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David Bowie understood the power of music video before anyone else

David Knight - 11th Jan 2016

Among his many artistic achievements, David Bowie's contribution to music videos might be regarded as a fairly minor accomplishment. But the fact remains that Bowie instinctively understood the power of music video, before pretty much anyone else.

In the 1970s he entered creative relationships with image-makers that bore similarity to those with his great musical collaborators. His videos became extensions of the artistic statements he was making with his music. That had a huge impact on the development of the form.

Bowie's most famous video, for Ashes To Ashes, co-directed by David Mallet and Bowie himself in 1980, was the culmination of a series in the 70s where Bowie explored the possibilities of the new medium - including the Mallet-directed videos for Boys Keep Swinging and DJ.

Ashes To Ashes was followed three years later by the video for Let's Dance and China Girl - also co-directed by Bowie and David Mallet - which heralded his Eighties pop-star phase, while also tackling issues of racial prejudice and stereotyping.

Bowie's ability to make videos that matched the direction of his music spanned his career - right up until his collaboration with Johan Renck on the videos for Blackstar and Lazarus  - the latter released last Thursday (January 7th), three days before his death.

His first outings came even before he had experienced any kind of success, in the late 1960s, including a promo for the first recording of Space Oddity. 

Once success finally arrived with Hunky Dory and then, in 1972, The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s Ziggy persona was sanctified repeatedly in the photography of Mick Rock – one of the most important image makers in rock and roll in the 1970s. Rock was primarily a stills photographer rather a filmmaker, but he did also direct the distinctive and influential Bowie promos for John, I’m Only Dancing, the second version of Space Oddity and Life On Mars (all in 1972 or 73), bringing his photographic style to bear. 

Perhaps best of all is Rock's promo for The Jean Genie, shot in the studio with the Spiders From Mars, with additional footage shot in a very scuzzy part of New York City.

Later in the Seventies, Bowie explored the possibilities of the new medium after he recorded the album Low, with the promo for Be My Wife. Directed by Stanley Dorfman - one of the original directors and producers of Top Of The Pops - its an ostensibly simple affair with Bowie playing guitar in a studio, but with interesting use of camera positions, it heralded the 'white-syc' era of pop videos, the humble, unpretentious bedrock of the format in its early days.

Dorfman would go on to direct the video for Heroes, before Bowie hooked up with David Mallet - co-creator and director of The Kenny Everett Video Show. Mallet would direct three videos for Bowie before they co-directed Ashes To Ashes, adding energy, melodrama, comedy (and perhaps above all unpredictability) to Bowie’s visual identity. The first was the brilliant video for Boys Keep Swinging, featuring a charismatic pop star performance - and then Bowie playing all of his female backing singers too.

By the mid-Eighties, with Bowie now a global superstar as a result of the success of the Let's Dance album, his screen appearances had extended into features for the first time since making The Man Who Fell To Earth with Nic Roeg in the early Seventies. His association with Julian Temple would include the Absolute Beginners movie, and several promos, including Blue Jean (which was part of a short feature shown in cinemas, Jazzin' For Blue Jean).   

In the Nineties, Bowie did what every self-respecting major artist did and made a couple of videos with Mark Romanek. He also worked with Floria Sigismondi for the first time, on the video for Little Wonder, which referenced his younger Space Oddity-era self, and also the work of artist Tony Oursler.

And after several years of creative silence (and rumours that he had retired for good) Bowie suddently announced his return to music on his 66th birthday three years ago with a lo-fi video for Where Are We Now? that was shot in Tony Oursler's New York studio.  

After that delightfully unexpected return with The Next Day, the creatively invigorated Bowie followed up with a new album that has also received even more critical acclaim. Now with his tragic, completely unexpected death, Blackstar's purpose as his swansong has been revealed. As Jarvis Cocker has said today, the song Blackstar - and Johan Renck's video for it – can be read as Bowie's way of saying goodbye...

David Knight - 11th Jan 2016

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