Best Of Bowie: The Music Videos

A contradiction:

-In my opinion, most music videos suck.

-I buy DVDs of music videos.


Exploded Goat likes David Bowie. A lot. Our first concert was DB1 at the Universal Amphitheater, 1997. We had terrible seats, and some guy sat on his armrests, blocking Joe’s view. We switched seats during the encore, because I am magnanimity itself.

The point is that I have no critical faculty about DB (well, almost none). When the Best Of Bowie DVD comes out, I buy it, no question.


The DVD has forty-seven videos on two discs. Not every DB video is present (e.g., “Changes”), but there is more than enough. The sound is uncompressed PCM, and the videos look great. Plus, there are instrumentals from Low and “Heroes” on the menus.

Note: I record my impressions as I watch. They don’t have a lot of in-depth analysis (a function of philosophy, not incompetence).

Disc 1

Oh! You Pretty Things

video from The Old Grey Whistle Test
I do not know what the Old Grey Whistle Test is. It sounds strange to me. Hmm… Apparently, it is a BBC television show. The video is a live performance, with DB (hair just post-Hunky Dory floppy, pre-Ziggy red2) on piano and the Spiders backing him up – since this is a Hunky Dory track, they don’t have a lot of rocking to do. The video focuses for the most part on DB’s face while he sings, which is good because at this point the Spiders are all pretty visually uncharismatic. Typical TV live performance stuff, no different than you’d see today on Conan O’Brien. Nice to have, not terribly special.

Oh! You Pretty Things (alternate take)

This is an alternate take from the same taping. DB seems to play less to the camera for this one, and he talk-sings more of it. Cracks a smile every once in a while. This is box set/bonus track sort of stuff, making idiots like me happy, but totally unnecessary for the public at large. Evening, all.

Queen Bitch

video from The Old Grey Whistle Test
This looks like the same taping as the “Oh! You Pretty Things” shoot. Mick Ronson and David Bowie sharing a mic for the second half of the song. DB always looks like he’s having fun when he can play off of someone. The live recording misses some of the magnificent chunkiness of Mick’s guitar on the album version. Like “Oh! You Pretty Things”, this is neat, and live tracks are always fun. But it really isn’t a video.

Five Years

video from The Old Grey Whistle Test
Like the previous, but with some lighting tricks, and Mick Ronson on piano instead of guitar. This is one of my favorite DB songs, given a great emotional reading, and some flubbed lines which makes live performances so much fun, don’t you know. Swear to God, though, DB looks like a girl here, up close. An aside – the bass playing here is fantastic. I think bass playing has really deteriorated in the last twenty years of rock and pop. Trevor Bolder is playing runs and melodies here, making the song move. What happened to the Bass? I miss you, Bass. Like the previous two, decent TV live performance with some lighting tricks to make it a little more interesting.


video from Top of the Pops
Wish we had a show like Top of the Pops here in America. Sure, it would be loaded down with crap near everyday, but some music on TV would be nice. MTV doesn’t do music anymore, but someone should. Ziggy here, bright red hair and horrible, horrible clothes. Bolder’s neckbeard (is that thing real, or did he staple wool to the sides of his neck?) looks terrible, the kids onstage look like geeks, but the performance is pretty tight – and I mean that. Fast, chunky, tight. Very Sixties lighting effects (I know this was shot in the 70s, but these lights were behind the times). The mix is a little bass-heavy, which drowns out a bit of Mick Ronson’s terrific outro riffing. People dressed very badly back then. Very nice performance, but again – not a video.

John, I’m Only Dancing

directed by Mick Rock
This is the grainiest one yet, but it is the first proper video, with the recorded track playing against wacky visuals. Here we see some odd-looking alligator people dancing, and some artsy lighting on the individual band members (Spiders, of course). And a weird Marilyn Manson-like dancer. This would pass muster as an 80s R.E.M. video, which means stylish if somewhat inscrutable. Mick Rock was one of the best rock and roll photographers of the era, and a pretty decent videographer too. There’s even a quick cut or two – how prescient.

Jean Genie

directed by Mick Rock
This video is thirty-one years old. So take that, MTV and the Buggles.

A mix of live footage with some studio stuff, some of it ghastly. DB making masks with his hands and the like, some blonde tart dancing on the streets, stuff like that. Observation: Mick Ronson always looked about seventy-six years old. Or a little like a handsomer (more Dutch) Iggy Pop. What a great song.

And for a moment there, DB forgot to mime playing the rhythm while Mick was doing that rattlesnake sound. You know the one.

Summation: Fun live footage, studio footage that looks like an afterthought. Wouldn’t shut it off, you know, if it were on TV. But again, not great.

Space Oddity

directed by Mick Rock
Very simple, very effective visual device, filming oscilloscopes. But watching DB mug takes away a bit of the song’s mystique. This video is a rarity, where it is DB’s performance that is the weak link – maybe he wasn’t directed well (Mick Rock is a great photographer, not a dramatician) but when he points up at the ceiling, and then goes back to playing the acoustic, it looks silly.

But there’s no ruining this song. And taken in part, each of the Mick Rock videos has some great images. They do not add up, but he knows how to make things look beautiful. Just wish he didn’t zoom so much.

A quick note so I don’t sound like a jerk: I realize they were basically exploring uncharted territory with music videos – rock wouldn’t work well with Bubsy Berkeley type song and dance things, and following the path forged by the Beatles movies works well with ironic films and little else.

Drive-in Saturday

for Russell Harty Plus Pop
Yet another live performance with bright stagelights killing the image. The performance itself may be prerecorded, unless the sax player is hidden behind a curtain somewhere. I cannot tell you definitively, but they look like they’re miming, which kind of kills the fun of a live TV performance. It isn’t the album recording, though, so it’s worth something. Bowie’s vocals kill on this song.

Watching closer, they may actually be performing, and using tapes for the sax and synths. Did they do that on old shows? It may in fact be a new DB vocal over the album backing tracks – in fact, that’s exactly what it sounds like, especially since all the music fades out at the end, while DB’s vocals just stop. Hmm…

BTW, not until he wears three dresses in “Boys Keep Swinging” does Bowie look and play a queen so much as in this video.

Life On Mars

directed by Mick Rock
Could be DB’s best song ever. Not quite his worst video, but not great. Mick Rock crafts good images, and they are not the problem here – DB wearing a light blue suit, with bright blue eyeshadow and red hair, he looks his alien best. The backdrop is stark white, and overexposed so Bowie barely shows up, but for the makeup – very intriguing.

But the camera movements, oh God. Quick zooms, senseless pans, and for God’s sake it moves up and down during one pan, like it’s swimming. Worst bit of camera movement in video history. And the slow tilts up and down. The video when it is just looking at David Bowie, when composition in the frame is accentuated, is good. Please, Mick, don’t move your camera anymore. Or at least do so tastefully.

Ziggy Stardust

directed by D.A. Pennebaker
This is from Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The image is very soft and fuzzy, in contrast to the sharp visuals of the previous videos. That’s a problem of materials – I hear the disc of this concert, despite all sorts of remastering tricks, still looks and sounds fuzzy. All concert footage and concert sounds, but a helluva performance. However it looks like it would have been a lot more fun to be there than it is watching it.

Note: I like the lightning bolt banner in back of DB. Marilyn Manson stole it for his Antichrist Superstar tour.

Rebel Rebel

from the TV show TopPop
Horrible horrible horrible 70s TV show video effect, with DB in the middle of a diamond thing with taped footage of him playing, the videos of his vocal performance not matching up at all. And he’s wearing a patch, like on the back of the Diamond Dogs album cover.

But hell, it’s a great song, and nice to listen to. Just don’t watch the screen while it’s on. Well, that’s not fair. DB mugs pretty well, and he looks like he’s having a decent time. I like that 3/4ths of the way through he quits pretending to play the guitar.

Young Americans

from the Dick Cavett Show
Carrot hair, lots of black people on stage with him – this is DB soul. The sound of the video is terrible, very distorted. But at least it is a real live performance. Tons of energy, and DB looks more grown up in this performance than any previous. Great zoot suit.

It’s the sax that is blowing out the sound, really killing that cheap TV mic. And by the end of the song DB’s voice has given out. It sounds great on the final verse, but on the line “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry,” he should soar. He falls instead. The performance is affecting. Still, David, too much coke. Go to Berlin. Dry out.

And the jokey-bouncy end doesn’t work for the song.

Be My Wife

directed by Stanley Dorfman
I can’t find any info on Mr. Dorfman, except that he directed this and “Heroes.” Visually similar to “Life On Mars,” this is a much better video, since it doesn’t try to do anything it can’t. It is almost entirely focused on Bowie’s face while he sings one of his most open and affecting songs, and DB eschews the un-seriousness that we usually see in his expression – he doesn’t look like he’s taking a piss here, and it really works.

It helps that he isn’t dolled up in alien ware – just clothes, like you and me, and normal-colored hair. Very red lips. Looks very sad. Great video, reminds me of Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” but more subtle.


directed by Stanley Dorfman
This is much the same as the previous video, but more expressive since it plays with more contrast. Black background, white light on DB’s face, and backlighting. Just like the previous video, Dorfman has managed to make this most guarded of performers look vulnerable (of course, he’s helped by the superlative song).

I don’t know what music videos look like these days – I can’t watch MTV without feeling seriously ill, MTV2 as well, but I hope they look like this. Simple, elegant, effective. Great.

Of course, nothing happens in the video, nothing at all. And it is the single version of the song, so the final verse (“We’re nothing/And no one can help us/Maybe we’re lying/And you’d better not stay”) is missing. But look at that final image – the front light goes off, and DB is nothing but a silhouette. Perfect.

Boys Keep Swinging

directed by David Mallet
We’re heading towards the time of MTV, so there are more typical video stunts here. This is just DB alone on a stage, lip-syncing the song. He looks goofy, petulant, like he’s having fun. Then there are the shots of his backing singers – three chicks, all DB in drag. This video rides on two things – do you like to watch Bowie perform, and do you want to see him wear a dress?

If the answer to one is no, then why are you here? Go watch your Staind and your Slipknot and leave me alone. If the answer to two is yes, then…you’re probably a chick. And a weird one. But you can stay. We like weirdos here.

The end involves DB strutting on a catwalk, then pulling off his wig and smearing his makeup. I would be happier without the second drag Bowie, the sophisticate, where he wears a tight and slinky dress with a very definite bulge in the crotchulator area. Sure, I’ve seen The Man Who Fell To Earth (boring as hell), but I don’t need to be that well-acquainted with DB’s nethers.


directed by David Mallet
David Mallet is a video director, who made tons of videos for Blondie, Queen, and, more recently, AC/DC. This video is one of his more half-assed. DB walking around the streets, being kissed by people, dancing with random women and being very friendly with a crew of black folk. All well and good. And then David smashes records and stuff explodes around him. And he throws things.

Like I said, half-assed. And David’s record-smashing tantrum looks just as phoned-in as the direction.

One cool thing: a dark curtained room, DB rips the curtains down, overexposing the image.

Look Back In Anger

directed by David Mallet
This is a song that works much better live than it does on record, but a video of it could be decent, if it exhibited the same sort of manic energy that informs the song. This David Mallet monstrosity does nothing of the sort. It involves David looking at a painting, and then lots of slow dollies and pans.

In a way, I guess this kind of presages the long, slow videos Walter Stern made for the hours… tracks, where nothing happens for very long stretches of time, and then the video is over. Some decent lighting tricks with stuff on a mirror, and near the end the pace of the video picks up, but it never transcends the mundane.

Ashes To Ashes

directed by David Mallet and David Bowie
Ahem…speaking of transcending the mundane. Welcome to one of the few great videos – this creates a real unique world for a decidedly unique song to live in. Incredible images, fantastic camera movement, a proper editing pace. This is an odd and wonderful video. Where else can one see David Bowie wearing a clown suit with some sort of condom hat?

The exploding kitchen (ripped off in Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” video), DB hovering in space, the random dip moves made by his backing vocal nuns – I love this. I hated it the first time I saw it. Watch it twice. Maybe three times. Brilliant. Even the dated use of video coloring effects works here, since it isn’t just covering up the lack of a proper budget (I’m looking at you again, Buggles) but really creating a consistent visual language for the video. Quite nice.


directed by David Mallet
Fake performance video. Bad picture. Bowie doing a bunny hop, and then not smiling. And I think he’s holding a c-clamp. Very bad video of people dancing. Stupid social commentary (in the video, not the song). Is that what Adrian Belew looks like? Asian guys can only grow very specific beards, in my experience. Asian girls are pretty. Again, in my experience. Terrible video effects. Bad reverse jumping. Repeat the same image again, it does not suddenly become good. And yep, Asian girls are pretty. As a rule. Not universal. Oh da. Talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk fa fa fa fa fashion.

Wild Is The Wind

directed by David Mallet
This sounds very much like a rerecording of the Station To Station song, which I am very glad to have live on my Bowie At The Beeb set. DB does so few straight love songs.

This is a very stark video, black and white with very harsh contrast, very moody. I don’t recognize any of the band members, and so have no indication of who is actually playing on the track. It is much shorter than the proper album track.

DB looks a lot like he does in the video for “Be My Wife” – not so tortured but still very emotional.

Let’s Dance

directed by David Bowie and David Mallet
I very much like this song – though a Ziggy Starduster, I can’t pretend that just because a song sent DB’s career into a tailspin that it is bad. The video mainly consists of very pretty people of an ethnic origin I cannot determine dancing, working in sweatshops, and being very bitter about some red shoes.

There are some potent images – the boy and girl (are they some sort of Indian or Mayan group?) scrubbing asphalt and dragging equipment in the road in front of traffic, but then there are some terrible images – like DB’s disembodied head singing to them, and some very awful star fades. The use of obvious and cheap video technology was quite effective in “Ashes To Ashes.” Here it is just cheap.

China Girl

directed by David Bowie and David Mallet
I wonder if David Bowie is taking direction credit here because these aren’t terrible?

Well this one is, even taking into account my previously stated affection for the females of the Pacific Rim. And David Bowie looks terrific in this video, though I’m not going to pretend I understand all the “symbolism.” Much of it seems to be exploring the same dichotomy between colonialism and enterprise that informs a lot of the “Let’s Dance” video, and the sort of vicious paternalism that can infect an interracial relationship. But don’t let the political content distract you from the bad video effects (especially the awful borders around the video at the beginning) or the naked China Girl.

Modern Love

directed by Jim Yukich
I came to Bowie Age in the mid-90s, around the time Outside was released (however, I was not lead there by NIN – my musical path is a strange one, to be explored at a later date. Like never), so I am predisposed by prejudice to despise the Let’s Dance album and the Serious Moonlight tour that followed. So, watching this video, which is the studio recording put to live Serious Moonlight footage, I feel a bit the traitor for saying this – this looks like a lot of fun. DB himself looks like he’s having a ball, the backup singers are dressed snazzy, and they’re all men – not so good for eye candy, but for this sort of pop, female b-vox are too sweet. The whole thing, in its faux-Technicolor 1920s look seems to be a great time, through and through. So I guess I’ll have to stick with hating the Glass Spider tour instead.

Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

Live footage, live music, lots of Serious Moonlight going on. This song is terrible on the Let’s Dance album and quite good on the original soundtrack. This live version sounds like a mix of the two, with a lot more balls and heft than the album cut. I don’t care for the male dancing, but love DB’s vocals hitting those weird high notes that sound so great in concert.

Some people absolutely hate this song, though. Why? Why be so mean to David Bowie’s nice little song?

And now Earl Slick takes the stage. Hell of a guitarist, but he doesn’t move very well, so he looks more epileptic than excited while dancing with his axe. Of all the real concert videos on this disc, this is my favorite. Mallet doesn’t move the camera too much, but he allows the expressionistic look of the lighting of the song to do a lot of his work for him, and it’s a smart move. The lighting at Bowie’s concerts is always integral to the drama.

Minor anecdote: The first time I heard “White Light/White Heat” was David Bowie at the Universal Ampitheater. It was mesmerizing, with incredible strobe lighting that made the song sound like a bleak epic. I’ve heard the exact same version in a number of bootlegs, but it never hit me like it did there at the venue. The lighting is what did it, me beauties.

Blue Jean

directed by Julien Temple
Screaming Lord Byron? Sure, the makeup looks great, but this is the worst idea that Bowie ever had, even worse than alienating Reeves Gabrels. And what’s with that awful Arabian outfit?

Boy, great make-up, though. It makes DB look like a living cartoon. This video has a twenty-minute version, hidden somewhere on the DVD, and I intend to watch it for you guys, despite my sense of self-preservation.

I do quite like DB in the crowd, playing a square pretending to be into the whole glam-po thing, since the girl he wants to bed likes it, don’t ya know. Oh, but his dancing looks terrible, and that outfit. Screaming Lord Byron? Jesus, that’s awful.

Love that freakin’ make-up, though.

Loving The Alien

directed by David Bowie and David Mallet
I’ve never seen this video nor heard the song, so we’re both in for one of them thar wild rides, kids.

It starts with terrible video effects, and then cuts to the Tonight album cover, but in real life. The images look like Labyrinth, grown up and gone corporate criminal. And David Bowie looks like an incredible hulk in blue. No good, friends, no good.

Sorry, DB, even smirky looks and pretty girls aren’t enough to save a bad video. The chorus isn’t bad, I suppose. But the song is. It sounds hyper typical 80s bad.

I hate it when singers see themselves singing in videos. They do that here. I hate it.

And what the hell is with this blue incredible hulk makeup? I mean, really. I expect his shirt to tear open, revealing his thin and waifish frame without any muscle on it. And I was wrong about the chorus. It is boring too.

It was all a dream. Or WAS IT?

Dancing In The Streets

directed by David Mallet
Note DB doesn’t take direction credit here. Mick Jagger is the ugliest man in the history of rock. I read an article about him recently, where he was disappointed at the lack of women at his concerts. Well, when you look like Skeletor raping a second and uglier Skeletor, you aren’t going to nab many honies.

David Bowie has a grand ability to do the most horrible things without looking embarrassed. And so he can accomplish this horrible horrible video without looking like the idiot he should feel.

But Jesus – was this for community service? To convince Angela Bowie that they were too tasteless to be gay lovers? Then what was the video ending ass-shot all about?

I need a drink.

Tune in next week3 where I go through some of the worst videos of David Bowie’s career (yep, worse than “Dancing In The Streets”). Same bat time, same bat website.

1I will often refer to David Bowie in familiar terms, such as Dave and DB, because writing the same thing over and over again is tedious. It’s not because we’re friends…no matter what things I write over and over again in my notebook…

2 Supplemental defensive remarks: I reserve the right to comment on David Bowie’s hair and clothes. That doesn’t mean I’m overly concerned with sartorial matters. It doesn’t mean I’m gay either, you judgemental bastards.

3Approximately. Not a guarantee.

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