David Bowie released Absolute Beginners on 3rd March 1986, which makes it 36 years old at the time of writing. While I have always been aware of the song, it came to my attention when a respected TV personality claimed it was their favourite song of all time. And, to me, that is like a red rag to a bull. If someone likes a song so much it must have something special about it, it must be more than just another song by a great artist, although that’s always a good start.
Here it is, in case you’ve forgotten:
Obviously, this is a big ballad, with a huge backing, including Rick Wakeman on piano, and a big Don Weller sax solo. But like so many David Bowie songs, this is not as simple as it seems and it’s a difficult piece to analyse systematically.
It’s in the key of D, is in common time and has a BPM of 120. All standard stuff.
Let’s start with a look at the chorus, which is perhaps the most recognisable part of the song:
As you can see, it consists of a repeated motif, which centres on a D note with changing D major G major and B minor chords underneath, all of which contain the D note. The end of each motif is characterised by a forceful triplet. A great melody but not so out of the ordinary.
It’s the verse that packs the most surprises:
OK, the D to Bm is nothing unusual but the shift to Amaj7 and then C#dim7 certainly is. It helps to create tension and continues the ascent in the melody which starts on D and goes to F# (on the Bm), G# (on the Amaj7) and then A# (on the C#dim7), leading to the climax of the high B on the G chord. I’ve shown those notes on the score in orange.
So, how how did David Bowie come up with this chord progression? We don’t really know, but my guess is that he played around with all sorts of chords on the guitar until he found something that gave the melody that something different. Without wishing to appear too reactionary, for some reason I don’t see that much bravery in songwriting all that often anymore.