dramatic situation is troubling me at the moment. Even the obligatory Eighties sax solo is magnificent. It’s perhaps a bit long, though it’s available in several remixes of varying lengths across CD, CD3(!) LP, 7″, 12″ releases. The film was massively hyped before release, then panned by critics and fans, but the single reached #2 in England and nearly cracked the top 50 in the U.S.
There, it’s ten minutes until midnight, and VVV lives. All that for five seconds of secondhand scooter footage. See you next Vednesday.
*Speaking of Paul Weller, The Jam’s “Absolute Beginners,” (#4 UK charts in 1981) is surely also inspired (though equally subtly) by MacInnes’ book. It’s really a must-read novel, and in this age of remakes and re-hashed ideas, hopefully another filmmaker has a go at it, but it’s going to be hard to top the two great songs it’s already inspired.