Tracks of my yearsDavid Bowie – Underground

By | posted on 12th September 2014

I know what I should be writing about for my 1986 entry in the Tracks of my Years playlist. Released in late summer that year, Graceland was soon everywhere. People I knew who had never shown the slightest interest in or inclination to talk about music were discussing "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes", "Homeless" and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Chevy Chase put in an appearance in the video for "You can Call me Al", and everyone loved it.

Graceland opens with "The Boy in the Bubble", and a typically sublime Paul Simon lyric:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

But 1986 also belonged, in a small and very localised way perhaps extending only to my known universe, to David Bowie, thanks largely to his role as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson film "Labyrinth", released late on in the year.

I’m being completely serious here.

In the words of its Tristar trailer, "Labyrinth" combines “the imagination of Jim Henson” with “the wizardry of George Lucas”, and completes this melting pot of empty marketing sentiments with “the excitement of David Bowie”. It tells the story of a girl’s journey to "the castle beyond the Goblin city". Not somewhere she would normally bother making the trip for but on this occasion she is more or less obliged on account of her having unwittingly asked evil Goblin King Jareth's underlings to take her baby away. If she doesn't reach the castle in thirteen hours, her kid brother will become just another of Jareth's subjects, consigned to a lifetime of goblin drudgery and having to listen to Bowie's bizarre accent-bending intonations. Vogon poetry would be such sweet music in comparison.

"Labyrinth" was Jim Henson’s last feature production; its commercial failure was for Henson a painful contrast to the success of "The Dark Crystal" in 1982. It’s hokum, to a degree, but good hokum at that. It’s got a fairytale storyline, helping hands, a feisty dog riding a docile dog, a smitten dwarf, and the classic “one of us always tells the truth, the other always lies” logic puzzle. It even has David Bowie twirling his glassy balls (or pretending to, at least, while juggler Michael Moschen performed blind "crystal ball manipulation" from a luxury position somewhere ‘neath Bowie’s underarm). All around are brilliant Henson creations.

Jareth wears eight distinct costumes over the course of the film, often being seen in black boots, long, ragged cloaks, a black sparkly jacket, eye makeup, baggy shirts and contoured trousers. He carries a riding crop in some scenes.Wiki

But it was the music that won me over, even if looking back on the soundtrack now it seems pretty light on classic Bowie: there’s a smattering of electronica, like the imminent doom signalled by "Into the Labyrinth", meandering instrumentals like "Sarah" and "Home at Last", and the madcap head-switching of "Chilly Down", a Bowie track in all but vocals. Moments of true Bowieness are few: "Within You" just about survives under the onslaught of its own melodrama, and Bowie’s pained attempts to reach the high notes without switching to falsetto, while "Magic Dance" is "Let’s Dance" rewritten with Goblin backing vocals and cringe-inducing gurgles - in the movie’s "making of" documentary, Into the Labyrinth, Bowie owns up to being the source of these baby noises after the baby selected had clammed up (“I thought, what the hell, I’ve done laughing gnome”), so on the one hand kudos for doing whatever it took to get the job done, but on the other hand, maybe taking a step back and rewriting the lyric, and ditching the line “then baby said” might have been a better option?

Compared to some, Bowie had a relatively easy time of it. Here’s poor old Jim Henson on his filming travails:

Working with a baby had its problems but then I tried directing chickens

All that dedication to the art, and still it went unappreciated by the critics. You wonder what they want from people sometimes.

The highlight of the soundtrack, though, is "Underground", which makes a cameo appearance at the start of the film, with the full version held back for the end credits. It’s a glorious pop masterpiece (being serious again, here) that morphs into a soul jam, rolls into bar-room piano, heads off briefly into jazzy hammond. In parts it is absolutely drowning in saxophone, but somehow that all seems to be ok.

The song’s clash of realities video melds various aspects of Bowie. It starts with him performing, as himself, in a club, then flashes through various characters he has inhabited. Bowie falls through animated sequences that introduce scenes and characters from the film, Jareth’s crystal balls get a roll-on part, and in the end the real Bowie finds himself in the company of some of the film’s creatures.

Like the film, "Underground" didn’t do great business, stalling at 21 in the UK Top 40 on its release in June 1986.