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45 at 33: David Bowie’s Underground + the merry Magic Dance of Labyrinth

In the big-haired 1980s, big-name directors with even bigger budgets had no qualms about helming pop videos: Landis, Scorsese, Friedkin, Fincher, Demme and De Palma all brought their visual sense to bear on the medium. But if you weren’t tying the song in with a movie, you had to interpret the sometimes fairly nonsensical lyrics somehow, often with mixed results.

It begged the question: were songwriters ever inspired by how their words would be interpreted in a song’s video? Given an almost blank slate, it’s fair to say that some directors’ imaginations ran riot; sometimes the storyboards got – how shall we put it kindly – a bit out of hand, riddled with disturbing symbols, disconcerting imagery and creepy concepts.

A black blazered Steve Barron on the set of MJ’s Billie Jean, Hollywood, February 1983

In the mid eighties, the man of the moment was Steve Barron. He’d already directed a sting of promos for everyone from Adam and the Ants, The Jam, Human League and Heaven 17 to Thomas Dolby, Culture Club, Bryan Adams, Madonna, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Beat It, and most memorable of all, a-ha’s still swoonsome Take On Me.

In the spring of 1986, Barron helmed the minor league curio that was the underwhelming Underground. This was the lead 45 to accompany David Bowie’s sizeable star turn in the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, possibly a memorable appearance for all the wrong reasons.

The idea for Labyrinth came to director Jim Henson in the aftermath of his earlier feature film Dark Crystal (1982). He had long dreamed of combining live actors with the puppets of his Creature Shop, which had appeared in the classic family telly programmes The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.

Take it away, Dave

Together with his writing and conceptualisation team, Henson started to compose a story about goblins that would combine fantasy stories like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. For the role of Goblin King, the writers wanted a contemporary pop singer, much as the James Bond team did for A View To A Kill.

Henson considered Jacko, Sting, and Bowie, who were all at the height of their Eighties popularity. When approached, David embraced the challenge of acting as well as writing the songs for the film. It also meant he had to withdraw from the Bond caper scheduled to begin production almost simultaneously, despite Eon announcing his involvement back in 1984. Still, the chance to swing and sashay in those tights and one of Tina Turner’s fright wigs must have been too good an opportunity to pass up.

Bowie in a test shoot for the 007 caper A View To A Kill. I quite like him with longer hair

In a role that was supremely odd but also oddly brilliant, Bowie’s turn as the freaky goblin king Jareth introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. In a movie that also bolstered Jennifer Connelly’s early career, Jareth was the maniacal – but hammy – villain who steals away Toby, Connelly’s infant half-brother. With his towering thunder dome of hair, the bizarre outfits (only Bowie could get away with more costume chances than the leading lady) and the occasional bursting into song, it was a weird and often sometimes wonderful ride, and among his most iconic roles.

Bowie’s cinematic diversions were always self-consciously patchy, though. Absolute Beginners (also 1986) was a misguided attempt at pushing him as a character actor. And a series of lacklustre collaborations and diversions resulted in albums which caused less excitement with every release.

But he still managed to pull a cracker out of the barrel every so often: Like Cat People before it, the theme song from Absolute Beginners was a 24 carat vintage Bowie offering, a delectable diamond in the rough, which was only kept off the top spot by the immovable Chain Reaction by fellow veteran Diana Ross. And for once, when the ace hype man described the aching sting-laden ballad as “one of the very best things I’ve written,” he actually meant it.

The follow-up, however, was a completely different kettle of hoggle.

The unsettling Underground seems to be about a young girl’s alienation and initiation into the adult world (“No one can blame you for walking away… Daddy, daddy, get me out of here!”), echoing Labyrinth’s is coming of age plot.

But, alas, no great claim can be made for its musical merits. In fact Underground is the perfect example of it wasn’t acceptable in the ‘80s: waste the talents of soul royalty like Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross and Cissy Houston (as well as future one hit wonder Robin Beck, of First Time fame) by performing a cacophony of indistinguishable gospel choir backing vocals drowned in the mix by the legendary Arif Mardin on one of your worst ever singles.

Hell, at least you could hear Chaka when Steve Winwood made better use of her vocal chops on Higher Love, which, spookily, entered the British charts at a lowly 80 the very same 21st June week that Underground entered at 26, one place behind the fabulously foul Chicken Song by Spitting Image. Still, Stevie banked the more enduring slow burner in the end, whereas Underground stalled at 21 the following week.

In fact, Underground contains one of the most singularly cringy vocal moments on a Bowie track, though it’s the boy from Bromley wot sung it. That way he sings the massively mannered first verse, with the admittedly terrible “too much protection/no love injection” couplet, ending the line with a retarded “na-na” that reminds you of your grandad trying to stick his tongue down your throat as you give him a kiss goodbye.

Nevertheless, the song’s marriage of a gospel choir chorus to synth basslines and ricocheting beats clearly influenced Like A Prayer by that self-proclaimed Bowie watcher Madonna a couple of years later. And The Dame must have watched the soaraway chart success of that song with green eyes, almost like a human’s. No wonder he bitched about her on that Tin Machine album.

Underground was the first instance of a Bowie video where the artist himself, for whatever reason, refrained from getting involved in the creative process. The days of co-directing were seemingly over. Storyboarding had been replaced by snowboarding.

Taking its theme literally, the video, features a band playing at an underground club. It’s fair to say that it’s elaborate… and more than a bit weird, Not weird in a fabulous way, like Boys Keep Swinging or Ashes To Ashes, but it does go off into some very odd and unfathomable tangents.

David dissolves into the floor, flashes through a Doctor Who regeneration style-montage of past incarnations (the first time Bowie used his iconic imagery of past selves in relation to the wholesome family entertainer he’d become) and then moves into a murky underworld where he becomes an animated character.

Bowie and band on the Underground set. Note future Right Said Fred frontman Richard Fairbrass on the far left. He’d previously appeared in 1984’s Jazzin’ For Blue Jean

The disembodied ‘helping hands’ from the movie mime to the gospel choir and Bowie dances with muppets before he rips off his ‘real’ face and becomes a cartoon character forever. Master axeman Albert Collins’ earthy, raunchy blues licks seem a bit out of place alongside this surreal stew. Face/Off? No, just off.

In Barron’s deliciously indiscreet memoir Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: a Trip Through the Eighties (2014), the director recounts a late-night telephone call from Bowie, who’s “not sure whether he’s talking to me or to my [answer] machine. He’s calling from Gstaad, just seen the finished video. It’s probably late there. He’s had a few and he’s gushing. And slurring a bit.”

However, as was so often the case with Bowie, after the single flopped (and he’d moved swiftly on to the next project) he claimed he wasn’t overly enamoured with Barron’s promotional film after all, telling Music & Sound Output in 1987: “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.”

Indeed, that was kind of borne out by an ‘on set’ type feature in No.1 magazine at the time that reported Bowie sitting most of the video out, preferring to listen to current Pet Shop Boys and Big Audio Dynamite albums on his shiny new Walkman.

But why?

Life is indeed a mystery.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: Steve Barron also directed a video for a second single from Labyrinth, the whimsical meander that was As The World Falls Down. It included clips from the movie as well as black and white footage of David performing the song, shot during the same four-day shoot in Stratford as Underground. Sadly its release as a 45 for the Christmas ’86 holiday was cancelled, and Bowie released another soundtrack single in its place, the title theme for the animated anti-war movie When The Wind Blows.

Magic Dance, probably the most memorable moment in Labyrinth (cough cough), was released as a USA-only 12″ single a little belatedly in January 1987, the “You remind me of the babe” exchange half-inched from The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, an old romantic screwball comedy from 1947 starring Cary Grant, Myrna “I’ve got a brother called Savva” Loy and Shirley Temple.

For reasons too complicated to explain here, Grant has been forced to date the much younger (and underaged) Temple and this scene in an attempt to overplay his hand in order to end his purgatory he’s playing Jack the lad. And how:

The exchange is repeated in various ways across the picture and colour me amazed as we find the boy from Brixton influenced by this relatively forgotten but great black and whiter starring the boy from Bristol from the year David Robert Jones was born (though it’s worth noting the screenplay written by Sidney Sheldon won an Academy Award). Hoodoo incidentally is “folk magic”.

The thematic connection is obviously that the barely legal Temple’s infatuation with Cary is signalled in hallucinatory sequences, in which he’s shown dressed as a knight in full armour obscured by soft focus and that its about a young girl ambiguously obsessed with an older man, hence the sub-plot of Labyrinth.

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