The Buddha Of Suburbia
Arista 74321 170042 - November 1993
EMI 50999 5 00463 2 4 - September 2007
David Bowie: Vocals, Keyboards, Synths, Guitar, Alto & Baritone Sax, Keyboard Percussion
Erdal Kizilcay: Keyboards, Trumpet, Bass, Guitar, Live Drums, Percussion
Mike Garson: Piano on "South Horizon" and "Bleed Like A Craze, Dad"
3D Echo: Drum, Bass and Guitar on "Bleed Like A Craze, Dad"
Lenny Kravitz: Guitar on "Buddha Of Suburbia" - Second Version
Mountain Studios, Montreux/O'Henry Sound, Burbank
David Bowie, David Richards
In February 1993 Bowie was interviewed by the novelist Hanif Kureishi for an American magazine, Kureishi took advantage of the meeting to seek permission to use some of Bowie's early songs in the incidental score of BBC2's forthcoming dramatisation of his Whitbread Prize-winning novel The Buddha Of Suburbia. "And then I said, Oh, maybe you'd fancy doing a bit for it," recalled Kureishi, "and he said, I thought you were never going to ask!"
The choice of composer could scarcely have been more appropriate. Kureishi's irreverent, semi-autobiographical rite of passage follows the adventures of Karim, a Bromley teenager who navigates a path through the bogus mystics, racial collisions and sexual ambivalence of the 1970s, carving out a career as an actor while his friend Charlie becomes a fabricated rock star somewhere between Bowie, Sid Vicious and Billy Idol. The Buddha Of Suburbia's cultural satire, historical pastiche and philosophical analysis of the journey from suburbia to stardom offered the perfect stimulus for Bowie's music.
For the title song, David created a blissful pastiche of his own early sound but the remainder of his incidental score was carefully understated, at pains to avoid what he called "the usual pitfalls of over-arranging against small ensemble theatre." With Kureishi in attendance in Montreux, Bowie completed the forty-plus soundtrack pieces by the early summer of 1993. The score was later nominated for a BAFTA, but long before that Bowie took the compositions into Mountain Studios where sharing instrumental duties with his long-time collaborator Erdal Kizilcay, he began work on a new solo album using the score as his point of origin.
Recorded in a mere six days and mixed over the following fortnight, The Buddha Of Suburbia is a radical extrapolation of the original soundtrack, employing methodologies seldom seen on a Bowie album since the Berlin period. "I took each theme or motif from the play and initially stretched or lengthened it to a five or six-minute duration," Bowie explained. "Then, having noted which musical key I was in and having counted the number of bars, I would often pull down the faders leaving just the percussive element with no harmonic information to refer to. Working in layers I would then build up reinforcements in the key of the composition, totally blind so to speak. When all faders were pushed up again a number of clashes would make themselves evident. The more dangerous or attractive ones would then be isolated and repeated..."
Mike Garson, recently reunited with Bowie on Black Tie White Noise, was enlisted for two piano overdubs which he improvised in a three-hour session in a Los Angeles studio. Three tracks remained entirely instrumental, while the non-linear lyrics accompanying most of the others furthered the impression that Bowie had re-adopted the working methods of Brian Eno, who had no involvement with the album but whose influence is acknowledged in the occasionally overwrought sleeve notes. Here Bowie outlines his belief that the narrative form is "almost redundant", explaining his preference for using "the rhythmic element as an armature of sorts, placing, rather like decorations on a Christmas tree, blobs of arcane information...Having said that, I am completely guilty of loading in great dollops of pastiche and quasi-narrative into this present work at every opportunity." His declaration that artists like himself "have been parading a numbed, self-degrading affair over the last decade" and should now "rebalance the often loutish nadir into which we have blundered" sounds remarkably like an apology for the 1980s in general and Tin Machine in particular.
As Bowie's sleeve notes also explain, "This collaboration of music bears little resemblance to the small instrumentation of the BBC play". In other words, The Buddha Of Suburbia is not a soundtrack album at all but a fully-fledged opus. With the exception of the theme song the music doesn't feature in the serial at all, nor was it ever intended to. Bowie's lyrics, re-orchestrations and textural additions render the album a tight and coherent work in its own right. Unfortunately, few critics or consumers realised as much at the time, but this was hardly their fault: The Buddha Of Suburbia was marketed as a TV soundtrack rather than as a Bowie album. David's name was almost unnoticeable on the original sleeve and his face was absent altogether. Aside from a photocall with Hanif Kureishi and the seldom-seen video of the title track, he did little to promote the album. EMI's The Singles Collection was released only a week later and went top ten, further eclipsing the new work. Despite some excellent reviews (Q gave it four stars, noting approvingly that "Bowie's music walks a knife-edge once again"), Buddha stalled at number 87 in the UK chart.
Ten years later, Bowie cited The Buddha Of Suburbia as his personal favourite of all his studio projects. "I really felt happy making that album" he recalled. "Overall, it was just myself and Erdal Kizilcay working on that. Erdal was a fellow musician, Turkish, living in Switzerland. He had studied at an Istanbul conservatory, and for his degree had to become proficient on every instrument in the orchestra. This led to a lot of testing on my part. I would produce an oboe from my jacket pocket: 'Hey, Erdal, don't you think oboe would be nice there?' He would trot off to the mic and put down a beautiful solo, then say, 'That's quite good but how about if I doubled it with the North Albanian Frog-Trembler?' And he would. 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 as a soundtrack and got zilch in the way of marketing money. A real shame."
The Buddha Of Suburbia, then, remains one of the choicest treasures awaiting discovery among Bowie's less familiar work. It represents the vital missing link between Black Tie White Noise and 1.Outside, showcasing Bowie at his most bravely experimental, mingling acoustic guitars, synthesiser pop and long, ambient instrumentals in a style immediately reminiscent of Low and "Heroes". It is also the first album since The Man Who Sold The World on which Bowie composes every track unassisted, and the amazingly rapid recording time - another aspect unheard of since the 1970s - delivers a work of vitality and excitement.
In October 1995 The Buddha Of Suburbia received its first official release outside the UK, boasting vastly improved sleeve artwork. The original image, a scene from the BBC serial's stage production of The Jungle Book clumsily overlaid on a map of Beckenham, was replaced by a tinted monochrome shot of Bowie sitting on a bed. This cover was retained for EMI's 2007 reissue, which restored The Buddha Of Suburbia to the shelves after more than a decade of unavailability. The long-awaited DVD release of the television serial itself, launched on the same day as the 2007 reissue, included the video of Bowie's title song.