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2023 Albums Thing 073 - David Bowie “The Buddha Of Suburbia”

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Is it a soundtrack or is it a Bowie album ? Well, both statements can be true. It is (almost) very obviously a soundtrack, based on music written for the BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel. But Bowie also regarded it as an album in its own right, saying about it himself

However, left to my own devices these same pieces just took on a life of their own in the studio, the narrative and 70s memories providing a textural backdrop in my imagination that manifested as a truly exciting work situation. In short, I took the TV play motifs and restructured them completely except, that is, for the theme song.” David Bowie, The Buddha Of Suburbia sleeve notes

Bowie’s own website includes it in his discography as a studio album as do many Bowie writers and websites (Nicholas Pegg and The Bowie Bible website for instance). So what is it ? Well…in early 1993 Bowie was interviewed by Hanif Kureishi for a US magazine feature. Kureishi took the opportunity to ask if he could use some of Bowie’s 70’s music in the soundtrack of the forthcoming TV adaptation of his novel and would he like to compose some new pieces for it himself. Bowie’s answer ? “I thought you’d never ask”.

Around 40 short pieces plus the theme song were prepared by Bowie at Mountain Studio in Switzerland with Kureishi there to oversee things. But once the soundtrack was finished Bowie took these short pieces and extended many into longer works. What was eventually released as the soundtrack to “The Buddha of Suburbia” was effectively a new David Bowie album

The album itself only got one review, a good one as it happens, and is virtually non-existent as far as my catalogue goes – it was designated a soundtrack and got zilch in the way of marketing money. A real shame.” David Bowie, ContactMusic, 23 September 2003

The recording process was quick and used processes not used since the Berlin years. Short pieces were extended, the key was noted and then everything except the rhythmic parts were muted. New music was written to the rhythm tracks in the original key and, when the original music was re-introduced, any harmonic clashes were noted and extended upon. All very Brian Eno like which is perhaps why this album has a feel of “Low” and “Heroes” about it.

The first half of the album is mostly instrumental, with differing styles like dance music and Jazz, which give it that sense of Berlin. The title song fairly accurately tracks the  narrative of the novel, a mixed race teenager who turns to acting and the theatre to escape early 70’s South London, and is a “lost” Bowie classic. It references “Space Oddity” musically and “All The Madmen” lyrically (repeating the “Zane, Zane, Zane, Ouvre le chien” chant) and possibly more that I just haven’t noticed. 

The second half of the album is more song based including a first outing for “Strangers When We Meet” which would turn up again on “1.Outside” 2 years later. Considering this was only made a year after “Black Tie White Noise” it is a far more forward looking record than its predecessor which still had a foot firmly planted in the 80’s.

Apart from the theme song none of the music released as the soundtrack of “The Buddha of Suburbia” was actually used in the soundtrack and neither was it meant to be. It had virtually no promotional budget, what little promotion that was done positioned the album as a soundtrack and Bowie’s name is almost invisible on the original artwork. It reached number 87 in the UK charts. Q Magazine gave it a four star review noting “Bowie’s music walks a knife edge once again”. Bowie said in interviews over the ensuing years that it was a personal favourite of his and “I really felt happy making that album”.

The Buddha Of Suburbia - https://youtu.be/xHPIAFaKd1I

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