However, most of the goodness in this set appears on disc one. Bowie started making his bid for pop stardom with Ziggy Stardust, but Hunky Dory preceded it closely, so it starts off with a lot of TV clips for many of the singles from these albums, and, oddly enough, “Space Oddity,” done in Ziggy drag but actually from two years before. Bowie was rail thin and almost serpentine in his motions, and his appearance on the telly must have (and did) have a huge influence on many young British pop fans. There also some proto-videos from this time period shot by Mick Rock, who is probably better known as a photographer. One of the things I’ve noticed about Bowie’s physical performance is that he’s often doing something expressive and interesting with his body, and this is in part due to his training by Lindsay Kemp in the late 60s.
My favorite period is the Berlin-into-Scary Monsters sequence of albums, and I think these videos are also the best of the bunch. For example, Bowie appears in four different guises in the video for “Boys Keep Swinging,” once as “himself” at the mic, cooly swaggering like Elvis, and as three drag versions of himself. At the over end of the flamboyance scale, “Be My Wife” gets a very minimal treatment, with Bowie in a stark white environment emoting in a some kind futuristic soul style, which goes very well with the simple but wildly innovative music.
After Bowie’s art excursions, he signed with EMI and came back into the pop arena with Let’s Dance, which disappointed some, but the videos, especially for “China Girl,” still hold up well today. Alas, it’s what happened after this album that marks Bowie’s descent into mediocrity. The video for “Blue Jean” is striking enough, and the song is pretty catchy, but by the beginning of disc 2, he’s imitating his imitators: an A-Ha ! haircut here, INXS-style whiteboy funk there, and there’s a series of videos associated with all the early/mid-80s film projects that didn’t go anywhere commercially. (Thus the Bongwater song “David Bowie Needs Ideas.”) However, he does manage to pull himself out of this mire in the 90s with work that, if not brilliant, is respectable. Even if the music was clearly following trends (electronica, industrial, drum and bass) and he was working with outside directors like Samuel Bayer and Mark Romanek, there is clearly the sense of a master at work in the later videos. My favorite just might be “Thursday’s Child,” which is a great autumnal song where Bowie doesn’t hide his age at all, although the more obvious “I’m Afraid of Americans” is cool, a riff on US gun culture featuring Trent Reznor as the Travis Bickle for the 90s.
So, despite the cringe-inducing material on disc 2, I’d definitely recommend checking this out to anybody interested in innovative music video from one of the acknowledged great performers of rock and roll.