Producers Langer & Winstanley talk to SDE about working with David Bowie

David was one of the nicest, most professional artists. He was just incredible to work with and  he was open to ideas.”

Legendary production duo Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley have made albums for Madness, Elvis Costello, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions and Morrissey, among many others. Here they talk to SDE about their involvement in the film soundtrack to Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners, which gave them the chance to work with Ray Davies, Paul Weller and, of course, David Bowie… 

SuperDeluxeEdition: We’re here to talk about Absolute Beginners. How did the two of you come to be involved in that project?

Alan Winstanley: Okay. Well Clive went to school with Julien Temple, who directed the movie. So they were old friends, they’d known each other for years and Julien came to us and asked us to produce the soundtrack.

Clive Langer: Yeah, we both went to William Ellis, which was a school in Kentish Town, Highgate, and as teenagers Julien and I travelled through Europe together. Work-wise, we kind of kept our distance, because he wasn’t a big Deaf School fan [Dead School was Clive’s first band]. He was more into [Malcolm] McLaren stuff, the Clash and everything. I was probably a little bit ‘art collegy wet’ compared to the ‘tough guys’, you know! Alan and I were quite ‘hot’ at the time around Absolute Beginners – we were doing the second Elvis Costello album that we worked on, which was Goodbye Cruel World – and Julien wanted to meet Elvis to discuss him writing a song for the film. We all went out for dinner together. I was always really comfortable with Julien and I think it maybe occurred to him that he needed someone who could oversee the whole project…

Clive Langer (right) and Alan Winstanley (left) at work in the 1980s

SDE: What attracted you to doing a film soundtrack project? You’d been having a fair amount of success with Madness and other artists and were building your career in that way. A soundtrack was quite a different thing to do and, arguably, even a bit of a risk?

Alan: Well, we were attracted by the people who were going to be involved in it. David Bowie, Paul Weller, Sade, Ray Davies – Clive and I are big fans of his – so it was mainly that.

Clive: It was definitely the people! To work with David Bowie and [legendary jazz orchestrator] Gil Evans, you know. Julien and I were massive Ray Davies fans at school, listening to Muswell Hillbillies and whatever. It was also a challenge, a colourful challenge as opposed to going in every day with the same band and you know, where one of the band is difficult and ‘urgh’ [Clive groans]. You didn’t have much time to deal with the difficult sides of people.

Alan: It was just going to be different from going in the studio with a band for three months making an album, you know [laughs]. It was more like a year in the studio but with different bands.

SDE: Had Julien already secured most of the talent by the point that he was asking you to get involved?

Alan: Well, I don’t think they were all confirmed. But that was who they were trying to get.

Clive: I think David didn’t come through until near the end and he was the clincher, really, for commercial success. He wrote that incredible song so we were kind of blessed there. Julien had worked with David [he directed the Jazzin’ For Blue Jean video] and he’s pretty good at kind of coaxing people into things.

SDE: How does the Langer/Winstanley partnership work? Obviously, you’re a wellknown production team, but could you describe who does what and how you work together?

Alan: Well, Clive is definitely not from a technical background at all, he’s a musician-songwriter and that’s how I met him. I started off as a guitarist but realised that I wasn’t going to be that good, so I thought I’d try the other side of the glass. I got a job in a little studio in Fulham called TW and that’s where I met Clive. He came in with Deaf School, which was the band he was in at the time. This was in the mid ’70s – no, probably a bit later, about ’77 I guess – and he was always the guy that used to hang around and take an interest in the whole record-making process, even when he wasn’t there to play guitar just to see what was going on. So yeah, Clive is more the musician-songwriter and gets involved in the arrangements and even though I am a musician I am more from the technical side and we kind of meet in the middle.

Clive: I could rely on Alan and let my imagination sort of go. I’ve never been an engineer or anything but I’ve written songs all my life so it was a good partnership. We hung out socially because we kind of had to and then it became a pleasure to hang out with him but that wouldn’t have happened unless we had our working partnership.

Alan: We obviously struck up a bit of a relationship and then Madness were big fans of Deaf School so when Madness got signed to Stiff, and I had been doing a lot of work for Stiff, the band wanted Clive to produce it. Dave [Robinson, co-founder of Stiff Records] said: “I’ve got this guy called Alan Winstanley in mind that might be good” and Clive said “well, that’s the guy I was going to ask because we’ve already starting working together.” It was all a bit of a coincidence really and it all worked out really well. So that was it. The first proper thing we did was that first Madness song.

SDE: Turning to Absolute Beginners, it must have been a bit of a challenge because there’s so much going on. You’ve got all the different artists to work with, you’ve got music, which has to be sync’d to visuals…

Alan: It was very challenging, yeah! Working with all those different artists and obviously with Gil Evans. So there were two different things – there was the bands, you know, the pop music kind of sound – like David, Sade and The Style Council – and then we got into the more jazz stuff with Gil and with the orchestras. So that was quite challenging because we’d never really done any of that before. And then obviously trying to make sure it all worked with the picture as well.

Clive: We were doing the music pre-edit, we weren’t doing the music to the picture, so basically the songs have to be strong and then you can place them wherever. It’s like ‘Absolute Beginners’ isn’t in the film really, but there are kind of musical refrains that refer to it.

SDE: Does that mean you were writing and recording music before some of the film had even been shot?

Clive: Definitely with ‘Quiet Life’, which was the first thing we did, but it wasn’t with all of them. Everything was changing, we had the strong brief and then everything changed and things were allocated to different parts of the film because the music was strong. So in the case of ‘Napoli’, say, it was a specific scene. The brief was on every individual song – how it would fit into the film, what little details Julien wanted, you know, like suddenly he’d say, “Well, someone’s going to cross the road here,” so I was aware that this bit was going to be used when cars were going by so I said to Gil, “Can you do some ‘vrrroom’ [makes a fast car engine sound] or whatever?” to illustrate the picture. Things like that. But the funny thing was that when it came to editing, it was such a mess that the bits we’d worked out to go with the picture didn’t really happen and were placed in other places.

SDE: Those individual artists, Sade, The Style Council, are used to working with their own producers, so it must have been a new experience for them as well?

Alan: Yeah. I think they were all pretty open to everything though.

Clive: [laughs] Except Paul Weller. We had to go to his studio, he wouldn’t come to ours. He had his team of guys, roadies and everything. Have you heard the story about the sandwiches?

SDE: No [laughing]. Go ahead!

Clive: The roadies would go: “Paul, Steve, what do you want for lunch? What sandwiches would you like? Alright, we’ll go and get them..” And they didn’t ask us! It was kind of weird but, you know, I befriended Paul Weller later and he’s very nice.

Alan: It was all good. And David Bowie was fantastic. We got the demo of ‘Absolute Beginners’ he did and we thought: “Wow! How are we going to make this better?”

SDE: Presumably, Alan, by this point Julien Temple must have asked David to write the song, which was clearly written specifically for the film. He’d already recorded the demo and at Abbey Road Studios, so it must have sounded pretty good?

Alan: Yeah, obviously David was a good producer and he did it himself. I wish I had a copy of it actually, so I could listen to it. And then we went to meet him – he was staying at the St James’s Club in the penthouse suite – and we went up there and he played the track and we had a few beers and just had to work out a way of trying to make it better because the demo did sound really good!

SDE: Were you big David Bowie fans already?

Alan: Massive, yeah.

Clive: After Deaf School split up, one of the people who worked with us ended up driving one of the trucks for David around Europe so I joined him in his truck and watched the Heroes tour, about three or four times in France and then hitchhiked back. That’s how big a fan I was. So Alan and I were nervous going to meet him. We get in the lift and the concierge or porter got a key out that fitted into a hole and turned it and then he jumped out of the lift and the lift just went up and when it opened, David was there on the other side of the doors. We were in his suite, and as Alan says he offered us a beer and then he played us the bloody demo – which was a bit of a shock because it was so good it was ridiculous. There were times when we were re-recording where David would go back to the demo and say, “Oh maybe we should use this,” but I had a concept which kind of locked him in to our version which was that instead of doing a 12-inch extended version, we’d record it as if it was a 12-inch. He agreed to that, so it was much more of an epic, musically, when we’d finished with it and Don Weller and Luis Jardim and everyone playing dead well.

SDE: What was the vision? Was there a specific brief from Julien asking you to capture a specific kind of sound, or atmosphere?

Alan: Well, the idea of the long version was that he wanted to use it over the credits at the end so we had all the percussion and sax for the very end as the credits were rolling. Rather than do a normal version and try to extend it, we decided to do a long version and then obviously shorten it for the single.

Clive: The demo was so good. We used the same musicians. Same song. Same chords. Same arrangement – except for the outro – so it was kind of similar but all the colourful little bits and pieces, we added. You know, all the little fireworks in the background. I suppose we really kind of peaked as ’80s producers with [Madness’] ‘It Must be Love’ and ‘Our House’ and [Elvis Costello’s] ‘Every Day I Write the Book’, but this was one of those where you just wanted to get it right, and not only get it right but make it very special.

SDE: One of the great things about that song is that the production is not locked into any time or place. It does have a timeless feel to it.

Clive: Yeah, it wasn’t “of the fashion”, it was just recorded. David produced it as much as we did, or more. He credited us [with the production], but in fact it was him and we were there making sure everything was fine and maybe adding a little bit. We’d have ideas but he’d adjust a bit for his sensibility.

SDE: Everyone I’ve ever talked to who has worked with David in any way always say he was down to earth, really generous, and one of those superstars who’s impressive because he hasn’t got any sort of hang ups about anything. He’s just a nice guy to work with.

Alan: David was really relaxed. You know, when people ask about different artists we’ve worked with, David was one of the nicest, most professional … he was just incredible to work with. He really, really was. And he was open to ideas. You obviously know that when you do vocals with people, you do quite a few takes and then you stick it together and get all the best bits, but with David he wanted to just sing it through so that was great, he was such a great singer. And I remember stopping the tape at one point when he just went a little out of tune and before I could tell him he said: “Yeah, I know, I was flat on that line.” He knew exactly where, most people don’t, they argue with you. You stop them and they say, “You sure?” But he knew. He was spot on and it was almost one take, really. There were a couple of stops, drop ins and that was it. It was fantastic. You know, really professional..

Clive: At that first meeting I think he wanted to play us the the song before we went in to record it. He wanted to feel that we were okay, you know… I mean, if he hadn’t have liked us, he could have done it with anyone he wanted and the filmmakers would have agreed. So, that was kind of cool. It was the start of, for me, quite a long relationship with him. I used to hang out with him, we’d meet up and have lunch, dinner, whatever. We went skiing a couple of times and I spent New Year’s Eve with him and Iggy.

SDE: Who brought that band together? Rick Wakeman, Kevin Armstrong, Steve Nieve etc.

Alan: Rick was brought in by David, but the rest of the band were musicians that we’d worked with before. We got Neil Conti, the drummer, we’d worked with him quite a bit. Matthew Seligman, who sadly died recently. And Kevin Armstrong. They were musicians that we’d worked with, and continued to work with afterwards, on the Morrissey albums and stuff. We got Luis Jardim in on percussion. So all people we knew.

SDE: And you must have been delighted it did so well, commercially. It was such a big hit. How satisfying was that? Did you always know it was going to do well because it was such a good song?

Alan: Oh yeah. I mean as soon as we heard the demo. You know, it sounded like a hit record to me anyway [laughs] so yeah. Fantastic. Brilliant.

Clive: [laughs] Well, the New Year’s Eve that we spent in Gstaad in Switzerland where there was about 12 people there and it was: “Oh, you know, the New Year’s coming and what’s going to happen?” And me and David were going, “Well, we know what we’ve got!” It’s like we knew that it was going to be something special to release.

SDE: And what about some of the other Davie Bowie contributions to the album? There’s that big dance sequence in it with him and the typewriter and all that. Were you being toldthis needs to be exactly this length and we need a bit in the middle where it does this, that and the other? How prescriptive was it all?

Alan: I don’t think so. I think we just recorded it and maybe they filmed to what we recorded [laughs]. Blimey, it’s a long time ago!

SDE: Were they all done at the same time or did you have a number of different sessions with David?

Alan: There wasn’t that many, but there were a couple. The same day we did ‘Absolute Beginners’ we also recorded ‘Dancing In The Street’ with him and [Mick] Jagger for Live Aid. We were in our own studio, called West Side Studios in Shepherd’s Bush, for that.

SDE: Wow. So that’s a pretty good day’s work isn’t it? Absolute Beginners then ‘Dancing In The Street’…

Alan: It was fantastic. David came in in the morning and said, “Look, can we work on this until about six and then Mick wants to come in and we’re going to do this ‘Dancing In The Street’.” Because the original idea was they were going to sing it live, but they just realised the satellite delay wasn’t going to work between Philadelphia and Wembley so we thought we needed to do a video. So that was the idea. Just knock it out. Get the video filmed that night and that was it.

At about five o’clock we started rehearsing ‘Dancing In The Street’ and it sounded terrible. I mean, the band had been playing all day and they were pretty knackered and it just sounded tired and not very good at all. At 6pm, Jagger turned up and came into the control room and we said to him: “OK there’s a microphone set up for you out there next to David in the booth,” and directing him where to go. So he literally walked into the studio and did his, you know, Jagger kind of strut and I remember looking at him and I saw Neil Conti, the drummer, look up, and he just kicked into fifth gear and that was it. We covered it in one take. Well, it had to be quick to get it finished so that they could go and do the filming. So, yeah, that was quite an incredible day [laughs], getting those two songs. I mean, we didn’t get ‘Absolute Beginners’ all finished that day. It was mainly just getting the track down and overdubs. Rick Wakeman came in later on,  so in answer to your question, it was quite a few days on and off, you know. David would come in and we’d do bits of pieces.

Ray Davies in Absolute Beginners

SDE: OK, moving on a little bit from the David Bowie material, you also mentioned Ray Davies. How was he to work with?

Alan: He was great. In fact, his was the first song we ever recorded in that studio at West Side. West Side had just opened and ‘Quiet Life’ with Ray Davies was the first thing we recorded, so that was quite something. And, yeah, he was brilliant. He was great. Again, professional and just really good to work with.

Clive: We did ‘Quiet Life’ in ’84, I think, and production started in ’85 because it was used as a sort of taster for them to go to the States and beg for more money [for the film].

SDE: And what about The Style Council? Paul Weller was clearly already a big fan of that book, The Jam had the song Absolute Beginners’ and I think he said on Desert Island Discs it would be the book he took with him.

Alan: Working with him was a little different from the rest of them. We did that in his studio, Solid Bond, or whatever it was called. It was near Marble Arch. As Clive mentioned earlier, he didn’t want to do it in our studio so we had to go to his, but it worked out well. It was quite good, actually, going to another studio.

SDE: The Style Council song has that extended intro and has more of a filmic feel to it, I think. Was Gil Evans getting involved on specific arrangement elements to some of these songs?

Alan: Well, obviously, he did all the soundtrack arrangements which we recorded.

Clive: Gil did an incredible arrangement on [The Style Council’s] ‘Have You Ever Had It Blue?’, the change of tempo with the two parts of the music… We were aware when we recorded it that Gil was going to do an arrangement. That’s what we were asked to do.

SDE: Gil did the horns on that song?

Alan: That’s right, he arranged horns and stuff and I think he might have even got involved in the arrangement of the Sade track.

Clive: It was just around the time of her first hit, so she wasn’t like the big star that she became. And she was great, she delivered straight away.

SDE: Gil’s a legend, he must have been great to work with.

Alan: Yeah. He was brilliant. I mean, really good and the musicians that he got together were really good as well.

SDE: And what happened to the idea of Elvis Costello contributing a song?

Clive: He did contribute a song, but I think at that time Elvis wasn’t writing the most commercial songs of his career and Julien and [film producer] Steve Woolley wanted things that really stood out.

SDE: With this soundtrack, the record company was trying to promote certain bands. Eighth Wonder are on there with their song for example.

Alan: I guess because they wanted Patsy Kensit in the movie, I’m just assuming that she said, “Well I’ll do it but I want me and my brother’s band to be on there.”  And that was okay as well. We had good fun making that track.

SDE: The Jerry Dammers track sounded like a real challenge in terms of putting that together?

Alan: Yeah, he’s just a bit of a nut case really [laughs]. It was quite challenging but he ended up sounding really good and it fitted in really well in the riot scene for the film.

SDE: Who would have been playing all that music?

Alan: We were using the same musicians that we’d been using with Gil Evans. There was a sax player called Don Weller [another who sadly passed away this year] who played the solo on ‘Absolute Beginners’ and he was in the horn section on a lot of the stuff. It was just a really good bunch of session musicians.

SDE: And sitting down watching the film in a movie theatre and hearing all that music on the sound system must have been amazing.

Alan: We went to the premier. I think it was Leicester Square and it was quite amazing just sitting there watching it and then watching our names go up!

SDE: The soundtrack album was arguably more successful than the film in terms of critical appeal. How do you look back on the album now?

Alan: Well, it was quite time-consuming because it was on and off really for probably a good couple of years recording it. And there were points when the film got shelved a little bit or they would try to get more money to do this or that… It was stop and start really. We did other records in between.

Clive: Yeah, Mad Not Mad [by Madness] came out in September 1985, and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions’ Easy Pieces a couple of months after that.

Alan: Goodbye Cruel World with Elvis Costello was around about that time as well. So yeah, we’d stop, do an album with someone, and then go back on it again. And it was also obviously fitting in with all those artists’ schedules as well, you know. But I look back on Absolute Beginners with great fondness. I loved it.

Thanks to Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley who were talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE.

Absolute Beginners is reissued this Friday as a two-CD set featuring the whole soundtrack for the first time. It is also reissued as a 2LP vinyl package.

Absolute Beginners 2CD edition


Absolute Beginners – David Bowie
Killer Blow- Sade
Have You Ever Had It Blue? – The Style Council
Quiet Life – Ray Davies
Va Va Voom – Gil Evans
That’s Motivation – David Bowie
Having It All – Eighth Wonder ft Patsy Kensit
Rodrigo Bay – Working Week
Selling Out – Slim Gaillard
Riot City – Jerry Dammers


Boogie Stop Shuffle (Rough And The Smooth) – Gil Evans
Ted Ain’t Dead – Tenpole Tudor
Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu) – David Bowie
Napoli – Clive Langer
Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good) – Jonas (24)
Absolute Beginners (Slight Refrain) – Gil Evans
Better Git It In Your Soul (The Hot And The Cool) – Gil Evans
Landlords And Tenants – Laurel Aitken
Santa Lucia – Ekow Abban
Cool Napoli – Gil Evans
So What? (Lyric Version) – Smiley Culture
Absolute Beginners (Refrain) – Gil Evans

Absolute Beginners 2LP vinyl


Side A

Absolute Beginners – David Bowie
Killer Blow – Sade
Have You Ever Had It Blue? – The Style Council
Quiet Life – Ray Davies
Va Va Voom – Gil Evans

Side B

That’s Motivation – David Bowie
Having It All – Eighth Wonder ft Patsy Kensit
Rodrigo Bay – Working Week
Selling Out – Slim Gaillard
Riot City – Jerry Dammers


Side A

Boogie Stop Shuffle (Rough & The Smooth) – Gil Evans
Ted Ain’t Dead – Tenpole Tudor
Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu) – David Bowie
Napoli – Clive Langer
Little Cat (You Never Had It So Good) – Jonas (24)
Absolute Beginners (Slight Refrain) – Gil Evans

Side B

Better Git It In Your Soul (The Hot & The Cool) – Gil Evans
Landlords And Tenants – Laurel Aitken
Santa Lucia – Ekow Abban
Cool Napoli – Gil Evans
So What? (Lyric Version) – Smiley Culture
Absolute Beginners (Refrain) – Gil Evans


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