With a career spanning forty-plus years, and more personas and different incarnations than Lady Gaga and Madonna combined, David Bowie gave so much to fans who liked him from a young age. If you were a teen in the 1970s, then to you, David Bowie is forever the Ziggy Stardust, the lost alien, or maybe the eye-patch wearing Diamond Dog. If you were a kid in the ’90’s, then your first encounter with Bowie was likely as an elderly collaborator with Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor–rock music’s resident “cool uncle”.
But for me, a child of the ’80s, my first exposure to David Bowie was through his series of iconic music videos that played in heavy rotation on MTV during the network’s early days. Little did I know then that Bowie had been making music videos since before the term “music video” was even coined. But these musical clips, and the ones that came before it, helped cement the identity of who Bowie was to the world at large, and many of these videos are what we still think of when we think of him. It’s almost impossible to divorce Bowie’s songs from his striking imagery.
Ultimately, it was too hard to rank the top ten music videos from David Bowie’ entire career, so instead of making it a competition for the number-one slot, instead here are ten of the most iconic videos from the Thin White Duke, all in chronological order. And mind you, this is not a list of the ten greatest David Bowie songs (most of which never even had a video) but are, for me, his most iconic video moments. It’s not quite the same thing. So let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
“Space Oddity” (1969) and (1973)
Now that he’s gone, you’re going to keep hearing how David Bowie was ahead of his time. And maybe there’s no greater example of this than the fact that he was making music videos a full decade before MTV existed, before there was really any kind of outlet for music videos. Bowie’s first iconic single was 1969’s “Space Oddity” and it was also his first music video. The song and the video are an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, featuring a hippie-ish looking Bowie as an astronaut, lost in space.
In December 1972, British photographer Mick Rock shot a music video of Bowie performing the song during the sessions for Aladdin Sane, which was used to promote the January 1973 re-release of the single (this is the version most well known and played on the radio). There’s not much to the second video–it’s Bowie in his full Glam Rock mode, bright red hair, no eyebrows, glittery shirt, and platform shoes, strumming his guitar in the studio. But for many, this version of Bowie is the first thing that pops in their minds when they think of him. It was a hell of a way to make a first impression on American audiences. You can imagine how every kid in the world who felt like an outsider instantly found an idol in David Bowie upon seeing this clip.
“Life On Mars” (1973)
If Bowie looked weird in “Space Oddity,” then by the time he released the video for “Life On Mars,” he looked like a straight up alien from outer space. Originally recorded for the 1971 album Hunky Dory, the song was re-released as a single in 1973, right at the time Bowie was starting to make waves in the States.
Shot backstage after a concert, this video is another simple one-this is before music videos had any budgets to speak of–and features Bowie in a turquoise “ice-blue” suit , with pale white makeup on and turquoise eye shadow, looking very much the glamorous freak (I can only imagine what most parents were thinking at the time). The song and video were copied by Jessica Lange in the fourth season of American Horror Story, which was likely a lot of millennials’ first exposure to it. Well kiddies, here’s the REAL thing.
If this video was performed by anyone else it, would be considered a boring ass video. After all, the video is just Bowie singing the song, backlit, wearing an unzipped leather jacket, looking like he’s about to head out to Studio 54 (which he probably was).
This was shot in 1977, during the era when Bowie was in the grip of a life threatening drug habit, and had exiled himself to West Berlin. While in Berlin, he constantly did drugs and worked on what he called his “Berlin Trilogy” of albums – Low, Lodger, and Heroes.
“Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
A semi-sequel of sorts to Bowie’s first big hit “Space Oddity,” “Ashes to Ashes” finds that song’s astronaut protagonist now a strung out junkie. Directed by Bowie himself and David Mallet, the lyrics of this song revisit Bowie’s Major Tom character, which he also referenced once again in 1995 with “Hallo Spaceboy.”
Although the effects look positively ancient by today’s standards, at the time it was made, this was one of the most expensive videos ever made. The video features Bowie in a French clown costume wandering around a beach that looks like an apocalyptic wasteland. The video also features Bowie as an inmate in an asylum, and even as cyborg. In his own words, this song was Bowie’s “goodbye to the ’70s” but in truth, it was the first New Wave video of the ’80s.
“Let’s Dance” (1983)
David Bowie used fashion, theater, and imagery as part of his act well before it was the norm for pop stars to do so. You could almost imagine that MTV was created to give him a platform to to do what he’d already been doing for years, but for a much bigger audience. Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance was his real entrance into the music video era dominated by MTV, and what an entrance.
Shot in New South Wales in Australia,”Let’s Dance” was a message against racism and oppression. Plus something about red shoes and a nuclear holocaust. It’s all appropriately bizarre and off-putting, but the highlight might be that Bowie’s bleached blonde ‘do was very on point in this video.
“Modern Love” (1983)
Essentially just a concert video, this one makes this list for purely sentimental reasons (well, that and the song was an enormous hit). Bowie rockin’ out to this song on stage, which was produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, was one of my earliest exposures to the music of Bowie, and helped make me a lifelong fan.
“China Girl” (1983)
Another trippy video from Bowie’s early ’80s MTV era, this third hit single off of Let’s Dance is perceived as maybe more than a bit un-PC by modern standards, but it’s still an evocative music video. The song was cowritten by David Bowie and Iggy Pop during Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” years in Berlin, and actually first appeared on Pop’s album The Idiot. Bowie re-recorded the song and took it to much greater heights. The video, which was shot in the Chinatown district of Sydney, Australia, was described by Bowie as a “very simple, very direct” statement against racism”, which consciously parodied Asian female stereotypes.
“Blue Jean” (1984)
Another gem from the mid ’80s MTV era, this video actually started out as a 20-minute short film by filmmaker Julien Temple called Jazzin’ For Blue Jean, which was sold as a VHS video single. The edited version is the one which got all the airplay though and features Bowie in another cool costume, as a fictional pop star called Screaming Lord Byron (adding yet another persona to Bowie’s already long list of aliases). Bowie described the song as “a piece of sexist rock ‘n roll. It’s about picking up birds. It’s not very cerebral, that piece.” Nevertheless, the song is catchy as hell.
“Dance Magic Dance” (1986)
I’m sort of cheating by including this one as a proper music video, as it’s really a scene from the fantasy movie Labyrinth, but it was edited down and shown often on VH1 back in the day as a music video, so I’m counting it. Besides, for an entire generation of kids (including our very own Rachel Heine, it was Bowie’s role as Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth, and this song in particular, that made young kids Bowie fans for life. Also, how can you beat the incredible combo of David Bowie and characters from Jim Henson’s creature shop? Answer: You can’t.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997)
By the late ’90s, David Bowie had been in the business for thirty years. While most performers could just rest on their laurels at that point and trot out their greatest hits in Las Vegas, Bowie was still pushing himself artistically and reminding everyone why he was such a pioneer.
His song “I’m Afraid of Americans” was originally intended for his 1995 album Outside, but it ended up getting scrapped for that album, before finally appearing in (of all places) a scene from the movie Showgirls. Maybe in a quest to redeem that track, Trent Reznor remixed the song, and appeared in a video for it with Bowie that was an homage to film Taxi Driver, with Reznor stalking a paranoid Bowie around New York City. This was one of Bowie’s last heavily played videos, and seriously, how cool does the fifty-year-old Bowie look here?
Watch Our David Bowie In Memoriam Below:
Image via RCA Records
What are your favorite Bowie music videos?