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
“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
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
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
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 –
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
Watch Our David Bowie In Memoriam Below:
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